April 20 – Mercury Memorial A Cadillac Of Concerts

As website DW speculated, it would take some kind of special event for us to see “openly gay Elton John and allegedly homophobic Axl Rose hugged (and) David Bowie knelt down and prayed.” That type of event happened on this day in 1992 with the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in London.

Freddie as you doubtless know, was the charismatic, powerful-voiced leader of Queen, and had died of AIDS a few months earlier. The remaining trio of band members – John Deacon, Brian May and Roger Taylor – weren’t sure where they would be headed, or even if the band still existed, but they decided Freddie would’ve wanted one last big spectacle of a show. And they set out to give it.

May and Taylor announced the planned concert during the Brit Awards in February. The tickets for the 72 000 capacity show at Wembley Stadium sold out in three hours despite Queen being the only announced performers at the time. Around the same time, Mercury’s friends and estate established the Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity to promote AIDS safety and awareness as well as medical research. Profits from the concert were given over to it.

A huge amount of work was needed to pull it off only two months after it was first conceptualized, but they did it. Not only did they get the stadium ready and sell it out, arrangements were made to televise it in over 70 countries. That Easter Monday, guitarist Brian May took to the stage and announced “Good evening Wembley, and the world! We are here tonight to celebrate the life and work and dreams of one Freddie Mercury! We’re gonna give him the biggest send-off in history!” And if that was hyperbole, it wasn’t by very much.

The four hour-plus concert was basically broken down into two parts, the first being sets by other artists, sometimes with members of Queen joining them, and the latter being basically a Queen concert but with guest singers taking Freddie’s place for the night. It kicked off with Metallica doing three hits off their then-hot self-titled album. They actually released the set as an EP for the diehard fans. Next up were Extreme who did a medley of about ten Queen songs before their own hit “More than Words.” Def Leppard followed, getting a little help from May; benefit concert superstar Bob Geldof did a number, as did one of the more curious acts to appear, Spinal Tap who played “The Majesty of Rock.” U2 weren’t there in person but did “Til The End of the World” via satellite from California while Guns’N’Roses set up for their set which included a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” Mango Groove a “township band” popular in their native South Africa played, Elizabeth Taylor read a speech and a video montage of Freddie was played, leading to part two.

Queen didn’t have their beloved friend and singer, but seemed in fine form as they kicked into “Tie Your Mother Down” with Slash helping out and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott singing, then did numbers like “Pinball Wizard” with the Who’s Roger Daltrey and “Las Palabras de Amor”, an obscure track off Hot Space with Italian singer Zucherro. James Hatfield of Metallica was back with Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, doing “Stone Cold Crazy” before Robert Plant took the stage. A voice fitting of doing Mercury’s operatic parts, but his set was underwhelming by most reports, as he struggled to remember the lyrics to “Innuendo” before redeeming himself on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Paul Young and Lisa Stansfield each did a number before one of the show’s highlights, David Bowie and Annie Lennox dueting for “Under Pressure.” Bowie stuck around to do “All the Young Dudes” with Ian Hunter and members of Def Leppard before saying the Lord’s Prayer to the surprise of some. That led to what Entertainment Weekly (and some others) called “the best performance of the evening,” George Michael taking the mic to do “These Are the Days of Our Lives” and “Somebody to Love.” A number of people at the time speculated Michael would take over Freddie’s spot permanently but as we would find through the years, the show was a one-time only appearance for him.

If George Michael was considered the highlight, a close second was Elton John – a close friend of Freddie’s – joining Queen. They kicked off with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with Axl adding his voice to dubbed in backing vocals from Mercury. The show went on with “The Show Must Go On” and “We Will Rock You”, before Liza Minnelli finished that with “We Are The Champions.” The night was nothing if not an eclectic collection of musicians, but then again, Freddie Mercury was a rather eclectic sort of talent. The lights dimmed with a tape of Queen playing “God Save the Queen.”

The night was noteworthy on an addition level as it would mark John Deacon’s last full concert with the band. Unlike May and Taylor, he felt that the death of Freddie should also mean the death of Queen.

The concert was said to have raised about $35 million for the AIDS charity, though others have speculated that expenses ate up a lot of that and $8 million was more realistic. Either way, Brian May says the “emphasis was always made that this was not a fund-raising event. The accent was on awareness.” And sending one of rock’s great front men out in style. On that they succeeded.

The concert has been released at various times both on VHS and DVD, although some parts (typically including the Mango Groove and Robert Plant’s set) usually aren’t included. Queen are still going with Adam Lambert being the current singer.


March 28 – Queen Began Its Next Reign

It was the start of a new era on this day in 2005. That night in London, Queen played a regular show without charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury. It was in fact the first time they’d played a normally-scheduled concert in nearly 20 years.

We all know the Queen story (well, not all of us but in all likelihood if you’re reading this blog, you do!) … quartet of Mercury, drummer Roger Taylor, guitarist Brian May and bassist John Deacon formed their band in the early-’70s and quickly went on to become one of Britain’s most popular bands ever. The great voice and showmanship of Mercury, coupled with the above-average musicianship of the other three led to a string of hit songs (23 top 10s in their native land – 24 if you count “Bohemian Rhapsody” twice, since it topped the charts on two occasions!) and famous concerts including the show-stealer at Live Aid. Their Greatest Hits album is the biggest-seller of all-time in the UK, topping seven million copies in an island of about 60 million people. But all good things must end, and for Queen, it was Freddie’s illness and eventually death in 1991 that shut things down. After a one time tribute in 1992 with various guests including David Bowie and Annie Lennox taking turns singing with the band, they more or less came to an end, a few posthumous releases with Mercury dug from the vaults notwithstanding.

But when you get musicians that good, and a catalog of hits the public still wanted to hear, it’s hard to justify just walking away. So eventually, May and Taylor decided to reboot the band. John Deacon stayed retired but gave them his blessing. They recruited Danny Miranda, at the time with Blue Oyster Cult to fill his shoes, but still needed a singer. For that, they picked up Paul Rodgers, the former voice of Free, Bad Company and The Firm. Said Taylor at the time, “we never thought we would tour again (then) Paul came along by chance and we seemed to have chemistry.”

Rodgers understood that his role would be controversial and as Brian May pointed out, they were going out as “Queen + Paul Rodgers” to mark the point that Paul wasn’t the new Freddie. “Me and Freddie are very different singers,” he told Team Rock. “(I’m) more of a blues singer with a bit of Celtic thrown in… I hope that Freddie would approve.”

They got to find out whether or not the fans would 13 years ago at the Brixton Academy in London. Some fans doubtless were annoyed and boycotted the new act, but enough were willing to pay 55 pounds (about $110 today) to sell out the old theatre which fits just shy of 5000. The showy venue in which Dido, Franz Ferdinand and the Stray Cats have recorded live DVDs was typical of the places picked for the first part of their 35 show European tour. They eschewed huge soccer stadiums and the largest arenas (until finishing at Hyde Park in summer) for places typically sitting between 5000 and 10 000.

From all accounts, the show went well with Rodgers not quite the second-coming of Freddie but flashy enough in his red bodyshirt and white jeans emblazoned with crosses. The set list usually consisted of 20 or 21 songs plus an encore. A good number of Queen hits were included, naturally, including “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” as well as some lesser-known ones like “I’m In Love With My Car” (which was the B-side of “Bohemian Rhapsody” back in the day. Taylor sang that one on the tour.) Several of the hits Rodgers had sung on like Free’s “All Right Now” and Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” found their way in as well . “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions” was the finale.

The tour made its way around the world, wrapping up about a year later. They soon went separate ways, with Queen looking for a replacement for Rodgers. Brian May said “he was his own man, he belonged in the blues-soul field, at which there were no better. Our stuff is a little more eclectic.” Since then, Queen have quit their longtime EMI label to sign with Universal Music and continue to tour, lately with American Idol contestant Adam Lambert out front. They return to North America this fall with concerts dubbed “Queen + Adam Lambert” in October and November. The show is reportedly going to be largely a greatest hits style show, but Brian May says “the tour has lots of new bells and lots of new whistles… we’ve stepped up our game.”

February 17 – Turntable Talk 11 : They Were The Champions, & They Rocked Us

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 11th instalment! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is A Really Big Show. We’ve asked our guests if they had a time machine, and could go back and see one concert what would it be? It could be a show from before they were born, one tey missed or one they actually attended and would like to relive. Big festival, small club show, you name it.

Today we wrap up this round, with a few thoughts from me here at A Sound Day.

A big thanks to my guest contributors again! I hope you’ve enjoyed their columns and thoughts as much as I have and I have to admit, I’ve been surprised at the range of shows they’d have liked to go back and see. From Count Basie in a swingin’ pre-war show in the Big Apple to the post-modern Talking Heads at their creative zenith in California to a huge hard rock festival I’d never heard of, we saw some great shows through their eyes (and ears).

If asked the same question myself, I’d be quite torn… so many good choices. First let me say, that honestly I would not have picked some obvious choices. Beatles? No thanks. Hey, I love their music and think they influenced modern music more than anyone else but, let’s face it – they quit playing live when they were coming into their real peak period and the shows they played leading up to that – Shea Stadium, etc –  had a poor sound system and the fans in the stands were screaming so much you could barely hear the Fab Four. Their rooftop show, documented in Get Back, a cool idea and some fine tunes, but I’d probably be with the few other amused fans and passersby on the street below, in the cold, not being able to see them and hearing it amidst the other street noise. Woodstock? Certainly a historic event, and some fantastic bands, but honestly, quite a few acts that were just a bit before my time and didn’t wow me all that much. Not enough to endure all that rain and mud… plus, I’d not like that some of the better artists were showing up onstage literally in the middle of the night!

I’d also consider going back to re-live a few concerts I did go to, to appreciate them more. U2 on The Unforgettable Fire tour at Maple Leaf Gardens. Powerful, brilliant rocking show finishing with all 18000 or so of us singing the chorus to ’40’ as we exited the building onto Carlton Street in Toronto. Today’s other column’s subject, The Stranglers, in a mid-sized bar in Toronto promoting the Norfolk Coast. Unlike their ’80s concert I saw in a big theater, this time the sound was perfect and they picked a great set of both their old ‘punk’ singles and newer, refined tunes. Frontman JJ Burnel even posed and grinned for a few photos for me while I was only feet from the stage – a marked contrast to the band’s ’70s behavior when he’d likely have cut the song and jumped off the stage to kick my camera out of my hands. This time around I wouldn’t end up losing the SD card! And R.E.M., my favorite band of my own generation. I’ve seen them several times but would probably go back to the Up tour show. Oddly, it was the first album of theirs I’d bought that under-whelmed me a little, and was the first without drummer Bill Berry but the concert was aces. Michael Stipe was chatty and humorous, they played some old nuggets I’d not heard them do before like “Cuyahoga” and they had an incredible, gaudy, fun backdrop of dozens of bizarre neon signs, flashing and looking like a Las Vegas cartoon. And as a bonus, Wilco opened the show! At the time (1999) I remember thinking they were quite good, but only knowing two songs they played. Twenty-odd years later, I’d appreciate their set more too I bet. But for all that, there’s really only one show that would win the “time travel trip” for me. The ultimate live music event of Gen X and in fact, of many of our lifetimes – Live Aid. Set the Time Travel dial to July 13, 1985, destination, London, England.

First off, it was a piece of History. I mean, you can’t think of ’80s music and not think about Live Aid and the fundraising records for the same African charities, notably “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are The World.” People (like me) who weren’t there on that – happily – sunny day, were able to watch on TV for the most part. It was shown on television in over 150 countries and the audience was estimated at over a billion people! Talk about an event bringing the world together. As co-organizer Bob Geldof said, “thru the lingua franca (common language) of the planet – which is not English, but rock’n’roll – we were able to address the intellectual absurdity and the moral repulsion of people dying of want in a world of surplus.” Which brings me to another point – it was for good. George Harrison had started the ball rolling over a decade prior, with his Concert for Bangladesh; Bob Geldof and Midge Ure drove it home this day. Rock and pop music can bring about change for the better in the world both by raising money for worthy organizations that help and, more importantly by shining a light on serious problems many might not have known about. Obviously, the African situation – millions starving, droughts, civil wars – was complicated and throwing a few million dollars at it wasn’t going to solve all the troubles. But at least it helped a little, fed some and made people think about the world scene and how they could make a difference more than they had before.

All that aside, the day was about great music first and foremost and boy, did it deliver. I might add that of course a companion show took place closer to home, in Philadelphia. It too had a great lineup, including the Four Tops, Neil Young, Tom Petty, the Thompson Twins (oddly since they were London-based), riding high still from their Into the Gap, and a perhaps less-than-all-that reunion of Led Zeppelin with Phil Collins on drums. But still, for a non-stop tops show, the London one was it. No doubt to the delight of Princess Diana and not so much for Prince Charles (now “King Charles”) who were in attendance.

It kicked off at high noon with the Royal Coldstream Guards playing a little royal salute and part of “God Save the Queen” – the one Elizabeth would approve of, not the Sex Pistols one – before turning over the stage to Status Quo. No disrespect to them, but that would probably have been my cue to try to get to the snack bar to pick up a bite to eat and some drinks, because after that… it was a pretty jam-packed list of great music I liked, starting with the Style Council. Geldof’s own Boomtown Rats were up next and brought down the house with “I Don’t Like Mondays”. That awed Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp who said “you would follow (Geldof). He has just great charisma. He’d make a frightening politician.”

Spandau Ballet were on themselves soon after, but not before a brief appearance from Adam Ant and a longer one from Ultravox, the other organizer ‘s (Midge Ure) band. They kicked off their set with my two favorite songs of theirs, “Reap the wild Wind” and “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes”. It was barely 2 PM when Elvis Costello came on to do a “little northern folk song”, which turned out to be “All You Need is Love.” Next up, Nik Kershaw, one of the more promising newcomers from the New Wave who was hot at the time but seemed to close to disappear from the scene not long after. Stylish Sade came on and then a super-pairing of Sting and Phil Collins. They cranked through eight songs including “Roxanne” and “In the Air Tonight” before dueting on “Every Breath You Take.” As Phil no doubt ran offstage to catch the Concorde – remember he also appeared at the Philly show later in the day – Howard Jones was on. Unfortunately, he did just one song, and honestly, “Hide and Seek” wasn’t one of his best.

No time to worry about that, because then Bryan Ferry, fresh off the release of his first post-Roxy Music record, Boys + Girls, was up with a new guitarist … David Gilmour of Pink Floyd! Continuing in the stylish vein, Paul Young appeared, joined by the great voice of Alison Moyet for one song. By the time he’d cleared off, I might be getting a bit hungry, but I wouldn’t have been going anywhere because it was U2. More than anything else, their short-ish but express train-energetic set of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and a long take on “Bad” with bits of other tunes worked in was probably what made them rise from popular to contenders for “biggest band in the world.” Remember, they were on in a great time slot and about a billion pairs of eyes were watching Bono & Co.

Speaking of bands who were at the top back then, next up – Dire Straits, who brought Sting back out to help deliver “Money For Nothing.” By the time they were done, the sun would have been dropping in the sky a little. It was nearly 7 and coming on were some ’70s favorites who’d not been making much impact lately on my side of the ocean. But let’s hope no one looked away or dashed to the bathroom, because Queen put on their performance of a lifetime.

Following that was an unenviable task, but David Bowie tried and put on what Rolling Stone said was “arguably his last triumph of the ’80s”. He was in turn followed by The Who. There are people around who like The Who more than I do, but it’s always been a band who knew how to put on a power-packed, entertaining show, and in this case they played one of their (to me) under-rated songs, “Love Reign O’er Me.” It brought to mind a hypothetical question – if you had that time machine, could you take modern equipment like digital cameras with you? Hope so, because I’d want momentos of the day and would have tried to record a bit of the Who for our friend Max from Power Pop Blog.

Not many could properly come on after Queen, Bowie and the Who … but Elton John could. And he did with the longest set of the show, six songs and over half an hour. Interestingly, he brought George Michael on to do “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” which they put out as a single in the ’90s. Also unexpected, he finished with a Marvin Gaye cover, “Can I Get A Witness?”. No chicken suit for Elton but a pretty great set nonetheless, all the more surprising since we now know his mental state and addictions in that period.

Well, it would be almost time to go home with a headful of magic and music, but before doing so, Brian May and Freddie Mercury of Queen came back to sing “Is this the World We Created?” (I wondered if that was scheduled or a  last-minute kind of encore for them after seeing how well their own set went over), and a grand finale. And for a British rock show, what could be more fitting that than The Beatles? Sadly we didn’t get a reunion of ¾ of the Fab Four but did get Sir Paul doing “Let it Be” with a little help from his friends, including Bowie, Pete Townshend, Moyet and Gedof. Sure, Paul’s mic was wonky and the sound for it wasn’t great but hey… after that day, who’s complaining?

Live Aid ’85. The Show of Shows, and one I rather think, regrettably, will never be matched. It’s hard to imagine these days how one could get 30 or more top name acts together for a big concert that would appeal to over a billion people and have a lasting generational impact. I was there, via the TV screen. If I had a time machine, I’d have been there with 71 999 others at Wembley Stadium.

November 10 – Baker Helped Queen Become Roy-ally Popular

Mama Mia, Mama Mia…happy birthday to the man on the other side of the glass for the creation of rock’s greatest hits. Roy Thomas Baker turns 76 today. Not exactly a household name, but responsible in large part for bringing us some of the music that has made other artists household names…like Queen, the Cars, Cheap Trick, T Rex…

Baker grew up in London, obsessed with music. “The thing that I loved was the way American blues went over to England and got bastardized with artists like Clapton and the Stones, then went back to America. It was this continual bouncing back and forth between the two places,” he says. Unlike so many like him that picked up a guitar or tried to write some tunes, Baker headed into the studio to work with other artists, getting hired on at Trident Studios as a recording engineer not long after finishing school. He was often teamed up with producer Gus Dudgeon, Elton John’s famous producer of the early-’70s. While there, he worked on records from the likes of T Rex, the Rolling Stones and Santana, before being given the opportunity to produce records on his own.

His first production credit was on a Free album, followed by a Nazareth one, but things really clicked when he ran into a new and audacious band called Queen. He produced their first record, then their second…in the end he produced most of their great 1970s records including A Night At the Opera, and of course the wild hit from it, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

I remember Freddie playing me ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the first time at his place in London. He played me he beginning part and said, ‘right, now this is where the opera section comes in.’ He left a gap and I’d have to imagine the dramatic opera-style segment. Then we went out to dinner,” he told the New York Times recently. “It took us three weeks to record on a 16-track machine and we used 180 overdubs, which was very, very unusual for back then…I thought it was going to be a hit (but) I didn’t realize it was still going to be talked about 30 years later.”

Around the end of the decade he moved to L.A., soon got hired on by Columbia Records as a staff producer, but not before doing some work for a band that was from the other coast…and from the other end of the spectrum from Queen. He says songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” were “kitchen sink over-production, which I loved…when I did the first Cars record, we purposefully did it very sparse.” He ended up producing four albums for the Cars, then helped make Journey a mega-selling act. From there, he went on to do the soundtrack for Fast Times at Ridgemont High and work on records from artists ranging from Chris DeBurgh to the Stranglers. As journalist Rick Clark puts it, “instead of simply giving rock fans more of the same, Roy Thomas Baker has managed throughout his long and distinguished career to produce audacious and distinctive projects while successfully reading the pulse of mainstream audiences.”

Presently Baker has homes in Europe, but has L.A. as his home base, where he has a 40-track recording studio by his house he shares with wife Tere, the actress who portrayed Theresa in the Godfather movies.

August 19 – John The Yin To Freddie’s Yang

Happy birthday to the quiet piece of one of rock’s biggest and most flamboyant bands. John Deacon, the former bassist for Queen turns 71 today.

Deacon grew up in Leicester, England and was in his first band by age 14, playing guitars at first then bass. Unlike some rock stars though, his music never became his sole passion or purpose, and he went to college, getting a degree in electronics by 21. Around that time Freddie Mercury had his band together with Brian May and Roger Taylor, but lacked a regular bassist. Enter John Deacon.

Deacon wasn’t instantly overwhelmed with the idea. He grew up liking soul music and though he’d grown interested in prog rock and even some classical music by the early-’70s, he wasn’t sure Queen was his calling. The other three thought it was though and won him over.

We were so over the top,” Taylor says, “we thought because he was so quiet, he would fit in with us without too much upheaval.” Brian May had another reason to like him too; Deacon built him his own amp with his electronics knowledge.

Although mainly just a bass player in the shadow of the flamboyant singer and flashy guitarist, beginning in 1974, he began writing at least one song on every Queen album, including a couple of their best known ones – “Another One Bites The Dust” and one he wrote for his new wife, Veronica, “You’re my Best Friend.” He also played electric piano on that one; besides bass he could play keyboards and guitars and now and again did so with the band.

Curiously, his low-profile extended even towards the critics it seemed. Rolling Stone was lambasted by fans when they failed to include him in a list of rock’s great bassists. Journalist Troy Smith from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame put him at #16 on his own list, stating “had all John Deacon ever done was ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, he might still have made the list. It’s arguably the most iconic bassline in rock (but) his basslines were the key ingredient on Queen classics.”

Over time he and Freddie became very close so Deacon was especially hard-hit by Freddie’s death. After playing the Tribute concert for Mercury with the band, he said “as far as we are concerned, this is it. There is no point carrying on (the band.) It is impossible to replace Freddie.”

After a few years, Brian and Roger disagreed that Queen had to bite the dust and reformed the group (initially with Paul Rodgers) but Deacon retired. It’s not entirely clear what his opinion of Queen with Adam Lambert is, but Brian May says “John Deacon is still John Deacon. We don’t undertake anything financial without talking to him,” while Roger Taylor says less diplomatically “John’s a sociopath…he’s given us his blessing to do whatever Brian and I might do with the brand. And we’ve done rather a lot.” Tellingly, Deacon didn’t join Taylor and May when Queen got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Sociopath or just a musician who felt his band had done all it could do, Deacon lives a fairly quiet life with Veronica and some of his six kids in southern England these days. Brian May recently said he would like to see Deacon in a social setting but had no hope for ever working with him again.

May 21 – Hot Space Got Cold Shoulder From Fans

Being a successful musician seems to mean being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Being super-successful seems to involve that and being something of a magician or mystic at the same time, managing to steer the sound successfully. The problem is, once you have a following, if you keep sounding the same, people will typically get bored with you (AC/DC fans excepted) …but if you change sound, you risk alienating many of your fans who’ll long for your “traditional” sound. Few can navigate frequent change well and keep their fans. Even Queen struggled with it, as we found out four decades back – Hot Space came out this day in 1982.

It was their tenth studio album, coming about a year and change after their experimental soundtrack to Flash Gordon, and two years after their smash The Game which had elevated them to unmitigated superstar status worldwide with hits like “Another One Bites The Dust”. They were getting a bit restless perhaps, and well aware that the prevailing hit sounds were quite different than they were five or six years earlier when they were making their mark with songs like “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.” Bassist John Deacon and their star singer Freddie Mercury in particular seemed to want to shift gears with the band.

Drummer Roger Taylor says Deacon particularly was tired of their anthemic rock sound. “John’s always been R&B orientated,” he’d say a year or two after the album release, “I think we went too far and did too much.” Neither he nor guitarist Brian May liked Freddie’s personal manager, Paul Prenter one bit. Prenter apparently disliked rock and May says “he wanted our music to sound like you’d just walked into a gay bar, and I didn’t.” He further aggravated them by keeping Mercury away from reporters and rudely alienating quite a few American radio people in the process, never helpful when you want them to play your new record. For another change, they recorded it – slowly due to heavy partying – in Germany and Switzerland, no doubt taking in the latest Euro-pop sounds along the way.

The result was an interesting, but oddly varied album using far more synthesizers than they had before and fewer Brian May guitar bits. For the first time they brought in drum machines. The one real standout on the album was a song everyone already knew – “Under Pressure”, the duet with David Bowie which had been pre-released months earlier.

There were some other highlights, though opinions varied as to what they were. Brian May got to show off his guitar a little with his bluntly anti-gun “Put out the Fire”; the band did a tribute to John Lennon (with them recording the record at the time Lennon was killed) called “Life is Real,” and “Calling All Girls” was a likeable little pop song that would have sounded at home as one of the lesser tracks on The Game. Still, diehard fans found little to really cheer on and the new wave, younger crowd they were seemingly working to musically seduce weren’t interested.

Reviews weren’t terrible…unless you put it in context of them being for one of the most successful and loved acts of the decade preceding it. Smash Hits rated it 5 out of 10; The Guardian gave it just 2-stars noting “by the time (it) came out, disco had mutated into weird, skeletal dubby electronic sounds…which didn’t really suit Queen.” Rolling Stone was a bit more generous, rating it 3-stars. They opined “Queen offers a bit more than bluster” with their “funky songs”, singling out “Back Chat” as “a hot rock funk tune with guitar tracks as slick as any icy dancefloor,” but warning that “Body Language” is “a piece of funk that isn’t fun.” Later, allmusic rated it just 2.5-stars, the lowest of anything they did while Mercury was alive. They called it an “unabashed pop/dance album…devoting the entire first side to robotic, new wave dance pop driven by drum machines” before “finally getting synth-drum new wave right” with “Calling All Girls.” They summed it up by suggesting “Under Pressure” would be the only track on it fans would remember. Interestingly, to the record’s credit (well, debate among yourselves if it is that) it did have a big fan in Michael Jackson who loved it and said it was a big influence on Thriller.

While “Under Pressure” was one of their biggest hits, the other singles released didn’t exactly re-write the Queen song book or necessitate a lot of added cabinet space for awards. “Body Language,” with its oft-banned video peaked at #25 at home for them, doing a bit better here, hitting #11 in the U.S. and #3 in Canada. “Calling All Girls” hit #33 in Canada, but flopped in the States, the only other market it was put out in as a single; back in the UK “La Pelagras De Amor (The words of Love)” was released instead, and hit #17 and #10 in Ireland. “Put out the Fire” did well on North American rock radio, but wasn’t put out as an official single. When all was said and done, the album did top the Austrian charts and got to #4 in the UK, #5 in Germany and #6 in Canada. It stalled at #22 in the U.S., but still got them a gold record. Worldwide sales topped three million, decent but far down from their big hits of the late-’70s and 1980. The Game, for instance sold more than double that. The band’s manager, not to be confused with Mercury’s own, called it “a disaster.”

Sadly for American fans, the album’s limited appeal might have kept them from going to see Queen when they toured for it. As it turned out, it would be the last time Mercury would play shows on this continent, with their next one (and the last before he began to get ill from AIDS) being limited to Europe.

February 18 – Queen’s Last Speech From The Throne

We looked at the Brit Awards earlier this week. The 1990 ones, held on this day in London, were not especially noteworthy in most respects. Fine Young Cannibals took home the Best Album for their The Raw and the Cooked, Phil Collins won the Best Single for “Just Another Day in Paradise.” But the ’90 awards have since gone on to gain historical poignancy. Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis Records and producer of several bands such as Jethro Tull hosted the night. The highlight, as it often is, was the presentation of the award for lifetime achievement, known as Outstanding Contribution To Music. On this night, the fitting recipient was Queen.

Of course, in retrospect, Queen seem like one of the best, biggest and most important Brit acts of all-time. It was coming up to the 20th anniversary of their first show. However, although popular, at the time they weren’t universally revered nor were they on a winning streak so to speak. They’d only won one Brit Award before, for single of the year with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And although they’d put out their sixth album of the ’80s a few months earlier (The Miracle), their triumphant set at Live Aid seemed almost a lifetime back. Although The Miracle did become their sixth #1 album at home, it was close to a flop in North America, where it peaked at #24 in the U.S. and their last really big hit had been a decade earlier with songs from The Game. Even in Britain, their sales were going downhill and, surprisingly to most, the band known for their exuberant and excellent live shows hadn’t toured at all for the album. Rumors abounded.

All that should have been put aside for the night as their excellence was honored. A short video mixed clips of the band at Live Aid with messages of congratulations from the likes of Phil Collins, Elton John, Bob Geldof and Roger Daltrey (who said if he had any advice at all for them, it’d be “don’t break up!”). But the actual acceptance was rather a denouement.

The band, dressed neatly, came up to the podium. Brian May spoke on behalf of the band, thanking the awards and especially those “outside the industry” for letting them do what they do and “go out on a bit of a musical limb.” A decidedly somber-looking and thinner than expected Freddie Mercury, in a tasteful light-colored suit but lacking his trademark moustache, stood to the side, just quietly saying “Good night, thank you” as they sped off the stage barely three minutes in.

As we now know, it was the last time we’d see Mercury in public. He’d been diagnosed with AIDS some three years earlier and was in poor health, which the band knew but the public was kept in the dark about despite ongoing tabloid stories based on innuendo and second-hand reports. Freddie passed away in 1991.

Good night, and thank you, Freddie.

February 2 – Maybe Queen Really Are Champions Of The World

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character famously wakes up every morning (which is in fact the same morning) to the sound of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Well, if you ever put on the car radio, or have it on at your work, you might think every day is Groundhog Day…but Queen has replaced Sonny & Cher. Because apparently the Brit rockers are the most-played rock artist on radio world-wide.

That according to a much quoted recent report by Viberate. I wasn’t really familiar with Viberate, so I turned to musicologist Alan Cross who calls it “a new way for artists to both keep track of their music and to make vital connections within the music business.” Essentially, it’s a gigantic database which tracks music radio play, streaming, downloads and even appearances on social media, rating songs social media performance, radio performance and even “respect.” It’s fascinating…but altogether too big a rabbit hole to fully explore here! However, their 2021 report had some interesting observations, including “rock is resurrected.”

They looked at radio stations from 150 countries around the globe and list “Pop” as being the most-played genre, with 141 million total spins from tracked stations, followed by “rock” with about 80 million. Hip-hop then Latin Music follow, each with less than half the prominence of rock. Now, how they exactly draw the line between pop and rock is unclear (Billy Joel – rock? pop? who’s to say), but we can see that rumors of rock’s death have been greatly exaggerated. On Spotify, the presumably younger base still pick Pop the most (145 billion streams) but hip-hop is next, then Latin and then Rock, with about 32 billion streams.

Back to radio, world-wide, Ed Sheeran is becoming one very wealthy young man. His music was played more on radio than anybody else, over four million times last year. He was followed by Dua Lipa, the Weeknd…and then Queen. Queen tracks were played just under three million times worldwide. If you’re at all like us, it might seem that about two million of those airings were on stations that you happened to be tuned into at the time! I-heart Radio report that “Another One Bites the Dust” was the #1 played song by Queen on the Viberate report, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” couldn’t have been far behind. More surprising – the fifth most-played artist, worldwide was… Maroon 5.

So, there you go. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” might be the most-played song ever on radio, but Sting and friends apparently have to curtsy to Queen, when it comes to total radio attention these days.

December 27 – Mama Mia, Mama Mia, That’s A Hit

As unlikely a rock hit as ever has been, Queen had the #1 hit in Britain with the six-minute operatic classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” on this day in 1975.  Amazingly, 16 years later in 1991, the song was again sitting at #1 in the UK on this day! In so doing it joins a very limited number of records that have topped the charts there twice for the same artist. And between the nine weeks atop the chart it would spend in 1975-76 and the five more in the early ’90s, it is one of the longest-running #1s of all time in “Jolly Ol'”.

Its resurgence in popularity was largely due to its use in Wayne’s World, something director Penelope Spheeris wasn’t sure about, much like the people at the record label weren’t sure it could be a winning single back in the ’70s. Mike Myers insisted, Queen later thanked him and the rest is history. It had hit #1 in its first (’70s) run in Canada and Ireland as well, in the U.S. it peaked at #9…but rose up to #9 after Wayne’s World came out.

The song was unusual in so many ways. Its tip of the cap to opera and length made it an unlikely candidate for a single, let alone a hit. Freddie Mercury said of it “we knew it was risky, but we had so much confidence in that song…if it was successful it would earn us a lot of respect.” Also unusual for the time was the video, something not at all common in the mid-’70s but something Queen did routinely. That alone is noteworthy: Rolling Stone suggest “its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air.” It garnered them more exposure on shows like Top of the Pops and a few years later, the Kenny Everett Video show. Everett at the time was one of the radio DJs who helped the tune become the hit it was.

Twice to #1- amazing, and more striking given the very unusual sound compared to its contemporaries on ’70s AM radio. In 2018, it’s stature rose yet again due to the biopic of Freddie Mercury which borrows its title for its own. To date the movie has taken in $900M worldwide, making the biggest “music movie” of all time.

September 5 – The King Of Queen

Not many famous people have come from Tanzania. In fact, we’d go out on a limb and suggest most of you couldn’t even name one… but also suggest you know one well! Then again, not many people were like that person – Farrokh Bulsara, one of the great singers of the modern era. Yeah, if you’re drawing a blank, you might know him better as Freddie Mercury! And he was born this day 75 years back.

While he was born in Africa to Indian parents, one must recall that back then much of the world was under British control, so no surprise that he went to boarding schools in India being taught in English and eventually would move to the UK, where he got a degree in arts. One of his old schoolmates in India recall him loving music and being able to play music he heard on radio by ear on the piano. His first real band was called Ibex in London, back in 1969. No one seems to know much about them but we know about the band he formed with John Deacon, Brian May and Roger Taylor the next year. About the name Queen, he said “it’s very regal obviously and it sounds splendid… I was certainly aware of the gay connotations but that was just one facet of it.” With them he not only wrote some of their big hits like “Somebody to Love,” “We Are The Champions” as well as of course the audacious “Bohemian Rhapsody” but he became one of rock’s premier showmen and perhaps its best voice.

Rolling Stone ranked him the 18th greatest singer ever, applauding his “hard rock hammerer, disco glitterer, a rockabilly lover boy. Freddie Mercury was dynamite with a laser beam… and a four-octave voice.” L.A. Weekly did that better last year, ranking him the greatest singer of all-time on a chart that included not only rockers but the likes of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holliday. A study printed in the Consequence of Sound and elsewhere in 2016 suggests that Freddie was naturally a baritone but could easily handle tenor parts and, through scientific analysis, found that his “vocal cords just moved faster than other people’s.”

Mercury passed away in 1991 from AIDS. Needless to say, his reputation and fan base has grown posthumously, especially with the release of the movie Bohemian Rhapsody which tasked then little-known Rami Malek with the ambitious job of channeling the late, great singer’s energy and voice.