❉ Let the record show, M’Lud – Roger Taylor was right. Exhibit A: The first 6 Queen albums.
There is a school of thought that punk came from nowhere like some supercharged cultural enema to be blasted up the congested colon of prog. That’s the Dummies Guide precis, at least. As exegeses go, not very interesting or enlightening.
Queen had been deemed as of the dinosaur caste in punk’s year zero. And why not? These were the coves behind the cod opera of Bohemian Rhapsody, and if you look to their first four albums you’ll find that that isn’t even their longest song. There’s a song about a mental patient’s painting, there’s a song about a Prophet, indeed, one about Jesus, there’s another about Ogres, Queens both black and white – it’s a thematic shopping list for Yes.
All of this is true. And yet, and yet…
Amidst the fey, the camp, the grandiose, the pastiche, there was a strand of reflective masculinity, profoundly aware of the absurdity of its condition. And it runs through the entire history of the band. It would be vindicated, but, for a time, perhaps, sat uneasily amid the pomp, yet would ultimately prove its saviour…
Watch this. And read the lyrics.
It’s under two minutes long. This is radical in the true meaning of the word: it goes back to the root. The call back to 1958 is explicit. This is almost an Eddie Cochran song. Not exactly so, for this is a modernisation of rock’n’roll, and a manifesto. But it is rock’n’roll. Not prog. Not pop. There are no pretentions to high culture here, this is a few chords all played at speed with lyrics that cast a cynical dismissal of the establishment. And this was released in 1973.
Go on. You tell me this isn’t punk. Go on. I’d love to hear your definition of punk if it can exclude this.
Something harder’s coming up
Going to really knock a hole in the wall
So, there’s something a-stirring amidst the guitar solo odysseys and tales of elven lands….
If anything the following album, Queen II, is actually even more prog. It hasn’t an A and B side – it has “Side White” and “Side Black”, over the course of which there are processions, Queens, Ogres, a song about a painting you can go see in Tate Britain, as well as a return to the fabled land of Rhye.
Oh. And this:
Not punk. Indeed, there are echoes of Bolan’s Children of the Revolution to the basic riff. I’m not making the claim here that Roger Taylor is a punk as such, merely that he stands as something distinct in ‘70s rock, something necessary and prescient ticking away within the behemoth that Queen was intent upon becoming, something that disrupts the common conception of what Queen was and is. This gem, for instance, is an example of something he’d return to – an almost elegiac mediation upon masculinity, but always with a mind to the absurdity of the condition.
Here it is in relation to the mother, all cocksure young man’s arrogance to start with, but then the perspective that the peacock doesn’t have all the answers after all – and that perspective is where Taylor is distinct from much of punk. This elegiac mode would prove recurrent for him, ultimately providing the medium for Mercury to say goodbye to his fans in These Are The Days Of Our Lives (which you’d just assumed was written by Mercury, right?)
This might be the juncture to draw your attention to something – look over your copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits I. How many tracks are Taylor tracks? Not a one. Bassist John Deacon has two (Another one Bites the Dust and You’re my Best Friend). Indeed, Taylor doesn’t get one of his songs released as an A side single in the UK or US until Radio Ga Ga in 1984. And that too is an instance of nostalgic retrospection.
Sheer Heart Attack is Queen’s third album. Remember its title, we’re coming back to it. For now, there is but one Taylor song that makes the cut:
A hyper-muscular masculinity here of women, cars and guitars, all delivered with wry appreciation that it’s a completely absurd peacock pose, and note the allusion to science by means of the “speed of light”. It’s to be remembered that whatever the members of Queen were, they weren’t stupid or ignorant. Possibly the best qualified rock band ever, and if they weren’t then, May’s subsequent elevation to Doctor in Astrophysics must have made them so by now.
And this, rather than all the fairy stuff, is the true locus of the problematic relationship to Punk. There is a model of punk that sets ignorance as a virtue in itself. Of course, Steve Jones and John Lydon of the Pistols were very aware and astute people, and The Clash were a band of advanced political savvy. The posturing Sid Vicious – who Taylor has gone on record as describing as “a moron”, and who Mercury bested in a physical confrontation – may have been a fashion plate, but he was not a mover and shaker of the movement.
His importance to the story of punk is entirely in his status as a victim of the system, thereby demonstrating its victory. Tenement Funster, however, is all about scrabbling what joy of life an alienated youth might. It’s Eddie Cochran and C’mon Everybody for the 70’s. Sheer Heart Attack gave Queen their first serious hit – Killer Queen. They had arrived.
The alienated youth was becoming a bona fide rock star. The next album was Night at the Opera – and it was going to make or break Queen. They were in a mess on a business level. So, the four members all offer definitive efforts. Mercury, of course, gifted the world the monumental absurdity that is Bohemian Rhapsody, May’s Prophet’s Song is no less absurd in scope, and Deacon gave us his first hit single, You’re My Best Friend. And our boy Taylor, what did he do?
He did this:
Again, that wry awareness of the absurdity of masculinity writ large. A love song to a car. You couldn’t make it up.
His contribution to the next album, A Day at the Races, was again in wistful mode, the ennui of the youth who made it and how has it all and wanders “…What next?”
But there is also a consciousness of the absurdity of his condition at play, all that striving towards an end that becomes less distinct as you approach it.
But I’m going no further than the sixth album, News Of The World, simply because this is where he wins. Behold the vindication of Roger Taylor.
For the first time he gets two tracks. We’ll deal with Fight from the Inside first.
It’s the other track on this album that is soften seen as Queen’s pointed response to punk, but the manifesto is laid out in this one. Taylor, Slightly older, wiser, been through the mill, all the clichés of exploitative contracts and shark managers behind him, recognises, much as he had way back in Modern Times Rock And Roll, that all that angry young man shtick is just grist to the mill of the corporate record business, and they’ll package that as they’ll package anything. As history attests, he was right, as The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle demonstrates.
You’re just another picture on a teenage wall
You’re just another sucker ready for a fall
But here’s the one. Here’s the one that wraps it all up. The apotheosis. Sheer Heart Attack.
I’ve heard this described as “kitsch” and as “parody”. It is neither – it is one of the wittiest songs in the history of rock.
It is called Sheer Heart Attack. You’ll recall that Tenement Funster appeared on an album of that name a few years earlier. Coincidence? No, not at all. This song had been intended for that album. It wasn’t finished, but substantially this song existed for those recording sessions.
The birth of British punk is often said to be 1976, with the Sex Pistols. This song’s first iteration predates that by two years. But it didn’t make the album. Was there perhaps some resistance from the rest of the band? I don’t know, but I think it’s possible. Certainly, there seems sometimes to have been some mystification at Taylor’s writing from his fellows. It is telling that this is one of only a couple of songs where Deacon did not play the bass.
It should be remembered that May originally considered I’m in Love with My Car to be a joke. And yet both songs became staples of Queen live sets for most of their touring career. I suspect that these songs inspired a response from audiences that blind-sided the rest of the band. Pragmatists all, they ran with it. But I remind you – it’s going to be another seven years before Taylor will be permitted an A side single.
But whilst Fight From The Inside lays out the manifesto in the lyrics, Sheer Heart Attack does so formally. As was Modern Times Rock and Roll this is addressed to the teenager. “Well, you’re just 17, all you wanna do is disappear”. Alienated youth. “Space between our ears”, vacuity as badge of identity. But, as was the case with Tenement Funster, a key reference of the song is science: DNA. “It was the DNA made me this way”. This isn’t ignorant inarticulate youth speaking, as is made clear when “inar, inar, inar – ticulate” choruses. Lampoon the use of a perfectly apposite long word by bowdlerising it in execution. These guys know the pose, they enjoyed it, and now they see it for what it is. Don’t expect them to buy the shtick.
And then, where there might be a guitar solo, there is merely the repetition of a minimal riff with random feedback over it – it’s just noise. Noise that breaks into what looks perilously like developing into a drum solo – so they just speed up the tape to get past that crap and back to chorus. Which they repeat until they just turn it off. Job done. “Next!”.
Queen, and most particularly Taylor, were not aping punk. They’d gone back to the root of it all, to loud teenage energy, to the 50’s, as they’d done so since the very first album, but they denied any necessity that this be for morons. You can be intelligent, aware and informed and rock’n’roll will serve, as long as you’ve a sense of the absurd. Because it’s all absurd. Absurdity is key. It doesn’t need to apologetically invoke elven lands (though if they wanna do that they bloody will, cos that’s pretty absurd too) to be taken seriously, to become authoritative. You don’t need to be taken seriously or become authoritative. What’s so punk, or rather, rock and roll (because it’s the same thing, just 20 years on) about being taken seriously and seen as an authority? The NME revile them, and Queen spend a decade treated as a joke – but they prevail. Through punk and into the 80s and even beyond, Queen prevail.
Because Roger Taylor was right.
❉ Gareth Kearns is a writer, actor and musician.
❉ Queen – ‘News Of The World’: 40th anniversary 5-disc super deluxe edition was released on 17 November 2017, available from Amazon UK and other retailers. But it ain’t cheap.