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Does Queen Out-Led Zep — Or Out-Uriah Heep?

RIFFS

Two months ago Warner Com­munications pulled its latest exec­utive shakeup, moving David Geffen from Elektra/Asylum to the board of directors and replacing him with former Warner Bros. Records head, Joe Smith. Smith mapped out his priorities immedi­ately: three of the label’s acts­ — Queen, Jackson Browne, and Or­leans — had to be million-sellers. The Queen campaign, which began in earnest behind their just-re­leased “A Night at the Opera” album and last week’s four-show stand at the Beacon, presents Smith with a familiar problem — ­how to transform mass success in England into mass success in America.

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For Queen itself, the big push began when the band took on Elton John’s manager, John Reid. Right now they’re arguably the most popular ’70s band in England, ri­valed only by Bad Company in the reader polls. Their latest single, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” is the lon­gest running British number-one in ten years. Lead singer Freddie Mercury, who claims that the band’s groundswell “is an exact replica of Led Zeppelin back in 1969,” became notorious in his homeland for his chest wig and perennial codpiece bulge, both central to the band’s stage presence. Queen evokes the Zeppelin image through the tension estab­lished between Mercury and lead guitarist Brian May, but Mercu­ry’s untrammeled pretense and histrionic vocal arrangements push them into Uriah Heep territo­ry. Their heavily theatrical stage act and costuming is closer to the art-rock look of bands like Genesis than the British blues-star look of Led Zeppelin, and Mercury’s ugly sexuality makes them at once post-Bowie glitter and post-Zeppe­lin heavy metal. Mercury plays a dumber version of Bowie’s cul­tured stud, May a mutant Page with less control. With Queen, con­fused image takes precedent over content.

Which is where they run into problems. May is the natural lead­er — his musical ideas have consis­tently been the band’s most inter­esting over their four albums. In fact, he assembled the prototype, then called Smile, along with drummer Roger Taylor in 1968. But when Smile failed, May rea­lized that his artistic ambition in­terfered with his desire to become a rock star. Enter Mercury, cul­tivated punk, ex-art student who was, in all but reality, already a rock star. He had the idea for Queen before he ever met a group that fit into it.

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Taking the music for granted, Queen made no effort to play the local dance circuit most groups cut their teeth on and hooked up with producers John Anthony and Roy Baker, who identified Queen with the lush, theatrical sound of Trident Studios and added occasional flashes of studio eclecticism reminiscent of the Move. As heavy metal, Queen had no real British contemporaries, yet as art-rock they weren’t as delicate as Yes and Genesis, priding themselves on their avoidance of synthesizers. Thus they became the most pre­tentious metal band extant — pretty impressive with Deep Purple and Uriah Heep around.

The only problem was that they were terrible live. Opening for Mott the Hoople at the Uris Theatre right after the release of “Queen II” they were described by one Mott fan as “three lobotomies and a novocaine junkie.” Though May had hepatitis at the time, he couldn’t have accounted for that bad a performance all by him­self.

But after several years of tour­ing they’ve become more comfort­able on stage and some talent shows through — for all his excess Mercury is a clear-voiced singer with good range and feeling, while Meadows and bassist Deacon John pound out a more than capable bottom for May’s electric metal drone. Mercury sticks to his front-man role live, leaving May to control the band’s sound and in the process eliminating much of its stylistic confusion. The set has several great moments of sheer sonic intensity, but the overall unevenness of their material triv­ializes the impact.

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If May’s stage control carried over into the studio Queen would be a lot better off. “A Night at the Opera” may be commercial, but it’s still a lousy record. May’s songs, with the exception of “Good Company,” reflect his inability to dominate the band conceptually as Page does. And Mercury’s confu­sion has never been more apparent. He contributes another Black Sabbath posture, “Death on Two Legs,” a stiff, campy attempt at humor, “Lazing on a Sunday Af­ternoon,” and that ridiculous single, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Any band that enforces an “operatic” concept with lines like “Galileo figaro — Magnifico … mama mia” must be kidding, but Mercury still takes himself too seriously to carry off such a pompous joke. ❖

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Thunderbolts and Lightning! The Voice Takes on Freddie Mercury and Queen

Next week, Bohemian Rhapsody, the long-awaited Queen biopic starring Rami Malek as singer Freddie Mercury, opens in theaters around this country. While reviews have so far been mixed, critics have praised Malek’s performance as the band’s charismatic frontman.

In 1976, when John Swenson first took stock of the British arena rockers in the pages of the Voice, Queen were still a work in progress. “Lead singer Freddie Mercury, who claims that the band’s groundswell ‘is an exact replica of Led Zeppelin back in 1969,’ became notorious in his homeland for his chest wig and perennial codpiece bulge,” wrote Swenson, who took the band to task for aping the bombastic ambition of Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, en route to becoming “the most pretentious metal band extant.”

Swenson laid that pretentiousness at the feet of Mercury and guitarist Brian May. “May realized that his failed artistic ambition interfered with his desire to become a rock star,” wrote Swenson. “Enter Mercury, cultivated punk, ex-art student who was, in all but reality, already a rock star.” As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Queen anthem that lends its name to the new film, Swenson is not a fan: “Any band that enforces an ‘operatic’ concept with lines like ‘Galileo figaro — Magnifico…mama mia’ must be kidding, but Mercury still takes himself too seriously to carry off such a pompous joke.”

Reviewing Queen’s triumphant stand at Madison Square Garden the following year, Voice critic Lester Bangs was similarly dismissive: “Even if I did get scared out of my wits when the full invisible choir behind the stage came blasting out with ‘Scaramouche! Scaramouche!’ and ‘Mama mia! Mama Mia!,’ it’s plain that between Freddie’s Pierrot prancing, guitar gadgets that create sonic Grand Canyons for Brian May, and perches and lighting that make Freddie look like he is singing from some Lord of the Rings precipice, what we have here is Fantasia for dodos and 14-year-olds, neither of which group should be dismissed. They are as deserving of equal rights and justice as Peter Tosh or anybody else.”

Mercury, wrote Bangs, seemed lonely. “It’s no wonder Freddie has an employee whose (sole?) job it is to keep the champagne glass on his piano filled during performances.… Clearly this boy has something lacking in his emotional life. Friends? Well, I don’t know — after all, he has a device on his microphone that allows him echo at will, 19 little Freddies bouncing across the stage after him. A man’s best friend is his clone, after all, so even if there have been rumors of impending break-up for the band so that Freddie can pursue a solo career, the little peacock seems anything but lonely out there padding around in his silver lame open-chested jumpsuit. My only concern is the possible effect of his sartorial predilections on his fans’ sensibilities: I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have excellent liberal credentials, and I am not at all opposed to males going topless, but aren’t there beaches for this kind of thing?”

As it happened, Queen made it through the next decade as one of the biggest bands in the world before Mercury’s death, in 1991, due to complications from AIDS. But Queen’s legacy was secure, regardless of what the Voice’s critics thought: In 2002, “Bohemian Rhapsody” — that “pompous joke” — was voted Britain’s favorite song of all time.

“RIFFS: Does Queen Out-Led Zep– Or Out-Uriah Heep?” February 16, 1976

“RIFFS: Freddie Mercury’s Supermarket Sweep” December 12, 1977

Queen ad, November 7, 1977
Queen ad, August 27, 1980
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HE WILL ROCK YOU

The late, great Freddie Mercury is irreplaceable. As the frontman of Queen, he seamlessly melded the worlds of theater and rock to create a legendary stage presence and vocal talent. Since Mercury succumbed to AIDS in 1991, his band has intermittently brought out another star to take on the task of trying to fill the truly massive void the frontman has left since his passing and sing hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Another One Bites the Dust” for one-off performances. After Paul Rodgers’ multi-year stint as frontman stand-in, American Idol success story Adam Lambert steps up to the plate and ismaybe the most appropriate to do so. A fan favorite on the reality singing competition for rock theatrics reminiscent of Mercury’s, he’s a perfect match worth singing along to on their first of hopefully many tours to come.

Thu., July 17, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Kris Allen

Though he’s part of the soon to be dismantled long reign of White Guys with Guitars that took over the once-popular singing competition American Idol, Kris Allen will always be that class’s most endearingly sweet. Three years ago, the season eight winner beat out Freddie Mercury-style showstopper Adam Lambert with his boy-next-door half-smile and a feel-good sound ripped straight from the Book of Mraz. In concert, don’t be surprised if he steals your heart as swiftyly as he did America’s.

Wed., May 1, 8 p.m., 2013

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STAYING POSITIVE

On Clear Heart Full Eyes, Craig Finn’s recently released solo debut, the Hold Steady frontman celebrates the same world that provides the setting for albums such as Boys and Girls in America—one where “Jesus isn’t getting through,” so Freddie Mercury and Johnny Rotten become idols, and the kids drink booze ’cuz they’re dead on the inside. The difference? This time, he finds it in Tennessee and Austin rather than the pit at a horse race or the “chill-out tent” of some festival. If you don’t mind the sound of steel guitar or scaled-back hooks, it’s still a good listen, and it should be fun to hear live tonight at Mercury Lounge

Wed., Feb. 29, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2012

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BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Freddie Mercury, with his biker mustache, tight leather pants, and wifebeater, could work the stage like no one else. So how could we ever come even close to honoring him? A 22-piece chamber-rock group is a good start. In celebration of Mercury’s 65th birthday, party promoters Oh! You Pretty Things presents A Musical Tribute to Queen, which features music by This Ambitious Orchestra; dance and burlesque by the Flying Fox, Anna Copa Cabanna, and Rachel Klein Theater; and a slew of special guests doing glam-era hits. Hosts Michael T, Shien Lee, Ben Ickies, and Twig the Wonderkid have laid down a strict dress code: Black-and-white satin, harlequin leotards, silver sequins, leather daddies with cap, chaps, and handle bar mustaches. Don’t you dare disappoint them.

Sun., Sept. 4, 9 p.m., 2011

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Apollo Run

Apollo Run lead singer John McGrew sounds uncannily like Jeff Buckley with some Freddie Mercury-worthy grandstanding thrown in. One moment he offers a quiet little lament, the next he falls to the floor and abuses his guitar in an epileptic fit. Throughout his raucousness, the band sustains a record-perfect clarity in performance, often wrapping up shows with an unplugged hootenanny in the middle of the crowd. With David Rogue.

Wed., Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m., 2011

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Ghostland Observatory

Irony can only go so far. The Darkness were supposedly camp, but “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” is the best song of the decade. Chromeo earn their Hall & Oates stripes in talk box solos, but their sophisticated songwriting structures are brilliant. Yet somewhere down the line, irony and musicality grew inbred—and the result is Austin duo Ghostland Observatory. Often seen wearing capes, their lackluster Freddie Mercury arpeggios and chintzy synths accompany such Daft Punk dry humps as “Dancing On My Grave” and “Stranger Lover.” Tonight’s concert might be the time of your life if you heed the band’s advice: “There ain’t no party in the sad, sad city” With Slapping Purses.

Sat., Dec. 5, 9 p.m., 2009

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BACK TO THE FUTURE

Set in a nightmarish urban dystopia in 2027, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis invented the science-fiction-film genre and revolutionized cinema with sets and special effects that made it the most expensive film of its era. Over the years, it’s also inspired countless musical scores, some more bizarre than others (an ’80s pop version with songs by the likes of Pat Benatar and Freddie Mercury outraged purists). Tonight, however, we predict the reviews to be positive when the new-music ensemble Manhattan Sinfonietta perform the U.S. debut of the 1994 score by Argentine-born composer Martin Matalon, which combines jazz, fusion, electronics, and psychedelic rock to accompany a 140-minute version of the film with English subtitles.

Fri., Sept. 19, 7 p.m., 2008

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Music

Mumps and the Hypstrz respectively raise the overdue question: Who invented punk, Freddie Mercury or Fonzie? Katrina survivor Lil Wayne, meanwhile, is the rapper of the decade, and maybe a blues singer too. And Begegnungen II is misspelled on its own front cover.


BLACK LIPS Let It Bloom (In the Red low-fidelity semi- psychedelic garage punk album)

THE COFFIN LIDS ‘Round Midnight (Bomp! garage rock album)
Stream “Frankenstein”
Stream “Teenage Shakedown” (Windows Media)

JOEY DANIELS Take Me Off the Market (Big3 Nashville pop- country album)
Stream “I’ll Be Your Whiskey” (Windows Media)
Stream “Miracle” (Windows Media)

ENO MOEBIUS ROEDELIUS After The Heat (Water ’70s post-Kraut-rock ambient proto-techno reissue)
Stream “Foreign Affairs”
Stream “Light Arms” (Windows Media)

ENO MOEBIUS ROEDELIUS PLANK Begegnungen (Water ’70s-’80s post-Kraut-rock ambient proto-techno reissue)
Stream “Two Oldtimers”
Stream “Dem Wanderer” (Windows Media)

ENO MOEBIUS ROEDELIUS PLANK Begegnungen II (Water ’70s-’80s post-Kraut-rock ambient proto-techno reissue)
Stream “Speed Display”
Stream “Broken Head” (Windows Media)

HOT CHIP Coming On Strong (Astralwerks/EMI EMI “r&Bedroom” electropop album)
Stream “Playboy”
Stream “Hittin’ Skittles” (Windows Media)

THE HYPSTRZ Live at the Longhorne (Bomp! ’70s garage punk reissue)
Stream “Let’s Talk About Girls”
Stream “Tied to Hide” (Windows Media)

LIL WAYNE Tha Carter II (Cash Money/Universal Southern hip-hop album)
Stream “Hustler Musik” (Windows Media)
Stream “Best Rapper Alive” (Windows Media)

MUMPS How I Saved the World (Sympathy for the Record Industry ’70s proto-new-wave glam-punk reissue)
Stream “I Like To Be Clean”
Stream “Muscle Boys” (Windows Media)

ELIZA NEALS Liquorfoot (elizaneals.com country-soul album)
Stream “Selections” (Windows Media)

YING YANG TWINS U.S.A. Still United (TVT crunk outtakes and remixes album and DVD)
Stream “Git It”
Stream “4 Oz.” (Windows Media)