Tag Archives: Freddie Mercury

Rocks In The Attic #797: The Cars – ‘Greatest Hits’ (1985)

RITA#797What does the rock band Queen and the new-wave band the Cars have in common? Both bands have great albums and great singles, of course, and both featured a fantastic central songwriter. But the answer is in the man who was an integral part of each band’s respective success: Roy Thomas Baker.

Much has been written about Cars frontman Ric Ocasek in recent weeks, following his death at the age of 75 – a fantastic songwriter, and a great producer in his own right – but an important element of the Cars’ success was the Englishman who produced their first four albums.

Baker never seems to get enough credit for producing the first batch of Queen albums (Queen, Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack and A Night At The Opera, before being called back for Jazz). Under his guidance, they turned from long-haired heavy rockers to pop superstars, and while it’s likely the genius of Freddie Mercury would have shone through under any producer, it’s hard to imagine those albums being helmed by anybody else.

After his success with Queen, Baker was snapped up by CBS Music and moved to America. There, he replicated his success with Queen by producing the Cars’ first batch of records on Elektra, eventually becoming the Senior Vice President of A&R at the label.

So with Baker producing both band’s first four albums, including a run of fantastic pop-rock singles, it’s not hard to see the Cars as America’s answer to Queen.  There’s obviously the Weezer connection to the ‘90s alternative-rock scene, but they seem like an important link between punk, rock and pop, that led to bands like the Foo Fighters, the Strokes, the Arctic Monkeys and the Killers dominating the early 21st century.

Plus, Drive is such a killer song, and there’s another comparison: both the Cars and Queen were such an integral part of Live Aid.

Hit: Drive

Hidden Gem: Tonight She Comes

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.

RITA#733b.jpg

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…)

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 #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