Monday, September 05, 2011

Freddie Mercury, Queen of the Stadium Anthem!

The very first music video I ever saw was that of Bicycle Race by Queen, with fifty pretty models cycling around the Wimbledon Stadium track with absolutely nothing on. This was way before MTV brought music videos into our living rooms, and the only way music lovers in India could get to see them was either through pop promos for singles as they were called or filmed footage of classic live concerts. Sunday morning screenings of Woodstock or the Beatles films at the Metro in Kolkata was a sure way to hook up with all the music lovers in the city.  The other alternative was video tapes of offerings like Jethro Tull's Live Bursting Out, and Pink Floyds The Wall and Live at Pompeii. While the music of Queen had been rocking us from our turntables, this video opened our eyes (as did the cyclists open our eyes, and real wide too) to the performance art rock of Freddie Mercury, one of the earliest celebrities to die from AIDS, and one of the most flamboyant and magical singer-songwriter of our times.

The reason I remember Bicycle Race today is because it is Freddie Mercury's 65th birthday. I tend to remember it since it falls on Teachers day here in India. Freddie Mercury was born Farokh Bulsara to a Gujrati family in what is now Tanzania and spent his early life in East Africa and India, before moving to England at the age of 17. He teamed up with Roger Taylor, John Deacon and Brian May to form Queen in 1970. The rest is history. With technical finesse and creative energy, they went on to change the face of progressive rock entirely. It is not the objective of this post to detail the achievements of Queen, which are common knowledge to most, and easily searchable for the rest.
For those who missed the amazing animated Google Doodle that showed up all over the world on the Google Logo on Sept 5 (except the US, where it showed up on the 6th since the 5th was Labor Day this year), here is the link. Click on the play button with your speakers turned on to enjoy Don't Stop Me Now.

There are, however, a few things about Freddie Mercury and Queen that appealed to me as a teenager which is what this post is about. I will find out whether they still appeal to me as an adult once I reach adulthood (at 45, I really can't wait, though). The first was the sheer drama that they managed to pack into each song, whether it be a standard love song, a stadium anthem, or the philosophical and perhaps autobiographical Bohemian Rhapsody. Standing midway between hard pop rock and progressive rock, Queen drew liberally from all genres of popular and classical music, turning their performances into a marriage between an absurd opera and a glam act. Many of their iconic songs are written (like We Will Rock You and Radio Ga Ga) with audience involvement as an integral component of the song.

The other appeal that Queen held for me, along with Pink Floyd (and Simon and Garfunkel among the non-Brits), was the mastery of lyrical meter. Queen lyrics are among the most tightly measured verse one can find in modern music. While songs like Another One Bites the Dust and Crazy Little Thing Called Love some easily to mid, this mastery can be seen even when they stray in to more lyrical and less metrical experiments. Even when rambling between styles in songs like Somebody to Love or Millionaire Waltz the lyrics are crisp, the refrains and overlays built to fit right up to the last minute intake of breath.

It is impossible to come up with a brief list of my favorite Queen songs, since every song has magic about it, even pointlessly obtuse ones like the theme from Flash Gordon and I'm In Love With My Car. Some of the songs have become associated with memories in ways that transcends the real music in them to become metaphors for our personal histories. Songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, for example. There is no way I can explain why this over-analyzed song (a favorite of pop lit critical essay writers) brings a lump to my throat, a tear to my eye, and an overwhelming desire to throw all caution to the wind and follow my heart, every single time I hear it. Songs like Somebody to Love, for example, with lyrics that are almost a mosaic of cliched, corny, and trite love quotations, but when you hear Freddie Mercury sing it, it transforms into a song without compare. I Want to Break Free, with its amazing and finger-in-your-eye music video, became a chant for a generation trying to find its voice in the face of the conservative social regression (I was going to use the word backlash, but that would have been being too kind to the times) of the 80s the world over. We are the Champions - the four-octaved victory cry of the anguished and the oppressed. This list will never end.

If you have never heard Queen, which is highly unlikely given the fact that they have snuck into popular culture at every level, stop reading this and go get yourself ALL of the Queen's albums, since there is none that I can suggest you leave out. Pre-synth, and post-synth, they are all glitzy and irreverent, and capture the spirit of a generation in rebellion.

If you are reading this because Queen tracks make you go all nostalgic and misty eyed, well, pull those CDs out and turn the volume up and let your neighbor's annoyance be your birthday gift to Freddie Mercury.  As I settle down to my dose of Queen for the day (Fat Bottomed Girls and The Show Must Go On coming up next), let me leave you with the lyrics from We Are The Champions.

I’ve paid my dues/ Time after time/ I’ve done my sentence/ But committed no crime. And bad mistakes / I’ve made a few/ I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face / But I’ve come through. We are the champions – my friends/ And we’ll keep on fighting – till the end, / We are the champions, We are the champions/ No time for losers/ ‘Cause we are the champions – of the world.

I’ve taken my bows / And my curtain calls/ You brought me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it/ I thank you all. /But it’s been no bed of roses/ No pleasure cruise/ I consider it a challenge before the whole human race / And I'll never lose. We are the Champions.

Happy Birthday, Freddie Mercury!


  1. Freddie Baba, thats what we used to call him when we were in college. A genius indeed.

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  2. Very interesting post. My first introduction to them was a video where they dress up as housewives and Freddie vacuums the house. I heard Robbie Williams cover their song 'We will rock you' and was immediately putt off by it. Reading this post makes me want to re-visit them.


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