Monday, July 7, 2014

the millionaire waltz

In 1970, a young art student with a flamboyant stage presence and four-octave vocal range teamed up with the guitarist and drummer from the remnants of blues-rock band Smile. Over the course of the next year, the trio auditioned a number of bass players until they signed on an electronics student from Chelsea College who "struck a chord." Musical history was about to be written.

I discovered Queen late one evening in 1974. I was listening to storied Philadelphia radio station WFIL ("Famous 56") when they played a brand-new song called "Killer Queen." It was unlike anything else on the airwaves and cut like a "laser beam" through the mire of standard-issue bubble-gum pop. I was hooked. I cranked the volume up every time "Killer Queen" came on (which, based on the meticulously compiled playlists of 70s Top 40-format stations, was at least once an hour). I saved my money and eventually purchased the full album Sheer Heart Attack. Besides the hit single, it was chock-full of a wide variety of musical styles and genres, from heavy-metal to acoustic ballads to vaudeville ditties. It was incredible. It occupied a prized position in my blossoming record collection*, standing proud and majestic above The Archies and America.

With the 1975 release of the seminal A Night at the Opera, bolstered by its unlikely international hit "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen received worldwide recognition and praise. They rocketed to superstar status and couldn't be stopped. Their fame increased with each album release, as did the magnitude of their tours and the size of the venues in which they played. Meanwhile, their sound constantly evolved, incorporating an array of influences from a number of diverse styles. They sold upwards of 300 million records. They filled stadiums, including a memorable set before 72,000 delighted fans at Wembley Stadium (and 1.9 billion worldwide) at Live Aid in 1985. (An industry poll in 2005 called it the single greatest rock performance of all time.) The band went on to become the second biggest-selling act in the United Kingdom after The Beatles.

In 1991, Freddie Mercury — the driving force and exuberant personality of Queen — publicly acknowledged that he had contracted AIDS. Within 24 hours of his announcement, he was dead.

While other popular acts from the "classic rock" era (The Who comes to mind) limped through several tired tours, rolling out beleaguered versions of chest-thumping anthems, the surviving members of Queen laid low. Save for a tribute concert to the late Mr. Mercury within six months of his passing (which raised 33.9 million dollars for AIDS research and the Guinness Book of Records lists as "The largest rock star benefit concert"), guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon practically disappeared from the once bright and ubiquitous spotlight. Deacon announced his official retirement from the music business in 1997, but every so often May and Taylor would pop up and play at a charity event or awards ceremony.

In 2004, an obviously restless May and Taylor teamed up with former Free and Bad Company frontman Paul Rogers for a world tour, during which they would play songs from all of their respective bands. In 2009, May and Taylor appeared on American Idol (the popular bane of the modern music industry) and performed the Queen hit "We Are the Champions," with runner-up Adam Lambert filling in for the sorely-missed Freddie Mercury. In 2012, May and Taylor, along with new-found friend Lambert were scheduled to play the legendary Knebworth House in England, one-time host to such renowned acts as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. (The show was eventually canceled.) Prior to its cancellation, Brian May commented, "It's a worthy challenge for us, and I'm sure Adam would meet with Freddie's approval." That remark made me cringe. I cringed the same way when I heard the Mercury-penned "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" featured prominently in a Lays potato chip commercial.

Look, I have nothing against someone trying to make a buck. I'm all for live music. But, I don't care for deception. Bands like Electric Light Orchestra touring with the only original members being the drummer and the second violinist are being deceptive. Even the marketing genius of Gene Simmons feels it's perfectly okay to present one half of original KISS combined with one half "some guys in makeup" and still command $159 a ticket. If you're planning to see Journey, please be advised that you'll only be seeing original guitarist Neal Schon accompanied by, essentially, a Journey cover band. Conversely, Paul McCartney tours and plays Beatles songs backed by band members that weren't yet born when The Beatles were in their heyday. But, he doesn't call them "The Beatles."

I just don't understand why these fractions (and factions) of bands have to present themselves as "the band" when they know they are not. I take that back. I fully understand why. I just don't understand how they can do it with a clear conscience. If Brian May and Roger Taylor, two guys in their mid-60s, feel they are not ready to hang up their instruments, fine. Good for them. God bless 'em. Just don't call yourselves "Queen," 'cause you're not. You never will be again.

No matter what you think Freddie Mercury approves of.

*This, of course, was years before I eventually discovered other 1974 releases like Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Sparks' Propaganda.

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