Tag Archives: Music

Transylvanian Rhapsody

As it’s Halloween, I thought I’d have a little fun and do some horror parody lyrics for Queen’s classic hit “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I set it in Dracula’s backyard of Transylvania:
Is this the dawn light?
Is this a grave oddity?
Caught in some cobwebs,
No way back to the cemetery. If you are wise,
You’ll look to the skies and see,
I’m just a bat now, I need nothing bodily,
Because I’m queasy come, queasy go,
Batwing high, batwing low,
Every time the cock crows always seems to terrify me.Mama, just bit a man,
Put her fangs against his neck,
Closed her lips and now…oh heck.
Mama, mortal life had just begun,
But now you’ve gone and transcended eternity.Mama, ooh,
Didn’t mean to make you die,
If I’m not back from the dead this time tomorrow,
Carry on, carry on as if bloodsucking really matters.

Too late, my thirst has come,
Sends bloodlust down my spine,
My body knows it’s feeding time.
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go,
Gotta leave you all behind and drink from Ruth.

Mama, ooh (any way the cock crows),
I can never lie,
I sometimes wish we weren’t undead at all.

I see a little silhouetto of a vamp,
Scaring me, Scaring me, will you do the Fang-dango?
Drinking blood and fighting,
Very, very frightening me.
(Garlic Pizza) Garlic Pizza.
(Garlic Pizza) Garlic Pizza,
Garlic pizza from Holy Joe’s
A big no-no-o-o-o.

Queen and Freddie Mercury Pumpkins Doing Magnifico

I’m just a poor boy, no vampire wants me.
He’s just a poor boy from a vampire family,
Spare him his life and we’ll sharpen his teeth.

Vampires come, vampires go, will you let me go?
Bram Stoker! No, he will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Van Helsing! We will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Bela Lugosi! We will not let you go. (Let me go!)
Will not let you go. (Let me go!)
Never let you go (Never, never, never, never let me go)
Oh oh oh oh
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
Oh, Vlad the Impaler, Vlad the Impaler (Vlad the Impaler, let me go.)
Count Dracula has a coffin put aside for me, for me, for Hallowe-een.

So you think you can shove me out into sunlight?
So you think you can stake me and leave me to die?
Oh, baby, can’t try burying me, baby,
Just gotta crawl out, just gotta creep right outta this crypt.

(Ooooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah)

Stakes they go with hammers,
Everyone can see,
Stakes they go with hammers,
Stakes they go with hammers into me.

Any way the cock crows.

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.
Freddie Mercury Pumpkin
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Queen – One Of A Kind of Magic

On June 3rd, 1986, “A Kind Of Magic”, the twelfth studio album from Queen was released. The European Magic Tour supporting the album began four days later at the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden.

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A cartoon figure from the “A Kind of Magic” cover inflates on The Magic Tour

It was the first Queen album I’d purchased as a Queen fan, the others being purchased after Live Aid and after this album (by early ’87, I had all Queen’s albums on vinyl and still do.)

Highlander Poster

With Queen contributing many songs from this album to epic fantasy film Highlander, there was a sort of return to thematic elements of Queen’s early albums minus the quirky, Tolkienesque lyrics about ogres, titans and fairy fellers. This was Queen doing a concept album 80s-style with syths and Highlander’s immortality theme playing into the tragic reality about to engulf Freddie and the band.

Highlander star Christopher Lambert explains how Queen’s involvement grew:

 “Highlander coming out was a very exciting time for me. What was also very interesting is that Queen were meant to do only one track – it was the opening credits, ‘Princes Of The Universe’, that was the deal. So they sat down for a private screening for them in a movie theatre and Freddie Mercury when he came out, he said all excited: “I’m doing the whole fucking album! This movie is too fucking great!”. They went and wrote the songs in four weeks and went into the studio and it was one of the biggest selling albums of their career. So you know it’s strange, it’s like nobody ever thought that Highlander was gonna be, thirty years later, still a cult movie, music included. About Freddie… there are many good singers, but to be really great it’s not enough just to sing correctly. You have to do it with the heart and he is the best at it.”

Although it was hard to imagine during Queen’s post-Live Aid second wind, “A Kind of Magic” would be the end of an era for them in many ways. It would be the final album before Freddie’s HIV diagnosis in April 1987 (“Innuendo” would be recorded under time constraints and Freddie’s increasing availability issues due to illness). The Magic Tour would be Freddie’s last with the band.

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Queen with producer Reinhold Mack

It was also the last time they worked with German producer Reinhold Mack. Mack first worked with Queen on “The Game” album in 1979 at Musicland Studios in Munich. He had produced some of Queen’s biggest hits including “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites The Dust”, “Under Pressure”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “I Want To Break Free” and “One Vision.” Brian May said that Mack had been “quite a find” for the band. He was responsible for a different, stripped-back Queen sound, the antithesis of the elaborate, complex sound of previous Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. With Baker, Queen played every track in the studio until the take was perfect. Mack said they didn’t have to do that and that he could drop in snippets of different takes. This surprised the band and saved them a lot of time. Mack even persuaded Brian to drop his Red Special and play a Fender Stratocaster belonging to Roger on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

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The great Mr Mack today

“A Kind of Magic” would also be the last time Queen would do several songs for a movie (here’s hoping the James Bond producers giver Queen + Adam Lambert a shot at the next theme tune).

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Larking about shooting the “One Vision” video

“A Kind of Magic” is a very listenable album. I can listen to it all the way through unlike some of the late seventies albums which were a smattering of big hits and filler. As with Queen’s concerts on The Magic Tour, the album kicks off with the extended version of “One Vision” which teases out the intro superbly until Freddie’s ethereal vocal cry echoes across the synths just before Brian’s euphoric riff kicks in. “A Kind of Magic” the single follows.

One Year of Love

A John Deacon song “One Year of Love is next and it’s the kind of classy, smoky ballad that Sade did so well at the time (saxophone courtesy of the guy who played on “Careless Whisper.”) “Pain Is So Close To Pleasure” is a rare sojourn into Motown stylings for Freddie Mercury (“Cool Cat” on “Hot Space” and B-side “Soul Brother” would probably be the closest tracks to this).

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“Friends Will Be Friends” ends side one. Even though it’s a self-conscious attempt to repeat “We Are The Champions” and didn’t make the UK top ten, I still like it as a song.

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Who wants to live forever? photo shoot

Brian’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” starts side two and, from here on in, it’s all songs from the Highlander soundtrack. Seal and Ronan Keating said this song made them cry the first time they heard it and it is a very beautiful song with lush orchestral accompaniment. It worked well live on The Magic Tour too, although it was still “a new song” as Freddie said and hadn’t found its place among their other hits with the audience yet.

Oh well

Brian Blessed’s Vulcan says “who wants to live forever?” in the battle scene near the end of “Flash Gordon,” Queen’s last big fantasy soundtrack outing. It’s possible Brian unconsciously remembered that line from the previous film but it’s a perfect iteration of Highlander’s themes.

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Brian May playing a flying V guitar – a Washburn RR-V

Brian’s rip-snorting “Gimme The Prize” erupts with a cascading Brian May solo, it reaches a crescendo and a sound clip from the film Highlander kicks in (a news reporter comments on one of the many decapitated bodies in the film: “A head, which at this time, has no name.” Clancy Brown’s Kurgen responds with “I KNOW HIS NAME!”). “Here I am!” Freddie declares, “I’m the master of your destiny” (one reviewer at the time compared him to Alice Cooper on this).

Roger’s unsurprisingly drum-heavy “Don’t Lose Your Head” pounds in. It began life as the B-side to the single “A Kind of Magic” under the working title “A Dozen Red Roses For My Darling.” Some thought this was filler (black singer Joan Armatrading pops up to say “Don’t Lose Your Head” over and over for no apparent reason, maybe an attempt by the band to counter negative publicity over their Sun City shows in Apartheid-era South Africa around that time.) It does get a little repetitive but I don’t hate it.

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Queen with Christopher Lambert at the video shoot for “Princes of the Universe”

Then we come to the final track on the album – “Princes of the Universe.” It’s Freddie’s only solo writing credit on the album (almost hard to believe considering he wrote most of Queen’s early albums single-handedly). The title is outrageously camp but the song builds up an incredible head of steam. With Princes, “One Vision” and “Gimme The Prize”, “A Kind of Magic” is probably the closest version to a heavy metal version of Queen we ever got. The single of “Princes of the Universe” was released in America and the video featured Highlander star Christopher Lambert crossing swords and sawn-off microphone stand with Freddie.

Lambert Versus Freddie
The Highander Vs The Messenger of The Gods

It would be three years before the next Queen album was released, the longest gap there had ever been between albums up to that point. There followed a frenzied period of activity to get new Queen material out before Freddie’s inevitable demise. So “A Kind of Magic” is a demarcation point between what went before and the beginning of the end of Queen Mach 1 (two more would follow with Paul Rodgers and now with Adam Lambert.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. 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.

 

Record Store Day & The Resurgence of Vinyl

Today, April 21st 2018, is Record Store Day. The astonishing resurgence of vinyl will be celebrated worldwide in record shops with special releases from major artists.

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The bounce in sales of vinyl is astonishing. According to Statista.com, “in 2007, there were roughly 210 thousand new vinyl albums sold in the UK. Last year, 4.1 million were picked up by eager buyers – an increase of 1,852 percent.” These figures are reflected in most countries.

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So what is it about vinyl that is making young people such huge fans of an old format? I talked to Vinny of Golden Discs in Dun Laoghaire about it: “It’s the fact that it’s for, especially the younger generation, a complete new thing. It’s not new to [older people] but for [young buyers], this is a novelty and, I’d say, that’s the driving force behind most of the sales.”

Unboxing Chick

Before the 1990s, vinyl was the main way most people enjoyed their music. It was almost a form of ritual to begin opening the physical copy of an album. There was the trek to the music store to physically purchase the album, the anticipatory journey home wondering how the record would sound and how the artwork would look. Once home, there was the race to the record player for what would now be termed “unboxing” and the sensual ritual would begin: the crinkly tearing of the plastic covering, the wonderful smell inside, the sliding out of the record for a first peek and the careful positioning of the platter on the musical altar of the record player. Then the needle dropped.

goldendisc-1“The vinyl is a different thing, because it’s an experience,” Vinny said, “at least that’s how it was for me when I was growing up. I still have my collection. It was the artwork, laying down on the couch while you’re listening to it, opening the gatefold, following the lyrics. It’s a different experience.”

Gatefold Sleeve

Audiophiles believe that long-playing vinyl records are the only true way to experience music now and they’re prepared to pay double or triple what they would pay for a CD or download to enjoy it. “The sound is fuller,” Vinny agreed, “it’s more organic because it’s not compressed as CDs are.”

So is the vinyl revival going to last or is it a passing trend?

 

“I would like to believe it’s here to stay,” Vinny said in conclusion, “but it’s hard to control how those things go, especially the market. The market fluctuates heavily but at the very least it seems to be cyclical.”

Only time will tell if sales will continue to rise but the fact is that vinyl is with us for the foreseeable future.

Spin Clean

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

Logo © Golden Discs Ltd

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.

Stewart Stafford’s Quotes

The Snow Must Go On!

Last night for a laugh, I decided to write some parody lyrics for Queen’s classic song “The Show Must Go On.” This is what I came up with:

THE SNOW MUST GO ON

Frozen spaces, what is this snow all for?

Wintry places, I guess we want a thaw

On and on

Does anybody know what all this snow is for?

Another snowball, another swollen eye

Behind the snowdrift, beneath a polar sky

I’m snow-blind, does anybody know where all the snowploughs are?

The snow must go on

The snow must go on, yeah

Outside my lips are chapping

And there’s old Christmas wrapping

But Santa Claus hasn’t stayed on

 

Whatever happens, I’ll wear thermal underpants

I’ll keep them guessing, lead them a merry dance

On and on, does anybody know about hypothermia?

I guess I’m yearning, to be warmer now

I’ll soon be turning, the heat up full somehow

Outside the ice is breaking, but inside in the dark there’s no big freeze

The snow must go on, yeah, yeah

The snow must go on

Ooh, my snowman’s head is melting

His features took a pelting

But his smile still stays on

Stewart Stafford photo Big Snowman

My hands are numb, but I don’t think they have frostbite

Sled injuries of yesterday will go but never die

I could cry, my friends

The snow must go on (go on, go on, go on) yeah yeah

The snow must go on

I’ll face it with a gin

The Spring can never win

On with the snow

Stewart Stafford photo small snowman

Ooh, atop the hill, my snowman’s killed

I have to find the will to carry on

On with the snow

On with the snow

The snow must go on, go on, go on…

{Song dissolves into “Oh I do like to be beside the icefield.”}

 

Original “The Show Must Go On” lyrics © Queen Music Ltd

“The Snow Must Go On” parody lyrics and photos © Stewart Stafford, 2018.

Meme courtesy of Melina Rose

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.

George Michael: Still Listening Without Prejudice

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In September 1990, George Michael released “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1”, the follow-up to the global monster that was his debut solo album “Faith.” My brother, a devoted George Michael fan for many years by that stage, bought the vinyl LP with its black-and-white cover shot of a crowd of immigrants. Brave move number one, where was that famous face?

I had bought the album “Faith” as a Christmas present for my brother several years previously and I decided to check out the new one. The needle dropped down on the record, the crackling began and I sat back to hear what I assumed was going to be Faith 2.

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The first track was his single release of the previous month, the anthemic “Praying for Time.” It was a good if unexpected song, but he didn’t appear in the video for it which hurt its sales. It has this sixty-ish horn section on it that indicates that this first single and first track on the album are going in a very different direction to “Faith.”

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In a new documentary both Elton John and Liam Gallagher agree (yes, George Michael’s music reaches and unites such disparate musical figures as those) that “Praying for Time” sounds like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” George admitted listening to Beatles albums at the time like “Revolver” and “Abbey Road.” Lyrically, the song echoes Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” and its socially-conscious struggle with rich white guilt. George was a very generous man during his lifetime, donating sometimes astronomical fees to charities in private which is true altruism. He clearly felt guilty about the immense wealth he attained and tried to do something to redress the balance. “And the wounded skies above” George sings in a beautiful poetic flourish that Sting would counterpoint in “Fields of Gold” with the line “we’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky.”

On to track two and straight into the superbly catchy “Freedom ’90.” Freedom was a constant theme in George Michael’s work and he’d already had a number one hit titled “Freedom” with Wham! in 1984. Freedom ’90 reevaluates what fame means to a more mature pop icon. It’s a seven-minute epic slab of funk that lays the ethos of the album bare for all to see:”Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way/Think I’m gonna get myself happy.” Once again, George would not the play media game by appearing in the video for this song. It instead featured the new wave of “supermodels” (the Kardashians of their day) – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, etc. Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, Alien 3), it is difficult to hear this song now without seeing that iconic 1990 video in your head.

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The Man from Faith

In the video for Freedom ’90, George continues the violent deconstruction of his “Faith” image by blowing up his guitar, jukebox and setting fire to the BSA leather jacket he wore in the “Faith” video. It was reminiscent of the way David Bowie created the persona of Ziggy Stardust, it reached a crescendo of popularity and hysteria with fans and then Bowie bravely abandoned the image and created another one. Great artists do that though. They don’t want to become stale by pumping out the same stuff. They force audiences to grow and change with them by trying new things. The Beatles were the masters of that, of course.

“They Won’t Go When I Go”, a live recording of a Stevie Wonder song, is the third song on the album. If you want to hear a singer totally in control of his gift, then this is it. I had never heard the original tune, so I was literally listening without prejudice and I was blown away by it. It has the feel of an old spiritual song from the southern United States with that hymnal weariness seeping out of every groove in the vinyl. George’s voice goes crazily deep into bass territory and then right up to the top of his range and it is startling to hear it. It’s got a kind of Old Testament warning on the dangers of moral decay in the lyrics: “Unclean minds mislead the pure.” George covered many Stevie Wonder songs in his career and always made them his own. Stevie was like his spiritual and musical godfather. George had that quality that Elvis possessed of being a supreme interpreter of other people’s songs. Like The King, I thought every cover version he ever did was superior to the original and that’s a rare gift.

There’s some inevitable filler on the album like “Something to Save” and “Soul Free” but even they’re not bad. “Mother’s Pride” is an anti-war song that has its moments. George heard  Don McLean’s achingly elegiac anti-war song “The Grave” as a child and it stuck with him (he recorded it in 2003 as war in Iraq loomed.)

“Mother’s Pride” has the line “his country’s eyes” and it made me wonder if he’d based it on the poster for “Born on the Fourth of July”, also from 1990.

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“Heal the Pain” is a gorgeous folky ballad that George claimed was influenced by Paul McCartney. Paul doesn’t feature on the 1990 version of the song but he did record a duet version of it with George in 2005.

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George Michael with Paul McCartney
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George and Paul perform at at the “Live 8” concert in 2005

George had received criticism from black artists like Gladys Knight and Public Enemy for winning prizes at black awards shows at the expense of black artists. It wasn’t his fault that these organisations deemed him worthy of inclusion and victory but George seemed to make a conscious effort with “Listen Without Prejudice” to veer towards the white influences of his youth. He even quotes The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on “Waiting For That Day”, which resulted in a co-writing credit for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

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“Faith” displayed a wide variety of influences with urban RnB (“I Want Your Sex), Elvis-style 50’s rockabilly with a twist of country (the title track “Faith”) and even some Sinatra-style swing on “Kissing A Fool.” The production was super-slick and it became a monster George had created that he happily put to the sword on the follow-up. “Listen Without Prejudice” has a variety of influences too but the production isn’t geared towards the top 40 and multi-million album sales. George had gone up and up in that hot air balloon before and it terrified him. “Prejudice” is more mature and complex than “Faith.” It is more experimental and biographical. George has self-conscious things to say about fame and what it does to someone. He’s showing us the wizard behind the curtain that some of us might prefer to ignore and just hear the hits.

I didn’t like “Listen Without Prejudice” on first hearing it. A month later, after repeated listening, I thought and still think that it’s George Michael’s best album. It wasn’t the obvious sequel to “Faith” that I and a lot of other people were expecting. It challenged its audience to listen without prejudging what they assumed they were going to get. Now, in 2017, almost a year after George’s untimely and still shocking death, “Listen Without Prejudice” has a second coming in a deluxe remastered box set on October 20th. I will be getting it and reliving those shivery moments that George laid down so expertly for us. “”I believe I can leave songs that will mean something to other generations,” George said prophetically in the 80s . Indeed he did. The man was a true original and, yes, to use that overused word – a genius. We lost too many of those in 2016 – George, Bowie, Prince, etc.

I was lucky enough to see George Michael perform live in concert in Dublin twice on one of his last tours. He had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. Like his idol Freddie Mercury, the songs George wrote were extremely high-pitched and difficult to sing live but he was note-perfect in the four hours in which I saw him. “I never heard him sing a bad note,” his pal Elton John said recently. I concur.

I worry for the future of music but it is a relief to know that no one can ever take away my memories of the great sounds of the past. “Listen Without Prejudice” happens to be one of them. Catch up with it now if you missed it the first time, kids. It’s a reminder of a time when albums were king, music meant something and creativity counted. Knock yourselves out.

“He was without doubt one of the greatest songwriters this country ever produced and certainly one of the best vocalists ever” – Elton John

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

2016: George Michael’s Last Christmas

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George Michael died in his sleep on Christmas Day 2016 of suspected heart failure. I always associated him with Christmas because of his classic 1984 hit Last Christmas (written, produced and recorded by him when he was 21 years old, amazing) and to a lesser extent with December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas), one of his last releases in 2009. Now the anniversary of his death will always be December 25th, tying him to the festive season permanently and in a much bigger way.

So many of the 80s generation of stars I grew up listening to are gone now; George, Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston. And so many musicians have died this year including the great David Bowie (the first anniversary of his passing is in a fortnight), Prince, Rick Parfitt of Status Quo earlier this week (who sang on the Band Aid record with George) and now poor old George Michael is added to that tragic list.

The body of work of stars like those become the yardstick by which we measure our lives. Hearing a hit of theirs immediately transports you back to an earlier time in your life. George Michael had a 34-year career, but his legacy was really assured after about two decades. He was controversial, getting into legal battles with his record company, releasing songs like ‘I Want Your Sex’ in the era of the AIDS epidemic, being arrested for lewd conduct in a toilet in California, a string of car crashes, one of which lead to him spending time in jail and a series of health scares including an emergency tracheotomy to save his life when he got pneumonia on tour in Austria.

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Last Christmas is a classic for me as it captures the bittersweet feeling of the festive season. I’ve had Christmases of great joy and extreme sadness in my life. You just approach each one thinking ‘let’s hope it’s a good one’ like John Lennon cautiously wrote and sang in his Christmas song, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over).’ The song ‘Last Christmas’; and its memorable snowy video, deals with the trials and tribulations of young love and all the heartache and happiness that’s a part of it. It’s not automatically happy clappy, there’s a sadness there that echoes George’s own life.

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I’ve heard ‘Last Christmas’ four times in the past few days before news of George’s death was reported. The pilot of a plane I was a passenger on played it on the plane’s sound system as we landed in London, I heard it again half an hour later in Heathrow airport itself and twice more on a CD in a car I was travelling in, including Christmas Day 2016, just hours before his death. Little did I know its creator was about to leave us. There have been over 395 cover versions of Last Christmas and, no doubt, that will only grow and grow in the wake of George’s death.

George remembered Christmas as a child: ”I do love Christmas. I always have loved it, ever since I was a child. When I was young both my parents used to work so hard and they always seemed quite stressed to me. But at Christmas everyone would calm down and be nice to each other for a few days, and that used to make me feel very safe. It’s Frank Sinatra who reminds me of Christmas. During the school holidays, when I was a kid, I used to work behind the bar of my dad’s restaurant in Edgware [North London], and he’d always play Sinatra records for the customers. So that association is very strong for me. Why doesn’t it snow at the right time anymore, like it did in the ’60s? If it could snow on Christmas Eve or something that would be perfect.”

George nearly died of pneumonia at Christmas 2011 and he recalled how much he appreciated things that year: ”Best Christmas I can remember, surrounded by the people I love. And knowing that Christmas could have been very different this year for everyone at that table. As it was we stuffed and laughed ourselves silly. I’m such a lucky man! I hope you all had a great one.”

Sadly, he didn’t survive Christmas 2016.

I was lucky enough to see George in concert twice in Dublin within six months on his 25 Live tour. The first one in what’s now called the 3Arena was my favourite. He hadn’t toured extensively and his voice was still in great condition. At one stage, all the girls in the audience screamed simultaneously and a soundwave went right through my head, rocking me a bit. It was a little taste of what Beatlemania must have been like with that wall of screams filling the concert venue. The second gig was outdoors at Dublin’s RDS in the showjumping arena where I’d seen Prince fifteen years before (everyone I see in concert seems to die, I might bar myself from future shows to save lives.)

We need our musicians, the way we need all creative people to try and make sense of our lives and the world around us through their work. When they die, part of us dies with them. George Michael really was a genius. He was a huge fan of Queen and sang with them at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, but he achieved what they did alone. There were four songwriters, producers and musicians in Queen. So George is more like Bowie in that respect, but George was producing his own songs by himself from his early 20s, whereas Bowie always had a co-producer helping him, so George’s achievements are even more impressive in light of that.

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Wham! were even starting to enjoy an ironic mini-comeback thanks to the year’s big hit movie Deadpool where the hero keeps mentioning them to comic effect throughout the movie. Sad that he won’t get the chance to take advantage of that as there are some great songs there. Predictably though, there will be an inevitable huge surge in sales of George Michael and Wham! songs in the coming days, weeks and months.

I was going to bed on Christmas night and checked my messages to see if British Airways had traced my missing luggage for my wedding (they haven’t!). That’s when I saw George had died and my heart sank. Then I reminded myself of his self-destructive nature and that we were lucky to have had him as long as we did. In this age of karaoke X-Factor wannabes stealing their 15 minutes of fame by parroting old songs, he was a true original. We really will never see another like him. Rest in peace, George.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

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.

Wuthering Heights & Its Influence on Vampire and Popular Culture

Wuthering Heights, the only novel by author Emily Bronte before her death at 30, has been highly influential on popular culture. It was published in 1847, the year of the great Famine in Ireland, Bram Stoker’s birth and exactly 50 years before he published Dracula.

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The book begins with the narrator Lockwood coming to stay at Wuthering Heights. He is given the former room of Catherine Earnshaw. During the night, he dreams that the ghost of Catherine or Cathy Earnshaw comes to the window, grabs his arm and begs to be let inside. Lockwood informs Heathcliff, the landlord, who opens the window to let the spirit enter but none appears. This supernatural appearance at the window is similar to how Dracula gains entry to the bedrooms of his victims, except he uses his mental, physical and/or erotic power to get in. In some vampire stories, it is necessary to invite a vampire in for them to gain access. It would appear to have at least partially originated in this standout scene from Wuthering Heights.

The story of Wuthering Heights is then told in flashback (Stoker also uses narrators to tell the story of Dracula but in the form of letters and journal entries). Heathcliff as a child is discovered wandering homeless by Mr Earnshaw on his trip to Liverpool. (Liverpool is a port and, as with Dracula, Heathcliff seems to have arrived in England by ship although that is never stated in the book. Judging by the ethnic description of him though and the location where he was found, it is a strong possibility.) The boy is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect.” Earnshaw names him Heathcliff and brings him home where his presence stirs up jealousy from Earnshaw’s son Hindley and infatuation from his daughter Cathy.

Heathcliff, like Dracula, is the mysterious, dark foreigner bringing his obsessive, destructive and ultimately lethal love to England’s stuffy upper classes. The theme repeatedly used in Wuthering Heights about eternal love even after death was one Bram Stoker would return to in Dracula five decades later.

Although they appear destined to be together, Cathy and Heathcliff grow up and marry other people and their relationship turns jealously masochistic with fatal consequences. Only after their deaths do they appear to fulfill their destiny and become soulmates at last.

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Sir Henry Irving
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Irish author Bram Stoker

Dracula author Bram Stoker was the manager of actor Sir Henry Irving. Irving was a fearsome figure who dominated Stoker. Many believe him to be the inspiration for Stoker’s vampire count.

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Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff (1939)

Not only did Irving serve as inspiration for Bram Stoker but, indirectly, for actor Laurence Olivier who played both Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Van Helsing in Dracula onscreen.

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Olivier as Van Helsing in Dracula (1979)

When stuck for ideas on how to play Shakespeare’s Richard III in the movie he was directing, Olivier said: ‘I’d always heard imitations of old actors imitating Henry Irving. And so I did, right away, an imitation of these old actors imitating Henry Irving’s voice. That’s why I took that sort of rather narrow vocal address.’

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Olivier as Richard III (1955)
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Ralphie Glick returns as a vampire

Cathy’s ghost appearing at the window echoes the victory over death and return from the grave in vampire lore. Stephen King’s 1975 novel Salem’s Lot was inspired by Dracula. One night over supper, King mused what would happen if Dracula reappeared in the-then 20th century. Again, King makes the connection between Dracula and Wuthering Heights explicit when dead boy Ralphie Glick comes to his brother’s window after being preyed upon by the master vampire in the town. He also wishes to be let in as Cathy does.

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Kate Bush in the video for Wuthering Heights

In 1978, Kate Bush reached number one in the UK charts with her song Wuthering Heights. It was directly inspired by a 1967 BBC adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel that Kate Bush saw when she was 18 (she even shares the same birthday as Emily Bronte). Bush specifically chose Cathy’s appearance at the window in the book to structure the song around and wrote from her perspective: “Heathcliff! It’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home. So co-o-o-old, let me in at your window.” She definitely played up the scary, supernatural side of the scene and wasn’t afraid to potentially frighten away record buyers. Her bravery paid off with her first and only number one to date.

Kate Bush’s mother was from Ireland. With her high-pitched wailing and scary eyes in the video, it’s tempting to imagine Kate Bush shifting the setting of Wuthering Heights to Ireland and the ghost of Cathy becoming a Banshee coming in from a misty bog in the Irish countryside. Journalist Clive James famously stated in 1978 that he wasn’t sure ‘whether Kate Bush is a genius or a headcase, but she is definitely something else.’ Her ethereal, otherworldly performance spooked some people just as the original scene in Emily Bronte’s book had.

Here are the two very interesting versions of her Wuthering Heights videos:

It just demonstrates how, when an author hits upon a striking and powerful image, it can permeate down consciously and unconsciously through many forms of artistic expression for decades and even centuries to come.

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

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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.

His Name Was Prince

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The world lost the diminutive genius Prince earlier today. He had the moves of James Brown, the guitar virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix (just listen to the incendiary intro to When Doves Cry), the sexually ambiguous look of Little Richard, the songwriting talent of a shed load of Motown writers and the funk credentials of George Clinton and Earth, Wind and Fire.

I saw him in concert when the Diamonds & Pearls tour reached Dublin in the summer of 1992. The show was in the showjumping arena at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), a place where Hitler’s brother once worked as a waiter (fact). The support acts were Curtis Stigers (remember him?) and Andrew Strong from The Commitments (remember him?). Then it was time for the main event at last.

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The band struck up, the lights came on and the whole thing reached a crescendo, setting the scene for Prince’s arrival. Then right in the middle of the stage, a little glass coffin rose up with his Royal Purpleness within. The crowd went apeshit and the soundwave went through my head. Prince stepped out, this tiny whirling dervish, and the show never stopped moving for the next two hours. “You’re too funky for me, Dublin!” he said at one stage (and we were, he he). It was a truly dazzling gig. One of the best concerts I’ve ever seen and I’m not just saying that to jump on the bandwagon now he’s dead.

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Then there’s all the hits he wrote; When Doves Cry, Kiss, 1999, Batdance (right back at the start of the current superhero craze in 1989), Purple Rain, Raspberry Beret, Sign O’ The Times, Gett Off, Cream, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World and so on. He also created classic hits for other artists including I Feel For You by Chaka Khan, Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor and Manic Monday for The Bangles (written under the pseudonym Christopher).

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His identity was as fluid as his dance moves and image. In dispute with his record company in the early 90s, he became Symbol (above) or T.A.F.K.A.P. (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince) and wrote the word “Slave” across his face.

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Manadatory Credit: Photo by Brian Rasic / Rex Features (396812dh) PRINCE VARIOUS

He owned his own recording studio Paisley Park which was apparently where his body was found earlier today. Prince Rogers Nelson was a true original and there will never be another. It was a privilege to have grown up with his music and it will be there forever now. We never do get the great ones for long, do we? May he funk in peace.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.