Get drunk and sing along to Queen
R.E.M., “The Wake-Up Bomb”
Earls Court, 1977
Freddie Mercury, on stage in London, wielding his microphone half-stand like a bishop’s crosier, asks his audience what type of song the band should play next.
Something a bit softer, something quiet or something heavier?…Listen to me, luvvies: listen! He’s in a harlequin outfit that’s open at the chest and so tight that it’s apparent on which side he dresses. Should I just tell you what’s it’s called? he says, airily dispensing with the fiction of taking a request. It’s called: Death! On Two Leg-ZUH!
He hunches over his piano like a garment maker at work; he’s playing silent-movie-suspense arpeggios. During Mercury’s piano stints, the crowd tenses, waiting for the moment when he’ll jolt up! (it happens quickly, here; sometimes it never happens) and move downstage, leaving the piano behind as if it was a rocket booster.
“Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…)” opens Queen’s 1975 album A Night at the Opera. It’s a piss-off/kiss-off to their former managers, Trident Productions, and, in particular, to Trident co-owners Norman and Barry Sheffield. It’s about a nasty old man I used to know, Mercury says at Earls Court. (Norman Sheffield would sue for defamation and later wrote a book called Life on Two Legs.)
In 1975, Queen had toured Japan and were treated like the Beatles, “Killer Queen” was a UK #2, and they were on Top of the Pops but they were still living in squalid apartments and being turned down for cash advances. By the standards of “rock stars ripped off by managers,” the situation wasn’t that egregious. Queen wasn’t getting advances because they owed Trident tens of thousands of pounds after making lavishly-produced albums that hadn’t, until 1975, sold well. They’d soon get out of the Trident contract and have enough money to buy country houses a year or so later.
The offender’s identity, the nature of their offense, means little to “Death on Two Legs” (which, as its parenthetical suggests, is dedicated to anyone you hate). All that was required was an opening, a chance for Mercury to write a revenge song. It’s invective worthy of a pharaoh. He likens his targets to sharks and shabby barrow peddlers, to leeches and rabid dogs, to sewer rats and old mules. You should be made unemployed, he spits. Or better, ever thought of killing yourself? (“I think you should!”) It’s apparent who death on two legs truly is. In this pantheon of gods, Mercury is the Bringer of War.
“I had a tough time trying to get the lyrics across…I wanted to make them as coarse as possible,” Mercury said in 1976. “My throat was bleeding, the whole bit. I was changing lyrics every day trying to get it as vicious as possible…I was completely engrossed in it, swimming in it. Wow! I was a demon for a few days…Initially it was going to have the intro and then everything stop and the words—YOU, SUCK, MY—but that was going too far.”
“Death on Two Legs” has a three-part introduction (a typically Queen thing of the period—a song starts with a mini-song): a) faded-in frantic piano that’s muted when b) Brian May picks between two notes, ominously—it’s his Jaws theme—with overdubbed seagull cries, a maelstrom that’s ended by a hard cut to c) what we soon discover is the chorus riff, played on piano, soon answered by a May guitar figure high on his frets, which he develops into a brief solo. “Death” has been slowing in tempo since it began, a sense of temporal distortion that’s furthered in the verse, with its half-time shifts (“all…my…money,” “fooo-oo-ools of the first division”). Mercury is so consumed by spite that he’s warping the world around him.
In the chorus, everything tightens up, Mercury homing in on his prey, making long swoops down a fifth (“a-paahhhhrt,” “a haaahhhrrrrt“) and joined, at the kill, by what sounds like a chorus of robed justices from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, singing in colossal four-part harmony: KILL JOY! BAD GUY! BIG TALKIN’! SMALL FRY! This great tower block of vocals is the purest sound of Queen, their God voice, three men singing the same note together, tracking over that in harmony, then tracking over that, and so making layer after layer of themselves. The most M.C. Escher of bands.
On stage at Earls Court, Roger Taylor, in his small fortress of toms and cymbals and gong, is the back center; John Deacon stands on the riser a step beneath the drums, poised like a goalie. Mercury prowls around the lip of the stage while May shuttles back and forth, depending on where he is in the song, as if being summoned by a bell.
Stage Queen was a band apart from Album Queen, they always said. The former was a regional touring company for the latter. “Death” on record is cram-packed with little details—Mercury’s hissed “shark!,” a guitar kiss. Bringing “Death” to an audience as a mere quartet, Queen has to chip down the song, make it light enough to travel. At Earls Court, “Death on Two Legs” is acted out as a royal triumph. They are the champions: here’s one of their conquests.
Bohemian Rhapsody, 2019
The Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody took a decade to make. It went through a string of prospective directors (of the two who shot the picture, the first was fired during filming) and actors, with enough script revisions to fill a small manor.
The released film was, charitably, something of a mess. Scenes feel spliced together from a tangle of reshoots, some look done via CGI. It has the vigor of a made-for-television movie from 1994. I recall one about Madonna from around then—it opens with Madonna sitting in an awards show dressing room, sadly regarding herself in the mirror, and a janitor walking by says something like, That’s how it is, Madonna: when you reach the top, you’re always alone. The spirit of this janitor haunts this film.
As per Sacha Baron Cohen, originally cast to play Mercury, an earlier script had dispatched Freddie with a good chunk of the film left to go—this draft concluded by noting, apparently in great detail, that Queen continues. If at least allowed to be the main character of Bohemian Rhapsody, Mercury is also shown as silly, decadent, estranged from his true friends in the band, who are put-upon types who shake their heads at poor Freddie’s lifestyle, ruled by a cabal of Manipulative Gays. He’s finally allowed a measure of happiness as a (discreetly) gay monogamist and then dies. This is tragic but equally so, the film implies, is the fact that this could have meant the end of the band.
Bohemian Rhapsody grossed over $900 million, as of last April (it’s likely hit over $1 billion by now), and won four Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Editor (!). It’s a very Queen ending. Something tied to them appears ill-advised, tacky, bound for failure. Then it makes a billion dollars. Nothing really matters.
The strangest of the platinum rock bands, Queen lived in the space between their contradictions: a self-conscious yet oblivious group; exquisite craftsmen who were wildly tasteless; science fiction/fantasy aficionados who made records loved by jocks. They released an album called Jazz that not only had no jazz on it, but was a pole apart from jazz—it was jazz antimatter, Zzaj. They were the straightest of bands, defined by a man whose magnificently queer persona shone through them.
And only the Beatles stand above them today, in terms of “classic rock” bands still enjoyed by the young. Of Spotify’s 100 most-streamed songs, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is currently ranked 35th, with over 1.1 billion streams. It’s the only song on the list from the 20th Century. Hell, it’s the only song on the list released before 2011.
Or see Billboard‘s Top 10 Rock Songs of the 2010s, dominated by Imagine Dragons, Panic! at the Disco and Twenty-One Pilots. These bands owe nothing to the Rolling Stones, the Clash, Nirvana; they are the children of Queen. (See My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way: “I think Queen is the greatest rock band of all time”; see Lady Gaga, stage name taken from a Queen song.) Mainstream rock today lives in the cathedral that Queen built decades ago. Adam Lambert fits perfectly with Queen, as they are his contemporaries.
The Good Product
“If there was ever an equally divided quartet, this is it. We need that kind of blend where each one’s got to contribute just about evenly. Just because I’m out front doesn’t necessarily mean I’m any kind of leader. We all have strong characters and we row constantly. It’s healthy, because then you get the cream, the good product.”
Freddie Mercury, to Phonograph Record, 1976
Freddie Bulsara, London, 1969 (Mark and Colleen Hayward)
I’ve created a monster. The monster is me. I can’t blame anyone for this. It’s what I’ve worked for since I was a child. I would have killed for this. Whatever happens to me is all my fault. It’s what I wanted.
Freddie Mercury, ca. mid-Eighties, to Lesley-Ann Jones.
Courtney Love is reading from Kurt Cobain’s suicide note at a vigil in Seattle, April 1994. “‘When the manic roar of the crowd begins, it doesn’t affect me in the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury,'” holding in a tear-soaked laugh on the last words. “‘Who seemed to love and relish in the love and adoration of the crowd…'” She breaks off. “Well, Kurt, so fucking what? Then don’t be a rock star, you asshole.”
Freddie Mercury was a designer brand of rock stardom: a striking-looking man in a skin-tight t-shirt and jeans or tights, his face that of a sea pirate from a Douglas Fairbanks picture, leading football stadiums of people in cod-operatic chants, singing “We Are the Champions” as if he’d won the Superbowl earlier that day.
In interviews, he spoke of himself as a character, calling “Freddie” a stage-summoned demon, one who could never be second-best. He likened his stage hours to having out-of-body experiences: “It’s like I’m looking down on myself and thinking, ‘fuck me, that’s hot.’ Then I realize it’s me.”
He had no back story. He was Freddie Mercury, he sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Flash.” Maybe you recalled he used to be clean-shaven. That was it. No Liverpool docks to Hollywood Bowl struggle to stardom, no Graceland, no going-electric-at-Newport, no legends about him (but some rumors). Who knew he was born in Zanzibar? That his real name was Bulsara? These facts weren’t hidden—they were disclosed nearly from the start in Queen profiles—but they weren’t necessary. Freddie Mercury was born anew each night, sparked into life by his crowds. Otherwise he was kept in a luxury box: caviar, cigarettes, Moët et Chandon in a pretty cabinet, some cats.
Fred on Fred, 1979 (Peter Hince)
Farrokh Bulsara was born in Zanzibar, in 1946, to Zoroastrian Parsi immigrants from India. He couldn’t get out of his original life quickly enough (“you won’t get much from Zanzibar,” he told Circus in 1974).
At nine, he was shipped off to St. Peter’s Boys School in Panchgani, a small hill town in Maharashtra, India (“I was a precocious child and my parents thought boarding school would do me good,” he told Caroline Coon. “It was an upheaval of an upbringing, which seems to have worked, I guess”). There he lived between 1955 and 1963, visiting home rarely. In Panchgani, he started being known as “Freddie,” began performing music, started calling everyone he met “darling.”
Farrokh Bulsara (right, kneeling) and his classmates at St Peter’s School, ca. late Fifties (Ajay Goyal)
The Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, if catastrophic for the Bulsaras (who fled to Britain, where they had family), would be the great fortune of Freddie Bulsara’s life. Imagine an alternate Freddie, a frustrated provincial out of a Rushdie novel, working in trade or design or government, based in Dar es Salaam or Mumbai, poring through NMEs that arrive months-late in the post, his ambitions penned to his diaries.
Instead fate placed him, in 1965, at age nineteen, in Feltham, within striking distance of Swinging London.
He moved to Kensington, went to Ealing Art College, spent his nights in clubs. His idol was Jimi Hendrix, whom he followed around on one tour. He could play piano and had an ear for vocal harmony. In 1968, an Ealing friend, Tim Staffell, formed a rock group, Smile, with other London college kids: Brian May (with whom Staffell had played in an earlier band, 1984) and Roger Taylor.
Freddie became Smile’s fan, roadie, plus-one. They were the semi-professionals, students working up a rep on the regional circuit; he was their irreverent font of ideas. He watched Smile from the wings, analyzing them—most of all, imagining being one of them. Queen is the theater-dream of Freddie Bulsara, a play taken over by its sharpest critic.
As David Hepworth wrote of Mercury on stage, “he was utterly exposed. But Freddie didn’t mind. That was his strength, to be able to do something that no other member of the band could imagine themselves doing.”
He, May, and Taylor formed Queen in 1970 (once Staffell left, Freddie at last seized the position he’d craved). As with Bowie, Elton John and Marc Bolan, Queen’s Sixties had been apprentice years. Now there were openings and they meant to take one. They picked a striking name (as did Freddie, who anointed himself “Mercury”), designed a logo, settled on their look—a lived-in, comfortable glam.
Convinced of their worth, they didn’t want to waste years paying dues on the road—they would rarely be an opening act. (Taylor, 1976: “We didn’t really want to get into that small club circuit. We all wanted to play big, big concerts.”) They would instead rehearse, write and record, and record well (even their demo was cut via 16-track console, on two-inch tape); they would get the notice they deserved, and become famous. This took roughly five years.
In 1978, Mercury wrote a valentine to Queen, his homage to the Seventies’ biggest cabaret act, a misfit rock gang commanded by a man with the soul of Sally Bowles. “It’s a sellout!” as he kicks things off:
Just take a look at the menu
We give you rock à la carte!
We’ll breakfast at Tiffany’s!
We’ll sing to you in Japanese!
We’re only here to entertain you
The Faerie Bicycle Race (Gunpowder, Gelatine)
Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke (1855-1864, detail).
My lyrics and songs are mainly fantasies. I make them up. They are not down-to-earth, they’re kind of airy-fairy, really.
To be queer is to treat art like the mirror it often isn’t. To be queer is to realize that the mirror can’t return your love.
Alfred Soto, “What It Means To Be Queer”
In life, Mercury was a grand house: his bandmates saw one set of rooms, his family another, his lovers another. “I play on the bisexual thing because it’s something else, it’s fun,” he told Melody Maker in 1974. “But I don’t put on the show because I feel I have to, and the last thing I want to do is give people an idea of exactly who I am. I want people to work out their own interpretation of me and my image.”
Mercury was, to paint a broad coat, a bisexual whose sexual relationships were mostly with men. He’d refuse to define himself, instead happy to cheekily affirm whatever an interviewer thought they knew. “I’m as gay as a daffodil, dear,” when asked if he was “queer”; pushed to commit to being straight, gay, or bisexual in 1976, he said “I sleep with men, women, cats, you name it.” At one point in the early Eighties, he was in essentially a polycule with a male Tyrolean restaurateur, a male Irish hairdresser, and a German actress. For Mercury, locking oneself into a definition committed the mortal sin of being boring. So he’d dress as a “butch” gay man and front a band called Queen. He’d stand before tens of thousands, enacting the apparent obvious, which some of his fans couldn’t see. This was his magic trick.
That said, he fenced off his private life—his platonic relationship with Mary Austin was played up as his true romance while various male lovers were never to be mentioned. (People, 1977: “Austin, 26, a former shop girl turned Mercury’s quiet live-in lovely for seven years..admits to being “a bit puzzled” by her relationship with a simulated bisexual, but apologizes for him: “He’s mentally all over the place.”) There was a deep measure of fear, distrust, guilt. He was the first-born son in a religiously observant family, and one who would never have children, a wife, or a “respectable” job; his peers were mostly white British boys who’d tell biographers decades later that Freddie “didn’t seem gay to me.”
Queen’s co-producer John Anthony: In 1972, “Freddie showed me copies of Harpers & Queen magazine and said ‘This is what we are about..it’s not just the name, it’s the pictures, the articles, the whole thing..This is how we want our record to sound, like different topics and different photos’.”
He roamed free in his songs. “He was this absolute nerd. A toothy nerd, who grew into his own fantasy,” his song publisher David Stark said. For Queen and Queen II, Mercury wrote songs full of Jesus and holy madmen; he chronicled the fall of fairy kingdoms, including Rhye, a secret world that he and his sister had invented as children.
Composition was hard at first. He envied how May could write proper songs—verse, chorus, solo, all of it!—while he labored at his piano, only able to make fragments (he had some of the first part of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the late Sixties—when a friend, Chris Smith, heard it on the radio in 1975, his first thought was “oh, Freddie’s finished the song.”)
But writing songs via a glue-these-bits-together method helped maintain the interest, he found. He’d dance his fingers over the black keys and would, if his bands would allow it, modulate a half-dozen times in a song. Why stay in the same place? How ordinary. Don’t repeat the verse again. Go somewhere else. The peak of his early style is “March of the Black Queen,” with five different sections (each part with multiple subsections) linked by loose connecting tissue (roller-coaster vocal harmonies, ping-ponged guitar), all with manic shifts in meter and key. As Queen Songs notes, “Black Queen” is a procession through every major and minor chord (plus lots of augmented and flatted ones), with all 12 notes of the chromatic scale used as roots at some point. In its most radical sections there’s no discernible tonality—each subsequent chord overturns the attempt of the previous one to impose order.
It was his titanic period of songwriting, his songs ruled by grand characters. Great King Rat (“every second word he swore/ yes he was the son of a whore!” and who dies at age 44 of disease, a year before Mercury would); the Fairy King; variations on Christ: the original, celebrity healer of lepers, and Mad the Swine, who has doubts about humanity’s value. Pleas to Fathers and Mothers (the latter also the confessor figure of “Bohemian Rhapsody”), ragefully begging forgiveness. “Liar” is a courtroom drama in which Mercury defends and prosecutes himself.
“The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” came from a Richard Dadd painting (made while Dadd was confined in an insane asylum after having murdered his father), which Mercury had taken his band to see at the Tate. His phrasing was inspired enough to make a line like “tatterdemalion and a junketer/ there’s a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter” singable. Of more obscure origins is “Ogre Battle,” whose key detail is that the ogres fight within a two-way mirror mountain where “you can’t see in but they can see out.” (In these songs, sequenced on Queen II‘s “black side,” a motif is Roger Taylor’s harmonies, shrieking a series of AHHHH-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHs like a rattled ghost).
The finale of Queen II is “Seven Seas of Rhye” in which Mercury casts himself as the Cortez of his childhood escape world, the usurper bringing it to heel, sacking the cities. It was Queen’s first hit.
Fear me you lords and lady preachers!
I descend upon your earth from the skies!
The follow-up hit was the Killer Queen, Mercury’s idealized sexual vampire figure, his jumble of Modesty Blaise, Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, Holly Golightly, and Mata Hari. A response to the straight and gay worlds’ suspicions of the bisexual, as someone not to be fully trusted, someone who’s not serious, “insatiable in appetite,” dynamite with a laser beam. Brian May’s solo is her dance of triumph, the vocal harmonies a set of wry marginal commenters (“perfume came naturally from Paris (nat’rally!)”)
The epilogue was “Lily of the Valley,” regarded by some in Mercury’s orbit as being for Austin (May, to Mojo, 1999: “It’s about looking at his girlfriend and realizing that his body needed to be somewhere else.”) Rhye is conquered, its ruler dethroned, the last messenger from the fallen frontiers brings the news. Off the sad king goes into a life of exile.
As “Seven Seas of Rhye” fades, Queen rumbles through the music hall song “I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside” (also whistled at the start of “Brighton Rock,” which led off the next album). In the mid-Seventies, Mercury shifted into pastiche, exquisite fabrications: spins on Broadway vamp songs (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown“, “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy“) and pseudo-Edwardian novelties (“Seaside Rendezvous,” “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”).
These were well-crafted, catchy, fun (it was the spirit of Paul McCartney, who also liked to scurry off into his neverlands) but their collective unreality bothered some critics of the time. What were these songs doing on an ostensibly hard rock record? What was the point of this stuff?
Mercury wrote “Bicycle Race” in the summer of 1978 while in Montreux, after a stage of the Tour de France had raced through town. He caught his wry perspective in a song, like a sunbeam trapped on a photograph—a yen to keep removed, to avoid the contagion of the Seventies (he hates Star Wars and Jaws, is bored by Watergate); a delight in devising some new spectacle to occupy him.
“Bicycle Race” was another pianist’s folly: each section is in a different key, chock full of mixed meters (6/8 and 9/8 alone in the “bicycle races are coming your way” section), irregular bars, broken phrasings—-it’s shot through with weirdness. “Freddie wrote in strange keys,” May said in 1999. “Oddball keys that his fingers naturally used to go to…E-flat, F, A-flat. They’re the last things you want to be playing on guitar, so as a guitarist you’re forced to find new chords. Fred’s songs were so rich in chord structures you always found yourself making strange shapes with your fingers.”
Queen whisks together the bicycle race itself: a few bars of nearly an octave’s worth of bicycle bells, then May as a dueling pair of lead racers (runs up the D major scale), one pulling ahead, the other roaring past in a vip-dash of speed, the first pedaling furiously in response. It’s the Ogre Battle resumed, if a bit sleeker.
“Bicycle! bicycle! bicycle!” (note the emphasis on the first syllable: it is Freddie, after all). It’s Queen as Mercury’s train set, the greatest one he ever could have imagined: this group of miraculous, devoted fantasists.
I Am a Scientist
Brian May and coelostat in Tenerife, 1971 (May Archive)
I’m the only one in the band from the artistic field. The others are all scientists.
Not long after Queen formed, Brian May lived in a hut on the island of Tenerife, photographing zodiacal light. “I was looking at dust in the solar system,” he told Sounds in 1975. “There’s a lot of it around. I was…using a spectrometer to look for Doppler shifts in the light that came from them, and from that you can find out where they’re going, and possibly where they came from. It has a lot to do with how the solar system was formed.”
Some who work in laboratories daydream about being rock guitarists. May is a rock guitarist who perhaps daydreams about working in a laboratory. His life has been that of a Walter Mitty in reverse.
On stage, May would linger by the drum riser, suddenly dart downstage, execute a Hendrix/Townshend move and retreat. He was a guitar hero in bursts. “May was light years ahead of me but he did not have any fire in his bollocks,” Chris Dummett, an earlier bandmate of Mercury’s, told Queen biographer Mark Hodkinson. “Freddie thought Brian was suburban and droopy.” May was Queen’s absent-minded professor; his producers found that a question about microphones or what type of tea he wanted could begin a half-hour-long conversation.
Yet he wrote some of the crassest, bawdiest songs Queen ever recorded. “Fat Bottomed Girls” is his, as is “Tie Your Mother Down” and “Brighton Rock” (one earlier title: “Happy Little Fuck”). Queen’s headbanging dominance songs are mostly his as well, from “We Will Rock You” to the Highlander villain’s cage-match howl “Gimme the Prize” to “I Want It All.” He liked to say he wrote character pieces for Mercury to voice, but after a while, it looked like the professor was getting his kicks out as well.
May with Red Special, ca. 1963-1964; cat, Squeaky, is mourned in “All Dead, All Dead“
He’s of the line of guitarist-mechanics, his key predecessors Les Paul (pioneer of multi-tracking guitar lines via multiple tape recorders) and the Shadows’ Hank Marvin. “That guitar came…in response to the Shadows. I loved their metallic sound,” May said of his homemade “Red Special.” (He also learned to play “single note style,” rather than strumming, via Shadows records.)
May and his father, an electronic draftsman for the Ministry of Aviation, built the Red Special in the early Sixties. It was the make-do ethos of the Blitz—the Mays could have built the guitar from the remnants of a bombed-out-house. Its neck came from a fireplace, its tremolo arm was a knitting needle, its fretboard had mother-of-pearl buttons from a sewing kit; motorcycle valve springs balanced the tension of its strings. The finishing touch was three Tri-Sonic single-coil pickups, each with on/off and phase switches. (“The only problem comes in breaking a string,” he told Guitar Player. “The whole thing goes out, a total war.”)
The Red Special, along with a Vox AC30 amp and his use of sixpence coins as picks, gave May a unique tone. Guitar World called it “nasal, hollow, midrange,” as good a description as any. You know it when you hear it. With it as his trademark, May could play in different voices while maintaining his identity on record, from the debutante solo of “Killer Queen” to the rockabilly blast (on Fender Telecaster) in “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” For party tricks, he’d do the occasional Spanish guitar bit (“Who Needs You”) or ukulele-banjo fill (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown”).
He almost always multi-tracked—the “no synthesizers!” claim on Queen’s Seventies albums was meant for those who’d assumed the band used a Moog or ARP to get the guitar sounds. Starting out using delay machines, May became fascinated by canonical structures as a way to arrange his guitars and songs. The furthest extension of this was “The Prophet’s Song,” in which Mercury’s voice becomes another variation on his canons. It’s possible the entire band might have been consumed by this—imagine John Deacon lost in a mirror-cave of canonical basslines—if May hadn’t shifted towards more straight-ahead rockers in the late Seventies.
In 1965, May went to Imperial College to study physics and infrared astronomy and played in rock bands in his spare hours. The guitar finally won, so he played it like a scientist.
There’s a needle-precision to every line he plays: it’s as if he’ll fine himself if he hits a bum note. Few rock guitarists listened as intently as he did on stage—you can see him crane his neck towards Mercury or Deacon in the midst of a song and snap out a response. He tried to vary his playing each night, swap in a new note or two and see where it led. If this was nowhere, he’d pull out some old tricks to get through the song.
In his Pick Up the Pieces, John Corbett pegs as May a throwback, akin to a lead trumpeter in a swing band: “Solos secreted into ongoing events.” Working in support of the song, striding from the bandstand for a solo, offering an aside or counterpoint figure during another player’s spotlight moment, occasionally introducing the lead singer with an understated gesture.
When May was indulgent, it was in the service of an abstraction. Take the massive guitar solo in “Brighton Rock,” which bloated to twenty minutes on stage (Mercury took the opportunity to change outfits, and once got so restless he was heard saying “for God’s sake, let’s go shopping! Get me out of here!”). May ported the solo from song to song (it began in a Smile song called “Blag,” then became the solo in live versions of “Son and Daughter” before he settled it in “Brighton Rock”), like moving a grand piano from house to house. “Now we don’t do ‘Brighton Rock’ anymore,” he said in 1983. “So it’s gone full circle. In the beginning the solo was there and the song was around it. Now the song’s gone and the solo’s there.”
May makes peace with the Linn, ca. early 1980s
He was Mercury’s ideal counterpart. If Freddie was practiced spontaneity, May was cool diligence; if Freddie was camp, May was earnest (he did write “White Man”), though he had a sly sense of humor; if Freddie was Queen’s sartorial variable, May, who’s had the same Restoration Parliament haircut for half a century, was its constant.
And May was also Queen’s skeptic, looking askance at the promises of rock music: the dream of a carnival life, of professional excess, of living out the desires of the mob. He wrote of the toxic side of touring (“Dead on Time,” “Leaving Home Ain’t Easy”) and its erosion of marriages and families. After all, he’d let down his parents. May was their brilliant only child who had thrown away an esteemed professional life to play guitar on “Ogre Battle.” “The two worst things I ever did in [my father’s] eyes were: one, give up my academic career to become a pop star,” May told OK in 1998. “And two, living with a woman.”
“Dance band” overdubs in “Good Company”
Two of May’s finest songs, each on A Night at the Opera, work in this theme. “Good Company” is a performing life laid upon a slab. A man marries, flourishes “in my humble trade,” his reputation grows, his work consumes his waking hours. Eventually his friends are all gone, his wife leaves him and he realizes, sitting by the fire in old age, that he’s always been alone. “Reward of all my efforts: my own limited company.”
But the limited company is a marvel. With a ukulele, a Wah-Wah and swell pedal, a cloth-covered Deacy amp and the usual multi-tracking on the Red Special, May becomes a Twenties jazz band: “brass” and “winds” harmonies in the bridge; chromatic scale runs to impersonate slide trombone and clarinet lines; a Dixieland solo section for three guitars, moving in tight harmony or answering each other. It’s an astonishing group performance by one man sitting alone in a studio.
Some of Taylor’s “space travel” high harmonies for “’39” (May: “There was one note Roger refused to sing. Eventually I accepted the note he sang and varisped it up to make it the one I wanted.”)
A folk song from the future, May once called “’39”. “Volunteers” go into space to find a new world to settle, leaving their families behind. Thanks to a time-warp, when the astronauts return home, they’re only a year older while a century has passed on earth. Everyone they loved is ancient or long dead. It’s an SF variation on Tom T. Hall’s “Homecoming”: a traveling performer comes home to find it’s no longer there.
May had read Herman Hesse’s “The Poet,” whose title character leaves to apprentice to an older poet and grows so absorbed in his craft “that by the time he came back to his people, they were all dead and gone,” May said. “The last thing in the book was him staring across the river to his town, which was no longer his because none of his friends were alive…maybe that was subconsciously what [“39″] was about, going out in search of an artistic career and being afraid of leaving everything behind…This business destroys your family life quicker than anything else I think.”
In “’39,” the singer greets his now-elderly daughter, sees in her eyes those of the wife whom he never saw grow old. He’s stranded in the future. “For my life, still ahead: pity me.”
Bismillah! Mustapha! Flash! AAAAH-AAAH!
I don’t really know anything about opera myself. Just certain pieces. I wanted to create what I thought Queen could do. It’s not authentic…certainly not.
Freddie Mercury, 1976.
Tom Ewing wrote, years ago, of a North London pub that once had a CD jukebox, one of whose selections was Queen’s Greatest Hits. Next to “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a handwritten note: DO NOT PLAY. NOT FUNNY.
A karaoke room in midtown Manhattan, the early 2000s. I’m settling up with the manager when a door opens, exposing us to a shattered rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The singer is foundering, as many have before and since, somewhere in the ‘operatic’ section. The manager shakes her head: “That one—never good.”
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is Queen’s biggest hit, most famous song, the one that broke them in the Seventies, revived them in the Nineties. In a century’s time, it will be around in some form, like gingivitis and Scientology. And yet, as Ewing wrote, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has “a very weird place in rock music. It is known by millions, loved by millions, but somehow still not quite…respectable.” More “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” than “Like a Rolling Stone,” it’s an overloaded cheeseburger of a track. You might be embarrassed to play it in mixed company. Or alone. Even its name is a bit ridiculous. Philip Glass will never turn it, as he did Bowie’s “Berlin” albums, into a legitimate symphony. It is not legitimate.
It began as “The Cowboy Song,” a pianist’s piece, with Mercury using a cross-handed technique: his right hand mostly plays chordal and bass figures, allowing his left, at the end of every bar, to strike out further along the keyboard and hit high notes. (Mercury being double-jointed helped.) This part of the song’s set in B-flat (the key of the “ballad” intro section) and E-flat (upon the second verse, “too late…”), and fairly traditional: its harmonic movements are pop song staples, its phrasing square.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” was a classic rock “builder” of the Seventies, in the line of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Free Bird.” Start out solemn and acoustic, inflate into a stadium rocker. But Queen bridged its ballad and rock sections with something Ronnie Van Zant never would have countenanced. After running through the opening verses for producer Roy Thomas Baker, Mercury stopped and said, “this is where the opera section comes in.”
He’d sketched pages of ideas in accountant notebooks from his father’s office. “It wasn’t standard musical notation,” May said. “But As and Bs and Cs in blocks, like buses zooming all over bits of paper.” These were Mercury’s thoughts for vocal harmonies, which were generally four-part (if multi-tracked to near-infinity), and lyrics.
The opera section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the garbled shorthand that comes to mind when many people hear the word “opera,” which is one reason why so many love it. Dramatically sung “Italian” words! Mamma Mia! Silhouetto! Magnifico! Figaro! Galileo! Dramatically sung words from other European languages! Fandango! Fragments of some inexplicable struggle on stage! Wagnerian “thunderbolt and lightning,” a Don Giovanni or Faust death scene: Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me! For meeee! For meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! There’s even the Arabic blessing bismillah, recited before reading each surah of the Koran; here, Mercury hisses it like a curse. It’s “exotic,” silly (Thomas Baker’s apprentice work with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Co. came in handy) and absolutely, painstakingly crafted, with a head-swimming rhythmic structure. The section of tape that held the “opera” parts eventually looked like a street crossing, thanks to the vocal overdubs—about 180, all told. Three weeks to get it all done, including dozens of “Galileos.”
When the rock section kicks in, it’s euphoric but short—one verse, a brief solo, and then it sinks into the “nothing really matters” coda.
There’s the biographical reading, of course. A young man, confessing his guilt and self-loathing to his mother, is transfigured via his band of fellow theater weirdos into becoming, in the rock section, an all-conquering libertine figure. It’s a parallel to Bowie’s “Station to Station,” recorded around the same time—a man trapped in a circle digs a way out. After “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Mercury is reborn, devoted to lust and pleasure (“Get Down, Make Love,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Body Language”) and writing discreetly-open songs about being in love with men (“You Take My Breath Away”).
It’s also the transformation, and culmination, of Queen. “We were all late developers, really,” May said in 1977. “Late starters…it’s interesting that we’ve arrived where we are so late.” Queen only could have existed in a post-Beatles world—they’re in the mold of the fragmenting White Album Beatles (four distinct personalities, each working in their own worlds) and Abbey Road (the “long medley” is, in a way, the first Queen song).
A massive UK #1 (it would take Mike Myers and a trio of metalheads in the back of a Pacer to make it an American chart hit, decades later), it made Queen, and they would never be this fearless again. Knowing they could never top “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the band was content with doing sub-variations: on A Day at the Races they broke it into “The Millionaire Waltz” (multi-part song structure) and “Somebody to Love” (honeycomb vocal harmonies). “Bohemian Rhapsody” would be their pyramid of Giza, its construction (and budget) inexplicable to future generations, built to awe and endure.
Its cracked spirit is in corners of Queen’s later work. See the gonzo opening track of Jazz, “Mustapha,” a hothouse mingle of Greek and Arabic music in the spirit of the operatic section. Or the theme song for Flash Gordon, where Queen’s invocation of Flash sounds as if they’re calling him down from Olympus.
Their most devoted attempt at a proper sequel was “Innuendo,” one of their last songs. Roughly the same length as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” again with intricate, multiple sections, again a UK #1, it’s had none of the longevity of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I imagine that few non-Queen fans recall it today, whereas everyone knows some piece of “Boho Rhap”—Mamma Mia, just killed a man, spit in my eye, Scaramouche! As long as there are (virtual) jukeboxes and karaoke rooms, whether it’s in a Grimes-Musk space station or a barroom in the wheat fields of the Arctic, “Bohemian Rhapsody” will still be heard, despite the note attached to it that reads: DO NOT PLAY, NOT FUNNY.
Well, he’s a rock and roll person, completely dedicated to rock and roll. He’s a pleasure seeker, which he wouldn’t deny to anybody. He loves the life that surrounds rock and he gives himself completely up to that.
May, on Roger Taylor, to Melody Maker, December 1975
Roger Taylor is from Truro, Cornwall, and has played in rock groups since he was fourteen. Starting as a guitarist, he became a Mod drummer. Electric blue suits and ties; a target painted on his kick drum à la Keith Moon. He did other Moon-esque tricks, like coating his cymbals in oil and setting them ablaze. At university, he studied to be a dentist. Checking an Imperial College bulletin board, he saw that a student band was looking for a “Ginger Baker/ Mitch Mitchell-type drummer” and his life took a swerve.
In any other band, Taylor could have been the frontman. He could compose and sing (with a heavy-metal range, from hitting sky-high notes to a growling low end) and he was gorgeous. In Queen, he was the drummer.
As a drummer, Taylor is in the Ringo Starr league. Not splashy, not one to sneak in fills or “perform” on his kit, he stays close to the ground and handles whatever his bandmates throw at him. His timekeeping was solid—on stage, he could quickly settle a tempo that Mercury started at an overheated pace (see “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” at Wembley in 1986)—and his style was distinct. He like to have an open hi-hat with his snare hits; he kept his kick work heavy and simple (he never liked the sound of that drum) and sprinted across his high and medium toms for fills. He’ll never be regarded as a drum ace, which is fine by him. “Every time I see Carmine Appice he’s going on about all sorts of amazing things,” Taylor told Modern Drummer in 1984. “He might as well be talking about cupcakes.”
His philosophy was: “You either have time or you don’t. If you don’t have it, there’s no chance that you’ll ever be any good, really. You can’t teach a person time.”
Taylor’s Queen songs are a narrative. Call it the Life of Funster, from “Tenement Funster” on Sheer Heart Attack. A young, callow man believes in little else but rock and roll and its accessories (new purple shoes, fast cars, sharp haircut, 45s that you blast all night to drive the neighbors crazy)—as a way of life, as a sect with rules, as an escape from middle class expectations. “Never wanted to be the boy next door. Always thought I’d be something more,” as he sings in his waltz “Drowse.”
He’s petulant and arrogant—-see “Loser in the End,” a boy’s break-up song with his mother, or “I’m in Love With My Car,” in which Funster chooses car over girl, because cars don’t talk back and anyway, his car is hotter. But he also can be sweet and melancholy (again, see “Loser in the End” where he stands up for beleaguered mothers everywhere, howling to his fellow boys that if you “misuse her! you’ll lose her! as a friend!”) He already sees middle-age staring back at him from the mirror.
He started one of his best songs in 1974 and finished it three years later, when it was seen as Queen’s response to punk. “Sheer Heart Attack” was, apart from Mercury’s vocals, mostly Taylor—guitars, bass, drums. It opens by turning the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” on its head. That was the heat of the teenage dancehall: she was just seventeen/ you know what I mean. “Sheer Heart Attack” is the kid back in her room, hiding away from the world. You’re just seventeen/ all you wanna do is disappear! Know what I mean?
The kid’s pacing around their room and trying to kick through the wall. Doyouknow doyouknow doyouknow just how I feel? ,already knowing the answer, and ends the verses stuck in a scratch groove:
Devoting yourself to rock ‘n’ roll is to pledge to a failing religion. People at shows, whether groupies or fans, “line up like it’s some kinda ritual,” he groans in exhaustion. Right from the start, with “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” off Queen’s debut, rock needs a blood infusion. The first line Taylor sings on record, in a bluesy phrasing with peaks on high Gs, is “have to make do with a worn-out rock and roll scene… “’58 that was great but it’s over now and that’s ALL!”
In “Fight From the Inside” he makes the case for working within the system—the pinup on the teenage wall can still try to inflict some damage from within EMI Records. By Jazz, an album Taylor has little affection for (“my songs were very patchy…it was an ambitious album that didn’t live up to its ambition”), there’s a disgust with pop music, this crass job. “Only football gives us thrills,” Taylor sings in the sort-of title song. “Rock and roll…just pays the bills.”
“Rock It (Prime Jive)” opens in 6/8, with Mercury singing when he hears that rock and roll it gets down to his soul. Blah blah blah: more of that jazz. It cuts to Taylor, firming into 4/4: What do you know? he says. He’s heard a lot of claims for rock, too many. What do you hear? On the Ray-dee-o?
Along with John Deacon, Taylor was Queen’s A&R department (whereas Mercury, as per Mark Blake, told an EMI executive “he didn’t understand the whole punk thing. It wasn’t music to him”). He was looking to see who might get a jump on his band, and steal enough to keep Queen current. “Loser in the End” nicks the riff from T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution”; “Coming Soon” is a bit late Seventies ELO; “Rock It (Prime Jive)” could have been called “I’m In Love With (The Cars).” Later on, his reflexes were slower: “Machines” and “Radio Ga Ga” is the apparent result of Taylor hearing Kraftwerk; “The Invisible Man” sounds like a mix of “Ghostbusters” and “White Lines.”
As with everyone in Queen, he had his contradictions. The band’s purist (“it’s not rock ‘n’ roll, what is this?” he said while cutting “Another One Bites the Dust”), Taylor was first to break the “no synthesizers” rule, using electronic drums on Jazz‘s “Fun It” and getting the Oberheim OB-X that became Queen’s gateway into the synth world on The Game. Soon enough he moved from writing on guitar to keyboards, using a Simmons sequencer. “The guitar is quite a difficult instrument, actually, when you’re trying to compose melodically,” he said. “You have to have all your chords together, and then you need to put something on top.”
He even became a convert to the LinnDrum. “You can make it sound human…You can even program in the slight timing discrepancies that come with non-electronic drums. You can even push the beat or lay it back. It’s all there…Because all this technology exists, you simply can’t ignore it. One can’t be retrogressive in this business.”
“Radio Ga Ga,” Taylor’s song on the rise of MTV at the expense of corporate radio (the title came from his child saying “radio poo poo”—the band is singing “radio caca” at times), has a sweetness in its heart. Radio! Some..one…still…loves you!, Mercury sings, even promising radio that its best days are yet to come. A nice lie, which is what you need to get through sometimes. Funster’s still out there, though the kids blasting their music downstairs are driving him nuts. He’s spinning the dial deep into the night, listening for something.
“The First Truly Fascist Rock Band”
Tea with General Viola; Argentina, 1981 (Neal Preston)
Very powerful. You feel like the devil. You feel you could run riot with all these people. Somebody else with a different mentality could really use it to their political advantage. Or disadvantage.
Early Queen got its share of pans, but there was a wary respect in the press: here’s a mix of Yes and Zeppelin, they’re fun and camp. Then they became inescapable and hated. Nick Kent’s initial dislike shuddered, by the release of A Day at the Races, into contempt. “All these songs with their precious pseudo-classical piano obbligato bearings, their precious impotent Valentino kitsch mouthings on romance, their spotlight on a vocalist so giddily enamoured with his own precious image—they literally make my flesh creep…grotesquery of the first order.”
Queen made for great villains in the punk years—jet-setting “operatic” rock stars drinking champagne on stage and throwing promo parties whose budgets could have covered the first Ramones albums. The fever spike was Dave Marsh’s review of Jazz for Rolling Stone:
The only thing Queen does better than anyone else is express contempt…Whatever its claims, Queen isn’t here just to entertain. This group has come to make it clear exactly who is superior and who is inferior. Its anthem, “We Will Rock You,” is a marching order: you will not rock us, we will rock you. Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band. The whole thing makes me wonder why anyone would indulge these creeps and their polluting ideas.
This idea of Queen as a Triumph of the Will rock act persisted. Eleanor Levy, reviewing a 1984 Birmingham gig for Record Mirror: “When ‘Radio Ga Ga’ is played, a whole sea of clone hands clap and point to the stage in a manner more reminiscent of the Nuremberg Rallies than a ‘rock’ concert. It’s faintly disturbing.” David Quantick, profiling Queen for the NME in 1986, on the “I Want to Break Free” video: “We explode into a Queen concert and, yes, it’s another bloody Nuremberg rally. Queen as Gods of Valhalla again.”
Queen was used by now to bad press, and Mercury in particular enjoyed baiting journalists, but they considered this a criticism that bordered on the insane. “I mean, we are a fairly arrogant band. We have had our moments when we were overtly tasteless,” Taylor said in 1984. “We were also accused of being fascists. That was during the time of “We Will Rock You.” Some people said it was a cry of manipulation. It was no more fascist than Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”
Mercury in Paris, 1979; Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter (1974)
For Marsh, Queen was simply everything he hated— university-educated pretentious “prog” Brits— twined into one quartet and he reacted the way that my dog does when she smells a skunk. But the fascist slam didn’t come out of nowhere: it was one way to grapple with what Queen represented at the end of the Seventies.
Queen’s relationship to their crowds could be mystifying. To those mystified, there seemed to be some element of dominance, of shock and awe being inflicted at a grand scale. Chet Flippo, after a 1977 concert: “Based on audience appeal, [Queen] got the job done. I’m just not sure what the job is.” Or Sounds, on a Birmingham audience in 1984. “It’s like they actually believe in this band, like their lives are fully dependent on them…as if they honestly look upon Queen as (sincere respectful tones) IMPORTANT.”
What would a rock band for the masses really look like? You might like to think it was something like The Clash but it was much more Queen: selling by the millions, packing stadiums, performing songs that were extravagant, relentless fun—rock music as two hours of roller-coaster rides and tunnels-of-love and bumper cars.
The working stiff was the ideal rock ‘n’ roll audience. Rock ‘n’ roll was going to liberate them, maybe radicalize them. And it turned out that many of them just wanted to go home after eight hours on the floor and blast “Fat Bottomed Girls” and, once a year, stand in a hockey rink and sing “she was such a naughty! nanny!” along with ten thousand others while Freddie Mercury conducts from the stage.
One of Queen’s Rock In Rio shows in 1985: 250,000 to 350,000 in attendance
“We Will Rock You” was far from Marsh’s concept of Queen pissing on its crowds. May wrote it after hearing an audience sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the encore and realizing “we can no longer fight this. This has to be something which is part of our show and we have to embrace it…everything becomes a two-way process now.” Hence the bleacher-stomp beat and a melody even someone with a sandpapered voice could sing.
Mercury had cultivated an ironic relationship with his audience, calling them “luvvies,” breaking the fourth wall, letting them in on the jokes. “I could cause a riot if I wanted to but I still think that’s a minor matter,” he said in 1981. “Because it’s all very tongue-in-cheek, you must realize that, for me, anyway. I like to ridicule myself…If we were a different kind of band, with messages and political themes, then it would be totally different. That’s why I can wear sort of ridiculous shorts and things like that, ham it up with semi-Gestapo salutes. It’s all kitsch.”
When Queen moved to the arena level, Mercury had to work on larger scales, move his performance even more outward, sing to an abstract “we” (and it was down to him—Tom Jones had livelier support on stage than Mercury did). Songs became less complex, less strange, more of a brand: Mercury now did lead vocals on most of Taylor and May’s pieces. It was a communal voice, a stadium plural, that of the “people on streets” of their and Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Play the game: everyone play the game. Put out the fire! He’ll save every one of us! Save me!
“We Will Rock You”/”We Are the Champions” is a dialogue. Queen sings it to the masses, who chant it back at them. There’s no time for losers because everyone’s a winner—at least everyone who’s singing along. Queen are four men set against enough people to fill an army corps; they hold the balance of power because they pretend to be big as their crowds want them to be. In their vastness was a mirror. “Queen were never selfish,” Rick Sky once said. “They were always anxious that everyone else was having just as great a time as they were.”
Each Queen tour had to be greater than the previous one—more seats filled, more sophisticated lights, bigger props. This culminated in their 1986 Wembley show, where the stage set was so enormous that it barely fit into the stadium. Taylor was effusive: “We are going to have the biggest stage ever built at Wembley with the greatest light show ever seen….bigger than bigness itself.”
They grew apart as they got bigger, as often happens. Divided on the road into “gay” (Mercury and entourage) and “hetero” camps (Taylor and May—Deacon liked to hang out with the tech crew), the four of them were surrounded by minders, who’d run off to get them a drink or, in Mercury’s case, accompany him to the bathroom. They cut their albums with each member recording many of their parts alone in the studio. So the dream of perpetual bigness, of breaking some attendance record, opening some new market, of trumping the Bowies and Jaggers, was one of the things holding them together. An eccentric startup was now a global corporation whose main pleasure lay in outrageous new acquisitions.
And in this pursuit of bigness, you may find yourself breaking bread with the Argentine junta in 1981, with money that your promoters have used to grease the wheels in government perhaps going towards new helicopters that people will be thrown out of. Or you may play to all-white crowds in Sun City in 1984, with Nelson Mandela still in prison.
“A Queen audience is a football crowd which doesn’t take sides,” May once said. They played for whoever bought a ticket—that was the essential transaction. Queen’s argument was that their fans weren’t their governments. And true, for the Argentines, for the Brazilians, having a big rock band play their country was a validation, a brief escape; the shows were community for a night.
I come back to the photos of Queen goofing around with Argentine soldiers. Or maybe they’re cops. It’s understandable, it’s not damning or anything—they were a rock band, they were doing silly shots not meant to be published, it’s no big deal. And I think about the Argentine-American writer Sonia Nazario, who recalled how her family burned Alice In Wonderland in their backyard out of fear, whose sister was raped and tortured in prison, whose friend had every bone in his face broken and then was disappeared. I looked it up: there are fourteen bones in the facial skeleton.
The flip side is Live Aid. Bohemian Rhapsody cemented it as Queen’s greatest live performance but the legend started early.
Queen were one of the few acts that day who knew how to handle so massive a crowd. They made sure their soundman set the limiters to make them louder than everyone else, and they’d honed their set in rehearsals to a tight twenty minutes, paced expertly. Start with Mercury on piano on classic, move to big recent hit, have “ey-yo” break & not-so-big recent hit, and close with three standards.
Mercury aims his performance at a flyspeck in the middle distance in the late Wembley afternoon—he’s moving across the stage as if he’d charted it out step-by-step beforehand; he’s charging at May and the cameramen like a matador. The half-mike stand is his guitar, his barbell, his dick. He’s singing to the crowd, which could populate a city; he’s singing to the millions watching on television, even though US MTV cuts away midway through to interview Marilyn McCoo (Queen were on the outs in the US, see below). He knows in his bones that nothing like this festival of pomposity and earnestness may ever happen again. So Mercury, so Queen, sings to the future. They are singing to a twelve-year-old girl watching on YouTube while home in quarantine. She marvels at how wide open the past looks.
John Deacon was the first one in Queen to cut his hair, earning him the nickname “Birdman” because everyone thought he resembled Burt Lancaster’s convict in Birdman on Alcatraz. Deacon’s wasn’t the test-the-waters haircut many rock musicians did in the late Seventies. No, he looked like he could be in The Jam.
In a Seventies band, the one who cut their hair the earliest was usually the one who cared least about maintaining the look of the act (Charlie Watts) or most keen-eyed towards the future (Lindsey Buckingham). Deacon was something of both.
He was the enigma of Queen, partly because he was an introvert in a band led by the biggest extrovert on the planet. The last to join, Deacon never sang on record and was rarely interviewed. He kept tabs on the money—EMI promotion head Brian Southall recalled to Queen biographer Mark Blake that Deacon would use his then-newfangled Seiko digital watch calculator to “add up Queen royalties in four different countries.” Deacon greatly enjoyed being in Queen but didn’t take it too seriously: one story has him drinking after a show when someone put on the Flash Gordon soundtrack. After a time, he turned to a roadie and asked “what is this?”
Born in 1951 (he was Queen’s youngster), he grew up in Oadby, Leicestershire, where he was known for being quiet and excelling at school. He played (guitar, then bass) in a suburban Mod band called The Opposition. “We weren’t extreme at all,” Opposition drummer Clive Castledine recalled to Hodkinson. “The background we all had was quite sheltered, we were brought up in a decent way with a good lifestyle.”
In London studying electronics at Chelsea College, Deacon saw Queen play in October 1970 (“they didn’t make a lasting impression on me at the time”). Within a year, he’d joined them. He was ideal for Queen, who’d already burned through three bassists. He didn’t want the spotlight and, being an engineer, could double as a sound tech if needed.
He started writing songs for Queen, and soon saw the potential when one of your pieces was a B-side. Taylor’s “I’m Love With My Car” being the flip of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which gave Taylor half the composer royalties from the 45 sales, was a windfall for the drummer. Deacon went one better: his second-ever released composition, “You’re My Best Friend,” was the A-side of the follow-up single.
Deacon mostly wrote love songs, spanning from clever miniatures (“Misfire,” “Who Needs You“) to the sentimental (“You and I”) to the shamelessly gooey (“One Year of Love,” complete with “Careless Whisper”-esque sax solo, by the same saxophonist!). There’s little specificity in his lyrics, which usually address “you”—they’re open spaces for a listener to settle into.
He was an economical composer, rarely changing key more than once and keeping his structures tight. “You’re My Best Friend” and “Spread Your Wings” have nearly the same chassis: keyboard intro, verse-refrain-bridge, verse-refrain-solo/bridge, outro (that said, Deacon had quirkier pieces, like “You and I,” which has bridges in place of refrains, and “In Only Seven Days” with its compound (3/8 + 3/8 + 2/8) meter).
Though credited as sole composer (a Queen agreement that lasted until the mid-Eighties: whoever wrote the lyric and “had the original idea” got full credit), Deacon was essentially in a partnership with Mercury, who would help to arrange and flesh out his songs. Deacon gave Mercury lush melodies to sing, and Mercury responded with beautifully intricate phrasings (listen to how much variation he puts into “You’re My Best Friend,” or the high drama in the showbiz weepie “Spread Your Wings”). They elevated and checked each other. It’s Deacon on the Wurlitzer that wraps “You’re My Best Friend” like a comfortable winter coat, as Mercury cracked that he found it too vulgar an instrument to play.
Queen (mostly) readies for the Eighties, 1979
I’m the only one in the group, really, who likes American black music.
Deacon, to Rolling Stone, 1981
And it was modest John Deacon who, after a night of partying with Nile Rodgers, hung out with Chic at the Power Station in New York while they recorded “Good Times” in 1979, with Deacon obviously keen on Bernard Edwards’ bass playing.
At The Game sessions the following year, Deacon had the pieces of a song: a title and an Edwards-inspired bassline. Where Edwards is tight and effusive, Deacon is terse, stoic—-staying on his E string, he moves from fifth to third fret and plays an open note; he sounds the open string five more times, varying note length; then does a spin on his opening move, slipping the open note between the two fretted notes. Variations come in the latter half of the verses (“are you happy? are you satisfied?”), where Deacon moves to his higher strings.
This terseness suited Deacon’s modern gunslinger theme (the cowboy or gangster here is “Steve,” under fire from unknown parties). Where “Good Times” is clams on the half shell and roller skates, “Another One Bites the Dust” is a shootout: it’s a move from Xanadu to The Wild Bunch.
Deacon seized control of the session. “The rest of us had no idea what Deakey was doing when he started this,” May recalled, while producer Reinhold Mack called Deacon a “bird who stays quiet until it lays the perfect egg.” Deacon wanted the drums dry and mechanical-sounding (snare on two and four, kick on every beat, constant hi-hat eighths), so Taylor stuffed his kick with blankets and cut a drum loop. “Another One Bites the Dust” was built from homemade samples: a backwards piano chord, backwards cymbal crashes, massive handclaps, drum loops that sound like handclaps, a slowed-down shaker, Harmonized guitar, “lion roar” guitar. Working against these systems are the two agitators: Mercury’s catty, exuberant lead vocal and May playing his “dirty little guitar” riffs.
Contact sheet, late 1981 (Lord Snowdon)
Queen first thought “Another One Bites the Dust” would be a weird album cut, another “Mustapha.” The singles from The Game were “Save Me” and “Play the Game,” both of which charted modestly. But by summer 1980, when Queen was touring the U.S., “Another One Bites the Dust” was getting heavy play in clubs and on black radio (in particular on New York’s WBLS). Backstage at one of Queen’s LA Forum concerts, Michael Jackson said they had to put it out as a single. It would be huge. And it was. One of their biggest-selling 45s, another US #1, “Another One Bites the Dust” was everywhere on the radio in the autumn of 1980. It even helped make the career of Weird Al Yankovic.
While it didn’t last long, its success would shape Queen for a time. “Under Pressure” has another minimalist bassline and sparse arrangement, while the Deacon/Mercury axis became the ruling party of the next Queen album, Hot Space, to the point where Deacon played guitar on tracks like “Back Chat” and “Staying Power” (May, to Mojo: “I remember John saying I didn’t play the type of guitar he wanted on his songs.”)
Hot Space has grown on me: a shameless, synth-crazy, odd post-disco (1982!) “disco sellout” record in which Queen, who admittedly were hanging out too much in Munich bars and sometimes cutting backing tracks drunk, manages to sound loose and desperate: dance tracks like “Back Chat” and “Staying Power” (horn section!); Taylor’s New Wave “Action This Day” and “Calling All Girls”; May’s wallflower dissent “Dancer,” which winds up swinging pretty hard. Even “Life Is Real (Song For Lennon),” among the more bizarre John Lennon tributes, is grotesque and fascinating (“breast-feeding myself/ what more can I say?…loving like a whore/ Lennon was a gene-ee-us”).
“I Want to Break Free,” the last of the great Deacon pop hits, was another veto of May, as Deacon pushed to use Fred Mandel’s synthesizer solo instead of the usual Red Special treatment (Roland later had a preset called “May Sound,” which Mandel said came from Roland techs hearing the solo on “Break Free,” assuming it was May on guitar, and mimicking it, “not realizing it was actually done on one of their own products,” he told Blake.)
Its video had Queen in drag, doing Coronation Street: Deacon as gran, May as mum, Taylor as schoolgirl, Mercury as frustrated housewife. In Britain, it was a laugh; in the US, not so much. A nation of stupid teenage boys freaked out that a band called Queen, led by Freddie Mercury, was…possibly gay?? Queen already had been cratering in popularity in America. Hot Space, disco at the height of anti-disco, hadn’t sold that well, and the band was a casualty in a battle between their label and radio stations. But the “Break Free” video was catastrophic (Peter Hince: “it killed them in the US”)—the single peaked at #45 in Billboard, and Queen wouldn’t have another US Top 40 hit until Mercury died.
One reason they never toured the US after 1982 was pride—they knew they couldn’t put up the numbers that Springsteen or even Dire Straits could, and so instead grew their audiences in Europe and Asia.
The Last Party
‘What am going to do in 20 years’ time?’ I’ll be dead, darling! Are you mad?
Freddie Mercury, Italian press conference, 1984
By the mid-Eighties, Mercury knew something was wrong. He got sick too often, developed lumps in his throat. Dozens of his friends were dying from AIDS-related symptoms. It’s unclear when he tested positive for HIV—biographies generally agree somewhere between 1985 and 1987 (Bohemian Rhapsody‘s depiction of Mercury revealing the news to his bandmates before Live Aid was dramatic license: they learned years later).
He knew Queen’s 1986 tour would be his last. He’d often had voice trouble on the road (one theory is that Mercury was a natural baritone who sang at the top of his range) and feared he’d be too weak to hold up through months of shows. The wild days were over. Spike Edney, keyboardist on the 1986 tour, recalled nights of sitting in Mercury’s suite and playing games of Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit (while drinking champagne, naturally).
What was left in the time remaining? Mercury sang with Montserrat Caballé and in 1988 began a last push with Queen in the studio, in Britain and Montreux, recording three albums, smoking and drinking vodka while propped up against the mixing desk, singing his head off.
These records—The Miracle, Innuendo, the posthumous Made in Heaven—are an odd bunch. Despite being performed by a dying man and a group who knew their days were ending, they’re not especially tragic albums. They sound perfunctory in places, an aging band grinding through passable late Eighties “rock” songs.
That said, there are sunset pieces. “Party” and “Khashoggi’s Ship,” lead-off tracks of The Miracle, in which fun times are over, but weren’t they grand while they lasted? The cheerful acceptance of bad luck in “Rain Must Fall” (“you lead a fairy tale existence,” Mercury tells the mirror—well, fairy tales end; the kingdom of Rhye fell), the appreciation of everyday life in “It’s a Beautiful Day,” Mercury’s love song to his cat “Delilah,” the arch “I’m Going Slightly Mad,” which, as Marcello Carlin noted, shows that Mercury was enjoying what Pet Shop Boys were up to at the time. The massive end statement “Was It All Worth It” (you can hear Freddie’s laugh at the title question. “Of course it was, darling…“)
And “These Are the Days of Our Lives.” Taylor wrote it: the last Funster song. Sitting back and watching the kids go at it now, it’s grateful for life despite being in a hard stretch of it, knowing memories of warmer hours are sustenance in winter, that springtime will come again—in the second refrain, Mercury goes from singing “those were the days” to “these are the days.” It’s one of his subtlest, loveliest vocals, complete with asides to his beloved audience.
“I think it sort of came out of that slightly melancholic mood one gets occasionally,” Taylor recalled in 2011. “I guess I was just trying to put a more optimistic slant on it in a way. ‘Those were the days then, but also these are the days of our lives.’ Today is more important than yesterday, really.”
Queen filmed its video on 30 May 1991, in what would be their last documented time together (and it wasn’t the full quartet—May was in Los Angeles at the time, so his shots had to be edited in later). In the video, they look modest, casual, reduced, in line with how its arrangement is far from the ten-tracked guitars and hall-of-mirrors vocals of the old days—it’s mostly conga, string pads, bass, some tasteful guitar. In a closing shot, Mercury looks at the camera, smiles, says he still loves us. A few months later, he was gone.
I began this essay in late January, when the world looked much the same as it had during the last ten years. I finish it during a time of pandemic and likely economic depression. What do I hear in Queen today? I hear in them prosperity, the joy of being frivolous; I hear in them the happy noise of office parties, karaoke nights, slumber parties, pub singalongs, football chants, of community—photos of their stadium crowds are suddenly poignant images. Mamma Mia, Let Me Go! Fat Bottomed Girls! God Knows, God Knows I’ve Fallen in Love! I Want to Ride My…Bicycle! Queen remains contemporary, in terms of their influence on rock music. But dear God, how far away they seem right now.