Rock Royalty

Queen are frequently (and quite rightly) regarded as being among the greatest bands in musical history, responsible for what are frequently considered the best single and live performance (Bohemian Rhapsody and their Live Aid set respectively) of all time and the biggest-selling album (Greatest Hits) in history. In my household growing up, they were required listening, to the extent that a family holiday to Zanzibar (Freddie Mercury’s birthplace) was half-jokingly dubbed a ‘pilgrimage’. Not only are they popular, but they are highly respected musically; having overseen every musical revolution from punk to grunge, they were able to draw inspiration from music of all genres and adapt it to their own particular, bombastic style, and you’d be hard pressed to find even the most embittered of metal fans who didn’t rate their music.

Some weeks ago, I started to consider this fact, marvelling at the way they had managed to achieve both respect and popularity within the music world. That combination is a very rare one; many bands are respected musically and many others have enjoyed major mainstream success, but few are loved by both the ‘lay’ public and the ‘serious’ music world to such a massive extent. Hell, even The Beatles, the most successful band of all time, have more detractors (me included). So, I began to deconstruct the music of Queen, identifying common threads, themes and suchlike that might explain their appeal.

Certainly large swathes of Queen’s mass-market appeal come from their heavy pop influence, or at least the numerous pop music features that find their way into Queen music. Unlike the guitar-heavy sounds of Jimi Hendrix (so beloved by music nerds everywhere and yet never the recipient of mainstream success) and other ‘hard sounds, Queen always based their songs around vocals, with instruments frequently taking a back seat. For example, whilst Brian May guitar solos are many and varied, they are never a focal point of the song or particularly long. This vocal focus, allowing people to sing along to the melody, is a common feature of pop, made Queen’s music distinctly radio-friendly (helping from a publicity end of things) and has surely contributed to the enduring popularity of so many Queen songs- I mean, who doesn’t know the words to ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’? On the subject of vocals, Queen take another leaf out of pop’s book with regards to themes. Freddie Mercury reportedly took quite a bit of persuading to perform at Live Aid due to his reluctance to mix music and politics, and it shows in his choice of lyrics; Queen wrote possibly the least controversial music in the rock world (‘I Want To Break Free’ excepted, and that was only controversial in America by accident), despite having a gay, wildly flamboyant partygoer as a frontman. This helped them to avoid courting controversy and giving them a clean, suburbia-friendly image that kept them very much in the mainstream. The pop influences don’t stop there; whilst the hated autotune wasn’t invented in their day, they heavily experimented with the rough 70s/80s equivalents, messing around with their vocal tracks to create echo effects and endless voice looping and adding in more than a few sounds with an electronic origin. Since these couldn’t be performed live on stage, the band were not averse to using them as pre-recorded backing music in places (another hated feature of modern pop), although they did perform all the stuff that they could live.

However, Queen are quite clearly not just a pop group; indeed, much of their success could probably be put down to the way they have straddled the pop/rock boundary. They fit right into the classic rock group formula of singer/guitarist/bassist/drummer, and also adopt the tried and tested verse/chorus/solo formula that has been a rock mainstay pretty much since its inceptions. Despite a musical style that is frequently softer in nature than much of the rock world, they have their share of heavier songs with a stronger guitar lead that allow fans a chance to rock out properly; for every ‘You And I’ there’s a ‘I Want It All’, a second half of ‘Save Me’ for every opening to ‘We Are The Champions’ (and vice-versa). Crucially, it is this harder sound that tended to prevail at live shows, not only making the experience for fans more fast-paced and exciting but also increasing their reputation in ‘serious’ circles. This mixture of hard and soft sounds is really just another part of a musical style that constantly evolved and sampled from pretty much every genre imaginable, and a comparison of any two Queen songs selected at random will frequently yield wonder that they were even composed by the same band. This varied selection means Queen have something for everyone, increasing their popularity from all sides, and means their sound never grew stale throughout their long history.

Not only are their songs varied, they are also supremely well-written. All members of the band were intelligent, aware musicians and highly gifted songwriters- Queen wrote all their music themselves, a feature that endears them to all parties, and all members individually contributed significant numbers of pieces to the band’s repertoire. But merely being good musicians or songwriters is not enough for a lot of bands to achieve success (The Velvet Underground spring to mind by reputation alone, even if I’ve never listened to their music), even though it does contribute significantly to the longevity of their music, and it isn’t really at the core of what makes Queen such a special band. To me, their own ‘X Factor’ is simply the sheer force of personality exuded by the band- and by band, I mostly mean Freddie Mercury.

John Deacon, Roger Taylor and Brian May are all extremely good musicians, as well as very skilful songwriters- but with all due respect to them, Freddie Mercury managed to overshadow the lot of them by being possibly the most charismatic, energetic and show-stealing frontman of all time. Blessed with a unique voice in its range, style and sheer power, he had an amazing ability to carry a song and hold an audience transfixed just by the energy and charisma he was able to imbue onto any show or live record. Lead by Mercury, Queen were able to put on a show, full of drama and fun and excitement, like no other band before or since, playing loud, proud and bombastic with such confidence in themselves and their music that one cannot fail to be carried along for the ride. There’s a reason why they are usually considered the highlight of Live Aid- if ever there was a band and a person destined to play for the entire world, it was Queen and Freddie Mercury. In ‘We Will Rock You’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘We Are The Champions’, Queen created music with the specific intention of being sung along to by a crowd; crowds had of course sung along before, but this was the first time they had been specifically invited to do so, to make themselves part of the experience, and that speaks volumes about the band. For Queen were never really a band- they and their music were and are an experience, and one that few will ever be able to replicate.

Wub Wub

My brother has some dubstep on his iPod. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why; he frequently says that the genre can be described less as music and more as ‘sounds’, and would be the first to claim that it’s far from a paradigm of deeply emotional musical expression. Indeed, to some, dubstep is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with 21st century music; loud, brash and completely devoid of meaning.

I, personally, find dubstep more interesting than anything else. I don’t listen to much of it myself (my musical tastes tend to be more… lyrical), but find it inherently fascinating, purely because of the reaction people have with it. It’s a Marmite thing; people either love it or hate it, and some people seem physically incapable of contemplating why others enjoy it. Or, indeed, why it’s considered music.

So, let’s take my favourite approach to the matter: an analytical perspective. The songs that people remember, that are catchy, that stick in the mind, that become old favourite and/or the ones that the pop music industry attempts to manufacture in bulk, tend to have simple, regular and easily recognisable beats that one can tap or bounce along to easily. Their pace and rhythm too tend to be fairly standard, often being based approximately around the 70bpm rhythm of the human heart (or some multiple thereof). Overlaying these simple rhythms, usually based around a drumbeat (strength depending on genre), we tend to factor in simple melodies with plenty of repeating patterns; think of how the pattern of a verse or chorus will usually be repeated multiple times throughout a song, and how even the different lines of a verse will often follow the same lines of a verse. And then there are lyrics; whilst many genres, particularly jazz, may have entire libraries of purely instrumental pieces, few of these (film soundtracks excepted) have ever gained mainstream cultural impact. Lyrics are important; they allow us to sing along, which makes it stick in our head more effectively, and they can allow a song to carry meaning too. Think of just about any famous, popular song (Bohemian Rhapsody excepted; NOBODY can explain why that is both so popular and so awesome), and chances are it’ll have several of the above features. Even rap, where music is stripped down to its barest bones, bases itself around a strong, simple rhythm and a voice-dictated melody (come to think of it, rap is basically poetry for the modern age… I should do a post on that some time).

Now, let’s compare that analysis with probably the most famous piece of dubstep around: Skrillex’s ‘Bangarang’. Bring it up on YouTube if you want to follow along. Upon listening the song, the beat is the first thing that becomes apparent; timing it I get a pace of 90bpm, the same rate as a fast walking pace or a fast, excited heartbeat; a mood that fits perfectly with the intentions of the music. It’s meant to excite, to get the blood pumping, to infuse the body with the beat, and to inspire excitement and a party atmosphere. The music is structured around this beat, but there is also an underlying ‘thump’ similar to the bass drum of a drumkit, just to enforce the point. Then we come onto the melody; after an intro that reminds me vaguely of something the Jackson 5 may once have done (just from something I heard on the radio once), we begin to layer over this underlying sound. This is a common trick employed across all genres; start with something simple and build on top of it, building in terms of scale and noise. The music industry has known for a long time that loudness is compelling, hooks us in and sells records, hence why there has been a trend over the last few decades for steadily increasing loudness in popular music… but that’s for another time. Building loudness encourages us to stick with a song, getting us drawn into it. The first added layer is a voice, not only giving us something to (after a fashion, since the words are rather unclear and almost meaningless) sing along to and recognise, adding another hook for us, but this also offers an early example of a repeated lyrical pattern- we have one two-line couplet repeated four times, with more layers of repeated bassline patterns being successively added throughout, and the two lines of said couplet only differ in the way they end. Again, this makes it easy and compelling to follow. The words are hard to make out, but that doesn’t matter; one is supposed to just feel the gist, get into the rhythm of it. The words are just another layer. This portion of the song takes on a ‘verse’ role for the rest of it, as it repeated several more times.

And then, we hit the meat and drink of the song; with the word ‘Bangarang’, everything shifts into a loud mesh of electronic sounds passed several times through an angle grinder. However, the beat (although pausing for emphasis at the moment of transition’) remains the same, carrying over some consistency, and we once again find ourselves found by repeated patterns, both in the backing sounds and in the lyrics that are still (sort of ) present. It’s also worth noting that the melody of the electronica pulses in time to the beat, enabling a listener/partygoer to rock to both beat and melody simultaneously, getting the whole body into it. This is our ‘chorus’- we again have repeating stanzas for a while, but we return to our verse (building once again) after a while so we don’t get bored of the repetition. Then chorus again, and then a shift in tone; another common trick employed across all genres to hold our interest. We have a slight key change up, and our melody is taken over by a new, unidentified instrument/noise. We still have our original sound playing in the background to ensure the shift is not too weirdly abrupt, but this melody, again utilising short, repeated units, is what takes centre stage. We then have another shift, to a quiet patch, still keeping the background. Here the muted sounds offer us time for reflection and preparation; the ‘loud soft loud’ pattern was one used extensively by Nirvana, The Pixies and other grunge bands during the 1990s, and continues to find a place in popular music to this day. We have flashes of loudness, just to whet our appetites for the return to chaos that is to come, and then we start to build again (another repeating pattern you see, this time built in to the structure of the song). The loudness returns and then, just because this kind of thing doesn’t have a particularly natural end, we leave on some more unintelligible, distorted lyrics; because finishing on a lone voice isn’t just for ‘proper’ bands like, just off the top of my head, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Notice how absolutely every one of those features I identified can be linked to other musical genres, the kind of thing present, admittedly in different formats, across the full spectrum of the musical world. The only difference with dubstep is that, unlike using voices & guitars like more traditional genres, dubstep favours entirely electronic sounds made on the computer; in that respect, combined with its way of being unabashedly loud and partying, it is the perfect musical representation of the 21st century thus far. In fact, the only thing on my original list that it lacks is a strong lyrical focus; in that respect, I feel that it is missing a trick, and that it could use a few more intelligible words to carry some meaning and become more recognised as A Thing. Actually, after listening to that song a few times, it reminds me vaguely of The Prodigy (apologies to any fans who are offended by this; I don’t listen to them much), but maybe that’s just me. Does all this mean dubstep is necessarily ‘good’ as a musical type? Of course not; taste is purely subjective. But to say that dubstep is merely noise, and that there is no reason anyone would listen to it, misses the point; it pulls the same tricks as every other genre, and they all have fans. No reason to begrudge them a few of those.