The Queen and I

Greenbelt, August 2019. We are at the close: a raucous singalong under the canopy, led by the house band. Sensing what is coming, I lead the family quietly away before the last encore. But it’s too late: they are finishing with ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, the song my mother requested at her funeral, which was four days ago. My children burst into tears. And supporting relatives come and put their arms aroud us, and we are united in grief.

I can still recall the minister some days before, saying “You may find it’ll take a while to be able to listen to the song again”. He was basically right, although I found the sadness had lessened by the time it turned up in Sonic The Hedgehog the following February. Eventually you learn to live with things. Besides, it’s a fitting way to remember her: my mother was judgemental as heck in November 1991, telling us how much that man had wasted his life, but she still listened to the music. We both did.

I’ve loved Queen for years, although it was a bumpy start. My aunt and godmother, looking for inspiration for Christmas gifts, was advised to buy me some Queen albums on cassette: she plumped for Queen II, which years later remains a personal favourite, and Hot Space, which…well, doesn’t. It doesn’t help that when you’re young you tend to miscategorise music tremendously; I would say, when asked, that I enjoyed “Heavy metal, like Queen”. Years later I discovered Slayer, and the penny dropped.

Hot Space is a big hot sparse mess of an album and we won’t dwell on it, but Queen II is its polar opposite: an over-indulgent, over-produced slab of absolutely brilliant fantasy rock. How can you fail to love a record that features a song called ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’, references Poe, and then leads out with ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’? And that’s before we get to all the powerhouse riffs and Beach Boys nods in ‘Father To Son’, which is possibly my favourite Queen track of the early 70s. Sure as heck beats anything from The Game.

Years later I heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for the first time; it grew on me and now I rather enjoy it, although it’s overplayed and over-referenced and singalongs are a nightmare because people always, ALWAYS add that extra “No!” before the second “We will not let you go”, which is fine unless you’re trying to play the damned thing at a party. I use the word ‘play’ with a certain looseness; mostly I just bash out the chords and then let the drunken guests take over for the changes my untrained fingers have never quite been able to handle, although I daresay they could if I practiced hard enough. There was one particular evening, in the student bar at Devonshire Hall, Leeds, in September 1996 that is forever etched on my brain. They kept bringing me drinks and I kept bringing them songs; we jammed to ‘Three Lions’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and I was, for the only time that year, the most popular person in the room. That was a good night.

Then you get round to buying all the albums on CD and introducing them to your children (‘Good Company’ is a particular favourite), and before you know it it’s 2019 and they’ve done a biopic which gets, at least, the music right, provided you can live with the anachronisms about when things were written. I watched ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in a village hall with the two eldest; most of the film was spent tutting at things that didn’t happen and looking at cats, but at least it looks pretty, and I watched the final blistering twenty minutes with a big grin on my face, which I suppose is the point. Still, it’s hard not to be a little annoyed at some of the dramatic license – from the silly (Freddie accidentally inventing his portable microphone stand during their first ever gig) to the eyebrow-raising (basically everything from Hot Space to Berlin).

And can we please, for the love of sanity, have a music film other than Almost Famous that doesn’t depict all journalists as callous bastards? Some of us work very hard for what little coffers they pay and it’s debasing to see us reduced to a blank-faced stereotype at a press conference. I wouldn’t mind, but Bohemian Rhapsody is largely presented as fact, or at least the version of fact that the surviving members of the band wanted to tell; it’s clumsy and formulaic next to Rocket Man, which sets up an unreliable narrator in its first five minutes and then allows you to fill in the gaps yourselves. It is truth disguised as fiction, whereas Rhapsody is the complete opposite. Still, Gwilym Lee’s quite good.

Anyway. Here we are, and I’m doing my lyric-to-screenshot thing. It was tricky, because it isn’t: Queen often delved into the realms of sci-fi and fantasy (they have two movie soundtracks to their name) and it’s comparatively simple to find obvious lyrics. I have deliberately tried to plump for the obscure: there is nothing from ‘Princes of the Universe’ or the like, because it isn’t funny. Hopefully these are.

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