Keep Yourself Alive

Keep Yourself Alive

And it begins.

And it’s quite a beginning, actually.

I think if there’s one simple thing you could say about Queen, that covers a lot of bases, it’s that they know how to make an entrance.

In comparison to later intros, it’s fairly stark ground, but it’s a statement of intent, at least.

Quivering over the horizon, panning across from one speaker to the next, a steady, urgent guitar rhythm hammers, and a simple but gripping hook steps in. Punching a simple rock statement as it’s joined by a drum count in, eventually some bass, and Freddie’s first little spoken word.

But before that even, that first noise.

The first guitar note comes in, and it sounds like it’s unfolding. I just had to double check it wasn’t a distortion, like the sound of a record player pulling a track up to speed after you hit play. It’s not though, it’s just a microscopic strum on the way up to to the intended first note. Some guitar effect bending ever so slightly.

Anyway, it’s an intro.

It winds up, brings the urgency, and then folds into the beginning.

Keep yourself alive.

There’s a deftly held arrogance from the off, everything is counted in millions. Everything is counted in everythings. Nothing is small and minor.

‘Well I sold a million mirrors in a shop in Alley Way.

But I never saw my face in any window any day.’

the song isn’t a boast, necessarily, it’s simple advice; keep it straight forward, keep yourself alive. All the ambitious advice of cliche won’t actually get you fed. Look after yourself. Remember to survive.

I think I’m always going to have trouble parsing the potential ironies of Queen lyrics. The bombast and theatre give a lot of space for misreading. I honestly can’t tell if this is taking the piss out of the self centred, or telling you to be one of them. I’m probably going to err on the generous side, these songs are old friends of mine, some of my oldest. All that showing off, it’s got enough heart underneath, I swear.

Freddie talks over himself too, just to get everything out in time. Already, first track, first album, the signature multi-tracking allows him to start each new line before he’s finished the last. The whole piece falls over itself to move forwards. Everything is driving steadily, steadily onwards.

It’s amazing that this isn’t on one of the renowned greatest hits records. (Be warned, I may use that sentence a lot in this project). It’s a neat little capsule of raw energy – an immediate intro, an addictive chorus, a blast of earnest bombast – that tells you a lot, instantly, about who Queen are.

And an already archetypal solo.

Brian May guitar solos are secretly the most over the top and ridiculous thing about Queen. The first thing that comes to mind might Freddie’s immense range, charisma, presence, queerness, arrogance and intensity, and that’s all there, and all worth exploring, but take a step back, and tell me you couldn’t recite some of Brian’s guitar solos as easily as you could recite any of the lyrics. Even if you don’t like Queen, I bet you know at least one guitar solo by heart.

That particular overdriven sound, that delicate mathematical punchiness, that lyrical playfulness. Guitars that sound like they’re singing.

Right there from the start. At least three guitars, duelling each other, pounding folksy melodies and motifs, worming around each other into a tiny, dense, overblown knot of energy.

It’s a statement of intent.

Not just the solo. Not just the intro. Not just the lyrics. The whole track.

Welcome to the album, you’re going to remember it. You’re going to remember us. We’re going to move. We’re going to go far.

Come along, give it a try. Flick your hair back. Get yourself moving.

Keep yourself alive.

It’s quite a way to begin.

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Doing All Right

Doing All Right

This one was pretty unexpected.

A little bit of context. I’ve devoted myself to this project partly on the basis of having spent a lot time defending my love of Queen to significantly more credible musos and writers than myself. For some people it baffles that I could simultaneously and authentically be raving about the late era Scott Walker records and ranting about everyone needing to hear the Queen that exists beyond the ubiquitous Greatest Hits.

I don’t think there’s actually a contradiction here. There’s a wide variety of song writing and performance out there (quite a major understatement), and there’s no reason why one can’t passionately adore quite diverse expressions of it. Queen have become naff to many through association with wedding discos and drunken singalongs. Scott Walker’s inaccessibility is a badge of honour for many. But it should never just be about that, if you can’t connect emotionally to the music, why are you bothering writing about it? I think I work quite hard to still get emotional about music.

You may notice this. You may have already noticed this.

Anyway, that’s off track. What I’m trying to get to is that my central thesis here is ‘Queen are better than you think, and a lot of their brilliance is hidden deeper in the albums than you think.’

But. Well. I’ve got to be honest here.

Even I always brushed off the first two albums.

They barely even scratch the surface of first volume of Greatest Hits, with one track representing both of the records, and that track isn’t even really on the first album (as with many things, we’ll get to that when the time comes).

So this début record, I feel like I’m coming to it for the first time.

I’ve done at least one ‘whole discography in one day’ before, so I know I’ve heard it all before, but I couldn’t really remember it.

Which is why I’ve actually been shocked to prove myself more right than I thought.

The production is a bit odd on this first record; the drums a bit washed out, the piano a little plonky (technical term).

But it’s good. It’s really good. I can imagine this dazzling utterly at the time, even standing against the rock giants of the era.

But my memory of it was as a pretty plodding and traditional rock record.

So.

Doing All Right surprised me.

Second track, after that blast of joy and affirmation, we get a simple piano line and vocal, that unfolds into something like a Glen Campbell ballad. Pushes a lot of country buttons, before dropping first into spanish guitar thoughtfulness, and only unleashing the electrics halfway through, and then only for a brief, pounding set of flourishes.

Queen do this.

Right from the beginning, Queen did this.

A Queen song is quite often not a song, but a journey. Verse and chorus just a structure on which to explore different musical styles and techniques, ideas and ideals.

This is what excites me about them. The fact that even now, I barely know what to expect from a Queen track. Even the tracks that I’ve heard a million times, occasionally reveal a hidden moment of ‘wow, they really did that, didn’t they, that’s ridiculous’.

As this track pours from emotion to emotion, defiantly surviving, following the advice of the previous track, it routinely surprises.

Freddie’s range and diversity, accompanied by May’s diversity and range, is the only way they could possibly support this (don’t worry, we’re not going to always be talking just about the obvious leads, it just takes a while for the others to step to the front). The two are masters of tone with their instruments of choice. They can be tour guides to anywhere, because they are virtuosos, with a real eye for detail, and a willingness to put the hours in at the studio. I think that was apparent from the off.

It’s also worth giving a little nod to the fact that this is a bit of Queen arcana, in that I believe it’s the only track that was composed by Brian May and Tim Staffell. Staffell was singer in the proto-Queen: Smile.

It’s a lovely track. Heartfelt and mercurial, and it totally undermines my expectations of this record. Queen had it from the beginning.

My favourite moment, is the very end. After the second blast of guitar noodling and hammering drums, the song unfurls back to the title, sung in a glorious little Beach Boys harmony, with just a downbeat and quiet piano coda to finish. It’s probably corny as all hell, but that’s Queen. I accept that.

And right here, I think it’s perfect. Rounding off a rollercoaster with a gentle, warming hug.

We’re still on solid ground here.

Thanks Queen, you might just prove me right.

—-

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Great King Rat

Great King Rat

Feedback

Bang

Shudder

Roar

We’re going epic.

This is more like what I was expecting.

6 minutes of bombastic rock about a rat (possibly metaphorical) dying of syphilis.

This fantasy tinged metal was what I was waiting for from these early records, but it still owns itself in a striking fashion. Not least because of the syphilis.

Great King Rat died today,

Born on the twenty first of May

Died syphilis forty four on his birthday

And the chorus. Any chorus that calls someone a dirty old man twice in a row is probably okay in my book.

The initial blast of noise definitely sets a tone, and the marching drumbeat largely doesn’t let up once it gets started. I’m also fond of the duelling leads in the solo. Brian May splitting himself across stereo channels.

One of those bloated, slow rambling drum led mid-sections. A plea to ignore Mama. Then some brief melancholic acoustic guitar, before another pound back into the marching beat.

And it all ends with an awkward fading of a heavyweight drum solo, mostly ready to lead into the next song, which feels like the second part of a fantasy narrative.

Anyway, this one is solid, ridiculous and large. It doesn’t quite grab me, but it charms me some. It certainly lays down a template. It goes big and over the top. Exploring different tones and telling stories and creating worlds.

I think the fantastical element is worth looking at. Queen have always had a willingness to give their songs big backdrops, not just musically, but in terms of world building. There’s a reason people started getting them to work on soundtracks, it’s that they have a lyrical and musical willingness to set scenes and make them real.

By ‘make them seem real’ I kind of mean ‘shout about them’.

I guess this is part of the prog thing. Metal of this sort really is about ten foot tall replicas of Stonehenge. It’s just not all of them are set dressing, most of it is in the songs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Venn diagram of SFF geeks and Queen fans has a large crossover. We don’t mind an overblown bit of story telling or a well told cliché.

Well, I certainly don’t.

But I can see how this is the sort of thing that puts people off. They want their rock in the real world, for whatever reason.

Bit weird, if you ask me.

There is bombast and bloatedness, though. Overblown self importance. It’s off putting, but I swear it can be charming, if done with a self awareness (in this track, I find the self awareness in the rolling cowbells of the chorus).

I think I’m going to spend a lot of time trying to track down that self awareness, convince of it’s existence, but like artness, it’s not necessarily in what you’re looking at, but how you look at it.

I’m willing to give myself over to Queen. Suspend disbelief.

This may be my problem. This may be the divide I can’t reach across. There’s a chasm, and however far across my hand gets, some people aren’t willing to jump it.

And really, authentic enjoyment doesn’t need your permission. Just like Queen to me don’t seem overblown, but simply self assured. It seems self evident that the quality of the playing and depth of the production stands its ground.

We aren’t showing off because we’re show offs, we’re showing off because we’re fucking fabulous.

(This state is what I refer to, normally sartorially, as the ‘Fortress of Gorgeous’. When I look this good, nobody can mess with me).

I’m not sure where I’m going with this one.

Rats.

Well.

Let’s get concrete again. We’re talking about a song, right?

That chorus. The contrasting textures are lovely. The sung, the shouted, the deft swing to falsetto. The repetition. The energy.

It’s punchy as hell.

Wouldn’t you like to know?

Wouldn’t you like to know people?

Great King Rat was a dirty old man,

And a dirty old man was he.

Now what did I tell you.

Wouldn’t you like to see?

And wouldn’t you?

The question is sold by the delivery. The statements are made real by the confidence.

A scene is set, with every word, beat, and blast of guitar.

And I’ll be honest with you, I’m pretty sure all this epic bombast is actually just laying a red carpet down for the next track.

Because the Great King Rat may be dead, but Queen are just getting started.

—-

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

My Fairy King

My Fairy King

Oh. My. Days.

There’s so much going on here.

I really think this is supposed to be the second half of a little fantasy diptych. But that just might be because I like the word diptych.

So what is My Fairy King?

It’s a shrieking, howling, piano storming, rhapsodic, overblown mass of gorgeous, is what it is.

It’s a shocking and wonderful climax to the first side of the first record, and it has one of the most shocking and wonderful climaxes I’ve heard in song.

It’s also a pretty absurd bit of lyrical faeritude. ‘Dragons fly like sparrows thru’ the air’, apparently.

One thing I like here is that Freddie appears to be testing out the sound of his stage name, calling ‘Mother Mercury’ for support. (I’m going to keep calling him Freddie, at least for now, but don’t worry, I want to look a lot deeper into Farrokh Bulsara…I’m just not quite ready yet. We’ll get there).

But let’s look at the music. We can take the fey wordplay at face value, I think; let’s look at the landscapes behind it. The way it’s sung, the way it’s hung. Because it’s fascinating.

We’re very much piano led here, Freddie at the piano leading the composition and moving the super-structure forward.

I’m tempted to spend the rest of my time here just talking about the final minute of this, which is a glorious, elaborate, stunning, and generous piece in it’s own right, but I’ll get to it. Because there IS more here than that.

Rising back up from the rolling drum fade of the the last track, we have a sequence of guitars pulling upwards, one over the next, before a hard rock’n’roll piano sets the pace. Processed high pitched wails (I’m pretty sure they’re vocal, but in a testament to Brian May, I can’t quite tell, they could be guitars) introduce our scene. It’s a diamond of an intro, exactly as dense as necessary to set the stage.

Everything drops out to leave space for falsetto fairy talk and staccato piano.

In the land where horses born with eagle wings

And honey bees have lost their stings

There’s singing forever

Textures of guitar and and bass and drum slowly fill in the gaps, but that piano defines the space. The vocal line, as it’s joined by complex multi track harmonies and further shrieks and wails, drives the story onward.

There is no time or space for chorus here, just a building, ebbing and flowing of urgency. Mostly building. Mostly flowing.

I love the way it pours into itself. One type of movement, pushing into another at will, that forward motion maintained by all manner of different gaits. The strangeness of some of the vocal harmonies.

Then the quiet bit. Freddie’s vocal pulled from one speaker to the other, then harmonising with himself from the first. Simple, shifting piano gives him all the support he needs.

And it’s just, again, setting the stage.

Those layers of guitars from the intro, building and growing over each other, return. Summoned by Freddie’s desperate ‘I cannot run I cannot hide’.

In turn, they, pull forth the rest of the instruments, bringing them, and some wordless vibrato vocals together to bring about one last desperate dash to the finish. And it’s absolutely enthralling.

Layer upon layer of everything, indescribable. I’m utterly at a loss here.

It’s that moment in the movie. The last chance.

Piano cascading over itself. Drums elaborating and pounding. Guitar ever hopeful, with at least eight different ways of pushing upwards. The music thickens and quickens. Pulses race and spill over into a final coda.

It’s just a couple of bars, a really small section, but it’s deep, it’s gripping and it’s perfection. If this achieves anything, I hope it’s that you’ll listen to that last brief section and hear something so many miles ahead of it’s time, such a ripe story telling moment.

I live for bits of music like that. Small moments in larger pieces where everything comes together and pulls at the heartstrings.

Queen taught me about music production, to some extent. Certainly they taught me it existed. Taught me to look for it.

I assumed it was a thing they developed later in their careers, the way the Beach Boys slowly blossomed as Brian Wilson (and, to be fair, most of the rest of them) figured out how to express what was in him.

My Fairy King proves to me that Queen were already well on their way by the time they got together. That they and their engineers were already building tiny masterpieces within their work.

Listen closely, and you can hear worlds being built.

This is what I’m into Queen for. Not the pomp and theatre (although that helps) but the depth, the structure, the craft.

It’s just music. Obviously. Just music doing what music does. Grabbing you. Moving you.

I hope this one gets you. Because it got me hard.

This is Queen, you know. Moments like this.

This is my Queen, anyway.

How about yours?

—-

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Liar

Liar Here, the drums have it.

That and DRAMA, but we’ll get to that.

We’re still epic, as we open the second side of the album (for those of us who still believe that albums have sides).

It’s a pretty special intro: all cowbells and claps and open spaces, transferred to drum kits, and only letting the guitars getting an edge in once you’ve already got a groove going.

And then the guitars carry you somewhere totally different.

Introductions appear to have a really special place in Queen tracks [At the beginning? – ed*]. I think that place is generally nowhere near the actual track, but as high up and exciting as possible. If we’re looking for defining qualities of a Queen song, I’d put that near the top. Set expectations pretty high, but generally mislead about what is actually coming next. The intro should be overwhelming enough to tell it’s own story.

Liar tells a lot of stories.

Kinda what you’d expect really.

Nothing repeats, or where it does, it’s been shuffled about. There isn’t really a chorus here, just a never ending parade of lies and stories, some told by voice, some told by guitars, some told by drums.

It’s bloody chaos.

I bloody like it.

And there’s the elephant in the room. The word itself.

Liar.

Screamed and screeched and multitracked and butting into about half the lines of the song.

It’s like a thread running through the thing, puncturing its fabric, trying to pull the patchwork together.

But really, the thread is the drums. Pounding and rolling and never relenting. Pushing the whole thing forward, never letting up.

I’m finding it hard to get specific here. The song never settles.

Liar I have sailed the seas

Liar from Mars to Mercury

Liar I have drunk the wine

Liar time after time

Liar you’re lying to me

Liar you’re lying to me

That wine has been drunk.  Those last two lines are so delightfully louche, only to be trumped a few lines later by Freddie simply repeating the word Liar four times in a row, getting higher and more sultry each time. Until it’s screeching again.

One word title, and the word just punctuates everything.

There’s a single verse/breakdown thing, mostly drums and shouting, where the word Liar is never used. It paves the way for a central guitar solo, more clattering than most. Most of that verse is ‘All day long’. And once the guitars are done, we’re just chanting Liar again.

How the hell does this work?

It does. It does work.

When I ranted the rant that goaded me into doing this whole Exploded Queen thing, I kept using the word DRAMA. Like that, all caps.

Queen is DRAMA.

The first side of the record nudged at this, all theatrical fantasy, and immense backdrops. It was powerful and loud. But here feels like the time to bring up DRAMA.

Because in truth, this song is called LIAR. Quite clearly. The word is all caps. The word itself is DRAMA.

I don’t know if I’ve locked down a full theory of what DRAMA is yet. It’s more than just theatricality or excess. It’s more than just screaming. It’s more than just storytelling. It’s raging at the story, pounding at every twist and turn, never letting go, always building up.

Frankly, it’s adding massively raucous and incongruous elements to songs that might otherwise just be normal.

LIAR. Jutting in, owning the scene, dominating a masterclass in rhythm and guitar rhapsody. We never settle for one feeling, when we can have eight in a row, each louder than the last, and with someone screaming LIAR over the top.

That’s DRAMA. That’s what Queen do. It’s probably why you love them.

Or hate them, for that matter.

But you’ve got to admire the purity of it, surely? Especially here. The almost Brechtian unpleasantness of the closest thing it has to a refrain. The sheer verve with which it approaches everything it does. The fact that it does SO MUCH.

You will not be able to hold this song in your head. It’s catchy as hell, but you can’t actually catch it. It’s a slippery fish, or perhaps a whole river.

And that last verse, is just so utterly exultant. Revelling in it.

Revel in it. Swim in it.

Lie in it.

Liar.

*In case it’s not clear, there’s no editor here, but I reserve the right to do ‘ed’ jokes, if they please me. Sorry.

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

The night comes down

The night comes down

We’re back in May territory. One of Brian’s.

Does this mean everything calms down a bit?

Well.

Not entirely.

There’s another bit of trivia on this one. This is the only track on this album that was recorded as part of their initial demo. So this one has different production to the rest of the album. Apparently the band had real trouble finding a producer/engineer that could handle them (I’d believe it). They ended up with someone who worked, but this was the track that they couldn’t rerecord well enough. So the demo remains.

I’m not sure it shows up much, to be honest. I actually assumed it was Liar, which is the only track on this album where the drums appear to come close to full pelt.

Anyway, here we are. Another Spanish guitar intro. (I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I’m using the words ‘Spanish guitar’ properly here, but it’s how it sounds to me). A lot of lovely guitar effects, and varied textures.

This one feels like a sandwich, in fact. Beginning and ending with multitracked hammering guitars, with a slightly downbeat but pretty heart filled song in the middle.

The night comes down.

It really does seem to be two songs. One desert guitar excursion, wrapping around either side of an open hearted beach bar melancholia.

Well. Melancholia is painting it a bit more down than it really is. But Freddie owns the scene, even when it isn’t his. I don’t know many people who can make the falseness of a falsetto seem so heartfelt.

The chord structure has that lovely opening out feeling. Everything descends, until it’s ready to burst outward. I really should learn the technical name for this, as it’s one of the things that gets me hardest.

Whatever it is, it feels surprisingly honest.

And when it’s dark again, it’s dark again.

The striking thing here is not that it feels like two songs, but that it doesn’t.

I know, I know, I’m contradicting myself already, but I really like the way May’s guitar motifs work themselves into the middle section, so that the transition back to the much pacier and punchier framing guitars feels smooth. The two battling textures worm their way into each other, so that the whole fits again.

The transition from one space to another feels smooth and natural.

Now all the world is grey to me

Nobody can see – you gotta believe it

This isn’t grey though. The night comes down, and May’s guitar paints colours everywhere. Building and layering over themselves until an incredibly abrupt end. It’s kinda cheap, but I think I like it. This is a song that needs to feel compact, or wants to. After the rolling expansiveness of Liar, it seems the album wants to start a rush to the end.

But it’s still dense. This track has a full desert landscape, and a broken hearted lounge bar contained within it. The last margarita this side of the Mojave.

I’ll be honest, the middle’s a bit yacht. But I like it. There’s an earnestness that puts me at ease.

This is solid. I’m still content.

Thanks Queen.

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Modern Times Rock’n’Roll

 

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And we’re back.

This blasts into the outro of the last, and rises into a two minute blast of cheap metal.

To my unrefined metallic ear, it sounds like Black Sabbath. Just crunching rousing riffage, fast paced unintelligible lyrics. More energy than structure. More pace than experimentalism.

Which is all fine.

It’s also Roger Taylor’s first time at the mic and on the writing credit.

It doesn’t feel like a standout, just a little post in the sand saying ‘oh yeah, we can do this as well you know’.

I guess it’s the thing to do with a debut, make some statements about where you are and what you can do. Mark some territory.

That this particular piece of territory feels like an after thought, two minutes of ‘here you go’, jammed in between two of May’s more spacious jaunts.

But it’s got some heart. The lyrics you can’t quite hear veer between nostalgia and self loathing in a pretty exciting way.

Is this Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll?

Everybody in this bum sucking world’s

Gonna know just who you are

Look out

The last verse is pretty excoriating, mocking exactly the kind of theatre and bombast that Queen are pretty clearly indulging in already.

But prior to that it feels more like a song about the bit in Back to the Future where Marty McFly bootstrap appropriates Chuck Berry, only to take it TOO FAR for the crowd and try and introduce wild lead guitar solos.

Fifty eight that was great

But its over now and that’s all

Somethin’ harder’s coming up

Gonna really knock a hole in the wall

Gonna hit ya grab you hard

Make you feel ten feet tall

Which I guess is the point here. That ten foot tall feeling. The fantastic power of dressing up and playing a guitar really loudly.

It’s quite possible this is the most honest track on the record. Just some thoughts on why people like making a racket, and how weird it is that ‘a nice little man’ from a record company turns that into something bigger and weirder and sealed in vinyl forever.

I still can’t tell if it’s a celebration or a lament, which I guess is why I feel it’s honest.

Of course, there is a refrain. Basically consisting of the title, only the first two words are sung in a similar grating yell to that familiar one from Liar. There it added an extra layer of extremity to an already extreme piece of sonic exploration. Here it just alienates.

Perhaps it’s intended to, a Brechtian moment of disjoining. Drawing attention to the artifice, or emulating a screaming audience.

Or perhaps they just like screaming.

I’ve had this stuck in my head though, and it’s the scream that does it. The guitar never stayed, but the modern times did.

I’m not sure I like it.

It’s true. I don’t like everything Queen do. I’ve actually been pretty shocked by how much I’ve enjoyed this first album, how many surprises it’s held. I’m sad that Roger Taylor’s first joint doesn’t satisfy, but it’s fine, he’ll get there in the end (while May and Mercury hold most of the glory, a few of my absolute favourites belong to Deacon and Taylor).

It sits nicely in the record too. Leaping in between two tracks without much ceremony and making some space. It’s a Knee Play, really, in this giant overblown piece of theatre. You can’t hear the preparatory sawing in the background, but that’s the point.

The words give me something to bite into. Wondering exactly how the band felt, as they started a journey into pure stardom.

It almost sounds like Roger knew it would be a bit of a ride. Which means it bookends nicely with one of his much later Queen tracks.

Oh. And apparently Roger Taylor turned down being in Genesis to start Queen. Which means he could’ve been Phil Collins.

Make u think tho.

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Son and Daughter

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I.

Want.

You.

More screaming. More pounding. The guitar thuds with traditionally masculine aggression. And May appears to be writing something about gender expectations, but I can’t parse it for the life of me.

Son and Daughter.

I can’t quite decide if there’s an anti-feminist thing going on here. It certainly sounds like he criticises someone for trying to be ‘a son and daughter rolled into one’ and ‘the world expects a man to buckle down and to shovel shit’ sounds like an MRA type attitude. The closest to a refrain we actually get is just more yelling: ‘I want you to be a woman.’

It’s an angry song, and that leaks from every pore. Apparently May wrote it at school, and it’s one of the earliest Queen tracks (that wasn’t from the proto-Queen, Smile). It certainly has that angry youth feel, and the desperate desire of the intro and refrain certainly sound reinforce that.

So is it a rant about shitty expectations, or is it a shitty expectation? Who is trying to cross the gender divide and be both son and daughter? Who’s got a problem with that? Brian May, or the rest of the world?

I can’t tell.

The second verse seems even vaguer: pseudo spiritual motifs, preachers and Heavens, seem more concerned with paving the way for the next track’s religious theme.

And frankly, ‘I want you to be a woman’ is probably the biggest rock cliché out there. Because around all this macho posturing, is that huge problem of male gaze, and the constant defining of femininity.

This may just be a side of rock I don’t like, a sign of the times. Freddie’s androgyny and willingness to reshape the roles isn’t in charge yet, isn’t at full force.

To be honest, it sounds like May is filling the roll of the stereotype Taylor complained about a track before. He’s putting a hair piece on his chest to roar to the world.

I’m going to put it down to teen angst, and just walk on by.

And it feels like Freddie encourages this. Spitting the lyrics with a teenage venom, as earnest and seriously as possible.

It still isn’t enough though.

Much like the previous track, this is a stand out refrain in a not particularly exciting groove. You can get it stuck in your head, but you don’t necessarily want to live with it.

To be fair, we can’t expect every piece to have the same depth and craft and ridiculousness as the first half of the record managed. It’s kind of incredible that run of weird and wonderful songs lasted so long.

First album. Going to have some odds and ends right? (And I think they’re about to get odder).

So yeah.

My main hope is that this piece is just a jutting bit of musical parody. Brian May awkwardly looking at his school notebook, and listening to the overblown dynamics of the rock and metal around him, and pattern matching.

Or maybe it’s genuine frustration with the gender binary, and an inability to express that, or unwillingness to admit it.

All sorts could be going on here.

But I’m not sure I actually enjoy it, beyond Freddie’s acerbic revelling.

Ah well.

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Jesus

Jesus

Jesus.

I really need the time to do some research here, because this one feels more than a little contradictory.

And mostly all I want to say is it ain’t the Velvet Underground song with the same name, which remains in my head even as I am actually listening to this one.

Anyway, stompy dirge-ish guitars. Lyrics that sound straightforwardly hymnal. A massively prog guitar solo, the last of the record. A folkish structure, possibly intended.

It’s just a song about Jesus.

But it’s Freddie’s, and he was Zoroastrian rather than Christian (and I have yet to establish how fervently he was that). I guess it’s as valid a subject matter for any belief system as syphilitic rats and fey monarchs, but it sits oddly somehow.

I almost like it though. This feels like a simpler thing, folk or hymn, than the intricate structures and overdubs of most of the rest of the album. Those guitar stomps are somewhat infectious. The harmonies of the chorus are faintly ridiculous, falsetto enough to sound satirical.

Not to mention that it’s about going down, and we know full well from later innuendo fuelled tracks that Freddie’s fully aware of the implications.

So is this sacred, or sacrilegious?

Again, I’m not qualified to say, but it does give us an opportunity to discuss Freddie’s outsider status, which remains a core of why I find Queen quite so exciting.

Queen are often held as British icons within the often hypermasculine classic rock canon. Yet their beating core is a gay Tanzania Parsi born Brit who grew up in India.

This isn’t actually shocking. Britain and rock are queerer and more migrant than their more conservative standard bearers would have you believe, but I feel like Freddie was such a powerful and wonderful icon to have of how wrong people can be. At least to me, growing up, I could recognise something celebratory and joyful in Mercury’s being simultaneously top of the world and outside of it. Like some glorious apparition of another world.

It’s not the fantasy of Queen’s early lyrics that appeals, it’s the fantastical nature of Freddie himself. Bigger, bolder, brasher than anyone. A guiding light for a young boy still figuring out who he could be (and eventually realising that even the boy part was optional).

Freddie Mercury is not Jesus. But I found his support more helpful than my Catholic school and upbringing ever managed to be. Jesus stated the obvious (however radical those obvious things might be), but Mercury painted whole worlds with his voice, and asked me to step into them.

This song isn’t one of those worlds. It’s just a bit of a pleasing racket about a wise myth of a man who some people take very, very seriously.

But it does help connect me to Freddie, even if it presents a puzzle. He had been Freddie for a while, but after writing My Fairy King, with it’s reference to Mother Mercury, he adopted his stage surname, apparently to separate his quiet self from the ‘extroverted monster’ of his stage persona. Does this mean Mercury is more Christian the Bulsara?

Again, I’m not qualified to know, but it’s something to bear in mind. This music is theatre, that much is clear, but so are the personas the band constructed, and that we construct from them. There’s Freddie, and there’s Freddie, and there’s me.

Don’t trust me. I’m full of the bias of passion and love.

But let’s see where it takes us.

 


Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Seven Seas of Rhye…

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If the central thesis of this project is ‘Queen is so much more than the greatest hits’, I probably shouldn’t get really excited about the first track to (sort of) appear that made it onto the greatest hits.

And yet.

Seven Seas of Rhye…

This isn’t the track you know. It wasn’t finished in time. Acting as a trailer for the second album we hear a just over one minute instrumental variation on the classicest era Queen track to make the cut.

It’s just the intro, and then a looping speeding up sample of the verse.

But what a noise. That piano hook remains instantly alluring, so immediate. The bass thrums in, the drums start beating, it’s all a little different to the later version, but we can hear something kicking off.

I really do wonder what people thought at the time. The first record wasn’t a great success, but I imagine anyone who bought it felt spoiled, and to end with this cliffhanger, pointing forward to something not yet completed. Lyricless, but utterly engaging. It’s impossible from me to detach it from the full version, but surely this already sounded like a hit.

I suspect the band knew, or they would never have included an unfinished artefact.

I guess this is how the first records sit, to be honest, a trailer of what’s to come. I was expecting them to be more prosaic, but they carved a mark pretty quickly, to my ear. So this short piece stands as a synecdoche for the promise of the whole thing.

‘Look what we’re doing now, and we’re only just getting started’.

Rhye is apparently the location of songs like My Fairy King (and therefore, I assume Great King Rat). A fictional backdrop we’ve already discussed. I’ll try to dig into that rabbit hole in time for when the finished version of these seas arrive.

But for now I’m just left with that piano. The circling guitars and plumetting bass. The start of something big.

A trailer, a statement of intent, an opening out.

An ellipsis.

There’s a boldness there. An assumption. It’s one thing that feels clear. Even as the band self deprecate, with quotes available saying that they thought the first album was over-arranged, as a result of being worked on for so long before being recorded. It’s not what I hear on the record. I hear an assuredness, a certainty of success.

And never more so than as they parade their unfinished work, and hang it in the wind.

I can imagine myself dying of anticipation, waiting for the close of the ellipsis.

Even a wordless promise is incredibly appetising.

That piano.

An album closes, a career begins. The landscape of rock is never going to be the same.

I’m mythologising, I guess. Maybe nobody cared, everyone just thought it was another quirky decision from an unusually overwrought band. Why wouldn’t they chuck an instrumental coda in at the end?

But listen to it. Use your hears. It’s like holding a conch shell to your hear and hearing the seas.

It’s coming. Relentlessly.

Bring it on.

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.