The Greatest Showman

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I have seen a great many bands live. There are unfortunately a handful of bands and acts that I will never get the chance to see. A heart attack prevented me from seeing David Bowie (his heart not mine). A broken arm prevented me from seeing The White Stripes (his arm not mine). I was born in the wrong era for Led Zeppelin or The Clash. And while they all would have been great, there’s one band and one man in particular that I know would have been the best live act that I will never see.

Queen are not my favourite band. But Freddie Mercury is unquestionably one of the greatest frontmen to have ever lived. His voice was astounding, his stage presence was magnetic and his style was legendary. The bouffant hair and clean shaven look of the seventies. The absolutely world class, shameless moustache and vest combo from the eighties.

While I can never see the real thing, I have gotten to see Queen songs performed by other people. It’s obviously not going to be the same without Freddie but you get the sense of just what the energy would be like if you were seeing them at their best. I saw Electric Six sing ‘Radio Ga Ga’ which gave me the opportunity to clap and raise my hands like I was at a proper Queen show.

Green Day finished some of their concerts with ‘We Are The Champions’ which is one of several Queen songs which everyone on planet earth knows and has sang along with at some point in their lives. At Slane, in between acts, on the big screens they played ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Again, a song that everyone knows and has most definitely had a crack at singing the incredibly high parts. The place went bonkers.

One of the more unexpected places to hear a Queen song was at a Tenacious D concert! The D began their show in the Olympia with a cover of ‘Flash’. It was at that point I realised I may need to go back and take another look at Queen’s music because I don’t think I noticed until that night how absolutely ridiculous that song is. I know it’s about Flash Gordon so how could it not be ridiculous but when Tenacious D can sing the song without changing any of the words and get laughs from an audience? That’s a special kind of ridiculous.

I guess there are quite a few examples of Queen being ludicrous. But there are also many, many examples of Queen being amazing. Roger Taylor was a great drummer, John Deacon created some of the most iconic bass riffs of all time, Brian May’s abilities on the guitar are surpassed only by his magnificent hair. And Freddie. So what I’ve done is created my ultimate Queen playlist to showcase the brilliant, the sublime, the bonkers and everything in between.

I try not to think too hard about what is happening in ‘Tie Your Mother Down’. I’m sure everything is above board here but I keep my distance just in case it turns out to be something I don’t want to know anything about. But it has the perfect beginning to a Queen playlist – it’s huge, it’s extravagant and a good indicator of the type of thing that’s to come.

‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’ was Queen’s first successful single. I have chosen to highlight some of the lyrics to emphasize my point about some of their songs being quite daft.

Fear me you lords and lady preachers
I descend upon your earth from the skies
I command your very souls you unbelievers
Bring before me what is mine
The seven seas of rhye

These lyrics remind me of ‘Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin and I think the same thing when I listen to both songs. This is fucking nonsense but I love it. The early albums have plenty of this kind of thing, I’ve left most of them off this playlist though because there’s only so much nonsense I can put up with. I did think hard about including ‘Ogre Battle’ from Queen II though. Just because it’s about…well Ogres battling I think?.

‘Hammer To Fall’ is on the list purely because they sang this at Live Aid. It’s a great example of a song that might not seem like much at first but when played live takes on a whole different feel.  ‘Save Me’ is the first of the really great love songs that are on this list. They did have a tremendous ability to create sad love songs which are the exact opposite to songs about ogres and beings from the skies to me.

‘Under Pressure’. The first thing to note about this song is that it’s on the album called Hot Space which is unfortunately a hot mess. It’s a little different from the rest of the Queen catalogue. Actually, it’s extremely different. Full of dance/funk stuff that Freddie was listening to in the clubs of Munich at the time. The record is rescued at the end by Bowie. This post is obviously about Queen but I’d just like to take a moment to acknowledge how magnificent Bowie is on this song. Apparently Queen and Bowie found it difficult to work together so this was all they could create, which is a shame.

It took me a long time to realise that for most of the song Freddie is just making sounds. Not real words – just Mercury gibberish. I always wanted to know what the lyric after “people on the streets” was, I always thought I was singing the wrong words because I was making up Hanks gibberish. Turns out I was right! Of course, when you can sing like Freddie you can make up all the words you want. There is an acapella version of the song here. I can’t recommend it enough.

So after the majesty of Mercury and Bowie we move on to some of classic Queen and when I say classic Queen I mean ‘Killer Queen’. Then on to silly Queen: ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ and ‘Bicycle Race’. Before I started writing about these songs I had to do some research. Surely there’s more to these songs than a love of large rumps and bicycles? Nah, not really! ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ is about girls with big bottoms and ‘Bicycle Race’ is about a guy who doesn’t like Jaws or Star Wars but loves cycling, perfect examples of the strange and wonderful Queen catalogue.

‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ will always remind me of fighting zombies in a pub and ‘You’re My Best Friend’ will remind me of playing Playstation in a shed with a zombie. ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ will always remind me of people swinging on rings trying not to get caught by Lightning or the Wolfman.

If you were to try to pick the very best Queen song, ‘Somebody To Love’ would definitely be in contention. It has all the classic Queenisms, Freddie being Freddie, lots of backing vocals and an absurdly great ending which is impossible not to sing along to. ‘Play The Game’ makes me think that if Queen had just written love songs they might be my favourite band of all time.

The same goes for ‘Love Of My Life’ which is a beautifully simple, heartbreaking love song. The thing I remember about this one is when I was a kid we had a tape that we recorded all of Queen’s videos onto from the TV. The footage we had of the song was from a concert where every single person in the crowd knew every single word and Freddie was leading them in an enormous sing-song. We only had the second half of the video because whoever was recording it missed the beginning. It took me years to track down what the song was.

I was 7 when Freddie Mercury died. That videotape that we had curated was a window to what a spectacular band Queen were. Mercury himself was larger than life and a true icon. Even his moustache was iconic. After his death there was a giant tribute concert held at Wembley Stadium which really showed me how influential he was and how sorely he would be missed by his peers and his fans.

On that tape we had iconic videos like ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ which features possibly the most expensive special effects shot in any of their videos when Freddie’s eyes go on “fire”. But he had no moustache in that one so it can’t be considered an all-time great. His moustache was very prominent in the video for ‘I Want To Break Free’. The tache isn’t the thing most remembered about that video though.

The last four songs I have on the playlist are probably four of the best live songs any band could possibly play. If I went to a Queen gig and they played absolutely atrocious music all night but then finished on these four songs? They’d definitely win me over. When I watch ‘Radio Gaga’ from their performance at Live Aid I would give anything to be in the middle of the crowd clapping and raising my hands to the sky in unison. Actually, that’s a heaving sweat-box of people, I’d be off to the side clapping and raising my hands to the memory of glorious radio, safe in my own space.

Then ‘We Will Rock You’ which would involve loads more clapping. It would also give me the opportunity to sing the words “you big disgrace” out loud. I’m almost certain no other song in the history of music has an insult which is so outdated. That would lead into the greatest football song anyone has ever written. ‘We Are The Champions’…I hope you, whoever you are reading this, have gotten to sing this song in jubilation at some point because that’s how it’s meant to be sung.

And finally ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Recorded in 6 studios and cobbled together from 3 different songs Freddie had been working on. There is no more perfect concert song than this. The sing-along in the first third, the bat-shit crazy sing-along in the middle and the final third which makes absolutely everyone go buck wild. Finishing the whole night with a symbol crash which is how our whole playlist began. Symmetry.

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