Queen – A Kind of Magic (1986)
I can still remember going to see Flash Gordon when I was a kid. It was such a cool film. This would’ve been around 1981, I would’ve been about seven, and it blew my mind. I learnt a lot too. I came out thinking: I have to remember that (1.) One can throw metallic footballs at oncoming baddies (2.) Beware of men named Ming (and 3.) Never stick your hand into a big hollowed-out tree trunk. (All films are essentially documentaries when you’re a kid. These were life lessons.)
But I would also come away singing: ‘Flash!…ahh-ahh!…saviour of the universe!’ What a theme song! I didn’t know jack about music at the time, all I knew was that big sound (which I would learn was a guitar) sounded like a roaring jet-propelled spaceship zooming through those kaleidoscopic skies. (I still think of Brian May’s guitar-sound that way.) I didn’t know anything about women either, really, but I knew there was something about Ornella Muti that I liked. And I didn’t know anything about acting, but I thought Sam Jones was up there with (my other big screen heroes) Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford or Gil Gerard. I figured they all probably knew each other and hung out and went to restaurants. I mean, why wouldn’t they?
A few years later my family moved from Brisbane to Sydney and one of the first films I remember seeing in my new hometown was Highlander (I can’t remember the order, but Top Gun, Back to the Future, Aliens and Platoon were up there too) and Queen were back again supplying songs for the soundtrack. ‘Here we are…born to be kings…we’re the princes of the universe!’ That’s how you start a film. I was learning again too. (1.) In lieu of stitches, safety pins can be used to suture deep neck wounds (2.) A trench coat and samurai sword are the ultimate fashion statement (and 3.) It’s better to burn out than to fade away. There was no official soundtrack released at the time, so A Kind of Magic became both their 1986 studio alb and the unofficial soundtrack to Highlander. I got it on cassette and I played the living hell out of it. Queen became my full-on ‘tennis-racquet-in-front-of-the-mirror’ band. (Even now, they still inspire flamboyant air-guitar and fist-punching like no other band.) This was before I had a real concept of band and albums – this was all I had of theirs, so it was just on loop for months and months.
In my late teens I would return and delve deeply into their entire catalogue. Freddie Mercury died just as I was finishing school (November 1991) and it made me dig out that tape again, and from then on, Queen became a more serious musical thing in my life…something sacred and untouchable. They were in my blood. I came to love all their albums: Queen, Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, News of the World, Jazz, Flash Gordon, The Game, The Works, The Miracle, Innuendo…what a body of work. (And Hot Space, still has “Under Pressure”. And considering the circumstances, [the posthumously released] Made in Heaven is still a pretty strong album with some standout songs.) But for all those great albums, if I was forced to choose one to represent the whole, it would be A Kind of Magic.
Their appearance at Live Aid in 1985 is now the thing of legend. Queen had just finished touring The Works and had enjoyed sold-out shows all over the world, but the response of the Wembley crowd obviously energised the band and they gave an incredible show-stealing performance. It’s twenty minutes of rock perfection and a 101 on how to command a stage and move a crowd of 72,000 (check it out on Youtube). Some big names played that day…and they were all redundant by the end (poor ol’ Bowie had to follow them, and it seemed like a cabaret act from the local pub). When Queen sang ‘we are the champions of the world’ it was just a simple truth.
Reinvigorated by Live Aid, they wrote “One Vision”, which blasts out of the gathering-storm-clouds and ignites the Magic album. (This song actually classed-up the 1986 film Iron Eagle. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it, even Louis Gossett Jr. is still trying to figure out how it spawned three sequels.) The rest of the songs seem equally imbued with that same energy and inspiration. They were on fire. The title track became another hit single, and the epic “Who Wants to Live Forever” became (like so many Queen songs) a stadium-sized anthem. Ditto for “Friends Will Be Friends”. Bassist John Deacon (who is one of the most underrated bass players in the history of rock) wrote the two underrated tracks “One Year of Love” and “Pain is So Close to Pleasure”. The songs “Gimme the Prize” and “Princes of the Universe” are the immortal head-chopping Highlander tracks. And some fans might balk at “Don’t Lose Your Head”, but it’s saved by Freddie’s vocals and the glossy 80s production (and themes of decapitation) which keeps it in touch with the rest of the album. So despite being the weakest link, it’s not out of place on the album.
Queen took prog’s cerebral bookish head and reattached it to its body, then gave it a nervous system via strong melodies delivered with a maximum of passion and heart-pumping surges of adrenal energy. In doing so they managed to create a unique style of rock/pop with brawn and brains.
It’s interesting to note that two months after Magic came out, Bon Jovi released Slippery When Wet, which is arguably the highpoint for big-hair and suede tassels and flying harnesses, yet (as any live footage of them at Wembley will testify) Queen had ditched the harlequin outfits and Freddie could rock rings around anyone in just his jeans and sneakers with a short-back-and-sides and a moustache. (Actually, if you wanna see some great live Queen, check out the concert in Montreal in 1981. It was released way back on VHS as We Will Rock You, but it’s been released on DVD as Queen Rock Montreal and it kicks butt. There’s also a CD of that concert, which is cool because it includes “Flash” and “The Hero” from Flash Gordon which unfortunately were cut from the concert film.)
I don’t wanna say this is their ‘best’ album, but this was the album that I played-to-death, alone in my bedroom, before I made serious friends as a teenager. I was somewhere between a kid and a teenager, realising there may be things in this world even cooler than Star Wars toys (maybe). And besides loving Flash Gordon (the song and movie), this was my gateway into Queen. So it will always be special to me. But it’s the perfect choice because it just so happens that this was also when they exploded (further) onto the world stage post-Live Aid and assumed their rightful roles as true Rock Gods…as Champions of the World.
Decoy Spoon November 2011