Kurt Cobain is forever marked with a haunted depression that is largely absent from his catalogue. Jeff Buckley’s drowning at age 30 after only one album paints his slight canon as a symbol of lost promise. And Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS at 45 means that Queen have been sapped of much of the light silliness that permeated their music, their approach to the band, and even their tongue-in-cheek band name – a double entendre that perfectly establishes them as camp royalty, complete with their very own crest.
The song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is largely to blame for this legacy (although the crest doesn’t help). A towering achievement of ambition, scope and pomp, with five distinctive musical movements, it’s hard to argue that this doesn’t come across as the work of a self-serious band. But while the song remains their magnum opus, it is an outlier in their overall catalogue, not representative of much more than a single moment in a recording career that spanned two decades.
Unlike the numerous musicians who start their careers with youthful flippancy before fame and age implants the mistaken notion they should begin taking themselves way too seriously, Queen travelled in the opposite direction. Their first two records, imaginatively titled Queen I and Queen II, were heavy rock affairs, grandiose and formless. The follow up, Sheer Heart Attack, was less structurally ‘progressive’ and closer to pop, while the next two albums, A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, were companion pieces that showed the first signs of a band who not only enjoyed being silly, but leaned right into it.
Mercury penned a number of mock vaudevillian songs, such as the jaunty and deliciously smug ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’ and ‘Seaside Rendezvous’ which features a ‘tap-dancing section’ recorded with thimbles on fingers on a mixing board, a slide whistle and a silly mouth-trumpet solo. Guitarist Brian May joined in with uke-driven ‘Good Company’ which sounds like Paul McCartney doing his cheesiest take on the music hall of the ’20s. Drummer Roger Taylor contributed a rocker with engine effects named ‘I’m In Love With My Car.’
By 1978 the band were releasing pure novelty singles, such as the double-A side 'Fat Bottomed Girls'/'Bicycle Race'. The latter begins with the lines "I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike" and only gets more nonsensical (Sample line: “Jaws was never my scene and I don’t like Star Wars”) while the former is pure juvenilia sexism over thud-headed riffing. As a promotional event for the single, the band organised a nude bicycle race featuring dozens of naked women on bikes. An image of them assembled at the starting line was used as the inlay for both the single and the album Jazz from which the two songs were plucked, and was later made available to buy via mail order.
In 1980, they recorded both the Elvis parody ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ – such an effective mimicry that the song is still routinely mislabelled as an actual Elvis song online – and the theme song to the Flash Gordon film – best left forgotten.
Interestingly, the more serious the band members’ individual lives became, the less serious their music was, almost as if to provide an antidote to the whirling stress of infighting, touring pressure and, finally, Mercury’s HIV diagnosis. 1984 saw the four members of the band dressed in unflattering drag for the Coronation Street -inspired ‘I Want To Break Free’ clip, which was banned by MTV despite being thoroughly inoffensive. The same year saw them release ‘Radio Ga Ga’, its title and chorus inspired by nonsense mumbled by bass player John Deacon’s three-year-old son.
1985 saw Freddie undercut the hard-rocking ‘One Vision’ single with the final punchline lyric, “give me, give me, give me, fried chicken”, added due to boredom-induced madness and kept in the final version for unfathomable reasons. Why not? 1989’s ‘The Invisible Man’ is synth-heavy silliness, containing mock shout-outs to each member of the band before their respective soloing, with a clip that casts them as video game baddies.
The band’s final album released during Mercury’s life, 1991’s Innuendo, saw him deal with his impending death with levity. ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’ was written by Freddie as a way of chronicling his mental decline due to the advancement of his AIDS, but instead of playing it straight, he decided to write a goofy song with one-liners inspired by Noel Coward, such as “I’m knitting with only one needle”, “I’m driving only three wheels these days” and most confusingly (and brilliantly), “This kettle is boiling over. I think I’m a banana tree.” He balanced this with the album closer, ‘The Show Must Go On’, which was gallant, dark and not at all a joke.
This light touch can be seen throughout their entire catalogue. ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’ are so firmly minted into rock history that it’s easy to overlook the fact they are clearly not to be taken seriously. Their first hit single ‘Killer Queen’ is, as Freddie once referred to it “one of those bowler hat, black suspender belt numbers” with references to Marie Antoinette, Nikita Khrushchev and JFK in its first few lines. Even ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the song that has most given them their undeserved reputation as self-serious prog rockers, has been dismissed by most of the parties involved. Drummer Roger Taylor described the impressive operatic section as “just a bit of nonsense in the middle”.
“I did a bit of research,” Freddie Mercury said of that section, “although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?” Producer Roy Baker went even further: “It was basically a joke – but a successful joke.”
All of which is to say, despite the operatic leanings and Freddie’s tragic finale, this is a band that didn’t at all take themselves seriously – which isn’t to say they didn’t take what they were doing seriously. Like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Nirvana and any band with a rich and varied history, Queen painted with a full palette of colours.
Documentary, Queen: Rock The World is now streaming at SBS On Demand: