Tuesday, 4 June 2013
QUEEN: Greatest Hits
(#256: 14th November 1981, 4 weeks)
Track listing: Bohemian Rhapsody/Another One Bites The Dust/Killer Queen/Fat Bottomed Girls/Bicycle Race/You're My Best Friend/Don't Stop Me Now/Save Me/Crazy Little Thing Called Love/Somebody To Love/Now I'm Here/Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy/Play The Game/Flash/Seven Seas of Rhye/We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions
"Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?"- Public Enemy, "Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic"
At some point in the spring of 1982 - most likely when I started to buy the irreverent US rock magazine Creem - I became aware of Lester Bangs. They had a full page tribute/obit to him in the first (or nearly as makes no difference) copy I bought. I knew his writing only from the Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll that my mom had given me for a present; I liked his writing the best in the book and knowing he'd written for Creem in the 70s I attempted to find some older issues - not easy in a small town like Oakville. I eventually went to Toronto, to Queen St. West, and found a used magazine shop that had some, and I got a couple, but sadly they were from the late 70s when he'd already moved to NYC to work on the now-lamented Village Voice. The shop itself was as non-descript as possible - one of the quietest shops I've ever been in - and seeing the men in beige raincoats looking very studiously indeed at other kinds of magazines put me off going in more than twice.
In any case, on the cover of one of the older issues was a picture of Freddie Mercury, peacockish as usual, the headline being something about how he had told those punk rockers what for (this must have been an issue from 1977). At this time I was just beginning to understand what punk rock was, period, let alone understand there were those who were unimpressed by it. Even at this point I didn't think Queen actually cared about punks that much, because Queen seemed to inhabit their own universe, adjacent to ours but not really caring, darling, about anyone else. Punks were mere gadflies to their own magnificent being.
Only much later would I learn just how Queen happened to meet any of those punks in the first place. And that they didn't actually mind each other, in fact. (In the book Bangs talks about Queen in the Heavy Metal chapter: "With the coming of the Seventies, however, there was a certain feeling that one might as well slouch toward Bethlehem with lace cuffs and powdered nose, so the Aristocratic wing of Anglo-metal was born...") I can't accept Queen as a metal group, but look who has claimed them for an influence and it's invariably folks who play loud, aggressive rock, from the Foo Fighters to Guns 'n' Roses - Queen may have had lace cuffs, sure, but to the kids who loved all these songs growing up in the USA, they kicked ass, as well.
Greatest Hits is the biggest album of all time in the UK. It has sold about a kajillion copies worldwide and the version I am writing about here is the UK version; there are different versions depending on which hits were, well, hits. Other places, including Canada, have "Under Pressure" as one of those hits, but it's not here - it's on the next one. In case you were wondering "Where is it?"
At this point, Queen were at their peak; or rather, one of their peaks. A greatest hits collection (advertised, by the way, on tv) was bound to do well, but why has this one eclipsed all others? Is there something about it that is peculiarly/particularly British? Is this an album that holds a mirror up to the UK, and the UK says "Oh yes, I'll buy that" literally? Is this an album that all immigrants to the UK should be given once they successfully make it through customs? (In the USA immigrants would get The Eagles' Greatest Hits 1971-1975, of course. In either case I wonder how much either album would help any given newcomer adjust to their circumstances.)
First I will tackle the idea of greatest hits compilations. On the one hand they are terrific for the record company (esp. back in the 70s/80s, before "new" songs had to be done & tacked on to attract customers) as they were money for old rope - all the work done already, the hits easy to figure out - they're hits, anyone can look 'em up in the charts - and all you have to do is get a cover, a track listing, and away you go. Which is fine, but I can hear die hard fans of Queen (and any other artist) saying, yeah, but...the hits aren't always the best songs. The ones that get stuck in fans' heads; the ones that mean something to fans, to those who (instead of singles buyers) are albums buyers, like one T. Reznor, who will eventually cover "Get Down Make Love" (from News Of The World) for instance. Anyone looking for "Tie Your Mother Down" (hello Scissor Sisters and hair metal) or "Keep Yourself Alive" here will also be disappointed. Hits are singles; hits get in the chart; Queen were nothing but businesslike in their ways and left their fans-of-that-type to make their own Best of Queen mixes. It's obvious to say this, but some bands just lend themselves to this kind of compilation, and Queen are one of them. (ABBA, equally obviously, are another.)
Though it would be mean to say Queen didn't work hard to make each song they did great - once they were up & going as a band they were competitive not just with other bands but themselves - their natural medium was the single, not the album. If you're more or less led by a man who calls himself Freddie Mercury, this is practically inevitable.
On the cover, there is the blackness of nothingness, of space; a dark void. And there is Queen, beaming in (or out?) in their own dimension, again part of the world but separate from it, a blood red edge around them, marking a sharp distinction, while the band themselves are all dressed up and tough-looking, as if to say - well, who is better than us?
This otherness is there in the coat-of-arms that Mercury designed for the band - the members all there as their astrological animals - Deacon and Taylor as lions, May as the crab on top, and Mercury...as the demure young woman, back turned to us, faceless, looking at his/her own creation. For all his bluster and diva qualities, Mercury drew himself as part of the band, not as a glamorous figure fronting a band.
Yes, Mercury as the diva - what is "Bohemian Rhapsody" but a short opera? When the gong sounds I can hear the cheers and see the bouquets thrown; and how strange is it that the biggest, most popular song of theirs (the first on Greatest Hits) is a song about...accepting yourself. (Suddenly I think of the rather confused lyrics of "The Greatest Love of All" - what is all that about children?) It is a song about killing your "false" self so your "real" self can live; this isn't easy to do - in Mercury's case I think it must be about his sexuality, about his coming to terms with himself and being able to just be who he is. Now that he's in Queen and has success he can do this, though there are mentions of being in prison all over this album, of being trapped, and also of being heroic, of being free. (Even Flash Gordon is just an ordinary man, called upon to do nothing less than save the universe - maybe Mercury saw himself like this. Who knows?) And of course every teenager wants to be this figure, one who can rebel and feign indifference while really, underneath, going through some heavy changes. "Nothing really matters to me" sings Mercury, though, and that is the sting here, the niggling thing - if so, then what was all that about? Is this song (which ends the Glam era and also, effectively, the Classic Rock era) actually nihilistic? Is it inadvertently pointing to something about to happen that can't really be imagined just yet?
Well, yes. That it is such a beloved song in the UK may point to the fact that what comes after it still has the power, when faced directly, to shock.
I can't help but notice that Queen do best in countries that have a rather masculine edge; ones that I tend to think of as more "male" than "female" - such as Australia and the UK. This lends some credence to my feelings that Mercury's ambiguity almost makes him a female lead singer here - how much did he learn from listening to Aretha as well as Hendrix, I wonder - and that camp is a male thing, and of course Queen were camp - it was the leaven in their loaf, so to speak. Everything here is big and dramatic, even in "Save Me" the one song where all the bravado breaks down and there's Mercury, admitting he's far away from home. (Zanzibar? Kensington? Or at being "at home" in his own skin?)
There's a reason you don't hear "Fat Bottomed Girls" on the radio very much - maybe since Spinal Tap's fame, so to speak. It's not because of the subject matter (see AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie") but the fact that I can't believe Mercury for one minute. It's also just embarrassing (the preference for a "heap big woman" being traced back to a "big fat Fanny" who was his "naughty" nanny makes me wonder about things, and proves again that the UK is a masculine place, essentially). This might work better as a country song, and is that The Eagles' "Life In The Fast Lane" lurking there in the future? I can only wonder...
"Bicycle Race" though - that is the real joy in this album, where all the pomp of Queen is harnessed to two-wheel good times. This is exactly the sort of knowing silliness that made housewives (some of them the famous Housewives of Valium Court, previously) fall for Queen in a big way. Freddie's noble untrained tenor is, along with the music, doing a stage of the Tour de France for you, pausing and climbing and then climbing and racing down; exalting the act of cycling over such passive entertainments as Jaws ("never my scene" Mercury confesses) and Star Wars. There's even a time for the neglected percussion instrument the bicycle bells, not heard in UK pop since Pink Floyd.
Since several of these songs are #2 hits, I can't say too much about them here; but I will try.
"Killer Queen" is fantastical - Mercury said as much - but I can't help feeling this confection is in The Fog, a concept I will explore further in my own blog; suffice it to say that there is a period in UK pop when there is an itchy sense of unreality to music, to the charts, that there is something vital missing and the uncomfortable lurking sense that there is something else out there, something wrong, which is so pervasive that it is like a fog, with no edges or distinctions. Queen became famous as The Fog was descending and while I don't blame them for it, everything from the time from the UK has a certain quality that is hard to shake off. As fine as the band are here - exalting this rather grand woman of the night - it's in retrospect a little too grand for me. That said, Mercury sings it beautifully and I can imagine a young Jeff Buckley, when he wasn't busy singing along to Robert Plant, singing along to some of this.
"Somebody To Love" on the other hand, is for me Queen's greatest song. Perhaps that's because (as an American) I can understand its gospel/blues roots and simplicity - the song has that odd quality of being there already, with Queen just coming along to pick it up and sing it. Mercury sings it, with the chorus singing with him in sympathy ("I'm all right, I'm all right" Mercury insists near the end of the song, and the chorus relays this to the concerned listener - "He's all right, he's all right!") Again there is the hard work, the prison cell, the call-and-response - and the very real sense (unlike the previous song's fantasy) that this is really coming from the heart. But it's not just Mercury singing to himself, but a song for everyone who is dog-tired at the end of the day, who has tried and tried and tried but still has found nobody, and is desperate enough to ask someone, anywhere, everywhere, for help. The band play as straight as possible here, and the building crescendo of voices at the end - with Mercury's solo like a pastor with his choir - is moving. And then the last "find me, find me, find..." and ending piano note, to put the whole matter into perspective. This is just a song after all, darlings.
"We Will Rock You" is a controversial song - Lester Bangs' good friend and fellow music writer Dave Marsh mistakenly called it "fascist" - and unlike the anthemic cheer of "Somebody To Love" this may as well be called "Somebody to Look Down On, From A Great Height." I feel rather mean pointing this out, but who is the "we" in this song? Who are the boy, the young man, the old man? Why are they all described as being bloody or dirty, not to mention disgraceful? Are Queen trying to bridge the "You'll Never Walk Alone" uplift (sung to them in Stafford by the audience after they left the stage, which inspired them to write this) and this new-fangled thing called punk rock? There is no question amidst the boom-boom-clap as to who is rockin' and who is being rocked...maybe all this is just a kind of slangy fondness. I don't know. What I do know is at the end Brian May's guitar solo was no doubt practiced by every guitarist who wanted to rock out, and this is a supremely male song; it might even be the ultimate song, period, for Queen anyway. (Sadly I cannot remember the name of the indie band that did a deadpan version of this with lyrics such as "We are about to rock you. You are now being rocked.")
"We Are The Champions" - always and forever played after the previous song on any decent station when I was growing up - is even more ambiguous to me. Again, who is "we"? Is it the band, the band and the audience, someone else? Or is Mercury using the royal we? After all, he's only being challenged by the entire human race to be the best - and here he is, rich and famous and winning, my friends. Winning and nyah-nyah-na-nyah-nyahing it in your face, whoever you are that begrudges whoever "we" is from being the best. I will give him credit for saying he's made mistakes, but what about "I've done my sentence - but committed no crimes" - even at this triumphant stage, there is the painful incarceration. I think it is safe to say that while all of Queen were ambitious, Mercury was the most ambitious, because he was born a star, and playing in so-so bands was for him like being in jail. Or maybe there is something else in here, an outsider's being more British-than-British success. There is an inner drama blown up to operatic proportions by Queen, generic enough to suit any sporting event and yet, when I think about it, actually kind of sad. Do these songs have to be so mean? "No time for losers" the group sings. Hmmm...
Because once upon a time Queen were a band eager to become well-known and even signed a contract they shouldn't have just to get a deal. "Seven Seas of Rhye" was their first hit in '74, mainly a hit because David Bowie was late getting his video for "Rebel Rebel" done and someone had to go on Top of the Pops. Queen came in and did this song, an amalgam of Sweet, Elton John and Yes; the band had yet to really figure out just who they were, though Mercury's "I do like to be beside the seaside" confidence was leading the way.
Of all the songs on this album, "Now I'm Here" is the one that gets played on the radio the least, if at all; a song that is the key for the whole album, which is about...ambition. Who else could have a hit about being on tour, mentioning Mott The Hoople along the way? People forget that Queen were, by today's standards, fairly old when they finally got to go on tour in a big way - Mercury was 27, the same age as Kurt Cobain (who lamented he couldn't be more like Mercury onstage) was when he died. Unlike Cobain, Mercury was a born star, and according to rock legend Queen stole the show from Mott; they had wanted to be a success for so long they even sang about it, about how happy they were to just be out, here and there. "Go go go little Queenie" says T. Rex indeed... (Please note: there are those who went to see Mott The Hoople on this tour - I've heard 'em on Radio London - who didn't think much of Queen and maybe that's because they found them too....girly?)
That girly power is what made the housewives love Queen in the first place; one minute they could be mean and bitchy, and the next they could do something as cheery and light as "You're My Best Friend" - a song with no side (i.e. no double meanings). It is Beach Boys sunshine and harmonies filtered through the filigreed melodies of Queen. This is in fact as 'normal' a song as Queen would ever do, in that it reminds me of other songs of gratefulness and love at the time, including (speaking of best friends) Elton John & Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"; but this is happy and as easy-going as Queen ever were.
On the other hand, I am not sure just what "Don't Stop Me Now" is about besides the baby boomers' collective "We want to have as much fun as is humanly possible" or perhaps Freddie Mercury's own sense that he has waited so long to be a star that now he is one, he wants to experience everything to the full. Again, there's ambition - in this case, to "have a good time" and also to somehow transfer this feeling of supreme freedom to his audience as well - "I wanna make a supersonic (wo)man of you!" A question I can't help but feel is what, if anything, could stop Mercury at this time? Would Byron, Keats or Shelley understand his need to be "burning through the skies" - travelling at the speed of light itself? It may be a staple of tv ads, movies, etc. now but strip all that away and this is a song about wanting to be so free you don't even have a body anymore - just a ball of burning energy, an atomic bomb, a satellite, a sex machine...but do real bombs like this say "don't stop me now"? Something here is all about wanting as opposed to being; about possibility as opposed to actually doing. This is a song of someone who is free and can't believe he is free; it tentatively starts before leaping in and speeding up, and ends more confidently, like a kid doing his first lap of the pool, aided by nothing.
If the Radio London bloke club didn't like Queen at the start they certainly wouldn't like "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy" - a song Mercury called "ragtime" and (aside from its charms, which may be artificial but are still winning) this is as good a time as any to recall that Queen never did originate anything, but merely took this and that from the musical spectrum as they pleased, as if the whole history of popular music leads up to...them. Or maybe it's that they are indebted to it all and are just reflecting it back, paying respects. Nothing Queen ever did was done unknowingly; the attention to detail and getting things right was an obsession with them, even if this song sounds casual and nostalgic. It is just such attention to detail that made them a success, but also lends a kind of superior polish, a polish that was starting to grate on some in '76, of course.
It should also be noted that in late '76 Queen were due to make an appearance on the Bill Grundy show but were forced to cancel at the last minute; I suspect that one Tommy Boyd, a school friend of Deacon, May and Taylor, were able to persuade them (in his own, ahem, friendly way) to let a new band on the same label, EMI, get some valuable tv exposure, just as they had years before when they got their break on Top of the Pops. Thus The Sex Pistols were introduced to the masses, and Queen were no longer the most talked about group around. A few months later the "Freddie Mercury sees tells them punks what for" incident happened at Wessex studios, where both groups were recording - Sid Vicious walked into Queen's studio by mistake and asked Mercury (who he called "Freddie Platinum") if he'd succeeded yet in bringing ballet to the masses; Mercury answered "Ah, Mr. Ferocious, we're trying our best, dear."
As punk and new wave and disco all but took over the radio, I can imagine Queen feeling a little lost. The days of extravagance and multi-layered harmonies and fantastical subjects were over. Time to wipe the board clear, dears, and take inspiration from things that are simple, direct, timeless. I can just hear Mercury insisting on stripping back, on just doing songs without fuss, without operatic tendencies. "We've done that dear," I can hear him say; "we've done stadium chants and boom-boom-clap and oh alright Brian we can still do your songs your way, if you like, dear. We can even use those synthesizers now, within reason."
And so appears "Another One Bites The Dust" - inspired by Chic, a band that (for all anyone knew in 1979) would go away and disappear in a few years, never to inspire anyone again. Like any sane people Queen heard "Good Times" and immediately wanted in; Queen lost the irony but kept the sharpness, increased it, even. This is a mean matte black object of a song, and May does his best to keep his guitar, for once, to a minimum; Mercury gets to get down with his bad self, for once and for all. To those who like to forecast elections by the success of songs would have known that this tough western of a song would herald the success of Ronald Reagan (it was #1 in the US weeks before that happened). After so many songs where the narrator is in prison or alone or in pain, this is a song of revenge; the narrator suffers no more. Michael Jackson (a Queen fan) suggested to the band they release this as a single, and for the first time they got played on black as well as white stations in the US. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Queen had continued on this route; if they had done their next album with Grandmaster Flash, for instance (who sampled this on his legendary "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel" single in '81.
That Queen didn't is understandable, especially when you remember there's four songwriters here, not just two; and Mercury is going back to his childhood here, days of listening to fellow Anglo-Indian Cliff Richard, for "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." Yes, I know it's supposed to be Elvis, with Brian May as Scotty Moore, but Queen were British to their core, and I hear more than a little Cliff (mainly in the lightness of his singing) and Brian May doing as much Hank Marvin as anyone else. Americans didn't know any better and this went to #1 there in '80, the kind of song that rock fans of two generations could love. And it's charming too ("ready, Freddie") - again Queen are tuning in on the times, as Shakin' Stevens is about to take over from the Darts and Showaddywaddy as the 50s rockin' dude du jour. This is also about the only time Mercury ever bothered to play guitar, and his play-in-a-day plainness works here, proves that his push for simplicity was indeed the right thing.
And here we are, back to the obsessive themes of love and freedom; and isn't Mercury (it's his song) being a little...pushy here? If it's my life, then do I have to play the game, as they say? If it is a free world, then can't I ignore it? But here the narrator sings to the weary heart, as an encourager as much as a boss - "don't play hard to get." In this song it is as if Mercury wants to seduce the world. The idea of deciding to play a game, though, is far away from actually falling in love; it is the head, not the heart, being in charge. I suppose this is where the problem with Queen and me lies - Queen are so British that while I can appreciate them and comprehend them, I, a mere American, don't have the suave authority they do, they who only half-ironically called themselves royal. If someone at UK customs had given me this years ago, what could the real message be? What would I have learned? I am not sure, but I do know that the massive sales of this album means that these songs matter to millions of people, whose hearts are touched by these songs. I can only admire them, while being touched or stirred by other music of the time in more profound ways, because I find them less stoical, less polished, less we-will-rock-you and more we-will-rock-together. (Please note that I never got to see Queen live and that some of these differences may have been bridged onstage; though I find the idea of playing to massive crowds, as they certainly did, alienating as well.)
I am guessing that my reaction is why Queen, though popular in the US, didn't do nearly so well there* - the sensibilities are so different, and the camp and irony can only be translated so far. And (to put a political angle in here) once Reagan was elected, the boring monolithic thing known as Reaganrock began to emerge, in stark contrast to the UK, where New Pop - its complete opposite - was starting to take over the charts. But that is for the next Greatest Hits.
One happy consequence of Queen's 1980 US #1s is that one Dino de Laurentiis heard them and got them to do the music for Flash Gordon. "Flash" (I always wish it was called "Flash - AAAHHHAAAHH" but no) was recorded as the band were watching the movie, picking up on the moods, colors, action; hence the actual clips of dialogue from the movie. (Sadly this is the single version and thus misses out on Brian Blessed's supremely disdainful "EUUURRTH.") Queen were ideal here - fantastical, as they were at the start; blissfully controlled and tough and operatic at the same time; and able to be piano-solo-vulnerable too. Recently I was on the train and a guy who organizes comedy boxing matches for charity (you never know some things exist until you hear about them) has this has his ringtone. It is (intentionally?) hilarious as such and points to the humor of the band, the lovable hyperbole that is perhaps the one UK trait that Americans can understand.
And years later, in an album I will be discussing, along comes Public Enemy to sample Queen (I can only imagine what they thought) for their own purposes, namely that their DJ Terminator X is indeed the savior of the universe, and like Flash he's just an ordinary man doing extraordinary things ("just a man, with a man's courage"). And then I wonder how popular Queen were in places like the Bronx or Long Island as well as the Midwest, and how different people took different...or maybe the same, after all...things from them. That you can do things your way, darlings, and be successful. You can mix sincerity with camp and make it work. You have every right to take to the stage, as long as you are entertaining. That being an outsider in rock 'n' roll makes you part of it, that builds up tradition. The music is all there for the taking. This is the promise of Queen - not a supercilious superiority but a redefining role, a king-for-a-day feeling. This album is simply a record of Queen's ambition to be the best and most successful band ever, masquerading cleverly as just another compilation advertised on tv.
It is something I can admire, enjoy, but it doesn't fasten itself to my heart; but then I wasn't raised on it. When this was released I was just beginning to understand the New Pop phenomenon (not that I knew it was called that) and Queen were a band I barely heard, that got dutiful short reviews in Creem, and had no huge hits after 1980. Queen themselves were not given to looking backwards and likely were happy this did so well, but were eager to get on with new things; I daresay they took about as much time thinking about Greatest Hits at the time as I did, and maybe they were absorbing the same sounds, though on the other side of the Atlantic.
Queen never won any Grammys.
Next up: did someone say New Pop?
*Greatest Hits did very well for Queen in the US, but not enough to make the Top 100 best-selling albums list.