Sunday 1 April 2012

QUEEN: A Night At The Opera

(#163: 27 December 1975, 2 weeks; 17 January 1976, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To……/Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon/I’m In Love With My Car/You’re My Best Friend/’39/Sweet Lady/Seaside Rendezvous/The Prophet’s Song/Love Of My Life/Good Company/Bohemian Rhapsody/God Save The Queen

“Oh oh children of the land
Love is still the answer, take my hand
The vision fades, a voice I hear
‘Listen to the Madman!’

But still I fear and still I dare not
Laugh at the Madman.”
(Queen, “The Prophet’s Song”)

“The lunatic is in my head”
(Pink Floyd, “Brain Damage”)

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins
But not mine”
(Patti Smith, “Gloria”)

“I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”
(Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”)

Nearly over, I thought to myself. Another year summed up as best I could make it, 1975 almost put to bed. It took long enough as well; I wrote about Engelbert Humperdinck on Boxing Day, and even allowing for serious illness, it’s taken me over four months to reach year’s end. In total I have written about fourteen different number one albums in 1975, and a tough, unforgiving year it was too; no less than four of these albums were doubles, and in part of dubious propensity (Physical Graffiti was the only non-MoR, non-TV advertised of these four). I recognise that my patient, one-album-a-week approach requires a good deal of patience and goodwill on the part of my readers, and also that if I tried to go through them faster, the pieces wouldn’t read nearly as well and my heart wouldn’t thank me for it either. Looking ahead to 1976, I see that the number of albums I will have to take into account is the same; fourteen. This means that by the time I get to year’s end, it will most likely be hot summer, time for the Olympics perhaps. Put down like that, it doesn’t sound like a lot of music, but at one a week – well, you can do the arithmetic. Anyway, I thought, we’re almost done with this demanding year, except I wasn’t naïve enough not to know what was coming as the year’s final entry – and, sure enough, it’s also the year’s most important entry, the record that changed everything, drew a line in the sand between the past and the future, as this tale will tell it.

Because, although A Night At The Opera - other than the title, there is really nothing of the Marx Brothers about the record – was Queen’s fourth album, and they had already established themselves as a camp, reliable art-rock band, it is also the hitherto missing link between what has already been written about here, and what is going to be written about in the future. Virtually alone in its year – again, Physical Graffiti is the only other real contender - the record continues to speak in the present tense. For subsequent generations, it has proved their bond between the past and now. We speak of “Love Of My Life” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” and do not particularly think of 1975; instead, we think of the lives of the minds of the musicians who made these records.

And rarely can a British group be said to have been dominated by a frontman of such singular and self-constructed personality. It is not even that Freddie Mercury is particularly prominent on this record – Brian May is arguably more in audible evidence – but still, by strength and openness of character, he ends up walking away with it. The story is familiar enough; May and Roger Taylor, doing time but not really going anywhere with their band called Smile, wonder if they should get in a lead singer. Taylor knows this guy with a stall in Kensington Market, very camp but he knows his stuff and he says he’s not a bad singer. May says great, bring him round and see what he can do. Mercury is a little shy but makes up for it by a perspiring mask of exuberance, and indeed he can sing. A little while later he wonders whether the band shouldn’t change their name to Queen – and yes, darlings, he’s perfectly aware what that would signify. Huh? his fellow band members cogitate, but go along with it.

The rest is for another chapter, since it’s hardly giving anything away to say that TPL will be making numerous visits to the Queen oeuvre in years to come. But A Night At The Opera - in its time the most expensive album ever made in a British studio, or studios – came through towards the end of its year, and for me makes up the third part of an aesthetically interrelated trilogy of late 1975 albums which use rock history as signifiers rather than an end in itself, and all going towards examining the ultimate impossibility of escape. There was Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, the last shot Columbia were going to give him at stardom after two flop albums, a record worked on and worked over meticulously – Springsteen and some of the E-Street Band even got into the habit of visiting Phil Spector, then hard at work on Dion’s Born To Be With You album, to get some tips – which seems to scrawl up twenty years of rock ‘n’ roll and then reshape them, scattergun them and even sample them to make the wall against which Springsteen had to rail. The continuing theme is escape, but the nine coruscating, closing minutes of “Jungleland” quietly prove how impossible this will be (in this context, “Meeting Across The River” is the album’s “Love Of My Life” equivalent; all poses dropped, this is how I truly feel).

Then there was Patti Smith’s Horses which begins by reconstructing Van Morrison and received notions of religion and gender, goes through every strand of rock and reggae and free improv and hard rock she and her band can muster, breaks free, squares the circle and ends with an elegy for the dead (I am not suggesting that Tom Verlaine, who briefly guests on the record, listened avidly to Brian May, but their approaches to the guitar are not dissimilar; try “Little Johnny Jewel” – the studio version - next to some of May’s lines on “Death On Two Legs” and you’ll see what I mean). You might not necessarily need to read Just Kids, Smith’s account of her time with Robert Mapplethorpe, who took the cover photo, to know that Horses was the product of nearly a decade’s worth of genteel poverty, crap day jobs, scraping by, building their own world (although the book, before it degenerates into bad rock criticism and a dull leap across the years of success and touring, is sometimes very moving).

Finally there came A Night At The Opera, the best album yet (though diehards still swore by its predecessor, Sheer Heart Attack) by a group fronted by the most unquestionably sexy British pop performer since Marc Bolan. To be sure, Mercury had otherness in abundance – previous semi-exports like Cliff and Engelbert did not begin to compare with this genuine Asian pop star, born and raised in Zanzibar, and then India – and it’s probably logical that at the time Freddie Mercury and Patti Smith were my two main pop crushes; one looking like a woman, the other dressing like a man. Uncertain, formative times indeed. But Mercury had no shame about what he did or how he did it – and the absence of shame was one of the most admirable things about him – and although he is relatively subdued on Opera, he is still very much in evidence.

The record’s first half speeds by on segue, like a souped-up Abbey Road Long Medley (and it isn’t, I think, a coincidence that “Bohemian Rhapsody” ends on the same, wistfully smiling C major as “The End”). At first you can’t believe it; here, finally, is a band taking on the Beatles’ matey mantle of we-can-do-anything, whether seesawing Who/Family 3/4 rock (“I’m In Love With My Car”), breezy Ventura highway AoR (“You’re My Best Friend”), folk-rock, hard rock or twenties vaudeville – every track slams or crawls into the next with great confidence.

And yet it begins with some of the most splenetic lyrics seen in this tale since “How Do You Sleep?” In some ways “Death On Two Legs” is diminished by the knowledge that it’s about an ex-manager of the band, since this would make it nothing more than your standard music industry gripe in song form, but the form of this song belies such assumptions; “Funeral For A Friend” piano arpeggios rapidly give way to groaning guitars, white noise, and via a swift cross-channel stereo swoop – a device which periodically recurs throughout the record – moves into rock, but it’s the kind of broken-back rock song construction which, frankly, makes the song sound like Nirvana, or Nirvana like the song; again and again the music bashes into its own brick wall while Mercury makes with the leeches, mules, bad guys, old barrow-boys, overgrown schoolboys, yet relishes the prospects of “Now you can kiss my ass goodbye” and licks his lips at the thought, “Let me tan your hide.” May’s guitar becomes more distended as Mercury’s rage gets ever hotter. “You’re a sewer rat, decaying in a cesspool of pride” – not only does this sound like nothing else in 1975, but it also reads like the future of lyrics to come. But more of that later.

The song switches without warning to “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” – note the nod to Ray Davies – with Mercury having great fun with his Rudy Vallee megaphone, even if May’s boogie guitar finally makes it feel like the Bonzos doing Status Quo. Then to the car ode, sung or at least howled by composer Roger Taylor in a convincing hard rock voice, moving from one Roger (Daltrey) to another (Chapman) against an unusual waltz tempo. No sooner are we immersed in this than the car speeds off down the freeway to the sound of John Deacon’s “You’re My Best Friend,” sung with tender truthfulness by Mercury, while Deacon’s active electric piano and bass work echoes (not so oddly) McCartney on “Magneto And Titanium Man.” See, we can do straight pop as well as anybody else.

Then back to Lindisfarne? Described by its author as “sci-fi skiffle,” May’s “’39” – and no, it’s not about the war; if you listen carefully, the song’s action takes place over a century – pounds along like a more agreeable Don Partridge, but check the inexplicable Hollywood harmonies which suddenly and briefly materialise halfway through the song, and May’s quick nod to Mike Oldfield before going back to some good-humoured acoustic picking. “Sweet Lady,” also written by May, is the record’s most ostensible attempt to do Led Zeppelin – Mercury and Taylor play the Plant and Bonham roles to perfection, complete with tricky time signature changes. Here Mercury is having an affecionate go at a would-be lover rather than an old manager, and so spleen is pretty much absent; the deceptive jollity and projection of the piece, if considerably simplified, could pass for Kiss, that other major sensation of 1975 (for the majority of Americans who hadn’t lived through glam). May ends the song with a complex guitar line which eventually resolves into loops; it’s impossible not to visualise a fourteen-year-old Bill Hicks, in his bedroom in Texas, manfully or boyfully trying to perfect the guitar playing.

“Seaside Rendezvous” is more agreeable vaudevillian silliness, complete with slide whistle and a curious resemblance in Mercury’s slightly reticent vocal to George Michael (as in general, the reader should take these influences on a vice versa basis). But the record’s second half is considerably slower and more contemplative than its first (Bowie’s Low!); “Seaside Rendezvous” is only a preparation for “The Prophet’s Song,” the album’s longest track (yes, two-and-a-half minutes more than “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and in some respects its most obviously looking-backwards track, as well as, more subtly, its least obviously looking-forwards track. Generally we are back in the Zeppelin/Purple world of 1971; composer May’s contemplative “toy koto” meditations top and tail the track, which otherwise is a stealthy slow rocker. Good of its type, the track nevertheless diverts into stranger waters, most notably Mercury’s lengthy mid-song multitracked vocal roundelay with its systemic warping and reordering of language (“No one knows” mutates into “Now I know”) which recalls, of all bands, Yes, as do some of the lyrics ("Oh oh people of the earth/Listen to the warning the seer he said”), although, as with Yes, the sequence can properly be viewed as an example of what happens when English sensibility meets the Beach Boys (remember the group were once called Smile, and Mercury recorded a cover of “I Can Hear Music” in 1973). The lyrics, however, are generally not dated; instead, the accumulating sense of violent change seem to want to will something into action, although the group do not yet know what it is. But the words, coupled with the musical attack, seem to say that something is on its way which will change everything.

Then May’s koto slowly changes into May’s harp, and eventually “Love Of My Life” takes shape; a “straight” love song (since the relationship seems to be ending as a result of Mercury realising where his true love was to be found, but it is not a turning of the singer’s back; quite the reverse – “When I grow older,” he sings, “I will be there at your side to remind you/How I still love you – still love you,” and with that second “still love you,” comes one of the record’s best and most seamless transition as Mercury’s high voice becomes May’s high lead guitar. And we’ll be hearing more of that “still love you” much later on in Queen’s career). Meanwhile, Mercury’s piano drifts underneath the line “What it means to me” with suspicious familiarity – is this whole album aiming towards something in particular? No clues in May’s “Good Company,” which is mostly a ukulele-driven Temperance Seven romp through the accumulated disappointments of a businessman’s life – it’s a strange British counterpart to Harry Chapin’s “Cats In The Cradle,” but the close vocal tones and harmonies far more strongly suggest a Wings/McCartney pastiche. Then, after the line “Parted Company,” the song does something strange – it stops, dead, May’s guitars dissolving into the air like bonfires of expired dreams, before starting up again.

At the end of the song, the guitars dissolve into the unknown. The dream is over; time to wake up.

The next song is like a bucket of cold water.

“Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide?
No escape from reality?”

The appearance of the song is something of a shock; known so well as a stand-alone single, it is easy to forget how it sounds in its original, planned context – and after what we have heard, it is startling. We have gone through genre pastiches, salutes to decades and times past, or to unspecified science fiction worlds – and, like Jones’ condemned man in “Green, Green Grass Of Home,” it may well have all been a dream. We are most assuredly back in reality, and even the somewhat sardonic Moody Blues pastiche (“Open your eyes/Look up to the skies and see”) is swiftly dispatched by Mercury’s committed “I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy.” That cross-channel swish reappears (“Anyway the wind blows”), this time much more slowly.

And yet – where does this song come from? Mercury had been working on elements of it since the late sixties, and it’s a matter of record that at least some of the musical inspiration came from the work of Paul and Barry Ryan, specifically “Eloise,” that disjointed, very un-British song about pursuing someone, or something, that might not actually be there (although in terms of song construction, their “My Mama” is much closer to “Bohemian Rhapsody”’s opening section). But Mercury somehow sidesteps all that – the Ryans’ two 1969 albums can essentially be viewed as the missing link between Lionel Bart’s Isn’t This Where We Came In? and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell - to create something which has no clear precedent. Certainly Mercury’s performance betrays a naked emotionalism which makes things like “Seaside Rendezvous” seem like affable smokescreens (even though they were as much a part of Mercury’s personality as anything else). He is hurting, aching with regret, fearful of impending death (and concomitant waste of life), and it is not a comfortable listening. Comparisons were made at the time with 10cc’s three-part epic “Une Nuit Á Paris,” from The Original Soundtrack, but are misleading; 10cc were four self-confessed studio boffins from Manchester who put everything in inverted commas, but, as they themselves admitted, Queen had Freddie.

The song is unmistakably about Freddie; it is probably the most open song he ever wrote about himself, and yet its message can be taken in multiple ways; it’s about his own sexuality and how it fits or doesn’t fit with his faith, it’s about his indecision, his uncertainty about life; it’s about subverting the form of the rock epic and proving how much gibberish you could fit into it – but despite his repeated assurances that “Nothing really matters,” I don’t believe any of it is gibberish. Consider that for the operatic middle section Mercury, May and Taylor came into the studio every day for three weeks and spent 10-12 hours of each day just doing the vocal overdubs (the song’s introduction is purely multitracked Mercury); you don’t put in this amount of backbreaking effort for a joke. The song was clearly intended to be definitive, to be as “perfect” as possible; there is a real sense of elation when the jolly Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche is blown open by the power of rock, and this third section usefully bookends the first one – if we are looking at glam, as in part we must be, then the first part is convincing Elton John, and the third part is pure Sweet (and the staccato bursts of \Mercury harmonies which rupture “Death On Two Legs” also remind us that, in the long term, Muse are on their way). This section is laughing defiance – does he escape, or just say “fuck you”? – and of course the teenage W Axl Rose would have listened to and absorbed it.

It’s all about escape – “just gotta get right out of here” – and then the dream fades, or the potted history of popular music reaches critical mass, and the curtain draws back (“New Year! New Year!”) and the music crouches down to reveal a Mercury, either escaped or awaiting his fate. Whichever way you look at it, he doesn’t care, and this fourth section is perhaps the most moving of all:

“Nothing really matters,
Anyone can see,
Nothing really matters –
Nothing really matters – to me.”

He’s trying to convince you that it’s all nonsense, that it all means nothing (“like life itself – the strangest dream of all,” to quote Ian S Munro from the same year). Not for a second do you believe it. You await the wink, and it never comes. “Anyway the wind blows” – did someone once sing a song about “Wind Chimes”? – and a gong, softly struck, as soft as a wave, ends the song; the final judgement, the ending of Carla Bley’s Tropic Appetites a year earlier – or, as I suspect, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not only Queen’s “Good Vibrations” but also their “Surf’s Up,” a very patient song whose words seem to flow naturally out of and into the music, and which also comes down to a broken man , too tough to cry. As a single it can so often seem like an extended advertisement for Queen – this is our repertoire, this is what we can do, what do you think, we are available for birthday parties – but, in the context in which it was always designed, it is, I think, a deeply serious song into which Mercury poured more of himself than he would have liked to let on.

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” of course, is also the line in the sand, the regretful closing of a book which some say opened with, or was opened by, Sgt. Pepper - it looks back to progressive rock, to glam, even to psychedelia, before turning around again, staring us in the face and saying, whatever comes after this has to be a different story; it can never again be what it was. It says “the dream is over” more strongly and firmly than Lennon.

But that’s not all it says, and before I leave “Bohemian Rhapsody” – for now; I do get back to it – I would not only observe the musicians to come who would learn from and develop on its lessons (over quarter of a century later, one of its disciples will appear here, demanding “Give me real, don’t give me fake”) but also bear in mind other, less obvious listeners. A song about being in prison, a prison that may be as metaphorical as it is real, and someone put there for his moral beliefs; moreover, a song on an album which elsewhere samples Queen, and looks forward to a greater escape, or perhaps even revolution? Readers, it is 1988, and I give you - we give you – “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” by Public Enemy. Do not underestimate the deceptive currents which link one kind of pop song to another.

However, there is one more track to go on A Night At The Opera, this record that is all about escape – note, at the head of the crest on the cover, the phoenix flying free – and that is May’s concert-ending arrangement of “God Save The Queen.” It is a brief, yet disquieting, performance; the guitars seem to yearn, and there is something approaching desperation in Taylor’s concluding fusillade of tom-toms which sent me back to…Robert Wyatt’s “Song For Che,” and those drums, fervently hammering in the hope that a metaphorical wall will be broken down. It will be some time before I get to another British group performing a song entitled “God Save The Queen,” but – as I said – this record is practically willing something else to happen. The story, of course, is never nearly over.

(Special thanks, as ever, to my wife Lena for her invaluable and wise views on this record; her ideas and suggestions, I think it fair to say, would never have occurred to me spontaneously. Readers should continue to bear in mind that in this tale, there are two tale-tellers.)