Is this the real life? No, it’s just fantasy…

*

(c) 20th Century Fox

*

Beelzebub had a devil set aside for me recently while I spent most of 24 hours travelling with a particular airline from Sri Lanka to Scotland.  The set-aside devil was the airline’s in-flight movie service, which was mostly composed of tired old rubbish like Johnny English Strikes Again (2018), while the only decent offerings were stuff like Black Panther (2018) that I’d already seen. 

*

Finally, to take my mind off the tedium of the flight, the cramped-ness of my seat and the occasional unnerving shaking that outside air-turbulence would subject the plane to (“Thunderbolts and lightning / Very, very frightening!”), I gave in and watched Bohemian Rhapsody.  This was last year’s biopic of Queen, the 1970s / 1980s rock band who remain fabulously popular today even though they’ve been creatively inert since 1991 when their singer Freddie Mercury passed away.  I watched the film reluctantly, knowing that the critics had been at best lukewarm and at worst scathing about it. 

*

I suppose, I thought, I can’t be too picky…  “Because I’m easy come, easy go / A little high, little low / Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me / To mee-eee….

*

Actually, Bohemian Rhapsody has earned (as of a week ago) 861 million dollars around the world, despite the critics turning up their noses at it.  This is in keeping with the great Queen divide.  Back in the days when they were a properly functioning band, people I knew who considered themselves serious and knowledgeable connoisseurs of music would tell me that though they tried to be broad-minded, they just couldn’t stomach bloody Queen, whom they saw as purveyors of bloated, corny, stomp-along, guitar-twiddling shite.  Meanwhile, other folk, who bought at most three CDs a year and barely knew the difference between Elvis Costello, Elvis Presley and Reg Presley – the majority of the British population in other words – believed Queen were the absolute bees knees and anyone voicing a negative opinion of the band was just “a big disgrace / kicking their can all over the place.”  So this chasm between what the cultural intelligentsia thought of Queen and what the ordinary masses thought of them is nothing new.

*

Incidentally, I have to say I found it ironic how popular Queen were in the 1970s and 1980s among guys who styled themselves as straightforward, unpretentious, down-to-earth, laddish, maybe a bit unreconstructed and probably a bit homophobic.  They’d punch you in the face if you suggested they might be into anything involving ‘puffs’.  But after a few seconds of hearing the shamelessly camp Freddie Mercury crooning, “Oooh, you make me live… / Oooh, you’re my best friend!”, they’d be hugging each other, be singing along in cracked-with-emotion voices and have tears rolling down their cheeks. 

*

It’s telling that in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell (1998), Marilyn Manson recalls how at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils received regular lectures about the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music – and the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most all was Queen, due to the effect that Freddie’s sexually-ambiguous prancing and preening might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.

*

Anyway, watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I certainly felt there was plenty wrong with it.  The problem with building a dramatic narrative out of Queen’s story is that there’s hardly any drama in it.  They got together in 1970, had a monster hit with Bohemian Rhapsody-the-single in 1975 and then stayed at the top for the next 16 years, their popularity seemingly impervious to the coming and going of musical fads like disco, punk, New Romanticism, goth, ska, the Mod revival, the Madchester scene, rap, techno, hair metal and grunge.  No doubt the late 1980s and early 1990s were traumatic for them when Freddie was diagnosed as HIV positive, became sick and died from AIDS in 1991, but the film doesn’t hang around long enough to chart those final years.  Rather, it ends on the high note of Queen’s famously barnstorming performance at the Live Aid concert at Wembley in July 1985.

*

Lacking real historical drama, the film tries to generate some by playing fast and loose with the facts.  It depicts the band as having effectively broken up by 1985 thanks to Freddie’s out-of-control ego and the other band-members’ intransigence and lack of adventurousness, with the Live Aid concert being their last chance to pull themselves together and prove to the public that they’re still relevant.  As a plot device this is lame – and, factually, it’s nonsense because no such schism had appeared in the real band.  I remember them being ubiquitous during the year before Live Aid because of the success of their The Works album and singles like Radio Ga Ga and I Want to Break Free.   Another liberty with the truth (and the film has many of these) is a big emotional moment before they take the Wembley stage when Freddie tells the others he’s HIV positive.  In reality, he didn’t know this until 1987.

*

From mentalfloss.com

*

Conversely, the stuff that might have generated some drama, i.e. the band’s moral warts and carbuncles, are discretely airbrushed away, which probably has something to do with Queen’s lead guitarist and drummer Brian May and Roger Taylor being the film’s ‘creative consultants’.  So we get nothing about, for instance, their decision to play some lucrative gigs at the Sun City complex in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, during the apartheid era, which landed them on a United Nations blacklist; or the fact that in late 1985 they released a supposedly Live Aid-inspired song called One Vision and then kept all the profits for themselves.  No wonder they used to sing, “I want it all / I want it all… / And I want it now.

*

Also doused in a tankerload of whitewash is the issue of Freddie’s promiscuity.  In reality, in 1984, Freddie bragged to the DJ Paul Gambaccini with hedonistic and – considering the times – reckless abandon: “Darling, my attitude is ‘f**k it’.  I’m doing everything with everybody.”  (Later, Gambaccini reflected, “I’d seen enough in New York to know that Freddie was going to die.”)  But in Bohemian Rhapsody he’s presented as a victim.  Insecure about his sexuality, he’s led astray by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), who lures him into a world of partying, orgy-ing and general dissolution.  In another clumsy move to tie everything in with Live Aid, the film has Mercury firing Prenter shortly before the concert.  But the real Prenter didn’t get his marching orders until 1986, one year afterwards.

*

Despite everything, though…  I did enjoy the film.  Sort of. 

*

It has an endearing cast: not just Rami Malek as Freddie – who, in a crowd-pleasing move by the Academy, picked up the Oscar for Best Actor the other day – but also Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Taylor and Joe Mazello as the band’s quiet but affable bassist John Deacon.  It helps that these young actors actually resemble the band members they’re playing and the physical quirks that made Queen seem a little more human, like Freddie’s oversized incisors and May’s bombed-out buzzard’s nest of a hairdo, are lovingly recreated. 

*

Also, Mike Myers has a neat supporting role as a record executive called Ray Foster, who apparently wasn’t a real person but a composite of various real-life executives who tried to put a stick in the band’s creative spokes.  Equipped with frizzy hair, sunglasses, a hideous woollen tank top and yet another provincial accent from the Mike Myers version of Britain, Foster gruffly objects to the idea that Bohemian Rhapsody-the-song be released as a single: “It goes on forever.  Six bloody minutes!”  To which Freddie retorts: “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”

*

(c) 20th Century Fox

*

The most enjoyable parts for me, however, were the script’s clunking attempts to foreshadow some of the band’s biggest hits.  It was fun to see how many micro-seconds it took me to work out which song they were talking about.  For example, when Freddie starts rabbiting on about how he wants to do a rock song with opera in it…  It’s Bohemian Rhapsody!  Or when May says he wants to write a song where the crowd can join in by clapping their hands and stamping their feet…  It’s We Will Rock You!  Or when John Deacon horrifies the others by proposing they do a disco tune…  It’s Another One Bites the Dust

*

This foreshadowing got to the point where I expected to hear an exchange like: “What, David Bowie wants to record with us?  That makes me nervous.  I feel under pressure already!”  “Wait, I have an idea for a title…”  Or: “Writing film scores can’t be too difficult. In fact, I bet I could write one in a flash.” “Well, funny you should say that, because Dino De Laurentiis happens to be producing a new movie…”     

*

To sum up: I found Bohemian Rhapsody dumb, superficial, bombastic and somewhat problematic, but also fun and entertaining and even uplifting in a slightly tacky way.  Which is appropriate, because that’s very much how I find Queen.

*

Gay metal

 

From frabz.com

 

A while ago I was chatting with a mate about recent music we’d listened to.  I mentioned that the track I’d probably played most often last year was from an album called Why do the Heathen Rage?  The album is the work of a dance-music project called The Soft Pink Truth, which is masterminded by Drew Daniel – a fellow who’s simultaneously a member of the electronica duo Matmos, an Assistant Professor of English at John Hopkins University in Baltimore and a gay man.  (His partner forms the other half of Matmos.)  Meanwhile, the track in question is a cover version of the 2003 song Satanic Black Devotion by the Finnish black metal band Sargeist.

 

Now black metal is a sub-genre of heavy metal that’s known for its shrieking and guttural vocals, its fevered guitars, its demented drumming and a lyrical emphasis on the dark, the unwholesome, the macabre and the utterly hellish – an emphasis reflected by the fondness among the sub-genre’s earlier practitioners to come onstage with their faces ghoulishly slathered in ‘corpse-paint’.  However, while The Soft Pink Truth’s take on Satanic Black Devotion starts out in a suitably sinister and menacing fashion, Daniel’s dance / electronica aesthetic soon comes to the fore and the track gets unfeasibly funky.  And incidentally, the famous sample that pops out of the mix after one minute and 45 seconds was so unexpected that I burst out laughing.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLyhYhz7e1M

 

In fact, Why do the Heathen Rage? is a whole album of covers of black metal standards that Daniel has interpreted in his own inimitable, dance-electronica style and I find the album a lot of fun, although I’m sure there are old-school fans out there who think it’s sacrilegious (which is ironic considering that black metal, with its long tradition of Christianity-baiting, is about the most sacrilegious music you can get).  In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, home of the ground-breaking black metal band Venom, there are probably Geordie fans who’ve heard Daniel’s playful version of Venom’s agenda-setting anthem Black Metal and who haven’t been released from hospital yet.

 

From www.metalinsider.net

 

However, when you write about black metal, there’s an elephant in the room.  This is an elephant that speaks Norwegian, has a big swastika painted on its side and smells strongly of burning churches.  Because the general public, if it’s heard of the term ‘black metal’ at all, normally associates this music with the unsavoury antics of some Norwegian musicians in the early 1990s.  These include Pelle ‘Dead’ Ohlin of the band Mayhem, who in 1991 decided to honour his nickname by blowing his head apart with a shotgun; Oystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, also of (the aptly-named) Mayhem, who made a necklace out of pieces of Ohlin’s shattered skull; Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernes of the band Burzum, who feuded with Euronymous and ended up murdering him in 1993; and Bard ‘Faust’ Eithun, of the band Emperor, who in 1992 stabbed a gay man called Magne Andreassen to death.  For their crimes, Vikernes and Eithun received prison sentences of 15 and nine years respectively.

 

In addition to acts of murder and suicide, the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s was accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies, although this seems to have been largely due to the influence of Vikernes, who described the music as “a nationalistic (Norwegian-centric), racist… revolt.”  Last year, nobody was surprised when Vikernes – who’d finished his Norwegian prison sentence by then – was tried and imprisoned for another half-year in France for inciting racial hatred.  Also, the scene’s enthusiasm for northern-European paganism and theistic Satanism made it anti-Christian to the point where, by 1996, hardline black-metallers had been blamed for some 50 arson attacks on Norwegian churches.

 

In an interview in the Guardian last July, Drew Daniel was asked about the paradox of a gay man recording a set of cover versions of a musical form whose most notorious proponents committed crimes that included the slaying of a gay man.  Daniel admitted to being both fascinated by black metal in its ugliest, early 1990s, Norwegian version – “I couldn’t believe the power of it.  It’s so single-minded and energising…  It was such a strange mixture of undeniably compelling music attached to deeply repugnant behaviour” – and obsessed by it – “You know the way pitbulls bite something and their jaw locks and they can’t let go?  That’s kind of the way my mind works with things.”  In a gesture designed to both subvert and atone for the activities of Vikernes and co, Daniel dedicated Why do the Heathen Rage? to the memory of Magne Andreassen, Bard Eithun’s gay victim 23 years ago.

 

I should say that black metal has come a long way since those grim Norwegian days.  The Guardian piece on Drew Daniel also quotes the music journalist Dyall Patterson, who describes the modern black metal scene thus: “It covers a huge spectrum, from left-wing to right-wing, from atheist and Satanist, and even Christian and Muslim.  There’s more to it than just the sensationalist aspects, because it’s entered a demographic that would be turned off by a lot of those things.”  And for the record I’m a fan of it myself.  I like bands like Altar of Plagues, Darkthrone, Deafheaven, Leviathan, Rotting Christ and the brilliant Wolves in the Throneroom.  I’m also a connoisseur of County Suffolk’s greatest cultural export, Cradle of Filth, who were once regarded as a seminal black metal act – though these days I hear they’re considered more ‘goth’ metal.

 

Anyhow, The Soft Pink Truth’s take on black metal has made me ponder the role played by gay culture in heavy metal music generally.  Of course, some people would assure you that gay culture has never played any role in heavy metal because such music is reactionary, sexist and racist, performed by and listened to by artless people who are exclusively and thick-headedly masculine, heterosexual and macho.  Which is nonsense.  The theatricality of heavy metal contains a quality that’s androgynous at its mildest and downright homo-erotic at its most extreme.

 

Yes, there are morons like Sebastian Bach, front-man of the woeful 1980s American glam-metal band Skid Row, who once wore a T-shirt saying AIDS KILLS FAGGOTS DEAD.  But if you look at heavy metal since it was forged in the early 1970s, you’ll soon realise that despite all its red-blooded braying about straddling big motorbikes, and straddling hot women, and slaying dragons, and entering Valhalla, and worshipping Satan, there’s bubbled beneath its sweaty, warty surface a great amount of camp-ness that would appeal to many gay sorts.  (Not all gay people like camp things, of course, but I know a few who do.)

 

After all, one of the music’s greatest icons has been Angus Young, a chap who hops around stages wearing shorts and a schoolboy uniform whilst twiddling a guitar for a band called AC/DC – which according to the LGBT activist website Queers United is “a queer code used in chatrooms to indicate that someone is bisexual and sexually interested in both men and women.”

 

(c) Chronicle Books

 

Even the strand of heavy metal that I find most annoying, the boorish, laddish and shag-happy glam-metal movement that emerged from America’s west coast in the 1980s and gave us the likes of Mӧtley Crüe, Poison, Ratt, Cinderella and Warrant – thanks for that, America’s west coast – is really very sexually ambiguous.  You only have to look beyond its lyrical obsessions with sultry babes and observe the huge amounts of eyeliner, mascara, hairspray, jewellery, high heels and ultra-tight leggings worn by its practitioners.  Mӧtley Crüe might have sung Girls Girls Girls, but not every male who was drawn to the band’s photograph on the record cover was necessarily thinking about girls.

 

Plus, of course, some prominent heavy metal folk are gay.

 

Nowadays, 1970s rock legends Queen are celebrated for their football-terrace chant-alongs, their mock-operatic epics, their Noel Coward pastiches and their off-the-wall soundtracks for movies like Flash (“Ah-aaah!”) Gordon; but once upon a time the band had a heavy side too.  If you don’t believe me, check out tracks like Death on Two Legs (on 1975’s A Night at the Opera) or Stone Cold Crazy (on 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack).  The latter song was covered by Metallica, and indeed Metallica performed onstage at the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992 after Queen’s much-loved singer died of AIDS.  Other metal bands and performers who turned up at the concert to pay their respects included Guns n’ Roses, Extreme, Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi.

 

As well as casting a long shadow over heavy metal, Freddie Mercury was, of course, shamelessly camp.  Interestingly, in his memoir The Long Hard Road out of Hell, Marilyn Manson – a performer who cuts a sexually ambiguous figure himself onstage – recalls that at his Christian school in Ohio, pupils were regularly lectured on the evils of heavy metal and hard rock music.  But the band those Christian teachers seemed to fear and hate most of all was Queen, due to the effect that the prancing, preening and cheerfully gay Mercury might be having on the sons of God-fearing America.

 

From www.bryanreesman.com 

 

Meanwhile, when Judas Priest’s front-man Rob Halford came out of the closet in 1998, it wasn’t exactly a big surprise.  Early on, the band had cultivated a ‘biker’ look, a look that later became influential in heavy metal generally; but as Halford’s figure became increasingly bedecked with black leather, silver studs, spikes, chains, gauntlets and peaked caps, he looked less like a heavy metal singer, or a biker, and more like a member of Village People or Frankie goes to Hollywood.  By 2014, Halford felt comfortable enough in his own skin and in his own musical groove to describe himself to the Guardian as “the stately homo of heavy metal.”

 

Other gay metal performers include Doug Pinnick, vocalist with the progressive / funk metal band King’s X; Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, respective singer and drummer with the progressive metal band Cynic; and Roddy Bottum, keyboardist with another metal band who’ve taken an interest in funk (and in hip-hop, punk, jazz and God knows what else), the mighty Faith No More.  Bottum announced he was gay sometime after he’d been involved in a heterosexual relationship with Courtney Love.  Inevitably, there was some scurrilous speculation that these two events might have been related.

 

From act.mtv.com 

 

Also, heavy metal has at least one prominent lesbian, Otep Shamaya, founder and front-woman of the nu-metal band Otep.  She’s a much-needed antidote to those macho lunkheads like Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst who’re found elsewhere in nu-metal.  And by 2014, heavy metal had acquired its first transgender performer – Mina Caputo (who until 2011 had been known as Keith Caputo), the singer with the New York alternative metal band Life of Agony.

 

Finally, and brilliantly, the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s that I described at the beginning of this post has produced a gay icon too: Kristian ‘Gaahl’ Espedal, who’s been vocalist with the bands Trelldom, Gorgoroth and God Seed and who ‘came out’ in 2008.

 

Despite his sexuality, Gaahl has seemed happy enough to keep some of the bad old attitudes of Norwegian black metal alive.  Interviewed in Sam Dunn’s 2005 documentary Metalheads: a Headerbanger’s Journey, he described the Norwegian church burnings as “a thing that I support 100 percent.  It should have been done much more, and will be done much more in the future.”  In 2006, he was also accused of torturing a man for six hours, during which time he allegedly drained a cupful of the man’s blood and threatened to make him drink it.  Gaahl’s claim that he was acting in ‘self-defence’ was disbelieved and he spent nine months in prison.

 

On the other hand, he won Norway’s award for Gay Person of the Year at the Bergen Gay Gala in 2010, and he turned up to accept it, which was nice.

 

From pl.wikipedia.org

 

Even if you’re the type of person who’d sooner saw off one of their arms with a rusty knife than listen to black metal, or to heavy metal generally, I would urge you to sample the work of one of Gaahl’s recent musical projects, Wardruna.  Described by the music website The Quietus as “a truly remarkable outfit… focussing on immersive and ritualistic folk acoustics, making use of traditional instrumentation and clean sung vocals, and taking all its thematic inspiration from the Elder Futhark, the oldest set of Norse Runes”, Wardruna make a sort of medieval Scandinavian folk music that’s haunting, hypnotic and epic.  Actually, it sounds like the Wicker Man soundtrack re-imagined by ghost-musicians in Helheim, the Norse underworld.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YP_hlpbBjE8&index=11&list=PLC8aSbUGCL21kXYGR_cza2gdChCqirBY_