A new DVD release confirms what we always knew; that Queen were an incredible live band. But they were also an act who proved themselves capable of symbolic gestures at the highest level...
With Queen, it’s often a “can’t see the wood for the trees” type of situation. They’re so ubiquitous, so pan-appreciated, that it’s difficult to get near the real band. Their ubiquity is of the order which has that dehumanising quality; they’ve attained the kind of household-name fame which makes them essentially akin to any other household-item you can think of. The furniture; the wallpaper.
One of the facets in modern pop music consumption which hasn’t helped this situation is compilation culture. It’s possible to never touch an act’s true recorded output, however best-selling they might have been in their day, and glibly parse their one or two “Best of…” collections for a choosy handful of hits which you console yourself with. The concert setlist is a kind of live mirror for this, since the paying customers only have time for 20-odd songs, inevitably the material is funnelled to the peaks. A new DVD re-release, the pomp-infused Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live In Budapest ’86, is no exception. The peaks in this context are not musical, they are populist.
These points work in tandem to reduce to individuality of the outfit, and to overfamilarise us with only the most popular aspects of them. It turns out, the more familiar you are with something, the less you notice it. Initially at least, the more attention you pay to something, the more it repays your attention. But this is true only up to a point, after which comes the final assimilation of the thing, and it disappears into your everyday life, into the prosaic. These sentiments are helpfully summed by the phrase familiarity breeds contempt. And what we’re familiar with here is contemptible. Queen were a great band in the era when albums were still events.
Queen were a great band in the era when albums were still events
The fact that they could be susceptible to this kind of opacity is remarkable when you consider how characterful and how colourful Queen actually are. And it’s remarkable when you consider how great they are. Among their finest achievements is the towering ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which is probably the greatest popular song of all time. In all the foursome (and indeed, with all four members contributing hit songs, foursome is the operative collective noun) registered eighteen number one hits, so they had a number of shots at “the greatest popular song of all time” accolade, which I’ve just made up.
But this concert-film is more than simply a record of Queen pop/rock regality. It was a major pop culture breakthrough in that, being staged in communist Hungary, three years prior to the collapse of Eastern Europe’s other red states, it was the first time any Western rock concert had been put on there. The appeal of the gig was such that it drew attendance from many different Eastern bloc countries other than the one it was staged in, with fans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and others flocking to see Queen. Roughly 80,000 people were ultimately at the concert. It’s a good thing fate sent Queen, perhaps the only band with the necessary proportions to tackle the heavy symbolism of that first crossover show.
How does a band assume mantles of that size? Well, when you have as many number one hits as that, and when you have that number of people singing along at one of your gigs, it must be rather like walking into every room, or most rooms, and being greeted with a continual chorus of how amazing you are, and having your hand shaken off by well-wishers. This would surely seem hyper real. The constant adulation. It must begin to lose the ring of truth. The watermark of reality, I think, would fade. In this circumstance only two sanity-saving devices really present themselves: egomania, or reclusivity; attack, or retreat.
Queen’s attitude, as their records would suggest, was to go out on the attack, go out on the town. And really, one must be thankful for the attack bands. The big bands who’ll get the symbolic stuff done; the big bands whose canvases are of a scope that can encompass the largest numbers of people. Capable of inflicting great wrongs (the infamous Sun City show) and yet also significant and important rights, like this Budapest show. You need bands big enough to attack the edifice of a socio-political divider like the Iron Curtain (the latter concert), and the only downside to this is that their egos lead them headstrongly into less venerable causes, like violation of UN sanctions against apartheid in South Africa (the former concert).
It’s an irony that the dehumanising quality of ubiquity is also the quality which allows us to project profoundly human narratives onto their broad shoulders; they’re the big evil corporatists who ignore internationally agreed embargoes; they’re the nominated representatives of western progress and capitalist values. They’re a big band. The depersonalisation means we can make symbols of the culturally dominant, and put their self-serving egos in the service of us.
Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live In Budapest ’86 is released on 5th Nov
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