Blenheimer Rhapsody

Mark Mullen describes growing up in the Blenheim of the late 70s and early 80s, and how the music of Queen taught him to look back without regret, even while reaching forwards.

Mark Mullen describes growing up in the Blenheim of the late 70s and early 80s, and how the music of Queen taught him to look back without regret, even while reaching forwards.

‘You Can Judge a Book By Its Cover,’ a song by UK trio Saint Etienne, describes the quiet, desperate tragedy of a life founded on youthful enthusiasm. Girl meets boy, boy quotes Keats to girl, girl falls in love with boy’s bookishness. “You can judge a book by its cover, almost always,” Sarah Cracknell sings winsomely, “You can judge a love by the lover, almost always.” Those lines capture the youthful defiance of a conservative generation against its liberal elders, a longing for a world where appearances mean what you think they mean, or at least what you want them to mean.

Unfortunately the guy proves to be an all-too-familiar type, one churned out with regrettable frequency by modern education systems. Literate but not literary, with just enough Art to ensnare smart and yearning women. Then, mission accomplished, he retreats into comfortable stupidity and mandatory alcoholism:

Oh, if only I could see

What the future held for me

Every night with Sky TV

Every pub in West 14

With the jukebox playing Queen

I count myself a Saint Etienne fan but I was brought up short by that last line. It’s clear how the reference to Queen is supposed to work: trusting appearances leads to a world where books are replaced by Sky, adventure by the pub rounds, music that makes us live with music as background in the cereal aisle. Queen have been transformed into another facet of Beloved Britain, right up there with Prince Harry and Posh Spice. This is the world of safe and familiar expectations, of doing what you’re told and keeping your head down. Except that description also fits the small New Zealand town where I grew up during the late seventies and early eighties. In that world, Queen – oft derided even then – represented an intellectual escape hatch.

This isn’t an archetypal Kiwi story where the Band from Elsewhere shows you that there’s an entire world holding its breath in anticipation of your big OE. I already knew that. I knew that I could leave, knew that I would leave. Instead, Queen showed me a way of remaking my inner world. Their work, like that of all great teachers, was both inspiration and warning: here is what creativity looks like, what it can do, and here is what it costs. Yet I didn’t understand their most important lesson until years later: don’t be so hell-bent on charging into the future that you abandon the past.

Is this the real life?

Surprising amid the relentless predictability of Facbook has been the recent popularity of a group called ‘Old Marlborough: The Way We Were.’ For the most part, people post photos of Marlborough from any era: photos of people, buildings, scenes; home snaps, newspaper clippings, aerial photos, even satellite imagery. Having grown up in Blenheim I find many of the images and situations familiar, often achingly so now that I no longer live there. The bizarrely tiled forecourt of the former service station/ice cream paradise at Havelock Suburban. The hesitant vehicular standoffs at either end of the one-lane Awatere Road/Rail bridge. There’s not a lot of nostalgic wallowing: by and large the group talks about scenes and people as touch-stones, navigation points, pieces of life that simply were there around you and which you took for granted.

Yet it’s not so easy to escape the lure of nostalgia. Nostalgia is, like the ‘Old Marlborough’ page itself, curated memory, recollections that are as important for what they leave out as for what they retain. Photography mirrors memory as a ceaseless process of mis-remembering, something Shakespearean actor Anthony Sher captured beautifully in his book The Year of the King. Stumbling across a series of home movies from the 1950s that had been transferred to video, he observes:

If you had to recreate what memory looks like it could be this. The amateur cameraman can never settle on anything properly so you have these restless, tantalizing glimpses of people and places and days from long ago. You ache for close-ups to be held longer but they never are. Sequences flit by in bleached colours and hazy outlines confirming the popular belief that the past was one long summer's day.

The nostalgic past looks like a bleached Polaroid of the type that make up many of the offerings in ‘Old Marlborough’: the light is obviously wrong but somehow attractive, details are blurred, and there’s a hard white border cutting off the rest of the world.

Now that New Zealand has morphed into a progressive, relatively tolerant society – at least in comparison with near-neighbour Australia, or the United States – with a decent espresso in every tea room (sorry, cafe), it’s easy to forget what a grim place New Zealand was during the seventies and eighties. The hard white border of the times was Prime Minister Rob Muldoon and the distinctive sardonic tug at the corner of his mouth. Regular appearances of this expression, half sneer and half leer, on the nation’s two television channels re-affirmed the National Party’s larger social agenda: to fight a desperate rear-guard action against the sixties, to stifle the forces of discontent and social change that were erupting in other advanced democracies. Muldoon’s mocking laugh attempted to reassure Kiwis, night after night, that we didn’t need that sort of thing over here, thank you very much. In politics especially it was an era of open misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and racism; an era where Labour played the opposition party on TV but behind the scenes willingly colluded in a politics of macho posturing and hate-mongering (think Rowling’s removal of Matiu Rata, or the Moyle Affair). After a long love affair with a fantasy of insular safety, New Zealanders finally gave Muldoon the boot when it became apparent that he would keep us safe at any cost, even if that meant civil war or economic ruin.

Disco-era Blenheim was one of those places that’s almost inevitably described as a great place to raise kids. One thing I’ve struggled to come to terms with over the years is that this statement is both comfortingly true and overwhelmingly false. Yes, the likelihood of running into a mass murderer was pretty low. Social rituals – almost all of which involved consuming prodigious quantities of beer (or shandies for the ‘ladies’) – still bound most people together: weddings, funerals, baptisms, hanging out at the RSA or the Criterion (‘the Cri’) after work, after the match, after a fight with the wife… pretty much anytime at all, really. You could ride your bike everywhere. And we did, biking to Picton, Rarangi, Havelock, all in an age before bike helmets (but also before the age of serial-trailer-killer trucks). It was a place where everyone knew you and your family.

On the downside, it was a place where everyone knew you and your family. Visiting the Big Smoke meant a trip to Nelson. Traveling to Wellington or Christchurch was like traveling to a foreign country, and took about as long. In an environment of insular self-regard, many things that should have been questioned never were; as a result some of the occasional evils of human community took deep root, proving as difficult to eradicate as the gorse choking the area’s riverbanks. As a child I witnessed behaviors that only gradually resolved into something with a recognizable label years later. Sexual assault. Teenage pregnancy. Domestic abuse. My school friends took after their elders and killed or maimed themselves with reliable frequency through drunken crashes in unsafe cars on poorly designed and haphazardly maintained rural roads. The sun always shone in the Blenheim of my childhood, but it could also be a very dark place indeed.

Sure, the forces that would eventually alter the region were working away at a subterranean level. In response to the trade betrayal by the UK after its entry into the (then) EEC in 1973, Marlborough, like the rest of New Zealand, was lurching toward economic diversification. People were over-planting grapes. They were over-planting kiwifruit. They were over-planting forests of pinus radiata (which sounded at once latinate and vaguely indigenous). They over-planted mussel farms. There was even something new to drink that wasn’t beer. Called Blenheimer, it purported to be a wine, but was really a pale shandy. Still, buying it and even (occasionally) drinking it represented an aspiration toward a drinking world that wasn’t a two-party mirror image of national politics in which you were either Lion or DB. It was also a necessary stepping stone toward the real hallmark of sophistication: Marque Vue.

Nor was I unaware that a larger world existed beyond the boundaries of Godzone. I had lived overseas as a kid, and so had several of my friends and many of the adults around me. But prior experience is no match for the present pressure of cultural circumstance, especially when you’re young. The majority of kids I went to school with had never been overseas. Many had never been to the North Island. News from overseas arrived in an unreliable trickle accompanied by heavy doses of local skepticism, a circumstance almost unimaginable now that we feel compelled to subject ourselves to a fire-hose diet of information all the time, lest we feel ‘out of the loop’. Back then, New Zealand was so far out of the loop it might as well have been Pluto. There were no fast ferries north. There was no flitting over to Oz for a spot of retail therapy.

In the midst of a world whose familiarity masked its strangeness, I was introduced to Roger Taylor, Brian May, John Deacon, and Freddie Mercury.

There should be some dramatic origin story here about how Queen burst upon my benighted consciousness with the force of a Red Squad baton. Failing that, I should regale you with accounts of discovering a single neglected copy of A Night at the Opera in the dusty bins of the local Noel Leemings, half obscured by Neil Diamond and Howard Morrison LPs. All good stories of cultural rebellion tend to start this way.

So this is not going to be one of those stories. I arrived at Queen by a singularly unorthodox route. One thing about my childhood for which I will be forever grateful is that the house was filled with books and music. Both my parents were (and still are) great readers, but my dad was the big music fan.

I suspect music had been something of an imaginative escape for him throughout much of his life, and even before he’d met my mother he’d amassed a sizable record collection. He was never what you’d describe as an audiophile – we always had stereo systems that were only barely adequate to the task of emitting sound – but he loved music, and would play records often on weekends and in the evenings when there was nothing to watch on the two TV channels, as was often the case. I don’t know if he was consciously trying to ‘educate’ us kids, but as we played board games on the floor in the living room or built things out of blocks or Lego, he would often point out a particular feature of the music or a fascinating fact about the singer or performer. While there were a few regrettable concessions to the ‘pap’ music that asserted itself more strongly in the sixties and seventies as a reaction against all the undisciplined noise of rock, most of what he played us was some seriously good shit. His first loves were jazz and classical, but there was also a steady diet of all the classic musicals. There was, however, little that resembled rock music. We didn’t even own a single Beatles album (their politics were suspiciously lefty).

Not that pop music was absent from our lives. While still living in the US as a young child I remember listening to the Top 40 countdown with Casey Kasem, most often while driving in our Mercury Montego station wagon on the way to the repair shop, a trip we seemed to make frequently. Moreover, despite his worship of all things conservative my Dad remained musically curious, and seemed unfazed by the idea that his children would inevitably embrace a musical culture very different from his own.

So perhaps it wasn’t surprising when one day my Dad came home with an album called Classic Rock. It was a collaboration between the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Choral Society, offering a series of classical covers of songs by Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues, David Bowie and Queen, among others. Not a single one of these artists had graced our home stereo. None of the names of the groups, much less the songs, were remotely familiar to me.

There’s the same unsettling question that popped into my head upon listening to that orchestral version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: what the hell is this?

To those whose only memory of the attempt to fuse rock and classical music is the bowel-liquefying horror of Hooked on Classics this may sound truly appalling. Yet this album wasn’t a simple attempt to lash out the basic tunes with a lot of soaring strings and punctuate them with some Richard Clayderman piano. It was this strange thing called ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that opened the album that immediately captured my attention. There were slow bits. There was rock stuff. There were soaring instrumentals. Then there was this weird opera thing in the middle with lyrics that made no sense but seemed to evoke an entire world of drama. What the hell was this thing? My Dad was no help. He seemed to know who Queen was, or at least pretended to, but was nowhere near as forthcoming as he was when we were talking about South Pacific or Dave Brubeck. Regardless, I played the album obsessively.

Then, quite suddenly, this group called Queen was on the pop cultural radar in a big way, as The Game and its associated hits ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ exploded onto the scene in 1980. Thanks to the labors of the LSO, Queen had the virtue of name recognition with me. But they had something more. In 1980 they already had the aura of a group who had once been cool but whom people had already given up for dead. Despite (or because of) its massive worldwide success, The Game received some stunningly awful reviews. To read them now you can sense the mingled contempt for what it was Queen used to do (often dismissed as ‘pomp’ rock) and fury at the fact that they seem to have gotten away with it for so long. Now they were back and clearly pandering to popular taste (disco, for chrissake?) and, once again, getting away with it.

With the virtue of hindsight, it’s easy to see that perhaps what enraged Queen’s many critics was that whatever game the group was playing at any given time they never quite played by the rules. Take ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. Isn’t the problem that what’s supposed to be a disco dance song, isn’t quite a disco song? It has the requisite handclaps, but slightly too slow. The beat is too isolated, too heavy, a little too aggressively insistent to form the pleasant non-threatening background so typical of disco. Then there’s that odd, tight, nervous guitar dancing over the top at unpredictable intervals. The song’s more akin to classic funk, something that becomes abundantly clear when you listen to the Live at Wembley `86 version. And yet there’s obviously an affection for the disco sound here, so it lacks the satirical edge of, say, Bowie’s ‘Fashion.’ Even here, in Queen’s most blatantly commercial bid, there’s the same unsettling question that popped into my head upon listening to that orchestral version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: what the hell is this?

The Game became – at the late-to-the party age of 15 – the first real pop album I owned. Yet if this was supposedly the last gasp of a storied career, I now found myself desperate to learn what had come before. Even then I was aware that there are essentially two ways one can respond to the music of his or her times: you can run into its comforting embrace, to be absorbed by it, or run as far away from it as possible. So I ran. I ran so far away. (But, as that phrase shows, apparently not far enough.)

As an adolescent, I remained on civil speaking terms with my musical present, but for the most part carried on a torrid affair with the past. The year after The Game dropped, the Queen/David Bowie collaboration ‘Under Pressure’ appeared and led me to my first Bowie album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a title from 1972 that promised much and didn’t disappoint. A friend introduced me to the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd. More Bowie and Queen purchases. I was in a sense making up for lost time, and for many years the chief instructor was Queen. Live Killers, an album I bought early during one family holiday and had to work hard to keep unbroken and un-warped for a couple of weeks of fractious too-small car travel, taught me about what happened in the kind of concert that I rarely had the chance to witness. I learned that songs changed when they were played live. That sometimes they came out better, and sometimes worse.

Caught in a Landslide

Just as people tend to mis-remember (or strategically forget) the New Zealand of the 1970s, they also tend to tell stories that mis-remember the musical past. According to the conventional version, punk rock exploded onto the scene in the mid-1970s and saved us in some nebulously defined way from bad music – sometimes from disco, but just as often the target of punk rock was understood to be the music produced by bands like Queen.

My first encounter with the Sex Pistols (their music arriving late in New Zealand, as pretty much everything did back then) was in its own way as formative as my encounter with Queen. Happy memories of breaks between classes in my 7th Form common room cranking up the stereo and singing along raucously to ‘Friggin in the Riggin’, daring passing teachers to shut us down. But there’s always been a kind of intellectual snobbery that accompanies criticism of the pre-punk era. Punk was the supposedly authentic counterbalance to the inauthentic fakery, the pure spectacle, of what is now often derided as ‘arena rock.’

But ‘arena rock’ acts, of which Queen and Pink Floyd are paradigmatic, didn’t just play to large arenas: in their heyday they commanded those spaces. When Queen took the stage during 1985’s Live Aid they were once again supposed to be well past their use-by date, but before a packed Wembley stadium of 72,000 they killed it. The crowd and even their fellow artists were mesmerised. And when Queen played Rock in Rio a little over a month later they played to audiences of over three hundred thousand for each of two nights. The only act that pulls those kinds of crowds is the Pope. While the stage shows were always spectacular, they stopped well short of the elaborate sets of their contemporaries (mocked so mercilessly in This is Spinal Tap) or gimmicks (no one flying across the stage on wires a la Bon Jovi). But Queen nevertheless had audiences begging to lick their palms clean.

Conversely, Punk helped make the world safe for appreciating music the way God intended: in small rooms with inflated cover charges and overpriced beer, sticky floors and people shagging in the toilets. If arena rock represented one end of a musical continuum – where people came together in large collective spectacles of tribal belonging (the fading dream of the sixties) – punk paved the way for another kind of pleasure: niche marketing (the nightmare of the 80s that we just can’t shake).

Understanding the appeal of arena rock requires understanding its roots in the strange hybrid world where prog rock meets glam rock, the collision that birthed so many of the bands of the late sixties and early seventies that I came to love. For critics of arena rock and champions of the punk revolution, what made punk great was that it rejected the supposedly empty spectacle, the gratuitous excess of the massive lighting rigs, the spangly costumes, the elaborate sets. This is nonsense of course. Groups like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees were completely excessive in their own way.

Yet the hostility is as much about what arena rock wasn’t (apparently) doing as much as what it supposedly was doing. There’s a clear sense in the vitriol directed against acts like Queen that these groups were betraying what was supposed to have been the Revolution. Theirs was music that seemed to have shed the requisite earnestness and stopped taking itself seriously. Indeed, the costumed excesses of glam rock threatened to expose the fact that real revolutionary rock earnestness was no less pretentious and image-obsessed at its core, a critique embodied by Bowie shedding avatar skins like Liz Taylor shedding husbands. Bowie drove this point home with songs that underscored the fatuous nature of the whole commercial rock enterprise, cheerfully anticipating the co-option of Every Good Thing by the sausage machine. It was both appalling and completely unsurprising to see Bowie’s ‘Fashion’ used without irony to accompany an homage to gratuitous fashion excess during the Summer 2012 London Olympics; or, even worse, to find ‘Fame,’ a song about pumped up pretension, being used recently in the US to sell Cadillacs. Glam rock’s anticipatory response to the revolutionary/anarchist posturing of punk rock was always: “Even your Never Mind the Bollocks is a load of old bollocks.”

What was perhaps most troubling about all that glam/prog/arena stuff was that it didn’t look to the future as good revolutionaries are supposed to do, but had at least part of its gaze fixed firmly on the past. Queen drew some of their inspiration most obviously from the world of classical music, and how much more retrograde and establishment can you get than that?

What leavened the classical focus and, more importantly, prevented it from devolving into the Wagnerian excesses of a Jim Steinman, was that the high seriousness of classical music always played against another set of influences from the past. A primary influence on Queen—as it was on Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin—was the English music hall, with its mix of popular ballads, satirical sketches and variety acts. While that influence makes relatively brief appearances in the catalog of other artists, Queen gives the music hall stage full run. On A Night at the Opera alone, the songs ‘Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon’ and ‘Seaside Rendezvous’ are pure music hall. And while ‘Good Company’ draws on Dixieland jazz, the song’s ukelele accompaniment is obviously indebted to the king of music hall, George Formby. There’s also more than a trace of the improvised instrumentation of the 1950s skiffle craze in Queen’s unorthodox arrangements and even in their vocal improvisation (‘Dreamers Ball’ on Live Killers features the band reproducing woodwind and brass sounds vocally). Queen married highbrow classical music with unabashedly working class musical forms; nowhere is this more obvious than in two of the band’s biggest hits, ‘We will Rock You’ and ‘We Are the Champions’, which draw their inspiration from the rhythmic fan chants and hymns of the soccer stadium.

Is this just fantasy?

Just as there’s a quiet snobbery inherent in the dismissal of Queen’s ability to enthrall tens (or hundreds) of thousands of people, so too there is a strain of elitism evident in even a tacit recognition of the band’s debt to working class music traditions. Because, well, that music wasn’t actually very good now, was it? In the same way, Queen’s lyrics rarely rise to the level of deep and meaningful, and it’s here they part company with the likes of Bowie and Floyd, to whom history has already been a lot more kind. On the rare occasions where the band did try to ‘say’ something politically significant they often made a complete dog’s breakfast of it, producing results that were lugubriously earnest (‘White Man’ from A Day at the Races) or simply dire (the atrocious ‘Life is Real’ from Hot Space).

But the larger significance of both music hall and skiffle lay less in what the music tried to say than in what it manifestly was. It was an occasion for merriment, sure; it was also an opportunity for class solidarity and an often sly resistance. Many of the most popular songs and performers subtly or overtly mocked the musical forms and performance styles associated with high society. The rank idiocy of many of the variety acts, which often appeared to have more in common with the circus freak show, was itself a defiant thumbing of the nose at a theatrical and social decorum that British society elsewhere still rigidly enforced. One reason music hall persisted in the UK long after its close cousin vaudeville had shut up shop in the US is because the ‘official’ British theatres were under such heavy government scrutiny. It wasn’t until 1968 that the system whereby the government licensed theatres and cast the eye of the official censor over every individual play was abolished. Music hall itself suffered under the same governmental obsession with regulating public morality; revisions to the UK liquor code that first banned drinking from music hall auditoriums and then banned even attached bars put the lid on the coffin of the form. The nails were driven in by competition from rock and roll and, finally, television.

Pop music in general is both progressive and conservative

Although the relatively privileged backgrounds of Queen’s members put them outside the world of music hall culture proper, they, like so many of their glam and prog rock contemporaries, found the influence of music hall inescapable, even in its decline. The breadth of song styles evident on all Queen albums up through Jazz make them sound like nothing so much as variety shows in their own right. The form of Queen’s music, therefore, much more than its content, taught me, in my close-fitting rural New Zealand hamlet, the lesson that popular music has been teaching kids for generations: rules are there to be broken. It’s okay for a song to veer wildly from ballad to hard rock to classical opera and back again, and in the process become something else entirely, a new thing, its own thing, a beautiful thing. There’s no trace of the harsh formal contempt of satire, and the elaborate production even pushes them well beyond the affectionate nod inherent in parody: these are acts of homage, demonstrations of love for the rich and quirky variety of the musical world.

That the rules don’t apply to you is an old rock `n roll lesson. But the lesson of Queen’s music went a step beyond: rules really don’t apply to you. Pop music in general is both progressive and conservative: here, it boldly announces, are the new rules for breaking the old rules. So I grew up in a musical world defined by elaborately layered synth-pop that nevertheless tended to hew closely to the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus bridge-chorus-repeat structure. The counter to this ‘over-produced’ music was a local legion of Kiwi garage bands that drew their inspiration from the punk scene… and who tended to produce albums of a grinding sameness. Much as I loved The Bats, for example, you have to acknowledge on listening to their early albums that almost every song is built atop the same chang-chang-ka-changa-chang-chang guitar riff. These were the new rules. And liking a group that promiscuously mingled music genres or, hell, even switched genres in the middle of a song was definitely not cool. But for Queen, cool was beside the point: it was much more important to do what you loved. That sounds, I know, like it belongs on a greeting card. Yet it was a lesson that would grow stronger and more important as I grew older. In a world where a stunning array of resources to keep ourselves entertained and diverted seem only to enervate and render us more miserable, holding on to joy is no small feat. Amid the dire reality of an over-developed world awash in carefully monitored cubicle jockeys, where everyone is either in sales or customer service, belief in the possibility of a world where as many people as possible can do what (and whomever) they love is a hard and necessary struggle.

It was Queen, then, who opened a window for me and let some much-needed air into the stuffy confines of Muldoon-era New Zealand. The evidence suggests that I’m not alone in this: Queen’s singles and albums consistently charted higher in New Zealand than in the US, Australia, and even, occasionally, than in the UK.

Intellectual freedom isn’t about indulging your inner child and believing you can do whatever the hell you want at any time and damn the torpedoes. That isn’t creativity; that’s a tantrum. Nor is it about tearing down the old gods and claiming that you are marching boldly into an uncluttered future. The creativity that Queen championed was simultaneously conservative and progressive. There’s richness and beauty in the forms of the past that have endured. But that doesn’t mean that you accept them as they are, believing that they can never and should never change. You have to accept a paradoxical relationship to creativity that is similar to the paradoxical relationship you’ll always have with your hometown.

That is, however, the final gift from growing up with Queen. Quintessential modern masters of the splendor and sonic assault of arena rock, Queen always found a way to acknowledge with love the strange, quirky, musical traditions of the past. Someday, their music promised, you will understand how the narrow conservatism of the past has shaped you; you will learn to love that part of you. And maybe, one day, if you’re lucky, you will create your own rhapsody to a vanished past.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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