Wednesday 27 August 2014

QUEEN: A Kind Of Magic

(#331: 14 June 1986, 1 week)

Track listing: One Vision/A Kind Of Magic/One Year Of Love/Pain Is So Close To Pleasure/Friends Will Be Friends/Who Wants To Live Forever/Gimme The Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)/Don’t Lose Your Head/Princes Of The Universe

Five-and-a-half years after their soundtrack to Flash Gordon, Queen were asked to write and record some songs for the movie Highlander. So much had changed in the interim. Where the Flash Gordon soundtrack is, with two exceptions, utilitarian instrumental accompaniment (with speech and sound-effect samples) to the action in a trashy but harmless piece of semi-camp revivalist fluff, the music for Highlander – six of this record’s nine songs appear in some shape or form throughout the film – is as flatly bombastic as the movie itself. Revivalist fluff was no longer good enough by the mid-eighties, as though it ever had been, but Highlander is a dreary trench of noisy, pretentious and violent nonsense directed by an over-promoted video editor who, perhaps and depressingly correctly, saw that audiences were perfectly happy to gawp at loud, colourful, disconnected balls of cinematic string drained of purpose, genuine emotion or belief, that flash, dazzle and cutting to the chase were all that counted (in the last decade and a half, all but three of Russell Mulcahy’s films have been TV movies or straight-to-video/DVD jobs).

And who were these absurd figures on the cover, seemingly snatched straight from a mid-eighties Pernod cinema advertisement? “People say you’ve had your day,” Mercury self-references on “Princes Of The Universe,” and the impression is certainly one of an ageing rock band trying hard to make its audience believe that it can still be relevant in the eighties. But so little of this music breathes.

One of the three songs not included on Highlander was “One Vision,” commissioned for a disgraceful piece of cinematic war propaganda called Iron Eagle, wherein Louis Gossett Jr. and others take on those villainous Libyans; the consequences of this type of thinking are painfully apparent today, and although the song’s central riff itself is fine – almost good enough to be Def Leppard – the introduction, swamped by movie dialogue and whirring warcraft FX, is reminiscent of “Welcome To The Pleasuredome,” and the song itself barks along like Stanley Milgram square-bashing, with its one this and one that. “A Kind Of Magic” is no better with its “one dream, one soul, one prize” and might even be worse with its “rage” that will last “a thousand years”; this is perilously close to Riefenstahl rock. Between them, fried chicken japes or no, these songs carve out the pathway to today’s dead mainstream pop with its deafening odes to heroes and suns and flames.

Mercury gives a fabulous white soul performance, almost worthy of the 1986 Prince, on “One Year Of Love,” but unfortunately somebody forgot to convey that information to the rest of the group. “Pain Is So Close To Pleasure,” with its pained falsetto vocal and demo-standard musical backing – it sounds, of all things, that they’re trying to be the Diana Ross of “Chain Reaction” – is one of the most anaemic songs to appear on a major eighties rock album (even Mika would sound bolder than this). “Friends Will Be Friends” meanwhile drops us right back in 1973 and Mott the Hoople, and plods like a listless mash-up of “We Are The Champions” and “Saturday Gigs.”

Side two shows some (very) minor improvement; both “Gimme The Prize” (the bad guy has all the best tunes) and “Don’t Lose Your Head” (including, unrecognisably and incredibly, the speaking voice of Joan Armatrading) thwack along very entertainingly in a 1986 Sigue Sigue Sputnik/Test Dept/Propaganda manner, with big beats, distended vocal samples, and Brian May’s guitar which at different times calls up the spectres of Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” and ZZ Top’s “Legs”; and yet “Don’t Lose Your Head” progresses to Pet Shop Boys stateliness and even a post-Big Country synthesised bagpipe threnody. But the closing “Princes Of The Universe” demonstrates that they have learned nothing; you get the feeling that if Queen were really on top of things, they wouldn’t feel the need to shout their confirmation out so petulantly.

But then there is the elephant in the record’s sitting room; “Who Wants To Live Forever,” a song unlike anything else on the album, and hardly performed by Queen – just Mercury and May with Michael Kamen’s orchestra. Indeed, as May sings the first verse, one could be forgiven for thinking he was Morten Harket; but then Mercury comes in, with the lyric’s regretfully apocalyptic West Side Story rebuttal – and all of a sudden he, and Queen, are made to realise how things really are. This performance has long transcended its cinematic origins – wherever you go in the world, however long you live, you always end up dragging yourself along with you; and the angel-forsaking-immortality thing will be better dealt with the following year by Wim Wenders in Wings Of Desire – and is now impossible to listen to without foreknowledge of what was shortly to follow.

And so, in a year which seemed to be stalked by death and endings wherever one looked, here is…well, it is an ending of sorts, or the expression of fear of an ending. But if you examine the tenets of Zoroastrianism – and its belief in one universal, omnipotent god (Ahura Mazda) is fully in keeping with the beliefs expressed in “One Vision,” more so than anything to do with Dr King or Live Aid – then you will find that they state that earthy life is a temporary condition wherein the believer must deal with the struggle between truth and falsehood. This is not to say that when the believer dies, they will be reincarnated; rather, their soul is returned to the protection of their guardian spirit, or fravashi. Even then, in the spiritual world, the soul is expected to continue the battle between what is true and what is not. There is not the calm acceptance of mortality that one finds in Buddhism; the expectation here is that there is always more work to do, more battles to fight. You might “live forever,” even if you don’t particularly savour the prospect.

The feeling with A Kind Of Magic, however, is overwhelmingly one that Queen’s moment had passed, but that they were fated to be “Queen” for a long time still to come (this is far from being their final number one album). There is portentousness and sentimentality where once there was lightness and laughter, and perhaps in some respects there was good reason for this. But it was as if lightness and laughter just weren’t enough for audiences in or after the eighties; there has to be something more, even if everything that attracted us to the music in the first place is being systematically turned to vapour. “Take me to the future of your world,” asks Mercury in “Princes Of The Universe.” You know, I think he really believed that.

Next: yes or mmmm?