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Jun 11

QUEEN – “Bohemian Rhapsody”/”These Are The Days Of Our Lives”

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#672, 21st December 1991

A double-sided tombstone – you get to choose how you want to remember Freddie Mercury. His finest – most famous, anyway – six minutes, or a new song that felt in context like a farewell note? Or perhaps neither of them really work? “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the obvious choice for a reissue, but it would have become the band’s memorial anyhow – it didn’t need to be specifically squeezed into a suit for the funeral. Though maybe Mercury would have approved – if you’re lured into taking the opening section seriously, as a dread kitsch premonition, the rest of the record becomes even more awkward, absurd, and marvellous.

“Those Were The Days Of Our Lives” is an apparently simpler proposition: this man, who the newspapers always called “intensely private”, lets us in on what he’s thinking as the end of his life approaches. Well, maybe: the song’s as artfully presented as “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its way, everything from those padding drums to the ruminatory solo pointing towards intimacy. If Bo Rhap is comic opera, this is a single-spotlight monologue. “Nothing really matters to me” versus “I still love you” – why trust one any more than the other?

As a song? It’s a sentimental cousin of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring”, with the devastating payoff moved from text to subtext. And it’s just about strong enough to wriggle free of all its emotional cues and breathe, thanks mostly to Mercury’s avuncular delivery, which makes me miss him more than most of the words.

A couple of months after this was number one, I went and saw Waynes World, which ripped the shroud from “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the most useful and emphatic way possible. I saw it with my wife, though at the time she wasn’t my wife, she was a girl I’d met at a disco, and the first conversation I remember having with her was about “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It was number one, the DJ played it, and I said I didn’t think you could dance to this, and she said no, she didn’t think you could either.

So there’s one line that gets me in “These Were The Days Of Our Lives”. It’s the bit about sitting back and enjoying life through the kids – because it’s half true. But also it’s a sentiment you’d only expect in pop if it came laced with contempt, yet Mercury sings it with fondness and regret. Queen could be thrilling, ridiculous, heavy, florid – all sorts of things. They could also be unusually generous.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 19 Jun 2011 #

    “I Want to Break Free” had been adopted as a populist liberation anthem in South America in the early 80s, certainly: think I’m gnna to amend that last word to “apparently”, since the story seems mainly to come via Brian May himself, in Q… But the main point still stands, that the band are using the (obviously silly) term “apolitical” as a self-justificatory breakwater for “maintaining full ambiguity”… the latter being srs bsns for them, from the outset.

  2. 52
    wichita lineman on 19 Jun 2011 #

    Right wing panto. OK, well I wrote that in haste, but still… Playing Sun City when they did was “out of step with the times”. You could say that. It’s very generous to Queen. Dusty Springfield and Adam Faith had both caused problems by not wanting to play to segregated audiences in the mid 60s. Dusty was deported for her troubles. It wasn’t an apolitical move. It was greedy at best.

    Panto, yes. We Are The Champions and puss-in-jackboots One Vision.

    Playing guitar on the roof of Buckingham Palace in a union jack suit?!? Not exactly the chimes of freedom flashing, is it?

    Side one track one on every Now! comp is a shitty move, too. They don’t seem like generous people.

    I don’t hate Queen, and quite like a few of their singles. I just find them entirely unloveable. They seem more like a corporation than a pop group. I imagine them discussing their new album at an AGM.

    Right wing AND panto might have been more accurate.

  3. 53
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 19 Jun 2011 #

    Well, they claimed on their return to have insisted that the audiences at Sun City NOT be segregated when they played there — though this demand may not have been remotely a realistic one in terms of who was going to be able to turn up. (I can’t actually find any info on this on the internet that doesn’t come more or less via them: but no one seems to be challenging this claim anywhere, either: unless anyone reading knows different.)

    I don’t really have a problem with calling it greedy; certainly it was extremely self-absorbed.

    “Playing guitar on the roof of Buckingham Palace in a union jack suit”: surely this was just Brian May, not Queen? (Freddie was very dead by then, so it really wasn’t Queen…)

  4. 54
    ace inhibitor on 19 Jun 2011 #

    Well, I just thought it was a funny line…

    ‘Graceland’ was controversial within the anti-apartheid/boycott movement itself because it was much harder to see how Simon giving work and publicity to black African musicians was a ‘bad thing’ – Queen taking the Sun City money less ambiguous, surely…. but point taken & was interested by sukrat etc’s observations on US V UK perspectives etc. I suppose my perspective is/was a UK one… I’d stand by the general (maybe fairly banal) point though that the politics of a gesture can’t just be read off from the (professed) intentions & that in context Queen ‘responding to their fans [in SA], rather than their non-fans here’ lined them up, intentionally or not, with what was a right-wing position.

    Not, of course, that that necessarily makes it an illegitimate position. Right-wing is a descriptive term rather than an evaluative one. (I mean, I DO think it makes you a bad person, myself, but thats beside the point.) One of the odd, and funny, things about the reaction to WL’s post was that people seemed to react against the ‘right wing’ bit of it, rather than the more obviously insulting (in this context) ‘panto’, which just seemed to get nodded through…

  5. 55
    wichita lineman on 19 Jun 2011 #

    Re 54: Thanks! And I meant panto as an insult. We Are The Champions is based on a primary school playground chant, after all.

    Yes, being English I’ll have a UK perspective, though the US perspective on certain groups – eg The Clash and Primal Scream – does fascinate me because it means I can point and laugh at weighty West London bores who think ‘Bob G’ is a freaking messiah.

    I think being ‘right wing’ makes you a bad person, too.

    Re Graceland, the Los Lobos story is – looking back – the most offensive aspect of it.

  6. 56
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 19 Jun 2011 #

    Well, certainly the argument Queen were making more or less at the time (though only after the criticism burst all over them) was that it was their black AND white fans they were playing for– cue discussion about “want to break free” as an ANC anthem etc — and that playing for everyone was surely the opposite of apartheid blah blah… Like I say, I’m not very convinced by this — assuming they’re not fibbing themselves about the anthem, who were they talking that was telling them this? (They did play Nelson M’s 90th birthday…!); but the context of their relationship to their Brazilian fans, round the same time, and the politics of THAT, is not irrelevant to their judgment, even if it mostly contributed to their confused self-importance.

    Sun City was opened in the late 70s, in Bophuthatswana, one of the Bantustans, where various things that were illegal in South Africa, including gambling and pole dancing, could go on; it was pretty much a Las Vegas type place, and actually not segregated by law (though to all intents and purposes segregated by economics). Stars who played included Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Elaine Paige, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Sarah Brightman, Julio Iglesias, The O’Jays, Boney M., Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Laura Branigan — also I believe Millie Jackson and Ray Charles. The Artists against Apartheid reaction, in particular Little Stevie’s 1985 record, was almost certainly catalysed by Queen playing there in 1984.

    Here’s Roger Taylor discussing the ANC story on youtube, then Brian May — can’t quite work out when this was recorded, in particular whether recorded before or after Live Aid. (RT’s not very fond of the MU, which is arguably also a rightwing issue; or would be if the MU had less of a poor rep with US jazz musicians especially.) Neither RT nor BM is BY ANY MEANS a master of the full political science of the Sun City issue: and I think this is all ex-post-facto stuff, anyway. I’d argue that the main sense in which playing there “helped” (ie helped dismantle apartheid) was that it catalysed a public counterreaction and mobilisation from other musicians, like Little Stevie and Jerry Dammers, which really isn’t a justification Queen can help themselves to.

    But their desire not to be co-opted into the discourse, or be part of anyone else’s “gang”? As I say, I think this is who they always were; and it’s why I find them interesting.

  7. 57
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 19 Jun 2011 #

    MU = Musicians Union btw, not the Justified Ancients…

  8. 58
    Mark G on 19 Jun 2011 #

    We did wonder what the fuck was going on…

  9. 59
    AndyPandy on 20 Jun 2011 #

    and I’m sure I’ve read that another reason for Queen doing it was Freddie Mercury response that he as a person of non-European descent was not being told what to do by whites about issues related to the non-white world and Africa in particular.

    I could be wrong but didn’t Shirley Bassey say something similar?

  10. 60
    Pete on 20 Jun 2011 #

    Sounds a bit like retroactive justification, but then as a Parsi growing up in Africa (and there being a significant Indian population in South Africa) its not a bad post facto scrabble.

  11. 61
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 20 Jun 2011 #

    59/60: certainly that argument is there to be made, though as far as I can find FMerc didn’t actually publicly make it at the time; and May and Taylor don’t exactly make a deft fist of exploring it on his behalf. And the request that people not play Sun City did original came via the ANC, so the “whitey don’t tell me what to do” line is not without its flaws. The very bad biog I actually just read is more or less clueless about the Parsi dimension; it’s a teenytiny bit better on gay politics (ie rubbish but at least aware of the shape of the issue).

    Possibly I actually need to read a better biog.

  12. 62
    Pete on 20 Jun 2011 #

    Or write it.

  13. 63
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 20 Jun 2011 #

    If only there were a way to crowdsource it…

  14. 64
    wichita lineman on 20 Jun 2011 #

    Haha! Get to it, man!

  15. 65
    Mark M on 20 Jun 2011 #

    Re 61: as I think I’ve suggested on one of these Queen discussion before, he always seemed to me much more closeted about his Asianness than the other business. If the fans did think about it all, they seemed to have leant towards exotic angle, describing him as Persian rather than Indian, thus not lumping him in with your neighbourhood Gujarati newsagent. At least one of the recent TV programmes has tried to correct this somewhat, putting the Mumbai years back in the mix.

    As for Sun City, I know we went into some of this stuff in the thread . But the frankly, the notion of playing to mixed crowds in a luxury resort is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of apartheid – depriving the majority population of any economic power whatsoever was even more important than the most visible signs of separate living like segregated toilets. If there were Queen fans in Soweto, they certainly were going to be able to pop along to see their heroes play at Sun City.

    It’s worth reiterating that – as Lords S mentions – the Anti-Apartheid Movement largely took its lead from the ANC. And the ANC wasn’t some distant thing if you were in Britain: its president, Oliver Tambo, lived in Muswell Hill. If you wanted an actual ANC representative for the opening of your student union’s Nelson Mandela Lounge, you could get one (although they could turn out to be ‘disappointingly’ Jewish rather than Xhosa).
    Obviously, without elections to judge it, it wasn’t unambiguously clear that the ANC represented the will of the South African people, and therefore people playing Sun City could have had some wiggle room. But history has given us a pretty clear answer on this – we were guessing, just as Mrs Thatcher was guessing, but we were right and she was wrong.

  16. 66
    Mark M on 20 Jun 2011 #

    Re 65: Er, that’s obviously not to say that the ANC haven’t done plenty of dodgy things in their time in power, just that they deserved to be regarded as the voice of the South African people more than the National Party, the Progressive Party/Democratic Alliance, the IFP, the PAC or indeed anyone else…

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