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.