Queen + Adam Lambert :: The O2, 18-1-15
Having written that cathartic blog last week I’ve been having trouble finding anything new to say. I’ve already covered in painful detail what Queen mean to me and how their unnatural end changed my life. I dredged up feelings that had been buried for over 20 years. But I feel like I can’t bring the chapter to a close without reporting at least something about the concert. I’ve been avoiding writing anything because there’s too much to think about, and ok, because I’d really like to go and see them again at Wembley Arena next month and properly commit to getting to the front. I was just less than half way back on the standing floor at the O2; admittedly, I had a great view of the B-stage activities and the people around me were nice (if a little greatest-hits-y, I don’t think they knew Stone Cold Crazy, a super loud live favourite; so heavy, in fact, it was covered by Metallica). But… gigs are better when you’re in the thick of it and I wasn’t right in there. If I can go again I will, but I’m not paying a tout for the privilege (though let’s see how desperate I get). Incidentally, I was impressed that they had standing floor – other oldie acts, for that is what they are, like The Who or Fleetwood Mac don’t do that (though I bet Aerosmith do).
So, simply, honestly, it was everything I could have wished for and more. I don’t take part in online activity related to Queen but a quick scan of the two main forums (official and the biggest fansite, QueenZone), as expected, are split over whether this whole Adam Lambert adventure is to be approved of. Some liked Paul Rodgers, for some reason, and some hate Lambert (I’ve even read a few instances of outright homophobia, which I find shocking, calling him too ‘lewd and camp’. Never mind that Freddie was the queerest singer in rock history). Some, the real hardcore, refuse to accept anything post-1991. The band without Freddie is not worth a damn. A part of me, as a Queen purist who has hated pretty much everything they’ve done since 1991, gets that. I couldn’t bear to hear those songs done by an imposter either, but something about Lambert just tickles me. He’s got a great voice, tons of charisma and stage presence, and he’s beautiful, cheeky, camp, flirtatious (with everyone) and overtly sexual in a way that Freddie could never have been in his lifetime, which itself is worth something in the realm of progress. I liked him before he joined the band and I like him even more now. He’s not trying to be Freddie, nor is he trying to banish his memory. He respects what brought him to this place, standing on this stage. I get it – he has the real spirit of proceedings spot on. He’s respectful, but doesn't shy away from making the night his own. The balance, all night, was perfect. It wouldn’t be a leap at all to say that I can imagine Freddie would have adored him. Of course, however, it’s emotionally complex for everyone, Brian and Roger most of all. In particular, two songs exemplified this, which I’ll come to later.
It all felt like such a homecoming, and for some reason a Bowie lyric has been rolling around in my head – “We played our songs and felt the London sky”. This is Queen’s hometown, despite none of them being born here (John: Leicestershire; Roger: King’s Lynn, Norfolk; Brian: Hampton (now London but then Middlesex); Freddie: Zanzibar), as they all went to university in and around the capital, a lifetime ago. It’s remarkable that, when you think about the passage of time, they’ve been without Freddie for 23 years, and they were only with him for 21 (and only recording together for 18). He loomed over the show like a welcome ghost, of course. It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. There was lots of happiness and jumping and air-punching and belting out the choruses of those songs, which are stitched into everyone’s consciousness. But you could never forget him, this presence that was snatched away, no more so than during what amounted to each present member’s tributes. First, Love Of My Life.
This was a song that Freddie wrote for Mary Austin, just before he told her he thought he might be bisexual, to which she replied that she thought he was gay. They spent the rest of his life living together, she was his greatest confidante, and he left her most of his money, and his house, which she still lives in. She’s not well thought of by some (including it seems the rest of the band), but I respect that she has never spilled any great details about their relationship and remains so protective of his memory. She was even entrusted with the disposal of his ashes and, following his instructions, never told a soul, not even his parents, where they ended up. This, unfortunately, has resulted in Queen fans having no central place, no memorial or grave, at which to pay their respects, though fans do make pilgrimages to Logan Place, his Kensington home, and to the casino in Montreux that houses what used to be Mountain Studios, which they owned for many years. Love Of My Life became repurposed over the years, after they started performing it live, and came to be the song that connected them to their crowd most of all. He and Brian, who would sit with an acoustic, took centre stage, just the two of them, with nothing but spotlights, and the crowd would sing it to them. It was always a beautiful moment. But last night’s version, I can barely stand to write about it. I sobbed, on the spot. It was just about the saddest thing I’ve ever seen, as Brian sat and played it, and we sang to him – but there was nobody beside him. He looked so alone, desolate beside an empty space where his friend should have been. He barely made it to the end. Imagine doing that every night? It’s a classic ballad but if he excised it from the setlist it would be understood. He wants to do this, he wants to put himself through it every night, as his tribute to his friend. And then, for the final chorus, up popped Freddie on the screen to sing it. It was just too fucking much; you could hear a sharp inhale arena-wide before the roar broke the atmosphere. It was completely fitting, I’m grateful it was done and I won’t ever forget it, hard as it was to watch and get through.
Shortly after came These Are The Days Of Our Lives. Roger’s voice, well, it’s pretty raspy and a long time since he was the one who hit all the high notes (from Somebody To Love to Bohemian Rhapsody; that high register you hear is his). But I would trade a flawless voice for a heartfelt delivery any day, and it was again just so very moving. Put yourself in 1990 – you’re soon to become a dad for the third time and your best friend of 21 years has what is, at that time, a terminal illness and will die soon. So you write him a song, one which expresses how you feel about the life you’ve all spent together; the lyrics end with ‘I still love you’. He sings it on record, during one of the last times you’ll spend in a studio together, and the next year makes a video, his last ever appearance on camera, that stays with every person who watches it long after he’s gone. Fast forward 24 years – you’re on stage but you’re the one singing it because he’s not by your side, while your baby boy, now 24, plays drums on it behind you. His middle name, Tiger, was chosen by your departed friend. As you sing, montages of your time together play on the screen behind you. Again, it is all just too much. The show was celebratory, but those two moments are ones that will stay with me. It’s clear as day that neither of them has ever gotten over his death. And why would they? If you had someone as extraordinary as Freddie Mercury as your constant companion, traversing the whole world together, you wouldn’t get over it either. I don’t want to give the impression the gig was maudlin, mind you; those two songs aside, it was a joyous occasion.
So, I wiped tears from my eyes (again!) and settled in for a song I hadn’t heard live for over a decade now, Under Pressure. I’ve heard Bowie sing it as a duet with both Annie Lennox and Gail Ann Dorsey; this time Adam Lambert and Roger Taylor did the honours. What a great moment; as I hollered it I went back in my head to seeing Bowie all those times, and I smile now as I think about it. The show had opened with One Vision, which was the very song Queen opened every show of their final tour with, which gave me another historical nostalgic warm feeling. I was in my own head in an odd way for much of the show, as I had put earplugs in about four songs in. Not very rock and roll, I admit, but I’ve become somewhat worried about my hearing, not that I have any cause to be yet. But if you see as many gigs as I do there is bound to be some long-term effect and I am, quite frankly, terrified of getting tinnitus. So in went the earplugs, and as a result I could hear the band perfectly, just without the bottom end, and also myself singing (which wasn’t as horrendous as one might think), but nevertheless it meant that there was a deeply odd, insular effect during the concert going on. It worked, my ears weren’t ringing when I got home, but it also felt quite strange during the show. It allowed a sort of central quietness, yet surrounded by noise, a reflection that felt unusual when you’re with 20,000 other people.
There were so many songs that I took great pleasure in hearing, with I Want It All being a particular highlight. Queen never performed it live, but it’s such a great rock song and I’m so glad it’s getting heard. The rendition of Who Wants To Live Forever was spine-chilling. It was a night made of highlights, though. Just being able to take part again in something as powerful as Radio Ga Ga was a landmark moment; it sounds ridiculous, that just clapping hands with a bunch of strangers could be powerful and meaningful, but it really was. And the big bounce, in-sync jump, when the heavy bit of Bohemian Rhapsody kicked in was such a pleasure to be part of. I also like to revel in the ridiculous when I can, and no greater opportunity in music has been presented than We Are The Champions. Used by sports teams in every corner of the globe, it’s taken on a completely out of their hands meaning. Yet distilled here, away from the football stadia where I’ve heard it so often, it didn’t come off as arrogant. It was just a celebration of the collective power of being with people who understood you, where even if a crucial person couldn’t be there you made up for it, you honoured him, and you luxuriated in every second.
Finally, if a single moment summed up the nature of the evening it was Killer Queen. It was outrageously brilliant, funny and camp as Christmas – Lambert, this Jew born in Indianapolis and raised in San Diego, who has reawakened my love for a band I thought lost to time, sang it reclining on a purple and gold chaise longue, wearing leather pants, rhinestone-studded platform heels and a gold-fringed jacket, cooling himself with a gold fan, and ended the song by spitting a stream of Champagne into the audience and then asking a woman if he’d gotten her wet (that may be a first for him). It was that kind of night; there were certainly sad moments, but it stuck true to the majestic spirit of Queen – the self-confessed most preposterous band that ever ruled.
Stone Cold Crazy
Another One Bites the Dust
Fat Bottomed Girls
In the Lap of the Gods... Revisited
Seven Seas of Rhye
I Want to Break Free
Don't Stop Me Now
Somebody to Love
Love of My Life
These Are the Days of Our Lives
Bass Solo/Drum Battle
Who Wants to Live Forever
Last Horizon/Guitar Solo
Tie Your Mother Down
I Want It All
Radio Ga Ga
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
We Will Rock You
We Are the Champions