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“i heard it on my radio…” happy birthday, brian may.

Yesterday was Brian May’s birthday. He turned 70. How does a stately, freshly-minted septuagenarian British astrophysicist celebrate this milestone birthday? In the middle of a North American tour with Queen + Adam Lambert, of course. May’s birthday fell on an off day between gigs. He just played Toronto, now on his way to Detroit.

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Brian May at The Joint, Las Vegas, 6 July 2014.

I saw Queen + AL about three years ago when they rolled through Las Vegas. They crammed their monstrous arena show rig—well, a portion of it, at least—into the 3,000-seat Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. My buddy Brit and I went to their second of two shows at The Joint.

You’ve heard me talk about this show more times than you care to remember, I’m sure. But it was a pretty big deal for me. I’ve been listening to Queen for as long as I can remember. No, really.

“…and everything I had to know, I heard it on my radio…”
One of my earliest memories of listening to Queen was sometime in the mid-70s. I was five years old or so. I think my parents were having a party or something. Since Shawn and I were little, we had to go to bed fairly early so the grown-ups could keep the party going. Mom and Dad let me sleep in their room with a radio on.

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This is a pretty close version of the clock-radio my parents had when I was a kid.

I distinctly remember Dad asking me if I wanted the radio on. It was a vintage “digital” clock-radio. You know the kind—white, molded plastic with the analog-style digits that would flip over like a Rolodex. With the lights turned off, the clock numbers glowed a hazy, green hue. I was little and afraid of the dark, so Dad left the bedroom light on. I was also a night owl from a very young age. Sleep has never come easily for me at bedtime. So I remember vividly lying awake in bed—wide awake, staring at those numbers on the clock tumble over—trying to focus on the radio to drown out the faint noise of people downstairs. I don’t remember any songs that played that night, but for one. It was a song I’d heard before in bits and pieces. It always caught my attention and I thought I might like it, but I’d never had a chance to really listen to it. Until now. The opening was already familiar to me…

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy…”

In that instant, in that moment, I became a Queen fan. Bohemian Rhapsody is the first song I could identify as a Queen song. What was it that I liked so much about it? Was it the lyrics? Was it the harmonies? The guitars? What was it? Who cares?! No, nothing about that song made a lick of sense to me. None of it. But gimme a break. I was five years old. What did I know about Bismillah and Beelzebub? I didn’t care. I just knew I liked the song, and maybe that’s the real point about music appreciation. You don’t have to quantify it. If you like it, that’s all that matters. And I knew I really liked Bohemian Rhapsody!

“…when I’m holding your wheel, all I hear is your gear…”
Not too long after that, I began going through my dad’s record collection, plundering for Queen albums to play. He had A Night at the Opera and Jazz. I played those records endlessly. He also had a couple songs from Queen I dubbed onto a cassette or 8-track that I’d dig out and play on occasion. I always liked the drum parts on Liar and Keep Yourself Alive (still do). One song Dad played quite a bit back then was I’m In Love With My Car, a Roger Taylor cut from A Night at the Opera. Of all the Queen songs I listened to in my youth, I tend to associate that one with Dad more than any other. Was he a car nut? Yes and no. I think he just liked the song a lot.

Mom has her favorite Queen song, too, I should mention: Don’t Stop Me Now. She’s always said it’s a great driving song. She’s right, but be forewarned: playing Don’t Stop Me Now while driving may lead to a lead foot and a speeding ticket (you’ve been warned).

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Dad’s stereo in the 70s looked an awful lot like this. We got a lot of mileage out of that thing, too.

If you’re wondering why in the hell our dad would let Shawn and I monkey around with his precious stereo system, it’s a good question. Truth is, we had to work our way up to it. We got our own record player when we were six or seven years old. And we were taught very early on that albums are to be treated delicately; especially Dad’s albums! Many times, he’d cue up the records. Over time, he eased us into using his system. And whenever Dad upgraded his hi-fi, he bequeathed the old system to us. If you knew our dad, then it doesn’t shock you at all that Shawn and I are audiophiles. Anyway…

“…that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit, travelin’ at the speed of light…”
The next Queen record I got was Live Killers (it was for my brother Shawn and I, actually). Our parents bought it for us at a family outing to the mall (Hampton Mall, I’m pretty sure; not Fashion Square Mall in Saginaw). I remember coming home from the mall and we put the record on the turntable and gave it a listen as a family. I don’t really think Mom and Dad originally intended on sitting there and listening with us, but they did anyway. I was maybe nine or ten years old at the time and this was my first experience with a live album.

Another year or two later, my parents bought me A Day at the Races for my birthday. They went to Detroit for the night and I think they bought it during a mall excursion down there. I think it was Christmas 1980 when Dave Wade (a family friend) got me The Game. At the time, this was a very popular album; probably the height of Queen’s popularity in the States while Freddie was still with us.

“…he spends his evenings alone, in his hotel room…”
Throughout 80s, I rounded out my Queen collection with my paper route money. I remember, to this day, buying News of the World, taking it home and playing it for the first time. My ritual with new album purchases was pretty much the same. I’d drop the needle, sit on the floor in our spare room (that’s what we called our “play” room) and listen with the album sleeve in my lap. I can still feel that semi-shaggy white carpeting and see the dark brown woodwork all along the baseboards in that room.

587abcd3c795f89809a0361d8ff22662.1000x1000x1Over the next three decades, I swapped my Queen vinyl for Queen CDs. Lately, I’ve been buying Queen on vinyl again. Go figure. I guess I’ve gone full circle.

Somewhere in the middle of all that on a Sunday night in early/mid 1992, my buddy Mike and I go to movies to see Wayne’s World. And what greets us in one of the opening scenes?

“Mama…just killed a man. Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he’s dead.”

“…I’ve been with you such a long time…”
Hearing Bohemian Rhapsody while Wayne, Garth & crew were riding in Garth’s Pacer was like an unexpected visit from an old friend…and a pure joy to watch. Freddie had already died by the time the movie was released so he never got to see it, but Brian always said Freddie would’ve loved Mike Myers’ and Dana Carvey’s tribute.

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Anyway, Brian May’s birthday this week got me to reflecting on that earliest of Queen memories (and a few others). If you ever wondered—and I’m sure you didn’t—my lifelong love of Queen started with an old clock-radio in my parents’ bedroom, thanks to Mom and Dad having a party.

Happy Birthday, Brian May. May you live forever.

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friday five: rock bands that did just fine with a new lead singer.

FF_Help Wanted
In rock n’ roll, loss of a lead singer usually signals immediate death. Sure, drummers and guitarists are important to the band (bass players? Hmm….), but unless your name is Keith Richards or the Edge, the band will move on without you and probably not miss much of a beat. But lose the singer? The voice? That’s like Jennifer Grey’s new nose: We still like you, but we miss the old nose.

To resurrect one of my all-time favorite Internet memes, The Friday Five, here’s my list of five bands who went out and got a new nose and survived and thrived. Of course, this list is highly subjective. That’s the beauty of The Friday Five. It’s there for you to agree, disagree, add, respond and so on. Without further adieu…

5. Journey
FF_JourneyI admit I’ve never been a huge fan of Journey. Steve Perry was shown the door in 1998 and, after nearly a decade of wandering aimlessly, the rest of the band found their replacement in Arnel Pineda. Now, to me, Journey has become nothing more than a cover band of itself, but Journey fans don’t seem to miss Perry too much. So, yeah, Journey makes this list. Barely.

4. Survivor
FF_SurvivorYou remember Survivor, don’t you? Of course you do. In 1982, everybody new Survivor, thanks to their sports/rock anthem, Eye of the Tiger. Its inclusion in the movie, Rocky III, launched Survivor to instant stardom. Survivor would go on to become a staple on MTV and rock radio throughout the 80s.

Incredibly, Survivor established the majority of its success with a different lead singer. David Bickler handled vocals on Eye of the Tiger, the band’s first No. 1 hit and only international No. 1 song. Soon after its success, Bickler was shown the door and Jimi Jamison entered. With Jamison handling vocals, Survivor released a string of hits: I Can’t Hold Back (No. 1), High on You, The Search is Over and Burning Heart. The 90s and beyond were not kind to Survivor (as with most 80s bands), but there’s no denying their success with Jimi Jamison.

3. Queen
FF_QueenFor the better part of two decades, Queen sat dormant, thanks to the sad death of Freddie Mercury. Sure, they gigged and recorded with Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers a few years ago, but no one really paid any attention. And then along comes Adam Lambert. The groundwork was laid back in 2009, when Lambert, as American Idol finalist, performed with Queen on the show’s season finale. The chemistry was obvious.

Fast forward five years and Queen + Adam Lambert embark on a massive world tour, including Queen’s first shows in the United States since 1980. And the crowd went wild. If I’m not mistaken, they sold out pretty much every U.S. show they performed. No one can replace Freddie. But with Adam Lambert, Queen found a frontman capable of carrying the Queen torch for a new generation of fans.

2. Van Halen
FF_Van-HalenThe greatest rock ’n roll soap opera this side of KISS. Dave vs. Sammy is a debate that will rage on forever among Van Halen fans until the day they die. Whether you love him or hate him, though, Sammy Hagar’s 11 year stint at the band’s lead singer was a rousing success. Not bad, considering Hagar was following a wildly successful era when Van Halen had truly reached the peak of its critical and commercial success with David Lee Roth. No question, the 1984 album was a monster. How could a new singer follow that? Roth’s departure left a daunting hole in the band that no one believed could be filled by anyone other than Roth. Hagar stepped in and the band played on to continued success. Four No. 1 albums. 16 million in record sales and four massively successful world tours with Hagar cemented his bona fides as a Van Halen frontman.

Of course, this soap opera didn’t end there. Sammy’s no longer in the band—and Van Halen could also make the list of Bands Who Failed Miserably With New Lead Singers (I’m working on it) when they brought in Extreme’s Gary Cherone—but those Sammy years were pretty good for VH.

1. AC/DC
FF_ACDCNo rock band that I can think of has lost such a huge part of their signature sound and rebounded so strongly with a new lead singer better than AC/DC. Bon Scott died in 1980, just six years after the band formed. He left behind a magnificent legacy of rock music: Dirty Deeds, Highway to Hell, Big Balls, Whole Lotta Rosie. Jailbreak, It’s A Long Way to the Top and much, much more. That, alone, is an impressive catalog. AC/DC still makes the Rock HoF with that list, if they pack it in after Scott’s death. But how did they respond? With a new lead singer and one of the most essential rock n’ roll albums of the century: Back in Black, the fifth best-selling album of all time

How would the fans react? Would they embrace him? Thirty-five years later and counting, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Johnson’s résumé of hits has been astounding: Back in Black, Hell’s Bells, For Those About to Rock, Thunderstruck, You Shook Me All Night Long, and on and on and on. There isn’t a person in the world who hasn’t heard at least one AC/DC song, thanks in large part to Johnson’s work as the band’s singer. Not bad for a replacement singer.
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queen at live aid, 29 years later.

Twenty-nine years ago today, this happened.


It was a Saturday. I remember it like it was last Saturday. I was up all night the night before because I was so excited about seeing Queen live. Late Friday night, I set up camp in the family room of my boyhood home in Bay City, Michigan and turned on MTV in the wee hours to discover this obscure, live concert broadcast from Australia. I had no idea what Oz for Africa was, nor did I recognize any of the bands outside of INXS (clearly, I completely missed Men At Work’s set), but I kept it on so as to not miss Live Aid.

As was customary for my brother and I in the summer, we usually did our paper route on the weekends long before sunrise (although I think I was flying solo, at this point, as he had recently turned 16 and I think he had a job). As soon as the bundles of newspapers were dropped off at the corner, we’d throw them in our canvas Bay City Times delivery bags and walk the three blocks to our route. All before 4 a.m. on Saturday mornings, usually. I know what you’re thinking. “That doesn’t seem safe!” Relax. It was totally safe. And quiet. And dark. And fun. The cool summer night air and dewey grass made it pleasant and peaceful…and the cloak of the godforsaken hour’s pitch-black darkness combined with our sense that we had to be stealthy and animal quiet made us feel like we were getting away with something, like we were committing a caper! Hey, when you’re 14 years old, you live on whatever edge you can find.

By the time I returned home and ditched the canvas bags, I returned to my family room entrenchment as Oz for Africa was heading into its homestretch. It closed with INXS performing one of their signature hits, Don’t Change. Around 6 a.m. ET, Live Aid kicked off in London’s Wembley Stadium. I watched as Status Quo—a band I had never heard before—opened the festivities with a song I still remember to this very day: Rockin’ All Over The World. So many great performances from rock icons and bands of the zeitgeist bands of the day: Style Council, Bryan Adams, Run-DMC, Howard Jones, U2, Duran Duran, The Hooters, Billy Ocean…and on and on and on. I know I nodded off at some point during the show, because my brother woke me up to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

When Queen finally took the stage in the early afternoon (in the US), I had the TV on in the family room and the stereo on in the dining room and I was bouncing around the house during their set. I was right there with Freddie and the Wembley crowd, fist-pumping during Radio GaGa, singing along to Freddie’s serve-and-volley with the crowd and playing air guitar while Brian May played Hammer To Fall. I don’t recall if it was that day or later, but my friend Bobby—knowing I was a huge Queen fan—later told me he was going to call me when Queen went on to make sure I didn’t miss it.

On a bill that included performances from Paul McCartney, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan (w/ Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood), Elton John, Mick Jagger w/ Tina Turner, Madonna and so, so many more, who knew that Queen’s performance at Live Aid would go down as THE performance of the entire event?

What people don’t remember is Queen, at that time, was no longer a huge band in the U.S. After The Game, Queen was largely forgotten in the States. While they were conquering the world in 1986, American audiences mostly ignored them. It wasn’t until Freddie Mercury died in 1991 that anyone in the U.S. really began paying attention to Queen’s music again. And then, in 1992, Queen’s revival was boosted by that one scene in that one car in Wayne’s World.

I don’t know that a concert of this magnitude could take place again and resonate like Live Aid. Remember, this was long before the Internet. People still listened to the radio, bought records (on cassette or CD, at the time) and MTV still played music videos. I suppose you could say Live Aid bridged the gap between the great music festivals of the 1960s and the Coachellas and Bonnaroos and Lollapaloozas of today.

A big difference between then and now: no one talks about a legendary Bonnaroo performance outside of those who were there. Twenty-nine years from now, we won’t be having a discussion about Skrillex or Dierks Bentley or even Elton John at this year’s Bonnaroo. No one will point to any of these festivals as the culmination of that moment in time quite the way we do with Freddie and Queen at Live Aid. I mean no disrespect to the artists who perform at those events, nor the fans who attend, but it’s the reality of a 24/7, information overload world. We don’t have shared pop culture moments like this anymore. We, as a society, no longer stop and stare at the same thing unless it’s a tragedy.

Even though it took Freddie’s death to rekindle Queen’s popularity in the U.S., the casual Live Aid observer couldn’t help but note he truly owned the stage on that one July day in 1985.

Hard to believe it was 29 years ago today. And I remember it like it was yesterday.

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the show must go on: queen + adam lambert rocked the joint in vegas.

No one can replace Freddie Mercury. No one. The good news is no one is trying to replace Freddie. That being said, Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor couldn’t have found a better singer than Adam Lambert to take the stage with them on their current North American tour.

Queen + Adam Lambert at The Joint, Las Vegas, 6 July 2014.

Queen + Adam Lambert at The Joint, Las Vegas, 6 July 2014.

Queen + Adam Lambert rolled into Las Vegas for a sold out, two-night stand at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s The Joint over Fourth of July weekend. Seating just around 3,000 people, The Joint is easily Queen’s most intimate venue on this 24-city tour. Despite the pared down stage (by Queen’s standards), they still left an indelible footprint on The Joint, burning through a two-hour set of obscure gems, greatest hits and re-imagined classics.

The lights dimmed to the familiar chords of Procession, from the Queen II album. The curtain dropped and Queen blasted into their set, opening the show with a raucous rendition of Now I’m Here on the strength of May’s signature Red Special guitar sound and Taylor’s adrenaline-pumping drums. Before the audience had a chance to breathe, they launched into the jolting rocker, Stone Cold Crazy, reminding fans Queen can still put the pedal to the metal.

For the next two hours, Queen, Lambert and their supporting cast (bass player Neil Fairclough, Spike Edney on the keyboards and Roger’s son, Rufus, on drums and percussion) deftly ripped through a set of Queen classics as though they never missed a beat. Whether bouncy sing-alongs like Fat Bottomed Girls, the raw power of Tie Your Mother Down or Lambert’s vocal gymnastics on Somebody To Love, Queen and Lambert were flexing their muscles, daring the audience to not love it. The Vegas audience roared with approval when, mid-show, May coyly asked, “What do you think of the new kid?”

For his part, Lambert—the “new kid”—prowled, strutted and preened across the stage like he owned it. Anyone who’s following Freddie Mercury can’t be a shrinking violet and Lambert certainly made this set his own, putting his own stamp on Queen’s daunting setlist. He was never more at home than with Killer Queen. Perched on a purple chaise and guzzling Moet & Chandon, Lambert was campy, theatrical, over-the-top and basking in music befitting both his vocal range and Broadway diva stage presence. For Lambert and the fans, Killer Queen was just one high point of many on this night; an obvious marriage of classic Queen and Lambert’s interpretation. Watching May share the stage and clown with Lambert during Killer Queen, it was evident that he was truly enjoying the performance.

Lambert also paid homage to Freddie with his vocal on a slower, rearranged version of Mercury’s solo song, Love Kills. But Lambert’s most soulful tribute to Mercury was during the powerful and emotional Who Wants to Live Forever. “Who dares to love forever, when love must die?”

With a catalog as deep as Queen’s, they found clever ways of squeezing in fan favorites in the least expected of places. Leading into an emotionally charged Under Pressure (Roger sharing vocals with Lambert), bassist Neil Fairclough paid homage to John Deacon as he ripped through a smooth and soulful bass solo that included traces of Body Language and Dragon Attack.

Brian May at The Joint, Las Vegas, 6 July 2014.

Brian May at The Joint, Las Vegas, 6 July 2014.

The most poignant moment of the night came during Brian May’s two-song acoustic set, beginning with the Mercury-penned ballad Love Of My Life. As is customary at Queen shows, May deferred to the audience to sing along with him. For the closing verse, May and the audience were treated to a video of Freddie singing, eliciting cheers and tears from the crowd in an emotional and cathartic moment for both May and the audience.

The mood quickly lightened as May was rejoined by the band (sans Lambert) for a rousing, countrified version of ’39, which was followed by Roger taking the lead on the bittersweet ballad, These Are The Days Of Our Lives, which was accompanied by a video montage of Queen from their earliest days. Probably the most spontaneous moment of the night came during this song as the audience cheered loudly at the first image of original bassist John Deacon, who retired from performing after Freddie died.

Heading into the homestretch, May took the stage for himself to deliver an illusive and dark 12-minute guitar solo that weaved improvised licks through snippets of Last Horizon (from his 1991 solo album, Back To The Light) and traces of Brighton Rock. There’s a reason Eddie Van Halen considers May a contemporary and his solo on this night cemented it.

Queen + Adam Lambert closed out the night with all the subtlety of a Mike Tyson punch, bringing the heat with Tie Your Mother Down, an inspired, fist-pumping, hand-clapping Radio GaGa, Crazy Little Thing Called Love and the truly mesmerizing The Show Must Go On and the all-time classic, Bohemian Rhapsody. Freddie came back to perform with the band on the big screen, delivering the the final verse before May’s guitar solo and operatic middle section. Queen closed Rhapsody with a fury, but that was not the end of the show.

Returning for just one encore—and you know what it has to be—they blew the roof off The Joint with a heart pounding We Will Rock You and gold-glittered We Are The Champions, leaving everything on the stage.

With the exception of the youthful Lambert and Rufus Taylor, this retirement-aged group of stately Britsh gentlemen played with as much vigor, passion and emotion as any 20-something rock band out there today. It’s clear Lambert invigorated May and Taylor. They were enjoying every moment of the show.

There is no better way than this to honor the legacy of Freddie Mercury.

The show must go on.

From left to right: Neil Fairclough (bass), Rufus Taylor (percussion, drums), Adam Lambert (vocals), Brian May (guitar, vocals), Roger Taylor (drums, vocals) & Spike Edney (keyboards).

From left to right: Neil Fairclough (bass), Rufus Taylor (percussion, drums), Adam Lambert (vocals), Brian May (guitar, vocals), Roger Taylor (drums, vocals) & Spike Edney (keyboards).


Setlist:
Intro—Procession
Now I’m Here
Stone Cold Crazy
Another One Bites the Dust
Fat Bottomed Girls
In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited
Seven Seas of Rhye
Killer Queen
Somebody to Love
I Want It All
Love of My Life
’39
These Are the Days of Our Lives
Under Pressure
Love Kills
Who Wants to Live Forever
Guitar Solo
Tie Your Mother Down
Radio GaGa
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
The Show Must Go On
Bohemian Rhapsody
We Will Rock You
We Are the Champions
Outro—God Save the Queen

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