Saturday, October 15, 2011
Sparks was a band...a very good band, in fact. Led by the brothers Mael, Russell and Ron, they were loved by the critics and rightly so, combining as they did mainstream pop, chamber music, electronica and glam in an irresistably catchy mixture topped off by Ron's imaginative keyboard work and Russell's effortless falsetto. Russell's pretty-boy frontman antics contrasted nicely with Ron's sedentary scowl. Having themselves a nice little career, they were, when their guitarist quit. As would be expected, they set out to find another one. High on their list was one Brian May, whose band Queen was weathering the critics' disdain for their first album release as well as generally indifferent audience reaction at their shows. The Mael brothers approached May, knowing full well of his band's struggles, with an offer to join the upwardly-moving Sparks. The guitarist while having utmost admiration for Sparks and the Maels, declined, chosing to continue to fight the good fight with his present band. How'd that work out for him, then?
Not too badly...no, not too badly at all. It seems things turned around a bit.
It was around 1968 when Brian May, a student at London's Imperial College, and bassist Tim Staffell decided to form a band. They placed an ad for a "Mitch Mitchell/Ginger Baker type drummer"...instead they got dental student Roger Taylor. They called the band Smile. Staffell became friends with a fellow student at Ealing Art College named Farrokh Bulsara, who had been using the name Freddie. Bulsara became a fan of the band and being a singer, eventually started working with them. Staffell left the band in 1970 and after several bassists finally found the perfect chemistry with John Deacon. They recorded a demo featuring four songs, "Liar", "Keep Yourself Alive", "Jesus" and "The Night Comes Down", all original material. No record companies were interested. It was around this time that Bulsara began using the surname Mercury, a reference to a lyric in another Queen song "My Fairy King". Finally signed to Elektra Records, they recorded their epynomous debut LP. It was received fairly well by critics, drew little mainstream attention and the single from the album, "Keep Yourself Alive", a Brian May composition, sold poorly.
So the beginning was a bit rocky, after all, that first album was basically hard rock. A bit tarted up, but still fairly average hard rock. It was on the second album that we began to see the band that would down the road give us "Bohemian Rapshody". The incredibly layered vocal harmonies, the guitar artistry of May, almost an orchestra unto himself, and the writing, emotional and far-reaching. "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke", "The Seven Seas Of Rhye", and the haunting "White Queen (As It Began) are all masterful compositions sounding unlike anything heard before.
From that point on, it was all fun and games. Fun and games because Queen, much like another fave band of mine Jethro Tull, were a group of very serious artists who didn't take themselves too seriously. All four are art or science degreed as well as accomplished musicians,writers and vocalists. Brian May built his guitar by hand and then proceeded to play things no one has played before on the damned thing. Freddy Mercury besides being possibly the greatest front man ever to stalk a stage, also plays piano brilliantly.
but do they go on and on about their "influences"? No. Have they released any "concept albums" and taken great pains to explain them to us? Again no. Like the venerable Jethro Tull, they simply play innovative, irresistable genre-mixing hard rock at a virtuosic level and have a wonderful old time doing it. Their subsequent albums went all over the board, rockabilly here, opera there, 20's ballroom, country, folk, jazz and all with tongue firmly in cheek, a friendly nod and a knowing wink. Their one indulgence was boasting on the band's first nine albums that they used "no synthesisers" recording them, and to listen to those releases was to be amazed at what a guitar, bass and drums can do in the right hands. (Credit must also go to Roy Thomas Baker, the producer on those albums.)
Freddy Mercury, as most of us know was an openly gay man. On November 23, 1991 in a prepared statement from his deathbed, he confirmed the long and widely-held belief that he suffered from AIDS. About 24 hours later he died due to bronchial pneumonia,a complication brought on by the disease. Greatly missed, he was deservingly paid tribute with a huge star-studded benefit concert at The Wembley Stadium on April 20, 1992. It was listed in The Guinness Book Of Records as "the largest rock star benefit concert".
The band did eventually carry on with Paul Rodgers in the frontman role. If I may offer my own humble personal opinion I will say that while Paul Rodgers is one of my favorite singers of all time, he is poorly suited for a band like Queen. The only performer who could do justice in the position Mercury vacated is for my money, Annie Lennox. But hey, that's just me.
Queen has to its credit 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles and 10 number one DVDs. They've sold over 150 million albums worldwide with some estimates in the area of 300 million. Honored with seven Ivor Novello Awards, the band was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001. Oh, and lest I forget...They ROCK!