QUEEN: Let Them Entertain You
…more from the archives of Uncle E…
Let me explain, please?
When I was 9 years old my cousin came waltzing into my Grandmother’s house with a brand new album tucked under his arm. He placed it on the counter and proceeded to make himself a sandwich, after the obligatory salutations and mandatory small talk with Nana, of course. Curious, I walked over to the counter and flipped the album to peruse the cover.
It was one of the most amazing, disturbing, cool images I had ever seen. I was fascinated by it, to say the very least.
Pictured on the front was a giant silver robot, looking quite sad actually, who was holding two dead people in his hand; one with a bloody puncture wound in his chest (which explained the robot‘s bloody finger), the other seemed simply at peace. A third figure was falling to his death.
I would later learn that this was a reproduction/ manipulation of a cover for “Weird Tales” (I think it was Weird Tales, my fact checker is on coffee break!), a science fiction pulp magazine around the time of 1940. The artist was Frank Kelly Freas who would later, miraculously, go on to paint some iconic cover images of Alfred E. Newman for MAD magazine.
A few months later I conned my parents into letting me purchase the album News Of The World, and what I heard within those grooves still amazes me today. This was an album that was dark, brooding and stylistically all over the place, played by obviously competent musicians.
In a word, it was magnificent! Forget the stadium anthems We Will Rock You/ We Are The Champions, they’re the lamest on the disc. Try Sheer Heart Attack, penned by their drummer Roger Taylor, for it’s speed and ferocity that predated Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All by a full six years. Get Down, Make Love, a strange apocalyptic number later covered (though not so well) by Nine Inch Nails, still gives me chills when played at full volume. Fight From The Inside is chilly robo-funk, and Sleeping On The Sidewalk, a cautionary tale about the music biz, is a swaggering blues rocker with a killer guitar solo.
My favorite quote about Queen: “Their music is a bizarre yet highly accessible fusion of the macho and the fey.”
Which brings us to Farrokh Bulsara.
Freddie Mercury, surely one of the best front men of all time, epitomized the macho and the fey. His songs were usually very dramatic, most often involved a piano intro and always, always delivered the goods. Even Bohemian Rhapsody after all these years still sounds fresh, at least to my ears, and I’ve heard it hundreds of times. When the band kicks into high gear ¾ of the way through the song…well, let’s just say it’s euphoric. And Bohemian Rhapsody is only one Mercury masterpiece out of many.
It sure didn’t hurt that Queen had one of the best and tightest rhythm sections in rock history either, with Roger Taylor on the kit and John Deacon on the bass. Both of whom wrote music, a number of which became fan favorites and chart toppers.
And the guitarist, one of the most underrated in history, was incredible. The guitar sound, played with an English coin instead of the traditional pick, has never been duplicated by anyone other than Brian May. Perhaps it’s partly due to the fact that he built his guitar out of wood from a mantelpiece and spare parts from a car (his “Red Special“) that makes it so unique. I dunno, probably. Whatever the case, it’s sound is unlike any guitar I’ve heard before or since.
Brian also wrote some of Queen’s most famous songs (including Brighton Rock, Keep Yourself Alive and Tie Your Mother Down) and sang the majority of his own compositions. A triple threat, so to speak. Mr. May finally got some recognition when Rolling Stone Magazine recently voted him the 39th greatest guitarist of all time.
Queen reached their zenith with the Game, an unabashed ‘pop’ album with a strong funk influence. The critics, as usual, hated it but the fans made it their best selling album to date. It spawned the massive hits “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Play The Game”.
Then things started to go downhill, and fast. After releasing “Under Pressure” with David Bowie they offered up Hot Space, a strange hodge-podge of watered down funk, cheesy lyrics and an earnest, but sappy tribute to the recently assassinated John Lennon (“Life Is Real–Song For Lennon“). Brian May, understandably, went into a depression not long after the album was released.
I have to admit that after Hot Space I stopped listening. I chose not to tarnish their legacy by continuing to buy their post-1980 catalogue, but I will admit that I have heard (and even liked) some stuff off their 1984 album, The Works.
Sure they had a tendency to meander, and it is that meandering that seemed to pigeonhole them as pretentious in the eyes of the critical ‘elite’. I think they had a wonderful sense of humor, (for the most part–Prophet’s Song can get a little serious and “long in the tooth”, even for me), and I don’t think they ever took themselves too seriously. One of the last great unique bands, Queen.
Call it a guilty pleasure if you must, but Queen was an integral part of my musical education. Why do I continue to listen? Perhaps it was the excellent musicianship, maybe the genre-hopping, or maybe the over-the-top theatricality of Mercury. Could be part nostalgia, also.
But I would like to think that, at the end of the day, it’s because those four amazing musicians knew how to write a great ‘pop’ song.
Go ahead, Philbert, give me your best shot! But remember: I know things…
God Save The Queen!
*Thanks to Holly, fellow blogger, for the inspiration for this post!*