1977: God save a Queen
A Silver Jubilee, a chrome safety pin and Freddie Mercury
Strange how potent cheap music can be. Like a whiff of Blue Stratos on the night air, all it takes is a few bars and there we are, forty years ago, dripping extruded ice cream product on the vinyl seats of a Morris Marina while the rain falls on a pebbled beach. Year by year, these are the songs that have soundtracked our lives.
News of the World
At the end of 1976 the rock band Queen were booked to appear on the Today show, a local London news show produced by Thames Television. However, Freddie Mercury, the lead singer, needed emergency dental surgery and the band had to pull out of the engagement.
A hurried replacement was needed and someone thought that it would be a good idea to get a trendy young ‘punk’ band in. Which is how the Sex Pistols appeared drunk on live TV, ruined Bill Grundy’s career by telling him some of the dirty words they knew and changed popular culture forever.
They also changed Queen.
The band was best known for their proggy, cod-operatic glam rock, hyper-produced mini epics like their daffy and hysterical hit single ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. But for their new 1977 album, News of the World, they decided they needed a change.
They tried to strip down their sound, dispensing with all the over-dubs and multi-tracking, but the result is not very punk. The song ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ aims for raw fury but comes out sounding like a slightly upbeat Thin Lizzy track. Queen were famous for their debauched parties and extravagant live shows; they couldn’t do anger and spontaneity.
The clue is in the name. It suggests royalty: pomp and circumstance and establishment, things that punk was pushing against. Like the Queen, the strength of the band lay in their immutability. The continued existence of the royal family under Elizabeth II can be attributed to her instinct to do as little as possible, her understanding that it was her role to be a figurehead rather than a person. On the few occasions that the royal family has tried to be trendy, it has been an unmitigated disaster. Freddie and the boys could have learned something from Brenda.
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There is a persistent strain of the music hall in British pop. You can hear it in McCartney’s most infectious choruses, in Bowie’s most ludic lyrics, even in the Sex Pistols’ pantomime villainy. You can certainly hear it in Queen. Right from the start their marriage of Edwardian seaside to psychedelic prog rock produced deranged fever-dreams like ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ on their first album, the first in an epic quest that led to the transcendent lunacy of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. But that put them out of step with the music of 1977 and they quickly start to sound ridiculous. Songs like the hamfisted ‘Get Down, Make Love’ are more Spinal Tap than Sex Pistols. This is Dad Rock for middle-aged people who can’t understand why anyone would put a safety pin through anything other than a nappy.
But even punks have Dads, and they got their music taste from somewhere. News of the World opens with the most stripped down track of them all, the monolithic stomp-stomp-clap of ‘We Will Rock You’, followed by the stadium sing-a-long of ‘We Are The Champions’. These are songs that have become so universal that it's hard to believe they were ever new. They have become folk tunes, belted out on the terraces and in the underpasses. They are popular (low brow), mainstream (obvious) and time honoured (old fashioned).
As you may have detected by now, I have history with Queen. They made the first record I ever bought (‘Don’t Stop Me Now’) and they were the first band I ever saw live, at Knebworth (well, technically the first band I ever saw live was Status Quo, because they were supporting, but that was by accident, as with the rest of Quo’s career). In the nature of adolescents, then, the moment I discovered punk (though much later than 1977), I immediately decided that Queen were far too embarrassing to ever admit to really liking. This was music for children and old people and not the urgent, exciting young person I hoped to be (and have been failing to be ever since).
Day at the Races
But for all their Ford Mondeo, middle-manager-in-a-leather-blouson affect, there is a moment in ‘We Will Rock You’ when Brian May’s guitar starts to feedback into the triumphant solo, and the pulse quickens, the hairs prickle and Queen come good on their mission statement of rocking us.
May has said that the ‘we’ in ‘We Are The Champions’ is everyone who has ever sung it. It is intentionally unifying and uplifting, lending a transcendent pomp to the most quotidian and low stakes event. And pomp, as the name suggests, is what Queen are good at.
1977 started with a series of singles from their ‘76 album A Day At the Races, which was the accompaniment to their ‘75 longplayer A Night at the Opera, which contained (if anything can contain) ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. A Day At the Races is full of excess: over-produced, overwrought and overblown. On tracks like the mangled Japanese of ‘Teo Torriatte’ they are in danger of straying from pomp to pompous.
But A Day At the Races and A Night at the Opera are not just Queen albums; they are also Marx Brothers movies. These two ludicrous monuments of ‘70s rock are named after two of the funniest comedies of the ‘30s (or, indeed, ever). Queen are ridiculous, and they know it; they are in on the joke. A jaunty little music hall confection like ‘Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy’ cannot possibly be serious. Indeed, it's delightful partly because it is so silly.
Queen are, most of all, a British band - all the more so for featuring Zanzibar-born immigrant Freddie out in front. There is something peculiarly British about their mixture of pomp and parody, the deep desire for the solemnity and majesty of ceremony combined with the impulse to poke fun. Britain is structured and corroded by class but revels in mocking the posh and saying rude words on live TV, just as Queen can combine the arch ‘The Millionaire Waltz’ with the cock-rock ‘Tie Your Mother Down’. Britain is resolutely anti-intellectual and yet delights in sesquipedalian and needlessly rococo language, just as Queen can go from the bone-headed ‘We Will Rock You’ to the light-footed wordplay of ‘My Melancholy Blues’. Britain’s default mode is the bathetic, with a national epic form - the sitcom - that focuses on the hilarious agonies of bourgeois failure, just as Queen reach for the heroic glory of ‘We Are The Champions’ and topple into the idiocy of ‘White Man’. Queen encapsulated multiple images of Britain, with all its fatuous middle of the road, middle-class nitwittery and its larkiness, good humour and grandeur.
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett suggested in Good Omens that the glove compartments of British cars naturally spawn copies of Queen’s Greatest Hits, one of the best selling albums of all time. Queen is the UK’s background music; they were and are indisputably establishment, a term that signifies ‘cosy’ and ‘reassuring’ as much as ‘stifling’ and ‘coercive’; thousands of years of ritual and tradition, and also a group of self-importantly humdrum suburbanites huddled in the snug of a three hundred year old pub.
You can see these resonances in the band members themselves. Brian May - part-time rock god, part-time astronomer and defender of badgers - is the picture of the deranged suburban hobbyist. Unable to afford a new electric guitar as a child, he made his own out of bits of an old fireplace and a dining room table. The Red Special, as the guitar is known, gives Queen a unique sound, not least because May insists, in another Pooterish touch, on playing with a pre-decimal sixpence instead of a plectrum. The feedback that begins the solo in ‘We Will Rock You’ is not screeching, feral or frightening; it is warm, embracing, uplifting.
And did anyone ever choose a more appropriate name for themselves than Frederick Bulsara? Mercury. Quicksilver, flowing, an ever-changing solidity; a metal that responds to the human touch; named for the messenger of the gods; trickster, enforcer, a god of magic.
And what a kind of magic. The next time I saw them play live it was an extraordinary experience. This shy, awkward, largely closeted gay immigrant held an enthralled audience in the palm of his hand. Or rather, he held their hands and led them; he brought them together. He was a high priest, congregation member and object of worship all in one.
Take ‘Somebody to Love’ from A Day at the Races. It’s Queen’s attempt to do an Aretha Franklin song, an attempt that very much fails because while Freddie might have soul, the only funk the band ever had was stolen from Nile Rogers. But it becomes something else.
It begins vaguely bathetically, with an overdubbed chorus of voices narrating a boring day in the life: ‘he works hard’, ‘he goes home’. For a while it finds its rock heart in a solo from the Red Special. And then it suddenly transforms into a building chant, over which Mercury’s voice soars, full of an insoluble ache. Instead of a triumphant climax, there’s a downbeat coda and an odd little piano figure that closes on a quirky, jokey little flourish. It is the whole of Queen in one song, the whole of a culture: the reach that exceeds the grasp, the pomp and ludicrousness and the winking good humour and, under it all, a deep and true emotion.
And still, forty years on, it makes me cry.
For more on the questionable music choices of our youth (and how we were probably right all along):