Tag Archives: U2

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…)

Rocks In The Attic #587: ZZ Top – ‘ZZ Top’s Worldwide Texas Tour’ (1976)

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I saw this record posted in the fabulous Facebook group On The Turntable Right Now last year sometime. And if there’s something I don’t like, it’s finding out that there’s a classic-era ZZ Top album that I don’t own. Laptop. Discogs. Wait. Postman. Open. Needle. Done.

ZZ Top’s Worldwide Texas Tour is a promo-only radio sampler from 1976, designed to promote the band’s world tour in support of 1975’s Fandango! The tour would last through 1976 into 1977, with 1977’s Tejas recorded during breaks in the schedule.

RITA#587aAs a record, it’s the very first ZZ Top compilation and a forerunner to the band’s first official compilation, 1977’s The Best Of ZZ Top. In fact, the tracklisting is virtually identical, with only a couple of changes. Worldwide Texas Tour opts for six songs per side, The Best Of has only five; the extra songs being Precious And Grace and Nasty Dogs And Funky Kings, while The Best Of opts for Francine over Brown Sugar (presumably with the slow blues quota already filled by Blue Jean Blues).

The Worldwide Texas Tour is where ZZ Top’s glitzy image really started. Prior to this tour, the band’s live shows were minimalist operations, concentrating more on the music than anything else. This time around, they wore studded Western suits and toured with a full stage-set including plants, props and a Texan panorama backdrop.

Say what you want about the spectacle of 21st century concert performances, but would you ever see a band like U2 touring with a longhorn steer, a black buffalo, two vultures and two rattlesnakes?

Hit: Tush

Hidden Gem: Heard It On The X

Rocks In The Attic #558: Foo Fighters – ‘The Colour And The Shape’ (1997)

rita558Foo Fighters’ sophomore album The Colour And The Shape marks the true beginning of the empire of Dave Grohl. The band’s self-titled debut album had been released two years earlier, but that was something else, a solo record of sorts with Grohl playing everything on the record.

Foo Fighters wasn’t even intended as the name of the band when that debut was being recorded. It was just the name of the album, the name of the project – in the same way Grohl has subsequently done with ventures like his metal project Probot. In 1995, Grohl employed a group of musicians – guitarist Pat Smear, formerly of the Germs and the latter days of Nirvana, and bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith, both from the recently defunct Seattle band Sunny Day Real Estate. He called this band the Foo Fighters – why not, that’s what the album was called? – but lived to regret this as bad idea much further down the line. To be fair, it is a terrible name for a band.

The recording of the band’s second album included one unsavoury moment that would prove to characterise the band over the rest of its lifetime. Unhappy with William Goldsmith’s drum tracks for the record, Grohl re-recorded them himself, behind Goldsmith’s back. As a result, the hired drummer understandably quit the band. Here was the thing – the Foo Fighters weren’t a democracy, they were a dictatorship, and Grohl was the man in charge.

As much as I loved the charm of the first record, I found its follow-up to be something else entirely. The songs were bigger, more bloated and Everlong pointed to the radio-friendly path the band would subsequently take. Even worse, I couldn’t even work out who a song like February Stars was aimed at – it was completely at odds with the rock band I thought the band was. This was only three years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and the former Nirvana drummer was now recording weak material for album filler. It didn’t help that my roommate at University started to like them around this time, and he really only noticed big, mainstream acts like U2 and R.E.M.

Listening back to the record now, I like it much better than I did back in 1997. Perhaps it’s because that for all its differences to its predecessor, it actually sounds more like that first record than anything the band recorded later. Songs like Hey, Johnny Park! and Monkey Wrench are more in line with the Foo Fighters of 1995 and it’s just a shame there wasn’t more of this kind of material across the album. I tried my best in 1997 to like all of The Colour And The Shape, but for me its weaker points outweighed its strengths.

In fact, by the release of Everlong as a single three months after the album dropped, I had checked out. A band – or more fittingly, a recording – I had invested so much in back in 1995 had turned out to be something else entirely, and I just slowly forgot about them. I kept one eye on them, and was sickened by what seemed like a never-ending cast of musicians came and went – Goldsmith was replaced by Taylor Hawkins, formerly of Alanis Morissette’s touring band, and Pat Smear left to be replaced on guitar by Frank Stahl, who ended up being fired by Grohl before they recorded third album There Is Nothing Left To Lose. A stable line-up only came when Chris Shiflett joined as the band’s guitarist after that record was in the can. Pat Smear seems to come and go as he pleases, but generally the band’s line-up has stayed the same in the 21st century.

In 2011’s Foo Fighters: Back And Forth documentary, Grohl reasons that all bands go through firings and difficult line-up changes, it’s just that the Foo Fighters did theirs after the band was already established in the public eye. As much as I agree with this, I just wish that initial foursome of Grohl, Smear, Mendel and Goldsmith had survived. There’s a band picture included in the packaging of that debut record, of the four original members looking very happy – maybe I’d still be a fan of the band if this line-up was still intact? My mild OCD seems to think so – I tend to prefer bands with a measure of stability in their line-ups.

Hit: Everlong

Hidden Gem: Hey, Johnny Park!

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Rocks In The Attic #359: U2 – ‘Boy’ (1980)

RITA#359I can easily see how for some people this is their favourite U2 album. It’s the least pretentious, by a long shot and doesn’t come with all the ego that would drown later albums. It’s their purest record, in the sense that it’s just them, as a strange post-punk / new wave band, borne of the 1970s but positioned for the 1980s, punctuated by the Edge’s stabbing guitar lines. Each subsequent album would (arguably) get musically stronger until they were the biggest band in the world from the early ‘90s onwards.

It’s funny how you can still hear the old U2 in the U2 of today. The background vocals on new single The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) could have been lifted off something like Out Of Control on this, their debut record. So they’re still the same band, just doing everything on a bigger scale these days.

I always put U2 in the same camp as R.E.M – both developed out of weird places, off rock n’ roll’s usually well-beaten path; both bands rose to prominence in the ‘80s to become the biggest bands on their respective sides of the Atlantic in the ‘90s; both bands are four-pieces in the traditional sense of the world – guitarist, bass player, drummer, vocalist; both bands had a slew of albums under their belt before they crossed over into the mainstream; the similarities go on and on.

2014 was a bad year for U2. They tried to be clever by force-feeding their new album, Songs Of Innocence, on the general public via iTunes. Essentially, they spammed the world with something the vast majority of people didn’t want or need. The weird thing is that even though they gave it away for free, people still bought it. When it released properly, it hit #1 in all the charts. Presumably all the digital luddites who didn’t have iTunes rushed out to buy it, to see what all the fuss was about.

Tragedy almost struck a few weeks later when the door of the private jet Bono was flying in, flew open in mid-air. He then had a cycling accident, fracturing his eye socket, his shoulder blade, his upper arm, and his little finger (cue joke about him riding on the pavement, too close to the Edge).

Karma’s a bitch.

Hit: I Will Follow

Hidden Gem: Out Of Control

Rocks In The Attic #257: U2 – ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987)

RITA#257I’ll always prefer The Unforgettable Fire (and War, for that matter), but this is the album that turned U2 into a household name, with the band’s obsession with America finally paying off. I wouldn’t say that U2 broke America with talent and hard work – it feels more like they got lucky with their sycophantic pandering to the country. Whenever I see Bono or The Edge in a cowboy hat, a little part of me wants to vomit.

I don’t enjoy U2 after this album. Right from the self-indulgence of Rattle And Hum, they’ve gone from bad to worse, and only now over their last couple of albums have they seemed to realise what a group or earnest cunts they turned into in the 1990s.

The Joshua Tree is very much their high-water mark. Where The Streets Have No Name specifically is a flash of brilliance they’ve never been able to replicate – and only a few of their singles since have come anywhere close. I’ve seen U2 twice now – once in Manchester and once in Auckland. They’re a great band live, but I have to admit I always switch off whenever they play anything post-Achtung Baby.

One Tree Hill will always mean something special to New Zealanders – it’s a tribute to Bono’s PA, a New Zealander, who died in a motorcycle accident in Dublin. When I last saw the band play in Auckland, they played One Tree Hill, dedicating it not only to Greg Carroll and his family, but also to the victims of the recent Pike River mining accident. Earlier in the night, support act Jay Z had also dedicated a song to the Pike River miners but – in an act typical of the infantile and limited world view of rap – diluted the gesture by also dedicating the song to “Biggie and Tupac”.

Hit: Where The Streets Have No Name

Hidden Gem: One Tree Hill