Tag Archives: John Lennon

Remembering Freddie Mercury – The King of Queen

freddie-mercury-1974-2It was on this day, November 24th, a quarter of a century ago that the world lost Freddie Mercury. I remember the day well. I’d read in the newspaper (remember them?) in April 1991 that Freddie had a “mystery wasting illness.” It said he’d viewed some properties for sale in London and the owner was told to “be out” when Freddie arrived. He was seen being helped in and out of the car. As soon as I read that, I knew it was AIDS. Still, I thought he had a few years more to live.

On November 23rd, he put out the press release confirming he had AIDS. On Sunday the 24th, I was flicking through the TV channels before going to bed and Sky News were playing the Barcelona video. The newscaster, Scott Chisolm, said: “That’s how he’d want to be remembered.” I thought it was a bit premature to be talking about him in the past tense despite his AIDS diagnosis. Then he read the headline that Freddie had just died. Despite my suspicions, it was still a hell of a shock. I remember just sitting there stunned the next day, the wind howling outside. Queen guitarist Brian May said Freddie’s death was one of the grimmest memories of his life. It was one of mine too. An awful, frightening time. There was no cure for AIDS then and it appeared the virus was going to go on killing people indefinitely. Who would be next?

I was 20 then and Freddie seemed old to me at 45. I’m 45 now and, I can tell you, it isn’t old at all. He was still a young man with a long way to go, but we never get the best for very long. They come out of nowhere, shake up everything and then they’re gone, leaving us to wonder who they really were and where they came from.

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Most rock stars die suddenly without warning; Elvis, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Freddie, like his Under Pressure collaborator David Bowie, knew he was dying and had time to prepare for it. There are little hints and clues in the final albums released while he was alive The Miracle and Innuendo.

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His most famous work, Bohemian Rhapsody, was re-released and hit number one again over Christmas 1991 for five weeks (adding to the nine weeks it had spent at number one in the UK over Christmas 1975.) It’s been said that the success of Bohemian Rhapsody gave Freddie the money and fame to embark on the lifestyle that killed him. The song made him, remade him at Live Aid in 1985 and was a fitting epitaph to his career in late 1991.

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How good was Freddie Mercury? He named the band Queen, designed their logo, wrote their first top ten hit and their first number one single. Just look at the originality of Bohemian Rhapsody. There hasn’t been a song like it before or since. That’s why it stands so far apart and above most other contemporary songs. Freddie wasn’t only a genius songwriter, he was a superb pianist, arranger, producer and an unforgettable showman on stage (I was lucky enough to see him on his last tour with Queen at Slane when I was 14). Who else could walk on before a football stadium crowd and command them all effortlessly for two hours? There was that unique voice with the four-octave range. The groundbreaking and hilarious videos Queen made. He even danced with the Royal Ballet company for Christ’s sake. And all this before the age of 45. He crammed a lot of life into his short time on earth. May he rest in peace while conducting the choir eternal.

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I’ll leave the final words to Freddie himself, he said: “I don’t think I’ll make old bones and I don’t care. I’ve lived a full life. I really have done it all and if I’m dead tomorrow I don’t care a damn.”

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

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A Hobbit, Four Beatles, a Queen and a Led Zeppelin: How Tolkien Influenced British Music In The 1960s and 7os

Stew Fantasy Quote Meme

Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.

Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”

Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.

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The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”

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It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.

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Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.

 

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It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.

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Lord of the Strings

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”

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Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.

Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

A Night At The Opera: A Peek Behind The Curtain

ANATOQueen’s 1975 album “A Night At The Opera” begins with Freddie Mercury’s flowery piano-playing drifting in out of nowhere. It’s lulling you into a false sense of security, however, as Brian May’s angry guitar riff kicks in with a siren for backing. It builds to a crescendo of stabbing, Psycho-esque licks before a sudden Exorcist-like scream cuts across it and we cut to silence before Freddie’s teasing piano comes in again. The late DJ Gerry Ryan once said this album was “the most over-produced record of all-time.” Look at all the sounds we’ve already had in the opening seconds and he may have had a point. He may also have been a tad unfair. As Brian May said, Queen had more tools to play with in the studio by the mid-70s than the The Beatles had enjoyed back in the 60s and they were determined to take full advantage of them.

Those opening sounds are the intro to a song written by Freddie called “Death On Two Legs” tantalisingly sub-titled “Dedicated to…” It’s Freddie at his most vitriolic recalling John Lennon’s goading of Paul McCartney in his “nasty” song “How Do You Sleep.” “Death On Two Legs” was rumoured to be about Queen’s first managers, the Sheffield brothers, they certainly thought it was about them as they sued Queen (even though they nor anyone else is mentioned by name in the song). What were they so annoyed about? Check out some of the lines Freddie wrote: “Dog with disease/You’re the king of the sleaze/Put your money where your mouth is Mr Know All/Was the fin on your back part of the deal?…SHARK!” Even Brian May asked Freddie if he was sure he wanted to be so full-on but Freddie was insistent. On their live album “Live Killers” four years later, “Death On Two Legs” was described as “the source of many tedious legal battles.” Freddie’s introduction to the song on stage has to be bleeped out three times, I’ll leave it up to you to decide what he said, he was clearly unrepentant. It does end on a positive note: “Make me feel good/I feel good.”

It’s straight into the Noel Coward-esque “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” and we’re back to the Music Hall (the British version of American vaudeville and something Paul McCartney was constantly accused of writing for). Freddie’s muffled vocals were achieved by feeding them into a tin can and re-recording them on a microphone. A simple trick that pays off brilliantly. Whimsical again, the media never got the humour in Queen’s songs and videos and always tore them to shreds.

Next, we’re piling into Roger Taylor’s “I’m In Love WIth My Car.” Freddie and Brian were the Lennon and McCartney of Queen writing most of the early albums between them with Roger Taylor struggling to get any of his early songs into the mix, this being one of them. Brian May couldn’t believe Roger was serious submitting a song with that title for consideration and took offence to it. It’s got this rolling waltz-time beat to it and showcases Roger’s astonishingly high vocals (“the dog whistle voice” Freddie accurately called it). The track became a live favourite in later years and Roger arguably saved Queen in the 80s with his songwriting on huge hits like “Radio Ga Ga” and “A Kind of Magic” when Freddie was more interested in partying than writing lyrics. Here, like the car engines at the end, he was just revving up.

“You’re My Best Friend,” John Deacon’s gorgeous ode to the usually unspoken love of friendship (it was about his wife, actually) is next. Freddie puts in a great vocal on a song that isn’t his.

“’39”, a Brian May composition, is next and it starts out with some folky guitar before a jaunty, country-and-western-style sing-along rolls out before us. The song is about exploration. With its “milky sea” and “new world” references, I always thought it was about The Pilgrim Fathers sailing from Plymouth, England to the New World on The Mayflower. Turns out it was about space travel.

“Sweet Lady” is the closest thing the album comes to filler but is a good rock song that kicks off with Freddie going “Ooh, I like it!”, so he’s clearly into it. The repetition of “Sweet Lady” does get on your nerves a bit but “Seaside Rendezvous” is straight around the corner. It’s okay, again a little bit fillerish for my liking, slight and forgettable.

Brian May’s “The Prophet’s Song” is next and probably the best Queen song you’ve never heard. It’s Queen at their scariest with this apocalyptic epic. Look at the use of words “warning” “storm” “bone-white haze” “Hell” “death” “madman” and you can see where they are going. It’s dark stuff with some absolutely glorious soaring harmonies from the band and a middle section where Freddie repeatedly sings “now I know” in multi-tracked a cappella that just builds and builds and is quite eerie when he starts singing “death all around” like a mantra. Brian said that when Freddie sang backing vocals to his lead vocals, the takes were so similar that the sound phased together. That is a mark of how accurate Freddie was as a singer and how much concentration he put into recording.

From the Book of Revelations to the Book of Love with Love Of My Life. It’s got Brian May on harp but was stripped back to just guitar and vocals more effectively for live performances. Freddie always got the crowd to sing along during it, occasionally standing back and letting the crowd sing it back to him while he stood and applauded their efforts. Even audiences that didn’t speak English knew the words. YouTube it, it’s quite an uplifting experience, spellbinding.

Brian May takes over vocals for his own composition “Good Company” and it’s hard not to hear an echo of The Beatles “When I’m 64” in there, from the cheerful tone of the song with its underlying theme of a despondent man ageing to the use of ukulele (George Formby, a famous British comedian and ukulele player was one of The Beatles favourites)  May has admitted that Beatles records, especially The White Album, were The Bible for Queen. All writers have to work out their influences through imitation before they find their own voice.

The second last song on the album is Bohemian Rhapsody, unquestionably one of the greatest songs ever written. A very strange magnum opus with many different parts (ballad, opera, heavy rock), it was actually three songs Freddie had written that he threw together with spectacular results. Freddie never explained what that song was about. If anyone put any theories to him about what they thought the song meant, Freddie just stared at them for a moment and then laughed. He gave nothing away about his songs or himself. The name Freddie Mercury comes from a line in the song My Fairy King on Queen’s self-titled first album from 1973. The line was “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me.” So Freddie Mercury is the “Mama” of Bohemian Rhapsody. “Freddie Mercury just killed a man.” Who is the man? Freddie Mercury was born Farookh Bulsara, could his alter-ego Freddie be the one “killing” him? What sort of death is it? The next line is “Put a gun against his head/Pulled my trigger now he’s dead.” The gun, of course, is a phallic symbol and the use of “my trigger” is significant. Normally you would write “THE trigger”, why is the “my” so important? So Freddie Mercury is “killing” the old Farookh Bulsara by pulling “his” (Farookh’s) trigger (an orgasm? It’s all very Freudian.). It was around 1975 that Freddie Mercury became gay. He was leaving the old him behind, was he worried about having “gone and thrown it all away” meaning a possible negative reaction from family, friends, the media and the public? I’m sure it was on his mind, he’d put everything he had into music and becoming a star and he had a lot riding on this album. Queen were not just poor, they were in debt and needed a smash hit album. Although Bohemian Rhapsody is a very intense, heartfelt song, there is that intentional, overarching preposterousness that means it’s not entirely meant to be taken seriously.

The curtain comes royally down on the album with Queen’s version of the British national anthem “God Save The Queen.” Jimi Hendrix was clearly the influence here with his rock version of America’s national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” still fresh in the memory from a few years before. Freddie Mercury was obsessed with Hendrix and once saw him 14 nights in a row in various pubs and clubs around London.

“A Night At The Opera” is widely regarded as Queen’s best-ever album. Some of their later albums had big hits with some filler on them, particularly “News Of The World” and “Jazz.” It’s my favourite Queen album and one that I never get tired of listening to. The songs are so varied and timeless and universal like all great albums should be. With each passing year, the death of Freddie Mercury is felt more and more sharply. There never has been another one of him in the years since he died and there never will be. This album will be listened to for as long as music is played and that must make old Fred smile wherever he is.

Album produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Queen.

© 2014, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Simplicity And Being Neat – Let The Writer Beware

The other day, someone was going the long way around explaining a problem they had and I just said straight out what I thought. The person agreed with me and told me what I had said was “simple.” I disagreed and said it was not simplicity but precision and there is a difference.

I was reading a review of a Beatles album and the reviewer remarked on the child-like simplicity of John Lennon’s imagery.. Again, I disagreed. If writing songs was that simple, there would be millions of John Lennons walking the earth easily writing stuff as good as his repertoire and it ain’t so. It was not the simplicity of his imagery, it was the precision he had to be able to concoct such razor-sharp images within the confines of a three-minute pop song that differentiates him from others. His mindset was unique.

“Neat” is another way of saying “simple.” A review of John Carpenter’s Halloween praised the “straight-arrow neatness” of the plot. That’s another way of damning it with faint praise that it’s simple. However, just look at all the hundreds of lousy Halloween imitators that flooded the world’s screens after it’s success. They copied the characters, the settings, the camerawork, the music and none of those films are held in high regard today but Halloween still is. That’s because not everyone thinks like John Carpenter. His mindset was and is unique also.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes being creative as “the use of the imagination to create something.” Now should that “something”, creativity itself, be judged? I think not. The effectiveness of the idea should be all that matters not the idea itself taken out of context and misjudged. Writers, like all artists, are sensitive people and comments like “simple” and “neat” are not an accurate reflection of the creative process and should be used sparingly. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps simplicity and neatness are too.

© 2014, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.