Category Archives: Queen

Rocks In The Attic #733: Queen – ‘A Night At The Opera’ (1975)

rita#733I finally caught Bohemian Rhapsody at the cinema recently. I wasn’t too bothered at first, thinking I probably wouldn’t enjoy it. In the end, it was okay, but – just like the band’s discography – it had some killer moments, surrounded by too much filler.

The problem with music biopics is that they tend to go down two routes. They’re either interesting artistic exercises (Control (2007), Ray (2004), I’m Not There (2007)), or they exist as a paint-by numbers exercise to sell cinema tickets on the strength of their subject’s name.

Bohemian Rhapsody falls firmly in the latter. It’s always risky watching a biopic when you know so much about the band. How will the film keep me interested and entertain me, when I already know what’s going to happen?

This film isn’t for me though. It’s for the other 99% of the cinema-viewing public; those whose experience of the band is a well-played copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits in their car’s CD-changer, and the knowledge only that Freddie Mercury died of AIDS.

It’s a wonder the film ever got made at all. Original lead Sacha Baron Cohen departed the project back in 2013, after falling out with the film’s executive-producers, Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor. He claims they wanted Mercury’s death to be plotted in the middle of the film, with the second half dealing with Queen’s dull as dishwater post-Mercury career. He wouldn’t clarify which of the two said this to him, before adding that Brian May was “an amazing musician” but “not a great movie producer.”

Baron Cohen’s involvement might have led to a better film. He suggested directors David Fincher and Tom Hooper, before the film landed with Bryan Singer, whose departure due to ‘personal issues’ led to the film being completed by Dexter Fletcher. Having seen what Fincher can do with a biopic (The Social Network (2010)), it’s a real shame he wasn’t hired. Hooper would also have been an interesting choice, being no stranger to biopics either, with both The Damned United (2009) and The King’s Speech (2010) under his name.

Baron Cohen’s mooted replacement was Ben ‘low whisper’ Whishaw, an actor with a similarly limited range as the film’s eventual star, Rami ‘low energy’ Malek. I first saw Malek in HBO’s mini-series The Pacific, in a role that suited his mumbling, bug-eyed weirdness. He then landed a similarly comatose lead in Mr. Robot, a TV show that rewarded viewers of its first year with an awful nudge-nudge-wink-wink season finale.

rita#733aWe’ll never know what Baron Cohen’s interpretation of Mercury would be like, but we can imagine. And I imagine it to be far, far more interesting than what we got from Malek. Aside from a bit of pouting, and a plummy accent, I didn’t ever think I saw Freddie Mercury in him. His performance (and the film’s marketing) reduces Freddie to a caricature of a moustache and a pair of aviator sunglasses. He’s just won the Golden Globe though (which might suggest an Oscar win in February), so what do I know.

The casting of the rest of the band deserves credit though. At one point, at a band meeting to discuss Mercury’s plans to go solo, the actor playing John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello, also from The Pacific) looked so much like the bassist, that I thought it was him. I glanced at the actor playing Brian May (Gwilym Lee), who embodied the guitarist from his first scene, and the lines between fiction and reality started to blur. Then the camera cut to Rami Malek and it was like somebody waking me up from sleepwalking.

Only Ben Hardy’s casting as drummer Roger Taylor felt a little off the mark. The actor did a fine job delivering his lines, but he just didn’t come across as enough of a cunt.

Much has been said about the screenwriters’ toying with timelines for dramatic effect, leading to a glut of historical inaccuracies. Most importantly, Freddie Mercury didn’t learn he had AIDS until 1987, and didn’t inform the band until 1989 – four years after the film’s Live Aid finale.

Some of the other changes didn’t even make sense. Backstage at Live Aid, Mercury passes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it U2, leaving the stage, fresh from their legendary set (when Bono decided to spend three minutes dancing with a member of the audience, rather than perform their big hit, Pride (In The Name Of Love)). But it was Dire Straits, not U2, who played directly before Queen. Wouldn’t a sweatband-headed Mark Knopfler be a more recognisable figure to walk past? He could even have been walking with a yoga-suited Sting. Given how loose the writers were with the facts, they might as well have had him walking past a jumpsuited Elvis.

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The most annoying thing about all of this, of course, is that the film will now become the generally accepted version of events. Adults of today and tomorrow will think that Queen were on the verge of breaking up before Live Aid, not that they used the opportunity to win back public support lost after playing in apartheid South Africa. They’ll think that they were a last minute addition to the Live Aid bill, when in fact they were one of the first bands announced. They’ll think that the band’s Live Aid set was notable for the ramp-up in charity donations, when it was Michael Burke’s video report from Ethiopia, introduced by David Bowie and set to the music of the Car’s Drive, which started the ball rolling. They’ll think the band were managed by that creepy Irish guy from Game Of Thrones and Queer As Folk.

I remember finding about Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis while reading the headlines during my Sunday morning paper round. By the following Sunday, the papers were filled with his obituaries. It was only then, when Bohemian Rhapsody was rereleased as a cassette single – which I bought, helping it get to #1 in the UK – that I started listening to the band.

Many years later, I picked up a second-hand copy of the album the song was taken from, 1975’s A Night At The Opera. It is a fine record, but the stand-out track by country mile is Bohemian Rhapsody.

Listening to I’m In Love With My Car reminds me of my favourite line of the film, a subtle ongoing joke with the rest of the band ribbing Taylor about his song: “So, Roger, what would you say is the sexiest part of a car?”

Hit: Bohemian Rhapsody

Hidden Gem: Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)

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Rocks In The Attic #156: Queen – ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ (1974)

This album, Queen’s third, is where the band starts to sound interesting. The first two albums are far too lacking in melody for my liking, and seemed designed purely for early 1970s headbangers.

Killer Queen is a fantastic single and probably one of my favourite Queen tracks. For some reason, something clicks when Freddie Mercury writes songs in a style other than rock / heavy metal. Of course, this isn’t true of a lot of his material – some of it is truly awful – but most of their big singles throughout the ‘70s are timeless.

The album in general is a big leap forward from Queen and Queen II – although it only shows a few hints of the band’s knack for melody and their ability to write a universal pop song. That reputation was still to be established (…and subsequently destroyed).

Hit: Killer Queen

Hidden Gem: Now I’m Here

Rocks In The Attic #139: Paul Simon – ‘Graceland’ (1986)

Rocks In The Attic #139: Paul Simon - ‘Graceland’ (1986)I recently watched Under African Skies, the documentary about the recording of Graceland which has been touring the film festival circuit over the past 18 months or so. The film marks the 25th anniversary of the album’s release, and has the usual talking heads interspersed with archive footage from the recording sessions.

One of the big talking points was Simon’s stealthily assembled recording sessions in South Africa, bypassing the cultural boycott of the country imposed by the ANC. It’s funny that the music industry often criticises Queen for playing concerts in South Africa at this time (a topic that really annoys Brian May when brought up in interviews), yet Paul Simon is almost universally applauded for collaborating with South African musicians and recording part of this album there. Did he collaborate or did he exploit them? He seems to have given co-writing credit wherever it’s due, but surely he seems to have become much, much richer – both financially and artistically – than them as a result.

I’m not sure which side of the fence I sit, and I don’t really like to tarnish art with politics, but the whole thing reeks of a certain duplicity. What isn’t in doubt is whether this is a good album or not. I think it’s fantastic, and it’s a refreshing change from the sludge of mid-‘80s solo albums released by rock stars from the ‘70s. I’ve loved the album ever since I saw it covered during the first series of Classic Albums. It quickly became a favourite, throughout college and university, and I’d always try to push onto other people.

If I had any criticisms at all, it would be the title of the song that lends its name to the album. Although it’s a fantastic song, and one of the album’s highlights, it just doesn’t fit right hearing about America, New York City and Elvis’ home when the rest of the album is so rooted in South Africa – both lyrically and musically. In the documentary Under African Skies, Simon recounts that it also didn’t make sense to him at the time, and that he always meant to the change the title of the song at least, but that no matter what he tried he just couldn’t change those words that fit so well. Perhaps it’s the counterpoint, between the subject matter of America and South Africa that actually makes it so interesting.

A couple of years ago I went to see Simon & Garfunkel in concert. I don’t know what I was expecting but they totally exceeded my expectations, and to this day it remains one of the best gigs I’ve been to. Halfway through their set, Paul Simon walked offstage for a short break while Art Garfunkel remained on stage with the band. I started to lose interest after he followed a fantastic version of Bridge Over Troubled Water with a new song he had recently written. Right then, as my guard was down, and I thought I’d witnessed the peak of their performance with songs like Old Friends and The Sound Of Silence, Paul Simon walked back onstage to do his solo piece and give Garfunkel a short break. He walked out to the middle of stage and pointed across to the piano-accordionist that had suddenly appeared, who in turn started the opening notes to The Boy In The Bubble. I’d never have believed I would have seen Paul Simon perform this song, so it was a very happy and welcome surprise.

Hit: You Can Call Me Al

Hidden Gem: The Boy In The Bubble

Rocks In The Attic #120: Queen – ‘Queen’ (1973)

Rocks In The Attic #120: Queen - ‘Queen’ (1973)It’s amusing that the liner notes on this album proudly declare that ‘…nobody played synthesizer’. Despite this claim, it’s sad that a band comprised of such good musicians depended on synths too much in the latter half of their career.

This album, their debut, relies on the heavy metal and progressive rock of their British contemporaries, without a promise of the songwriting genius that Freddie Mercury would become. Brian May is on top form though, machine-gunning riffs to sit between the album’s other highlight – Roger Taylor’s drumming.

Freddie Mercury is resigned to a pretty average vocalist on the album – albeit one with a good operatic range – but again, there’s no hint of what he would become. Although, there are some backing vocals that hint towards the layered harmonies that would later become the trademark Queen sound.

It seems as the band was far more concerned with style over substance at this point in their career – as a telling example, John Deacon is credited on the sleeve as Deacon John because the rest of the band thought it would make him sound more interesting.

The band must have seen something in Seven Seas Of Rhye – probably the strength of the great piano riff – as they include an early instrumental version of it as the last track on this album, before including a more fleshed-out version, including lyrics, as the final track on their second album.

Hit: Seven Seas Of Rhye (Instrumental)

Hidden Gem: Keep Yourself Alive

Rocks In The Attic #77: Queen – ‘Queen II’ (1974)

Rocks In The Attic #77: Queen - ‘Queen II’ (1974)This comes from the days before Queen could write a decent melody, turning a rock song into a pop song. Seven Seas Of Rhye turns up on this album as the last song, but even that is a heavy song with only a slightly catchy vocal line that takes it out of the dirge of the rest of the album.

People might buy this album expecting Bohemian Rhapsody to be included – the cover of the album was later used by the band to iconic effect in the music video to that song. Unfortunately, there’s nothing even hinting at the genius of that song.

Queen are an odd band – loved by millions but similarly derided by millions. They’re a rock band that appeal to a pop audience. Here, they’re still a rock band having trouble appealing to a rock audience.

Hit: Seven Seas Of Rhye

Hidden Gem: Nevermore