"Queen of the 1970s were leaders and trend setters. Queen of the 80s followed musical trends like sheep. 70s Queen is timeless. 80s Queen is rooted to the spot by holo drums machines and thin synth patches that historians can carbon date to almost the exact week in 1982 in which they were fashionable."
" I knew nothing, however, about Queen’s 70s output. Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t ubiquitous in the way it is today. So when I dug the album out of a pile of records and took it for a spin, I heard Bohemian Rhapsody, and all of the seventeen tracks on Greatest Hits, for the first time. What I heard that morning changed me in a way few other experiences have before or since."
"I turned to my classmate and said “Do you know Freddie Mercury died?” He replied “Who is Freddie Mercury?” I was dumbfounded."
"His guitar was his alone, the Strat and Tele could have anyone’s. He didn’t look like Page or Blackmore, or any of the other bare chested gunslingers, striding around throwing shapes in every enormodome the world over. "
"...it was Queen’s third album Sheer Heart Attack before we heard his creativity spread its wings and take flight. Although never as prolific as the other three, he has given us some of the band’s greatest songs."
"I have only seen this film once and likely that won’t change, so I am recalling this from memory. That seriously doesn’t bother me in writing this because I know what I saw."
"Brian is to me the most adventurous of the band in terms of subject matter for his songs. He guides us through heartbreak, Native American genocide, nuclear war, science fiction and dead cats. Oh, and of course, weird dreams."
It’s safe to say that by the early 1980s, Queen had lost their way. After a run of near perfect
albums from Queen II to News of the World, followed by the rougher diamonds of Jazz and
The Game, the albums that followed the 70s classics were not great.
Who knows what went wrong. Too little confidence. Too much coke. Whatever it was, it clearly affected their decision making, as evidenced by their infamous appearance at Sun City in South Africa to segregated audiences.
Queen of the 1970s were leaders and trend setters. Queen of the 80s followed musical trends like sheep. 70s Queen is timeless. 80s Queen is rooted to the spot by holo drums machines and thin synth patches that historians can carbon date to almost the exact week in 1982 in which they were fashionable.
Yet even in the musical doldrums, Queen were capable of spinning pure gold. So how to discover the best of 80s Queen? One way is Queen Greatest Hits II, but any album that includes Friends Will Be Friends, The Miracle and The Invisible Man (sorry Lynn) can hardly be taken seriously. In panning for gold, you have to throw out a lot of rocks and other general crap.
Instead, I took the seven best tracks from Greatest Hits II and combined them with seven other songs from that era to create a new playlist: Hot Miracle Magic Works. This covers songs on the albums Hot Space, The Works, A Kind of Magic and The Miracle (it’s not just a clever title). A lot of these songs fail to reach the heights of 70s Queen, but below par Queen is still better than most other artists’ best work.
Disclaimer: The Works was the current album when I first discovered Queen at the age of 11. A Kind of Magic was the first new release after I became a Queen fan. As such, I have a childish affection for both albums and they are arguably overrepresented in the tracklist that follows. But if we all had the same tastes and opinions on the same things, there wouldn’t be much room for debate. Music, like life, is subjective and experience differs from person to person. What tracks from these four albums would make your playlist? No wrongs answers. NB: Some answers are more wrong than others.
Hot Miracle Magic Works
01 Radio Ga-Ga (The Works)
Only one song can kick things off. Easily the strongest opening track of the 80s albums. Not that there’s much competition from Staying Power, One Vision and Party. In a fight, Radio Ga-Ga would beat the other three without breaking sweat. We all know Radio Ga-Ga. It’s iconic and it’s brilliant. The video is burned onto the inside of our retinas, so often was it played in the years after its release. And because of the video, it is arguably the closest Queen came, live, to repeating the success of We Will Rock You. You only have to think of 70,000 people at Live Aid, hands in the air, clapping in unison, to appreciate its significance. It’s Roger Taylor at the top of his songwriting game. Which only makes The Invisible Man all the more baffling (sorry Lynn).
02 I Want It All (The Miracle)
If you were an alive and self-aware Queen fan in 1989, you remember the visceral thrill of hearing I Want it All for the first time and thinking, they’re back baby. And then you heard the rest of The Miracle and your family worried for your sanity. Actually, I loved the Miracle when it came out, but that’s because I was 16 and an idiot. I Want it All almost doesn’t make sense. Clearly the best song on The Miracle by a country mile and it was written by, of all people, Brian May. We love Brian, but his later contributions to Queen and music in general have not been exactly stellar (stellar: geddit?). Yet of the three songs I’ve included from The Miracle (see below), two were written by Brian. Which only goes to show that The Miracle fell out of some kind of parallel universe, like the Upside Down from Stranger Things or Star Trek’s Mirror Universe. Maybe that’s why Brian’s hair turned white.
03 Dancer (Hot Space)
Hot Space is a tough listen. It’s not that the songs are necessarily bad (see: Bonus Disc), but that everything else about the album is so poorly conceived and even more poorly executed that the whole thing is virtually unlistenable. It should have been called Hot Mess. One of the main problems with Hot Space is the lack of actual instrumentation played by the actual members of Queen. Talk about bad synth patches and terrible drum machines that date an album, well this is that album, containing every mistake it is possible to make. I don’t know if there’s some kind of music producers guild, but they should give you this album when you join as a cautionary tale on everything that can go wrong. That said, I picked Dancer because it is at least Queen playing together as a band. It always sounds to me like a not entirely successful attempt to recreate Dragon Attack from The Game as a funk song. I think it’s Brian’s guitar fills that make me feel this way. On an anemic album lacking in energy, Dancer is a rare shot in the arm. There are songs that sound better played live, but other than the album closer (see below), Dancer is the best of the rest.
04 Keep Passing the Open Windows (The Works)
Keep Passing the Open Windows doesn’t get a lot of love, but I’ve always had an affection for it. For me it’s the other side of the coin to It’s a Hard Life (see below). Both songs sit at the same mid-point on either side of The Works, bridging the gap between the songs that proceed and follow them. Both songs were written (largely) by Freddie Mercury. Yes, It’s a Hard Life is clearly the superior song, but Keep Passing the Open Windows is still strong.
05 One Year of Love (A Kind of Magic)
Talking of mid-album-bridging-songs, One Year of Love perfectly complements It’s a Hard Life and Keep Passing the Open Windows, appearing as it does midway through side one of A Kind of Magic. Though, arguably, the songs it bridges are all below par (which is why none of them make this list). Freddie’s vocals rarely sounded so strong and silky during the period under consideration. There are better songs on A Kind of Magic, but even Who Wants to Live Forever (see below) isn’t as soulful or heartfelt as One Year of Love. As a child of the 80s, it’s impossible to hear the song without thinking of Connor MacLeod sat in the bar in Highlander with the song playing on a jukebox in the background. Was A Kind of Magic a soundtrack album for Highlander, like Flash Gordon, or a Queen album in its own right? Sadly, it was neither one thing or the other and the result, though I can happily listen to every track except Friends Will Be Friends, still sounds half finished and careless.
06 Scandal (The Miracle)
As we’ve said, The Miracle is not a good album. It’s such a bad album that when Queen released the Collector’s Edition, containing demos and the like, they didn’t even release it on an anniversary that made sense. Rather than coming out in 2019, 30 years after its release, the Collector’s Edition only appeared in 2022 on the 33rd anniversary. It’s such a poorly thought out album that even its anniversary edition was three years late. Ok, ok, I’ll stop ragging on The Miracle. Likesay, it’s an album from another dimension and the fact that Scandal was both written by Brian May and is a genuinely good track is further proof of that. I like Scandal. I’s one of the few moments of The Miracle that isn’t entirely facile. I think I only realised what a good song it is when I heard Delain’s cover version (see: Bonus Disc). Given Scandal’s subject matter, it’s impossible, retrospectively, not to hear it and think about the press speculation and vile homophobia to which Freddie was subjected during the final years of his life. Which I think makes Scandal as much a soundtrack to those later years as The Show Must Go On or These Are the Days of Our Lives. If the Bohemian Rhapsody film (aka Hot Mess II) had been any kind of film, it would have included Scandal at some point. It might have done. I was too busy trying to burn out my five senses when I ‘experienced’ it, I can’t say for sure.
07 Who Wants to Live Forever (A Kind of Magic)
Side One ends with Who Wants to Live Forever, because what are you going to do? There isn’t a decent side one closer on any of these albums. Indeed, Friends Will Be Friends and The Invisible Man are two of the worst songs Queen ever recorded (sorry Lynn). I quite like Man on the Prowl from The Works, but I agree it sounds like Queen doing some kind of homage to Shakin’ Stevens. Crazy Little Thing Called Love it is not. What can be said about Who Wants to Live Forever that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Of course we all think of Freddie when we hear it, or of anyone we have lost in the forty odd years since its release. Although that child of the 80s can’t help but think of the montage in Highlander as Connor’s wife ages and dies, even as he stays eternally young, and the song plays over the sequence almost in its entirety. I feel another sadness when I hear Who Wants to Live Forever: That Brian and Freddie didn’t collaborate more often in singing duties. One of the things that gives the song its power is Brian’s frail vocals giving way to Freddie’s rising tour-de-force as the music builds. Like Bohemian Rhapsody, Who Wants to Live Forever has become so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget what a powerful song it truly is. Like Scandal, it is Brian writing something that has become synonymous with Freddie’s life and death. There’s a thin line between good and bad Brian songs. Who Wants to Live Forever sits well over the line with ’39 and The Prophet Song. Statues should be built to Paul McCartney for writing, “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” in Eleanor Rigby: And promptly torn down again for saying (in 2003, during the Iraq War) that he couldn’t be a pacifist while there was a war on. Statues should be erected to Brian for writing Who Wants to Live Forever. How long they would remain standing is anyone’s guess.
08 Machines (Back to Humans) (The Works)
Side Two begins in the same place as Side One, with a Roger Taylor song from The Works. Machines (Back to Humans) is and always has been my favourite track from The Works. It’s almost as if Roger was the only one in Queen who felt comfortable with the decade in which he was living and was able to filter its sounds without chasing shadows and sounding hack. His 80s solo albums, Fun in Space and Strange Frontier, are further evidence of this (flawed though they are). Machines is certainly of the time in which it was written, but unlike most of Queen’s other 80s output, it actually sounds alive to the zeitgeist. Compare the electronic and synthesizer effects on Machines to the terrible synth solo of I Want to Break Free. When so much else of The Works is harking back to the past (Tear It Up, for instance, is just a rehash of Tie Your Mother Down), why not just play it on guitar? The live versions prove that. Even Radio GaGa, which is a lament to past, is still rooted in the 80s. Roger got it. We can all speculate what kind of music Queen would be making if Freddie had lived. Listening to the synthesized robotic voice of Machines, it’s safe to say they would be messing around with auto-tuning and doing as bad a job of it as everybody else (autotuning is the synth patch of its day). A song like Jinjer’s I Speak Astronomy shows such vocal effects can still be done well, if used sparingly. Though not even Freddie could scream like Tatiana Shmayluk.
09 Gimme the Prize (A Kind of Magic)
“I know his name.” Gimme the Prize is to Highlander what Flash was to Flash Gordon, only turned up to eleven. Did Queen ever make a heavier sounding song? Stone Cold Crazy might have inspired thrash, but it’s not a thrash song, any more than Helter-Skellter is metal. Gimme the Prize is Queen’s one true heavy metal song. Songs like Gimme the Prize and Machines only make Queen’s 80s output all the more frustrating. Clearly they were capable of embracing new styles and innovating within them. It’s disappointing how often it all went wrong.
10 Breakthru (The Miracle)
Breakthru is yet further evidence that The Miracle fell through a wormhole from another reality and found itself in our universe. By rights, Breakthru should have been on Innuendo and Headlong should have been on The Miracle. Breakthru is a great song. Headlong is not (“Hoop diddy diddy, hoop diddy...” fuck off). Innuendo is a great album. The Miracle is not. Breakthru and Headlong are on the wrong albums. QED. I still have my original 1989 cassette single of Breakthru (I kept a few tapes as cheap bookshelf ornaments). Is Breakthru, Somebody to Love? No. It’s not even I Want It All or Scandal, but it’s still a good song, well executed. Which, for 1989, is still a rare and valuable nugget of Queen gold.
11 It’s A Hard Life (The Works)
It’s A Hard Life, on the other hand, is 24 carat Queen. If Radio Ga-Ga and Machines get the 80s sound right on The Works, It’s A Hard Life is a true echo of the past. It wouldn’t sound out of place on any of the later 70s albums. Though Brian and Roger contributed to the songwriting, It’s A Hard Life is clearly a Freddie song to its core. It’s his best written and most well performed song of the 1980s. A masterpiece. More words here would only do it a disservice.
12 Under Pressure (Hot Space)
Under Pressure is another song out of place and out of time. It clearly wasn’t written or recorded at the same time as the rest of Hot Space, because it sounds good. Great in fact. I love it as both a Queen fan and as a David Bowe fan, but I can imagine many Bowie fans disregard it for its association with Queen. Snooty fuckers. Under Pressure is one of those Queen songs, like Don’t Stop Me Now, We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, that has transcended music and become part of our cultural shorthand. Any political crisis or celebrity scandal can be undercut with Under Pressure playing in the background. One science based YouTuber (Sabine Hossenfelder) uses it as a running joke, playing two seconds of Under Pressure whenever the subject of physical pressure is mentioned. Of course there is also the small matter of Vanilla Ice, but we try not to think too much about that because it occasions moments of rage and visions soaked in blood (ice, ice stabby) even 30 years later.
13 Hammer to Fall (Queen at Live Aid)
No consideration of 80s Queen is complete without reference to their performance at Live Aid. It’s still making waves to this day, as demonstrated by the sheer number of YouTubers posting reactions to the full concert (search Queen Live Aid Reaction if you don’t believe me). Hammer to Fall appears on this playlist almost by default. Of the seven songs they played at Wembley, only two were from the 1980s and Radio Ga-Ga is bound up with the opening of Bohemian Rhapsody. Yet Hammer to Fall is an above average song and its Live Aid performance is as flawless as everything else Queen did on that day.
14 Princes of the Universe (A Kind of Magic)
And once again, having begun with a Works track, we close with the final track from A Kind of Magic. Some people might prefer Was It All Worth It from The Miracle, but they’re wrong and it’s my playlist, so nergh! NB: No-one, and I mean absolutely no-one, would prefer Is This the Word We Created as a closer, because no one is that much of a cunt. Freddie in a cutoff grey shirt, sword fighting Christopher Lambert on stage: That’s what I think of when I think about Princes of the Universe. I guess many of my warm feelings for A Kind of Magic are bound up with Highlander. Which I know isn’t a great film, but I was 13 when it came out and have I mentioned teenage me was an idiot? It’s why people get so exorcised over new versions of old TV series and films. Because they usually experienced them for the first time as children and new versions seem like a desecration of that childhood. Being an entitled arsehole is usually also a factor. That said, Princes of the Universe is one of the highlights of A Kind of Magic. It’s a companion piece to Gimmie the Prize, and a strong way to conclude a patchy album. Which makes its position here at the end of Hot Miracle Magic Works perfect. Magic, in fact.
01 Action this Day (Queen On Fire: Live At the Bowl)
02 Staying Power (Queen On Fire: Live At the Bowl)
03 Back Chat (Queen On Fire: Live At the Bowl)
If nothing else, Live At the Bowl is a curiosity. Many Queen songs can be heard performed live on this album and nowhere else. Even songs like Flash, The Hero and Play the Game are only available here and Queen Rock Montreal. There might be better performances of the classics on other live albums, but where else but Live At the Bowl can you hear anything from Hot Space other than Under Pressure? Nowhere, that’s where. Nowhere official at least.
What Live At the Bowl conclusively proves is that Hot Space was a badly produced album of good songs (whereas The Miracle is a well produced album of bad songs). It also shows that the decision to go funk and disco wasn’t necessarily a wrong turn. The performance of Staying Power is fantastic with strong echoes of The Jacksons, Can You Feel It? Given that the iconic, Jacksons Live, came out in 1981 as Hot Space was being recorded, it’s hardly a surprise.
Action This Day is also excellently performed. Roger and Freddie combine together on the vocals so well. All the weediness of the album version is swept away. There’s so much meatiness and power on display. Oh, what could have been. Back Chat is perhaps the weakest of the three tracks from Hot Space, but it’s still a vast improvement on the album version. The main issue with Hot Space is that Queen tried to do too much and go too far at once. Either try new styles on traditional instruments or stick to established styles using electronic equipment. Doing both at the same time in 1982 was a disaster (compared to, say, Radiohead’s Kid A, which is an example of a band making the change and getting it right). Live and on traditional instruments, the Hot Space songs sound fresh and vital. It’s a shame they didn’t have more confidence in them later down the line.
04 Delain: Scandal (Moonbathers)
As previously mentioned (see: Main Disc), it’s the Delain version of Scandal that demonstrates what a good song it really is. Clearly it influenced the world of symphonic and power metal. With a few exceptions (Ayreon, Unleash the Archers, Gloryhammer), I am not a fan of either of these subgenres. They take themselves far too seriously and seem to be largely played in major keys, which is wrong for metal. Even Delain are a bit hit and miss. But as an example of symphonic Euro rock (Delain are from the Netherlands), Scandal is well done. It goes to show that almost everything and everyone is redeemable. As I said in my last blog post (see A Look in the Mirror), I am not a fan of Muse. And yet Muse are a big influence on The Warning, who are one of the most talented rock bands to emerge in recent years (they recently supported Muse on tour in their native Mexico). But then as Muse are influenced by Queen, Pink Floyd and Radiohead, The Warning are really influenced by those bands. Either way, The Warning are excellent. And Delain’s version of Scandal is personally the best cover of a Queen song I know.
05 Don’t Lose Your Head (A Kind of Magic)
If you’ll put the pitchforks down, I’ll explain. This is an appeal on behalf of filler. In these days of music streaming, album sequencing has largely fallen by the wayside. Lesser songs are skipped and passed over and only the bangers get played. We have all become Classic Rock DJs, only playing the hits. Yet filler songs are there to clear the palate. They’re also there to remind us that life is an unrelenting trail of misery punctuated by moments of joy. With the exception of Friends Will Be Friends, Is This The World We Created or Revolution #9, there are very few album tracks I skip, mainly because I’m usually reading or writing when listening to music and I like continuity and familiarity. Anyway, I include Don’t Lose Your Head at the end of the ‘Bonus Disc’ for two reasons. Firstly because it’s an excellent palate cleaner on A Kind of Magic, sitting between Gimmie the Prize and Princes of the Universe. It does its job. It serves its purpose. Sure, Joan Armatrading is criminally underused on her guest vocals and the song is a halfway house between A Kind of Magic as soundtrack album and a Queen album proper. But I reiterate: It does its job. The other reason for its inclusion is that it’s one of those songs that would be more favourably received if it had appeared as a b-side and turned up on a bonus disc for A Kind of Magic. Sitting between two head melting bangers is unfair. It serves its purpose. And it’s still better than The Invisible Man (sorry Lynn).
“The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite.
That ever I was born to set it right!”
The vinyl record rotated on top of the hi-fi system, its spinning black disc visible through the clear plastic lid. An arm hovered an inch from the lip, travelling inwards. The needle converted information encoded on the surface into digital signals that travelled along a corkscrewed cable and into a pair of black leather headphones clamped around my adolescent head. It was 1986 and I had just heard my grandmother had died. All I wanted to do in that moment was sit quietly at the back of the living room and listen to Queen’s Greatest Hits.
Yes, yes, you don’t like Queen. What an original position to take. Perhaps you’re right, but we don’t chose who we fall in love with; nor the cultural artefacts that prise open the doors to our perception. Bruce Springsteen talks about hearing for the first time that bullet-like opening snare shot of Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and his life changing forever. For me that moment came one Saturday morning, two years earlier, when I first heard, really heard I mean, Queen.
I was eleven, awoken in the night by my drunk father caterwauling to something in the living room below me. I asked him about it next morning. I must have known Queen by then. Radio Ga Ga and I Want to Break Free were huge that year. I remember hearing them on the radio as we drove into Helensborough and back. I remember the DJ saying Freddie Mercury’s voice was one of the most distinctive in pop. You couldn’t mistake a Queen record for anyone else.
I knew nothing, however, about Queen’s 70s output. Bohemian Rhapsody wasn’t ubiquitous in the way it is today. So when I dug the album out of a pile of records and took it for a spin, I heard Bohemian Rhapsody, and all of the seventeen tracks on Greatest Hits, for the first time. What I heard that morning changed me in a way few other experiences have before or since. It was the beginning of a musical journey that would take me into Rock, Metal, Blues, Prog, Soul, Funk, Ragtime, Classical, Jazz, and a dozen other places besides. Like Miles Davis’s A Kind of Blue for Jazz, Queen are a primer for all music.
It’s probably impossible in this country to imagine a world in which no one has heard the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody or Don’t Stop Me Now before (I’m happy for Richard Curtis not to make a film about it). The closest approximation you can get is to look up the various reaction channels on YouTube and watch young American YouTubers hearing Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time. That’s the only way to regain the sense of how revolutionary the song was and remains.
You can lose an entire evening falling down that particular rabbit hole. It’s an exercise in empathy and nostalgia, seeing the look on unsuspecting faces and reliving the same sensations of surprise and awe in hearing the song’s evolving themes as if for the first time. People who hate Queen think Bohemian Rhapsody lasts about nine minutes. It actually comes in at two seconds under six. What Queen and Freddie Mercury achieve in that time is still nothing short of phenomenal. In the circle of hell dedicated to songs that have been played to death, you can keep Imagine, Free Bird, or Stairway to Heaven. If I had to listen to one of them always and forever, I’d pick Bohemian Rhapsody without question.
We were going camping with Cub Scouts that morning in 1984. I only had time to listen to the album once through before leaving the house. All weekend, Queen and Greatest Hits were all I wanted to talk about, but no-one wanted to listen. I experienced for the first time the frustration of discovering something independently for myself and wanting to share with others the same feelings of elation and joy, but not being able to make anyone else listen or understand. So I came home and listened to the album again. And again. And again. For what seemed like an age, although it was probably a few months, elongated by the eternity of youth, Queen’s Greatest Hits was all that I listened to. It was arcane knowledge, known only to me. It would remain arcane for years to come.
Bohemian Rhapsody is only the opening salvo on Greatest Hits. I think what melted my tiny mind on that first listen was the sheer variety of styles to which I was being exposed. From the rock opera of the opening track, the album segues into the pure funk of Another One Bites the Dust.
Even if you hate everything else about Queen, know this: The band had a massive hit in the American country charts with Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Then they released Another One Bites the Dust, which was huge on the American funk and disco scene. This drove middle America into typical frenzy. They felt like Queen had duped them. Like they’d sold them porn and got home to discover it was gay porn. Duping racists is never a bad thing. Does it make up for Queen playing Sun City in South Africa to segregated audiences? Certainly not. It’s simply one more tick in the pros versus cons column.
Time moves on. New music as well as old found their way into my consciousness. Dad brainwashed us with The Eagles and Simon and Garfunkel on trips out in the car. Prince, Springsteen, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood entered my awareness. Madonna was doing funny things to my maturing body. I wasn’t the only one.
I became obsessed with Fighting Fantasy Chose Your Own Adventures books and with the American Football highlights Channel Four started showing on Sunday evenings. I spent an entire day in 1985 watching Live Aid in my bedroom, but have no memory of Queen’s set. I fell asleep at one point in the afternoon, but don’t know if I slept through Freddie’s iconic performance. Maybe I did see it, but the original memory has been wiped away and replaced by constant repetition on DVD and YouTube reaction channels.
Yet on a night two years after that first listen; a night when the police knocked at the door to tell my dad his mother was dead; a night when I was so upset I had to retreat into myself and shut the world out, only one album was up to the job.
The location was different from the place in which I’d first heard Greatest Hits, but the stereo remained the same. An old Amstrad tower. All silver panelling and cheap MDF casing. Apart from the record deck, the other stereo components sat behind a glass door held in place by a magnet in the top corner. When the headphones were plugged in, the door wouldn’t shut properly.
I was an anxious child with an overactive imagination and I was scared of catching sight of my dead grandmother’s ghost in the glass reflection. I tried to hold the door open and away from me, weighted against my knee, but it kept swinging inwards and bouncing against the headphone jack. The partial image of the room stared back at me. I listened to much of the album with my eyes tightly closed.
By that time we were living in a small council flat in Solihull in the West Midlands, a mile or so down the road from my one surviving grandmother. My one surviving grandparent. Dad’s dad had died eighteen months before his mother. Mum’s dad I never knew. He died years before me or my brother were born.
Our remaining grandmother was there the night the news came. She saw how upset my younger brother and I were and hoped we would be just as devastated when her time came. She would die ten years later, in my arms, halfway up the stairs in Blackburn in another council owned property, my brother having recently left for university. Dad would die in a hospital bed six months after her and more than thirty years younger.
We were playing board games that night the police came, but I don’t remember which one. Monopoly possibly. Or Yahtzee. They were the staples of family life at the time. It certainly wasn’t Trivial Pursuit. Dad bought a copy of the Genus edition around the same time I first heard Queen. The first time we played it as a family, he won the game in about four goes. He always did have a talent for general knowledge. Whatever we were playing, I checked out after the knock at the door and retreated to the back of the living room.
Track three on Greatest Hits, Killer Queen, is the result of a happy accident involving glam rock and the works of Noel Coward. It’s the first of two tracks taken from my favourite Queen album, Sheer Heart Attack. Sheer Heart Attack is Queen’s Abbey Road, complete with a second side consisting of short songs that roll into one another like an overlong medley.
Sheer Heart Attack has all of the hallmarks that made me fall in love with Queen when I first heard Greatest Hits. It moves between a variety of styles and musical influences. It has my favourite Roger Taylor song, Tempest Funster. It has Stone Cold Crazy, which is more metal than even Metallica’s attempts to metal it up with their cover version. It has the ukulele and honky-tonk piano of Bring Back That Leroy Brown. It also has my favourite Queen cover, with its homoerotic overhead shot of the band members lying together, entwined. It is the perfect rock album.
The Solihull flat was a two bedroom property on the second floor of a three floor block of flats. I shared a room with my brother. To create a partition, we placed our wardrobes facing away from each other in the middle room. Like the flat, it was a temporary solution. Dad had left the Royal Navy at the beginning of the year after twenty one years’ service and we left our naval quarters in Helensborough in Scotland as a result. Mum managed to get a council flat in Solihull because it was up the road from where her mother had lived for more years than I’d been alive.
Gran’s ground floor masionette and its back garden are one of the defining places of my childhood. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still conjure up the smell of the flat in my imagination. The smell of old age and cigarette smoke that had over the years stained the living room ceiling nicotine brown. More than half my life has passed since she died and yet I still dream of going back to that flat at least once a year.
I remember the frosted glass door to the living room and the top loading washing machine in the kitchen; the black and white TV she’d rented for so long that the rental company gave it to her. Porcelain figures of Siamese cats peering over the lip of glass bowls. Toby Jug like faces hung on the walls. The guest bed, over laden with sheets and blankets tucked under the mattress so tightly, it was virtually impossible to move once installed for the night. I spent the first half of every night we stayed there trying to wrestle myself free from the oppressive weight of the bedclothes, like Houdini breaking out of a straight jacket.
We moved so often during the first twenty years of my life, often travelling from one end of the country to the other, that gran’s masionette became a virtual halfway house. I remember staying there overnight on our way from Northampton to Blackburn. I was fifteen and had to leave my teenage girlfriend behind. I cried inconsolably on the bed for twenty four hours straight. I don’t remember ever getting under the covers, I was so hot with the grief of it all. The relationship lasted a few months after I left, but at the time it seemed like the most important thing in the world.
In the seventies we lived for a year in King’s Heath in nearby Birmingham. Gran was often my babysitter. In that masionette I learned all kinds of card games, playing for pennies and for fun. I remember trying to teach her poker, which I’d read about in my dad’s leather-bound encyclopaedias, but not understanding the vagaries of call and bluff. We gave it up as a bad idea after a hand or two. One of my great regrets is I never got to teach her Shithead, which is objectively the greatest card game of all time.
By comparison, I remember dad’s mum not nearly so well. I recall visiting her in buildings that seemed to me colossal at the time. Most of dad’s side were from and remained in Liverpool. The old Georgian townhouses, unwelcome reminders of Liverpool’s prosperity from the slave trade, had been broken up into flats during the city’s long decline. I remember a huge spiral staircase that led up to her flat on the second floor. Having lived in the city for a couple of years as an adult, close to those same townhouses, they don’t seem nearly so big.
Fat Bottomed Girls is virtually the blues, which ironically features on the album, Jazz. It’s an odd song. Like much of 70s music, you wouldn’t get away with it today. This is twinned and followed by the incomparable Bicycle Race from the same album. I haven’t seen the Queen musical, We Will Rock You, because even I have standards, but I imagine Bicycle Race would fit well into the musical format. It has what could be termed, sing-a-long-ability.
We remained in Solihull for barely four months in 1986, but much of historical note happened in that time. In April, America and Britain bombed Libya. It was in retaliation for a terrorist attack on a nightclub in West Berlin that the leaders of both countries already knew hadn’t been carried out by Libya. It was their go to place for retaliatory action at the time. The original Evil Empire (which is Rage Against the Machine’s best album – don’t @ me).
I remember overhearing the news in the playgrounds of my new school and being enraged at the senseless killing. I would read years later in Chomsky how the bombing was timed to coincide with the primetime news cycles in the United States. I spent most of my early life on naval estates, terrified by the nuclear attack alarms being tested at irregular intervals, not helped by films like Threads, the story of a northern town in the aftermath of nuclear war. To my teenage brain, it made no sense to invite attack. I wish I could reassure my younger self that nuclear weapons are history’s biggest bluff. No-one is mad enough to use them. If one country used them, every country would use them. No-one would survive.
As if to highlight this point, the Chernobyl disaster took place eleven days after the Libya bombing. With news at the time limited to half an hour, the true scale of the disaster only emerged over the days and weeks. We were warned not to drink rainwater as a precaution, but being the contrary brat I was, I took to walking in the rain with my mouth open to the sky. Apparently I was terrified of nuclear war, but hungry for nuclear waste.
The other thing that happened while we were in Solihull was Children’s BBC started showing The Mysterious Cities of Gold. It was a cartoon series set in the sixteenth century, about a Spanish boy trying to find his father in the New World. Every kid in Britain was obsessed with The Mysterious Cities of Gold that year and throughout its thirty nine episode run. Why wouldn’t we be? It had a mechanical flying condor made out of solid gold. Everyone wanted to be Esteban. Everyone could sing the theme song. Although like Live Aid, time has erased its memory and overwritten it with the theme song of the series that followed it on Children’s BBC: Around the World with Willy Fog. Neither the show or its theme song were a patch on The Mysterious Cities of Gold.
Other than Another One Bites the Dust, You’re My Best Friend is the only other song on Greatest Hits written by bass player, John Deacon. All other tracks on the album were written by Freddie Mercury or Brian May. Deacon wrote the song about his wife, but the song had been repurposed in TV and film to underscore bromance, most notably Shaun and Ed in Shaun of the Dead, in which the song closes the film.
Wikipedia lists You’re My Best Friend under the genre of ‘twee pop’, and the song is certainly twee. Yet it is also heartfelt, which is what elevates it to the level of a great pop record. John Deacon plays both the bass and electric piano on the recording. Freddie Mercury hated electric piano and refused to play it. Live, he reverted to his customary grand piano, although by the end of the 70s the song no longer appeared on Queen’s live sets.
Coincidentally, the other Queen song that appears on Shaun of the Dead, Don’t Stop Me Now, follows You’re My Best Friend on Greatest Hits. Shaun of the Dead brought that song to a whole new generation of listeners. It is the most upbeat of all upbeat songs. I remember being in the pub with work colleagues in 2005, the year after Shaun of the Dead came out. We’d all just been made redundant by the firm of solicitors at which I’d worked for three years until that morning. Everyone was feeling low. I put Don’t Stop Me Now on the jukebox and the mood changed. We all knew we’d get through this and move on to better things.
One of the advantages to frequently moving around is it’s a simple matter to relate world events to their place in time by reference to where you were living when you heard the news. The run of disasters in the late 80s that include the Challenger disaster, the Kings Cross station fire, and the Piper Alpha disaster are all easy for me to date by remembering where we were. Actually I was still at school during these tragedies, so the trick is to remember the sick jokes that were being told at the time (what’s got four legs and goes woof? Piper Alpha) and which group of friends were telling them.
I don’t remember when we left Solihull for Eastbourne, but I do remember watching the 1986 FA Cup final with my brother on my colour portable TV in our bedroom in Solihull. Liverpool beat Everton 3-1 to complete the league and cup double. That was 19 May 1986. By the time of the ’86 World Cup, which began at the end of the same month, we’d moved to Eastbourne. In the dimness of my memory, it seems like we already knew we were moving by the time of the cup final. It might have been the last thing we did of note in that flat. It must have been. Our parents bought a house, which wouldn’t have happened overnight.
Apparently I’d joined Sea Cadets almost immediately after the move to Eastbourne, because I can remember walking through the front door on a Friday night and asking my brother for the scores. I also remember hearing and telling jokes about King Cross and Piper Alpha in the toilets of the Sea Cadet building up on the sea front. By the time of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, we were living in Northampton. By the time of Hillsborough and Tiananmen Square in 1989, we were in Blackburn.
We were in Blackburn when Liverpool next won the FA Cup in 1989. Again, Liverpool played Everton in the final. Fitting, given the Hillsborough tragedy impacted everyone in the city, Everton and Liverpool supporters alike. Liverpool won 3-2 after extra time. Each time Everton equalised, my brother went off to his bedroom in a huff and wouldn’t come out until Liverpool retook the lead. It’s an attitude I have very much adopted in adult life. Refusing to engage with any football related media when Liverpool lose. Luckily it happens less and less these days. For now.
Side One (ask your parents) of Queen’s Greatest Hits ends with the ballad, Save Me. A pretty downbeat way to end the first passage of music. On that night in 1986, it was the song I needed to hear least, with its refrain of, “I can’t face this life alone.”
Still, I reconnected with Queen on that night in Solihull and started to move beyond Greatest Hits. A Kind of Magic came out as a single on 17 March 1986, the day of my brother’s ninth birthday. The song and album were written as a soundtrack to the film, Highlander. I have a clear vision of the 7 inch single I owned. The blue cover with Kurgan from the film on the front. The indent of the record’s notched centre worn through the paper and into his breast plate from the cover being pressed in with my other seven inches. The music video set in the theatre with the cartoon renderings of the band members was on everywhere. At a newsstand in Birmingham’s Bull Ring, I bought Smash Hits, or equivalent trash music magazine, because it had a free pull out poster of the Queen cartoons.
At some point we acquired as a family a copy of Queen’s 1984 album, The Works, on cassette. It was on constant rotation in the car. I still have a soft spot for that album. Perhaps it’s just the time in which it came out and the time in which I heard it. More likely it’s because it’s Queen’s best 80s album (if you don’t count The Game, which I always think of as a 70s album, even though it was released in 1980). Not a duff track. Well, one. Is This The Word We Created. Millionaires pontificating about the state of the world. Like Bono’s entire existence distilled into song form. Also, the solo to I Want to Break Free. A mate of mine says it’s the kind of thing they put on in job centres to break your spirit. I can’t disagree.
Radio Ga Ga and Hammer to Fall are on The Works. Machines (Back to Humans) is one of Queen’s most underrated songs. I always thought we had a dodgy pressing of the album, because Man on the Prowl ends side one so abruptly, like the inverse of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) that ends side one of the Beatles’ Abbey Road and seems to go on forever. It seemed to take forever to fast forward the tape and turn over to side two and Machines. Ask your parents.
To be fair though, Queen only released five studio albums in the 80s (they made eight between 1973 and 1980, up to The Game). The competition for The Works is therefore slim. Of those five, Flash Gordon is fine. Hot Space is as dire as dire can be, although it does end with Under Pressure, which only makes things worse. Although some of those songs are much better played live (listen to Live at the Bowl, for instance).
The Works is pretty good. A Kind of Magic has some fantastic songs, but also contains Friends Will Be Friends, which is my least favourite Queen song of all time. 1989’s The Miracle has some great songs (I Want it All and Breakthru), but is also quite silly in places (I’m looking at you, Invisible Man) and downright terrible in others (Party, Khashoggi’s Ship, and most of the rest of the album). That said, I’ve always had a soft spot for Scandal. Delain’s version on their 2016 album, Moonbathers, is easily my favourite cover of a Queen song. It certainly isn’t Queensrÿche’s version of Innuendo, which is made all the worse by the fact that I otherwise love Queensrÿche.
Side Two of Greatest Hits starts with Crazy Little Thing Called Love, the song that lulled the rednecks into a false sense of security. That’s followed by my favourite Queen song of all, Somebody to Love. It’s probably the song that best demonstrates the power of Freddie Mercury’s singing voice. No one can sing that song like Freddie. George Michael had a good stab at it at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, but even with a gospel choir to back him he still sounds flat.
There isn’t an album Queen released in the 1980s that can compare to the best of the best of their 70s albums. Bohemian Rhapsody might be the best song on Greatest Hits, but it’s only the second or third best song on A Night at the Opera from 1975. The Prophet’s Song easily beats it. ’39 might be the best Queen song Brian May ever wrote (which means, by extension, the best song Brian May ever wrote). I only realised years later that ’39 is about travelling out into the galaxy at near light speed and coming home to find your children old and grown thanks to the effects of relativistic time dilation.
A Night at the Opera is a masterpiece from start to finish and rightly the album that made Queen famous. It’s follow up, A Day at the Races (both albums named after Marx Brothers’ films at the suggestion of producer, Roy Baker) is even better. Somebody to Love is on there. Tie Your Mother Down is problematic, but Brian May did write it in his youth (and unaccountably continues to play it in his 70s). The older you get, the more you realise that half the rock and pop cannon from the last sixty years is about grooming, stalking, or gaslighting women and girls.
A Day at the Races has a more stripped down sound to A Night at the Opera. It’s a mellower album, not as varied as Queen’s previous albums, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s arguably their last truly great album (though the follow up, News of the World, has grown on me over the years). Most of Queen’s best music was made before they became famous. The albums that followed A Day at the Races are fine, but patchy. They have some great songs, but contain a lot more filler too. This flaw is common in all bands as they progress together. Usually it’s a consequence of being on tour all of the time. That’s why the Beatles stopped touring. And why the Beatles made most of their best albums after they did so.
After Somebody to Love, we have Now I’m Here. A good, solid rock song and the second track taken from Sheer Heart Attack. I have a memory of listening to Sheer Heart Attack as we returned to the streets of Barrow in Furness, where we had lived for a year in the 1970s, and where my brother was born. It was the first time we’d been back since leaving fifteen years earlier. I have a vision of Tempest Funster playing on the tape deck as dad tries to remember the way to our old estate, but is only able to navigate his way via the pubs in the neighbourhood. There are no speakers in the back of the car and I want him and mum to shut up talking so I can hear the damn song. But Tempest Funster, like life, is too short and over far too quickly. And like life, I have no power to rewind the tape.
Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy is straight out of the music hall tradition. Full of those lush vocal harmony arrangements that characterise much of A Day at the Races, even more so than A Night at the Opera. It probably wins the award for Song on Greatest Hits Least Played to Death, but is also one of the best. Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy stands out, even in an album of standout songs. It’s style is unusual even amongst Greatest Hits’ changing styles. It’s placement between Now I’m Here and Play the Game always struck me as jarring. Perhaps it’s because the tracks either side of it seem contemporary to the time in which they were written. Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy seems out of an another age by comparison. On A Day at the Races, its placement fits into the general narrative of the album. But greatest hits albums are made by record companies, with songs included or excluded from regional variations with little sense for narrative.
Play the Game is the fourth track taken from the album, The Game, after Another One Bites the Dust, Save Me, and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. The fourth song and the fourth different musical style. Play the Game is like late 70s proto electronica. Of the three “70s” albums that followed A Day at the Races, The Game is probably my favourite. Dragon Attack is on there. Another underrated Queen song. I have happy memories of making my Northampton girlfriend, the one I would leave in floods of tears, a copy of The Game, as well as a number of other mix tapes (ask your parents). When we reconnected as friends many years later, she had become a huge Queen fan. Reference to Hot Space was part of her email address, but I tried not hold it against her.
I remember the day Freddie Mercury died. Speculation in the press had been rife for some time. AIDS was still regarded as something salacious, associated with being gay, which was also something still regarded as shameful by the mainstream. It’s pleasing to see how far we’ve come in such a short space of time.
It was 1991 and I had moved on from Queen. Their final album, Innuendo, had been released, but it was the first one in seven years that I didn’t own. Heavy metal was my jam by then and very little that wasn’t metal got a look in. Indie was the music of the day and our sworn enemy. We were listening to albums like The Almighty’s Soul Destruction, Wolfsbane’s Down Fall the Good Guys, and Motorhead’s 1916. Guns n’ Roses released their two Use Your Illusion albums in that year. Anthrax teamed up with Public Enemy to cover Bring the Noise. Grunge was blowing up into a worldwide phenomenon. Alice in Chains were now my favourite band. The softest thing I listened to that year was probably Metallica’s Black Album.
Yet I felt the sadness like everyone else. Perhaps also relief, like when a close relative has been ill for some time. Queen had released The Show Must Go On six weeks before Freddie died, which almost seemed like a formal declaration of his impending death. It certainly felt like it at the time, watching the video on Top of the Pops as it charted in the UK top twenty and feeling the oppressive inevitably of what was to come.
Flash is an echo of the days when you could only experience a film by buying the edited highlights on audio. I can still quote verbatim from the M*A*S*H film soundtrack, we played it so often on trips out in the car. Queen’s Flash Gordon album is still probably a better way to experience the film Flash Gordon than actually watching it. The song, Flash, is the overture to that album.
It was a cold morning in November, making my way to college in the half-light, having just heard the news. My girlfriend took the piss for being sad that Freddie had died. She too later became a Queen fan. They all do. When you introduce them to the right albums.
We watched the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert when it was broadcast on BBC1 in April the following year. Metallica played. Guns n’ Roses too. Our metal gods, Tony Iommi and Robert Plant, made guest appearances. Lots of pop stars showed up as well, whom we tolerated. Extreme played that More Than Words song, which we didn’t. At least no one indie showed up. It was my mate Paul’s first gig. Git. Having watched it all back in recent years, my main takeaways are that it was a fitting tribute to a rock and pop legend, but also that no-one could perform those songs like Freddie could. There really was no one like him.
Seven Seas of Rhye was an instrumental track on Queen’s debut album that became a fully fledged song with lyrics by the time Queen II was released the following year It was the band’s first real commercial hit. Seven Seas of Rhye is an echo of those first two Queen albums, which are in many ways atypical to any subsequent album. Yet they contain all of the seeds for what was to come. I would probably rate Queen II in my top three Queen albums. No. No probably about it.
Eventually I did own a copy of Innuendo and all of Queen’s albums, through CD and then download. It’s reasonable. The title track is every bit the tour de force as Bohemian Rhapsody, but with the added attraction of not having been played to death. I’m Going Slightly Mad is almost the antithesis of Invisible Man. The Show Must Go On is imperious, like the pop equivalent of Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. These Are the Days of Our Lives is impossibly sad, especially when you see the video that was one of the last things Freddie Mercury made before he died.
However, there are also a lot of songs on that last album that are not even filler, but packaging, like the things they put in parcels to soak up moisture. It’s not a great album, though it has incredible peaks. Like much of Queen’s later output, it’s better experienced through the second Greatest Hits album. Always excluding, of course, Friends Will Be Friends.
Queen’s first Greatest Hits album ends with We Will Rock You and We are the Champions. To be honest, these final two songs are ones which for years I could happily have never heard again. Perhaps that’s why I ignored News of the World for so long. Because they are the first two tracks on the album. My opinions have mellowed over the years.
However, when I first heard Greatest Hits, We Will Rock You and We are the Champions hadn’t yet been played to death by every sporting event and sports stadium the world over. They are good songs, maybe even great songs, but America ruined them and devalued them through constant repetition. I think the 1994 US World Cup was the final nail in the coffin. Familiarity and corporate cheesiness truly do breed contempt.
I rarely listen to Greatest Hits these days. Greatest hits albums are fine for dipping one’s toe into an artist’s back catalogue, but they can only scratch the surface. When I think of the bands and artists I first heard through greatest hits albums, like Bob Dylan and Black Sabbath, they are poor representations of the whole. Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are a Changing are arguably the worst songs on their respective albums. The songs on Sabbath’s Greatest Hits only represent the band’s heavy metals songs, but neglect the influences of blues, psychedelic rock, and gypsy jazz that one finds in the early albums. Greatest hits albums are fine if you only want to hear the songs the record label thought would make good singles, or if you want to hear the same half dozen Bob Marley songs that everyone has heard countless times before and been cheapened by inclusion in a thousand different adverts. Greatest hits albums also, famously, only make money for the record company, with very little money going to the artist. A bit like the precursor to Spotify.
Yet long after greatest hits albums have lost their flavour, what remains is the actual studio material. Thirty eight years after first hearing Queen, I still listen to those albums. Mainly the first seven or eight releases, plus The Works. Some of the others less frequently. I recently heard Hot Space for the first time in twenty years. And you know what? It’s not completely terrible. It is pretty terrible though.
Of course many people think all of Queen’s music is terrible and that’s fine. It is your right. There are plenty of popular bands that I dislike. U2 (in one ear and out the other). Coldplay (Radiohead for people with no actual problems). Muse (three terrible tribute acts in one band). Then again, I never was one of the cool kids. When I was first listening to Queen, my peers were listening to AC/DC or The Jam. I only got to them much later.
It’s weird to think back, but in 1980s teenage culture, at least in Scotland, there was a resurgence of the Mod versus Rockers rivalry that began in the sixties. You were one or you were the other or you were no-one. Except the Mods weren’t really Mods and the Rockers were now all Metal Heads. Metal is what I would fall into, but not until five years after Queen and in a different town and indeed a different country. The year Freddie Mercury died, I watched Queensrÿche, Metallica and AC/DC perform at Castle Donnington Monsters of Rock festival. But that’s another story.
There remains the issue of Sun City. I don’t know when I first heard about it. Queen played South Africa in 1984, but with news being slow back then, I don’t think I heard about it until the following year. It might have even been later. I have a dim memory of reading about it in Solihull, a full two years later. That might be the first time I experienced something approaching ambivalence, or doublethink. I was angry at people for having a go at Queen, but at the same time angry with Queen for doing something so tone deaf and idiotic. I’m certainly not going to justify it here. It was and is indefensible.
What is interesting to me is to what extent artists are criticised or given a free ride based on who they are and how they are regarded. After all, Elton John also played Sun City (not the last dodgy gig he played). So did Tina Turner. Many others too. Yet the one that sticks in the popular imagination even forty years later is Queen. Yet if Twitter has taught us anything, it is that people hold tight to their deeply held prejudices and then seek to justify them. The standards that apply to your tribe are not to be applied to mine.
In talking about nationalism, Nietzsche notes that a Catholic is not a Catholic because they have done a comparative study of all the world’s religions and decided that Catholicism and Christianity are best. You begin as a Catholic and justify from there. Believing the country you come from is best comes from exactly the same place.
So does believing anything else, like Queen should be uniquely condemned for playing Sun City. They should be condemned. So should every artist else who does such things. Instead, people who already disliked Queen used (and use) Sun City as a justification for their prejudices, while excusing or ignoring things like Bowie’s support for fascism and Hitler in interviews given in the 1970s. Or Miles Davis’s acts of serial domestic violence against a succession of women, all documented in his autobiography, Miles, and for which he barely expresses remorse. None of these things should necessarily disbar a musician’s back catalogue, but they should certainly stand as an asterisk against said output.
If there is any lesson to take from all of this, it’s that people who set their moral compass according to the actions of musicians and other artists are on very dodgy ground. Artists are, for the most part, arseholes. Admire them for their creative output, but don’t look to them for moral guidance. They are the abstract and brief chroniclers of the time. Take them for what they are. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Queen defined my adolescence. Soundtracked it. In the same way that Alice in Chains and Radiohead soundtracked my twenties and thirties. Soothing sounds of dark tones that lighted me through the sewers of depression.
I feel sorry for people with no great affinity for music. Not only does music have the power to relieve the spirit during turbulent times, but music is the key that opens the door to past memory. A song unheard for decades can, like Proust’s Madeleine, transport one back through one’s personal history to a day seen as clearly as if it happened yesterday. A song that recalls the faces of those who didn’t make it this far down the line. A song that reminds one of the day on which they became lost.
Music is memory. Music is remembrance.
Let me tell ya...
I was a music fan early on, recording the Top 40 when I was 7 and compiling C90 tapes that had The Final Countdown by Europe, Breakout by Swing Out Sister and West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys on them. By that point I had already has a whiff of ‘serious’ acts like The Beatles and ELO. I still like The Beatles but ELO can kiss my ring. However, it wasn’t until Paul started buying Queen albums that I really got into music. One of my early Queen memories was having a tape copy of Greatest Hits and taking it into school in my Walkman (It wasn’t a Walkman. It was a PYE ‘personal stereo’ which I still have!). I let one of my classmates John Doyle listen to the first song. He asked, as it went on, if it was still the same song and I said it was, although I didn’t really know at that point when Bo Rhap ended! I remember clearly though when Paul rented out the We Will Rock You VHS and I saw Queen and in particular Freddie, that I became hooked. I was mesmerised by him. I spoke to my best school friend (and Joe’s cousin), Paul Callaghan (R.I.P.), about it and tried to explain how Freddie performed. I just loved talking to someone about him. Incidentally I was watching the Blu Ray of the gig this year and my then 5 year-old son was sitting glued to it. It wasn’t by design, I was watching for the podcast but he was snared. Ever since he has been obsessed with Queen and Freddie.
So I became a Queen fan towards the end. The Miracle was the first Queen album that came out when I was fan and I remember watching the making of the I Want it All video on Saturday morning kids TV. Freddie looked great with a beard! The song was killer as well. The album…oh well. When the Innuendo single was about to be released in January 1991, Paul had recorded it from the Steve Wright show on Radio 1 and played it to me when I came in from school, all the while with a big cheesy grin on his face. I couldn’t digest it in one listen but was very curious about the song. It is now easily in my Top 5 Queen songs. John, Roger and Brian are amazing on that track, Steve Howe too of course but Freddie is the star. The hurt, bitterness and hope in the song is absolute when Freddie sings those words. The Innuendo album for me is massive but I remember it being a very ‘weighty’ listen when I was 12. It all seemed a bit down in the dumps mostly, even the minimalistic album artwork and the very telling stretched, filtered band picture seemed to suggest a ‘serious’ Queen. We had of course seen Freddie the previous year at the Brit Awards and Paul had pointed out that picture on the inner sleeve, suggesting something was not right with Freddie.
I saw the newspaper on the Sunday morning of 24th November which featured Freddie’s announcement that he had AIDS. I was only 12 but growing up in the 80s, I knew what that meant. Freddie was going to die. No-one except his close friends could have an idea of when that could be. My mum exclaimed “He’ll be dead within a week.” What she based this on, I have no idea and I don’t think she meant to be hurtful in saying it, it was just what she thought. She would often ruin Celtic games for us by saying that the other team were going to score and sure enough they did within 5 minutes. It wasn’t because she was a seer, she was watching the game using her brain, we were watching with our hearts and didn’t want to accept the inevitable. Of course, we all know what happened the evening of 24th November: the inevitable. How quick it was though. I found out on Monday morning when my brother Brian woke me up for school and told me. I was hurting. He was hurting too but we pretended not to be and just got ready for school.
I went to school that morning and I remember my first lesson was Science. I noticed how weird it was that everyone was acting as if nothing had happened. I couldn’t understand it. Why wasn’t the class noisy with discussion about the death of a musical genius? I turned to my classmate Gary Maguire and said “Do you know Freddie Mercury died?” He replied “Who is Freddie Mercury?” I was dumbfounded. Looking back, it maybe wasn’t a massive surprise; despite having a number one album and single the same year, Queen weren’t the coolest band in the world in 1991 or in any year to be fair. Without doubt though, that same classmate now knows who Freddie Mercury is and dare I say has impacted his life in some way. Later that evening the BBC showed an hour-long tribute to Freddie which was kicked off with a piece to camera from Elton John. There was footage of Queen’s great live moments, including Live Aid of course with text documenting Freddie’s life. It was though, the end of the documentary that resonated with me (and many others). It was the premiere of the These Are the Days of Our Lives video and my heart was breaking watching it. I was watching this in my living room with my parents and brothers and I bottled up all of my feelings during it, before going off to bed and having a private cry. I lost a grandparent when I was 6 but he lived in England and I had only met him a few times. Despite not realising it at the time, Freddie’s death was the first time I had experienced proper grief in my life. That probably sounds over the top, which I understand, but there is no other way I can describe what I was feeling.
So to answer my classmate of 1991 who asked who Freddie Mercury was, Freddie Mercury is someone that had something that very few people have. He was able to puncture the hardest soul with his character, humour, personality but more importantly with his music. From the raw beauty of You Take My Breath Away to the bitter indignation of Innuendo, Freddie could and can still take you anywhere you want.
There will never be another Freddie Mercury. Although, looking through the prism of great artists that have passed, it is too easy to say that music is heading in a downward spiral of soulless, vapid, banality, but that isn’t true. Music is still great and there are still artists out there that can evoke some of the feelings that Freddie could. Only some of those feelings though, so maybe that is the point.
I was attending a college open day to talk to students about careers in tourism/hospitality which finished up earlier than I had expected.
I was in Livingston and my car was parked in a shopping centre that had a cinema. In the cinema, they were showing Bohemian Rhapsody.
For £4.99. I paid the £4.99 and took my seat. To that point I had no desire to see the film because frankly I knew what to expect and what
I expected wasn’t good. The film had been out for around 6 weeks or so and with being a weekday the cinema was quiet. This was a bonus, as
listening to a full cinema all loved up and singing Don’t Stop Me Now would have induced violence (from me). I don’t know if that ever
happened but I like to imagine it did so that I can keep the Queen superiority complex that I have alive and kicking!
My brothers in podcasting (and one of which who is my actual brother), Paul and Joe, had seen the film and initially gave it a reasonable review. The one thing that struck me as odd at the time was when Paul had texted me that, in paraphrasing here, ‘Roger and Brian must have hated Freddie’. Now I thought that was a ridiculous thing to say, or text, and almost blasphemy. Now it was a text message and we all get ridiculous on those things from time to time. However, having watched the movie from beginning to end, did he have a point?
Before I go any further, do I think Roger and Brian hated Freddie? No I don’t. Do I think Paul thinks that either? No I don’t. It was dramatic choice of words in a private (now public!) text message. So please… take a breath.
I have only seen this film once and likely that won’t change, so I am recalling this from memory. That seriously doesn’t bother me in writing this because I know what I saw. This is not a review of the film. I won’t be talking about the direction (certainly not Bryan Singer), the cinematography or even the performances. I will be focusing on the story. The largely fictional story. I know what some might say, ‘It’s not a historical document!’, ‘What biopic ever tells the true story?!’ etc. Fair enough. However, Queen in this film to me were unrecognisable. I left the cinema thinking I knew nothing about Queen and maybe I misread or misheard the abundance of interviews from the band both pre and post-Freddie’s death. If I was a casual Queen fan or just a general movie-goer, I would have left the cinema thinking Freddie was a self-interested, drugged up, tragic figure whom the band didn’t like. I would have also noted that the band recorded no Queen or toured from 1982 until Live Aid. Oh I should mention that that was Freddie’s fault for being off his face. The other three never touched the stuff. Also that the band only warmed to Freddie after he revealed he had AIDS (apparently in the Live Aid rehearsals. Yeah…). Roger, Brian and John come across as a bunch of smug arseholes who are constantly sneering at Freddie’s life choices. The bit where Freddie is waiting in the lobby wringing his hands in anxiousness, as John sounding like a disappointed boss, calls him in to the band meeting is simply pathetic. Infuriatingly pathetic. Freddie reveals he desperately wants another chance and do this lovely charity gig to make everything better. Awwwww. Bullshit. Freddie was the one that had to be convinced to do Live Aid. I know that. You know that.
Why does it matter? It’s only a film. Yes it is. But when that film rewrites history to the detriment of someone who unfortunately can’t answer for himself, that bothers me. It bothers me also because as flawed as Freddie was, the Freddie in the film is fictional. The fact that Brian and Roger are executive producers on this bothers me also. They had a chance to lift the movie out of its Hollywood bullshit hysteria and make something that had artistic merit. But then again what have they done in the Queen name in 29 years that has that? I am not overly bothered about shifting of timelines i.e. Freddie having a ‘tache when recording We Will Rock You or Rio being in 1975 instead of 1985 but when you effectively blame Freddie for all the problems in the band, that’s dangerous to me and borderline hurtful. I have no doubt Freddie was a prick at times but I strongly doubt any more than the other three. Paul Prenter gets his fair share of blame too which to some degree is fair, especially as he was the arse who sold Freddie out to The Sun in 1986. But wait a minute, you can’t defend yourself against Freddie’s personal manager? If that was as big a problem as it has been made out, I might argue that the problem was bigger than Freddie and Paul Prenter. Didn’t Brian say that during the Hot Space sessions that they were ALL in a bad place physically and mentally?
No it was Freddie. Just Freddie.
If Roger and Brian since Freddie’s death had talked about a fractured relationship with Freddie and painted the picture of situation almost like that of The Who, basically hating each other, then this hatchet job would have been less of a surprise. But they have used Freddie’s image time after time in the promotion of anything they do in the name of Queen; the recent Queen and Adam Lambert documentary begins with footage of Freddie with wistful style camera panning around the band’s instruments as the footage plays in the background. Roger also reminds the viewers that ‘Freddie’s dead and he’s not coming back.’ Thanks for the clarity Roger. So which one is it? You’re holding on to Freddie’s image or trying to break free (!) of its looming shadow?
I digress. So why? Why are they happy to rewrite their own history and that of their friend? I can think of 903.7 million reasons why that might be the case.
Oh and yes, he very much had a point.
Brian May as you may be aware was the guitar player in the rock band Queen. He is quite rightly regarded as one of the
greatest guitar players ever, and his approach to the instrument and its sound is pretty unique. The boy can play. We
all know this. But he also wrote some stunning words to go with all that great music, and if I may I’d like to pick
some of my favourites. Brian is to me the most adventurous of the band in terms of subject matter for his songs.
He guides us through heartbreak, Native American genocide, nuclear war, science fiction and dead cats. Oh, and of
course, weird dreams. A disclaimer: I’m a bit of a miserable bastard, so most of these are a bit on the down side!
Father To Son from Queen II (1974)
Take this letter that I give you
Take it sonny, hold it high
You won’t understand a word that’s in it
But you’ll write it out again before you die (yeah yeah)
These words are so beautiful and they certainly resonated with me when my first kid was born- a girl funnily enough! The idea of passing things on to your children and existing to provide for them, then they have children etc. is a concept that you wouldn’t normally attribute to a young emerging proto-rockstar, but then Brian and Queen weren’t like their contemporaries. This shows a maturity and understanding beyond his 27 years, Brian is an old soul, as we will see as we go on.
After missing a large chunk of the Sheer Heart Attack sessions and therefore having a reduced role in the song writing stakes Brian came back with a vengeance on the next opus, A Night at the Opera.
’39 from A Night at the Opera (1975)
For the earth is old and grey, little darling, we’ll away
But my love this cannot be
For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year
Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me
Future travellers leave Earth to search for new lands/planets. When they return they have aged a year, but everyone on Earth has aged 100. What a brilliant concept. Hawkwind must have been kicking themselves that they didn’t think of this first. When you think about it Brian has managed to cram an entire prog rock concept album into 3 minutes 30 seconds! Genius!
Brian was in bed one night, sometime in 1974. Like Mary Shelley wrenched from a dream to write Frankenstein, Brian was awoken with the next song fully formed in his beautiful mind. A what a wondrous and dark world he weaves!
The Prophet’s Song from A Night at the Opera (1975)
Oh, oh, people of the earth!
“Listen to the warning”
The prophet he said
For soon the cold of night will fall
Summoned by your own hand
Where to start with this! A mad Biblical vision ripped from the book of Genesis? A scary hepatitis induced fever dream nightmare? Who cares, it’s fucking metal as fuck! Often seen as Brian response to Freddie’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which it matches in scope and impact, but where Bo Rap is (amazing and genius) metaphoric mumbo jumbo, Brian puts you right fucking there! His vision is our vision, he tells us as clear as a moonlit stair what we are dealing with, and it’s rather awesome!
White Man from A Day at the Races (1976)
White man, white man
Our country was green
And all our rivers wide
White man, white man
You came with a gun
And soon our children died
White man, white man
Don’t you give a light
For the blood you’ve shed?
Brian takes on the Genocide of the Native Americans in this hard hitting song. I like that this is political in a way that (at the cusp of punk going big) nobody was doing. Of course these lyrics are transferable to any part of the globe where European colonists imposed their God and ‘civilisation’.
All Dead, All Dead from News of the World (1977)
All dead, all dead
At the rainbow’s end
And still I hear her own sweet song
All dead, all dead
Take me back again
You know my little friend’s
All dead and gone
Brian is a specialist at conveying loss and sadness, and this is a particularly good example of his prowess. Inspired by the death of the family cat, it is just a beautiful and simple wee note of the pain we all have to face at various points in our life.
Save Me from The Game (1980)
It started off so well
They said we made a perfect pair
I clothed myself in your glory and your love
How I loved you
How I cried
The years of care and loyalty
Were nothing but a sham it seems
The years belie we lived a lie
I love you till I die
Save me save me save me
I can’t face this life alone
Save me save me save me
I’m naked and I’m far from home
Brian once again conveys loss in this heart breaking paean to lost love. I have personal experience of this very subject matter, a s I’m sure many of you have too, and these words are so simply put but hit home like a beautiful pain. This is stunning song writing.
Who Wants To Live Forever from A Kind Of Magic (1986)
But touch my tears with your lips
Touch my world with your fingertips
And we can have forever
And we can love forever
Forever is our today
How many times are you going to make me cry Brian? This is quite simply the greatest song about love and loss I have ever encountered. You have yours, this is mine. It will be getting played at someone’s funeral right now. Not me-I’m dead.
The Show Must Go On from Innuendo (1991)
The show must go on
The show must go on
Inside my heart is breaking
My makeup may be flaking
But my smile, still, stays on
My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies
Fairy tales of yesterday, grow but never die
I can fly, my friends
Brian wrote this for his friend and band mate who at this point had months to live. Instead of wallowing in pity and sorrow Brian makes Freddie a fearless and unrepentant old trouper. He makes him fucking fly! If this was paper it would be unreadable from my tears, these words are so fucking beautiful. Now that I have just about composed myself here I just want to thank Brian for his beautiful words and music. There were so many I haven’t mentioned but they are in my head and old, black heart.
I fucking love Queen.
In terms of songwriting, John was a little late to the party, being as it was Queen’s third album Sheer Heart Attack
before we heard his creativity spread its wings and take flight. Although never as prolific as the other three, he has
given us some of the band’s greatest songs. As David said on one of the podcast episodes, John really loves being in love.
He is the member whose songs are the least pretentious and dense, he has the lightest touch and the most developed pop sensibility
of the band. His background is R n’ B and Pop; his colleagues came from a more Hendrixy/Creamy/Zeppelinny world.
Nevertheless, John was a fine fit for Queen and he could bring the thunder when it was required. He could lay down huge slabs
of Entwhistle or Bruce, but funk like fuck a la Verdine White when the fancy took. Now as a songwriter, as I said, Deacon
was economical and to the point. His subject matter was mainly relationships but there are some fine inspirational, uplifting
and life affirming stuff there too. Let’s take a look.
Misfire from Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
Your gun is loaded and pointing my way
There's only one bullet, so don't delay
Got to time it right, fire me through the night
Misfire is arguably Queen’s first pure pop song. Some might point to Killer Queen as being so but I find it to be a little too arty and arch to be a pop song in the truest sense. Pop songs to me are about relationships, not high-class sex-workers. What about Funny How Love Is, Paul? Hmmm, it does not conform to the verse/chorus model of pure pop. So sit doon.
Now we have established that, let us talk about Misfire. Now, there is speculation that Mr John used his first endeavour as a lyricist to highlight the struggle of the poor souls who suffer from premature ejaculation? Err, okay. Yes. It does appear that it may be the case. To be honest, I had never analysed these lyrics before, I just enjoyed the wee jaunty pop song before Leroy Brown. However, there it is. In black and white, ladies and gentlemen. But, those with cleaner minds can look at it as a cupid/bow thing maybe? Or John on a killing spree? At time of writing we are still speculating. John has not spilled the beans (!) on the lyrics. Perhaps we’ll ask him when he comes on the Pod...
You're My Best Friend from A Night at the Opera (1975)
Oh, you're the best friend that I ever had
I've been with you such a long time
You're my sunshine
And I want you to know
That my feelings are true
I really love you
(Ooh) Oh, you're my best friend
We are on safer territory with this one. This is a beautiful love song. One of the greatest ever, in my opinion. Brian is the master at conveying emotion in Queen’s songs, but John pushes him hard at times. However it seems John’s experience of love has been kinder to him than it has to Brian! Still, if Brian had a different run of luck, there might be no Save Me or It’s Late.
A lovely heartfelt message to his Missus. Nothing over-wrought or fancy. John gets to the point.
You and I from A Day at the Races (1976)
Oh, I can hear the music in the darkness
Floating softly to where we lie
No more questions now
Let's enjoy tonight (just you and I)
Ooh, just you and I
John goes for a night out with his Lady, and they enjoy a seemingly magical night where the feelings of love they have are influencing the sights and sounds around them. A wonderfully evocative song, once again showcasing John seeing love as a pure thing, a feeling that is unsullied by reality or the pressures of outside life.
I have been lucky enough to experience nights like this, I hope you have too. I'm sure John would be happy to know that you have.
Spread Your Wings from News of the World (1977)
He spends his evenings alone in his hotel room
Keeping his thoughts to himself, he'd be leaving soon
Wishing he was miles and miles away
Nothing in this world, nothing would make him stay
Here it is, for a long time my favourite Queen song, until Innuendo knocked it off its perch. A song of hope for the downtrodden, a song of escape and the potential of life. I love this song because it spoke to me as a young man, frustrated at being in a shitty school and scared about what possible future I could expect, as a working class man in one of the most deprived areas of Western Europe. It was cool though, John told me I could do whatever I could think of. I have tried my best John, thanks for the help.
So, there you have it. For me, in terms of words, these songs are the best in terms of songwriting. John goes on to write more love songs, and of cowboys shooting each other. The words I have put on here remind me how fucking great it is to be in love, and how we should make the change and reach out into the world.