On Air - Queen (Virgin/EMI/BBC)
The Barman didn’t want me to write this review, or submit it, or publish it. What is it about Queen, Barman?
“Over-arranged, over-played and over-compensating for the fact that, at least initially, nobody liked them.”
Well, that last is true. But I think we can all name bands that nobody liked initially who became megafauna. Anything else spring to mind?
“Sure. Overblown pompous crap.”
Weeell, that’s what I think about the Doors, so I s’pose we’re even. Barman is right when he says that, initially, the UK press were less than enthusiastic about Queen. However “Queen II” made the top 10 in 1974; “Queen” barely scraped into the top 50 in 1974 but, in 1975, had found its way to number 24.
By the time “Sheer Heart Attack” was released in November 1974, Queen had well and truly arrived and the music press were profligate (if not incontinent) in their praise.
Of course, there had also been something of a shift in what people were looking for (and thought they were looking for) as the mid-70s approached and ‘serious’ music was … well. But megasellers in their time do not an influence on modern life make (as fans of the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, Radio Birdman, The Saints, Yello, Neu!, Chrome and Nick Drake will attest).
But, what about The I-94 Bar’s other fortress of rock’n’roll heritage, Bob Short, I hear you cry? What’s your opinion of Queen, Bob?
“Really had none. The only thing that interested me was how the most obviously gay man in the history of the world made himself so popular with Soccer hooligans the world over. The music was overly ornate and never once expressed an honest emotion. It went beyond vaudeville as even vaudeville had at least one act of pathos on the bill. An appropriate alternative name might be Carry On Rock and Rolling, Missus.
“My sister liked them. But once you've heard the New York Dolls…”
Well, I didn’t get into the Dolls until late 1975. But even after that, I still found those first three Queen LPs quite revelatory. But hell, I was 12, for fuck’s sake.
It’s worth noting that this is the two disc edition: the six disc set I declined to buy (because I have better things to do with my life than listen to three discs of vintage Queen interviews (dear god) and one of live material which is bettered, in my opinion, by the “Live at the Rainbow” set).
Now look. Even if you’re that (allegedly) reformed hooligan Andy Ellard, if you’d never heard Queen, never heard the hordes of bands influenced by them in one form or another, you’d be impressed.
I was impressed by the band’s fourth LP, “A Night at the Opera”, which my best mate Paul had played me. We were going up the steps to his place after school one arvo and he asked me if I’d heard their earlier LPs.
I had not, and they were a revelation.
Here we have six excellent BBC Radio Sessions, otherwise known as JPS or John Peel Sessions or just “Peelies”.. Five run from February 1973 to October 1974, chronicling the band from before their first label signing (to EMI) to the beginning of their trajectory to the toppermost of the pompermost, and then there’s the revealing last session from October 1977.
A Peel Session? A band were given 15 minutes to fill and impress the UK. Peel Sessions were rarely played in their entirety, as Peely (1939-2004) would almost always play a song here and there on one show, then over that month or after, requiring fans of any given band to religiously record each entire show, then dub the songs they wanted the most onto a second tape.
By the late 1970s, Camden Market (and others like it around the country) would produce hundreds of thousands of bootleg live cassettes (known as ‘tapes’) of bands, often with a ‘JPS’ tacked on the end; bands who’d recorded three sessions were worth an entire side of a 90m tape; similarly, four sessions fit onto a 60m tape.
It wasn’t until 1987 that the BBC allowed Strange Fruit Records (John Peel and Clive Selwood) to issue some of these things on vinyl, from the original master tapes. BBC have never been known for being ahead of the curve, a position they still inhabit (even if the politics within the place has changed, they’re still horribly hidebound).
Back before Queen became humungous and unavoidable with “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the blasted programmers played it everywhere, TV and radio, and the bloody thing was in the charts for about a flaming year) from their huge hit LP “A Night at the Opera”, and long before their ginormous dancefloor hit "Another One Bites the Dust", Queen had released three LPs.
Even now, these three LPs are under-rated. Apart from being linked to the period which saw the demise of ‘60s/ hippy as a movement, the early ‘70s saw the rise of glam, what people now call ‘art rock’ and heavy metal as a movement in its own right, the development in the modernisation of the folk movement (yes, it was a movement) and the early music underground, and that ghastly cover-all-sins term “progressive”, to me Queen are also firmly linked to that welter of bands striving to do and be something different (now pigeon-holed as “pre-punk”, a term which makes me think of something dirty).
Listen to Brian May’s chopping chords, for example, and his short sharp metal riffs, the attack … yes, there’s a reason it reminds you of punk rock. It wasn’t just Brian May who was interested in earlier rock’n’roll as well as bands in the heavier spectrum; these were also key ingredients in the UK punk rock mix (after the first creative arty wave or so had appeared). By that time, Queen were huge, inescapably everywhere, and it’s reasonable to assume the benchmark they’d set had secured fans of varied stripes, some of whom were focusing on May.
For me there’s a strange air of deja-vu about hearing these songs. The recording quality here is excellent, which you’d expect from a band who’d recently recorded their first LP with several engineers and producers. Queen were determined to make a mark for themselves, and determined to have control.
Having joined the BBC in 1967, John Peel had developed some sort of cult status among the musical underground. You listened to Peely if you wanted to hear the grains of the new growth. No ifs or buts. Peely was essential. The name of the show, incidentally, varied. But to his thousands of devoted listeners (who he abused quite cheerfully from time to time) he was essential. Missing Peely, unless you had something incredible to do, was simply not on.
Not everything Peely played was good - not by a long chalk it weren’t - but his shows were always steeped in knowledge, quirky beyond the regimented radio hit parades and stultifying ‘educational entertainment’ … By the early 1970s, Culture, as threatened by the 60s, had not crashed, but changed, warped, and dragged suburban louts into foolish notions like long hair, sideburns, platform shoes and makeup instead of flat caps and donkey jackets.
However, everyday culture was still … well. Urgh, really. Boring as a Sunday afternoon in Adelaide. Small wonder that glam and modern rock had taken on the trappings of panto and music hall.
So it’s no surprise that, starved of musical excitement, people of an enquiring mind tuned in to John Peel. David Cavanagh (in “Good Night and Good Riddance”) points out that Peel helped shape modern life not just in England, but the world. The number of bands Peely made familiar to his large and usually loyal following, which then seeped into the wider world, is legion.
Many of those bands went on to change much of what we now take for granted: Peel was playing Krautrock before anyone (Can’s legendary four BBC sessions were all improvised in the studio), he was playing the Sex Pistols before they were banned (by the BBC, a ban which Peel ignored …) … Roxy Music, The Cure, The Birthday Party, Mike Oldfield, Joy Division … and Queen. This is, of course, the tip of the iceberg…
So, let’s set the scene for Queen’s first John Peel Session.
British top hits for 1973 included Dawn, Peters and Lee, The Sweet, Wizzard, Gary Glitter, Little Jimmy Osmond, Perry Como, Slade, 10cc, David Cassidy, Suzi Quatro, The Carpenters, The Strawbs, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Mud, Cliff Richard, The New Seekers and Alvin Stardust. Oh, and David Bowie.
Alright, who was Peely recording at a rate of one session every week?
Stealer’s Wheel, Lindisfarne, Status Quo, Gerry Rafferty, Tir Na Nog, Steeleye Span, Pretty Things, Fairport Convention, Rory Gallagher, Camel, Roxy Music, Can, Faust, Chieftains, Robin Trower, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Billy J. Kramer, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Henry Cow, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Gong, Amon Duul II… and that’s only the first part of the year.
Then managed by Norman Sheffield (of Trident Studios, of Beatles, Elton John and Stooges fame), Queen had recorded their first LP the previous year, and money, as you might imagine, was scarce on the ground. Put simply, like almost everyone picked to record for Peel, they weren’t rock stars yet. But… they wanted to be. Queen had spotted space at the top - perhaps near Led Zep because, let’s face it, Queen certainly paid a few nods to Led Zep.
And let’s make no mistake. These blokes wanted to be stars. And it shows in the lyrics (never mind the cover of their first LP, “Queen”, which depicts a lead singer amongst gigantic lighting - clearly an established ‘rock star’). Even so, they’d been playing universities. And support slots.
Of Queen’s first session, Cavanagh says, “…they have no record deal and a mere handful of college gigs to their name. The four songs in their [first] session fizz with ideas - and the guitarist can play like hell - but the real validation will come in July [the band’s second session] when Peel leads off a “Sounds of the Seventies” programme with a track from their debut album (“Queen”), which they’d been shopping around [the major labels] for months. If Peel starts a show with a band, it’s a big tick next to their name”.
According to Queen writer Patrick Lemieux, they didn’t play live in the studio, but used tapes from “Queen” as backing tracks, stripped the production down and laid down a different vocal.
Recorded on 5th February 1973, their first BBC session was aired on the 15th during Peely’s “Sounds Of The Seventies” Radio 1 show. It’s a smart choice of songs; it turns out that this session encompasses four of the five songs on side one on “Queen”.
"My Fairy King"
"Keep Yourself Alive"
"Doing All Right"
Let’s pretend we’ve never heard of them. What sort of response would these songs create - even now, if you’ve never heard them before?
Certainly there’s an air of pretentious fantasy; “peacockery”, as Cavanagh remarks. However, Queen’s delivery is powerful, confident, and musically complex and impressive. ‘My Fairy King’ gallops into focus, abruptly changes into something closer to a Hans Christian Anderson cartoon, then veers into opera, then straight into striding rock. This before the middle of the song. It’s a striking, impressive debut.
This is the first time Queen have been heard on radio. The singer’s voice is high-pitched, extremely emotive, with echoes of soul divas. But what comes across most strongly - even more than the apparent maturity of their songs - is their determination. Granted, there was a previous band, Smile, but still. This is early days for a fledgling band. Mercury is in his mid-20s, guitarist May ditto; drummer Taylor and bassist Deacon their early twenties. They could be just plugging away at hack r’n’b in the pubs. But their ambition shows with every song. They don’t want to be contenders, they want a throne each.
They turn the milk into sour
Like the blue in the blood of my veins
Why can't you see it
Fire burnin' in hell with the cry of screaming pain
Son of heaven set me free and let me go
It’s not a leap of imagination to understand that this is a band working hard on their lyricist’s fantasies, by turn magical and mythical, but also there’s a distinct edge of wounded (or victim) princeling there. The term ‘son of heaven’ is deliciously ambiguous: is it a Christian reference or Japanese? Towards the end, we have ‘Look what they've done to me/ I cannot run, I cannot hide’ … one is tempted to guess that this is the first indication of Mercury dealing with his sexual orientation, so stigmatising at the time.
Their second song, “Keep Yourself Alive”, with its incendiary guitar chug (not dissimilar from Hendrix’ “Crash Landing”, but clearly arrived at independently) opens with what could almost be the band’s mission statement;
I was told a million times
Of all the troubles in my way
How I had to keep on trying
Little better ev'ry day
…and then there’s:
Keep yourself alive
It'll take you all your time and money
To keep me satisfied
Do you think you're better ev'ry day
No I just think I'm two steps nearer to my grave
Which is about as close a description of the imagined dissolute rock star lifestyle as can be imagined by someone who isn’t - yet - a rock star, but throughout the song imagines the life of the corrupt and dissatisfied rich. Sure, there’s the earlier line about staying where you are… but no. That’s a red herring, one of those things a politician says when they say they have no ambition to be Prime Minister.
The huge roar of this song swings and burns ;hearing the structure for the first time, it takes you by surprise: the snap-change to the drum rolls, for example, is unexpected. And that’s another thing. The structure of these songs is anything but Tin Pan Alley verse chorus verse chorus stuff. The chorus here is a theme, a vaulting, leaping theme.
The piano opening “Doing All Right” is, perhaps, a subtext to “Keep Yourself Alive”:
Yesterday my life was in ruins
Now today I know what I'm doing
Got a feeling I should be doing all right
Doing all right
Now that’s positive affirmation - in public. One could argue it’s a lesser song, but a band’s more powerful songs seem far stronger if they’re put up against a delicate, sensitive song. Mercury’s voice veers from girlish to mannish, quite extraordinary… and then the band rip into a thumping racket, then come back down.
The control of the band is impressive; the constant shifts in direction retain our attention, as does the return of that huge rock’n’roll racket, as if they’ve held back all this time. A very varied song; with different lyrics to the LP version.
“Liar”, the last song, is equally brash and forceful. Again, the structure is positively astonishing - and would have been received with surprise by Peely’s listeners. From handclaps and drumbeat to that huge pomposity and savage metal which irks so many but hooks so many others. Then we’re into another delicate 12-string, followed by a measured stampede… there’s a mock blues-holler at one point, for God’s sake. And the lyrics are different from the LP: it’s a huge achievement. I’ll leave it here.
Lyrically, here is a man wrestling with his parents - a common situation, especially in the early ‘70s when there really was a generation gap. There are also other elements of course, the confessional and the potential religious aspect, the victim element again as the singer is always charged with being a liar.
Audiences always respond to a well-drawn victim; Hamlet, for example, is in fact a creep and a coward who wants to kill his stepfather, for no other reason than he’s not happy with his mother’s decision; certainly the succession is an issue, but his arguments to the audience - if portrayed clumsily - usually indicate a man for whom we should have great sympathy. Poor man, he struggles so. No, I won’t bring up our legal system.
But “Liar” is a double-edged sword, the repetitions indicate that the charge would seem to be an accurate one, and that the victim/ singer can’t stand the criticism. Yet, because of the emotion, we’re drawn in.
And no, it doesn’t matter about the band’s intentions at the time. What they produced is a text, and we respond to the text as it is. Not intentions. J.D. Salinger realised this in the wake of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and dropped out of sight, writing privately, hiding his finished manuscripts in his lawyer’s safe.
A feast in many ways. Arguably “On Air” is worth the price of admission on this first session alone. Their use of massed operatic chorus was quite revolutionary (let’s face it) for a band playing to long-haired students hung up on Mott the Hoople and brown ale or cider.
One wonders if this session proved the impetus for EMI to finally sign Queen a month later (they signed to Elektra in the US shortly afterwards). It wouldn’t be the first time that a band’s exposure on Peel resulted in folk you’d meet at the bus stop hopping on a trajectory to stardom, wealth and glory.
- - -
Session Two was recorded shortly after “Queen” had been released, on 25th July, and aired on 13th August. It may seem surprising to see that Queen repeat two songs on their second session (however, they are different versions), yet because “Queen” had taken so long to write, record and release that the band had developed a more dynamic, powerful sound and they used this session to demonstrate that. “Keep Yourself Alive” was their first single (released in early July, a week before the LP, with “Son and Daughter” on the flipside), and they’d also shot promotional film of “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Liar”.
“See What A Fool I’ve Been”, a live favourite, would be the B-side of their second single (“Liar”); Lemieux writes that it was ‘adapted from part of the Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee song ‘That’s How I Feel’, reworked by Brian May, and dating all the way back to his and Roger Taylor’s days with the band Smile’.
“See What A Fool I’ve Been”
“Keep Yourself Alive”
“Son and Daughter”
The first song, “See What A Fool I’ve Been” still scans like a reworked, kept simple, blues song; you can see the similarity to so many pomp rock gladiators both of the past, and the future. Queen’s take on it is both grandiose and clumsy, and the band range from brittle to supersonic in spectacular fashion.
The remaining three songs are somewhat different from that on “Queen”; if you hadn’t bought the record(s) yet this session would prove a mighty spur.
“Keep Yourself Alive” and “Liar” are smoother now, May’s guitar shifting tempos and textures. Both renditions rove between tender and scalding, and arguably superior the first session and the LP.
Anyone comparing the two sessions - and plenty would have been - will have noticed the jump in tightness and quality in just a few months. Mercury’s vocal range is frankly spectacular, impossible to dismiss. Again, anyone hearing this band for the first time will walk away with the impression that a new star has risen above the horizon.
“Son and Daughter”, again, benchmark metal (not a million miles from Black Sabbath), is tender and lyrically, terribly confusing … but the stark beauty of the song are captivating … as is the sheer bombastic closing structure.
Here’s the last three lines;
What'll you think of heaven
If it's back from where you came?
I want you to be a woman
If you hadn’t heard their first session, the second should have had you scampering to the local record shop with pound notes clutched in your grubby mitt.
Queen then went in to Trident to record their second LP, “Queen II”, later describing it as ‘good versus evil’. They then went on the road, mostly supporting the much more successful Mott the Hoople; even so, the BBC recorded and broadcast Queen’s gig at Golder’s Green on 13th September.
Their third BBC session was recorded between gigs on 3rd December and aired only three days later. “Ogre Battle” is a new song to the public, although the other three are different to those on the first album; “Son and Daughter” has now gained more than a minute.
Queen had recorded several songs which didn’t fit “Queen II”, so they were held back for their third LP. But to play more different versions of songs on the current album is a clever move; “Modern Times Rock’n’Roll” seems considerably more souped, immediate and gig-soaked than the LP version, while “Great King Rat’” not a hugely strong song, still convinces. But “Ogre Battle” is such a powerful song it creates an expectation for the already-hooked fan to want the second album - not due for release until March the following year.
“Modern Times Rock’n’Roll”
“Great King Rat”
“Son and Daughter”
“Ogre Battle” is, in case you’re not heard it, a guitar piece laced with tight, ripping playing, feedbacky and scaly; if you hadn’t figured it out already, the focal points of Queen were clearly Mercury’s huge persona and May’s equally huge guitar (yes, shades of Hendrix, and more than a couple of others, but May’s sound was distinctively his own). Even so, the rendition of “Ogre Battle” here is somewhat stripped-back and less bombastic than the LP version.
So. What were the UK charts like in March 1974?
Hot Chocolate, Paper Lace, Gary Glitter, The Glitter Band (no, really), Slade, the New Seekers, The Hollies, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, Ringo Starr and… Queen just sneaking in there with ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’. Glam rock (the second wave) is still popular but, like Marc Bolan, it seems to be limping somewhat on the way out as harder rock bands like Slade and Mott the Hoople edging out the tinfoil and fairy dust.
Queen fit rather neatly into this zeitgeist with their elements of glam and progressive (as in, actually progressive) rock, pretensions of grandeur rather than glamdeur. Bob Short is correct when he indicates that Mercury’s lyrics and vocals are all artifice, expertise and structure rather than honest expression. My view is that, like Abba, Queen were in it to win it, not be artists or confessional poets. To Mercury, a song was a way of telling fragments of stories which, slung together correctly, tugged at the heartstrings without disturbance. Musical children’s stories, in fact.
However… reading Mercury’s lyrics one does get the feeling that he’s partly writing about himself and the way he views the world and himself. I’m sure parts of songs were altered as the band rehearsed them; switching key signatures to add drama and depth. Essentially, Mercury’s lyrics are often somewhat baffling because in themselves they don’t seem to have meaning, but quite clearly strike the listener in a powerful way because of the way they’re positioned or sung in the song. A lot of songwriters produce somewhat odd material which puzzles people; I’m sure you can name a swag of them. I think Bob’s mistaken in thinking Mercury lacked honesty - truth to tell there’s not a lot of actual intimacy or blunt talk in Queen.
- - -
A month after the release of “Queen II”, their fourth BBC session was recorded on 3rd April 1974, the day after a gig at Barbarella’s in Birmingham (and that preceded by a month’s gigging in their own right around the country), and aired on the 15th, the day before they toured the US for the first time (supporting Mott the Hoople), later cut short when Brian May contracted hepatitis.
“Modern Times Rock’n’Roll”
“White Queen (As It Began)”
The session starts with a second stab version of “Modern Times Rock’n’Roll” (perhaps the weakest track on “Queen”, and the one I think of as their Led Zep song), and two more from their new LP. Curiously, the band ignore their second single, “Seven Seas of Rhye”, perhaps thinking that, even though the single was climbing the charts, that their strength was in their LPs, not singles, and wanting to get people to their gigs.
As before, the session is filled with drama, big passion and heroic guitar; also the songs sound tougher, simpler than the LP versions. This is Mythology writ large: very few outfits can come up with stuff like this and pull it off. “As It Began” is simply fantastic, “Nevermore” is beautiful.
_ _ _
Queen’s fifth session was recorded 16th October 1974, two weeks before the band embarked on their first major tour in their own right, chugging round the UK and Europe for eight weeks, and three weeks before what will be their most successful - and commercial - album yet, “Sheer Heart Attack”; it was broadcast four days before “Sheer Heart Attack” hit the shops on 8th November.
“Now I’m Here”
“Stone Cold Crazy”
“Flick of the Wrist”
You’ll forgive me I’m sure but when I was a little lad I thought this was such a great LP. These days I’m more impressed by the first and second; but “Sheer Heart Attack” is still an essential purchase. (Oh, sorry. No, I’m not a Led Zep fan either).
“Now I’m Here”; looking at the lyrics with hindsight, one sees a love affair connected to Queen’s tour of the USA - the old Hoople get mentioned for crying out loud.
‘ust a new man
Yes you made me live again
That chung-chung-chung guitar beginning was hardly unique back in the day, but it is notable that it was used heavily as a standard over the years following 1st December 1976 (Grunthog Day). The nod to the Stones at the end (“Little Queenie’” might be seen as homage, but I’d say this kick out the jams stomper is the band feeling the potential of their power: we’re gonna be as big as the Stones. Kind of a mission statement.
“Stone Cold Crazy” is a short, forceful song; a huge crowd favourite for several years; frankly, if you can’t hear punk - not to mention half a dozen later genres - in this one, you’re deaf. I love the drums which sound occasionally like a fucking bicycle pump. What’s it about? A not very serious take on sanity, it’s a slice of brutal humour.
“Flick of the Wrist” is another about-face (and the b-side of the single), this time into a menacing terrain. With glorious harmonies. You don’t have to be a genius to wonder whether the song is about their manager (Norman Sheffield) or a used-car salesman. Mercury’s vocals shimmy up and down the scales, skating along May’s hammering guitar. It’s a hell of a song.
Work my fingers to my bones
I scream with pain
I still make no impression
Seduce you with his money-make machine
Cross-collateralize, (big-time money, money)
Reduce you to a muzak-fake machine
Then the last goodbye
It's a rip-off
It’s worth mentioning that on the LP, three songs are welded together (“Tenement Funster”/“Flick of the Wrist”/ “Lily of the Valley”) to create an extraordinarily broad tapestry. The Peel sessions lets us see two of these as individual songs, complete with beginnings and ends.
‘Tenement Funster’ is another change of direction, and another nod to their American tour - along with quite a few shifts in character. In one way it’s about rebellious youth “enragin’ the folks on the lower floor” with “my rock’n’roll 45s”. If you can’t hear Bowie lurking (and a few others) lurking in here …
Once more, in the context of the day, you’d be impressed if you heard this Queen session - particularly if you’d not heard them before.
And there John Peel appears to leave Queen for a while: 1975 sees a constant flow of gigs and the recording of their fourth, landmark album, “A Night at the Opera”, which appears to have sold in excess of four and a quarter million copies. While Peel undoubtedly enjoyed successful works by bands he had helped to break to the public, he seems to have viewed his role with successful acts to either be over, or that there were other bands just as deserving of airplay and oxygen. Their follow-up, “A Day at the Races” seemed equally ubiquitous.
Reading the Lydon and Jones autobiographies recently I was struck by the incongruity of Queen appearing on the Grundy show in December 1976. I mean, by then they were just gigantic. And Grundy was such a grotty, drab little show with such a snotty, snobby little man - Queen’s management must have initially agreed to the show (all publicity is good publicity) but when the band realised just what their management had set them up for and, rightly, given the show the flick.
And then punk exploded in UK and around the world like the popping of some vast unsuspected buboe beneath the skin, pulsing out as if the reservoir were bottomless.
All of which makes one pause before this last session, made for John Peel on 28th October 1977 (the same day their sixth LP, “News of the World” hit the shops, and about 11 months after punk appeared like a confusing beacon) and was broadcast on the 14th November, three days after the band had embarked on another major tour of the USA.
Here’s Fred vs Sid…
“News of the World” was another change of direction for Queen; partly because of the huge media fuss over punk rock and new wave in the UK, and partly because of numerous lukewarm reviews of “A Day at the Races”, Queen were determined to pull back and take aim again. While one might ponder on why Peel went back to Queen after so long it may well be that he never went away; Queen had been insanely busy for two solid years, and returning to Peel might simply have been a way of reintroducing their new single and style.
First up is “We Will Rock You”, the B-side to “We are the Champions” (the film clip was recorded using fans from Queen’s fan club the day before the single’s release). Queen were simply so big now, and with the double-A side single being so spectacular, that apparently radio stations started to play songs from the LP consecutively.
“Reliable source’”(they try hard) Wikipedia (on the other hand, Britannica must be fuming, but you can’t go to EB to get info like this) reveals that Queen had been serenaded after an encore by the crowd singing (that appallingly shmaltzy Liverpool FC hit/ anthem) “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Fans of Liverpool (who were huge at the time) would sing the song at home and away games - it’s really very moving, a vast swelling expression of empathy.
But it’s one thing to have a football crowd sing it in the stands. Quite, quite another for an audience at the end of a gig (apparently in the town where I was born, good god) to spontaneously burst into song. And, that song.
So apparently this had a huge effect on the band, and they went back and worked up something which was typically huge and bombastic, but critically tied to what is one of the most recognisable popular music beats of the last 40 years. ‘Boom-boom-crash’.
Not in the league of “Boing, Boom Tschak”, but there you are. Few people have commented on the lyrics, it seems, but to me it conjures up not just the European football environment, but that of the Latin Americas and Africa - or the USA.
When it came out I was disgusted with it, which seemed to me to be somewhat dishonest. Listening back now… I am quite in awe. After their last two mega-selling LPs, to reduce their sound from these operatic waves and twinkly choruses to… the most basic sound men made back then, a football chant which may as well be set in South Africa … it’s not only an amazing song, but an enormous power for good.
Buddy you're an old man poor man
Pleadin' with your eyes gonna make you some peace some day
You got mud on your face
Somebody better put you back into your place
That there are two versions is interesting; but for me the revelation stands: all this time, 40 years, I got a song wrong because of the mood of the day and the association (quite justified at the time) of thuggery. Even Jimmy Pursey and his Sham 69 couldn’t attract this much world-wide excitement. The quote about Buddha at the end adds another dimension to it. The “fast” version sounds, incidentally, a bit heavy punk - but as I’ve mentioned, Queen are old hands at this terrain.
“Spread Your Wings” was released as the second single in February 1978, and “It’s Late” the third, released in April, as the band toured Europe; ‘It’s Late’ and "My Melancholy Blues" are the last tracks on “News of the World”.
“We Will Rock You”
“We Will Rock You” [fast]
“Spread Your Wings”
“My Melancholy Blues”
“Spread Your Wings” is again a different version to that on the LP, and it’s Queen doing what they do best. I don’t like it, and it’s partly the reason I went off Queen in the end, to me they became somewhat predictable.
‘“t’s Late” is tender but, I think, rather clumsy. It’s the guitar clunking away. The lyrics - if you’d read them before hearing the song - are quite moving.
The way you love me
Is the sweetest love around
But after all this time
The more I'm trying
The more I seem to let you down
And I have to say that, even though I don’t much like this song, the lyrics are fine. But the music is … well, Bob Short’s right, they’re well into panto territory now. Widow Twanky is adjusting her bustle.
“My Melancholy Blues” is the pianist in a seedy bar a la Casablanca (with May’s guitar rather ruining the effect, even though he keeps things low key) with Mercury’s rather lovely vocal. But with lyrics like this
Don't expect me
To behave perfectly
And wear that sunny smile
My guess is I'm in for a cloudy and overcast
Don't try and stop me
'Cause I'm heading for that stormy weather soon
However tongue-in-cheek, it doesn’t really work. I just want to go back to the original early 20th Century songs it’s drawn from. On the other hand, for thousands of Queen fans, this would be their introduction to a style of song which, though often copied, is seldom equalled by the masters.
When I’m looking back on a huge undertaking like this (well, it was for me) I sometimes like to re-examine the last couplet, in this case,:
Come into my enclosure
And meet my melancholy blues
Which is no joke, really. Queen achieved mega-stardom in a stark and extremely busy four years. And the front man was still a moody, dark bloke with flashes of delight and sanity.
If you liked Queen at any time, get this two disc set of “On Air”.
If you were never sure about the behemoth they became, get this two disc set and give it a twist; it’s an education.
If you can’t hear the origins of poodle rock in Queen (you remember it, mid-range panto glam with fuzzy hair and squealy vocals, and songs which meant little beyond bombast and vacuity), you’re daft. If you do harbour a secret passion for squeaky-larynxed lads in pink spandex, bad makeup and cocks the size and shape of acorns, you really need to get into Queen, especially “On Air”, because this is one of the True Sources.
Like every other smart band, Queen have rereleased their back catalogue, remastered, on vinyl and CD and yes, there are double disc sets. Check them out. Also, some of the back catalogue harbours a few of the peel sessions on the newer CDs. But “On Air” is an excellent starting point, and an excellent collection.
I’ll never walk alone? Hmm.