GOLDMINE 10 AUGUST 2001
Compiling an imaginary “ultimate boxed set”
One of the most popular bands of the past 30 years, Queen’s musical legacy just gets stronger with every passing year. With tons of unreleased material in the vaults, what would be the ultimate Queen box set? Queen guitarist Brian May gives his thoughts on Queen’s songs as well as deceased vocalist Freddie Mercury and all else Queen…
by Dave Thompson
It’s the stuff that extraordinarily perverse dreams are made of. In late 1974, Sparks were the biggest band in Britain. Two albums and four singles had, in just eight months, catapulted them from the ranks of underachieving also-rans in their homeland to demigod-like household names in Europe. Frontman Russell Mael and his Charlie Chaplin-esque brother Ron were the most distinctive faces in rock, and they stared out from every magazine cover on the shelves. Russell’s voice, too, was unmistakable, an effortless falsetto that rattled off Ron’s quirky, breakneck lyrics with a style and grace that was unique.
There was only one shadow on the duo’s horizon – they had just dismissed their guitarist. So, they did what any self-respecting superstars would do and began casting around for a suitable replacement. Someone well-known, somebody respected but somebody whose career was maybe on a distinct downward spiral. Somebody, the Californians decided, like Brian May.
It was the ideal solution. At that moment in time, there were just three guitarists in Britain who mattered – Mick Ronson, the arachnoid lieutenant to David Bowie’s cosmic cowboy; Ariel Bender, the man who put the “heh” in Mott The Hoople; and Brian May, the wideboy foil to Freddie Mercury’s epee, five-foot something of perma-perm style and glowering good looks, with a guitar sound that could make your heart race.
But his band, Queen had shot their bolt. The press despised them – George Tremlett, author of the first-ever Queen biography, 1976’s oddly titled Queen, reflected on the band’s early years by remarking upon their “total rejection by the critics.” Band publicist Tony Brainsby remembered being told by one heavyweight rock journalist that, “he wasn’t going to write about a load of poofters.” Another paper even came up with a new category to lump them into: “supermarket rock.” Nobody, the Maels determined, could be happy trying to operate in that kind of environment. So they popped ’round to visit him.
It must have been a tempting offer. “I did like the band,” May reflected. “I loved ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us.’ Anyway, they came ’round, the two brothers, and said, ‘Look it’s pretty obvious that Queen are washed up. We’d like to offer you a position in our band, if you want.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t think we’re quite dead yet.” And today – does he have any regrets? “No, not a lot.”
The Queen story is, of course, a saga of supreme persistence. Perpetual critical disdain and the occasional commercial blip, of course, are only to be expected in any band’s life. Devastating illness and tragic death, on the other hand, are mercifully visited only on a handful. Aug 9 marks the 15th anniversary of the last concert Queen ever played before Mercury’s fading health nudged him into semi-seclusion; Nov 24 marks the 10th anniversary of his death, aged 45, from AIDS-related complications. The same week, six years will have passed since the release of the last “new” Queen album, Made In Heaven.
But the band’s profile remains sky-high. Over the last decade, two compilations, one live album and a small fortune’s worth of reissues and remixes have gone some way toward satisfying the demand for fresh product; a wealth of collaborations and solo projects have ensured the band and band members remain firmly in the public eye, and the rumour mill seems to spend half its time conjuring up new possibilities for the musicians’ future: They’re working on a live anthology, they’re re-re-(re-re-) mastering the back catalog once again; they’re re-forming with George Michael/Trent Reznor/Robbie Williams/Kid Rock… OK, maybe not Kid Rock. Oh, and they’re scooping up outtakes for a forthcoming box set to be comprised exclusively of unreleased material. May cast a weary eye over them all, but one out of four ain’t bad.
The rarities box set is definitely happening and, though he cannot say when it’ll be ready or even what will be in it, he does admit that “trawling the archive for any odd things that might by lying around” is only one of any number of approaches that can be taken toward what is, after all, one of the mist significant canons in rock history.
“The regular back catalog is already out there. Hollywood Records have done a fantastic job in the States with it,” May told Goldmine. “I’m amazed, really, all the more so since Capitol failed so hugely with it when we were signed with them a while ago. I think the difference was, Hollywood are rather intelligent and don’t make a huge hoohah and get on with the job and do it pretty well. So that’s taken care of.”
Looking around at the mountain of material that comprises Queen’s non-album output, however, there is certainly room for improvement, consolidation and even explanation. What was the thinking behind all those 1991 remixes? Why does the sound break up at the end of “Lap Of The Gods (Revisited)”? And whose great idea was it to team up with Williams? Adding yet another spoke to the already bristling wheel of wishful thinking that periodically rolls through Queendom, May agreed to pretend that the band’s next project will be to round up all these funny little bits and pieces and give the entire ouvre a facelift. What would comprise the ultimate Queen collection?
Disc one – the best of
Despite signing a high-profile production deal in 1972, Queen were forced to wait close to 18 months before their debut album was released and six months more before they made their all important breakthrough with the hit “Seven Seas Of Rhye.”
“It was frustrating,” May reflected, “because we were already… there was no such thing as glam rock back then. We were just a band who liked theatrics. We thought of ourselves as a kind of Led Zeppelin who enjoyed dressing up. By the time things started happening, though, people like Sweet and Slade, great pop groups who were also dressing up, were huge, and what we originally thought of as a very original approach was suddenly the latest fashion”.
It was not a role that the band relished. “Fashion, movements – really don’t matter when you’re a band. All you care about is what’s inside you, and you really don’t want to be fit into somebody’s box. I’d much rather spend time finding out what the differences are between people than looking for similarities.”
Not that Queen made any conscious efforts to shake off the unwanted baggage – “mainly because we were much too arrogant and pig-headed to care.” Indeed, the sophisticated decadence of 1974’s Sheer Hert Attack album (and, in particular, the “Killer Queen” single) so effortlessly fit the mood of the time that even today the song is a deathless regular in glam revivalist circles. But May is equally adamant that that, too, was utterly unpremeditated.
“We just did what we thought was worthwhile; there really was a terrible arrogance about us! But what that really means is, you’re creating from the inside rather than from an opinion poll. We never considered what people were saying as a guide to what we were doing. It doesn’t mean we didn’t care about our audience, because we cared deeply about them. But caring about your audience doesn’t mean doing what they want you to do. It means treating yourself properly as an artist, so you are worthy of people’s support. And if you’re acting with integrity within yourself, your audience will understand that.”
That integrity took he band down some remarkable roads, of course – “Bohemian Rhapsody” is merely the tip of an iceberg of almost Brobdingagian creativity, audacity and, as May insisted, arrogance; you can stop off on any one of their albums to touch similarly scintillating heights.
Hollywood has already gifted fans with an album highlighting the heavier side of the band, the Queen Rocks compilation of skull-crushing riffs and tormented guitar solos (oh, and “Fat Bottomed Girls”), a set that May said he admires for the inclusion, for the first time on a Queen compilation, of “Tie Your Mother Down.”
“That really should have been included on the original Greatest Hits album, and it wasn’t because we were very rigid and pedantic about the contents. We said, ‘Its’s got to be Top 30 and that’s it.’ and because ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ only got to #32, we couldn’t put it on. Probably a bad idea.”
Queen Rocks did well – #7 in the U.K. in 1997. [It didn’t chart in the U.S. – Ed.] But a companion piece dwelling on operatics and concerts would be equally spellbinding – particularly as it’s there. May acknowledged, that the groups sense of mischief really came into play. For years, audiophiles have flinched through the closing moments of Sheer Heart Attack, as the soaring chorale majesty of the anthemic “Lap Of The Gods (Revisited)” builds to a massive finale and a heart-stopping explosion… only for the sound quality to simply crumble, the impact of the blast tearing the speakers (and the fidelity of the moment) to tattered ribbons. A faulty pressing? Faulty remastering? Cheap tapes? “No,” May said, laughing, “the explosion’s meant to break up. It’s totally intentional. We said, ‘The explosion will be too big for the studio, so tape saturation will be a part of the sound.'” What if the end result sends purchasers scampering to upgrade their album at every opportunity, hoping that some day a remaster will appear that doesn’t sound like the woofer’s gone tweet? “Sorry.”
Another song wedged in the guitarist’s heart is “We Will Rock You,” recently revived for the opening to the movie The Knight’s Tale and continuing to impress by its very uniquity. (Plus this latest pressing sounds fabulous, with percussion that literally leaps out and slaps you.) Then there’s “Flash.” Perhaps the quintessential Queen single, the song certainly is one of their finest achievements of the 1980s – and, with all that in mind, astonishingly the closest a major hit has ever come to rotting on a shelf somewhere.
It was written, of course, for the soundtrack to Dino De Laurentis’ Flash Gordon movie, but the director himself was dead set against having a pop group score his baby, as May recalled. “Really there had never been a rock soundtrack to a movie that wasn’t about rock music before. Up to that point, it was considered impossible. Even Mr. De Laurentis said it’d never work. It was Mike Hodges, the producer, who brought us in to the project, and I think there was a fundamental gap between his view of the film and Mr. De Laurentis’. Mike Hodges really made it into a cult film by being very self-consciously kitsch, whereas Dino regarded it as an epic and not to be messed with. I’ll never forget: He came to the studio, sat down and listened to our first demos and said, ‘I think it’s quite good, but the theme will not work in my movie. It is not right.’ And Mike walked over and said, “A chat with you, Dino. You don’t understand where this film is going to be pitched…” But I had a really nasty moment there, ‘Oh no, he hates my “Flash”… aaaahhh-aaaaaahhh, and it’s going to go on the cutting room floor.”
But if May does have an all-time favorite Queen song – at least during the 30-second pause that followed the question – it’s “The Show Must Go On.”
Taken from the group’s 1991 album Innuendo, “The Show Must Go On” was released as a single in October 1991, an epic, production that, at the time of its release, was regarded simply as that – an epic production, a typically grandiose Queen pronouncement, albeit one of their most memorably stirring efforts in years. It entered the U.K. chart on Oct. 26, meandering casually up to #16 peak – and then Freddie Mercury died, and suddenly the song’s imagery – “a clown at the end of his career, standing there with his makeup running,” as May put it – took on an entirely new meaning and one that very few people had even imagined.
Tabloid tittle-tattle notwithstanding, nobody outside the Queen’s innermost sanctum even knew he was ill until Mercury himself issued a press statement acknowledging that he had contracted the HIV virus. Nobody had the opportunity to speculate upon how serious it was because, within 24 hours, he was dead. Just like that. The show would not be going on, after all.
“It was strange, because none of us really thought he would die,” May reflected. “It was unthinkable, although obviously you have the possibility in the back of your head 24 hours a day. It’s the most unreal thing to go through with somebody you’ve been that close with for that long. Having ‘The Show Must Go On’ out as a single at that time, it was very bizarre, because the way the song came about in the first place was strange.
“For some reason, John and Freddie and Roger had been playing around with things in the studio and I heard one of the sequences they had come up with, and I could just hear the whole thing descending from the skies… almost in the form, sound-wise, that it ended up. It’s something that came as a gift from heaven, I suppose. I did some demos, chopped things up, did some singing demos and some guitar and got it to a point where I could play it to the guys, and they all thought it was something worth persuing.
“Then Freddie and I sat down, and I got out my scribblings and said, ‘What do you think of all this?’ It was a very strange and memorable moment really, because what I’d done was come up with something which I thought was the world viewed through his eyes. We didn’t talk about it as such. We talked about in terms of the story… it was very poignant at the time, but strange, not precious in any sense. It was just a song and we just loved the idea of it. I was very pleased with the way it came out, especially the way Freddie pushed his voice to ridiculous heights. Some of that stuff I mapped out in falsetto for him, and I remember saying, ‘I really don’t know if this is asking way too much…’ and he went, ‘Oh darling, not a problem. I’ll have a couple of vodkas then go ahead and do it.’ And he did.”