Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What makes a band "dated"?

"Tonight / I'm gonna have myself / a real good time." -- "Don't Stop Me Now"

Recently my wife and I stumbled upon the Palladia channel on cable and watched the second half of a fantastic Queen concert from Montreal that has been remastered sometime recently.

My wife LOVES Queen. I, too, love Queen, but not as much as her. She knows the lyrics to more than just Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. She's certainly not a huge fan as compared to others, but in our house she easily takes the honor.

I found myself recalling various things about Queen that I've learned throughout the years -- from Freddie Mercury's demise, to the lyrics to "Bicycle Race" (back in 4th grade, my friend's father used to sing it constantly), to the fact that Brian May can play a mean guitar. What I never considered, though, was the fact that Queen doesn't exist anymore. Or, to put it more precisely, Queen-like bands don't exist anymore. Rock music's too cynical.

Cynicism has made Queen seem dated.

(NPR even published this short piece for "Old Music Tuesday." Clearly there's something in the air.)

I don't mean in the "Queen sounds too naive/simplistic/crappy compared to current bands." I mean there's no one else out there that tries to sound like them or can sound like them or will sound like them. They might be one of the most talented, fun, skilled, and (most importantly) successful bands ever. Yes, The Beatles had fun and their albums were ahead of their time, trippy, layered, meaningful, etc. The 60s and 70s had lots of fun music. Led Zeppelin, too. Pink Floyd. But post-Queen? Who compares?

Consider what they were: a 70s British Arena-rock band with a flamboyant frontman. They collectively wrote orchestrated songs ranging from goofy (the aforementioned "Bicycle Race") to serious ("You're My Best Friend.") "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You" will forever play in stadiums across the USA, if not around the world because they are earnest anthems. They have a song about the radio ("Radio Ga-Ga") -- to be fair, so does Hall & Oats. They wrote the goddamn soundtrack to Flash, a campy sci-fi radio-show-turned-80s-movie. It was the soundtrack Queen was born to record.

They are one of the few bands I can think of that takes being not-serious, seriously. And can still be serious when they want.

Think about the arena-rock bands that have followed them:

  • Journey -- big music. didn't take themselves too seriously. Steve Perry has a tremendous voice and they made an intentional shift in songwriting in the late 70s to embrace a more commercial sound, resulting in their "peak" performance albums Escape and Frontiers.
  • Def Leppard -- terrible lyrics, great guitarist, decent Journey-esque singer. Hysteria sold over 12 million copies, doubling their prior album. But 2 albums of 80s-arena-rock does not compare to Queen in terms of success. Plus, their multiple hits from Hysteria don't stand up to some of the unique, iconic Queen songs.
  • Aerosmith (to be fair, didn't really "follow" Queen, but developed around the same time) -- American rock -- a very light Zeppelin, particularly back in the late 70s. Once they got off the drugs for a while, they were more a light Journey than anything else. Lots of hit songs; flamboyant frontman; didn't take themselves seriously. And while I dislike 99% of their catalog, they remained successful, albeit not necessarily relevant, up to the end of the 20th century. Not sure they match the skill of Queen.
  • Van Halen -- The less I say, the better, but this is a successful arena rock band that swings between serious and silly. David Lee Roth is an American Mercury in terms of showmanship, but he lacks the consistency and the songwriting skills.
  • U2 -- they take themselves very seriously, to the point where Bono's lack of lyrical prowess sounds silly in a bad way when he probably wants to be silly (from time to time) in a Queen way. (Look at the lyrics from "New York": In New York summers get hot, well into the hundreds / You can't walk around the block without a change of clothing / Hot as a hairdryer in your face / Hot as a handbag and a can of mace / In New York, I just got a place in New York." is that supposed to be funny or serious-and-thus-horrible? The song eventually talks about how the Irish came to NY as well, so I'm assuming it's supposed to be horrible.)

The so-called cock-rock bands of the late 80s are technically arena-rockers, and while they are clearly not better than Queen, they changed the landscape when it came to 'big' rock music. Could you imagine Mötley Crüe writing a song like "Fat Bottom Girls"?

Mötley Crüe started rocking in 1981 with songs like "Public Enemy #1" ("Hear the screams / Another one dies tonight") and "Come On and Dance" ("She's a leather tease / When she's on top / Well, you can't be stopped / Watch her scream / Watch her suck you clean / And you should've seen her dance.") Subtlety be damned, the Crüe will rock! (these are not the best examples of their early work, but they really don't get big for another album or two.)

Queen started 10 years prior to Crüe. In 1981, Queen released The Game, including "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust" (Vanilla Ice remembers that year well. Or, at least, the song.)

I point to Mötley Crüe not out of a person preference (I only ever owned a cassette of Dr. Feelgood); just that they are one of the biggest hair bands aside from the one band I think came close to comparing to Queen post-Queen. It's going to pain some of you (particularly my wife who breaks out into a rash when I sing this band at karaoke).

 Yes, the one band I think gets close to the stage and album theatrics, the band with the flamboyant (albeit aggressively heterosexual and misogynistic) front man, the band with the total musical skill to back it all up:



Not even his best jumpsuit.
Try not to stare at the bulge.

Seriously. Epic songs? "November Rain", "Estranged," "Rocket Queen", "Coma", "Paradise City". Crazy-good guitarist? Slash. (He's even got Brian May-esque HAIR!)

In the end, of course, Guns N Roses has a great musical range that stems from Rose's skill as a songwriter, but on the whole he doesn't have the ability to laugh at himself. (Axl DID cover a Charles Manson song and wrote lyrics like "You're daddy worked in porno / now that mommy's not around / she used to love her heroine / but now she's underground." But he's not gonna be caught dead singing "Bicycle Race," except maybe in the shower after a long night of coke and hookers. Even then, he'd probably deny it.)

Mötley Crüe has nothing on GNR, but GNR still pales in comparison to the tremendous breadth of Queen's skill and imagination and success and overall JOY.

Still, if you doubt my GnR comparison, you can't ignore this:

That's Elton John & Axl Rose singing "Bohemian Rhapsody". Maybe Axl CAN laugh at himself.

So, here's what we have: the world has moved on from true, bright, upbeat, optimistic, nearly endlessly fun rock music. For every Jet that appears, one dies.