Thursday, August 30, 2012

Piracy is more than a pile of lifeless CDs

Freddie gets top billing in a recent campaign by TBWA Italy to bring attention to music piracy and the damage it causes to an artist’s creative spirit, not to mention his or her career.

Also in this series of deceased rock legends are Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Jim Morrison, and Bob Marley.

Symbolically, these effigies are interesting on many levels. The fact that they are all dead musicians speaks to the metaphor of how music piracy can suffocate a career. The fact that CDs are used to execute their likenesses also adds another dimension to the message. They could have used guitar picks for Hendrix, for example, but using the medium of their industry underscores the point even more.

Apparently it took roughly 200 hours to construct each one. I’d be curious to know how they approached the composition; did they work from a super-lifesized outline of the photo it was based on? Did they choose the outfit for each according to the available CD labels connected to each artist? Just like the Lego portrait of Freddie, these likenesses must have taken some spatial problem-solving know-how.

To see the other musicians, check out NME’s article on them here.

Photo courtesy of TBWA Italy


Monday, August 27, 2012

Good luck, Mr. Gorsky!

Remember when it took great effort and talent to achieve worldwide recognition, to garner international fame? Before Jersey Shore, Bachelor Pad, and The Simple Life? Before Hollywood socialites sought fame and courted tabloid rumours?

Neil Armstrong was none of these. Through old-fashioned hard work, he became a household name by doing something that was indeed a “first” in the history of humankind and then shunned the limelight. (And if you’ve ever wondered how much time and effort goes into being an astronaut, check out Dr. Roberta Bondar’s credentials as an example of the level of skill required.)

Assuming, of course, that the lunar landing wasn’t a fabrication pulled off by Stanley Kubrick in a sound studio, can you even compare Armstrong’s achievement with anyone’s achievement from the last 40 years? He was a real trailblazer who happened to end up at the Sea of Tranquility instead of an earthly destination.

Surely Brian’s passion towards celestial bodies and outer space made Armstrong an early hero of his. Did they ever cross paths? It turns out that they did. It was at the Starmus Festival in the summer of 2011, the same one that I blogged about here.

Not only did they cross paths but Brian even had one of his questions for Armstrong answered by the retired navy pilot during his closing speech at the Festival. (The video of Armsrong’s speech with references to Brian can be found here.) With Armstrong’s passing a year later, Brian offers his condolences on his soapbox here.

If he were indeed still alive (and real!), I wonder what Armstrong’s childhood neighbour, Mr. Gorsky, would have to say at the eulogy in a few days?


Sunday, August 12, 2012

London 2012 Closing Ceremonies

Media Moment: London 2012 Closing ceremonies
Queen-related: Various Queen sightings

I missed the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics a week and a half ago but had heard through the grapevine that a snippet of Bohemian Rhapsody was used at one point in the show. This bit of news didn’t surprise me as the word on the street was that British culture was going to be front and centre throughout the games. I checked YouTube to see if a video had been posted regarding Queen’s bit but I couldn't find anything on it.

So when news broke in the Queen community that Brian and Roger would be performing tonight during the closing ceremonies, I was sure to record it to see what they’d do. The much anticipated music segment of the ceremonies was kickstarted with the opening vocal canon of Bohemian Rhapsody.

About two-thirds of the way into the musical performances Freddie appears on the video monitors. It was concert footage of him doing his famous audience singalong, although it was hard to tell on the television broadcast if the audience response was from the concert video footage or from the London crowd on hand.

After Freddie whispers “thank you” at the end of his “Day-Oh” sequence, the silence segues into some loud power chords signalling a Brighton Rock solo from Brian. He appears on one end of the stage decked out all in black.

At closer inspection, his overcoat was obviously custom made for him. It was a curious blend of military regalia, Queen symbolism, as well as his Save Me campaign against badger culling and fox hunting (as his shoulder patches clearly show).

I suppose with a world-wide audience of, what, the whole world, he might as well capitalize on the moment.

The back of Brian’s jacket seemed to have an embroidered design but it was difficult to tell what it was exactly because his guitar strap covered the centre of it.

Was it a stylized Queen crest? Something with an Oriental theme given the colour palette of the jacket and the dragon tail-looking bit peeking out from under his guitar strap?

Towards the end of this segment, he walks over to Roger who’s in the centre of the stage and then the familiar boom-boom-clap rhythm begins. At this point, 24-year-old London native Jessie J begins walking towards Brian and Roger from the opposite side of the stage and arrives just in time to start singing the words to WWRY.

Unfortunately, that was all there was to Queen’s involvement in the closing ceremonies. If ever there was a moment that begged for We Are the Champions, you'd think tonight’s ceremony would have been it. London was obviously patting themselves on the back for an Olympics well done and celebrating British culture at the same time, so what better song to top it off with?

Postscript (August 14, 2012) — Brian’s jacket was given full view here on the site today. The back design is indeed a derivative Queen emblem reflecting animals instead of astrological symbols. As well, We Are The Champions may not have been utilized to full impact by the Olympic organizers for the closing ceremonies, but Entertainment Tonight certainly adopted it for their post-Games story on American athletes bringing home the most medals from a non-American host city. It was played no less than three times in their half-hour broadcast last night.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Here’s why the *%@$ Brian May is still in the competition

Brian is on his way to being crowned the greatest guitarist of all time. At least that seems to be the growing sentiment after three rounds of voting at Guitar World’s online poll of the World’s Greatest Guitarist.

Jeff Beck & Brian May
Brian and Tom Scholz of Boston were paired up in Round One. (Coincidentally, I compared Tom and Brian here in an early blog entry.) Brian defeated Tom and advanced to Round Two against The Guv’nor, Jeff Beck. To the surprise of most GW readers, Brian knocked out Beck, and in an even bigger upset for many he trounced George Harrison by a margin of 73 percent to Harrison’s 27 percent.

Brian’s winning streak is leading at least one poll reader to ask: “Who’s doing this voting? It’s gone from ridiculous to absurd to just plain obvious . . . May over Beck, now May over Harrison, what a fiasco.” And this reader is equally perplexed: “Could someone, anyone, please tell me why the *%@$ Brian May is still in this competition??!!”

In a way I agree with them. Brian typically doesn’t crack the top 10 of the world’s best guitarist polls in all the years I’ve come across them. The marquee players always dominate: Hendrix, Van Halen, Clapton, Page, Blackmore, Beck, Iommi; and later joined by the likes of Vaughn, Vai, and Satriani.

Brian, Bert Weedon, G. Harrison
I think it’s safe to say that Brian enjoys tremendous respect from all of these players (as these two photos suggest) but since pre-Internet reader polls relied on hardcore guitar aficionados and not the general public in supporting their idols, it was the hard rock and heavy metal fanboys that took the time to vote. So no surprise that the names stayed the same year after year.

So what has changed? Why is Brian being positioned as one of the front runners in this Internet-based poll? Well, let’s look at GW’s suggested criteria for voters to consider:

Ability. How good a player is he or she at their given style?
Influence. Who inspired more kids to beg their parents for a guitar for Christmas? Who inspired a wave of copycats?
Chops/Versatility. Is the guitarist in question a one-trick pony or a master of many styles?
Body of Work. Who had the more consistent career? Who has played on more classic albums?
Creativity. Who pioneered new techniques? Who sounds the most radically different from what came before them?

Brian should rank highly in all of these categories I would think. Let’s see.

Ability — He’s better than me . . . which is not saying a lot, I admit. Obviously, he’s competent enough to alternate between rhythm and lead seamlessly and can play two- and three-part harmonies by himself. Is he a good rock guitarist, assuming we pigeonhole him into that style? Sure, no debate there. The interesting thing is I remember an interview with him years ago where he stated he felt his guitar playing isn’t any better now than it was when he was 16 years old. From a purely academic point of view, this is probably true. Like any other passionate teenager discovering the guitar, he no doubt mastered the blues scales, copied popular riffs and licks at the time, and different picking techniques fairly quickly before mastering songwriting and musical theory later on.

Influence — This is probably the most ambiguous category to comment on. When I took up the guitar at 15 it definitely wasn’t because I wanted to play like him; I wanted to play Randy Rhoads riffs and the hammer-ons and pull-offs of Van Halen, both hugely popular metal guitarists at the time. Queen was still my favourite band but I didn’t even consider emulating Brian because Queen songs were so effing complex. The intro to Crazy Train is a piece of cake compared to Ogre Battle. Does Brian influence pre-teens nowadays to take up the guitar? I have no idea. Lots of them like to do their best air guitar to the solo on We Will Rock You or Bohemian Rhapsody, so maybe that’s an indicator. I have come across people like Malmsteen citing him as an influence and even David Lee Roth claimed in a radio interview that the first Queen album was the blueprint for how Van Halen approached many guitar sounds.

Chops/Versatility — Is Brian a one-trick pony? Logic would say no. Queen covered so much musical territory that Brian has proven time and again he can adapt to diverse styles. Does the guitar orchestration on Love of My Life sound remotely similar to his work on Crazy Little Thing Called Love? What about his playing on Procession versus the vaudeville strumming on Bring Back That Leroy Brown? How about the Spanish guitar in Innuendo vs. the blues playing on See What A Fool I've Been? How about disco  with Another One Bites the Dust? Granted, Brian didn’t get much into country although he gets close to folk in many of his songs like Long Away or Let Your Heart Rule Your Head. Let’s not forget he’s composed for film, theatre, and computer games and has guested on a rap song by Dappy. Speaking of guest appearances, he’s in demand as a studio musician. He’s added a Red Special touch to songs by Meat Loaf, Jeffrey Osbourne, Lady Gaga, and the 50 other artists who saw value in his contribution.

Body of Work — Which Queen albums are considered “classic”? It’s probably a safe bet that all of their ’70s records would qualify, maybe even 1980’s The Game given its singles’ success. But I must say that listening to the guitar work on Dancer, Chinese Torture, or even the recent Cosmos Rockin’, it’s obvious that Brian continues to push for new sounds and challenges. Has his career been consistent? Compared to whose? Sure, Queen proper ceased once Freddie died but Brian (and Roger!) continue to try new things musically themselves at the same time creatively shoehorning the Queen catalogue into new opportunities in all media formats.

Creativity — Again, looking at Queen’s diverse body of work, Brian used his guitar not only for strong rhythm and solo work but as an instrument for obtaining unique sounds. His multi-tracking efforts are famous enough — not unlike what Tom Scholz was doing in his basement recording studio — but Brian experimented very early on and created a sound unique in the world of rock music. What about the sound effects on Get Down, Make Love or simulated bagpipes on Gimme The Prize? No shredding here, but what Brian does always suits the mood or spirit of the song.

And what about the fact that Brian built his own guitar? What kind of creativity does that require? Let’s see any of the other 127 guitarists on this GW poll do that.

So, back to my theory as to why Brian is getting the lion’s share of online votes for each successive round in this competition . . . well, I think he’s shown himself to be much more than just a competent, innovative guitar player. That alone should be enough to garner a strong following amongst hardcore guitar players responding to the poll. But I also believe Queen songs have garnered a new generation of fans who appreciate their music as a whole: the strength of their songwriting, the staying power of their melodies, the constant reminder in pop culture that a lot of current musicians look to what Queen did as an example of what is possible.

So when GW runs a poll like this, social media kicks and hordes of Queen fans respond, not just the guitar players in the crowd. In addition to being an amusing read, it’s also encouraging to see the passion in the comments people make about their favourite musicians. Music is about making an emotional connection and from what I’ve been reading, guitar playing and rock music isn’t burning out or fading away anytime soon.

Final thought — I think there should be a poll to determine which famous person has explored their fullest potential in all aspects of his or her life. Brian would certainly be in the top 10 for that list, wouldn’t you think? How many world-renowned professionals in any discipline have attained a PhD in an unrelated field, written three books, is an active supporter for charitable causes, and — best of all — built a musical instrument that is as good, if not better, than anything commercially made? Not too many.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Brian draws inspiration from Spain

Media Moment: Musicians as Artists book
Queen-related: Brian featured

I remember flipping through a book called Actors as Artists many years ago and seeing such thespians as Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman gracing its pages with their paintings. So when I saw Musicians as Artists, I wondered if anyone from Queen would show up.

We all know that Freddie went to art school and presumably left some kind of tangible legacy of works behind, but he was no where to be found in the pages of this compilation. I did find an entry for Brian, however, which I did not expect to see given what we know about his personal interests.

The subject matter of Brian’s woodcut offers, I believe, some insight into what was going in his life at time. Obviously, Brian was involved with the Seville Guitar Legends concert in Spain in October of 1991 so this woodcut was made the summer before his appearance in Seville, according to Brian’s quote in the book:

“I always find excursions into visual art refreshing. While it’s being created, my own music is something quite obsessive; it’s always jostling my mind. Pictures let me out into a wider world. This one was done with my girls in California one summer.”

I think we can assume that when he and his girls did this woodcut he had been invited to the Guitar Legends concerts so it was on his mind in the months leading up to the show.

Was this flamenco guitar image a result of him doing research into Spanish culture and thus is an homage to the host city? Whatever the case, the type of guitar he depicts is an interesting diversion from what we’d expect from a rock guitarist — no electric guitar here.

I suspect that Brian was still on a flamenco high from Queen’s collaboration with Steve Howe when Innuendo was released in February of that same year. That, and his upcoming invitation to the Seville concert, probably put Brian in a Spanish state of mind. All of which would be rendered moot shortly after the Seville concert when Freddie died a month later.

I wonder if Brian did any visual art in response to Freddie’s death?


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What’s in a name?

Even with casual observation, I’m astonished how often I come across the word “queen” or stumble upon a word or phrase that suggests a Queen connotation.

Case in point, I used to drive a Mercury Topaz.

Did I imagine I was motoring around town in Freddie’s car? No. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me that I had owned a car with Freddie’s adopted namesake because the automobile brand was strong enough to supersede any thoughts of Freddie or Queen at the time I owned it.

Only after I donated the car to the local Kidney Foundation did I realize that a Queen fan like myself had just spent ten years driving a Mercury Topaz. It was an interesting and appropriate coincidence, but one that went unnoticed for years. The polysemic nature of the word “mercury” was now evident although I now tend to be reminded of Freddie whenever I see the word mercury in any context.

So did Freddie choose a name that was overused? How many other concepts has the “mercury” label already been applied to? Off the top of my head, the obvious ones come to mind: the planet, the winged messenger god, the earthly element, the outboard motor, Ford’s car division, the NASA project, and of course, the singer.

Wikipedia has a significantly longer list . . . more than 100 items are on their disambiguation page for “mercury.” 

What about when I see the word “queen” in my travels? Do I automatically think of the band? Yes. I can’t help not to — the hard “k” sound of the letter Q and the double “ee” in the name imbue it with a memorable quality that’s both phonetic and visual. And since the band uses it in isolation — there’s no “The” or “Elizabeth” or “beauty” or “bee” used either before or after it, the single word itself becomes the identifier. This works in their favour because when you see the word amongst other words, it is easy to disregard the surrounding text and focus just on that one word. 

Does this result in peripheral support of the Queen brand in some way? Perhaps. The word itself is used in so many respects — popular culture, history, fantasy, card playing, chess, bed sizing, etc. While not as unwieldly as their “mercury” list, Wikipedia lists about 45 uses of the term “queen.” Like it or not, we’re confronted with it everywhere we turn. Just watch the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics as a current example.

So, with a few weeks of casual observation under my belt, here’s what I mean by encountering random, everyday Queen references:

As a parallel, I suppose that in a utopian, Happy Jack world, we’d automatically think of Daltrey and Townshend whenever we saw the word “who.” Or all television commercials for Ford or Audi cars would use songs by The Cars. Or Rolling Stone magazine covered only news about The Rolling Stones. 

And I’m sure brand connoisseur Gene Simmons would dutifully undergo a thousand facelifts if everyone who gave or received a kiss in this world automatically went and bought a Kiss collectible. (How perfect would that top-of-mind be?) 

The reality is, though, most words are multimodal with complex meanings. Even beyond the word “queen,” I find myself seeing snippets of text strings that remind me of Queen songs, as this random collection of TV programming shows: 

I wonder if there is anything in the literature that might suggest if Mercury the Roman messenger god was gay? Maybe Freddie understood something about the Mercury god that went beyond the winged messenger identity he was adopting.

Postscript (August 19, 2012) — Found another one at the mall today: