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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Finding its feet

My last post on the recent history of western music took us up until the Jazz Age, which although it peaked in the 1920s, continued to occupy a position as the defining music genre of its age right up until the early 1950s. Today’s post takes up this tale for another decade and a half, beginning in 1951.

By this time, a few artists (Goree Carter and Jimmy Preston, for example) had experimented with mixing the various ‘black’ music genres (country and western, R&B and a little gospel being the main ones) to create a new, free rocking sound. However, by the 50s radio, which had been another major force for the spread of jazz, had risen to prominence enough to become a true feature of US life, so when Cleveland DJ Alan Freed first started playing R&B intentionally to a multiracial audience even his small listenership were able to make the event a significant one. Not only that, but the adolescents of the 50s were the first generation to have the free time and disposable income to control their own lives, making them a key consumer market and allowing them to latch onto and fund whatever was new and ‘cool’ to them. They were the first teenagers. These humble beginnings, spreading ‘black’ musical experiments to the masses, would later become the genre that Freed himself would coin a name for- rock and roll.

Rock and roll might have originally been named by Freed, and might have found its first star in Bill Haley (the guy wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in 1955), but it became the riotous, unstoppable musical express train that it was thanks to a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, who walked into Sun Records in 1953 to record a song for personal use. His name was Elvis Presley.

’53 might have been Presley’s first recording experience, but his was not a smooth road. In eighth grade music he is reported to have only got a C and be told that he couldn’t sing, a claim that was repeated when he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet in January 1954. However, in June of that year he recorded a 1946 blues hit ‘That’s All Right’, totally altering what had been a lovelorn lament of a song into a riotous celebration. He, Winfield Moore and Bill Black (the guitarist and bassist he was recording with) had created a new, exciting, free-flowing sound based around Presley’s unique singing style. Three days later, the song aired on local radio for the first time and calls flooded in demanding to know who the new singer was. Many were even more surprised when they found out that it was a straight laced white boy playing what was previously thought of as ‘black music’.

Completely unintentionally, Elvis had rewritten the rulebook about modern music- now you didn’t have to be black, you didn’t have to play the seedy venues, you didn’t have to play slow, old, or boring music, you didn’t have to be ‘good’ by classical standards, and, most important, your real skill was your showmanship. Whilst his two co-performers in the early days were both natural showmen, Presley was a nervous performer to start with and his legs would shake during instrumental sections- the sight of a handsome young man wiggling his legs in wide-cut trousers proving somewhat hysterical for female sections of the audience, and worked the crowd into a frenzy that no previous performer had managed.

Elvis’ later career speaks for itself, but he lost his focus on writing music in around 1960 as, along with the death of Buddy Holly, the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll ended. However, the 50s had thrown up another new innovation into the mix- the electric guitar. Presley and his competitors had used them in their later performances, since they were lighter and easier to manoeuvre on stage and produced a better, louder sound for recorded tracks, but they wouldn’t come to their own until ‘the golden age of rock’ hit in the mid 60s.

By then, rock n roll had softened and mellowed, descending into lighter tunes that were the ancestors of modern pop music (something I’m not sure we should be too thankful to Elvis for), and British acts had begun to be the trailblazers. British acts tended towards a harder sound, and Cliff Richard enjoyed a period of tremendous success in the USA, but even then the passage of rock had eased off slightly. It wasn’t new any more, and people were basically content to carry on listening- there wasn’t much consumer demand for a new sound. But then, the baby boomers hit. The post-war goodwill in the late 40s and early 1950s had resulted in a spike in the birth rate of the developed world, and by around 1963 that generation had began to grow up. A second wave of teenagers hit the world, all desperate to escape the dreary boredom of their parents’ existence and form their own culture, with their own clothing, film interests, and, most importantly, music. The stage was set for something new to revolutionise the world of music, and the product that did was made in Britain.

Numerous bands from all over the country made up the British rock scene of the early 1960s, but the most prolific area was Liverpool. There rock and roll once again underwent a fusion with subgenres such as doo wop, and (again) R&B, formulating itself into another new sound, this time centred around a driving, rhythmic beat based upon the electric guitar and drum kit. These beats formed a key part of the catchy, bouncy, memorable melodies that would become the staple of ‘beat’ music. This had taken over the British music scene by 1963, but by 1964 a British song had made number 1 in the US charts. It was called ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and was written by four Liverpudlians who called themselves The Beatles.

To this day, the Beatles are the most successful musicians ever (sorry fellow Queen fans- it’s true). Their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 set a new record for an American TV audience (over 70 million)- a show they only did because Sullivan’s plane had been forced to circle Heathrow Airport in the middle of the night so that this band he’d never heard of could land first and wade their way through their screaming fans. Sullivan decided then and there he wanted to interview them. Along with other British acts such as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, beat took the US by storm- but they were only the first. The Beatles’ first and greatest legacy was the structure of a rock band; all band members wrote their own songs based on the drums & electric guitar. All that was left was for acts like the Stones to cement singer/lead guitarist/bassist/drummer as the classic combination and the formula was written. The music world was about to explode; again

And this story looks like taking quite a few more posts to tell…