To sit around and watch all 33 song videos on Queen: Greatest Video Hits, complete with audio commentary from guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Talyor, is to think of nothing but Queen for several days. This throws off one’s musical equilibrium.
Much like Pink Floyd, I’ve always found Queen to be one of those musical acts that operated inside of a decade that didn’t really exist for their contemporaries. Sure, there are elements of their sound (and dress) that pin them to the ‘70s and ‘80s. You’d have to be both blind and deaf to not notice that. But somehow, they conjured up a whole other aesthetic that was timely, timeless, dated and wholly unknown—sometimes all in one song. Any group that idiosyncratic had to have a visual element to match, something that could really cram the “glam” into glam rock.
Queen: Greatest Video Hits, much like the tidal wave of Queen compilations that hit the market after Freddie Mercury’s death, doesn’t offer much that hasn’t been experienced before. It’s a bit tough to evaluate this product with fresh eyes and ears since most classic glam rock fans out there are already familiar with Queen’s visual components. But there’s a lot you can say about Queen’s videos. A whole lot. And for the price, Queen: Greatest Video Hits‘s 15 year sweep across two DVDs is a pretty decent deal.
Videos were not a new thing when Queen were hitting their artistic and commercial stride in the mid ‘70s. People had years to get used to the bizarre pairings of popular song with abstract and conceptual images. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” are prominent examples of what was then known as “song clips” or “film clips”. Live footage or lip-synced sound checks were often the formats of choice back in the early ‘70s. It was probably cheaper and required less thought, freeing up musicians and labelmen to focus on more pressing matters such as making then selling the music.
The earliest video on Queen: Greatest Video Hits, “Killer Queen”, is just a mimed performance from Top of the Pops. But over the course of the ‘70s, the music video turned into an advertising tool with artists like Queen leading the pack. Song clips featuring the band in their current stage setup eventually saw the integration of animated doves and footage of nude bikers. And as more time passed, these clips gave way to some wildly interpretive miniature movies. Some of them were tied to the film industry; the A Kind of Magic album and the first Highlander movie, “Flash” with Flash Gordon and “Radio Ga Ga” with Metropolis. And with so many directors working with a band made up of four songwriters who were constantly wrestling for some album space, you kind of see it all. You see the boring (“Fat Bottomed Girls”), the cheeky (“I Want to Break Free”, “It’s a Hard Life”), the risqué (“Body Language”, “Bicycle Race”), the majestic (“Who Wants to Live Forever”), the abstract (“Under Pressure”) and the what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch (“The Invisible Man”)? And there’s plenty that don’t fit neatly into any of these categories.
There are directors who pop up more than just a few times on this collection, like David Mallet and Rudi Dolezal with Hannes Rossacher. Mallet in particular has quite the diverse portfolio going for himself just from Queen videos alone. There’s the Metropolis homage of “Radio Ga Ga”, complete with the original sets from the film, the Coronation Street-meets-drag-meets-pagan ballet mashup on “I Want to Break Free”, Queen’s 1984 stage setup accompanying “Hammer to Fall” and a miniature stage to give the non-touring chapter of Queen’s career a chance to play under the big lights once again on “I Want It All”.
Dolezal and Rossacher are all over the later years by lighting candles for “Who Wants to Live Forever”, making a mock newspaper stage for the band to lip-sync on for “Scandal”, some genuine crowd interaction for “Friends Will Be Friends”, less-than-genuine rehearsal footage for “One Vision”, a train smashing through a brick wall on “Breakthru” and some kid in a ball cap using his computer joystick to zap the band members as their silhouettes dance around in a house cutaway—only to magically appear in his room, totally jamming away. Bruce Gowers was asked to roll film for the two biggest singles from A Night at the Opera, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “You’re My Best Friend”, and his touch is a light one.
Even with the grandiose operatic gestures pelting the middle of the former, Gowers doesn’t take liberties with the songs the way Freddie Mercury did with vocal overdubs. Daniela Green was just happy to move a camera around the stage during Queen’s soundtrack for “Another One Bites the Dust” and Rock Flicks found it perfectly suitable for the members to drag all of their gear into the snow and pretend to play “Spread Your Wings” and “We Will Rock You”.
Commentary from Brian May and Roger Taylor ranges from insightful to worthless. For example, I’ve always wondered how it was possible to get so many females to take off all of their clothes and race around a track on their bicycles in front of a camera crew (“It’s okay, ladies! You’ll be in a Queen video!”). What do I learn? Talyor says that they were not at the shoot that day and that it “looked like fun”. Yeah, we knew that already. Both men struggle for things to say on “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Scandal”, two videos that underwhelmed them greatly. But interesting nuggets of history do get thrown in along with the mundane. For example, “Tie Your Mother Down” was just a lyrical place holder until Freddie Mercury talked Brian May in making that the actual title. “We Are the Champions” and “Friends Will Be Friends” were shot in front of a crowd of Queen fans who just wanted to be a video.
The same goes for the handclapping masses in “Radio Ga Ga”. I really thought they would have more to say about “Body Language”, a steambath bonzanza of skin that has the distinction of being the first music video to be banned from MTV. But their collective reaction to “It’s A Hard Life” is pretty funny. Just as the Victorian set lights up, you can hear the two men moan and groan almost on cue. They open up considerably about The Miracle period and which song originated from which band member (this was a time when all members put their names on the copyrights of all the songs). I learned that “Breakthru” and “One Vision” started as Roger Taylor originals and that Mercury was considerably ill during the “I Want it All” video shoot. He certainly fooled me.
But Queen always fooled me. For a long time, I was happily entrenched in A Night at the Opera without ever having seen a video, live performance or photograph not found in an album sleeve. I didn’t need any visuals to appreciate the music, I thought it could stand on its own. So when I discovered Queen’s sense of drama and flamboyance, it was a bit of an overload. But then as time passed, my personal lens matured in a way that allowed more tongues to be inserted into more cheeks. But did Queen take themselves seriously some of the time or none of the time? Having a DVD case that houses both “Save Me” and “It’s a Hard Life” casts more doubt on that question. But the dye has been cast—the songs have been sung and the videos has been shot. God save the ambiguity.