Friday, 5 February 2010
Freddie Mercury always struck me as the archetypal 1970’s rock superstar: arrogant, self-indulgent, out of touch, excessively hairy. I scoffed at him and his fans (our very own Unmann included) because I liked new working class groups like The Specials and Madness and ‘middle aged’, University educated Queen seemed like posh dinosaurs, punk dodgers, old top hat.
Now, thirty years on, I’m wearing that old hat and loving it, listening obsessively to their early albums and marvelling at their preposterous blend of pomp, speed metal and dungeons and dragons.
Released in 1974, 'Queen II' has a white side and a black side (not literally, it’s an artistic notion rather than a novelty pressing). The white side is okay, but the black side is (literally) fantastic. Written entirely by Freddie Mercury, we are caught in a landslide of multi-tracked vocals, mantelpiece guitar, piano, harpsichord and big drums, all linked together by clever production and lyrics that reflect the 28 year old Mercury’s obsession with fairytales and mythology, and set in his very own imaginary world of Rhye.
‘Ogre Battle’ is a rip-roaring tale that tells of every wizard’s idea of a great night out: a ringside seat at a big old scrap between club wielding giants. One can only hope that elf and safety rules were followed. This segues into the centrepiece of the album, the epic (in scope, not timing) ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’.
Based on the painting of the same name by Richard Dadd, this remarkably overblown song tells the story of the titular faery, his associated band of dilly dally-o’s, dirty laddios and quaere fellows, and the mighty axe he uses to crack Queen Mab’s walnut. Yes, I know. But it’s as brilliant and as unhinged as the artist Dadd himself, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, killed his father and continued a long career from the confines of various asylums.
The bombast and driving harpsichord of ‘Feller’ gives way to a ballad, ‘Nevermore’ that sounds like its being performed on a crystal grand piano at the top of a very tall tower and could have been done by The Beach Boys if they came from Narnia rather than California.
All three are presented in a magical, almost seamless megamix here.
Listening to the black side of this album has led me to revaluate my feelings about Freddie, banishing my image of him as a strutting, moustachioed rock knob and instead revealing a far more sympathetic figure: a somewhat lonely and out of place person who retreated into a fantasy world to find somewhere his difference didn’t matter. & Freddie was different: born in Zanzibar, brought up in India, Parsi, Zoroastrian, buck toothed, gay (or bisexual, he had a long term girlfriend at this point). If the record hadn’t been so perfectly realised, or he didn’t have the rest of the group behind him, he could have been the archetypal outsider artist.
I’m not apologising about the elf and safety joke.