Tuesday 20 February 2007

Queen: A Riot At The Opera

First published in Sounds, November 29, 1975
Queen triumphant
Report by Jonh Ingham, pictures by Kate Simon

QUEEN ARE the type of group that make a man want to abandon rock writing. They pose questions and never provide answers. They exist in their own space-time continuum, visible and audible but keeping their secrets to themselves.

On the surface they couldn't be a nicer bunch of people, but they carry English reticence to an epitome. It isn't, as Geoff Barton said two weeks ago, that they're boring, it's just that they're reserved. Or in writer parlance, they don't automatically provide colourful copy. All my instincts as a writer tell me that there is a great story in that band, but after two nights with them I'm hardly any the wiser.

Skin tight

That their insularity has a lot to do with them being one of the most amazing heavy-metal and/or rock bands in Britain - with all the signs that they'll end up monsters on the order of Zep - is fairly obvious, but just how much bearing it has on the matter is hard to say. The enigmas they might pose mightn't even have answers.
Is there any logical reason why they present an image and persona straight out of the Beatles school of interlocking chemistry?

John is reserved, almost nonchalant on stage, as if it's all in a small, personal joke. When asked how he saw himself within the framework of the band he replied, with a small smile, "I'm the bassist".
Roger is his opposite, the cheeky sidekick in a Clint Eastwood movie, and attracting a lot of cheesecake attention in America and Japan.
Freddie is an original - one of the most dynamic singers to tread the boards in quite a few years. His attraction is obvious.
Brian is perhaps the biggest enigma of all. What is this seemingly frail, gaunt astronomer doing on that stage, striding purposefully and blasting diamond-hard rock? They're all equally strong personalities - like the Beatles there's no one major focal point. Ask four fans who their dream Queen is and you'll get four different answers.

Queen have been busy lads these past few months. Having disassociated themselves from their former management and joined with John Reid, the fourth album was seen to. Reid decided that a tight schedule wouldn't cause them undue harm, and figured on two months to record before embarking on this current tour.

Only Queen are driven to better each previous album - which at this stage of the game is obviously producing some excellent results - and 'A Night At The Opera' turned into a saga - culminating in 36-hour mixing sessions in an effort to allow at least a few days for rehearsal. In the end they managed three and a half days at Elstree with four hours off to videotape the promotional film for 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
Their first few dates had not been without errors and the quartet were still not feeling totally comfortable their second night in Bristol, fourth night of the tour. You'd never know it, though.

Like all other aspects of the group, the stage is sophisticated. A black scrim provides a backdrop bounded by a proscenium of lights both front and rear. At each side the p.a. rises like a mutant marriage of Mammon and Robby the Robot. Amp power is readily evident but the most extraordinary is Brian May's subtle set up: nine Vox boxes stepping back in rows of three. The only packing crate visible is holding a tray of drinks, and you may rest assured that no roadie will rush, crawl or lurk across the stage while the show is in progress unless it's to rescue Freddie's mike from the clawing crowd.

As the auditorium darkens the sound of an orchestra tuning up is heard over the p.a. The conductor taps his baton on the music stand and a slightly effete voice welcomes the audience to A Night At The Opera. The Gilbert & Sullivan portion of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' follows, a brief glimpse of Freddie is allowed, and then in a blast of flares and white smoke the blitzkrieg begins.

Roger is barely visible behind his kit, just his eyes and tousled locks. John is wearing a white suit and playing the-man-who-must-stand-still-or-it-will-all-blow-away. Brian is slightly medieval in his green and white Zandra Rhodes top, while Freddie is...

Around his ankles his satin white pants flare like wings - fleet footed Hermes. Everything north of the knee is skin tight - tighter than skin tight - with a zip-up front open to AA rating. But further south, definitely in X territory, lurks a bulge not unlike the Sunday Telegraph.

There have been sex objects and sex bombs, superstar potency and the arrogant presentation of this all-important area, but never has a man's weaponry been so flagrantly showcased. Fred could jump up on the drum stand and shake his cute arse, leap about and perform all manner of amazing acrobatics, but there it was, this rope in repose, barely leashed tumescence, the Queen's sceptre. Oh to be that hot costume, writhing across the mighty Fred!
Freddie is not pretty in the conventional sense of the word; like Mick Jagger of '64, he is his own convention. Also like the Jagger of the time, his stage persona and action is unlike anything else. Although it borrows - like most of the group's plagiarisms - slightly from Zeppelin, in tandem with Freddie's supreme assurance and belief in himself - he always refers to himself as a star - it explodes into something that is a constant delight to watch.
He reacts to his audience almost like an over-emotional actress - Gloria Swanson, say, or perhaps Holly Woodlawn playing Bette Davis. At the climax of the second night in Bristol he paused at the top of the drum stand, looked back over the crowd and with complete, heartfelt emotion placed his delicate fingers to lips and blew a kiss. Any person who can consume themselves so completely in such a clich├ęd showbiz contrivance deserves to be called a star.

Freddie's real talent, though, is with his mike stand. No Rod Stewart mike stand callisthenics here, just a shortee stick that doubles as a cock, machine gun, ambiguous phallic symbol, and for a fleeting moment an imaginary guitar. He has a neat trick of standing quite still in particularly frantic moments and holding the stand vertically from his crotch up, draw a fragile finger along its length, ever closer to the taunting eyes that survey his audience.

Their show contains lots of bombs and smoke, lots of lights, lots of noise. They fulfil the function of supremely good heavy metal - i.e. you don't get a second to think about what's going on. When they do let up for a few minutes, it's only so you can focus in on the bright blue electric charge crackling between your ears.


Dominating the sound is Roger's drumming, a bulldozer echo that bounces like an elastic membrane, meshing with your solar plexus so that your body pulses in synch with the thunder. Tuned into that, everything else is just supremely nice icing.

For three days rehearsal, after eight months off the road Bristol was extremely impressive. In speculative mood I quizzed people on how long they thought it would take to headline Madison Square Garden. I was thought a radical at a year and a half. John Reid smilingly assured me it would take a year.

That Queen should end up with John Reid is an entirely logical proceeding. Everything about Queen demands that the world eventually kowtows at their feet in complete acquiescence - so big that bodyguards have to accompany them at every step. Well, no - they found that an annoyance in Japan, but, you know, huge.

Such status demands a Reid or a Peter Grant, and whatever the causes for their leaving Jack Nelson and Trident, an elegant group like Queen is going to look for a man with class. Reid found the idea of managing a group interesting, and having to deal with four strong personalities a challenge. He only concerns himself with their business and ensuring that the year ahead is mapped out. In January they begin a jaunt through the Orient, Australia and America, by which time it's March and they begin preparations for the next album.

Reid's prediction of a year was proven highly credible the next evening in Cardiff. The band had still not paused from the rush up to the tour and spent most of the day relaxing and sleeping - no doubt a factor in their near recumbent profile. Also, unlike most groups, they were keeping their dissatisfaction with the show to themselves.

They stopped off at Harlech TV on the way to see a cassette of the video for 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. The general consensus was quite good for four hours, with much laughter during the operetta. Brian finds film of the group educational - the first time he saw himself was a Mike Mansfield opus for 'Keep Yourself Alive' - "It was 'All right fellows, give it everything you've got but don't move off that spot.' It was terrible." You don't like Mansfield, eh? "Oh, I hate him - we all do... I was horrified when I saw it - I couldn't believe we looked that bad. I looked very static - seeing myself has taught me a lot about stage movement. Some of the things I do are planned for effect, but it's mostly just feeling the audience and communicating that back to them."

Arriving at the motel - several miles out of town - Freddie immediately fell asleep, John held court of a sort, joined later by Brian, while Roger went jogging, a daily event when touring. Tuning in to rock via Bill Haley and Tommy Steele, he became a drummer because he was better at it than guitar. All through school he was in bands; he only went to dental school out of "middle class conditioning, and it was a good way to stay in London without having to work". His mother thought it a bit strange when he opted for a career as a rock star, but she doesn't worry too much now.

The concert starts in much the same manner as the previous night, but there are signs that tonight is work, with posing an afterthought. The endings to most of their songs are magnificent and majestic, especially 'Flick Of The Wrist' and the rapid harmonies of 'Bad Boy Leroy Brown'.


The audience, seeing their faces in town for the first time, are vociferous in their appreciation. Guys know all the words to every song, yelling enthusiastically at every effect and solo. The band picks up, Freddie receiving the crowd beneficently, telling them they’re beautiful.

As the show builds it is obvious that things are gelling more. The previous night Brian had seemed totally out of place, not moving too much, taking solos with the weirdest half blank half possessed stare, talking to himself; cocking ear towards guitar. He was the proverbial stranger in a strange land, one step removed from the plane inhabited by you and me.

Tonight he moves fluidly, the gonzo lead guitarist of a gonzo band. His expressions are just as maniacal, but it only makes him look more demonic. His solo in 'Brighton Rock', an exposition in riffing and echo, is a treat because of his physical response to both music and audience, complete with ham acting. Freddie gets into the same game on 'The Prophet's Song', where he conducts an acapella madrigal with himself. It's a pretty commanding moment.

It’s soon after this that Madison Square seems reasonable. About a minute into 'Stone Cold Crazy' it becomes very obvious that Queen have suddenly Plugged In. Found the metal music machine and Connected. Freddie's movements explode in perfect unison with the music, the lights and surroundings go crazy, and the audience goes berserk.

Freddie asks for requests and receives a roar out of which one can vaguely make 'Liar'. Fred walks along the stage, nodding, agreeing he will do this one and that one while the kids roar on. "I'll tell you what - we'll do them all!"

'Doing Alright' opens slow and portentously. Queen's variation of light and shade is one of the major factors in their popularity, but even so the quiet sections frequently find the audience's mind wandering. One kid starts getting a joint together, totally forgetting it when everything blasts off again; guys talk among themselves, only to instantly leap to their feet, fists flying to the beat.

'Doing Alright' changes into a cha-cha beat, Freddie snapping his fingers, the coolest hipster in town, and then instantly drops into faster-than-light drive - the whole row next to me leaps to their feet as a man, rocking back and forth as Brian roars into a blinding solo.

Two songs later, in 'Seven Seas of Rye', the kids break - very fast - and in five seconds half the audience is a seething mass in front of the stage, climbing on each other in pyramids, sudden openings appearing as a splintering seat sends a few bodies to the floor.

The rest of the show is equally intense, especially for a couple of minutes during 'Liar; where Fred and Brian merge into a tight little triangle with Roger while John stands in front of the bass drum, staring out with his small smile.
Freddie has treated his encores - 'Big Spender' and 'Jailhouse Rock' - differently on successive nights, once appearing in a kimono and in Bristol with rather rude tight white shorts, giving the song title new emphasis. In Cardiff, though, he doesn't bother to change at all. Later it transpired that Brian had twisted his ankle during 'Liar'. While he’s attended to, kids out front pick up chair slivers to keep as mementos.

On the bus back to the hotel Brian sits quietly at the back, chatting with two girls. John sits at the front, as always. Freddie stares out of the window, lost in his own world. Roger bounces around, starts a pillow fight with Brian - which stops as soon as Brian scores a direct hit to the face - then discovers an eight track of 'Sheer Heart Attack', punching it through the channels as he conducts the group. The two hours towards which they have channelled the day's energies are spent.


That Queen have become a top attraction through a fair degree of plagiarism is amusing. Stealing is nothing new in rock (or any art for that matter) and mostly Queen use the borrowed material better than the originals. That they would be big I don't think anybody really doubted. All four have immense desire to be successful, and that kind of ambition will keep them slogging until they achieve it.

But there are popular heavy metal bands and there are popular h-m bands. From watching Queen's audience it is apparent that Queen speak for them in a way that bands such as the Who and the Stones and the Beatles spoke (and continue to speak) to their audience. Uriah Heep may be great at what they do, but five years after their demise who'll remember them? Creedence Clearwater Revival demonstrate the same thing - who remembers them? And yet five years ago they were the largest band in the world.

Queen will probably always be remembered, because as their tour is beginning to demonstrate, they have the ability to actualise and encompass the outer limits of their sense of self-importance. Queen and their music, presentation, production - everything about them says that they are more important than any other band you've every heard, and who has there been, so far, who has objected? Certainly not the 150,000 people (plus 20,000 a day) who bought 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in the first 20 days of its release. Certainly not me.

See you at Madison Square Garden.
[text © J. Ingham 2007; photos © Kate Simon]

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