Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Queen-Shaped Hole in the Brain

My kids have been interested in Queen for a while for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there's quite a fun video on youtube, where someone's taken scenes from Thomas the Tank Engine and cut them together with “Don't Stop me Now”. We've enjoyed this as a family since Lou was two, (they love the bit about a minute in where James spins around on the turntable) and they've always been interested in the music, which is nothing like what you hear on Thomas (“They're two they're four they're six their eight...”).

Secondly, there's Gubbins. Gubbins is a toy, a kind of blue bear (in fact the Danone “Inner self” from an advertising campaign of some years ago - my wife sent off a number of labels and we got one through the post) who features in their bedtime stories. He's all the things kids love – daft, rude, flatulent – and gets into all sorts of amusing scrapes and adventures. Among his friends are David Davis (former shadow home secretary and Gubs' best mate, and an elephant as it turns out) Farty Dada, a local who lives with his Mum, and Freddy Mercury, who lives in the Greenwich observatory (Brian May would be proud). They were amazed to discover that not only was Freddy Mercury a real person, but that he made the music for the Thomas video (they don't know about David Davis yet, I figure they're a little young for horror stories). (And hell, if their enthusiasm for Freddy is anything to go by they might end up voting tory!)

So, we spent more time on you tube looking up Queen videos and they were genuinely interested, so I bought the new best-of CD, Absolute Greatest.

I can remember when Bohemian Rhapsody was on Top of the Pops in the seventies, and I liked Queen quite a lot right up until I was in my twenties. I can remember being about 12 or 13 in particular and thrashing the old “Best of” (the current one's a new selection). Now I'm all old and a sophisticated and educated thinker, it's interesting listening to it again. In common with any serious rock fan, I was aghast when the We Will Rock You stage show was announced, but on reflection I think their music has a lot in common with show tunes. There's the obvious music hall sound of stuff like Killer Queen, and the anthemic songs like Radio Gaga, but in their entire catalogue there's something very simple and direct about their songs, despite the famous glossy production and technical expertise of Brian May. Don't Stop me Now, for example, has a real joyous abandon to it. I don't doubt it's all about Freddy's notorious party lifestyle, but still it communicates a pure uncomplicated pleasure in racing around that even little kids can grasp. All their songs are like that: the lyrics don't often make a lot of sense, or say anything particularly profound, but the sound and rhythm of the words fit perfectly with the emotional content of the music.

When listening Queen, it's as if there's a song-shaped hole in your head and even the first time you hear a Queen song it fits right in this places that's just been waiting for the song to come along and fill it. At they're best they can be literally breathtaking as they touch all sorts of strange and sensitive spots inside you, bypassing anything rational and going straight into the lizard brain.

This is one of the reasons why I don't really like them as much as some other performers, though. There's no surprises in there and the music, clever though it is, can be a bit crudely manipulative. As they went on they also depended on the same tricks that get a little tiresome. Later tracks like The Show Must Go On and It's a Kind of Magic, for example, are a bit tired. And let's not talk about fucking Radio Gaga – what's that doing on a best of anyway! (And while we're considering odd choices for an album called “Absolute Best” where are Fat Bottomed Girls and Bicycle Race, dammit!!) Their last great period was probably the time of Crazy Little Thing Called Love and I Want to Break Free (the latter one of their genuinely powerful and heartfelt songs, I have always felt).

That natural, uncomplicated sound really appeals to my kids, though, especially to my son. When he gets home from the childminder in the evening, he likes to put it on and lie on his tummy, looking at the booklet and listening along. It makes me really happy to see his musical education getting off to a solid start. It's not Tom Waits or David Bowie (we've just watched Labyrinth, though, and of course “Under Pressure”, so who knows) but it's a start!

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