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Thursday, 2 December 2010

"The story of a big, brilliant, gay genius. And his three slightly dim mates." We Will Rock You, 2002

If it looked good to you on telly you've no idea what it was like to be there. You didn't have to sit through endless turns by Sade, Paul Young and Bryan Ferry. And even if you'd chosen to watch it at home, at least you weren't vying with 72,000 other people to go to the toilet during the satellite transmissions of George Thorogood and The Destroyers' set. Until that point, Live Aid was the dullest giig I'd ever been to in my life. But when Queen came on, it turned into the best one ever. All my inhibitions vanished in an instant. I air-soloed along with BrIan May on We Are The Champions. I joined in with the Radio Ga Ga Nuremberg clap. I went "DAAAAAAAAYO!" when Freddie made us all go "DAAAAAAAAYO!" No rock star has ever understood what they're there for as well as Queen did on that day. But then that was Freddie all over. A man who understood the simultaneous absurdity and clearly seriousness of his job. Deep down In their hearts even the most right on indie curmdgeon knows that there will never be a better rock star than Freddie Mercury. Even Kurt Cobain, in his suicide note, seemed to suggest that he killed himself because he'd never be as good as Freddie.
This week sees the premiere of Ben Elton's Queen musical - and it must be said there's very little that is recognisably Freddie. We Will Rock You is a futuristic fantasy set on Planet Mall (because this planet is turning into a big mall, do you see?) And in that world dancing and music are controlled by the evil Globalsoft, whose ruler the Killer Queen wants to banish any dissenters who "want to break free" to the seven seas of Rye. Are you following this? However, out there in the disued subways and wastelands of Mall be the Bohemians. Their leader Galileo Figaro bears rhapsodies in his head. Do you get it? Problem is, the Killer Queen's on his trail and Galileo - along with his girlfriend Scaramouche - has to find The Living Rock (in which a guitar is buried) and tell the brainwashed kids of Mall about a golden age before manufactured pop and boy bands, when we weren't "caught in a landslide of marketing... (with) no escape from (this) reality." Do you s.. oh, never mind.
I can't say I wasn't angry when I attended a peview and saw how Ben Elton brushed Queen's songs under the shadow of his huge ego. I was livid, but not for myself or for the fans, who remained conspicuous by their apparent disinternest in storming the stage mob handed and setting fire to it. I was livid that Ben Elton had done this to Brian May.
You see, I've been watching Brian May trying to get his life back together following Freddie's death. And he basically seems like an all-right bloke, albeit with too much time on his hands. The solo career seems to have dried up. There are no more recordings of Freddie singing in the shower that the rest of Queen can tart up and release "posthumously". And there are only so many times that Never Mind The Buzzcocks will invite you back.
Like those peculiar middle-aged widows who get befriended by animal rights activists and before long seem to spend their days outside Huntingdon Life Sciences shouting "murderers!", Brian's fallen in with a crowd who don't necessarily have his best interests at heart - in this case Ben Elton and the musical's major backer Robert De Niro.
Brian wants to keep Freddie's name alive. Ben Elton must have assured him that a musical was a good way to do this. But We Will Rock You isn't a musical about Freddie Mercury. It's a muscical about how Ben Elton thinks the world is becoming corporatised by, um, boy bands and um... the internet. Does it matter that, had it not been for the internet, the anti capitalism riots wouldn't have happened? Um, apparently not. Would it be churlish to point out that May didn't seem too bothered about boy bands two years ago when he appeared on Top Of The Pops with Five for their version of We Will Rock You?
In fact, We Will Rock You, the musical is a very symptom of the world that Elton piously purports to rally against. Freddie may be dead but the Queen brand is very much alive, just like the Abba band is very much alive. This is why the Abba musicial Mamma Mia! is three years into its West End run, and it's why We Will Rock You - and, over in New York, a Springsteen-based musical, Drive All Night - will probably do the same. It's why when the artists finally expire, the musicals of Elton John and Oasis songs will also clean up. It's capitalism stripped to its cut-throat basics - the exploitation of consumer goodwill towards an established brand.
But what might make sound business sense makes for a lousy musical, because - and sorry if this seems to be stating the obvious - Queen's songs weren't written as part of a narrative about the evils of globalisaioon. They're not even close, Ben! Have you listened to the words of I Want It All and One Vision? Sounds to me as though Freddie rather liked the idea of it. And sorry if this comes as something of a shock, but Abba's greatest hits weren't written to form part of a story about a super trouper called Fernando who takes a chance on a dancing queen and appears on TV quiz show The Winner Takes It All, but then ends up losing all his money money money to a man after midnight at Waterloo station. Or whatever the plot of Mamma Mia! happens to be.
In all the great musicals the songs push the plot along without you even noticing. In My Fair Lady, we see Eliza Doolittle reluctantly taking an elocution lesson from Professor Higgins. During the course of The Rain In Spain though, her reluctance turns into excitement at all the possibilities that her posh new voice has opened her up to. By oscillating defly between John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John's accounts of their courtship, Summer Nights effortlessly fills you in on an entire back=story in Grease.
Ben Elton knows better than most that it's not an easy thing to do. In Andrew Lloyd-Webber's flop footy musical, The Beautiful Game, Elton's lyrics were so dismal that even Parky winced when Elton had the temerity to sing them on his chat show. Perhaps that explains why he's moved on to an already existing body of work and moulded it in his own image.
It's a shame really, because there is actually one fantastic plot very clearly suggested by Queen's back catalogue. In fact, it's a story that has everything. The story of Farookh Bulsara - the awkward, buck-toothed Tanzanian boy whose family were forced to flee their homeland for the leafy environs of Feltham in Middlsex. Increasingly aware that he ain't like all the other boys, the adolescent public-school dandy discovers Hendrix, goes to art college and finds decadence and depravity he couldn't havd dreamed of. He becomes Freddie Mercury and hooks up wth three straight science students and together they form a band. He calls them Queen - an in joke that his three colleagues and most of his fans take some time to cotton on to. He holds parties where dwarves pour endless quantities of champagne and drag queens mud-wrestle. He proceeds too slut his way through the 1970s and 1980s, unaware that, as his guitarist later put it, Too Much Love Will Kill You In The End. Which, obviously, it does.
The moral of the story? There isn't one, of course. This is Freddie Mercury we're talking about. The man who took the popular playground taunt "Nyerrr nyer nyer nyerr-nyer" and turned it into a song called We Are The Champions. The man whose preposterous One Vision was turned into a quasi-Nazi anthem by East European pranksters Lalbach[?]. That's the story of Queen. The story of a big, brilliant, gay genius. And his three slightly dim mates.

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