Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Over and Under Special Edition: The Best & Worst of Queen


One of the factors in sculpting the diversity of Queen’s sound was that all four members were capable, distinctive songwriters. And while Freddie Mercury and Brian May tackled the bulk of those duties, John Deacon and Roger Taylor certainly contributed some excellent tunes, some of which were hits – even if they shouldn’t have been (written). They all shared common elements, but also carried telling characteristics as to who penned what, as Freddie was often the more theatrical, Brian the more technical, John the more plain spoken sentimental and Roger just straight up brass balls rock n roll. Sometimes these traits made a great song classic, and other times they just hampered a tune to death.


Here’s the best and the worst and the underrated from all involved:


Freddie


Best – Ok, part of me wants to say, “the entire Black side of Queen II,” and be done with it. For all intents and purposes, I’d be absolutely correct. But this is one song here, so, without a doubt, it has to be Bohemian Rhapsody. I don’t care how many times you’ve heard it or how many more times you will, this song is amazing…for 1975, for 2015, whatever, just to have that all in your head and manage to get it out is a feat in and of itself. The fact that so many people in the world GOT IT and continue to GET IT…well, even if we don’t get it, we love it. If you don’t start rockin’ Wayne n Garth style after the operatic interlude, you’re dead, and if you don’t shed a tiny tear when Freddie laments “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all,” you’re also dead. Basically, everyone alive should like this song.


Worst – I think this one is just a personal dislike for me and not really a bad song, but I can’t stand Liar on the debut. It’s just so forced, so lesser than what Freddie was capable of, that it’s almost intolerable. And in its defense, that’s what a lot of Queen’s first album is; they had a developed sound without fully finding a voice, and an attitude without truly knowing which outlet to funnel it through. There are some extreme and underrated winners on that album, but there are enough “Oh please” moments to drop it out of the top 5 of their albums, and Liar is the trump card.


Underrated – Seriously, here is where I could honestly say, “the entire Black side of Queen II,” 'cos it's just SO overlooked, but again, focusing on just the single song, I’ll refer to my previous paragraph and offer up My Fairy King, which is certainly one of those “extreme and underrated winners.” It starts off with a bit of a hustle and flow, acts like it’s gonna take off and then drops down to a barely whisper before changing gears yet again and morphing into one of the most moving build ups in rock n roll and a running piano bit that seriously brings me chills. In addition, this is an early showcase of what these boys could do vocally, winding in and out and overlapping each other with crescendos and cadences enough to prove that Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of nowhere.


Brian


Best – Hear me out. Yes, there are LOADS of KILLER Brian May tunes, from Now I’m Here to Dreamer’s Ball and so much in between and everywhere else. But listen, my boy wrote a song that you can play and sing the entire thing by just stomping and clapping. And EVERYONE knows it. Yes, even my mom. We Will Rock You is THE (i.e. TEH) quintessential arena anthem, an in-your-face to anyone and everyone who isn’t worth your time, but you’re gonna thumb off to them anyway. And with that raw, crazy solo at the end, this really isn’t a pop song or even a rock song, it’s an experimental rant, an Avant-garde diatribe, and you’ve been bouncing it off the bleachers since you were in knee pants.


Worst – Ok, I’m gonna be sort of a jerk here, and yeah, I get what it’s all about, but Teo Torriatte is a bit of a snoozer. I guess Brian’s got worse songs out there (I’m looking at you, Tear It Up, you too, Dancer), but this one just tries way, way too hard. It’s a nice song, got a good melody, and the adoring shout out to their Japanese fans is awesome, but coming at the end of two albums worth of big chorus epics, I don’t know if it’s just the final straw on the proverbial camel, or if I’m missing something or if this song really isn’t all that. And ok, yeah, really, it is all that, I mean it’s excellently performed, but at the end of the day it’s too textbook, too sterile, too just there. But hey, it still beats over half of News of the World.


Underrated – This is a bit of a goofy choice, but I’m gonna say She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos). After a mostly blistering (in all the ways Queen can) side two of Sheer Heart Attack, this sweet, low key “stomper” really takes things to another level, even blissful, with nice layers of Beatles-reminiscent vocals and a persistent if unobtrusive melody taking things quite literally up and out into the ether. Of course they couldn’t let it end with quite such reverie, and a nice revival of In the Lap of the Gods shakes the needle off the groove.


John


Best – Again, sometimes you have to go for the obvious and You’re My Best Friend is John’s without question. Never has a sweeter song been written to, for or about anyone (and lucky is the gal to whom it nods), and yet it still maintains elements of apprehension and longing due to the absolute vulnerability displayed. And though these are John’s words and melody, it’s Freddie who brings them to life, gives them feeling and makes what could have been cheesy scribbling to a high school crush on the back of a notebook one of the greatest songs ever written, not just to love, but absolute companionship.


Worst – In a previous post I lauded John as the quiet but reliable weapon in the Queen songwriting arsenal, and you can go here for those thoughts. But even as I wrote that article, I realized he delivered some clunkers, and I Want to Break Free just might be the worst. Honestly, the video for this song is one of my earliest memories of Queen and I thought they were a joke band. Of course now I get the joke, but the song still doesn’t do much for me. As I’ve lamented before in these pages, far too often production will kill a good tune, and through the 80s tell-all gloss I can hear what this song would have been like on say News of the World…but it would have still only been an enjoyable but unessential ode to pent up frustration – which is essentially what it is in present form.


Underrated – To again mention the previously written post, one of the “hidden gems” on an album that delivers track after track of big, boisterous and fantastic songs (yes, I’m talking about Jazz), In Only Seven Days takes the cocksure audacity and quirky elegance of the album’s first half and turns it over on its ear with a delightful, straightforward and simply beautiful ditty about finding (and losing) love while on vacation. As a gawky kid turned awkward adult, it’s more than easy to slip into the role of the protagonist and be overwhelmed by the unforeseen, unprecedented circumstances of having the casual apple of your eye think you’re quite a peach yourself – and then lose it all to the inevitability of circumstances. I like to think he got her email address before they had to go home…or maybe he can look her up on Facebook.


Roger


Best – My lost buddy Tim, who really got me into Queen, was never much of a fan of Roger’s efforts. Initially that tainted my view as well, but over the years I’ve come to really enjoy his basic, bad boy bravado approach to rock n roll with songs like Tenement Funster and Sheer Heart Attack. But for me, his greatest songwriting offering is I’m in Love with My Car, a flat out love song to his current speedster, full of clever innuendos and boosted by a bombastic backing track of big guitars and grand choral arrangements, that is, when broken down, quite a beautiful song. It’s cocky and it’s unapologetic and it’s absolutely one of Queen’s greatest moments.


Worst – Look kids, Radio Ga Ga is complete twaddle. I guess Roger was trying to keep up with the current sounds of the New Wave, and he succeeded in delivering a radio hit, but bombed in creating a memorable or worthwhile song. This isn’t even cheese, it’s just sterile synth and certainly Queen’s weakest single.


Underrated – I love Drowse because it’s the exact opposite of your typical Roger tune. As the title would suggest, it’s a subdued, hazy rollick, and those phased out, dreamy slide guitars really bring the magic. To me it feels like an indie rock song that could have been written and recorded anytime in the past 15 or 20 years, instead of over 35 years ago, and I think, like the majority of their work in the 70s, that’s a testament to the timelessness and longevity of Queen at their most forward thinking best.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Queen is Dead, Long Live Queen!




Twenty years ago this week the world lost a major voice in rock music. I can remember exactly where I was when Kurt Loder announced on MTV News at 10 minutes before the hour that Freddie Mercury had died. It was a Thursday afternoon and I was 18, a senior in high school and had just gotten home. I stood in front of the television in my room with my arms crossed and a perplexed look on my face because just 24 hours before, Kurt had announced that Freddie was HIV positive. I turned off the TV, put Queen’s Greatest Hits on the record player and listened to it several times in a row before my mom called me to dinner.


While at the time I was not near the Queen fan that I am today, it was the first time a major rock celebrity had died in my cognizant existence (i.e. Lennon and Bonham I was too young to take note/care) and it struck me pretty hard. These rock stars were, after all, quite mortal.



It took me a few more years to really begin to appreciate Queen for more than a slew of super hits, and I’ve touched on that a bit on a previous post. But something Queen showed me and the world was that you could be sexy without being sleazy, and you could be campy and effeminate without being weak or really any less manly; that there is laughter amongst heartache and sobriety within joy; that you can sing about every day things like vacations and cars and cats and rock just as hard and with as much purpose as when you sing about girls, fairies, death or someone you despise; and that at the end of the day it’s all about enjoying what you do, so that you can do it well.


Queen embraced over the top rock and combined it with over the top fashion, creating a style of music that was everything and yet nothing else all at once. I don’t believe there was a major musical genre that they didn’t at least touch on, from straight rock to jazz to calypso to country to rag time and on and on, and yet all with a certain flair that was distinctly and unmistakably Queen.



The focal point in all of this was of course Freddie. Even on the songs he didn’t take lead on, his presence was known, lurking, hovering, giggling in the corners of fills and the spaces between notes. You cannot say the word “queen” in reference to anything without me first thinking of Freddie and then moving on to whatever the subject at hand is. That’s how much of an impression he made not only on me, but on the world of popular music. His was a voice so distinctive that, to my knowledge, no one has even attempted to imitate it, to incorporate it into their own self. No one else could be quite so passionate and tender, so brazen and feisty, so immediately capable of croons and venom within the same album, song or verse. Even when he was blowing the roof off, he did so effortlessly, as if he were just toying with the idea of completely annihilating the entire room with one note from his throat. And all the way to the end, making those last three albums, when the band knew what was going on, his voice never quavered, never lost that majesty, that thrill, that absolute sincerity that made the cheesiest lines convincing, even gospel.



And even when Queen began to, in my mind, lose vision and lag and begin to put our more “market” material, there was still that twinkle in Freddie’s eye that said, “You know you like it.” Yes, it’s true, even the stuff I don’t care for I certainly don’t hate, and that’s all because Freddie Mercury made me a believer.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Homage

Sunday night my daughter was goofing around with my iPhone (she’s only 11 months old, so even “goofing” is stretching it, but she sorta gets it) and through a series of finger plays managed to pull up the iPod portion, get to the song list and select Alex Chilton by the Replacements. Both she and my son stopped what they were doing, their eyes lit up and they started to dance. It was a pretty great moment for a music loving father.


I’m not a huge Replacements fan, but I’m not a passing one either, and I certainly have a lot of respect for where they came from and their role in the ongoing saga of rock n roll music. Alex Chilton, from their 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me, is easily one of the top five songs from a catalog of winners that also brought us Can’t Hardly Wait, Bastards of Young, Achin’ to Be, I Will Dare and a slew of others, courtesy of the pen of Paul Westerberg.


Paul Westerberg


And just as I can pay my respects to Westerberg and what he did with the Mats and continues to do as a solo artist, Alex Chilton in turn pays huge homage to the man of the same name. Chilton, who sadly passed away last year, is very well (un)known via classic rock radio as the lead singer for the Box Tops and their airwaves staple The Letter. More influentially, and adoringly, he’s known as the leader of Big Star, whose 1972 debut #1 Record is easily one of the most important albums in the development of alternative rock music, essentially drawing the blueprint for power pop, and influencing everyone from REM to Primal Scream – and of course the Replacements.


Even having said all of that, I’m not a huge Big Star fan either, and actually prefer their sophomore album Radio City. But that certainly doesn’t mean that Alex Chilton the song is not a fantastic offering of power pop perfection. If it’s that obvious to a couple of kids whose combined age isn’t even half a decade and who spend too much time watching Pingu, then it should be infinitely so to anyone who appreciates a good tune in any genre.


Alex Chilton


From the start, Alex Chilton is an insistent rocker, with all verse-chorus-verse ingredients in place, hammered to perfection and turned up to eleven. Westerberg speculates if his hero isn’t in fact from another planet, as well as jokingly references his notorious obscurity. But even as it pokes fun, it heaps loads of adoration, and you’d be hard pressed to find a “song for…” that is more well written to encapsulate what the subject matter is all about, plainly displaying influences and trying (and succeeding) to impress. It’s all pulled off with a rough elegance that only the Replacements could have produced, allowing college kids to dance in the late 80s and toddlers to do the same today.


Such is the timelessness of the song, the men behind their creation, the music that inspired and influenced them and the whole kit and caboodle known as rock n roll.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Abandon of Rock n Roll

It’s been awhile since my last post. Per usual it’s life stuff taking over, and that’s cool, as long as I eventually get a chance to drop a few musical lines in your direction.

In an effort to pop a few entries out back to back, this week I’m focusing on the individual song. I’ve done this a bit in the past, but I don’t think I warned you about it ahead of time.

Not that the outcome will be any different.


Radio Birdman


So, this first offering comes from Australian protopunk outfit, Radio Birdman. Who? Exactly. Most anyone I know had never heard of this band until Sup Pop released an “essentials” collection back in 2001 (which I heard thanks, again, to msp). But long story short, these guys were the all that and a “that’s not a knife, this is a knife” back in the Aussie indie rock scene of the mid to late 70s. Seriously, to read about it, they were the stuff of legends.


Brash, raw, aggressive, their music can take you places, from cruising the strip, to being down and out, to catching a tuff gnarl and riding it clean onto the beach and then hopping off for a cold one. Rob Younger is the Down Under Iggy Pop, loud and straightforward, howling like a madman one instant, and then stepping back for a more contemplative, if not necessarily tender, moment of openness the next.


Rob Younger


And to be sure, the Stooges are Radio Birdman’s most obvious influence, lifting their name directly from the former’s 1970 classic, TV Eye (which also opens RB’s debut full length). This is understandable in a big way because lead guitarist and principle songwriter Deniz Tek, was an Ann Arbor transplant and undoubtedly grew up with Iggy and the boys in his backyard.


But where Radio Birdman decidedly steps aside from the Stooges (and I’m saying aside, not ahead), is sheer technical prowess and an overall sense of cohesiveness. While Iggy and Co often sound like a train wreck in the final stages of disaster (and those of you who know what I’m saying know I mean that in the very best way), under Tek’s guidance, Radio Birdman harnesses that same (raw) power and hones it to a razor’s edge of realized punk pop perfection. Throw in some fist pumping, head banging, hip shaking sing-a-long choruses (somewhat reminiscent of, though I’d say uninfluenced by/separate from, the Ramones), and there’s really little else you could ask for.


Deniz Tek


Another thing that sets Radio Birdman apart from the Stooges and most every other proto-pre-garage punk outfit, and also due to their aforementioned technical prowess, is that they oftentimes do not shy away from, and in fact embrace, what at the time would have been considered “conventional” rock n roll. In short, if it grooves and shakes, these guys celebrate it to the T and execute it to the…er, U.


So, having said all of that, Snake, from their debut EP Burn My Eye, is an exceptional example of most everything Radio Birdman was capable of at the height of their powers. For me, this is a raucous celebration (musically) of the true spirit of rock music, with a set of lyrics that, while a touch obscure, essentially boil down to taking a girl where she wants to be, and with a title like Snake, where that is seems pretty obvious. By the time I get to the first chorus, I’m ready to jump up on a table and start dancing, singing, shouting for the sheer joy of it. And then we get to the solo, which in itself is a marvel, a true work of rock wonder, blistering, uplifting, direct, it’s everything that’s right about being able to play that well and doing it because you should (instead of because you can).


Whenever I listen to these guys, I’m bound to hit the repeat button three or four times once Snake comes around (the same is true for Descent into the Maelstrom as well). Long story short, this song is an anthem, not just (or rather really) to sex, but to the free abandon of rock n roll (or any honest music in general).