Friday 18 January 2013

QUEEN: The Game

(#233: 19 July 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Play The Game/Dragon Attack/Another One Bites The Dust/Need Your Loving Tonight/Crazy Little Thing Called Love/Rock It (prime jive)/Don’t Try Suicide/Sail Away Sweet Sister/Coming Soon/Save Me

My HMV story, or one of many; I bought this album, on LP, from the old HMV shop in Union Street, Glasgow, at the time of its release (£3.79, readers). I think I was particularly attracted to it because it had a silver cover which made it look like an ECM release (see Michael Mantler’s Movies and Tin Can Alley by Jack de Johnette’s Special Edition, released either side of this record, for two examples) and so there was a sense of occasion – and it is that sense, and any particular feeling of occasion, which I fear will now be lost forever.

The Union Street HMV was pretty authoritative and, at the time, unchallenged – there had been a Virgin store in Argyle Street in the early seventies but it closed down and a new Megastore, situated just three doors down from HMV in Union Street, and across the road from what was then Bruce’s Record Shop (therefore it was not so much gunfighter time, but more like a Mexican standoff), did not open until the very late autumn of 1980. The pop and rock section downstairs was as populous and noisy as you’d expect, but going upstairs was like visiting the Mitchell Library; the jazz and classical sections on the first floor were strictly Pindrop City – austere, hushed and faintly academic, but the stock they had was…well, fairly adequate for 1980 Glasgow, given the general limited availability or near-complete unavailability of most of the key jazz records at the time (I quickly learned that I needed places like Mole Jazz and Honest Jon’s for mail order purposes; in the cases of labels like Incus or Ogun, I would more often than not order directly from the labels [and, in some cases, the artists] themselves).

It was part of my Saturday thrill, however. Freed from the demands of school, I looked forward to my Glasgow record-shopping Saturdays like you wouldn’t believe. I took everything in, of which HMV was just one (albeit very important) part. As the bus sped into town, past the old Parkhead Forge with the HOME RULE and accompanying thistle graffiti which stayed there for years, I was filled with excitement because more often than not I didn’t know what I would find, whether I would find anything and what I might come home with. Somehow I was always surprised, in the good sense. It was the effort and anticipation, and, if I was lucky, the joy of finding something (or something else that I hadn’t at all anticipated), that made my youthful Saturdays worthwhile. The knowledge that one had made the effort to go and find music.

That is what is going to be lost. I’m not going to bang any drum for misplaced nostalgia; nothing was going to stop the pre-recorded music industry being bled dry by downloads. I have no particular flag to wave about the merits of LP versus cassette versus CD except that I enjoy having CDs; they are far easier to stack and shelve than old records, much easier to handle, play and listen to, and don’t give out what my late first wife once referred to as “the smell of digestive biscuits.” But, as I say, I’m not entering into any argument about the relative values of different reproductive formats.

But it was the physical and mental thrill of going out, looking for music and finding music that made it all worthwhile. Nowadays you don’t have to do any work, or even leave the house, to get new music; click a button, enter the appropriate financial reference number and there you are. No effort needed – you don’t risk wearing out your shoes or catching a cold traipsing around a dozen or more record shops - and I suspect most people today would cackle at the notion that effort to find music was ever required. But it was a major reason why I decided to move to London, and the phenomenal shrinkage in number and quality of London record shops in general is something to lament. It sort of makes me wonder why I ever bothered moving there. Things like that which mean little to the downloaders of today but everything to older folk like me.

Enough of the angst, however; I’m here to talk about Queen, and their big modern entry into a new decade which got them not only a US number one album but also two number one singles over there (“Another One Bites The Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”). Given the group managed to score two number ones off the same album with songs done in completely different styles, you might think that American audiences had a right to be suspicious.

As ever, though, any suspicion was cancelled out by the dawning realisation: “oh, they’re English,” but an Englishness with which Americans could identify. None of your Noddy Holder/Bryan Ferry all-very-well-but-what-is-he-SAYING linguistic confusions. No, you could put on “Dragon Attack” or “Need Your Loving Tonight” and drive down the sunlit freeway to first-rate FM rock catchy enough also to qualify as pop.

This tale hasn’t seen Queen since the beginning of 1977, and the two albums released in between A Day At The Races and this one (1977’s News Of The World and 1978’s Jazz, not counting the Queen Live Killers concert double) showed them making much effort to get out of the Seventies Glam-Prog straitjacket. The Game, however, was the nearest they came to getting the formula bottled.

In contrast to all of their previous records, which proudly carried the banner “No Synthesisers!,” the group, in conjunction with co-producer and engineer Reinhold Mack, were finally persuaded to use the Oberheim OB-X device; like ELO’s Discovery, recorded in the same Munich studios about a year earlier, the record bubbles with delight at what can be done with this new toy. “Play The Game” opens the album with defiant backward hisses of synthesiser, all cascading down to jumpcut into a standard Freddie Mercury piano ballad but continuing to fly and ping and explode all over the song like uncontrolled fireworks. The song itself seems undecided about whether it wants to be Sparks or Radiohead (to which latter “Play The Game” looks forward pretty definitively).

Likewise, the silver cover depicted four men who, if they hadn’t quite heard of the Ramones, were clearly keen to be considered as Modern, in their cropped haircuts and leather stares. The pictures found inside the sleeve, though, tell a different story; Mercury now has a moustache, and looks reflective, like 1980’s Young Asian Businessman Of The Year. Deacon with haircut, white shirt and black tie looks like Jon Moss auditioning for Ultravox. Meanwhile, Roger Taylor with his hennaed hair, pancake make-up and Mad Max gear and stare, looks like he wants to be in another band with a drummer named Roger Taylor. Only May looks like you would expect, i.e. the overgrown Class Swot, with anorak, badges, a startling pullover and a nerdy grin – his anorak collar is so big it’s difficult to work out where it stops and his hair begins.

“Dragon Attack” begins with an uncharacteristic Robert Plant/Jeff Buckley gurgle from Mercury, but soon settles into what Patrick Bateman would call smashing rock, with an ironically descending “Yeah, yeah, yeah”) and a chance for everybody to solo (“Get down!” giggles Mercury, eagerly and unironically, at Taylor’s beats). Overall the song plays like a hipper Aersomith (by 1980 standards, when the men from Boston were in a bit of a doldrums) with, even at this early stage, indications of the shady path which would eventually lead to “Walk This Way.” Even Adam Ant must have heard this, and nodded.

“Another One Bites The Dust” is their big Chic tribute (Bernard Edwards attributed the song’s origins to the group, Deacon in particular, hanging out at Chic’s studios and learning) which almost entirely relies on the rhythm section to carry the song forward and whose sound effects are generated not by synthesisers but tape delay and the judicious use of the Eventide Harmonizer (Mack was instrumental in the group’s move forward, having introduced them on this album to the wonders of the drop-in recording technique). Over this pointillistic soundtrack, Mercury alternately enthuses (“Hey HEY!,” “Shoot UP!”) and howls, since lyrically it is not a very upbeat song (“You TOOK me for everyTHING that I HAD and KICKEDMEOUTONMYOWN!”). The crucial factor, however, is May’s delicious Nile Rodgers funk fills, which he keeps to a teasing minimum (no more than four bars at any one time, and no more than three times in total). Michael Jackson suggested to the group that it might do well as a single.

“Need Your Loving Tonight” sets the scene for Bryan Adams (as much as it is simultaneously reminiscent of Dave Edmunds) in terms of bright, sunny, nothing-can-stop-us-now highway AoR, so life-affirming that one overlooks the fact that Mercury is yet again singing about a love affair gone wrong and his consequent desperation. And, with great Dave Edmunds-related irony, the group’s great leap forward was occasioned by an Elvis rockabilly tribute. Deliciously silly, with Mercury mooning, teasing and moaning over his own beginner’s acoustic guitar (by his own admission, he couldn’t play the guitar for nuts) and the “Ready, Freddie!” call-and-responses, May does his Scotty Moore/Carl Perkins best but can’t avoid being “Brian May.” Nor would anyone necessarily want him to do so. You could say that they were determined to show those Showaddywaddy who’s boss.

If side one has most of the hits, side two is necessarily mainly B-side material; the group constantly trying out different tactics. Of these songs, Taylor’s “Rock It” (with Freddie singing the doowop ballad intro – “It GAATS DAAHN to my SOUL!” - followed by Roger when the song speeds up) is the most successful, speeding along like a lither Led Zeppelin, with even a spot of jerky New Wave organ to help things along (much of The Game makes one wonder how a surviving Zeppelin might have seen in the eighties).

Mercury’s “Don’t Try Suicide” is, however, beyond daft. Part “Three Cool Cats”/West Side Story finger-snapping stuff, part 1975 Abba chorus, part inordinate rocking out, I do not think that any of Queen had Ian Curtis remotely in mind when they did this song, but “Dress Rehearsal Rag” it is not, even though it shares the same mordantly mocking sense of humour (“Nobody’s WORTH it!,” “Nobody CARES!,” “Just gonna HATE it!,” “NOBODY! GIVES! A! DAMN!”). “Sail Away Sweet Sister,” written and sung by May and dedicated “To the sister I never had,” is a doubtless heartfelt emotional song performed with conviction and truthfulness by its author which nonetheless makes me think it is still 1971 and move the needle along to the next track (of the four members of Queen as they stood in 1980, May feels and looks like the one who really would have preferred it still to have been ten years ago).

“Coming Soon,” another Taylor composition, is like a Cutting Crew or Wang Chung demo, very eighties and sequenced, although detoured by a strange final synth/vocal choir harmony at its very end. The record finishes with “Save Me,” written by May but sung by Mercury – and in contrast to the sentiments articulated at the beginning of the album (“Play the game of love,” “Open up your mind”), the singer now finds it was all lies, and is naked, alone and…you guessed it…”far from home,” that place that number one albums just can’t seem to shake off.

Overall, then, The Game is a half-excellent album and half unfinished sketches; I think their next album, the Flash Gordon soundtrack, is a more consistently entertaining record, but sadly we don’t get to it here. However, it again suggests that by and large Queen are a great singles group who don’t always transpose their greatness onto their albums. Nonetheless, they want to move on, and for at least half the time here, they sound as though they are going somewhere and taking their listeners with them. Not staying in an unattainable past, but facing the future while taking care not to discard what was hitherto of value. HMV should have taken note.

Next: Hard Rockin’ Shit (Part 1 of 2).