Queen and I

We’ve gone overboard on every album. But that’s Queen.
– Freddie Mercury

Back in the States now, we’ve been catching up on our streaming of series and movies. One of the first movies on the list, was the Oscar-nominated Bohemian Rhapsody. In case you’ve been living under a rock since the 70’s, the movie presents some of the background story of the rock group Queen, from their early days up to their record-setting performance at the Live Aid concert in Wembley Stadium in 1985, which many music publications have called the best live performance in rock history. Not bad for a twenty minute set.

I haven’t seen all of the Oscar contenders yet, so I will not attempt to make any predictions – other than that the recently announced appearance by the current incarnation of Queen will save what was shaping up to be a ratings nightmare – but I can say that Rita and I, along with the couple who watched with us, thoroughly enjoyed the movie and the performances of the cast.

Was it an entirely accurate depiction on events? Probably not, but with two of the original members behind the production (guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor), it is as close as anyone outside of the band will ever come to the truth of what it was like to be Queen. Did it present Freddie Mercury as too gay, or not gay enough? I think such arguments are pointless. I don’t have a single friend who didn’t know Freddie was gay, and several of the women I know would have happily jumped his bones anyway – it was all about the music to the fans.

For me personally, the movie had a big emotional impact for a couple of reasons. First because of my history as an amateur musician. I got involved in the glam-rock side of music first, with my three biggest early influences being Alice Cooper (Dead Babies was the first song I learned on bass), David Bowie (Suffragette City was another easy song for bass), and Frank Zappa (if Frank were alive to day, I would assure him that NOTHING could replace the mudshark in my mythology).

As my noodling with my Montgomery Ward bass guitar gradually started to evolve into something approaching musical ability in the early 70’s, Queen’s bassist John Deacon was one of my earliest models as I played along with songs from Queen’s first two albums. I saw them live in three very memorable concerts, and I knew just about every word and note of their work from their first album through Jazz.

I also aspired to such players as Chris Squire of Yes, Peter Cetera of the original Chicago, and Tom Fowler with Zappa. Later on, the immortal Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report, Dave DeMarco of Crack the Sky, and Jeff Berlin of former Yes-drummer Bill Buford’s solo efforts were also inspirational.

Of course I listened to and played a lot of other music as well, but if you know anything about bass guitar, you recognize something the group above all have in common: they tend to bring a more melodic element to the bass. Traditionally in rock, the bass was just there to provide a bottom note to chords, and possibly try and keep the drummer in check. (Old musician’s joke. “How can you tell if a drummer is at the door?” “His knock gets gradually louder and faster.”)

Instead of just a steady, reliable back-beat, these bassist tended to play a bass line that added another layer or even a counter-point to the melody. When I had the opportunities to play with bands that were not just covering the hits, that was how I tried to play. Granted, I often failed, but that was always my goal as a bass player.

Unfortunately, those opportunities do not come up often in the world of the garage bands. Mostly it is root-fifth-root, or if you are lucky, something close to a walking bass. When you are out playing the Animal Circuit (Lions, Elks, Eagles, and Moose, oh my!) all they want to hear are the hits and oldies that are easy to dance to, whether it is a fast dance or the slow songs we usually refer to as the “ass grabbers”. Fortunately, there were some exceptions.

In the late 70’s I was in a garage band that played all covers, but included some songs by Queen, Crack the Sky, Yes, Rush, and Frank Zappa. We were the prototypical garage band though – never played any clubs for money – just neighborhood parties, where Zappa’s “Titties and Beer” was especially well-received. These songs gave me a chance to at least test myself against more unusual music and have some fun.

I got my first chance to create my own bass lines playing with a jazz band called “Exit 17”. We were a five-piece band; drummer, bass, keyboards, guitar and flute (really). We played jazz standards like Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, etc., operating usually from Fake Books. If you are not familiar with the resource, these books (sometimes called Real Books) would give you a one or two page song sheet consisting of just the melody line and basic chords of the tune, the idea being that you “fake” the rest. This allows some room for interpretation and creative expression.

Fake Book version of the classic “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess. Note this one does not even include the melody or lyrics.

While this band did have paid gigs in and around the Baltimore area, it was still not ideal for me. Although I benefited from playing jazz, especially when it comes to my blues game, I’ve always been a rock bassist. I was WAY out of my league with the other musicians, who were all classically trained. I remember watching Gayle, our keyboardist, playing chords with her left, a killer lead with her right, while most of her attention was on watching the TV over the bar. Our guitarist Cindy once told me “We’re going to be doing this piece in a Dorian mode, so you could probably just work around pedal tones or try something in an Iambic.” My response: “Um, you mean like an F?”

Finally, we get to the second big reason the Queen movie had such an emotional impact on me. The parts of the movie dealing with their early days reminded me of my time in the late 1980’s with a band that also performed all original music that was radically different from what most other bands were doing in the club scene. We experimented with odd time signatures, like Emerald Dawn, an instrumental number in 15/16 time and a key of G#Minor (trust me, that is a bit unusual) that allowed each of us a chance to solo. We also had songs that stretched into the five to seven minute range, with several changes of tempo and keys in some cases, and we were four people with pretty diverse backgrounds and styles that somehow clicked together.

The heart of the band was Bill Racine and Ron Johnson, who were the two songwriters. They each sang and played both keys and guitar, and would switch off depending on the tune. Our drummer was Joe Lee, who was incredibly precise and proficient. He could listen to a song with his eyes closed, visualizing it, and then play it flawlessly. I rounded things out on bass, and also sang backup and some lead.

We were originally playing under the name “Red Shift”, but after some unfortunate misspellings on marquis, we changed our name to, believe it or not, “Buddhist Monks on Vacation”.

We played clubs and bars in the DC and Baltimore area, and while we didn’t make much money, we did build up a bit of a following and I had the best time I ever had playing in a band. Usually, Bill or Ron would bring in a chord chart of their song, similar to the Fake Book example above. It was exhilarating to be able to just make up whatever bass part I wanted that fit the music and the mood.

Once we were working on our own “Bohemian Rhapsody”, a song Bill wrote called “Cantus”. While it did not have an operatic section, it did have three distinct movements, a couple of musical themes, and even a time signature change in one transition. Anyway, we came to our first serious work on the central movement, where the music drops off from a climax into a slower piece, with just light chording from the keyboards behind vocals and bass. I’m supposed to be playing “something that builds slowly and dramatically as the other instruments slowly come in”. That was my only direction, other than Bill’s lyrics:

Reaching out we try to find
Some answers, some unity.
We go seeking a place
Or a person who can make us complete.
We want security,
We want to put our struggles to rest
We want to find a sense of purpose
We want our lives to be blessed.
But have we courage enough
To put aside the games and masks?
Baring our souls, face to the sun,
Needing help, have we the strength to ask?

I remember I was just kind of rocking slowly with my eyes shut, playing along floating with the feel of the song as it gradually built up to a return to an earlier theme. When we finished that first play-through, I opened my eyes and a friend who was watching the rehearsal exclaimed, “Man, that was perfect! You should do it like that all the time!”.

Naturally, with those words I completely forgot whatever it was I had played.

I also resonated with the images from the movie of Queen in the studio in the early days. It was with “Monks” that I first got a chance to record in a professional studio. Bill was working at the Peabody Music Conservatory in Baltimore at the time, and we were able to use the facility after hours. In one recording session, a saxophonist happen to pass by, and asked if he could sit in. Why not? So we added a saxophone track to several songs (one of those is available to listen to on a link at the end of the post, if you are into that kind of thing).

That band went the way of most bands. One member has to leave, so you play around trying to replace them but nothing seems the same. We broke up, reformed, and broke up again. No major conflicts, just couldn’t reproduce the magic. I played in a southern rock band with Joe for a while, but then I and my wife and kids moved to West Virginia, where it was back to the Animal Circuit. Even worse, I was consigned to pedestrian bass parts on oldy-and-moldy country songs.

I don’t think I’m alone in my reaction to the movie Bohemian Rhapsody. Whether a musician or not, there are millions of people out there that associate the music of Queen with a significant part of their lives as teens and young adults. For us, the music of the soundtrack is enough to put us back in those Glory Days. The movie has some rather poignant parts, not the least of which is watching Freddie on stage at Wembley, knowing that he is on a death sentence from AIDS, singing the lyric “I don’t want to die! Sometimes wish I’d never been born at all!”.

The music of Queen has stood the test of time as well. Their music is like the Beatles and some of the other greats, in that you can listen to a song that is 30 years old or more, and it does not sound dated. The best music continues to find fans in each generation, and this movie will probably also introduce a lot of young people to the band.

I would like to see the movie get some recognition at the Oscars, but if not, it is really no big deal as far as the overall legacy of Queen. I’ll still occasionally play “You’re My Best Friend” along with “Deaky” on my bass, or take a break once and a while to break out the ol’ Brian May Red Special Replica, and amuse myself with a rousing rendition of “Tie Your Mother Down”.

For your amusement, “The Night” by Bill Racine and Buddhist Monks on Vacation from “The Peabody Sessions”, featuring an anonymous sax player. We usually played this at a faster tempo, but it seemed like more fun as a torch-y blues with the sax.

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  • Gale Ormiston says:

    Wow! You capture so many of my own thoughts in this essay. We do what we can to express ourselves in music but it is always up to the public to provide acceptance. It is our own approval that we need to find. I think you deserve your own applause. You have mine…

  • Mary Riley says:

    wow I did not know this about you. How fascinating and how so very detailed descriptive. I too was around during that eara….just a listener and follower…but great memories you provoked.

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