12 February 2013 by Mike Monahan
As Queen’s Greatest Hits became the first album to sell more than 6 million copies in the UK, a figure that will never be beaten, their appeal remains undimmed.
This week, Queen’s Greatest Hits became the first album to sell more than 6 million copies in the UK; one in three families [households] is believed to own a copy. Put another way, it is now the all-time biggest-selling album in this country, and, with digital downloads increasingly battering the CD into submission, it looks certain that no other release will ever catch it.
This 1981 compilation has long been so successful, the band such a cornerstone of the national cultural consciousness, that it is tempting to take this news for granted. Given that the West End show We Will Rock You – based around their songs – has been further stoking interest in them (not to mention selling the CD in the foyer) for more than a decade, why on earth, you might argue, wouldn’t the album eventually reach such a position?
On the other hand, why would it? Exactly why are Queen, more than four decades after their formation in London – and 23 years since the death of their frontman Freddie Mercury from Aids – still so astonishingly popular?
They were, after all, utterly preposterous in every way. Mercury was a cartoonish – and potentially alienating – camp figure; the other three were as boring-looking as can be. Resolutely uncool, their music heaved with pretensions, and their lyrics were often pure nonsense (“200 degrees – that’s why they call me Mr Fahrenheit” – what does that mean?).
In an era that saw John Lennon take on war, the Velvet Underground embrace heroin addiction, Pink Floyd probe the darker reaches of the human psyche, Queen preferred to sing about fat bottomed girls and the delights of pootling about on bicycles. In short, they seldom if ever tried to “say” anything, and so laissez-faire was their attitude to politics that, in 1984, they defied the UN’s cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa to play several sold-out gigs in Sun City.
If the latter decision was misguided at best, it has nevertheless generally been the band’s very refusal to take things too seriously that has so appealed to the public (while often confounding the more po-faced elements of the music press). Mercury – born Farrokh Bulsara, in Zanzibar, to Parsee parents – always admitted that he wanted to pack as much fun into his life as he conceivably could, and hang the consequences. His promiscuity caught up with him in the cruellest way, and yet his blazing quest for a good time was also pivotal to the band’s success.
It was Mercury who both came up with Queen’s telltale name and designed the band’s faux-royal crest, and, absurd as he was on stage – preening about in crowns and robes, and doing borderline-arrestable things with his oddly crane-like mic-stand – he was also magnificent, his energy as formidable as his crowd-embracing warmth. Who cared if guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon just got on with it? Mercury performed for all four of them.
Even Mercury’s charisma would have counted for nothing, though, without his and his colleagues’ copper-bottomed musicianship. Mercury tickled the ivories as eloquently as he sang, May and Taylor were talented backing (and occasionally lead) vocalists, and all four of them wrote. Admittedly, Mercury and May dominated in the songwriting department, but Queen’s output would be considerably the poorer without Taylor’s neglected rock-out I’m in Love with My Car, while it was Deacon’s Another One Bites the Dust that cracked America for the band. The result was the most fabulous and unforgettably melodic collection of songs, with that uniquely lush, instantly recognisable “Queen sound” running through almost every one. Stylistically, they were glam, but too good to be glam rock; technically brilliant, but too entertaining to be prog rock; hard-rocking, but too joyful to be heavy metal. The guitar was obviously their favourite instrument – ah, but so was the piano. Nothing seemed to be beyond them. The opening track of 1974’s superb breakthrough album Sheer Heart Attack, the giddily vaudevillian Brighton Rock, had May magically turn a guitar and a delay pedal into an orchestra of sound, with Killer Queen, Mercury’s piano-led paean to a Moët-quaffing courtesan, hot on that extraordinary song’s heels.
But even these were scant preparation for the treats around the corner. A Night at the Opera (1975) was a record that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. From the beautiful, rippling arpeggios of Death on Two Legs, to the Noël Cowardesque frippery of Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon and Seaside Rendezvous (all three fabulous, in case you’ve never caught them); from Bohemian Rhapsody’s unprecedented fusion of multi-layered operatic vocals and thunderous rock, to May’s concluding rendition of the national anthem – it all felt wonderfully new, and has lost none of its sparkle.
The follow-up, A Day at the Races (1976), was probably the last top-to-bottom indispensable Queen studio album. And yet, 1977’s News of the World yielded both the a cappella stomp We Will Rock You and that perennial football-ground favourite We Are The Champions; 1978’s Jazz was bolstered by the rampagingly un-PC grind of Fat Bottomed Girls and the heads-down charge of Don’t Stop Me Now; and The Game (1980) ranged from the bass-driven punch of Another One Bites the Dust to the rockabilly zip of Crazy Little Thing Called Love. That same year, Queen even squeezed in a score for Dino De Laurentiis’s action flick Flash Gordon that proved a symbiotic part of that phantasmagorical folie de grandeur.
The Eighties were a more variable time for the band. Recorded mostly in Munich, with Mercury such a regular on the local gay scene that it is a wonder he ever made it to the studio, Hot Space (1982) was a disco-fixated disaster that one suspects the band’s remaining two core members May and Taylor would scrub from the record if they could. And, although the return of May’s scything guitar in The Works (1984) was a relief, this largely electronic effort nevertheless made many fans think back wistfully to the band’s proud, DIY proclamation on the sleeve of A Night at the Opera: “No synthesisers!”
Live Aid in 1985 was, of course, where it all went right again. No other group seemed to have planned its set so carefully or professionally. And, whether this was calculated use of a charity gig as a career-fillip, or merely – as I prefer to think – an innocent determination to show 1.9 billion people a blistering time, there is no question that Queen were stupendous: they stole the greatest show on earth.
Live Aid set Queen on a considerable roll, but it was not to last. By the late Eighties, amid torrents of Fleet Street speculation, Mercury was looking worryingly gaunt. And, on November 24 1991 – having somehow recorded majestic vocals for what would become Made in Heaven, while admitting to his bandmates that he wouldn’t live to see the album released – he died. The national wave of sadness that greeted Mercury’s death hints, I think, at one of Queen’s greatest assets: the band’s lovability. For all his excess, Mercury was a hopelessly appealing, not to mention endearingly private figure whose sexuality and love life were – inconceivable as it now seems – not a matter of public record. (May and Taylor touchingly appeared on breakfast television shortly after his death, to set things straight after some grubby tabloid fabrications about their late friend.)
Ultimately, though, like all the best bands, Queen had superb parts, but were also much more than their sum. None of the members’ solo ventures – least of all Mercury’s lamentable 1985 confection Mr Bad Guy – ever remotely measured up to their collaborative work. And, although they found recording together so effortless that they privately referred to their studio as “the sausage factory”, the fact is that what they did was not easy at all.
Muse, Mika, the Darkness and countless other acts have wisely looked to the band for inspiration. But swipe Queen’s ever-lustrous crown? You must be joking.