A Queen show embodies the hypnotic, fascistic properties inherent in arena-sized rock performances, a la Triumph of the Will.
When I first saw the title Queen On Fire: Live At The Bowl, I foolishly assumed they were referring to the Hollywood Bowl. Of course, having seen Hairspray at that “Bowl” two summers ago, I surely knew that the venue couldn't accommodate a Queen show, at least not at their early '80s commercial peak. No, this particular concert unfurled at England's Milton Keynes Bowl, on 5 June 1982, and I was utterly unfamiliar with the place.
Those hoping to hear the band's chanty title number from 1980's rainbow-hued Flash Gordon will likely be disappointed, as we get only a snippet, over grainy footage of the quartet arriving for the gig, The irrepressible Freddie is clad in a white leather jacket, as they launch into “The Hero” -- just a brief excerpt -- followed by an adrenalized rendition of the anthemic “We Will Rock You”, a song I always associate with the 6th grade; a hazy memory of some rowdy classmates bellowing the tune at their cafeteria table, the volume rising menacingly (a complete version of the tune is performed much later).
Addressing the audience, Mercury proclaims, “And there's some beauties here tonight, I can tell you.” I suppose that raised no eyebrows in 1982, but with our knowledge of his tragic demise and revelations of his primarily homosexual orientation, who doesn't wonder if he's thinking about some of the male attendees.
Director Gavin Taylor's footage is crystal-clear at this point, and the strident stomp of “Action This Day” is a lively treat, with Mercury clearly hitting his peak, already bathed in sweat by the fourth song, “Play the Game”. Not surprisingly he discards the jacket, revealing a tank top emblazoned with arrows pointing in various directions. They might remind hardcore Queenphiles of the strategically-placed arrows on the naughty, steamy sleeve for their slinky hit “Body Language”, released the same year. Sadly, that stellar groove, which livened up Casey Kasem's “American Top 40” countdown that spring, is absent from the show, and apparently from the band's repertoire.
Those arrows, unwittingly, also hint at a change of direction, which arguably began with the release that year of Hot Space, the album supported by this tour. Mercury was smitten with funk and rhythm 'n' blues – Michael Jackson was reportedly a favorite -- and as the group's frontman and primary composer, he dragged Queen towards that musical dynamic. It should be said that the band, like Blondie, was always schizophrenically eclectic, and as far as I'm concerned, so much the better. The hard-funk “Another One Bites The Dust”, from their previous The Game, was a #1 single, reaching fans across myriad genres, and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” a shuffling, Elvis-influenced rockabilly jig that charted similarly high.
But Queen, rightly or wrongly, were most distinctly associated with militaristic metal dissonance, led by the potent Brian May, and many fans were confused and disheartened by Hot Space's lean, funky timbres, so sales were lukewarm, and “Body Language”, perhaps hobbled by a murky video clip, stopped just short of Billboard's Top 10, soon falling into obscurity. Of course, the anti-disco backlash was partly responsible for this situation; Queen's enthusiastic following of young, white heterosexual males spearheaded this unfortunate campaign, while refusing to see any trace of gay-camp flair in Mercury's flamboyant persona.
With “Somebody to Love”, we're reminded that Freddie's piercing bark was tailor-made for aggressive stadium rock. Indeed, no one could accuse Farook Bulsara of being aloof, his impromptu call-and-response sessions with the crowd insisting they acknowledge his presence and grant him the attention he craves; for “Love of My Life”, the audience croons along with him, accompanied by May's strumming, done Unplugged-style, with an acoustic guitar. A Queen show embodies, for good or ill, the hypnotic, fascistic properties inherent in arena-sized rock performances, a la Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and David Bowie, no shrinking violet himself has admitted to finding this idea appealing.
The band revs up the funk again with the bass-driven “Dragon Attack” -- better delivered at their Tokyo show during the same tour (see Extras) – and “Back Chat”, also from Hot Space, although these woofer-friendly tunes are interrupted by “Save Me”, a swooning power ballad that gives the crowd a moment to breathe.
Next up is “Get Down, Make Love”, which sounds like dance floor fodder, but is in fact a more elliptical work, accentuated with spook house sound effects and an often darkened stage, then followed by a lengthy guitar solo from May. Such solos were a hallmark of grand arena shows during what some term the Great Rock Era, and it appropriately reminds us that Queen is a band, not merely an accoutrement to Mercury's theatrics..
“Under Pressure”, the group's world-conquering duet with Bowie also appears, though sans the Thin White Duke, and I miss him, while the exclamatory “Fat Bottomed Girls” (was this a favorite of Sir Mix-a-Lot's?) provokes Mercury to really let loose, even doing a semi pole dance, now a regular activity for extroverted male guests on The Jerry Springer Show. Taking May's lead, Freddie straps on an acoustic guitar to tackle “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, which I stumbled through myself on karaoke night at a dive bar in Virginia while in grad school some years ago. The version presented here is more bombastic than the album's retro original.
Obligatorily, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that unforgettable camp metallic opera, later immortalized in Wayne's World, appears, but inserting the tune's promo video above the stage was a superfluous error in judgment, to put it mildly. Why would anyone want the distraction? Queen was never a mill for imaginative videos anyhow. They've been content to mount energetic live shows. How many of us fondly recall a Queen promo clip? I honestly don't.
A raucous “Tie Your Mother Down” follows, then they launch into “Another One Bites the Dust” , the premiere single from The Game. Mercury uses an extended instrumental bridge to prance about lasciviously above the crowd. In their reprise of “We Will Rock You” -- its title later borrowed for a Broadway spectacular highlighting the band's hits – they remain faithful to the original tempo. In a typically showy flourish, Freddie dons a sombrero, then May playfully knocks it to the ground.
Extras include backstage interviews from Munich and the Milton Keynes gig, in which Freddie discusses the “new sounds” the band has adopted, while also acknowledging that “there was a lot of friction” between the four friends. Also, a superfluous four minute gallery of allegedly rare photographic stills from the tours, set to “Calling All Girls”. The booklet of pics – with liner notes – in the DVD box is more than sufficient, most would agree. And labeling on said box leads viewers to believe that they'll hear complete renditions of “Flash” and “God Save The Queen”, but that's simply not the case.
Perhaps most exciting is the “Tour Highlights” reel, with Queen Live In Japan, 24 minutes of footage of their Tokyo concert. “Dragon Attack” is sassier here than at Milton Keynes, and an tasty honkytonk piano transforms “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. There's also ten minutes spent at Vienna's Stadthalle, with “We Will Rock You”s percussion at its most primal, and Freddie donning a boxer's robe for “Another One Bites The Dust”. Omitted, however, is a listing of the individual songs performed.
More than two decades after Freddie Mercury's death from AIDS complications, Queen continues to do occasional gigs, and they've utilized a variety of stand-ins, including George Michael, Lisa Stansfield, ex-Bad Company belter Paul Rodgers, and the woefully underappreciated' 80s pop sensation Terence Trent D'Arby. Remember him? With all due respect to those estimable talents, Queen without Freddie Mercury is akin to the Stones without Sir Mick. Queen On Fire: Live At The Bowl, showcasing the band at its prime, makes this inconvenient fact abundantly clear.