After reviewing A Night at the Opera, I didn’t expect to do much more with Queen, but the movie Bohemian Rhapsody presented me with a challenge I could not ignore.
I am not a fan of arena rock, stadium rock, Nuremberg Rally Rock, or whatever term you prefer for the kind of music loaded with theatrical flair that is deliberately designed to thrill the masses by giving them the opportunity to sing in unison to mindless chants while cascading lights and wild pyrotechnics serve to make the dummies believe they’ve seen god. I loathe the dumbed-down anthemic lyrics, the overuse of soft-LOUD and the sheer godlike pretensions of it all.
Queen sort of stumbled into arena rock when their popularity reached overflow conditions and Brian May took notice of how the crowds expressed a fervent wish to participate in the experience. He came up with a nifty little two-step-clap-and-a-pause beat designed to further encourage concert-goers to join in the fun. This historical moment is recorded faithfully in the recent film, Bohemian Rhapsody.
Although I choose not to review films (my tastes in film are so radically different from the general consensus that I would fear for my life), I will give you my two cents on Bohemian Rhapsody. The good: Rami Malek was absolutely amazing in his role as Freddie Mercury, a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-guy kind of performance. The casting of the other band members was excellent. The bad: Aaron Cooper, my friend and colleague at 50thirdand3rd, described it best: “a film version of a Wikipedia page updated by someone who heard 3 Queen songs.” The storyline is the classic Hollywood entertainer biopic formula: rags-to-riches-to-decadance-to-disaster-to-one-last-heroic-performance. Character development is superficial at best; we learn very little about motivations and influences beyond the trivial and obvious. The truth: No one should be surprised things turned out that way given that Brian May and Roger Taylor were advisors to the filmmakers and didn’t want a film that would damage Freddie Mercury’s (or their) legacy.
The lesson: Any biography or biopic that deals with currently living human beings is guaranteed to be horseshit.
The logical conclusion you should reach: Avoid the upcoming Elton John biopic like the fucking plague.
The reason I chose to review A Night at the Opera was that it was the first review I’d written after a long hiatus and I wanted to work with an album I liked. Later on, I thought of doing A Day at the Races, but it was like listening to A Night at the Opera without “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so I didn’t see much point. I put my foot down and drew a big black line (actually, I black-filled an entire row in Excel) when it came to News of the World. “I ain’t gonna listen to ‘We Will Rock You’ again no way no how not ever not if my life depended on it goddamnitall you could give me a gazillion dollars and I’d still tell you to shove it up your ass fuhgeddaboutit muh-fuh!”
Well, here I am. First fucking song on News of the World. Excuse me while I swallow my pride and back myself out of the corner into which I painted myself.
Actually, “We Will Rock You” isn’t as bad as I remember after hearing it THOUSANDS OF TIMES at Candlestick and PacBell park during several seasons of Giants baseball. Freddie Mercury’s a cappella vocal on the verses is strong and sassy as he sings of three “buddies,” each at a different stage of life. The first buddy is a kid with mud on his face, mindlessly kicking the can down the road—and he’s the one identified as singing “we will rock you.” If you accept the message in the imagery that the kid is lower-class and wants to escape a dead-end life, the threat to “rock you” comes close to making sense: he wants to show a world that ignores him that he does in fact matter. The second “buddy” Freddie sings about is the rebel with a cause, the doppelgänger of Jim Stark who wants to rock the world out of its complacent conformity and shake up the Establishment:
Buddy, you’re a young man, hard man
Shouting in the street, gonna take on the world someday
You got blood on your face, you big disgrace
Waving your banner all over the place
The last buddy is an older gentleman, described as “pleading with your eyes” and with mud on his face as well. This connection to “we will rock you” is a bit of a stretch, depending on how you interpret the last line of the verse: “Somebody better put you back into your place, do it!” I hope they meant that sarcastically, as an indictment of the poor treatment society dishes out to the elderly, calling out an attitude that needs to be “rocked.”
As the vocals fade, we hear a sustained note on guitar building to an explosion . . . that never really comes to fruition. Brian May’s guitar solo fails to compete with the continuous foot-stomping and hand-clapping and feels anti-climactic in the extreme; perhaps more high EQ, an expanded sound field and greater coverage of the fretboard would have helped. I’m kind of surprised that Queen didn’t attempt to record the original in front of a stadium audience: even if the crowd was unfamiliar with the song, it shouldn’t have taken them much training to master the two-step-clap-pause and the six words of the chorus.
Made it over the first hurdle! Hooray for me!
It takes about ten seconds to figure out that “We Are the Champions” is a Freddie Mercury composition with its carefully composed piano pattern and melodic movement. From a musical perspective, it’s a brilliant piece, featuring verses that move from minor to major as the narrator’s spirit lifts, then changing keys entirely for the more confident chorus with its superbly-executed harmonies and satisfying musical conclusion. As far as the lyrics go, they’re really the arena rock version of Paul Anka’s “My Way,” with the same “yeah I’ve had it rough, but I can take whatever life throws my way” bravado. What may leave the listener in a state of confusion is that the verses are written in the first person singular . . . so why does it shift to “WE are the champions” in the chorus? Because it’s arena rock and you’ve got to get the crowd to on your side! I suppose if the song lifts the moods of audience members trapped in dead-end jobs or shitty relationships, it’s harmless at worst . . . and anyway, trying to get the crowd to sing “I Am the Champion” might have wound up provoking a few fistfights in the aisles.
“Sheer Heart Attack” wasn’t finished when the album of the same name was ready to ship, so here it is on News of the World. This Roger Taylor composition has been labeled as Queen’s attempt to remain relevant in the face of the emerging British punk scene, but given that he’d written it three years before, I’d say the timing was more serendipitous than desperate. The song takes about a minute to really come together, but once Roger gets it going (he played rhythm guitar, bass and drums and shared vocals with Mercury), it’s a pretty exciting piece until . . . WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT AWFUL NOISE COMING THROUGH MY HEADPHONES? I don’t know what Brian May was thinking, but his fingers-on-the-blackboard solo ruins the piece for me.
After that traumatic experience, I’m thankful that Queen followed with a more soothing track, even if the title is the not-very-soothing “All Dead, All Dead.” Brian May redeems himself here with a touching composition inspired by the family cat who passed on during Brian’s childhood. You don’t hear anything about a feline in the lyrics; the closest reference is “Take me back again/You know my little friend’s/All dead and gone.” May transformed his childhood experience into a song about the death of relationships, survivor’s guilt and the experience of loss. Largely centered around Freddie Mercury’s piano and vocal, the musical high points of the song appear in those brief moments when Roger Taylor and John Deacon enter with rhythmic punctuation as the boys harmonize, remaining only for a few bars before leaving the scene. I find the song quite touching, a melancholic reminder of how agonizingly short life turns out to be—something I was reminded of recently when one of my parents experienced what turned out to be nothing serious (I’ll be writing a piece about it shortly).
Mr. Deacon composed “Spread Your Wings,” a classic Queen song about a classic Queen topic: lifting yourself up from the dead-end life you’ve been handed and showing those bastards you’re more than they bargained for. The problem with the story is that there is no happy ending; in fact, there’s no ending at all. We leave Sammy in his hotel room where he realizes “this may be my last chance,” and then . . . nothing. For all we know he’s still stuck at the Emerald Bar listening to Queen on the radio encouraging him to “spread his wings and fly away.” The rather choppy arrangement doesn’t help with the satisfaction level either.
All the sounds you hear on “Fight from the Inside” come from Roger Taylor, and this second effort comes out better than the first, with a great hard rock riff, guitars coming at you from all angles, what I’ll call an I’m-coming-to-fuck-you beat and some nice bass fills (though I wished for more). The message is more conservative than my tastes, as the advice to fight from the inside only works when the system isn’t broken. Political strategies aside, Roger’s two contributions keep the album firmly grounded in rock ‘n’ roll norms.
Given that sex is my #1 life priority, it would be reasonable for one to assume that my favorite song on News of the World is “Get Down, Make Love.” This is a good time to remind readers of the old saw, “assume makes an ass out of u and me.” Truth is, I loathe the song with every fiber of my being, from Freddie Mercury’s over-the-top performance (the “I suck your mind” delivery is particularly ludicrous) to the “sex sells” cynicism that comes through loud and clear in the continuous repetition of the title phrase. Morons who only have enough brain capacity to remember a chorus likely believe that the song is all about the joys of getting laid, mais au contraire! The song is about Freddie bitching about how his squeeze won’t put out. Well, boo-fucking hoo, dude! When Paul Rodgers sings “Ready for Love,” I’m ready to follow him anywhere; when Freddie Mercury sings “Get Down, Make Love,” my brain swarms with deeply satisfying images of Freddie shivering in a cold shower.
“Sleeping on the Sidewalk,” recorded in a single take, tells us that Queen had no business going anywhere near the blues. I’ll just leave it there and move on to “Who Needs You,” a light piece written by John Deacon, notable for Brian May’s fling with Spanish guitar. If you ignore the pedestrian lyrics and focus on Brian May’s fingers (including his light-touch electric guitar support), it serves as a nice little break in the action.
“It’s Late,” a Brian May composition in three acts, is another piece where the music outshines the lyrics. The song opens with a brief electric guitar overture that leads directly into and provides the sole backing for Freddie Mercury’s vocal in the first verse, hinting that something more explosive is in the offing. The hint goes full bloom with four emphatic beats from bass and drum, and suddenly we get Queen in full vocal harmony mode. The light opera character of their harmonies is a bit jarring at first, but seem to fit better as the song progresses. The song shifts both root note and rhythm in the bridge, working its way towards a Brian May cue to the band to start kicking some serious ass. May lets it rip as the band works up a head of steam in double time, ending with an emphatic multi-faceted drum roll from Roger Taylor that leads to a perfectly executed transition to the verse. In terms of composition and execution, “It’s Late” turns out to be one of the best tracks on the album, a song well-designed to work a crowd into a frenzy.
I’ve always thought Freddie Mercury might have been happier in the pre-WWII era, working as a piano player in an Art Deco-themed piano bar like Bemelman’s on the Upper East Side. I picture him in a tailored tux with slicked back hair and a pencil-thin mustache crooning Cole Porter and Harold Arlen songs to the ladies (and, on the sly, to gentlemen). The 30’s jazz piece “My Melancholy Blues” calls up images of that era’s flowing champagne, stylish smoking and airs of cosmopolitan savoir faire. Except for a few clever rhymes, the lyrics don’t come close to Porter’s witty repartee, but Freddy’s vocal is suitably campy, his piano playing is abbreviated Liberace and it’s obvious that he’s enjoying itself. Some may question its fit on the album, but Queen albums tend to be pretty eclectic, a stylistic choice established with “something for everyone” ethic of A Night at the Opera.
Okay! I overcame my resistance to arena rock and found an entertaining record with the usual highs and lows you find on any Queen album. Still, I don’t think News of the World is half as enjoyable as A Night at the Opera, and my feelings about arena rock remain largely unchanged.
Conclusion: I never want to hear “We Will Rock You” again as long as I live . . . and I fucking mean it.