Monday, October 12, 2009

The Gayest Song Freddie Mercury Ever Wrote

For teenagers, there are certain bands that are “theirs” completely. By this, I mean the kids are following a current band that is at its creative peak, and there’s just something about that age, that time in life, where an unbreakable bond is made between lifestyle, taste, memory, etc. Years later, the adult will play that music, and it will still make the same kind of sense. Inside, the adult will feel like he’s 15 again, or at least relate back to that sense he had of the world at that time. I wouldn’t even call this nostalgia, as it’s not longing for a return of those days. It’s basic memory.

I’m not ashamed to say that Queen and the Electric Light Orchestra were surely my bands in that category circa the mid-to-late 70s. Sure, I was into 60s gods like The Kinks (especially), Beatles, Stones and Who, and just getting over my first big rock star, Elton John, but those two bands came right along just as I was becoming a teenager and rode out their best years into my young adulthood. They were cheesy in many ways – critics looked down on both bands at the time. (I would, too, as I grew into more new wave/alternative music a few years later, but I eventually came back to them. Damn few of those 80s bands I favored at the time hold up to my 70s favorites.)

But I can listen to both bands today and, especially compared to what’s followed over the years, recognize a great pop sense (with classical leanings) and production values that both bands had, and the critics were misguided. I think a lot of the negativity rock critics had in the 70s towards successful rock acts was based on the fact that they had no control over bands like Queen and ELO, i.e., their bad reviews didn’t mean shit to the fans. Thus, if you were to rely solely on critics’ reviews and not have any experience with the music, you’d get a very lopsided, dishonest view of the pop music culture at the time. (Hey, I just described your average VH-1 documentary: the losers rewrite history!)

The one thing I often come back to with Queen is the fact that none of us, as teenage fans, seemed to grasp that Freddie Mercury was flamingly, way out-of-the-closet gay. It’s painfully obvious to me now, has been for decades. But at the time, either none of us knew, or we were so used to British rock stars being so effeminate and purposely blasé about their sexuality (see David Bowie, another 70s hero of mine), that it just didn’t matter to us. Compare and contrast to today, where you have artists either marketed as openly gay, or dominant popular genres so intolerant of gay culture (hiphop, metal, country) that they somehow seemed to have burrowed farther back in the time than the 70s to values a thousand times more closed than the “whatever” attitude so many of us were raised with back then. It’s a strange environment of progression and regression at the same time.

But, man, Freddie Mercury was flaming as a tailpipe on a 76 Nova, no two ways about that. And I mean that as a compliment, because it was so clearly part of his character and who he was. Queen wouldn’t have been Queen without a real “Queen” running the show. I wrote about this phenomenon close to a decade ago for, recalling one of the tougher guys in our high school having an extremely gay Circus magazine centerfold poster of Freddie in a silver lame leotard and ballet slippers on the inside of his locker. That’s how it was. You sort of understood that even if the guy was gay, man, he knew how to rock hard, and that’s all that mattered to most kids.

But lately I’ve been thinking of those “warning signs” in Queen’s music that were present all along the way – nearly all their albums had Freddie Mercury-penned songs that, in retrospect, are flaming. At the time, I would sort of just shake my head and think, “There goes Freddie again!” Not quite getting that this was just a talented gay man slipping into the more vaudevillian, song-and-dance man vibe of his being. The big tip-off should have been when he changed his look from long-haired rock god to mustachioed leather tough guy. I recall seeing the Al Pacino movie Cruising (watch this youtube clip for one of the funniest dance scenes you’ll ever see) around that time, populated with guys in leather bars who looked just like Freddie Mercury, yet, even then, it didn’t fully click that the guy was gay.

It was also the times. You had Elton John admitting he was bisexual circa 1976, which was a huge thing at the time, despite, again, it seeming fairly obvious that this was the case. And even he went on to marry a woman in the 80s to somehow “talk” himself out of being gay, whereas he simply made peace with himself when the marriage floundered and accepted who he was. When someone living the relatively sheltered “do anything you want to do” life of a superstar goes through those kinds of head games, you can grasp that society in general wasn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for gay folks.

What was the gayest song Freddie Mercury ever wrote? I’m a big Queen fan, so for me it’s easy to go back through the catalog and figure this out, at least with my interpretations. There are obvious songs, like “Killer Queen” and “Play the Game.” And really odd/hard possibilities like “Get Down, Make Love” that I’d rather not think about. (And for the record, the gayest-sounding song Queen ever recorded, the theme from the movie Flash Gordon, was written by lead guitarist Brian May.) But there are certain songs that I recall playing at the time, and some internal “gadar” going off although I didn’t fully grasp what it meant at the time. I can only wonder what my Dad thought as he passed by bedroom and heard some song that sounded like drag queens doing an old vaudeville number. Then again, he was so disgusted with rock and roll in general that it all sounded awful to him, so he probably didn’t discriminate.

Without further adieu (a phrase Freddie probably loved), my top five of the gayest songs Freddie Mercury ever wrote:

5. Seaside Rendezvous. Sample lyrics:

I feel like dancing - in the rain
Can I have a volunteer ?
Just keep right on dancing
What a damn jolly good idea
It's such a jollification - as a matter of fact
So tres charmant my dear

Queen had a nasty habit of recording these cheesy vaudeville numbers that were totally out of place on their albums (but made sense with their “anything goes” image). Brian May had one with “Good Company” on their landmark A Night at the Opera album, on which “Seaside Rendezvous" also appears. The rest are all Freddie’s doing. In retrospect, this should have been b-side material – it just wasn’t their image! Granted, you could tell, Freddie got a perverse kick out of prancing through numbers like this, but your average 70s rock fan … try to imagine a parking lot full of 70s teenage metal heads jamming to “Seaside Rendezvous.” You can’t, because they didn’t. What a damn jolly good idea? Who the fuck talked like that? No one … save Freddie Mercury!

4. Bring Back That Leroy Brown. Sample lyrics:

And unless I be mistaken
This is what she said
"Big bad, big boy, big bad Leroy Brown
I'm gonna get that cutie pie"

This may be the worst song Queen recorded. As far as I’m concerned, Freddie wrote the best songs of all of them. (Each member wrote songs, and they all had hits, too.) “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a life-changing song for me. Every album is packed with great ballads. “March of the Black Queen” from Queen II is a lost masterpiece of hard rock. “Death on Two Legs,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Somebody to Love” … the guy wrote hits.

But “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” … man, it’s gay. Just listen to it. I have to wonder what the other guys in the band did when Freddie brought this song around to the studio. Did they look at each other, shake their heads and mutter, “Dude, what the fuck?” But I guess every great band operates on compromise. Imagine how The Beatles felt when McCartney rolled out “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” It must have been like eating a shit sandwich. But, bigger picture, they knew he’d also bring in a handful of songs that were sure hits and the kind of music they loved to play. Who knows, maybe they enjoyed the respite of tossing off a “Leroy Brown” style ditty every album to lighten up the studio?

3. Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy. Sample lyrics:

Ooh let me feel your heartbeat (grow faster, faster)
Ooh ooh can you feel my love heat
Come on and sit on my hot-seat of love
And tell me how do you feel right after-all
I'd like for you and I to go romancing
Say the word - your wish is my command

Come on and sit on my hot seat of love? What is that? His lap? Actually, I’m picturing a red, heart-shaped cushion, a big one that two grown men can frolic on. There’s something about the way the band harmonizes on the line “I’d like for you and I to go romancing” that sounds over-poweringly, “just listening to this might turn me gay” sort of gay. A much better song than “Bring Back That Leroy Brown,” but still not the song I’d select to have blasting from the 8-track tape deck while driving through the high-school parking lot.

This was from A Day at the Races, then and still my favorite Queen album. Not as flamboyant as the previous A Night at the Opera, but it seemed like the songs were a notch better, even if there wasn’t a monster hit like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This is the one song on the album I could do without! Literally every other song on that album is good. I think they were contractually obligated to have the one song on the album of Freddie fucking around.

2. Don’t Stop Me Now. Sample lyrics:

I'm a shooting star leaping through the sky
Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity
I'm a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva
I'm gonna go go go
There's no stopping me
I'm burnin' through the sky yeah
Two hundred degrees
That's why they call me Mister Fahrenheit
I'm trav'ling at the speed of light
I wanna make a supersonic man out of you

Mr. Fahrenheit? Yow. I don’t call anyone Mr. Fahrenheit! Or Mr. Celsius, for that matter. (I once called someone Mr. Kelvin, but he hit me in the face with a frozen banana for doing so.) This song sounds like it was meant for the glee club, that one number where the guys loosen their clip-on ties and do something more “contemporary.” The music teacher/pianist gathers the boys 'round the piano for a leisurely singalong that erupts into a synchronized dance routine with canes and the female members of the club shimmying feather boas.

I actually like this song but recognize someone like Peter Allen or Liza Minnelli really would have done it more justice. When I hear this song, I picture guys in gold and silver leotards jumping through the air while fireworks go off in the background. Then Freddie coming through a bank of fog, riding a gigantic penis with sparks shooting out the head. (I think I missed my calling as a video director.)

1. The Millionaire Waltz. Sample lyrics:

Bring out the charge of the love brigade
There is spring in the air once again ...

My fine friend - take me wiz you unt love me forever
My fine friend - forever – forever

He wasn’t joking when he called it a waltz – this song is done in waltz time. Again, the image is just incongruous with your average 70s rock fan. How many metal bands do you know who do waltzes? Especially with the rejoinder “Bring out the charge of the love brigade”! What is the love brigade? (Cue the guys in silver and gold leotards … only give them Napoleon Bonaparte hats and plastic sabres!)

But “The Millionaire Waltz” is one of those Mercury multi-tiered songs, with soft and hard sections, so you can simultaneously rock out and flounce. I give the song a break because Brian May clearly had a blast doing his “guitar orchestra” thing with the arrangement. And the lyrics above are accurate: “take me wiz you unt love me forever.” That’s exactly what he sang. And I’m sure he meant every word! Was probably wearing a monocle and top hat for effect while he crooned the line in the studio.

Always something to keep in mind with Freddie: the guy started as Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, a British colony, son of a Zoroaster family, went to private school near Mumbar in India, a kid with a tremendous, debilitating overbite, found his calling at a talent show at that private school when he slayed the audience doing Little Richard songs (imagine him rocking out in his school blazer!), family moved to London after political strife in Zanzibar, got more into music, changed his name to Mercury, and Freddie took it from there. To come from that sort of improbable background and do what he did was amazing. Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity!


rakeback said...

Freddie is the most talented lead singer in music history in my opinion. His voice was astounding and made everyone forget about his sexuality.

Anja said...

I love the songs you have written about. They are so, so sweet and pleasant to my ears. And I love Freddie; everything what he crated constantly has been making me happy; I have never cared much about his sex life; it's a personal matter. Some people are straight, some bi- and gay, who cares?

William S. Repsher said...

I don't care much about his sex life either, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the fact that his being gay played such a crucial role in his development as a recording artist, especially as a British rock star in the 70s. As someone who grew up in the 70s and sort of danced around issues like this, I feel much more comfortable now simply acknowledging that this wasn't a bad thing and was actually something to be celebrated in a strange way.

Anonymous said...

You're missing a HUGE point!! Queen never made music just for the "average 70's rock fan"! They were all about grandiose harmonies and being tongue in cheek! :) Queen could move effortlessly from genre to genre while maintaining their unique sound, it really is incredible to me! :)