Longtime or even recent loathers of Queen must be at their wit’s end. Literally nothing negative will stick to the rock band’s juggernaut-like dash through milestone after milestone. Surely not since The Beatles has a band resisted criticism so resolutely, the general public simply lapping up everything Queen can throw at them. Without question, there are those who see their current activities in the live arena as horrendous money-making chores, offering crowds little but a greatest hits package with a singer who, though note-perfect, hasn’t a fibre of rock in his body, nor any of Mercury’s engagement with audiences of any sizes. It simply doesn’t matter. The thirst for the band’s material is unquenchable – indeed, this is the overriding factor. Unpopular critically throughout their career, their songs haven’t aged because they weren’t even judged to be relevant at the time. Beyond the odd foray into disco (which contrary to popular opinion, was actually pretty good), they have played the music they wanted to play and written the material they wanted to write. Their bravery has proved not only priceless but timeless.
From a period when Queen were so protective of their oeuvre that they would brazenly proclaim “no synths” on their album sleeves, in a way that suggested electronic keyboards were palm oil or peanuts, they have since rubbed shoulders with 5ive and Robbie Williams, not to mention floor cleaner adverts. Queen, more especially Brian May’s treatment of the band’s legacy is far from the way Jimmy Page reverentially curates Led Zeppelin’s catalogue but it has done nothing to diminish their tracks, indeed there can be fewer bands with as many tribute acts treading the boards, more remarkable given the “real thing” (deliberate quote marks) are still touring. Despite everything, the songs remain king.
All of which brings us to Sheer Piano Attack, an album which threatens to be one of the Mozart for Babies-type CDs but in reality is a greater tribute to the band’s music than even the band themselves can muster. Gabriele Baldocci is not a self-proclaimed piano genius – he’s got plenty of other people lining up to do that for him, not least Martha Argerich, perhaps the greatest living classical pianist. Baldocci’s association with Argerich goes back many years and has seen them play together many times. Herself frustrated at the classical world’s starchy, steely structure which allows little deviation from its invisible rules, she encouraged Baldocci to follow his musical passions – in his case, this was not only the classical romantics but also Queen.
There are different grades of Queen fan. Fans and ultra-obsessives. There really seems to be no middle ground. Baldocci is certainly the latter and this is reflected in his selection of tracks. Yes, We Are the Champions and Don’t Stop Me Now are present but don’t expect Jools Holland-esque renditions. Along with Save Me, the tracks tumble together like rare gases, with occasional flashes of melodies you know inside out coupled with an incredibly studious understanding of how Mercury in particular fits into the musical firmament. It may seem glib or fanciful to sit him comfortably next to Liszt or Wagner but Baldocci achieves this with such deftness that you almost feel an urgency to re-listen to all Queen’s tracks with newly opened ears. Indeed, so as to prove this point, tracks have been chosen from each stage of Queen’s career, from their earliest days (Keep Yourself Alive; White Queen); initial major fame (Bohemian Rhapsody; lesser heralded epic, Prophet’s Song); the aforementioned stadium era and through to nods to Mercury’s collaboration with Montserrat Caballe and later works, Innuendo and Too Much Love Will Kill You.
The tracks culled from Queen’s album work, as opposed to their more recognisable singles, such as A Day at the Races, You Take My Breath Away serve a dual purpose: firstly, to remind listeners that the band did not write throw-away tracks as filler; secondly, that Mercury (we’ll come back to the other band members) was a composer and pianist of a standing which even now is not fully appreciated. For all his bluster and pomp as a showman, his musicianship was second to none. Brian May’s tracks have a certain amount of whimsy to them in comparison, White Queen being statuesque in its original form but plaintive when stripped of studio effects and Keep Yourself Alive a string plucking pop song. John Deacon’s contribution to the band would by any standards be accepted to be distinctly distant to the classical repertoire (not a criticism) whilst Taylor’s Innuendo (the main melody, at least is his) is shown to have remarkable complexity. A word too for the two vocalists on the album, Peter Jones and the opera star Barbara Luccini. Their contribution is limited to Peter’s work below and their partnership on Guide Me Home/How Can I Go On but is dazzling.
What the classical world will make of this is debatable – if you didn’t tell them it was based on Queen tracks, I suspect they’d love it. As it is, it would seem a task in itself to even get them to listen. If it in any way helps to break down that world’s absurd network of barriers, the project will have already been more than worthwhile. Queen fans, it goes without saying, will love it.