Monday, June 11, 2012

Queen II - true genius

Here's a band that's about as polarizing as they come. They are a 70's artifact, that's for sure, and a few years ago they recorded with Paul Rodgers in place of the late Freddie Mercury. The album "The Cosmos Rocks", released in September of 2008, was an interesting collaboration, never intending to be permanent. Like many bands, the first few albums interest me most, and the reason? It's usually before the rot sets in! Personalities are on their best behavior at this stage, and everybody plays nice. No drug problems, or possessive, jealous girlfriends/wives for the most part. The record company hasn't started making ultimatums, and the manager hasn't shown his ass either. It was in this type of climate that Queen II was made, and Queen broadened ever so slightly their circle of influence.

Roy Thomas Baker produces this masterpiece with his state-of-the-art 80-something-track recorder, and the vocals get stacked like crazy. They were on tour with Sweet the year before this LP was made, and the multitrack vocals are a direct influence from then. Think Ballroom Blitz with its unique vocal delivery and you'll recognize the technique that was hackneyed by the time that Bohemian Crapsody was released a year later. Sweet rode that train for awhile as well. Sweet had an advantage, their bass player had a voice that didn't need tape manipulation, he just sang up in the stratosphere...Freddie's voice had quite an extensive range as well.

This was Queen's second album (hence the name!), and to tackle a concept of this magnitude at this stage of the game was brave, for sure. Queen II had no hits, the first LP had Liar, a powerful tour de force that kicked off the band with a real bang. Sheer Heart Attack was to follow (Killer Queen), and by most critics' opinion, it was a much more well-constructed effort. Myself, I believed then (and still do now), that II was the band's masterstroke (to borrow a phrase that appears as a song title on II). The lack of a song that radio would eventually play and wear out is a godsend for an excellent band. Radio has that one fault as far as I'm concerned. They can run a good song into the ground, and not even care. This small bit of remaining obscurity can add a couple years to the life of a band at its best.

Ogre Battle is no where near hit material, but at this time (1974) Queen was an album rock band. It fit their pseudo-underground style perfectly for me, and I know many musicians who totally fell in love with Brian May's guitar playing and look at the time. I knew many tall, skinny, curly-headed iconic types that aped his look and sound, down to using Vox amps, which, since the 60's had been a staple of British groups. Americans played Fenders for the most part, and the occasional Marshall from Marissa, Illinois made its way onto metro eastern stages from time to time. When a big band has a really flamboyant stage presence, local and regional musicians ape the style and become very influenced by the look and sound. Brian's shirt was open to the waist, and this wasn't a lame disco effect either. At this time in rock's development, there wasn't any throwback bands, the older bands were totally classic rock, no 60's nostalgia yet. Nostalgia was to play 12-bar blues in the 50's stye, which most progressive (relatively speaking) musicians rarely dabbled in, unless you represented yourself as a blues or southern rock band. It was a sign of copping out from rehearsing and playing arrangements, which, with chord progressions and serious musical changes, were de rigeur at the time. Nobody (and I mean NO ONE) that I can remember from that period (locally) could sing as good as these seasoned pros. Most singers were weak musically, anyway, back then.

I personally loved Queen II along with their first album, and I bought them both at the same time. I always felt like they were one double album, the concepts were so strong and concise between the two. I was in Altoona, Pennsylvania, on tour with the Belleville Black Knights Drum and Bugle Corps, and I had yet to start playing rock and roll (about a year out), when I bought the records, and had to wait a month till I got home to listen. Needless to say, they, and bands/artists like Bowie and Alice Cooper had an enormous influence on me, as it did on half the original hipsters from the big city. We liked our music heavy, and preferred Humble Pie and Grand Funk Railroad for example, as well.

The themes were as follows: one side was the white side, and one was the black. Using that imagery the themes were presented as white being mellow and black being heavy. Like Iron Butterfly, they were heavy on lyrical imagery and polar opposites in dynamics to deliver the musical themes. No "You're My Best Friend" pablum here, this sheet was scary and deep. I loved it, having been raised on Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper, which was fairly represented by the slightly fey delivery. Bowie had given every artist an excuse to come off as androgynous, and Fred played this to the hilt. He was the only person I ever saw use a mic stand sawed off at the base, as a stage tool or prop It didn't stand by itself when he was idle, he was never idle, and he carried the stand as he pranced and preened around the stage. That was his signature, along with white and black skintight stage wear designed to accompany the two sides of the band stylistically. Tons of style and attitude... Everyone knew Freddie was openly gay, and normally this wouldn't fly here in the midwest. Maybe on the east and west coasts, but we weren't having any of that gay shit in the heartland/bible belt. Ony thing saving him, he was genuinely talented and he had the voice and the looks to prove it.

On  a scale from one to five I give Queen II five stars. There are no faults, and the songs run together like Sgt. Pepper, another cool technique. Their next album, Sheer Heart Attack was excellent as well, but the bigtime bug got Freddie and crew by Night At The Opera and Day At The Races, they'd become too big, and unrightfully so. They had sold out and their true fans recognized the ploy. The later day fans supported the band through the transition and they lost their initial fanbase as a result. They were too big too quick to even notice. This kills the best intentions and is an easy sellout.

Tomorrow we'll look at another vital part of the past with a view to tie in with the rock and roll theme as usual. Keep your tubes hot and your antenna up! See you then.

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