16 June 2012

the way we were

When you look in the mirror what do you see?

06 June 2012


In 1973, as an impressionable sixteen-year-old, I saw Mott the Hoople in concert at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens. Needless to say it was a riotous occasion with the band riding high on the successes of “All the Way From Memphis” and the Bowie-penned anthem “All the Young Dudes”. The supporting act that night was an obscure British band by the name of Queen.

Queen’s eponymous first album had failed to make a serious mark but the new single “Seven Seas of Rhye”, taken from their upcoming second album, was causing a stir. In those days bands didn’t headline a tour until they were fully established but after the second leg of the ‘73/’74 tour with Mott the Hoople in North America, Queen would never again play second fiddle.

In 1971 legend has it that Freddie Mercury sang with his back to the audience, such was his lack of confidence. Well, how things would change! By the time of Queen II Freddie had evolved into a dazzling showman, strutting and preening in a way no one before him had. His was a unique and towering stage presence who demanded attention. And the songs themselves did too, for Freddie was the band’s primary songwriter and a highly accomplished pianist.

I left the theatre that night a convert to the Queen cause. The next album “Sheer Heart Attack” marched further into pop territory while retaining Brian May’s metallic guitar riffs and set Queen on the launching pad for stardom. In 1975, just as the short-lived glam-rock era began to wane, and the dogs of punk were sniffing at the door, Queen released their magnum opus, the genre-bending “A Night at the Opera”. With nods to hard rock, music hall, progressive rock, shiny pop and rock opera, the disc was a showcase for Freddie’s lyrical and vocal prowess and Brian May’s scorching guitar.

Reputedly the most expensive record at the time ever to emerge from a recording studio, it propelled Queen into the stratosphere, became their best-selling album, and for many including the band themselves, it was their defining work. It produced the epic single Bohemian Rhapsody, which went on to become the third-best selling single in the history of the British pop charts (behind Elton John’s Candle in the Wind and Band Aid’s Do They Know it’s Christmas – both specific ‘period pieces’). Love it or hate it, many of us can still sing along to the poetic lyrics.

“Opera” set in motion a train of four albums that set Queen apart from all other artists of the time. Straddling the genres of arena rock, ballads, hard rock and vaudeville, they were without equal in terms of intellect, musicianship, stagecraft and public image. From 1974 until 1980 they could do no wrong and both the British and American music press were filled with stories of their wild excesses both on and off stage.

But at the end of the decade it was like a switch had been thrown and the eighties ushered in a new era. Guitars were out of favour, ice-cold synths ruled the scene. Queen maintained a dedicated following but their day was done. Several huge radio-friendly singles kept their name in view but by the time of Freddie’s untimely death in 1991 the band was a shadow of its former self.

Incredible how a style of music can surge and roar then reach a wild crescendo and ebb away as fast as it arrived. Fortunately we are left with several concert videos from the late seventies and early eighties so can relive Freddie Mercury’s powerful and melodic voice; see the way he held an audience of seventy-thousand in the palm of his hand and lose ourselves in the astonishing spectacle which was, simply Queen.