In the early eighties I liked the band Queen. I didn’t love Queen but I liked them more than most groups, and before my addiction to The Who took off, Queen were probably my favorite band. However, they weren’t that fashionable at the time, this being 82′ thru 86′, roughly. My sister owned their ‘Greatest Hits’ record, which I borrowed regularly, and remembered the now chestnuts, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Are The Champions”, “We Will Rock You”, and so on, from a few years earlier. But none of my friends listened to Queen. I wasn’t hearing them on the radio anymore. By 84′, when they released The Works (album) and received modest attention for the quirky “Radio-Ga-Ga” plus a comic video where they dressed up in drag, they seemed eclipsed by slightly younger rock heroes. Van Halen and AC/DC, in particular, plus a host of other metal acts, seemed ahead of Queen in the line of popularity. That was with boys, anyway. Girls didn’t seem into Queen either, instead listening to Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, or the soon-to-be feminine icon, Madonna.
I wasn’t sure as an early teen, but I held the vague impression that Queen were deemed uncool in the United States. I didn’t know that Freddie Mercury was gay or bisexual, and I likely would not have cared but for the prospective embarrassment of being told that my musical tastes were “gay” and therefore wrong. It will have been that strange, subtle homophobia that stilled my tongue, preventing me from extolling Queen’s virtues, or blasting one of their songs from a stereo if my friends were around. My male friends seemed to like bands, music, that “kicked ass” in a way that Queen didn’t, I guess. Girls seemed to want sensitive lyrics and some manner of posturing that they might swoon over, but this was an implicitly heterosexual arrangement and Queen didn’t seem to fit that either. Now, thirty years later, long after Mercury’s passing, a revival seemingly kicked off by a clip in the film, Wayne’s World, and a clearly more sympathetic attitude, perhaps even celebratory attitude towards icons who represent sexual minorities, Queen are as in as any act under the Classic Rock umbrella. In fact, I saw an internet poll over the holidays that ranked Queen as the #2 group in rock history, behind only perennial favorite, The Beatles.
I’m not sure that homophobia was the reason for that eighties window of dipped popularity–that’s just my impression, my memory. Music, performers, even sensibilities, go in and out of fashion, it seems. Some might recall that Queen were briefly controversial because they played in South Africa (in 84′) when most other western performers were cooperating with economic sanctions against that once apartheid-practicing state. But who remembers, for example, the vitriolic feeling aimed at Queen by the once hip rock critic, Dave Marsh. In reference to their 1978 album Jazz, Marsh literally called the members of Queen a bunch of creeps, thinking their music pompous, arrogant. Queen, Marsh wrote, were perhaps rock’s first truly “fascist” group. Whoa! I once reacted, thinking that “Bicycle Race” was a just cute, funny song. However, as I read Marsh’s opinion and thought of some of Queen’s songs, not so much the ones on Jazz but rather “We Are The Champions” and “We Will Rock You”, I thought…well, he kinda has a point.
Marsh is an old school rock critic, the kind who wrote for Rolling Stone in its heyday. Perhaps best known for writing about Bruce Springsteen, Who fans should know his biography, Before I Get Old, published in 1983, soon after The Who’s first so-called retirement. BIGO is an exhaustive, celebratory yet critical look at The Who, its audience and the historical context that enveloped them. To read it cover to cover and absorb it is to understand what rock n’ roll meant to audiences of the now-dubbed Classic Rock era: it reflects a period wherein R & R was meant to speak for youth, represent democratic ideals (at least implicitly) in a way that it hasn’t done as much since. Bands like The Who were flagbearers of a new way to be famous; a new way to bond with and represent an audience. In Lambert & Stamp (2015), a documentary about The Who’s early talismanic managers, director James D. Cooper makes a similar point, portraying The Who as perhaps the first act in rock history to not have a self-contained identity, as in one that seems separable from an audience that discovers it. The Who were more or less conceived as that which reflected its audience–the Mods of West London in the early-to-mid-sixties–in its tacit as well as not-tacit ways of being. They didn’t so much have an audience as a constituency, one they–especially Townshend–felt answerable to. How this kind of phenomenon recapitulates, or seeks to correct early childhood attachment and personality development is more important, even more profound, than anyone in pop culture realizes. Not sure what I mean? Think of this: an artist chooses to express himself, but more importantly, he chooses to express the other, seeing his audience. That audience experiences this, sees itself in the mind of the artist, and resonates, beginning a back and forth, a cycle; a dynamic. Hopefully growth. Sound familiar?
I think it fair to express that Queen, unlike The Who, or even Queen’s contemporaneous punk rock peers, were not looking to represent anyone but themselves, which is not a criticism, necessarily, though it’s strange to view them, or Freddie Mercury, now being cast as someone who reflected individuality in the face of adverse public tastes. My sense is that he and the band blended in with glam rock extravagance, cocktail hour jazz, rockabilly and disco ambience, thinking they’d simply entertain and ever stay one step ahead of the pigeon-holes. Far from outspoken, opinionated like Pete Townshend, Mercury was a reticent man publicly, yet perhaps garrulous and a fierce social critic behind closeted doors. I’m pleased that time has been kind to Queen, and that windows of relative exile, like what I perceived in the 80s, are closed behind them. But for me, the movie or book, or Ken Burns series, or whatever it is that will truly express what R & R means or meant to its audience in its renaissance period, has yet to materialize. For me, it will star The Who.