On Queen’s brazenly ridiculous new album, Innuendo, lead shrieker Freddie Mercury finally comes out with it. ”I’m one card short of a full deck,” he blathers in ”I’m Going Slightly Mad.” ”I’m really out to sea. I think I’m a banana tree.”
Longtime followers of the group may have suspected as much for years. After all, Mercury and Queen have created some of the most demented records ever to score big on the pop charts. How many other groups can you name who would consider it a good idea regularly to mix whomping heavy metal, girlish Andrews Sisters-style harmonies, and blasts of what sounds like a castrated boys choir, all on the same record? And who would have enough raw faith in this mishmash to transform it into something spellbindingly catchy? In doing just that, Queen deservedly reigned over the pop charts from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s, with freakishly original hits like ”Bohemian Rhapsody” and ”Somebody to Love.”
In keeping with that improbable tradition, a new label from the Disney people — Hollywood Records — is trying to make a name for itself by rereleasing all 14 of Queen’s ornate doozies along with this latest one. The albums will arrive in three spasms, the first coming March 5, the others following in May and at some as yet unscheduled date this summer. Naysayers may consider so much attention heaped on a commercially comatose and critically detested group to be a Mickey Mouse way to kick off a label. (It’s been nearly seven years since Queen had even a minor hit in this country.) But with new record companies seeming to spring up almost weekly, the move should at least get people up and sniffing. Besides, most of Queen’s best albums have been out of print for years and can be picked up solely as pricey imports. Only a few of their records have ever been issued domestically on CD, prominent among them the three most recent (and weakest).
Even those weak ones, though, remained true to the group’s long-standing commitment to garishness. Over their 18-year career, the group’s music has been marked by a delightful mixture of berserk tempo changes and openly senseless hopping among genres. Oddball faves like ”Bicycle Race” (from Jazz, 1978) and ”Brighton Rock” (Sheer Heart Attack, 1974) slung together a beefy, Led Zeppelinesque rhythm section, choirs of richly overdubbed guitars (from the versatile Brian May), and densely layered vocal tracks that suggested a rock opera sung by hyenas. Freddie Mercury’s voice swung through the vocal chorales with enough flagrant hamminess to make him the Ethel Merman of rock.
Of course, what allowed the group to get away with such bald-faced idiocy was their relentless array of hooks: Every record they released from 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack to 1980’s The Game was catchy and insane. They went further in 1977 by crafting ”We Will Rock You,” a single whose brain-dead, football-cheer chorus provided the inspiration for nearly every hard-rock hit of the ’80s, from Joan Jett’s ”I Love Rock ‘n Roll” to everything by Def Leppard.
Don’t look for anything near that caliber on Innuendo. Oh, it’s pompous and dumb, all right. But where’s the fun? I can hardly remember a single melody; the best of the old ones would chase you around for days, embarrassing you with the undeniable appeal of their schmaltz. By contrast, the new numbers are hookless and desperate. The title track tries everything, to no avail — first suggesting a soundtrack for a movie about large invading insects, then suddenly pirouetting into a balletic flourish before stumbling into a cadenza for flamenco guitar. At least you can’t say it lacks nerve. Even when the band is willing to dress down, as in the pure stomp-rock of ”Headlong,” their efforts pale next to similar attempts from their past, like ”Keep Yourself Alive.”
The sole advance here seems to be an increased amount of intentional camp: In ”Delilah,” for instance, Mercury professes boundless love for the cat that just urinated on his couch. It’s a pleasant distraction, but Queen’s best recordings soared partly because they seemed so unself-conscious in their campiness. The band immersed itself so deeply in kitschy arrangements, you couldn’t be sure if it knew just how ridiculous everything seemed. Such tensions may be lacking here, but that only makes the joyful tackiness of the old records seem so much more pronounced that, in the end, it doesn’t even matter if you particularly like Queen’s classic work. Innuendo may not be as engagingly dopey as you’d like it to be, but the band’s overall weirdness commands a certain kind of awe.