I loved Queen, the rock band that shook up radio playlists in 1974 with unique instrumentation and elaborate harmonies on their hit Killer Queen, brought opera to the mainstream, followed it up by reviving the rockabilly genre, then made a left toward funk and disco. Not bad for an art student, an astrophysicist, a dental student and an electronics engineer who stumbled into super stardom.
I saw Queen several times when I was in high school, at the height of adoration for the band. In 1977, I caught one of the coveted carnations tossed to the audience by charismatic front man Freddie Mercury during the encore of the band's Philadelphia date on the News of the World tour. I took my soon-to-be wife and my mother (um, those are two separate people) to see what would be Queen's final US tour in 1982. My mom, a long-time Queen fan experiencing her first concert, was brought to emotional tears. My almost-wife, an unwavering Dead Head, was also brought to tears — but for different reasons.
Freddie Mercury had kept his AIDS diagnosis a secret until the day before his passing in 1991. In Spring 1992, a crowd of 72,000 mourning fans packed London's Wembley Stadium for a star-studded show honoring the late singer. It was the last time the surviving members — guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon — would perform together onstage.
Deacon has since retired from the music business to a very non-public life, however Taylor and May have attempted to rekindle the magic of Queen's halcyon days. With May at the forefront, they recruited one-time Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rogers to fill Freddie Mercury's shoes (or ballet slippers, in this case). While Rogers' husky voice is typical "rock & roll," it is hardly in the same ball park as Mercury's five octave range. But that didn't deter Brian May from cashing in on the Queen legacy sans Freddie. He latched on to American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert to take on Freddie's vocal acrobatics, touting the young singer with the cringe-inducing blessing: "Freddie would have approved." (I commented at length on my current feelings for Mr. May nearly three years ago.) Needless to say, as far as I am concerned, there is no longer a band called "Queen," nor will there ever be.
Around the time that Mercury and company were telling the world that they were the champions, Broadway was alight with a show called Beatlemania. This multimedia production, billed as "not the Beatles but an incredible simulation," was a meticulous recreation of musical moments from the illustrious career of the Fab Four. It was an exciting and, for the time, unique undertaking, as well as a treat for those who had never seen the Beatles in concert (which was many, since the Beatles ceased live concerts in 1966). The four members of the cast talked like the Beatles, dressed like the Beatles, moved like the Beatles and, yes, sang like the Beatles. It was spectacular, if not a bit eerie. The production, which ran for over 1000 performances, spawned a new show business phenomena — the tribute band.
When I was younger, my friends and I would frequent any number of dive bars in our area. Besides cheap beer, these places would feature a band offering their interpretations of the hits of the day. In addition, some bands would do an entire set of the songs of one band. There was Witness, who did a Jethro Tull set. There was the all-girl band Rapture, giving their best approximation of Blondie and, of course, local legends Crystal Ship famous for their Doors show. (Crystal Ship are famously mocked by The Dead Milkmen in the spoken intro of their song "Bitchin' Camaro.") These were just a bunch of guys playing songs by their favorite popular bands. But, more recently, tribute bands are big business. They tour regularly and get themselves booked into larger venues. Some even are officially sanctioned by the band to which they offer tribute. With clever (?) names like The Musical Box (a Genesis tribute), Strutter (a KISS tribute) and The Iron Maidens (an all-female tribute to guess who?) and some not-so-clever names like Australian Pink Floyd and 2U, these bands draw a loyal following of both the tribute and actual band.
Yesterday, my wife called me at work to tell me that her cousins Diahann and Heath (remember them?) were offering us tickets to see a Queen tribute show at The Borgata in Atlantic City. Mrs. P would pick me up near my office after work and we'd drive to the shore for dinner (again, complements of Diahann and Heath) before heading to the show. I did a quick Google search for this particular Queen tribute and discovered an officially endorsed tribute called "The Queen Extravaganza" starring one Marc Martell. The project, produced by Queen drummer Roger Taylor, was described as "much-buzzed-about" and has received much praise. Martell was commended as sounding "as if Freddie (Mercury) was in the room." However, further investigation revealed that the show we would be seeing was not that show. It appears that Mr. Martell has split with the official version, and taken his own rogue band in a similar direction, calling themselves "The Ultimate Queen Celebration." Ultimate, indeed.
After dinner, we entered the sparsely-populated venue a few minutes before showtime and were ushered to our eighth row seats. Mrs. P and I glanced around the room and assessed that the majority of the crowd had at least ten years on us... or perhaps they had all just led hard lives. Soon the lights dimmed and stage smoke enveloped the racked guitars and drum kit. In the dark, a man in our row screamed at the top of his nicotine-roughened voice: "Freddie's in the house!" Mrs. P and I exchanged surprised looks and Mrs. P whispered, "These people think they're at a Queen concert." On second thought, she may not have said "people." She may have said "idiots." Other folks were screaming wildly, bopping their heads and throwing up the "devil horns" (The same ones that KISS's Gene Simmons wants to trademark). The band members emerged from the violet-lit smoke, strapped on their instruments and launched into "Tie Your Mother Down," the lead-off track from Queen's 1976 effort A Day at the Races. Marc Martell, the alleged second coming of Freddie Mercury, stepped to the front of the stage and belted out the song's opening lines:
"Get your party gown
Get your pigtail down
Get your heart beatin' baby"
Was he good? He was okay. Was he Freddie Mercury? Not. Even. Close. Bud.
They were a cover band. A band doing other band's songs. Mr. Martell was making a half-hearted attempt at imitating some of Freddie Mercury's signature stage moves, while incorporating some of his own gestures. (Having seen the real Queen, I am very familiar with Freddie's faux ballet, stiff-finger punches in the air and microphone balancing.) The band was average, with the lead guitarist copying Brian May's well-known solos, but not his expression. Actually, he looked as though he had better things to do.
They delivered song after song, feigning excitement with each one. I physically winced at the opening strains of Sheer Heart Attack's "Now I'm Here," one of my favorite songs in the Queen canon.
After a while, I was embarrassed. For the band and for the audience.
I don't know what would have made it better. Would I have appreciated it more if it was closer to Beatlemania, with the band members actually dressing like and imitating the members of Queen? I really don't know. I think that would have made it too close to the stage show We Will Rock You, the Ben Elton-penned Queen musical in the Mamma Mia vein. My son and I saw this ill-conceived debacle in Las Vegas and I hated it. I mean I really hated it. So, I don't know.
Was "The Ultimate Queen Celebration." an interesting evening? Oh sure. Hey, I got a blog post out of it. It also made me want to listen to my old Queen albums — something I haven't done in, literally, years.
The band wasn't bad. The performance wasn't horrible. But, most importantly, it wasn't Queen.
Look, Diahann, I didn't even mention the pretzels.