My Life In Horror
Every month, I will write about a film, album, book or event that I consider horror, and that had a warping effect on my young mind. You will discover my definition of what constitutes horror is both eclectic and elastic. Don’t write in. Also, of necessity, much of this will be bullshit – as in, my best recollection of things that happened anywhere from 15 – 30 years ago. Sometimes I will revisit the source material contemporaneously, further compounding the potential bullshit factor. Finally, intimate familiarity with the text is assumed – to put it bluntly, here be gigantic and comprehensive spoilers. Though in the vast majority of cases, I’d recommend doing yourself a favour and checking out the original material first anyway.
This is not history. This is not journalism. This is not a review.
This is my life in horror.
In Stephen King's 'On Writing', King makes a pretty convincing case that writing is actually telepathy. He thinks something in his head, and then he transcribes what he sees, and when you pick up the book and read it, blam, his thought is now in your head. He's serious about this, or at least he claims to be, and the more I think about it, the more seriously I take it, too.
And I'm beginning to suspect that if writing is telepathy, maybe a musical recording is time travel.
It's Saturday 20th December 2014. I am Christmas shopping in The Centre:MK.
I'm shopping because, as usual, I've left it too late – let the calendar just plain run me over, every day an I'll-do-it-tomorrow, until it dawns that I'm out of tomorrows, and if I don't get it done, there's going to be some upset people in my immediate future.
So I join the hollow eyed hordes of Milton Keynes and surrounding environs, and engage with them in the mind numbing, soul crushing H-bomb ground zero of capitalistic spending that is the last shopping weekend before C-Day.
At some point, I make it to HMV, which is handy, as there are music CD's on my list. After some initial confusion, I work out that the CD's no longer occupy the huge ground floor like they used to (that's DVD/Blu Ray central now), but have instead been relegated to the much smaller upper deck. Trying not to feel a billion years old, I take the escalator, and browse. Sure enough, there's the CD I want to get. Even better, thanks to a special offer, I can save money by buying a second CD and spending more money (yes, my mind actually works like this. No, I do not want to buy a bridge). I browse, finding either discs I already own or ones I have no interest in buying until...
There it sits. Classic blue (Navy? Royal?), dark, the gold lettering, that coat of arms. I pick it up and read through the track listing, goosebumps running up my arms. I've never owned this, but I'm intimately familiar with it. I chuck it in the basket and buy it as part of the twofer offer, secure in the knowledge that no-one will have got me this as a gift. How could they? I didn't even know I needed it until I saw it.
I get the rest of the shopping done, then get in the car. Before I start the engine, before I even get my seatbelt on, I rummage in the HMV bag and pull out the CD, looking again at that cover. Reading the words.
Queen: Greatest Hits II.
I'm smiling, but it's a small smile, a sad one. I feel it on my face.
I put the CD into the stereo and turn the key. Music starts playing.
It's probably the summer of 1992, so I will be 14 years old. Freddie died the previous year, and the tribute concert blew my mind. And in my dad's small VHS collection, I find a video: Queen: Greatest Flix II.
The cover is deep, dark blue. The crest on the front looks amazing, gold lettering and scrollwork. I put the video in and play. This trip, and subsequent ones, I will do this a lot, watching and re-watching. And listening. Most of all, listening.
‘It's A Kind Of Magic’ comes first. The video has the rest of the band in tramp outfits, and Freddie the magician, cartoon sparks flying from his fingertips, turning them into rock stars, producing female backing singers that are also cartoons. He reverses the spell at the end of the video, each finger click making something disappear. Each beat taking the magic further away.
Like the ticking of a clock.
I read the short booklet that came with the video a lot, especially once I'd become super familiar with the videos, which is how I know that the reason the Under Pressure video features neither Queen nor David Bowie is because they were both on tour, so instead stock footage is combined with clips from the black and white Nosferatu movie to follow the themes of the song. Initially, I'm put off by that, and the song is marked as a fast forward track, but later, I will go back and force myself to listen to all the songs, and at that point, it will stop becoming a fast forward track and go back into the must listen category. Also, I'll get it straight in my head that Vanilla Ice stole this bass line from Queen and not the other way around. Which probably helps.
In 2014, I sing along in the car. Or I try. The Bowie parts are barely manageable. The Freddie parts are impossible.
Back in 1992-3, Radio Gaga is a must-watch. Flying cars, I think is what sold it. Also Metropolis. Also, I think I liked the song. I think I responded to the love in the vocal. “Radio, someone still loves you.” The guitar in the fade-out is lovely too. Even back then, I was a sucker for a nice guitar line.
On 20th April, 1992, I will watch Paul Young lead every single person in Wembley Stadium into hand-claps during this song. I will watch this happen from my bedroom in North Devon and marvel. It will be years later before I see Freddie, on that same stage, huge, indomitable in that yellow jacket, leading a younger sold out crowd in 1986 through the same clapping ritual. The last year Queen toured as a unit. I was 8. I wasn't there at the time, but I have been there many, many times since.
Back in Dad's house in 1992-3, 'I Want It All' was definitely a must-play. I loved everything about it – the attitude, the riff, the lyric, the video, with the football stadium lights (according to that helpful booklet) making the band glow. The guitar solo is fucking amazing too – sure, there's shitty synth hits running underneath (it was the 80's – nobody got out unscathed), but holy mother of God, Brian May can PLAY. Great rundown at the end too.
Freddie looks thin, the suit and tie not hiding it. His cheeks are hollow. Killer vocal though. In 2014, I again spectacularly fail to keep up with it, glad my daughter isn’t in the car to hear her old man’s voice crack up on the high notes.
Back in 1992-3 'I Want To Break Free' - another must-play. If you've seen the video, you know why. The whole band dressed in Coronation Street drag – Freddie resplendent in pink and black spandex, pushing a hoover around, magnificent Village People moustache in full view (at least until the ballet sequence, where it mysteriously vanishes. I think the booklet explained why, but I forget.) Also in 1992 news, Roger Taylor makes a good enough looking woman that I am confused watching this the first few times, wondering who the hot blond is and what they've done with the drummer.
No, I do not want to buy a bridge.
It's Sunday 27th January, 1991. I am 12 years old. We are driving home from Exeter to the village I grew up in. It's dark out. We listen to the top 40 on the radio. Actually, as we've tuned in around 6:15, we're more catching the top 15 or so. I will have heard Jesus Jones and Rick Astley, and I will not have cared. I will have also heard The Farm and Vanilla Ice, and probably did care a bit – that Ice, Ice, Baby bass line was pretty sweet. The Bartman was new in at number 11. Sky TV being a thing rich kids had, and me not being a rich kid, Bart was an icon of aspirational, untouchable cool for me. I had a flattop haircut and everything. So cool. The song would later be number one.
But not this week.
The fucking Grease fucking Megamix, curse of wedding discos to this day, was clinging to the bottom of the top 10. Back then I probably enjoyed it, or at least didn't mind it. I did mind 'I've Had The Time Of My Life' though – passionately hated it, in point of fact. Seal was number 4 with 'Crazy'. He had a decent voice, but I wasn't wild about the song.
KLF number 2.
Then they read out the whole top 40, making you wait for the big one. Blah blah blah, 4, Seal, 3, Enigma, 2, KLF...
“So it's a brand new single straight in at number one this week – Queen. Innuendo.”
“Ooh, I really like The Queen!” says mum, and cranks the radio.
A snare rolls.
“1....... 2....... 3........ 4.......!”
Synth strings fade in, minor, menacing. The drum beat is military. A guitar growls in the background, feeds back, then the drums swell, and Brian May shreds the world in two with an explosive chord that rings and rings, that amazing guitar tone singing, wailing.
It's hypnotic, disconcerting, epic. Scary. Freddie sings his heart out, a towering vocal performance from a master, full of passion but also longing, darkness, desperation. Fear.
The whole thing is disorienting, the riff jagged, the rhythm unusual, the vocal line fast and complex. Then, just as you have a handle on it, just as a recognisable, repeatable pattern has become apparent, a verse and chorus, something to wrap your mind around, everything drops away, and the song slows almost to a stop. Then Spanish guitar, exquisitely played, hands clapping. (in 1992-3, the claymation Commedia dell’arte clowns will delight and unsettle me in equal measure as they dance around the screen and perform acrobatics. By then I'll be familiar enough with the song that I'll know all its twists and turns, and it will be like a beloved and oft-taken roller-coaster ride. But that's 1992. This is the first ride). It's incredible, haunting.
Then, just as you've adjusted to that, it changes again, more synth strings, swirling, as Freddie sings:
“You can be anything you want to be,
Just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be,
Be free with your temple! Be free! Be free!
Surrender your ego! Be Free! Be Free!
Then Brian May brings the thunder, Roger Taylor assisting with power and precision. The guitar explodes into a flurry of notes, playing the previous acoustic riff at breakneck pace, the familiar rendered strange by the full on distortion, before shrieking and peeling off into a blistering solo. The guitar sings, it wails, it growls. The hairs on the back of my twelve year old arm stand to attention. I have no fucking idea what is going on, but I know it's both unsettling and magnificent.
Six minutes and thirty seconds. That's how long it can take to change a life. I have no fucking clue what just happened, but I am awestruck.
My mum turns to me, grinning ear to ear.
“Well, that was bloody brilliant! Wasn't it?”
I actually can't talk. So I nod instead.
It's Sunday 27th January, 1991, and Queen are number 1 with Innuendo, and all is right with the world.
Freddie Mercury has ten months to live.
Back in 2014, ‘It's A Hard Life’ starts playing. This was an always fast-forward track in 1992-3, and I get to the first chorus before tipping my hat to 14 year old me and skipping. Can't win them all, I think. Those goddamn 80's soiled everyone that they touched. Plus, how do you follow Innuendo anyway?
Breakthru! I'm back in 1992-3, watching that train burst through the polystyrene wall with the word NOW! spray-painted on it. What a fucking great video. The band on the back of a steam train, just rocking out. Hair blowing in the wind, Freddie (thin, yeah, but still vital, still looking like he's having fun) vamping and leaping about like the goddamn rock star he was. Is. Will always be. I remember hearing The Boys Of Summer years later, and wondering why you'd rip-off this chorus riff without resolving it properly. My mind knows better, but in my heart of hearts, I really believe this still.
Then, oh shit, it's 'Who Wants To Live Forever'.
It's April 20th, 1992. I am watching the Freddie Mercury tribute concert on the black and white TV in my room. In my father’s house in MK, the VHS is recording it, and in my bedroom in the ass end of North Devon, the cassette tape is getting everything from the broadcast on Radio 1. It's been a blast so far, a fucking party. Metallica and Guns N Roses (and yeah, okay, Extreme) have all been on my TV, and everyone was watching! These are MY fucking bands, and they're on TV in front of everyone! Holy fucking shit! I won't feel this way again until Christmas 2010, when in the week my daughter comes into the world, the Christmas number 1 is Rage Against The Machine. The feeling like the things I love, that I was used to then and am still used to now as being objects of ridicule and contempt, instead become moments of celebration and defiance.
Give me a second.
The bands have come and gone, and now we have what Tommy Vance on Radio 1 has dubbed 'The Queen Superset!', and it is mindblowingly awesome. Already, we've had 'Tie Your Mother Down' with Joey Elliot from Def Leopard, Roger fucking Daltrey singing 'I Want It All' (and cheating on the key, though I won't learn that until much later, when I discover that, unlike the Queen recording, I can actually sing along with this version without injuring myself), Hammer To Fall, fucking James fucking Hetfield singing Stone Cold Crazy (!!!), Robert Plant taking a swing at Innuendo, and the aforementioned Paul Young and Radio Gaga, and I'm buzzing my nuts off, in the parlance of our times, high as a kite on the music, the occasion...
(If none of that means anything to you – I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. There's still time. Educate yourself. Your life will be better for it. Trust me.)
And then, they announce Seal, and my heart just sinks. I mean, sure, the cat can sing, but come on, man. You've got David Bowie and Axl Rose back there, and you're giving me Seal? Bummer, dude. Not cool.
“I wanted to sing this song because I remember when I first heard it in a movie and it made me cry.”
Oh brother, I think.
Later, in a to-camera interview, he will say “I wanted to sing that song [Who Wants To Live Forever?] but then I tried it, and I was like, I can't do this, it'll end my career, man!”
Then he sings.
“there's no time for us,
There's no place for us
What is this thing that fills our dreams
Yet slips away from us?”
All of a sudden there's a lump in my throat. He's clearly nervous, terrified even, but he's actually doing it.
“There's no chance for us,
It's all decided for us...”
I think about Freddie. About a man who could sing like an opera star but chose rock and roll. I think about his flamboyance, his stage presence, his ability to take a stadium of people, tens of thousands, and hold them all in the palm of his hand.
“This world has only one sweet moment,
Set aside for us...”
I think about all the things he'll never get to do. The shows he'll never get to play. The ones I'll never get to see. I'll think about how no-one will ever see Freddie sing 'Innuendo' live. It'll never happen. It can't happen.
My chest starts to hurt. So do my eyes.
“Who wants to live forever?
Who wants to live forever?”
Seal cannot hit the next note. He knows it. You can hear it in his voice as he approaches it. It's too much, and he doesn't have it in him.
And then he does it anyway.
The hairs on my 14 year old arm stand fully to attention, and I start to cry.
“When love must die…”
It's June 1992. I've just turned 14, and my birthday present from my dad, by my request, is an Our Price voucher. I use the £20 voucher to buy three albums on cassette. One is 'Southern Harmony and Musical Companion' by The Black Crowes. It got five stars in Raw magazine, and I'm curious about it. It will transform my life.
The second tape is Rage Against The Machine's debut. I've wanted to own this album ever since I saw the band play 'Killing In The Name' on The Word the previous year, when my 13 year old brain was utterly scrambled by the carnage they wreaked on that show. The album will not disappoint. In fact, it will also change my life. The band I later become a part of in 2004 will pick 'Know Your Enemy' as a cover, and we play it to this day. The RATM set at Leeds festival in 2008 (immediately followed by Slipknot) will be one of the definitive live shows of my life. And as noted above, 'Killing In The Name' will, against all laws of sanity and market driven pop music, be the number one single the week my daughter is born.
Oh, sorry. The third cassette?
Queen, Live At Wembley, '86.
Freddie: “There's been a lot of rumours going round, about a certain band called Queen... And the rumours are that we're going to split up. What do you think?”
The crowd roars.
“They're talking from here!”
The crowd laughs.
“I must tell you, I keep wanting to leave but they won’t let me! Also…”
He lets the laugh crest for a second before continuing. Ever the crowd pleaser.
“…Also, I suppose, we’re not bad for four aging queens, really, are we?”
The crowd cheers.
“So forget those rumours, we'll stay together 'till we fucking well die, I'm sure of it.”
The crowd roars again. It is 1986. Freddie has already been diagnosed with HIV, though he has told no-one. He knows there’s every chance this is the last tour.
“This one is a new song, it's called 'Who Wants To Live Forever'...”
It's 1986, and Freddie knocks it clear out of Wembley Stadium. It's 1992, and Seal does the same. It's impossible, but he does it away. And I weep. In joy and sadness. In celebration and despair. Mortality is suddenly too close. If it can take a man like Freddie, a god like that, strike him down in the prime of his life, fuck. Nobody is safe. None of us.
Also, he's gone. That too is impossible, and true.
It's 2014. I've driven the long way home, gone around at least 2 excessive roundabouts, but still I'm home, and the record is still playing. Somehow I don't crash, even though I can barely see for the tears in my eyes when '...Forever' comes on. So I park up on the drive, and leave the CD playing as 'Headlong' comes on.
In 1992-3, this too is an always play. The riff is a dirty rocker, that's all. The video is fun too, just the guys goofing off in the studio. Freddie is thin again, but he looks like he's having fun. They all do.
“And you're rushing Headlong,
Out of control,
And you think you're so strong,
But there ain't no stoppin',
And there' nothing you can do about it...”
'The Miracle' was also a must play. My cousin said she knew the kid who played John Deacon in the video. More fundamentally, it's children getting to be Queen in a Queen video. As a child myself, it was hypnotising. The fantasy made flesh. Apparently the kid was a bit of an asshole in real life. This information did little to burst my bubble. In 2014, I'm less impressed – the production is horrible, so '80's, and the song feels trite, and sentimental in a bad way – a precursor to the disappointments of 'Made In Heaven'. But in 1992-3, I watched and listened and enjoyed it every time. Especially the look on Brian May's face when kid Brian May bogarts his second guitar solo. There's a genuinely musically weird part at the end too, when that solo is still playing and the coda bleeds over the top, creating a discordant noise that is hypnotic and unsettling all at once:
“That time will come,
One day you'll see,
When we can all be friends...”
Next video (must-watch, of course) is 'I'm Going Slightly Mad'. This is the penultimate video that Freddie shot (the last being 'These Are The Days Of Our Lives', put out after his death and not part of this collection) but the booklet on 1992-3 makes no mention of this, it having been written before Freddie's illness was made public. I loved the black and white. The mad wig. The visuals that followed the lyric – Freddie with a hat made of bananas, John Deacon's kettle helmet. The bass run at the end, with John Deacon fast-running up a staircase before disappearing, leaving only his jesters hat floating in mid-air? Genius.
It's sometime between Christmas and New Year, 2014. I'm in the car with my daughter (born in the year of Rage Against The Machine, 2010, world without end, amen), who is soon to be five years old, and the CD is still in the stereo and playing, and 'The Invisible Man' comes on. By the end of the first chorus, my little girl is singing along, and I look over my shoulder and see she is dancing in her car seat, grinning.
In 1992-3, it's an always play, because the video is based on a computer game, or an idea of what computer games are, and I'm a nerd, so yeah.
Hammer To Fall. Funny story with the video for this one. They shot it at a concert, and Queen asked the audience to come back the next day to complete the video shoot for the song, and according to the booklet, only fourteen people turned up for the shoot. I remember at fourteen years old thinking how pathetic that was, and how dumb all those people who were at that gig must now feel, realising what they missed out on.
Promising myself I would never be That Guy.
“What the hell we fighting for?
Just surrender and it won’t hurt at all,
Just got time to say your prayers,
Then it's time for the hammer to fall...”
Friends Will Be Friends was an always play too. What can I say? I was a sentimental child. These days, it takes me a bottle of wine or a quarter bottle of whiskey to connect with feelings that back then were right at the surface. The video was lovely, too – members of the Queen fan club getting in effect a command performance, even if of only one song. Freddie still looks good too – they played a verse of this as part of the Wembley '86 encore medley, so when the video was shot, everything still looked good. No sign of the problems that would so soon come to dominate.
Then it's The Show Must Go On. Another 92-93 must-play, and it had to be for the song rather than the video. The reason I say that is that by the time the video was produced, Freddie was too ill to film, so it had to be put together via clips of all the other videos I'd already seen on the tape, which, irony, huh, considering the title?
But what a goddamn song.
“Inside my heart is aching,
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on...”
Montage. Freddie in the Breakthru video, dancing with a girl. In black and white, with the bananas...
“I guess I'm learning, I must be stronger now,
I'll soon be turning, round the corner now...”
I mean, come on.
“I'll face it with a grin,
I'm never giving in,
On with the show...”
Brian May solos as the set of Highlander explodes behind him....
“I've topped the bill,
I love the kill,
I have to find the will to carry on...”
Freddie wails from the 'I Want It All’ video...
“Show must go on...”
But it can't. It's almost over.
There's one song left.
It's 12th July 1986. Wembley Stadium. Following their barnstorming performance at Live Aid the previous year, and the release of the ‘A Kind Of Magic’ album, Queen have bounced back from an obscurity threatening disco album (Hot Space) to being the hottest live ticket London has ever seen. Queen are filming the gig to produce a concert home video. The night before, rain caused problems with the filming, but on this day, the sun is shining down on the capacity crowd. INXS opened, The Alarm and Status Quo have been and gone, and now the crowd awaits the main event. The band they've paid £14.50 to see.
A distorted vocal washes in over the crowd, quickly joined by strings, and the audience cheers. They know. As the intro tape plays out over the speakers, the band backstage warm up. Brian May checks his shoulder strap, is satisfied. John Deacon looks, as ever, supernaturally calm, composed (favourite drink: Tea, according to the Killer Queen video). And Freddie, resplendent in the yellow jacket, flexes his legs on the ramp up to the stage, taut and ready.
The crowd clap, faster and faster, their rhythm impatient. They've paid their money. They want to see the show. The strings build and build. Smoke fills the stage. The crowd roars in anticipation. Then Freddie and Brian burst from the smoke, Freddie almost sprinting to meet the audience. The roar explodes, reverberates around the stadium. Freddie holds his half mic stand aloft in his fist, smiling. Transcendent. Immortal. A man at the peak of his considerable powers. A man in his element, doing what he was born to do. What he lives to do. We love him. He loves us.
All is right with the world.
The intro tape strings crescendo. Brian May hits a riff that splits the sky in two.
Queen rock out. The audience loses their minds.
“One man, one goal,
Ha, one mission...”
'Many thanks to Dr. Philip Sandifer, whose Psychochronography was a huge influence for this post.