“What is that?!” I gasped from the back seat of the head-scratchingly named Plymouth Fury III. It was early summer 1976, I was twelve (and a half!), and something cool was coming out of the single dashboard speaker. “Oh, I heard this earlier this week. I think you’re gonna like it,” said my mom, turning up the volume. “They’re called Queen.”
The lush, (mostly) a cappella harmonies wafted toward the back seat. I was mesmerized, picturing the 50-person mixed voice choir (unfamiliar as I was with the overdubbing wizardry at work). Next up was the histrionic rock ballad bit, catchy and evocative, with its allusions to murder – right up this pre-teen’s alley – and then…THE OPERA SECTION CAME ON. I didn’t know what to do: up to that point I hadn’t been aware this sort of thing was even possible, much less allowed. I stood straight up (I was twelve, but tiny), emitting incredulous yelps until being assured that a copy of this masterpiece would indeed be procured for me from Caldor. I listened, rapt, for the duration of the record – right through to the final, plaintively whispered vocal, and… A GONG! It ends with a gong!! I was ruined, my little mind officially blown.
By the end of that summer, I had acquired all four (!) Queen albums, and was eagerly awaiting the release of the fifth come Christmastime. For years, I listened to that band pretty much exclusively for my one-stop musical shopping: I loved their versatility, drama, and plain old fearlessness – first we’ll melt your face off! then we prance! and gospel! and a waltz! pop! Vaudeville! DEAL WITH IT! – and I set about analyzing and unlocking their technological secrets – particularly impressive in those analogue, pre-synthesizer days. I learned many wondrous things, permitted as I now was to leap across musical genres, ignoring the limitations of stylistic convention – or good taste, should the need arise.
These days, most of my young friends profess a deep love for the music of Queen. Kids use their songs as audition material all the time (and usually do them wrong, so they should probably resist the urge [PS: There is a difference between a brilliant recording and a great song, by the way, thank you very much. You may now resume auditioning]). In fact, the band’s enduring worldwide appeal may seem inevitable from a modern perspective, but – especially here in America – that’s not exactly the case. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was basically regarded as a novelty single that barely cracked the Top 10. There were subsequent hits, though nothing chart-shattering until 1980, when they’d already begun to abandon the excess (and effort) of their earlier output. (But I still love all of it, so BACK OFF! Don’t worry, Hot Space. I’ll protect you.) Being obsessed with Queen the first time around, when I was there, could be a bit of a lonely experience. They didn’t always color inside the lines, like most flavors-of-the-month. The press vilified them. They didn’t win awards. They hadn’t gone to NYU.
Recently, there has been some renewed interest in a genre-busting show of my own, so I am currently putting a presentation together while gearing up for the latest round of “but that’s not how we do things” and “too many notes” which tends to greet a lot of my work. (I suppose it’s my own fault: just look at my influences. In fact, a musical director who worked on an early version of it referred to my home demos as “The Long-Lost Queen Album.” As you may have guessed, this was some time after I’d finally looked into that overdubbing thing.) And so I take heart: had My Favorite Band of All Time heeded the naysayers and other assorted visionaries blocking their path, today we would have no “Bohemian Rhapsody” (fourth album), or “We Will Rock You” (sixth album), or even “Bicycle Race” (okay, by this point, perhaps someone should have said no once in a while [but I STILL LOVE IT!!]). The best of their catalog sounds fresh even today, because they dared to flout their critics, refuse to conform, and be original, and clever, and funny and everything else. Now I’ve been working on Hurricane for over seven years and, its deliberately pastiche elements notwithstanding, the plan is for it not to sound dated a month after being loosed upon the world. It’s huge, and sprawling, and sloppy and majestic and ridiculous and true. So who knows. Maybe its chance, and more importantly, its time, is actually, finally coming. Stay tuned!