Monday, January 31, 2011

5 Years - Part 3

When I was a kid I didn’t see too many movies in the theater. I still don’t, but at least we have Netflix now, so I’ve been catching up when I can. One of the classic lo-fi sci-fi gems that I sorely regret not seeing on the big screen is Flash Gordon from 1980. I’ve rectified that somewhat by watching this movie about a billion times over the past 20 or 25 years, and I’m all about its campy, over the top, comic book kitsch. Seriously, who couldn’t love Max von Sydow’s deliciously wicked Ming the Merciless? He was perfect from head to toe and in everything he said.

But I’m not here to review a movie…

What I want to do is talk about the soundtrack, which in this case is integral to the overall fun of this flick because it enhances all the flamboyant qualities that make it such a cult classic. And who better to provide that soundtrack than Queen?

Though this is billed as a proper Queen album, it’s not really a Queen album. That is to say it’s not a rock album or a pop album or an adult contemporary album or whatever phase of Queen you come up with when you think of them. Most anyone has heard the radio staple Flash’s Theme. Even my son can pull off the call and response of FLASH! AH-AAH… and he’s never heard the song before. But if you’re looking for more of this, you’re going to be really disappointed. After all, at the end of the day this is a soundtrack for a movie, and Queen treats it as such.

Flash’s Theme, and this is a different mix than what you’d find on a greatest hits collection, is one of those unique but timeless songs; catchy and invasive, toe tappingly infectious, and yet so brilliantly simple. Just one chord with a couple of changes ups and you’re done. But what a majestic song, how triumphant! I mean this is a theme for a super hero, stirring every bit of the emotional pot as a more “serious” number like the one for Superman or anything from Star Wars…with the added bonus that you can bounce to it, sing along and shout FLASH, AH-AAH!!! Plus, and especially when I’ve not heard it in awhile, the breakdown of, “Just a man, with a man’s courage…,” gets me in the gut every time. And then fades off.

Check it out here.


After that it’s mainly incidental music and snippets of dialogue that literally take you through the entire movie. A musical montage if you will. And I think that’s just brilliant. Whereas with many soundtracks you may recognize a melody or a refrain and recall some important scene, with Queen’s Flash Gordon you are carried from blast off to saving Earth in just over half an hour (which is, btw, about a third of the movie’s length). The music is often sparse and atmospheric, with plucked guitar chords, thundering drums and plenty of eerie synthesizers. There is very little as far as standard rock tunes go, with a notable exception being the brief but exciting instrumental, Football Fight. Other standouts include In the Space Capsule (that jarring chord right after Flash’s Theme is a great mood setter), The Kiss (those icy keys plus Freddie’s high strains just bring it), Vultan’s Theme/Battle Theme (another rock set, just getting to hear Brian Blessed saying “Diiiive” is worth purchasing this album), The Wedding March (classic Brian May guitar sound) and everything closing off with The Hero, another “proper” rock song that, while no Flash’s Theme, encapsulates the excitement of the entire soundtrack (and movie).

All of that aside, one thing this album did for me was open up my ears to experimental and more ambient forms of music. From here I took a step into folks like Brian Eno and Cluster and pretty much haven’t looked back. And while Queen were hardly pioneers of “post rock” or whatever, they knew how to create a musical setting. This is evident not only with the tunes they’re most known for, but also here on Flash Gordon where they’re breaking things down to their various parts and letting them play out. That’s why this soundtrack, nay album, is not only effective while watching the movie, but an enjoyable experience on its own, because it maintains the same mood and aesthetic by being atmospheric but accessible, and most of all, fun.

So why did I stop listening to it? Well, it wasn't a conscious decision. Again, this is a soundtrack, it’s got this one great tune at the beginning and then it’s mostly just background strum and dialogue, and no Bohemian Rhapsodies or Somebody to Loves to sing along with. So it was nothing personal, just not perennial. I can remember driving around town a few years back and my then girlfriend/now wife flat out asking me if I’d just recorded the movie onto a cassette tape. I had to laugh, ‘cos in a lot of ways that’s what this soundtrack is. And while I think that’s totally awesome, it’s not something you’re going to pick whenever you’re in a mood for Queen, and certainly not where you’d point a would be convert. Flash Gordon is a novelty for sure, even more so than the soundtrack they later did for The Highlander. But it’s a wonderful and well done novelty, and something to reach for when you’re in the mood for something fun, unobtrusive and worthwhile.

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