Music

Ye Shall Be Entertained, So Sayeth Queen

Music does not always cost money these days, but it always costs time, something just as disappointing when it's wasted. On occasion I've found myself listening to a CD of interesting sonic experiments, yet concurrently wondered if it occurred to the artist to ensure the record was an entertaining experience.

The concept of entertainment in music is one that is often outweighed by the quest for artistic exploration, but it's one that should not be forgotten. The journey should be as rewarding as the destination. Unless there's something provided during the listening experience to make it a rewarding sensation, chances are repeat plays will be few.

Consider that most albums will take an hour out of your day; this is especially important if you're the sort to tune out the world to the detriment of everything else going one around you during the recording's run-time. Live gigs have even more of an imperative to give you sufficient entertainment value. Depending on the type of show you are attending, you pay anywhere from pocket change to a small fortune to get a look at your latest sonic infatuation, and if you're going to be there for an hour and a half (not counting finding parking, entrance queues, the opening acts, and trying to leave at the same time everybody else does) you should come away with a feeling a bit more satisfied than "Ehh, it was alright". No matter what kind of musician and regardless of genre, at the end of the day, you have to ask: has the artist made an effort to entertain you, and can you honestly say that you were entertained?

One group whose chief goal it always was to deliver an entertaining spectacle was Queen, rock's consummate showmen.

There's no question about it: British stadium rock gods Queen always strove to ensure its listeners were thoroughly simulated, enraptured, and enlivened. At the height of their musical powers, vocalist Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon, and drummer Roger Taylor drew from the cheeky pomp of glam, the adventurous musicianship of prog rock, and the sheer power of heavy metal (along with whatever else caught their fancy at a given moment, from opera to funk to '50s rockabilly) to create a sonic spectacle meant to leave their listeners dumbstruck with awe. The members of Queen were not above showing off their musical chops, but nonetheless all the Byzantine song structures, glorious harmonies, and keen studio trickery all worked towards the goal of making each Queen record a thrilling listen.

This attitude was best displayed in a live context, where Queen (and especially the late Mercury) particularly flourished. Mercury told British music weekly Melody Maker in 1981 that on stage "whether I'm rich or starving, I want to give my all. I want to go on there and die for the show!" In concert, Queen did not let contemporary limits of stage technology hamper its ability to translate its records into a living, breathing spectacle. Stripped of layers of instrument overdubs, Queen made its music work in a live context in a very simple manner: by making sure it totally rocked your face off. Not for nothing was the band's set at the 1985 Live Aid concert voted the greatest live performance of all time in a 2005 BBC poll. Interestingly, Freddie Mercury was initially reluctant to perform at the event. Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof's pleas about the plight of Ethiopian famine victims the event was intended to help alleviate fell on unreceptive ears, but he eventually roped Mercury and Queen onto the lineup by playing up the fact that the group would be performing for the largest audience the world had ever seen.

More than any other Queen song, the raucous album cut "Let Me Entertain You" (from the band's 1978 album Jazz, and also later showcased near the beginning of the fantastic 1979 concert album Live Killers) embodies the group's philosophy towards music and performance. Beginning with the ominous thudding of the Deacon/Taylor rhythm section and soon followed by the lurching metal riffage of Brian May, Freddie Mercury's hearty excitement finally completes the emsemble as the band charges into full gallop. Queen then spends the ensuing two to three minutes of righteous hard rock riling up its audience for the greatest show of its life. Freddie Mercury greets his public with pleasantries and asks "Are you ready for some entertainment / Are you ready for a show?" Every chorus is punctuated with dramatic chord stabs by May, only to rev up again for the next verse. When Mercury sings "Let me entertain you", it is not a request. It is nothing less than a command, drawing its strength from a frontman with undeniable presence. There's no maybe about it when these words are uttered by Mercury: you will be entertained.

In the song, Mercury revels in the role as the ringmaster, using every trick at his disposal to wow the crowd. In the second verse, he states, "I've come here to sell you my body / I can show you some good merchandise / I'll pull you and pill you / I'll Cruella de Vil you / And to thrill you I'll use any device", cheekily acknowledging the unsavory connotations of deigning one's self mere entertainment for the masses. However, it's all a means to an end as Mercury shocks, teases, and flirts with his willing audience to fulfill his promise of a verifiable tour de force (of course!). A chemical high, grounds for divorce, even singing in Japanese: Queen was not shy about being decadent, frivolous, a bit seamy, or even a quite a bit ridiculous in its quest to give you everything you could ever want in a rock performance.

Queen always wanted to provide you with the show of your life, both on record and on stage. Even illness and death couldn't hamper the group's dedication to that ideal. It's poignant that Innuendo (1991), the last album recorded before Mercury died of AIDS-related complications in November 1991, ended with a rousing paean to showmanship titled "The Show Must Go On". Mercury, well aware during the album's production that he was dying, wanted to ensure he went out how he wanted to: giving his audience one last great show.


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