tue 18/09/2018

Queen: Rock the World, BBC Four review - we won't rock you | reviews, news & interviews

Queen: Rock the World, BBC Four review - we won't rock you

Queen: Rock the World, BBC Four review - we won't rock you

Unseen footage of Queen 40 years on explains why punk was a necessary antidote

'We went a little bit punky': Brian May on 'News of the World' (1977)

Forty years ago Whispering Bob Harris made a documentary about Queen. He eavesdropped on them as they recorded the album News of the World and then followed them around America on tour. The film was never broadcast but the footage was exhumed for this anniversary and stapled together in Queen: Rock the World (BBC Four), the latest in the BBC's prancing cavalcade of recent documentaries about the band (see sidebar).

The reason for the film's non-appearance in 1977 was not made explicit. The charitable explanation is that this was the year of punk and the BBC were alive to a shift in popular taste. “Is this man a prat?” asked the NME, socratically, of the band’s marmite frontman. But there’s now a clearer explanation. The footage is, in the main and excepting the odd amusing intervention from Freddie Mercury, elephant-tranquillisingly dull.

This isn’t or wasn't entirely Queen’s fault. It was also Whispering Bob’s, who tiptoed around the band as if in the volatile presence of axe-wielding pharaohs or totalitarian despots. The questions he lobbed at them came oilslicked in subservience and weeping gratitude. “I think it’s worth pointing out it’s the most successful tour on the road right now,” he said as he prepared to subject the quartet to another savage session of toadying.

Also there didn’t seem to be quite enough footage to make a whole film. We spent the best part of a minute watching Roger Taylor thwacking skins as they recorded “Get Down Make Love”. Who didn’t prop their eyes open with matchsticks as, one more time, the four sat at the mixing desk artistically twiddling knobs? It didn’t help that it was mainly shot in black and white. If ever a band needed to be seen in colour…

Students of that moment when Seventies fashions disappeared up a cul de sac can feast on the outfits

The other salient truth about Queen is that they were modest, well-spoken and chin-strokingly serious about their work. “Punk,” remembered Brian May, “was said to be a reaction to people like us who raised their art to a higher point.” It was like burning the midday oil with four double-entry book-keepers. John Deacon, whose pronouncements are collector’s items, obligingly clarified their accounting arrangements in some detail. In the studio they drank coffee, and at after-parties sipped white wine. There were no women to speak of. “There really wasn’t much sex,” recalled Roger Taylor.

Some of the rare live footage will titillate Queenoraks, and students of that moment when Seventies fashions disappeared up a cul de sac can feast on the outfits – the mink blousons, the side-buttoned white strides, Mercury’s selection of back-to-front torso-baring commedia dell’arte unitards. Even Harris worked through a rainbow montage of cardigan-type knitted jackets.

The most intriguing clip found the four meticulously talented musicians recording the instrumental track for “We Are the Champions”, its familiar architecture somehow naked without the soaring tenor theatrics of Mercury’s vocal. “It’s worked out pretty well,” he told Harris, who of course couldn’t have agreed more.

News of the World was, according to May, the moment Queen "went a little bit punky". That's not how it appeared to actual punks. Taylor remembered working in the next-door studio to the Sex Pistols. “Sid Vicious was literally an idiot,” he said. “He was a moron.” Yet weirdly Sid and Freddie had the measure of each other. “Are you bringing ballet to the masses there, Fred?” asked Vicious. “Ah Mr Ferocious, we’re trying our best, dear.” If nothing else, this unmade film helps to demonstrate why British music urgently required the sinful defibrillations of punk rock, and a grittier new generation of journos and DJs. 

Harris’s one sharp question invited the four of them to talk about the sort of albums they might make as soloists. “Oh I’d make a lot of money!” said Freddie. His memory is still making lots of money for half of Queen, who have turned into their own grizzled tribute band. The vocals are performed by a howling pink-haired avatar in a coronet.

The questions Whispering Bob lobbed at them came oilslicked in subservience and weeping gratitude

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