Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Hot August Night at the Opera?

My brother and I went to see Neil Diamond the other night since he’s back on another world tour; this one being the 40th anniversary of his Hot August Night live album. This was my third time seeing him in concert and as some readers of Queenville already know, I have his autograph . . . well, I think I do.

Sitting in the stands at the Neil show got me thinking about how he and Queen are connected. By all accounts, there’s not a lot of common ground between the two although I remember reading a Diamond quote in the Phil Sutcliffe book which came out recently. Here’s a shot of page 2 where it appears:

Seeing Neil Diamond sharing the same page as Geddy Lee, both waxing poetic about Queen’s influence on contemporary music, was a juxtaposition I did not expect. I wonder where Sutcliffe found that quote and what the circumstances were behind Diamond offering up his opinion on a band who travels a very different road than himself.

In mainstream culture, both acts have been featured on American Idol and Glee, although Queen’s appearance on both of those programs are significantly more pervasive than Diamond’s.

The soundtrack history of Queen and Diamond are similar, I suppose. Diamond released Jonathon Livingston Seagull in 1973 and won a Grammy for it. Queen released Flash Gordon in 1980 and definitely did not get a Grammy for it. Both albums did, however, make more money than the films in which they appear.

As well, they have both released albums with “jazz” in the title: Jazz and The Jazz Singer. Neither of them had any genuine jazz on them though.

There is minimal convergence between the artists on social media sites it seems. I did find this Facebook page that is one person’s celebration of both Neil Diamond and Queen. The fact that it only has one Like and no Friend activity doesn’t bode well for the person who created this page. Or maybe this person is too busy listening to his or her two favourite artists to maintain this Facebook page.

What about statistics for them? Both are heavy hitters in their respective genres but how do their numbers compare? Here’s what I could find:

Not much similarity, I’m afraid. Queen kicks butt in pretty much all these categories. What I didn’t partition out were how many of Queen’s 62 singles were Top 40 hits. Diamond’s 37 singles are definitely Top 40, according to Wikipedia.

With nearly twice as many studio albums under his belt, Neil still has less than half the number of album sales as Queen. In his defence, though, each Diamond album is carried by him alone, generally. Queen had four songwriters to help divvy up the workload.

What is really surprising in these numbers are the legion of Twitter fans that Neil has — more than three times the number that Queen has. Sup with that?

Perhaps the closest Neil Diamond and Queen got musically was in 1973 when Freddie, Brian, and Roger recorded material by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, the same producers who mentored Diamond when he was a newly signed artist for Bang Records in the 1960s.

Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Neil Diamond (c. 1966)

Speaking of record producers, Rick Rubin is an interesting modern-day connection between the two. Way before Rubin resurrected Johnny Cash’s career and then collaborated with Diamond on two albums, he ruined We Will Rock You in 1991 as one of the Hollywood Records remixes. Way to go, Rick.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Break the (Vanilla) Ice

Media Moment: Ice Breakers commercial
Queen-related: Ice Ice, Baby

Did anyone else catch Ice, Ice, Baby being used in a TV spot for Duo Ice Breakers? Aaarrrgh!

Who gets the royalties from the song these days? 


Spokane harbours Highlander soundtrack?

Spokane was another destination my wife and I had in mind before the summer was out, so we rounded up the little guy, packed the van for a week’s trip, and headed out to the border crossing at Yahk, BC.

There were two used record stores that I found in Spokane that yielded some additions to my collection: 4000 Holes and Recorded Memories. Here’s what I picked up at each:

4000 Holes

An 8-track of The Game from 1980. An 8-track from the 1980s? I thought those things became relics before the end of the ’70s? Apparently not since “…in the U.S., eight-track cartridges were phased out of retail stores by late 1982” (Wikipedia). Hmm, I wonder if that means Greatest Hits, Flash Gordon, and Hot Space are also floating around in 8-track land as well.

With Bob’s help — the owner of Holes — I found a picture disc of Jazz. This was a nice surprise as my collection of picture discs is limited to At the Beeb and an old Heavy Pettin’ record I found years ago.

And the best find at this record store was a picture disc of what appears to be a genuine Highlander soundtrack, not a repackaging of A Kind of Magic but an official film soundtrack that features only those Queen songs that appear in the movie (although the Highlander Theme track on Side 2 is probably a Michael Kamen composition).

This physical artifact would seem to contradict what is on Wikipedia about the AKOM and Highlander projects:

“The album [AKOM] enjoys the status of an unofficial soundtrack for the 1986 film ‘Highlander’ (for which no official soundtrack album was ever released). The title, ‘A Kind of Magic,’ may have come from one of the lines Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) says to describe his immortality. Six out of nine songs on the album appeared in the film, although in different versions. The three songs that did not appear in ’Highlander’ are ‘Pain Is So Close to Pleasure,’ ‘Friends Will Be Friends’ and ‘One Vision’ (which was featured a year earlier in the film ‘Iron Eagle’). Conversely, a recording of ‘Theme from New York, New York’ made specifically for a scene in ‘Highlander’ does not appear on ‘A Kind of Magic,’ and in fact has never been released in album form to date [emphasis added by PB]. According to a statement by Brian May on the ‘Greatest Video Hits 2’ DVD (2003), at least at that point, he had the intention to work on a proper ‘Highlander’ soundtrack in the future. In one scene, a snippet of ‘Hammer to Fall’ plays on a radio, a song from the previously released ‘The Works’ album.”

Recorded Memories

A few blocks east of 4000 Holes is another well-stocked record store, Recorded Memories. Here, I picked up these items from Richard, the owner.

While not a rare item by any means, this 1998 Queen calendar was one I didn’t have so I snagged it. The Queen crest is an interesting treatment as I’ve never seen the astrology symbols, crown, and Q being arranged in a manner like this before. I wonder if it was specific to this calendar or if other 1998 merchandise reflected this crest design as well.

Richard also dug out this shrink-wrapped 45 of Keep Yourself Alive that was a limited release for the band’s 40th Anniversary celebrations:

Again, not a rarity as such, but an item I didn’t have.

I guess with all of these new vinyl additions to my collection, I should consider buying a USB turntable. Maybe I could listen to that version of New York, New York on the Highlander picture disc and confirm whether it’s merely the edited clip from the film or a full-length song that everyone has been asking for since 1986.

Postscript (January 2, 2013) — I had a listen to New York, New York off of the Highlander record this past weekend and it’s the same truncated clip of the song that appears in the movie. Damn it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Duets proves me right . . . finally

You know, I’ve been waiting patiently for the reality show Duets to feature a Queen song, but it’s taken six episodes to get there. Man, the show is boring. I almost gave up recording each episode because it was so freakin’ painful getting through its slow pacing to uncover any Queen tunes.

But no luck until tonight when Robin Thicke and Jennifer Nettles did a decent jazzy rendition of Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It reminded me of Michael BublĂ©’s version but not as much fun.

Why was I expecting a Queen song? I remember watching the season opener when the host Quddus, a nice Canadian boy, mentioned that the show’s winner would get a recording contract with Hollywood Records. What? Isn’t that Queen’s record company in North America? Surely they’d want to promote their biggest act by featuring some of their songs. Which they finally did . . . tonight, thank goodness.

Watching Nettles power through CLTCL reminded me of the YouTube video I saw months ago showing her band Sugarland doing a backstage rendition of Somebody To Love. Clearly she has an affinity — or someone in Sugarland does — for Queen.

What about the other three Duets judges? Do they have any legacy with Queen outside of this reality show? I found John Legend performing Killer Queen, a mashup of some kind with Robin Thicke, and a State of Shock duet between Kelly Clarkson and Robin Thicke. (Hey, it’s co-written by Freddie so that’s close enough.)


Ted . . . potty-mouthed saviour of the universe!

Media Moment: Ted
Queen-related: Flash Gordon soundtrack featured throughout

My wife really wanted to see this movie called Ted, which is about a teddy bear that comes to life thanks to Johnny’s (Mark Wahlberg) childhood wishes.

With knowing less about the movie than my wife, we caught a matinee screening of it yesterday afternoon and I was stunned to find that one of the subplots involves a Flash Gordon-Sam J. Jones fetish by Johnny and Ted, his potty-mouthed teddy bear companion.

The first time we encounter the Flash side story is when the two main characters (man and bear) are on the couch watching TV. Across its screen are a few snippets of the opening animated credits from the 1980 film with Brian’s Flash theme song playing along.

Okay, this could be interesting.

Are we going to get more from the FG soundtrack than just Flash’s Theme? I kept thinking of how prominent this song was in Blades of Glory a few years earlier but in that movie, the Queen homage ended with the single song. Not so in Ted, as it turns out.

Ted, Johnny, and Sam J. Jones celebrate “Death to Ming!” Ming, in this case, ends up being an Asian neighbour who brings his attack duck over to shut the party down.
MacFarlane gives us generous portions of Vultan’s Theme (Attack of the Hawk Men), Battle Theme, The Hero, The Ring (Hypnotic Seduction of Dale), and Football Fight. Also worked into the script were several Flash Gordon pop culture “in-jokes,” most of which occur when Ted convinces Johnny to drop what he’s doing to come over to Ted’s apartment to meet their childhood hero, Sam J. Jones, Flash Gordon himself.

Jones, to his credit, pokes fun at his career-defining character by playing a coked-out, mid-life crisis version of Flash. There’s even a hilarious scene that is a re-imagining of Flash’s escape from Arboria where he leads the Hawkmen rebellion by flying a rocket cycle en route to Ming’s lair. In this movie, however, elderly Jones — in original Flash regalia — is on the rocket cycle with Johnny catching a ride directly behind him; in total awe of what’s happening in this cocaine-inspired dream.

Granted, the film is riddled with many other pop culture references from the ’80s and ’90s, all of which MacFarlane banks on the audience’s collective understanding of or else the jokes fall flat. But why would Flash Gordon figure so prominently as a subplot? MacFarlane could have taken the whole childhood hero idea in any direction and chosen a more mainstream figure to base it on . . . but he went with Sam Jones?

I’m wondering if this decision was influenced more by his childhood fascination with Queen. He’s already shown with a recent Family Guy episode that Queen music had a profound effect on him as a boy, so perhaps his affinity for another Queen album from his youth — in this case, Flash Gordon — suggested the Sam J. Jones subplot for Ted.

Perhaps there’s some pent-up frustration regarding Hot Space that MacFarlane will use as inspiration for his next project.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A recap of The Queen Extravaganza’s Calgary show

The Queen Extravaganza had their second last tour stop here in Calgary last Monday night. My purchased tickets had been collecting dust on the fridge door since the end of March and now my brother and I were ready to see if Roger’s hype would become reality.

As we approached the front entrance to the Jack Singer Concert Hall from the street, I noticed an inordinate amount of Queen t-shirts being proudly worn. I was in uncharted territory, it seems. For me, being a Queen fan has been a fairly solitary existence with the occasional chance encounter with another rabid fan. But tonight, I really started to question whether I was the biggest Queen fan in Calgary, which is a healthy sign of how popular the band is in this part of the world I suppose.

After getting our online tickets scanned at the door, we headed into the lobby. There was absolutely no indication we were going to be patted down or strip searched for contraband technogear, which was good news because I was carrying an iPhone, a Canon SureShot, and a voice recorder to document the show.

At these kinds of events, I normally make a bee line for the merchandise table to see if I can pick up a concert program to add to my collection. Understandably, there were no QE programs nor other paper items (except for a tour poster), so I opted to buy the white two-sided Night at the Opera shirt and a QE keychain.

One of the t-shirts up for sale was the winner of the 40th Anniversary T-shirt Design Contest, which I wrote a lengthy review of here. I don’t recall any of the guests last night wearing Freddie’s Magic Years yellow jacket over their regular shirt as I did with many of the other t-shirt designs that were up for grabs. As a matter of fact, I’d be curious to know how that contest winner has been selling during the QE tour.

Prior to entering the seating bowl, an announcement was made over the PA system that the show would be starting in 20 minutes. Okay, no problem. We found our seats on the main level and observed the crowds rolling in. The age diversity amongst audience members was astounding. Grandparents. Teenagers. Twenty-somethings. Even the thirty-something family seated in front of us brought their two kids, a four-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, to the show.

I could faintly hear some synthesizer music playing in the background. At closer listen, I recognized it as the instrumental Track 13 from Made In Heaven. That’s interesting, I thought. I wonder if the 20-minute announcement regarding the start of the show would correspond to the duration of Track 13 since it is around 20 minutes as well.

Sure enough, after Freddie’s symbolic ascension into heaven as the track ends, the concert hall went dark and the familiar vocal canon from The Prophet’s Song came blasting out of the upper speakers. What a fantastic moment that was. Listening to the multilayered harmonies at that volume was stunning.

Before the crunchy guitar appears after the vocal canon segment of the song, the curtain drops and Jeff Scott Soto does a pretty solid rendition of the fast version of We Will Rock You. He then keeps the momentum going with Tie Your Mother Down.

For the next song, Now I’m Here, Yvan Pedneault takes over for Soto and while Yvan did a competent vocal job, I thought the two guitarists stole the show on this number. Their sound was meatier than Brian’s on the original recording. Brian Gresh and Tristan Avakian really brought the song to life as I thought it should be . . . grittier.

The most famous QE winner, Marc Martel, makes an appearance during the next song, Killer Queen. Up to this point, none of the singers have tried to imitate Freddie although I noticed a few subtle gestures from Soto that he has probably been doing for years since he, more than any of the other band members, has an active history with Queen, the band. Was Martel, however, going to crank up the Freddie persona? No, he didn’t, which he explained later in the show.

He followed KQ with a keyboard-based version of Love of My Life which was a refreshing take on the song because we have been so used to hearing it on an acoustic guitar as a duet over the years. To go back to the album arrangement complete with concerto-type piano work from Brandon Ethridge was a pleasant surprise.

Next, Martel swaps places with Soto for I Want It All. This song has never been a favourite of mine but again, the QE guitarists added a dimension to it that the original was lacking, in my opinion. Soto is then joined by Yvan for Bicycle Race and the two vocalists seemed to have fun bantering the lyrics back and forth. Even the duelling guitar work that Brian offers up in the original was captured nicely by Gresh and Avakian.

The unmistakable opening keyboards to I Want To Break Free signalled the next song. I was half-expecting someone to come out wearing a frock and hair rollers trying to vacuum the stage, but it was just Yvan sauntering in from stage left. I must admit, his performance on this song kickstarted the audience participation that was lacking up to this point in the show. His performance, as a matter of fact, struck me as how John Deacon might have performed it if he was ever able to sing his own songs.

Jennifer Espinoza, the only female chosen for the lineup, comes out on stage and begins singing something that I couldn’t make out initially. After a few seconds, I recognized it as March of the Black Queen, which was a total surprise. Cool, I thought. Maybe they’ll do the entire Black Side of Queen II while they’re at it. MOTBQ was a truncated version, unfortunately, as I was waiting for the best part of the song — the piano and guitar before the “Forget your singalongs and your lullabies, surrender to the city of the fireflies” bit.

Soto returns to the stage at this point for a superb rendition of Dragon Attack. Again, it’s the collaboration between the two guitarists that make it work as a live performance — each playing off of each other, just like in the original version. As an aside, I always thought that Dragon Attack was Queen’s attempt at an contemporary update to Ogre Battle. Both feature mythical beasts surrounded by intricate guitar work. I don’t think the fairy tale motif from their early days were in alignment with their ’80s identity, though.

The stage goes black once again and Freddie’s opening vocal canon to You Take My Breath Away is played until just before the piano segment with Yvan finishing off the song. This ballad is followed by another when Soto appears to do a respectable version of Save Me. And staying with The Game theme at this point, Martel re-appears with an acoustic guitar and does some muted strumming. I don’t think anyone immediately recognized the tune until his strumming turned into the opening chords of Crazy Little Thing Called Love. The whole performance reminded me of Queen’s energized appearance on Saturday Night Live back in 1982.

Then Martel did something totally unexpected, at least in my mind. He did an amusing vaudeville performance of Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon complete with the vocal sound effect as heard on the album. He even managed to pull off Freddie’s unique pronunciation of “Louvre.” And just as this song segues into I’m In Love With My Car on the album, so here it does as well when Tyler Warren, the drummer, does a pretty job with the vocals while crashing away on the drum kit. (I’m sure Roger gave him some pointers when the band rehearsed in Quebec City before the tour started.)

Finishing off the first set was another Opera tune, Bohemian Rhapsody. The vocal horsepower needed for this song required all band members to grab a mike and sing along in unison. Martel commented before the song started that he hadn’t even heard the Freddie’s magnum opus until he watched Wayne’s World. Soto took the reins for the head-banging portion of the song, sort of like Axl Rose taking over for Elton John.

Intermission — another chance to see the age diversity of the audience.
After the intermission, One Vision kicks. I think the band took a page from the Magic Years concerts when Queen used the song as an opening tune because it had a long build up ending in some heavy power chords. Yvan comes back on stage for A Kind of Magic, another fun, uptempo number that he’s is particularly good at performing as we saw earlier with I Want To Break Free.

Marc and Jennifer meet up for a spirited take on Don’t Stop Me Now. I can’t say Martel nailed the opening vocal melody as accurately as he should have, but overall it was pretty good. The video screens behind the band were now being used to greater effect as lyrics to the song were being displayed as the song played on. I think Mark Fisher, their stage designer, should have played Freddie’s 65th birthday Google Doodle since it is still fresh on most fans’ minds. That would have been a fun, contemporary update on the song’s performance.

The baseline riff from Under Pressure starts up and the audience went wild. Marc and Jeff assume their Freddie Mercury–David Bowie personas and the duet begins. The video footage playing on the back screens were from the song’s official music video. (As an aside, I half-expected both of them to pull out Kermit puppets, but it didn’t happen.)

Jennifer comes on stage again for a lovely rendition of Who Wants To Live Forever. It didn’t quite capture the poignancy of the original version but it was close. The guitar work was spot on, though.

Soto joins bass player François-Olivier Doyon on stage for a hard-edged version of Another One Bites the Dust. I must say, the live performances of early synth-based or R&B type Queen songs (i.e., Staying Power) in which they beef up the sound with real drums and heavier guitars give these songs a different life. Add in Soto’s rocking voice and the crowd really picked up on it.

Jennifer was the only band member to parody 
Freddie in some way. If it was one of the men, 
I think it would have invited a perception 
of mockery.
Another Deacon tune, You’re My Best Friend, followed AOBTD but with Jennifer doing her best friendly Freddie rendition. The tone of her voice suited the song well. Jeff came back on stage after this and the vibe definitely changed when the speed-metal guitar riffs from Stone Cold Crazy kicked in. I gotta honest, I was holding my breath when Soto got to the point in the song where Metallic’s version deviated away from the family-friendly lyrics. Would Soto follow Hatfield’s profanity lyric or stick with the original Queen version? Thankfully for the parents of the four-year-old in front of me, it was safe.

Martel then asked how many “Queen Geeks” were in the audience. With a show of hands, it was obviously he was preaching to the choir. This was a lead-up to explaining why the following two songs may not be as familiar to some as the past laundry list of hits have been. As expected, they performed both sections of In The Lap of the Gods. What disappointed me was that Seven Seas of Rhye was not performed during the Calgary show but was played at other venues on this tour. After these back-to-back Sheer Heart Attack tunes, Tyler Warren gave a drum solo that seemed a bit out of place. Why not have the solo either before or after I’m In Love With My Car?

This four-year-old came a long way tonight. 
During the first set, he was visibly uncomfortable 
as he covered his ears. By the close of the show 
he was happily gesturing with the best of 'em.
Martel’s performance of Queen’s swan song, The Show Must Go On, was very poignant as I hoped it would be. I’m usually disappointed in most attempts at this song because they can’t get the whole “my soul is painted like the wings on butterflies” part right. But Martel did a great job. He kept the energy going with his tribute to “’80s fun” by reaffirming Fascist anthem rock is alive and well in Calgary: Radio Ga Ga had everyone hand clapping in unison. Footage from Metropolis and the actual music video probably helped those not familiar with the audience choreography probably helped them along.

Soto then arrived on stage to dedicate the next song to all the ladies in the crowd with big bums. We all know where this was headed and sure enough the multilayered vocal harmonies of Fat Bottomed Girls began. Choosing Jeff to front this song was a great fit. After a thunderous applause, Marc returned to the piano on the stage and performed the song that launched his YouTube career, Somebody To Love.

The inevitable encore consisted of We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions.

After the final bow, Marc announced that all members would be out at the merchandise table and willing to sign anything put in front of them. Damn, it’s too bad they didn’t have a program. In hindsight, I should have gotten at least one of them to sign my business card that has this blog URL on it, and give him/her one as well so they can scope out Queenville at their leisure. But it didn’t occur to me until my brother and I were on the way back home. Oh well.

So was it the Marc Martel show? No. Marc is arguably the most visible member because of his journey to get here, but he by no means stole the show. Half way through the show, Marc echoed Roger’s stated goal of putting together a group of musicians capable of executing Queen songs in a way that was as close to the recorded versions as possible. Sure, there needed to be a sense of similarity to the vocals — just as there would be for the other instruments — but the visual appeal of the band was secondary to their performance.

By having four capable, lead vocalists, they could select which singer best suited the song at hand. By having two guitars, the complex, multi tracked guitar sections found on the records could be performed more closely to how the originals sounded. I have to admit, the QE sound was much fuller and richer than anything I’ve heard Queen themselves do, simply because there are nine live performers doing what four managed to do in the studio.

By downplaying the visual similarities between this band and Queen, the audience was left with focusing on the music itself, which kicked ass. As a matter of fact, it confirmed why Queen music has meant so much to me over the years.

Was this the best Queen tribute show I’ve been to? No question.