I have a complicated relationship with the band Queen. Partially, and let’s be upfront about this, because there was a time in my adolescence when they could do no wrong, when everything about them spoke to me the way that God spoke to William Blake, and then they turned into a version of themselves that, musically, I was less keen on and the natural course should have been that I just shrugged and said, “Used to like them, don’t now,” the way I did later with, say, Dire Straits (when they moved away from their eponymous first album grit and into their MTV period), but this sloughing off of old adorations proved a step too far.
This has all come to mind having watched the movie Bohemian Rhapsody over the weekend, something I’d previously avoided but now found both ridiculous yet entertaining. There was enough in it to take me to a place where the door, if not bolted from the inside, was certainly locked, although I was also self-appointed keeper of the key.
As a child, not yet a teenager, I was obsessed by the song Seven Seas of Rhye. Something about the slabs of guitar laid over the melodic tinkling of the piano; more likely, the song’s ending, when, following the bombastic crashing rock and the comic book lyrics, the song fades into a raucous chorus of I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside. This infiltration of music hall pastiche has always appealed; the Beatles did similar things, and Ian Dury had a direct line into Max Miller and Marie Lloyd. There’s a notion here about nothing existing in isolation, that all music, all art, exists on a plain of the before, and the occasional nod to that sentiment evokes all manner of old family stuff and a cultural nostalgia for times I wasn’t born in.
Anyway. Whatever it was, I badgered my mother to buy me the album Queen for my upcoming birthday, having seen this particular song among the track listings. It duly arrived, in cassette form (I was also given a cassette player) and I listened to all the songs in order, all those old songs the band had first done in their earlier incarnation as Smile, knowing that the great ‘Seven Seas’ awaited me as the final track. Only for it to begin and almost as quickly fade away, providing merely a taster of my anthem that lasted barely more than a minute, the true enormity of the piece being saved for the next album, Queen II.
Somehow, though, it didn’t matter. I was a Queen fan now.
At my loathed grammar school, I met a young man, also called Andrew, who was in the year above me. Andrew two, too, was a Queen fan. He had all the albums on vinyl, and he had a record player in his room at home. Many a post-school late afternoon-early evening was spent in his room playing their majesties’ music and reading sleeve notes, learning lyrics, for some reason relishing the little footnote that appeared on the back of the albums that read ‘no synthesisers.’
And then came the album The Game. The cover image featured haircuts. Even Brian may have had a trim. The opening track had an alarming noise at the beginning that could have indeed been a synthesiser. But it settled into familiar territory, piano, Brian’s authoritative, runaway guitar; all was okay. Departure came in the form of two songs, Dragon Attack and Another One Bites the Dust. “They’re doing … disco,” Andrew two mumbled. But we stuck it out, side one, side two, then side one again, eventually conceding that there was enough here that we could love, that they were trying new things and that was alright, we could still worship at the altar. Except for a song on side two called Don’t Try Suicide. That was just a fucking awful song that no amount of sparse, crisp May guitar could save.
That year a tour was announced, and we got tickets. Wembley Arena, just before Christmas. I was 16 and it was going to be my first gig. I have just found a recording of that night, on YouTube. It’s not the finest quality, and yet it answers a lot of questions for me. Press play and there is cheering, whistling, clapping, a burgeoning chant of “We want Queen,” before a guitar-sound rumble and an eruption of applause, more rock noises, a suspense that is maintained for almost three full minutes, before two familiar yet unfamiliar in this context chords are struck repetitively, Freddie Mercury sings, “Warden threw a party at the county jail,” and Queen swing and boogie their way through an outrageous rendition of Jailhouse Rock. I’m a teenager again, I can remember that first time. We were on that plain of the before, this was not a band given over to disco, this was a loud rock and roll band with all the swagger and bravado we associated with them and they had me forever.
That same day, the soundtrack album Flash Gordon was released. Andrew two and I went to see the film three times at the local cinema. Of course we did. If ever a band was destined to make a success out of a concept album that doubled as the soundtrack to a movie that had all the implausibility of a cartoon with the aesthetic sensibilities of a mid-70s porno parody, it was Queen. We were in on the joke and we loved it.
Later came the album Hot Space, and it remains one I can’t find it in myself to forgive. Unlike Flash, this felt like a joke we weren’t privy to. And when Under Pressure, the duet with Bowie, reached number one, for us it felt like the game was up. Here was a change too far, a departure, an infidelity that was going to be hard to forgive. Successive albums—The Works, A Kind of Magic, The Miracle—mined commercial seams and did so effortlessly and hugely successfully. But it was like watching a former wild-child love marry the management consultant. Sure, she’d never want for a sun-kissed beach to holiday on, but was she happy?
Somewhere deep inside, however, I knew that enough collateral had been amassed that there would come a day when we could forgive and forget, when the good times would outweigh the bad. Watching that film said maybe now is the day. Finding that very first concert on YouTube confirmed it. Gosh. And for the record. I’m still a Queen fan.