Bicycle Race (Mercury) and Fat Bottomed Girls (May)

When I first began the predecessor to this blog (which you can read here), for some reason I decided to do a “review” of every one of Queen’s UK singles. I haven’t written one since April 2008, so it’s probably past time to carry on with them. They’re not really proper reviews, more my own musings on the songs hopefully written in a vaguely interesting style. So here we go…

By 1978, Queen were becoming huge – massive audiences, huge record sales, and increasing wealth (after several years of earning surprisingly little, despite their success). And their success was showing in other ways: this was the time when the wild partying and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles really began – the over-the-top-ness of their records spilling over into their real lives. Queen also became tax exiles in this year, spending the maximum time possible in the UK before they became liable for higher rates of tax (this was the period when they discovered, and bought, the Mountain Studios in Montreux; studios that would play a hugely important part in their career, not least in the years leading up to Freddie’s death).

And this outrageousness shows in their album of that year, Jazz. To be frank, it’s a bit bonkers. Not bad, not by any stretch of the imagination. Just somewhat off the rails, taking their experiments in genres outside of rock to the limits including Freddie’s quasi-Islamic sounds in Mustafa. This is the album that gives a home to Don’t Stop Me Now, which tells you pretty much all you need to know.

And then we get to these two songs, released as a double A-side. Fat Bottomed Girls is probably the most straightforward: a pretty much by-the-numbers Brian May rocker, with healthy amounts of guitar, harmonies and Freddie’s hardest rock voice. Oh, and a pretty good breakneck drum solo from Roger Taylor.

What’s it about? Sex, apparently. May has apparently said that he and Mercury were exchanging knowing glances and grins as they went through the song. Lines like “I was just a skinny lad” and “heap-big woman, you made a bad boy out of me” add a somewhat sordid tone to the whole thing, perhaps reflecting the band’s increasing, er, extra-curricular activities outside of the studio (and perhaps inside as well – who knows?).

(On the album version, which is substantially longer than the single mix, there’s a weird bit of production, where May’s guitar only comes through one side of the mix for the first few seconds. Is this deliberate? Or did Queen, reunited with Roy Thomas Baker, simply overlook it?)

I probably sound like a bit of a prude – probably I am. The song, especially the chorus, is as catchy as hell and no doubt the group would want it to be heard with a knowing wink. But it’s hard not to ignore the subtext.

If the album as a whole is a bit bonkers, then Bicycle Race is the point when it gives up on all pretences of sanity. In less than 3 minutes it passes through numerous key changes, time signature changes and gives us perhaps the first ever bicycle bell solo in a top 40 record (unless anyone knows otherwise). And those “Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle”s just keep crashing in, in case we weren’t sure.

Meanwhile, Freddie proclaims his dislike of Jaws and Star Wars, his disbelief in Superman, Frankenstein and Peter Pan and his reluctance to become President of the USA. All he wants to do is “bicycle, bicycle, bicycle” (apparently, however, Freddie’s fascination with said mode of transport is less to do with bicycles and more to do with someone who was riding one as the Tour De France went by). And who are we to stop him?

These two songs, along with Don’t Stop Me Now, capture the excess of this period of Queen’s career perfectly. They’re rough round the edges compared with the perfect production of most of the groups earlier songs, bawdy and quite, quite bonkers. Whether that’s a good thing or not is entirely up to you.

Videos: Let’s start with the straightforward one. Fat Bottomed Girls is another performance video of the group. Or rather, it’s a video of Freddie singing with occasional glimpses of some other guys playing instruments. Listen to the commentary on the Greatest Video Hits 1 DVD to hear Brian and Roger’s understandable complaints about this.

And Bicycle Race… Someone (Freddie?) decided that what this song needed was a bunch of naked models riding around on bikes. So that’s what they filmed. Clearly EMI weren’t going to be happy releasing that as a video, so they made a second version with the offending shots of the models overlaid with obscuring video effects, interspersed with random shots of people on bikes and cartoons of Superman et al. The “clean” version was released on the Greatest Flixton VHS release, the original on the Greatest Video Hits DVD. Both of them are available on YouTube, though for some reason the first one is easier to find…

Oh, and Raleigh refused to accept the bikes back afterwards.

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New breakfast on Radio 2

Hello and happy new year!

As you may have noticed, today was Chris Evans’ first breakfast show on Radio 2.  There’s been all sorts of comment about it, some of it good, some of it not so good (to say the least).

There is history here, for me.  For a while, I was a fan of Chris’ Radio 1 breakfast show, which could be really funny at its best (and really annoying at its worst); so I was keen to hear how different this would be.  Secondly, I really, really liked Drivetime (though for some reason I was less keen on the All-Request Fridays; I think I just liked the banter and features that made up the regular show).  Thirdly, in recent years, I’ve grown to like Wake Up to Wogan (you may have heard of it…).  So I wanted to hear how its replacement would fare.  In short, I was looking forward to this.

What did I make of it?  I thought it was good.  What was weird was, not just the fact that it was Chris Evans and not Terry Wogan, but that it was Evans at breakfast, not Drivetime.  I think he found it a bit weird, too, which is why he imported so much of Drivetime across, some of which worked, some of which didn’t.  It was as if he needed some familiar things to help him through the first show.  I do wonder how much of them will last for too long.

He did sound very nervous (especially at first) and the show had a nervous feel to it.  It had so many features, as if it wanted to impress you with how good it was.  A lot of the phone-ins didn’t work and hopefully will go.  And a bit less Jonny Saunders would’ve been good (no offence to him, but Drivetime was in part great because Evans didn’t have a sidekick, it was just him most of the time and it worked well), along with a bit more Lyn Bowles. Having Moira Stuart was fantastic, though – and she seemed game enough to join in with it all. I missed the car-crash moment, the interview with the hot water bottle bloke – I suspect that segment may be the first to go.

What’s interesting has been reading the Guardian blog of Chris’ first Drivetime show – it seems a very different beast to how it finished off, and shows that that show developed over time.  I suspect it’ll be the same with Breakfast; there was a lot that wasn’t great, but I suspect it’ll improve as time goes on and they get used to the bits that work and the bits that don’t.  It’ll probably sound very different in, say, 6 months: less of Drivetime stretched half-an-hour longer (as today’s felt), less nervousness from Chris and a more relaxed, in-control feel.  I wonder if ratings will dip, then improve, as they did for Drivetime.  In short, don’t judge it by the first show. It needs more chat, especially from Chris, less trying too hard with gimmicks and features and it’ll be great.

But even despite its failings, I came away at 9:30 with a smile on my face.  More please, BBC!

Cover to Cover Complete: Through the Bible as It Happened

I’ve just posted a review of this on Amazon (though it’s not shown up yet).  I tried reading it for 6 months (which I think is long enough to give something a proper go), but have, after much debating in my head, given up on it.  Not on the Bible, oh no! – just on this.

Why?

Well, firstly because of the way it treats the Bible and what’s in it: not as texts and stories to be read in their wholeness, but as verses to be chopped up and moved around to fit in with the extreme "chronological" approach the editors decided to take.  So, for example, not just chapters but whole verses appear out of place and sometimes follow verses they’re supposed to immediately precede.  The stories of Samuel and Samson are mingled up together, meaning you lose the plot of both of them (also, how chronological is that?).  It’s quite easy to lose the thread of a story and have to go back and pick it up again when the editors decide to re-visit it. I don’t, actually, think this respects the Bible at all.  I think it’s part of a modern view of the text that we can just chop it up, take verses out of context and do what we will with them, losing all sense of why they were there in the first place.  It’s why proof-texts get thrown around all over the place to support people’s particular views on anything from the meaning of Christ’s death, through abortion to whether the UK should be in the EU (according to one letter-writer in the Baptist Times a few years ago, we should leave because the Bible clearly shows that a small country should seek God as its protection – huh?).  It’s a poor way of treating the Bible,pays no respect to those who, under God’s inspiration, wrote these texts and makes for a frustrating reading experience. (Plus, it means that where parallel passages are put together, it’s easy to skip over the second passage as "I’ve already read that").

Secondly, the end-of-the-day comments for "thought and contemplation" really, really annoyed me.  They rely on catchphrases and cliches, make no attempt to engage with the texts in any way and offer no illumination or any real food for thought.  Some really rather tenuous links are made to Christ which do no justice to the OT texts themselves.  The stories of Israel in the desert are nearly all accompanied by messages that can be reduced to "obey God – or else": is that really the God we serve?  What might have been better was some kind of explanation of what was going on, especially for tricky books such as Leviticus.

Thirdly, the chronological approach means you have to wait for ages to get to the New Testament.  Now I appreciate that most people’s knowledge and appreciation of the Old Testament (including my own) is not what it should be and a lot of people treat it merely as the bit before Jesus, trying to interpret everything as point to Him (which this book doesn’t help with).  But as a different BT letter writer said, we follow Christ, who is found primarily in the New Testament.  So in a way it’s natural that we should tend towards that part of the Bible.  Many other Bible in the year plans pair OT and NT readings each day; this seems a much better way of doing it.  I missed reading the New Testament (apart from my sermon preparation). Finally, I’m not sure about the whole concept of reading the Bible in a year.  Yes, it’s good discipline and can help to bring to light parts of the Bible we’re unfamiliar with (which my 6 months in this book certainly did).  But it can become almost a virility test, as if there’s something better about you for having done it.  Plus, it can reduce the Bible to being the same as any other book, which we read from beginning to end.

But the Bible isn’t like that: it’s a book, not just to be read, but to be listened to.  It’s a book to be savoured, like great food or wine.  It’s a book to think about, ponder on, meditate on, argue with (!).  We don’t just read it: we take it in, we make it part of our lives.  We allow God to speak to us through it, something which can mean reading the same bit over and over again, for several days or even longer.  The Bible-in-a-year format can work against that: in the pressure to get through the book within the time scale (particularly when the book concerned encourages you to catch up of you’re behind), you can easily read a passage just to tick it off; it’s easier to not spend time with the passage and really think about it as you’ve got to get on to the next bit.

There is a lot to be said for broadening our knowledge of the Bible and reading the bits we don’t know or don’t like.  But this isn’t the best way of doing it (in fact, it provides a perfect excuse for skipping over those bits or only giving them a cursory glance, as you’ve got to "keep up").  God doesn’t judge us on how much of the Bible we’ve read, though I’m sure He’s disappointed that we don’t treasure it more.  But treasuring it means more than reading it in a year; it means making it the very centre of our lives and living out its message.  I don’t think this way of reading it helps do that at all. It took me a while to make the decision to stop reading it and it’s meant I’m left trying to find a new way of doing my daily devotions.  But I’m glad – and relieved – I did stop!