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.

The Consolidation of a World Power

I left my last post on the history of music at around 1969, which for many independent commentators marks the end of the era of the birth of rock music. The 60s had been a decade of a hundred stories running alongside one another in the music world, each with their own part to play in the vast tapestry of innovation. Jimi Hendrix had risen from an obscure career playing the blues circuit in New York to being an international star, and one moreover who revolutionised what the music world thought about what a guitar could and should do- even before he became an icon of the psychedelic hippie music world, his hard & heavy guitar leads, in stark contrast to the tones of early Beatles’ and 60s pop music had founded rock music’s harder edge. He in turn had borrowed from earlier pioneers, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Who (perhaps the first true rock band, given their wild onstage antics and heavy guitar & drumkit-based sound) and Bob Dylan (the godfather of folk rock and the blues-style guitar playing that rock turned into its harder sound), each of whom had their own special stories. However, there was a reason I focused on the story of the hippie movement in my last post- the story of a counter-culture precipitating a musical revolution was only in its first revolution, and would be repeated several times by the end of the century.

To some music nerds however, Henrix’s death aged just 27 (and after just four years of fame) in 1970 thanks to an accidental drug overdose marked the beginning of the end. The god of the guitar was dead, the beautiful voice of Janis Joplin was dead, Syd Barrett had broken up from Pink Floyd, another founding band of the psychedelic rock movement, and was being driven utterly insane by LSD (although he thankfully later managed to pull himself out of the self-destructive cycle and lived until 2006), and Floyd’s American counterparts The Velvet Underground broke up just four years later. Hell, even The Beatles went in 1970.

But that didn’t mean it was the end- far from it. Rock music might have lost some of its guiding lights, but it still carried on regardless- Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the four biggest British bands of the time, continued to play an active role in the worldwide music scene, Zeppelin and The Who creating a huge fan rivalry. David Bowie was also continuing to show the world the mental ideas hiding beneath his endlessly crisp accent, and the rock world continued to swing along.

However, it was also during this time that a key division began to make itself firmly felt. As rock developed its harder sound during the 1960s, other bands and artists had followed The Beatles’ early direction by playing softer, more lyrical and acoustic sounds, music that was designed to be easy on the ear and played to and for mass appeal. This quickly got itself labelled ‘pop music’ (short for popular), and just as quickly this became something of a term of abuse from serious rock aficionados. Since its conception, pop has always been more the commercial enterprise, motivated less by a sense of artistic expression and experimentation and more by the promise of fame and fortune, which many consider a rather shallow ambition. But, no matter what the age, pop music has always been there, and more often than not has been topping the charts- people often talk about some age in the long distant past as being the ‘best time for music’ before returning to lambast the kind of generic, commercial consumer-generated pop that no self-respecting musician could bring himself to genuinely enjoy and claiming that ‘most music today is rubbish’. They fail to remember, of course, just how much of the same kind of stuff was around in their chosen ‘golden age’, that the world in general has chosen to forget.

Nonetheless, this frustration with generic pop has frequently been a driving force for the generation of new forms of rock, in an attempt to ‘break the mould’. In the early seventies, for example, the rock world was described as tame or sterile, relatively acoustic acts beginning to claim rock status. The Rolling Stones and company weren’t new any more, there was a sense of lacking in innovation, and a sense of musical frustration began to build. This frustration was further fuelled by the ending of the 25-year old post war economic boom, and the result, musically speaking, was punk rock. In the UK, it was The Sex Pistols and The Clash, in the USA The Ramones and similar, most of whom were ‘garage bands’ with little skill (Johnny Rotten, lead singer of The Sex Pistols, has frequently admitted that he couldn’t sing in the slightest, and there was a running joke at the time on the theme of ‘Here’s three chords. Now go start a band’) but the requisite emotion, aggression and fresh thinking to make them a musical revolution. Also developed a few years earlier was heavy metal, perhaps the only rock genre to have never had a clearly defined ‘era’ despite having been there, hiding around the back and on the sidelines somewhere, for the past 40 or so years. Its development was partly fuelled by the same kind of musical frustration that sparked punk, but was also the result of a bizarre industrial accident. Working at a Birmingham metal factory in 1965 when aged 17, Black Sabbath guitarist (although they were then known as The Polka Tulk Blues Band) Tony Iommi lost the the ends of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. This was a devastating blow for a young guitarist, but Iommi compensated by easing the tension on his strings and developing two thimbles to cover his finger ends. By 1969, his string slackening had lead him to detune his guitar down a minor third from E to C#, and to include slapping the strings with his fingers as part of his performance. This detuning, matched by the band’s bassist Geezer Butler, was combined with the idea formulated whilst watching the queues for horror movie Black Sabbath that ‘if people are prepared to make money to be scared, then why don’t we write scary music?’, to create the incredibly heavy, aggressive, driving and slightly ‘out of tune’ (to conventional ears) sound of heavy metal, which was further popularised by the likes of Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Motley Crue (sorry, I can’t do the umlauts here).

Over the next few years, punk would slowly fall out of fashion, evolving into harder variations such as hardcore (which never penetrated the public consciousness but would make itself felt some years later- read on to find out how) and leaving other bands to develop it into post-punk; a pattern repeated with other genres down the decades. The 1980s was the first decade to see hip hop come to the fore,  partly in response to the newly-arrived MTV signalling the onward march of electronic, manufactured pop. Hip hop was specifically targeted at a more underground, urban circuit to these clean, commercial sounds, music based almost entirely around a beat rather than melody and allowing the songs to be messed around with, looped, scratched and repeated all for the sake of effect and atmosphere building. From hip hop was spawned rap, party, funk, disco, a new definition of the word DJ and, eventually, even dubstep. The decade also saw rock music really start to ‘get large’ with bands such as Queen and U2 filling football stadiums, paving the way for the sheer scale of modern rock acts and music festivals, and culminating, in 1985, with the huge global event that was Live Aid- not only was this a huge musical landmark, but it fundamentally changed what it meant to be a musical celebrity, and greatly influenced western attitudes to the third world.

By the late 80s and early 90s the business of counter-culture was at it again, this time with anger directed at a range of subjects from MTV tones, the boring, amelodic repetition of rap and the controversial policies of the Reagan administration that created a vast American ‘disaffected youth’ culture. This music partly formulated itself into the thoughtful lyrics and iconic sounds of bands such as REM, but in other areas found its expression and anger in the remnants of punk. Kurt Cobain in particular drew heavy inspiration from ‘hardcore’ bands (see, I said they’d show up again) such as Black Cloud, and the huge popularity of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ thrust grunge, along with many of the other genres blanketed under the title ‘alternative rock’ into the public consciousness (one of my earlier posts dealt with this, in some ways tragic, rise and fall in more detail). Once the grunge craze died down, it was once again left for other bands to formulate a new sound and scene out of the remnants of the genre, Foo Fighters being the most prominent post-grunge band around today. In the UK things went in a little different direction- this time resentment was more reserved to the staged nature of Top of the Pops and the like, The Smiths leading the way into what would soon become indie rock or Britpop. This wave of British bands, such as Oasis, Blur and Suede, pushed back the influx of grunge and developed a prominence for the genre that made the term ‘indie’ seem a bit ironic.

Nowadays, there are so many different great bands, genres and styles pushing at the forefront of the musical world that it is difficult to describe what is the defining genre of our current era. Music is a bigger business than it has ever been before, both in terms of commercial pop sound and the hard rock acts that dominate festivals such as Download and Reading, with every band there is and has ever been forming a part, be it a thread or a whole figure, of the vast musical tapestry that the last century has birthed. It is almost amusing to think that, whilst there is so much that people could and do complain about in our modern world, it’s very hard to take it out on a music world that is so vast and able to cater for every taste. It’s almost hard to see where the next counter-culture will come from, or how their musical preferences will drive the world forward once again. Ah well, we’ll just have to wait and see…