Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Japanese lesson [Great Love Songs - 32]

I was a huge Queen fan in my youth. Still am, I suppose. 

Odd how they seem to have passed many people by, even in England, even amongst the generation who enjoyed the prime exposure to them in the '70s (which was when they produced all of their best music, though they continued to be the best live act in the world throughout the '80s, and gained a new audience for themselves in 1985 when, after a few 'wilderness' years, they saved the Wembley 'Live Aid' concert with a showstopping set). A lot of people didn't quite get it. Or they liked it for a while, and then became embarrassed at themselves, dismissed this music as a youthful folly and moved on to other things. Queen never really took off big time in the States at all.

Maybe people couldn't take the sheer bloody exuberance of them, the orgiastic parties, the publicity photo shoots with dozens of naked girls on bicycles... There was probably a certain amount of homophobia working against their flamboyantly camp frontman Freddie Mercury (in fact, I was initially a bit uncomfortable with the band myself, but was inspired to start liking them because they outraged my father so!). Maybe some people were alienated by their intellect too: they were notoriously the 'cleverest' band of that generation, pretty much unique at that time in all being college educated (heck, Brian May was working on a PhD in Astrophysics when the band broke big in the early '70s; he eventually completed it 35 years later, and is currently the Chancellor of Liverpool University). They could all play multiple instruments, and all contributed strong songs to the group, too.

Maybe some people were overwhelmed or repelled by their musical lushness and diversity: they dabbled in such a range of styles - metal, punk, rockabilly, folk, jazz, and eventually synth-pop. And, of course, opera. And while some of these experiments were more successful than others, none of them stunk the place up. It's really hard to think of a poor Queen song, at least from their first 8 albums. Most bands are guilty of using a lot of sub-standard filler to pad out an album. Even The Beatles, I find, don't have that many albums that you can comfortably listen to the whole way through: next to their truly great songs, the weaker ones stand out painfully. But with Queen, even the 'filler' is quite often exceptionally rich. Certainly with the great trilogy of albums that launched them to mega-stardom, Sheer Heart Attack, A Night At The Opera, and A Day At The Races, I can listen to them right through again and again. [All three of these deserve to be in the top few dozen of any all-time ranking, but it's a measure of the snobbery directed against the band from much of the musical establishment that Rolling Stone only grudgingly included A Night At The Opera in the mid-levels of its notorious '500 Greatest Albums Of All Time' list.]

And when you get to the end of A Day At The Races, you find this haunting oddity, Teo Torriatte - a brooding melancholic love ballad from Brian May which erupts into a surgingly anthemic chorus entirely in Japanese. It's ostensibly based on a Japanese poem introduced to them by their translator the first time they toured there. And Freddie, of course, could get a crowd of 50,000 non-Japanese passionately singing along with every word. All true Queen fans know at least a dozen or so words of Japanese.

It perhaps went down even better with a Japanese audience. Here are Freddie and the boys performing it at the Budokan, c. 1979. (Or you can listen to the album version here.)

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