snatched off the Music Boulevard, Queen
December 1991 , Volume: 6
by Meg Mac Donald
Personal Information Band formed in England in 1971; members include Freddie Mercury (born Frederick Bulsara, September 8, 1946, in Zanzibar; died of complications from AIDS November 24, 1991, in London, England), lead vocals and keyboards; Brian May (born July 19, 1947, in Hampton, Middlesex, England), lead guitar; John Deacon (born August 19, 1951, in Leicester, England), bass; and Roger Meadows Taylor (born July 26, 1949, in Kingslynn, Norfolk, England), drums. Taylor has children.
All four members have attended universities: Mercury has a degree in graphic design and illustration; May has a degree in physics and has done graduate work in astronomy; Taylor has a degree in biology; and Deacon earned a degree in electronics with first-class honors.
Awards: Rolling Stone Reader's Poll citations for single of the year, 1976, for "Bohemian Rhapsody" and 1980, for "Another One Bites the Dust", and for artist of the year, 1980.
Addresses Record company--Hollywood Records (Elektra), 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Following their debut in 1973, Queen, a completely different sort of band, was hailed as "a fresh, new breeze into the world of rock." The English group became best known for their flamboyant lead singer, the late Freddie Mercury, whose dramatic vocal style and outrageous onstage antics formed much of the band's reputation and personality--deservedly or not.
Often overlooked are the band's considerable musical skill and their talent for songwriting--the original four members of Queen were responsible for an impressively imaginative and diverse body of work that included such songs as the ingenious operatic experiment "Bohemian Rhapsody" , the harmonic "Somebody to Love", the playful "Fat Bottom Girls", the cocky "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions", the rhythmic "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" , and what became a popular football stadium anthem, "Another One Bites the Dust".
Formed in 1971, Queen's lineup included guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, both former members of the band Smile, bass player John Deacon, and Mercury. After a short time spent in rehearsal, the group began their search for a record company in 1973 and signed almost immediately with EMI. Their self-titled first album sold extremely well in both Britain and the United States, and their second album, Queen II, yielded the British top-ten single "Seven Seas of Rhye". Queen's big breakthrough in the United States came in 1975 with Sheer Heart Attack--a best-selling album containing the top-ten single "Killer Queen" . Their successful tour season met with mixed criticism. One writer for the New York Times introduced them as "a British quartet still subscribing to the principles of blitzkrieg rock", referring to the group's lavish production values, and commented that though their music was "scarcely superoriginal", the band evidently "touched a responsive chord that should allow Queen to reign quite happily in this area".
The following year the group hit number one in the United States with the remarkable A Night at the Opera album featuring Taylor's amusing "I'm in Love with My Car", Deacon's catchy "You're My Best Friend", and two of May's sensitive and often overlooked tunes, the time-travel-inspired ballad "'39" and more delightful fantasy fare of "The Prophet's Song".
The album also spawned a major worldwide hit in "Bohemian Rhapsody" --an unprecedented six-minute cut that mingled "introspection with Gilbert and Sullivan operatics," as a Time critic described it. The group followed their masterwork with another in the same vein. A Day at the Races contained Mercury's falsetto-laced "Somebody to Love" another catchy Deacon cut, "You and I" , and still more gentle departures from the "blitzkrieg" rock they had been known for in May's lovely Japanese/English anthem "Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)" .
Known for simply being themselves, Queen offered audiences a bravado sound coupled with a campy style that would likely have met with disdain a short decade before. As Brian May told Time: "We're not styled on anybody." And no one could successfully style themselves on Queen, who in the mid-1970s prided themselves on not using synthesizers but instead "complex overdubbings of electric guitar with varied amplifiers" which gave their albums a full orchestral sound, as the Time writer noted. Another unique feature was their use of dazzling a cappella interludes and flawless vocal harmony as in "The Prophet's Song" and "Somebody to Love" . Such poetic and sensitive moments, however, were balanced by songs like "Death on Two Legs", which included such language as "You suck my blood like a leech ... you're a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride." The group's multifaceted style was echoed by Mercury's chameleon-like vocals; as Ralph Novak of People commented, "Not many vocalists can go from sweet to abrasive as rapidly as he can."
The group's popularity increased with glowing reviews for the 1977 single release of "We Are the Champions" and the delightful rockabilly-style "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" from the 1980 album The Game, which was both a commercial success and well received by critics. "Another One Bites the Dust", a funky pseudo-rap cut, provided the group with a successful single, topping both the soul and pop charts in the United States. This departure from the heavily overdubbed and complex musical styles of earlier hits attracted a large black audience that had, for the most part, been ignoring Queen the previous decade.
Two years later, Hot Space continued the sound of "Another One Bites the Dust" , devoting an entire side to funky, danceable tunes that appealed to a much broader audience than in the past. Still, the album met with mixed reviews and was their slowest seller since Queen II . A well-crafted record with an impressive compositional range and tight vocal harmonies "grafted seamlessly into [a] kinetic brew," the disk was nevertheless faulted because under the superb production the group was grinding out what Sam Sutherland in High Fidelity labeled a "noxious mix of sexual manipulation and mean spiritedness" in such cuts as "Back Chat" and "Body Language." The latter made little impact on the singles chart before vanishing entirely. Even the more melodic "Life Is Real (Song for Lennon)", a eulogy for John Lennon, was criticized by Sutherland as "cheapened by the precision with which Queen apes the vocal and keyboard timbres of 'Imagine.' "
Queen's 1984 album, The Works, fared much better than Hot Space. Layered vocals and multitracked guitars were cut out, leaving "a lean hard-rock sound, making The Works perhaps the first record to refute the maxim that the words Queen are listenable and, of necessity, mutually exclusive," as Rolling Stone contributor Parke Puterbaugh observed. The group offered such thundering tracks as "Tear It Up" and "Hammer to Fall," balanced against the more melodic "Keep Passing the Open Windows," the fifties-style "Man on The Prowl" and the harder to classify "Is This the World We Created...?," which Puterbaugh termed "an acoustic meditation on hunger and hate and generational responsibility." Despite such critical praise, the album failed to produce a top hit.
While Queen's American chart success was on the decline, the group was enjoying increasing popularity as an international stage act, rivaling the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen in their drawing power. A 1981 concert in Brazil set records for the largest paying audience to see a single performance by one band, and the group's set at the 1985 Live Aid fund-raising concert was lauded by fans and critics. The band's stage performances have been balanced between new material and crowd pleasers--even numbers impossible to reproduce on stage, such as "Bohemian Rhapsody," whose complicated, layered, a cappella vocal section is filled in by tape as lights flicker crazily around the empty stage. Queen's notorious stage pyrotechnics have earned them a reputation as a can't-miss concert act. As May told Charles McCardell in Musician, "Somewhere in the course of the last couple of years, something clicked and we reached a new level. We weren't only a pop group anymore. We sort of got written in as one of the thing[s] people have to see."
The band had not played a live date in the United States since 1982, however, and by the late 1980s Queen was meeting with some scathing criticism from American critics. "A Kind of Magic" , released in 1986, won great regard in Britain and elsewhere, but U.S. fans were unimpressed, and the album sank back as a non-event "absolutely bankrupt of gauche imagination ... dominated by barren slabs of synthscape," as Rolling Stone contributor Mark Coleman commented. Taylor's "Radio Ga Ga," which placed high on the charts in nineteen countries, made it only to the sixteenth slot in the United States. Any power the group previously had demonstrated was absent on the album, replaced by what Coleman characterized as "a mechanical thud rather than a metalized threat."
The group's musical style was changing, and so were attitudes toward them. As Taylor commented, "We never tried to pander to what we feel people want. A lot of people want to hear rehashes ... but that would be death for us. That's really unfair, because we have changed a lot." "We really start with a clean slate each time," May similarly told McCardell. "No matter the producer, no matter the song, it's still Queen. We don't have to reproduce any formulas. And we've never had an audience that hemmed us in." Nevertheless, the band has been looking to recapture their lost American popularity. As May continued:"America now for us is an island. We have every territory around it, but we don't have that big corner of the world."
With the 1991 release of Innuendo, Queen regained some of the critical respect and radio airplay they had lost in the States. Craig Tomashoff of People, for instance, noted that Innuendo "is so over-the-top it's enjoyable," and added that "it's nice to hear this reversion to the old exaggerated ways." "There's no getting around the new album's craft," Chuck Eddy stated in Rolling Stone, for "these old entertainers sound like they've decided to stop trying so hard, like they're finally satisfied with their lot in life." And that lot, the critic concluded, is a considerable one: "Queen is well aware that its forte has always been eclectic excess for its own sake. ... These shameless all-time glam survivors would try anything once, and amid their messes they attained classical-kitsch pinnacles, helped invent rap music and ... [have been] explicitly acknowledged as an important inspiration by arty hardcore ensembles and funk-metal and industrial-drone bands alike."
Selected Discography Queen, EMI, 1973. Queen II (includes "Seven Seas of Rhye"), EMI, 1974. Sheer Heart Attack (includes "Killer Queen"), EMI, 1974. A Night at the Opera (includes "Bohemian Rhapsody," "You're My Best Friend," "'39," and "The Prophet's Song") EMI, 1975. A Day at the Races (includes "Somebody to Love"), EMI, 1976. News of the World (includes "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions"), EMI, 1977. Jazz (includes "Fat Bottom Girls"), EMI, 1978. Live Killers, EMI, 1979. The Game (includes "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust"), EMI, 1980. Flash Gordon (film soundtrack), EMI, 1980. Greatest Hits, EMI, 1981. Hot Space, EMI, 1982. The Works, EMI, 1984. A Kind of Magic, Capitol, 1986. The Miracle, Capitol, 1989. Innuendo, Hollywood, 1991.
Sources Books: Anderson, Christopher P., The New Book of People, Perigee, 1986. Periodicals: Detroit Free Press, August 6, 1982. High Fidelity, August 1982. Musician, November 1986. New York Times, May 9, 1974; February 18, 1975; February 7, 1976; February 7, 1977; December 3, 1977; November 18, 1978; January 1, 1982; July 21, 1982; July 30, 1982. People, August 25, 1986; April 1, 1991. Rock Express, Number 106, 1986. Rolling Stone, January 25, 1979; April 12, 1984; October 9, 1986; March 7, 1991. Time, February 9, 1976. ~~ Meg Mac Donald
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