Friday, 9 October 2020

god save the queen?

Between January 1974 and January 1978, I worked as a senior instructor at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School. During the last year of this period, I also moonlighted as the television critic for TV & Entertainment Times, a local listings magazine. Around the time I left Hong Kong in 1978, this magazine published an essay that I’d written about Queen, the third of my all-time favourite bands (and the only one I ever saw live). While I begin to refocus on writing after a barren summer in the UK, I thought that I would republish that essay here.
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The problem faced by singers and bands that parody rock music is that no one takes them seriously. People do listen to them, it’s true, but only in a vague, slightly amused fashion. However, the best satirists, like the best practical jokers, are taken seriously—the reason being that their particular audience does not recognize the humorous intent.

The band I’m referring to here is Queen. They are possibly the most original band to appear since the Beatles, but the practical joker side of their music is rarely far below the surface. Yet they have reached their present pre-eminence in Britain purely because their audience takes them seriously.

As Perry Martin [a professional musician working in Hong Kong whom I knew at the time] told me: “They’ve made progressive rock into a saleable commodity.” Of course, this is an oversimplification. What they have actually done is to parody rock music in the most effective way: by the best possible use of existing techniques and by the invention of new ones when necessary. In effect, this means that their performance is often far better than that of the band they are allegedly mimicking.

The first clues that the band wasn’t entirely straight appeared on their third album, Sheer Heart Attack. Killer Queen [the first ever track by the band that I heard] is an apparent dig at the female equivalent of Ray Davies’ Dedicated Follower of Fashion, but whereas the Kinks’ ‘hero’ was a feckless, working-class type, Queen’s ‘heroine’ is an altogether more sophisticated character:
Well-versed in etiquette,
Extraordinarily nice, etc.
As for Flick of the Wrist, it could have come straight out of a Victorian melodrama, complete with moustachioed villain (the butt of the humour). Lap of the Gods is more than a little reminiscent of Bryan Ferry’s Roxy Music, while Bring Back That Leroy Brown is a take-off of a traditional jazz band. Dear Friends is only slightly removed from:
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares,
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.
How can a band that does this kind of thing be on the level?

It is yet another attempt to introduce ‘theatre’ into rock music. David Bowie was probably the first to try this, but his music was little more than unimaginative science fiction, and he was obliged to resort to glitter and greasepaint to disguise his limitations. In the same vein, Alice Cooper has all but left the music behind, with the result that his act is entirely theatrical. At the other end of the scale, bands such as Jethro Tull and Genesis have a strong theatrical element in their music, but it is implicit (cf. Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). The main weakness here is that the intrinsic ‘plots’ are either too convoluted or else too surreal for a wide audience to want to identify with them.

With Queen, the opposite is true. The fun-poking is so outrageously explicit that no one can believe they really mean it. However, they are merely preying on an age-old human weakness, the inability to believe what is right under one’s nose. And in doing so, they have resurrected music hall (US: ‘vaudeville’), updating it for the 1970s. The clue is in the band’s use of ‘barber-shop quartet’ harmonies, even in the most incongruous places. A song that would otherwise be a straight copy of a rock sausage machine such as Led Zeppelin is turned into near farce by the introduction of beautiful harmonizing voices.

Now listen to A Night at the Opera, which, not coincidentally, is also the title of a Marx Brothers film. The album opens with Death on Two Legs, a song ostensibly directed against loan sharks [I learned subsequently that the target of this song was the band’s former manager, who had ripped them off]. Freddie Mercury is a master of the pointed insult:
Insane! You should be put inside.
You’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.
However, the song has been left subtly ambiguous. It could easily refer to a big-shot businessman—after all, how much difference is there between the two types? It just happens that the businessman has his reinforcements more efficiently marshalled, but the ordinary man in the street supports neither type. He simply accepts the status quo, believing that he can do nothing to alter the situation.

The indignant mood of the first song is immediately punctured by Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon, which turns the spotlight on the so-called ‘idle rich’:
I come from London town, I’m just an ordinary guy.
Fridays I go painting in the Louvre.
…the type whose pictures you can look at in the social pages of various magazines—always assuming that you want to in the first place.

Seaside Rendezvous also has a touch of this atmosphere, although the target here is the Charley’s Aunt brand of more or less decorous courtship, from the angle of ‘but who needs a chaperone anyway?’

It will be seen that the satirical element in the band’s work has extended far beyond the boundaries of rock music. The limited credence given to prophets of doom is picked out in The Prophet’s Song. No matter that the prophet of doom is always right. For ordinary people, Noah’s flood never happened, and Armageddon is merely a fond hope in the teachings of fundamentalist Christian sects. And it is all summarized in one line:
Listen to the madman!
Good Company, another song with a quasi-jazz motif, highlights the folly of the man who spends a lifetime building a wall around himself, using people for as long as they serve his purpose, then discarding them. This song also spotlights the technical wizardry of Brian May, who makes his guitar sound like, in turn, a cornet, an alto saxophone and a clarinet.

Love of My Life has to be a jibe at the Happy Days adolescent sexuality of the 1950s, the
Each night I ask the stars up above:
Why must I be a teenager in love?
mentality, complete with hyperbole and mock pathos. It is in a song like this that the true artistry of the band can be seen: the words are straight, almost banal, but the hyperbole comes in the delivery—it is a slow ballad, sung with earnest intensity. However, the illusion of seriousness is dispelled by the ubiquitous harmonizing voices, echoing the lead singer’s words like an unasked-for conscience.

The entire charade is topped off by a poker-faced rendition of God Save the Queen. It’s only as the final note is struck that the listener is treated to a little flourish in the form of a few extra bars—an embellishment that fits beautifully. Again, the subtlety of the band’s art is evident; a heavier-handed band would have ‘jazzed it up’, that is, if they had had the audacity to play the anthem in the first place.

How do they do it? How do they get away with it? The first is the easier question to answer. Broadly speaking, they use a mixture of farce and melodrama, in proportions that vary from song to song but that are selected with an unerring sense of timing. The guitar solo in Millionaire’s Waltz, albeit in waltz time, would be fairly ordinary, were it not punctuated by an absurd single note struck on a triangle.

As for Somebody to Love: how dare they apply such impeccable musical styling to such a trivial subject? But this is the key to Queen’s success. They do have the nerve to do what they do—and they do it so well!

Just listen to Teo Torriate (this, like the last two songs mentioned, is from the band’s latest album, A Day at the Races, another title borrowed from the Marx Brothers). The resemblance to a school choir performing at some inconsequential concert is uncanny, even down to the school music master pounding away at the piano, at the same time doing his best to conduct his proteges with his head.

It would seem that I’m implying that Queen are an eclectic band. This is not strictly true. Admittedly, they do borrow musical ideas, and from the most unlikely places, but these are blended together in a style that is both unique and instantly recognizable. Rock music has come a long way since Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, even since the Beatles, and the post-Beatles era has been one of diversification—there are almost as many ‘categories’ within the genre as there are bands.

However, the 1970s has seen two main trends: mainstream pop music and ‘underground’ rock, the latter originating in the late 1960s with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground in America, and with Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin in Britain. The factor that distinguishes the two streams is that ‘pop’ music is just that—a barometer of popular tastes at any given time—while what I’ve identified as underground music is music for those listeners who are turned off by the banalities of the former. Being freed from considerations of commercialism, it is invariably more adventurous.

Inevitably, this has meant that over the past decade, the two trends have steadily diverged. Music that attempts to bridge the gap, appearing at a time when pop is becoming increasingly elementary in structure, when talent is no longer a necessary prerequisite for achieving popular acclaim, must be either a tedious preciosity or something very unusual. Most people who have listened to Queen would probably agree that they are not the former.

In fact, if it is time for a major new influence to supersede the Beatles, then Queen are a likely candidate. If this is objected to as an overstatement, it must be conceded that they represent an unexpected swing of the pendulum. Nevertheless, it is important not to underrate the Beatles merely because they were overrated 14 years ago. The hysteria provoked by the Beatles in the period 1963–64 is no longer easy to understand, and it is for this reason that it is extremely difficult to envisage a repeat performance by another band.

The Beatles were technically little better than their contemporaries, but they had the good fortune to be assigned a producer who was sympathetic to their musical ideas. Had they not failed their Decca audition, this would never have happened. Also, nowadays, there are just too many bands of comparable technical ability. However, as I’ve attempted to point out, Queen’s style is unique. Someday, another type of music will supersede rock, yet when today’s leading lights are barely remembered, even as names, I would wager that much of Queen’s music will still be around, valued for its creative genius.

A comparison with the Beatles is not completely fatuous. Admittedly, Queen do have a long way to go to emulate the Beatles’ spectacular chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever do so. However, Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably the finest track ever to be released as a single, did hold the #1 chart position for a record number of weeks. Also, Queen share with the Beatles the rare ability to appeal to all age groups.

The only missing ingredient, if it can be so described, is the USA. It was acceptance in America that transformed the Beatles from just another rock ’n’ roll band into a global phenomenon. Yet this is the principal stumbling block. America still gives its allegiance to bands such as Jefferson Starship, Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, all of which play music that is ten years out of date, or even to such anachronisms as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. It is the inevitable result of having an ‘awards’ system, with its unavoidable emphasis on the mainstream and consequent inhibition of innovation.

If you have not heard Queen, I strongly urge that you give them a listen, especially on A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. You will not be disappointed. Queen are not merely brilliant; they are a revelation. Queen are not just a rock band; they are a window on life in Britain in the 1970s.

2 comments:

  1. I am NOT a fan of any pop singers or bands, as I like music that can move me. Nevertheless, I was tuned to "We are the champion" and "We will rock you" without knowing Queen when I was young. I then realized that I like many of the lyrics that were written by Queen... Surely miss this WONDERFUL band.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If by ‘fan’ you mean someone who screams hysterically but doesn’t actually listen to the music, then I agree. However, Queen always inspired a much more profound reaction, at least in me.

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