Friday, December 28, 2018

All Hail Queen Part II

My top favorite Queen songs, #5 to 1. 

5.  Innuendo

Innuendo is another example of the musical glory that is Queen. It’s a song I can listen to over and over (and have). It's a dark song with grand themes at a personal level. The song, the title track from the band's 1991 album, was written by Taylor and Mercury, inspired by Led Zepplin's Kashmir which shows through in the majority of the song. The rhythm is relentless, the song starting with a drum roll that leads into a suspenseful sting making you wonder where it's headed. The opening lyrics speak of the sun, desert sand, crashing waves, and mountains crumbling into the plain. Through it all, "We'll keep on trying/tread the fine line." Later the song speaks of "Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion/through the eons, and on and on." 

The middle part is pure Mercury, shifting gears and tempo to a more positive song. There's a flamenco guitar solo repeated later using electric guitars, the solos book ending a bridge filled with elaborate orchestration. In it, Mercury insists that, "You can be anything you want to be, just turn yourself into anything you think you could ever be." All it takes is for you to "Surrender your ego."

History sometimes leads us to read meaning into lyrics that perhaps weren't there when the song was written. The album was recorded from March 1989 to November 1990. Toward the end of that run, Mercury was most definitely dealing with his mortality. A man who had so often been able to be anything he wanted to be, was slowly losing that magic. The lyrics are almost taunting in that regard. This could be why the bridge ends with the urging, "Surrender your ego. Be free, be free, to yourself." Accept what can't be changed.

Then the song dives right back into the relentless bolero, slapping us back to reality as Mercury demands,

"If there’s a god or any kind of justice under the sky/If there’s a point, if there’s a reason to live or die/ If there’s an answer to the questions we feel bound to ask/Show yourself, destroy our fears, release your mask." The very thing a dying man might demand. Whether or not this played a part in the creation of the song, as with The Show Must Go On, it lends to the lyrics and Mercury's performance a whole other dimension. Hope then acceptance. There are things we cannot change, but we also can't help but try. Just as the sun hangs in the sky, this is in our nature.

4. Spread Your Wings

The first Queen album I bought was "News of the World" which features two of their most iconic songs We  Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. Both brilliant anthems. But it also features one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard in Spread Your Wings. Written by bassist John Deacon, it's a story song about a young man named Sammy being encouraged to leave his job mopping up the Emerald Bar to pursue his dreams. Fear, complacency, whatever makes it difficult for him to spread his wings and fly away. It starts out gently with Mercury's piano, as we're pulled into the song and Sammy's dilemma. Eventually it builds to a rocking crescendo as the narrator pleads with the young to take the risk while his boss insists he should be happy sweeping up the Emerald Bar. It was a song I listened to over and over (along with All Dead, All Dead and My Melancholy Blues). Maybe it resonated with me because even at 13 years old I related to Sammy's plight. I knew I should spread my wings but was too afraid to try.

3. Bohemian Rhapsody

Considered by many to be Queen’s magnum opus, even today it remains an audacious song: A song longer than three minutes at the time was not a favorite among radio execs. Were it not for their success, it’s unlikely that the Beatles could have persuaded radio to play Hey Jude at 7:11 in length (some stations did actually edit it for length). On top of its length of 5:55, Bohemian Rhapsody boasted a mix of ballad, and straight up hard rock along with…an operatic section of all things. And the song is about some guy named Scaramouch who everyone wants to do the Fandango, not to mention the whole cry out for Galileo. What’s that all about?

And yet they pulled it off. In a big way. Recorded in 1975, the production challenged studio equipment of the day and took three weeks to record. The lyrics can be taken either metaphorically (alluding to situations going on in Mercury’s life) or literally, a story song in three parts, as a libertine anti-hero regrets the choices he made and begs for his life and his soul.

Perhaps the true genius of Bohemian Rhapsody is that despite its musical intricacy, despite its obscure references and unclear narrative, everyone feels comfortable enough with the song to have a go at it. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the scene in the 1992 movie "Wayne’s World" where Wayne, Garth and their two friends are driving around in a car and the song comes on. According to Mike Myers who played Wayne, this was based on experiences with his brothers and friends. When the song came on, everyone had a “Galileo” to sing and there was trouble if someone stepped on another’s “Galileo.” Apparently producer Lorne Michaels originally wanted a Guns N' Roses song, but Meyers, for whom the song was a masterpiece, stuck to his guns and the song stayed. To much better effect. The joy of that scene in the movie is that everyone has done the same thing. We all had a whack at it while driving around alone or with friends. In fact the movie helped the song become popular again nearly twenty years after its release.

Released in October, 1975 it was a daring work on many fronts that paid off. Decades later the song is still being praised for its legacy. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004 and was appears in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It even made history recently when it hit Billboard's Hot 100 a third time after the release of the 2018 movie of the same name (the first time of course was when it was released and the second was after the release "Wayne's World" which helped it reach #2 on the chart). Reaching #9, it seems the movie Bohemian Rhapsody has given the song another opportunity to be heard by a new generation.

2. Killer Queen

I was ten years old when Killer Queen sauntered onto American radio, encouraged on by a few crisp finger snaps and driven forward by the bass. This song was my introduction to Queen. I had no idea what a “Moet et Chandon” was or a “Geisha Minah” or for that matter a good portion of the lyrics Freddie Mercury was singing. I didn’t care. The song was so crisp and clean and perfectly produced that I had to hang on for the ride and was grateful I did. Starting out with a piano, other instruments entered the song like special guests at a cocktail party which is kind of how this whole song felt: Like you were listening to a conversation at a high class cocktail party about one of those women who are too cool to settle down. Holly Golightly still going strong in the '70s. It was sophisticated and scandalous but by the middle of the song was able to get a bit raunchy too. Okay, at ten years old I had no clue who Holly Golightly was and perhaps the subtext wasn’t that clear, but I knew there was something going on in that song (Mercury would later say that the song was about "a high class call girl" but also that "...classy people can be whores as well"). And it had a guitar lick that hooked you and would not let go. Musically you wanted to hear what they’d throw in next.

The single was released in October, 1974 it was featured on their album “Sheer Heart Attack” and became their first international hit.

While in some respects it's a lower-key song than others that would follow, it established Queen as a musical force to be reckoned with thanks in part to the quality of the craftsmanship. It was a perfect example of the elegance that the group brought to rock music and helped pave the way for a song like Bohemian Rhapsody to be accepted by the audience. Over forty years later, it still sounds fresh, sophisticated and slightly scandalous.

1. The Show Must Go On

While some would put Bohemian Rhapsody or even Killer Queen in the top spot, for me The Show Must Go On tops them both. Not only for the music and production values but for the poignancy of the song. A man, a showman, very near death, insisting none the less that the show must go on. What must it have been like for Mercury, the reality of his own mortality looming over him, to sing those words (or for  that matter the band to watch him sing them)? And yet he does so, giving every piece of himself to the performance. There’s an audacity there that only Freddie Mercury could pull off. The song, released as a single on Oct. 14, 1991, is very much about the state of Freddie Mercury's health at the time of recording. Written primarily by May with some input from Mercury, the lyrics are those of a man refusing to give up the ghost but realizing it’s a losing battle. Mercury did not want pity, which was one reason he kept his diagnosis of HIV/AIDS a secret and tried his best to carry on with the show, wearing more and more makeup to cover the ravages of the illness he would succumb to only a month after the song’s release. The lyric, “Inside my heart is breaking/my makeup may be flaking/but my smile still stays on” becomes even more striking for that fact.

Brian May was uncertain whether or not Mercury had the strength to sing what is a vocally strenuous song to perform even for Mercury in perfect health. According to May in a later interview, however, “He said, ‘I’ll fucking do it darling’—vodka down—and went in and killed, completely lacerated that vocal.” The consummate showman, Mercury knew the importance of that song to his legacy and was not about to miss out on that last bravura performance.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was for May to broach that topic of failing voice with Mercury as well as for the whole band to hear the final playback of that song, his voice so strong and determined, knowing the struggle Mercury was facing would soon be over. In many ways the song must have been cathartic as they said in music what they couldn’t say with words.

The video released for The Show Must Go On features only a few glimpses of Mercury in his declining year, concentrating instead on clips from his career up to that point. The editing is brilliant, the clips a perfect accompaniment to the song. In many respects this makes it even more heartbreaking to see the scenes of past glory accompanied by that song. I seem to remember seeing this video after hearing news of Mercury’s death on Nov. 24, 1991, and it brought me to tears to watch. Still chokes me up a bit.

When well done, music can cause a gut reaction. The beauty of Queen is that all their songs have that epic quality to them. Listening to the Show Must Go On brings on a euphoria over the entire band’s performance, and a sadness that, despite the insistence that the show must go on, it simply can’t.

Honorable Mention: All Dead, All Dead

This is an honorable mention. A song I was recently reminded of when I came across the video Queen put up for it on YouTube several months ago.

This is the another song on News of the World that I couldn't get enough of. It's a hauntingly beautiful song about a childhood friend that had passed away. I only recently discovered that Brian May wrote the song about the death of his childhood cat. As a cat lover myself who had her own childhood friend (a sweet orange tabby named Starsky), this made the song even more poignant for me. The lyrics are sheer poetry and May's voice, combined with Mercury's delicate piano playing reveals the sense of loss and grief that even the loss of a pet can produce. There is a version of the song with Freddie Mercury singing, but I think May's voice is better suited to the gentle tone of the song. Someone described it as a warmer sound.

So there you have my top ten Queen songs. Feel free to let me know what yours are. 

Dedicated to Starsky, my childhood friend.

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