Christmas 1981 and there was a revolution going on. Punk had blown itself out, new wave was passing and the tribes were on the move – the festive number one was Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’. Not round our house though, the prized gift of the year being Queen‘s Greatest Hits. I suspect I wasn’t alone, as by the end of the nineties it had become the biggest selling British album ever. For a teenager whose first musical epiphany had been Status Quo, it was a revelation – 18 tracks that fulfilled by hormonal desire for rock yet seemed to inhabit a whole different world. I devoured that album, poured over the sleeve notes (although all I could tell you now is that Freddie Mercury wrote ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ in Munich hotel bubble bath) and fell in love.
Best of all was that was only the beginning; there was a whole eight year history to discover. In the days before digital, the combination of finding the albums and the funds meant this was a slow process but gradually it came together – on vinyl, on tape and on copied TDK 90 cassettes (our version of peer to peer file sharing). It was a wonderful journey, as record by record revealed its genius – the perfection of A Night At The Opera and its underated follow-up A Day At The Races, the bombast of Live Killers, the rawness of News Of The World.
At their most extravagant they were a rock band easily the match of Led Zepplin, but Queen were able to do so much more than just bluster. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ had already become overplayed but it was evidence of just what they could achieve with virtually every song. The challenge of punk barely bothered them and by the time Greatest Hits arrived, they were untouchable.
Moving forward from that point in time was not so rewarding. Hot Space was a brave but flawed attempt at change, the peerless ‘Under Pressure’ aside. The Works was probably a reaction to that failure, a commercial hit but a mere rehash of their past glories. After that I lost interest, moved on to new musical relationships, although the news of Freddie’s sad demise brought a genuine tear to my eye. This wasn’t the end of course. The albums kept coming, followed by the compilations, West End musicals, TV commercials and the inevitable come back, this time with Paul Rogers at the helm. You can’t help the feeling that this has been one of the most mismanaged legacies in music. Please though, don’t judge Queen on Ben Elton or Brian May playing guitar on top of Buckingham Palace. Go back to the good stuff, listen to the records and you’ll find a band who genuinely did attempt to re-write the book. And after all, we’ll always have Munich…