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.

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The Biggest Debate

OK, gotta brace myself for this one; it’s the gay marriage debate.

Even now, over a decade into the 21st century, it still isn’t too hard (if you’re looking in the right place) to find somebody to tell you that homosexuality is wrong/sinful/weird/unnatural/ARE YOU A FAG?!?!?!?! (apologies for using that word). Normally this blog does not go into my Views on any subject, but on this occasion I think I might relax these opinions to say that there is absolutely no justification for any of these opinions that is not a load of dingo’s kidneys. Yes, homosexuality isn’t exactly evolutionarily selected for and doesn’t produce babies; but given that it’s been observed in a range of animals from bats to swans, nature apparently doesn’t have too much of a problem with the idea, so anything along those lines is out of the window. Yes, homosexuality is kind of a weird concept for your average straight person and you might find the idea a bit ‘icky’, but unless someone of your own gender starts hitting on you then there’s no reason why this should affect you. And if anyone starts quoting the Bible at me, I’m going to start pointing out how Jesus was a socialist and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

Ahem. Sorry about that.

Anyway, the point I was getting at is that any debate concerning homosexuality is generally confined to this group of people shouting very loudly at the gay community and the rest of the civilised world. And, in recent history, said civilised world has been doing a lot of the winning; the gay community is a well-recognised part of our society and now the sight of two dudes making out, whilst uncommon, isn’t exactly something to write home about. History will probably record the recent gay marriage debate in countries across the world as just another stepping stone along the road to sexual equality, but from my point of view one interesting thing struck me about the debate, or more specifically the debaters. Those opposing the idea of gay marriage frequently were, or at least came across as, people who didn’t have a problem with gay relationships or civil partnerships but who were specifically opposed to gay marriage as a thing, which I found quite interesting. I’ve actually been putting off writing this post for a while because, well… controversy is not my strong suit, but I haven’t really been able to get the thought out of my head so I guess you’re stuck with it now.

To me, this aspect of the gay marriage debate really centred on what definition of marriage the person in question was using. To those who think that marriage is simply a strong, legally binding before-God-under-oath etc. expression of binding love between two people who want to spend their lives together, then sexual orientation doesn’t really come into the picture; love is universal regardless of orientation, so according to this definition so too should marriage be. However, those opposed to gay marriage had some other idea of what marriage was meant to be, something that, by its very nature, made it something that could, almost by definition, only be between a man and a woman, and that civil partnerships exist for gay couples separately for a reason (incidentally, I personally think that the main bone of contention with the idea of a civil partnership among the gay community concerns the lack of cultural identity it carries, making it seem like a label more than a true, fundamental expression of love). Not being in this camp myself (and not having much first-hand experience of marriage), I thought I might investigate exactly what this definition of marriage might be, in order to get to the heart of the disagreement.

Since the only difference between a same-sex and straight relationship is, fundamentally, the bits of genitalia involved, it seems natural to begin from a standpoint of biology. Maybe the definition of marriage we’re looking for concerns itself with a bond consummated through y’standard heterosexual mating procedure? My mind is instantly drawn to the image of marriage proposed in ‘Game of Thrones’ (books, I haven’t seen the TV series’), in which the bride is publically stripped and ‘bedded’ on her wedding night in an elaborate piece of tradition that is mostly (the final act excepted) performed in front of a large, drunken feast. In any case, this definition falls at the first hurdle; heterosexual sex is, if we’re talking about the pure emotional link of mutual enjoyment, satisfaction and emotional bonding, no different from homosexual sex (or else… well why would they do it?), so on its own this doesn’t seem enough.

The end result of heterosexual sex, however, may point us in a better direction. Unlike homosexual relationships, heterosexual ones are biologically capable of producing babies (I will ignore for now the idea of sperm banks and such, which are a whole different business) and expanding the population, so maybe the basis for our alternative definition of marriage is a union through which to produce children, or something along those lines? This has some grounding in theology too; Adam and Eve were, according to the Bible, the first married couple (I think, anyway; I’m not too hot on my Bible study), and since God wrote the laws of  biology it makes sense that he’d start off with a pair capable of continuing the lineage of the creatures made in his image. Or at least, after he made Eve, he sensed the potential the idea could have. It is presumably for this reason that the Bible incorporates specific instruction for Adam & Eve, and the book’s subsequent readers, to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28), and why the Church has such strong views on the concept of sex outside marriage. But anyway; really, the validity of this argument, of the idea of marriage as a vehicle to producing children, is a personal rather than religious one, although you do have to wonder what such people think of people who have sex and children out of wedlock. Or maybe such people don’t exist. I dunno, I’m speculating here.

And whilst we’re on the subject, let’s talk about religion, a favourite point of reasoning from internet comments sections (yes, occasionally I make the cardinal sin of reading those things). There is an argument that runs roughly along the lines of ‘religion hates homosexuality, marriage is a religious ceremony, therefore the two are incompatible and a homosexual marriage is a ridiculous idea’. Proponents of this argument are less opposed to the introduction of a gay marriage bill than they are just thinking it’s kinda weird, and are the source of a hilarious turn of phrase that has cropped up all over the web ‘giving gay people the right to marry is like giving men the right to an abortion’. The second tenet of this argument is, however, rather a large assumption and the matter of considerable debate for, in modern society, marriage is technically a legal process. This is a concession made to respect those of other faiths (and quite right too), but is responsible for why a wedding can take place in a registry office just as easily as the church. It is also true that marriage was initially nothing to do with religion at all, but a matter of business; one family trading a woman to another in exchange for cash, and that religion rather inherited the concept as the idea of love in marriage became steadily more important over the centuries… but how you interpret this one is really down to personal debate. I happen to know for certain that this group exists, because I’ve seen plenty of arguments with them.

However, I personally think that the most likely reason a person would be against the idea of homosexual marriage but not homosexuality itself concerns the idea of ownership. The very idea of ownership is a quite strange and interesting one, but the thrust of the issue in this context is that human beings frequently feel a strange sense of belonging and ownership of a lot of things, be they objects, people or even ideas. A good example is patriotism/nationalism, where the idea of ‘belonging’ to a particular patch of land with a certain type of people can get so strong that they want to stop other people coming to their patch of land and ‘stealing’ their identity. And I think the same thing applies to marriage; married people have a sense of ownership over the idea, that it is fundamentally theirs and they don’t want to share it with other people. It sounds both a childish and bigoted point of view and, to an extent, it is; but hey, humans are irrational creatures in the end. I can only hope that holders of this view don’t feel quite so angry with it a few years down the line.