Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?!…Song #7/25: Teenage Kicks by The Undertones

Derry is a city of over 200,000 people that sits in the northwest corner of Northern Ireland, approximately an hour and a bit to the west of Belfast. On a clear day, a citizen of Derry could take a short drive to the coast and see Scotland in the distance. Derry has been in existence since the 6th century, making it one of the oldest inhabited places in all of Ireland. In the 1600s, the city was enclosed by walls, creating a fortress-like setting that exists even to this day. While the city has grown beyond the original walls as its population has increased in size, those walls remain completely intact. The walls were originally built to protect the inner city from invasion by Scots from the north and/or from the English from the south. As a result, generations of people from Derry have grown up, lived and died within the walls of the city with a besieged mentality interwoven into their cultural DNA. Even the very name of this city is a case in point. For most of its existence, the city has been known as Londonderry. It is still referred to as Londonderry on Google Maps, should anyone reading this post care to have a look for yourself. As many of you will be aware, Ireland’s history is filled with conflict. Sometimes that conflict is internal to the country and concerns itself with religion. At other times, that conflict goes beyond borders. Much of the time, it is a combination of the two. The most recent time of conflict in Ireland is a time known colloquially as The Troubles. During The Troubles, certain political and militaristic groups within Northern Ireland sought to create a homeland free from English rule. Many lives were lost during a campaign of bombings and shootings initiated by the Irish Republican Army in hopes of driving the occupying British Army out of Northern Ireland. A peace accord was eventually signed in the mid 1980s. At that time, Derry city council formally passed a bylaw that would see the name of their city change from Londonderry to simply Derry. Unfortunately, such a legal name change still required permission from London. This process of having to head to London and ask for permission on bended knee to simply govern their own affairs rankled the people of Derry. The dispute remains ongoing even as you read this post. To say the name Londonderry within the walled city is to be constantly reminded of decades of having to endure subjugation and humiliation. Removing the “London” prefix from the name of their city was an act of emancipation that many citizens and civic leaders believed was necessary in order for the process of healing to begin after the peace accords were signed. But even this seemingly simple request has become bogged down in acrimony.  It just goes to illustrate the strength of character that it must take for the citizens of Derry to go about their daily business in a positive frame of mind. That sense of resiliency and determination to defy one’s circumstances is, perhaps, best seen in how the entire city ( as well as that of all of Northern Ireland) has taken to today’s song, which is “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones. Sometimes a song is more than just a song. This is one of those times.   

A photo of the fortified walls that surround the old portion of Derry, Ireland.
The walls of Derry, Ireland.

The story of “Teenage Kicks” begins with the very ethos of the Punk music world and that is making music as an act of defiance. For much of Punk’s history in the UK and around the world, that tradition of defiance has manifested itself in music and lyrics that are violent and angry. Lashing out at systemic social constructs that are deemed to be oppressive can be seen in songs such as “Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols, for example. There are certainly many injustices in the world and people have the right to feel angry at living in a society that seems to be rigged to work against them at every turn. However, anger is easy to feel. While it may feel cathartic to scream obscenities at authorities, be it your teachers at school, the police officers who are walking a beat, your parents, your employers or your political leaders, the much harder thing is to convince yourself that love and hope and happiness remain within reach during those darkest of times. Sometimes maintaining a veneer of normality is the greatest act of defiance of them all. 

The citizens of Derry have had to do this their whole lives. While people in the rest of the world sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the people in Northern Ireland are all I.R.A. members, the truth is that the vast majority of people who live there do so in the hopes of living ordinary lives despite the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. They are regular folks who have families where children go to school each day while their parents go to work. The people who live in Derry watch television, read books, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries just like anybody else. However, in the 1970s, they tried to go about their business in an atmosphere that was constantly fraught with tension that came from the possibility of violence happening at any moment. The I.R.A. and the British Army were engaged in a deadly guerilla war in those days. There were military checkpoints at key intersections within Derry, as well as the roads in and out of town. Roads and bridges were constantly closed because of bomb threats. Any unattended package or box was eyed with the utmost of suspicion. This went on all of the time, every day. Meanwhile, the citizens of Derry still tried to get on with their lives. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.

The situation was much worse an hour to the east in Belfast. This city was the epi-centre of the I.R.A. bombing campaign against the British Army, with Great Victoria Road being the most heavily bombed section of town. Not surprisingly, shopkeepers along Great Victoria Road found it difficult to stay in business. No one wanted to shop in an area that was so unsafe. As a result, many businesses had to close down, which, in turn, meant that there were many vacant storefronts available for purchase. Terri Hooley was a man who came of age a decade earlier during the Summer of Love phenomenon that swept much of the western world. He was a self-described hippie. Hooley believed in the power of positivity and of love as an antidote to the violence that was consuming Belfast and other areas of Northern Ireland. One of the things that gave him hope for a better future was hearing some of the local bands that played in and around Belfast. In particular, he was impressed by the energy and passion that many of the punk bands in Northern Ireland seemed to possess. Hooley truly believed that one of the ways forward as a community was through music and, specifically, through punk music. So Hooley took a gamble. He was no businessman, but he gathered as much money as he could scrape together and went down to the bombed out business district on Great Victoria Road and bought himself a store. His vision was to open a record shop. He called this shop Good Vibrations after The Beach Boys song, of course, but also cheekily as a way of turning the rumbling of the bombs into something that sounded more benign and positive.   

Like much that has anything to do with punk music, Hooley ran his record shop on a shoestring budget. This lack of resources was actually a beneficial thing in the beginning, because it forced Hooley to go out into the clubs and bars of Belfast in search of bands who might be willing to advertise in his shop and place their products on his shelves. In return, he would help promote their music. In time, Hooley created a basic recording studio in his shop. This studio would act as an inexpensive way for new bands to create a record that could be sold in his shop as well as sent to record labels in the hope of securing a deal. One of the bands that Hooley saw playing live was a group from Derry known as The Undertones. 

A photo of all five members of the Irish punk band The Undertones. From left to right: Michale Bradley, Damian O'Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and John O' Neill.
Michael Bradley, Damian O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and John O’Neill

The Undertones were a five-piece punk band. They were led by lead singer Feargal Sharkey, guitarists and brothers John and Damian O’Neill, bassist Michael Bradley and drummer Billy Doherty. Initially, The Undertones were a cover band. They played a lot in Derry and honed their skills as players and as performers. Eventually, they caught wind of the punk music scene that was exploding in London and began to alter their style of play, making everything faster and edgier. It was also at this time that the guys in the band decided that if they were to have any sort of future as musicians, then they needed to start writing their own original tunes. “Teenage Kicks” was written by John O’Neill. Unlike The Sex Pistols, “Teenage Kicks” is not a song that called for riots and anarchy in the streets. Instead, it is about that most normal of things, teenage boys singing about wanting to spend time with teenage girls. The band was able to have a few of their songs recorded on tape while playing live. They sent this “demo tape” to local record companies but were rejected by them all. In a last ditch desperate attempt, The Undertones sent a copy of their tape to famous London DJ John Peel. Peel was known for playing new songs and breaking new acts. He was impressed by what he heard and offered to pay for the proper recording of an EP in Belfast. That EP ended up being recorded at Terri Hooley’s simple studio at his Good Vibrations record shop. Once the record was published, Hooley took it back to John Peel. Not only did Peel play “Teenage Kicks” on his show, he did something he rarely ever did, he played the song twice in a row. According to Peel, “Teenage Kicks” was his favourite song of all time. He liked it so much that when he died, the opening lines of the song were engraved on his tombstone!

The tombstone of DJ John Peel. At the bottom, the opening line of the song "Teenage Kicks" is engraved. It reads, "Teenage dreams so hard to beat". "Teenage Kicks" was John Peel's favourite song.

As expected, with the promotion given the song by John Peel, demands for copies of the record went through the roof. Sire Records, one of the very same record companies who had previously rejected the band when they were sent the demo tape, came circling back around and offered the band a professional record contract. The Undertones agreed. They re-recorded “Teenage Kicks”, and off to the races they went, enjoying a successful career that contained several other hit songs, although none of which captured the attention of audiences quite like “Teenage Kicks”. Feargal Sharkey eventually left the band due to internal disputes and launched his own mildly successful solo career. On the other hand, Terri Hooley, being a poor businessman, had never asked any of the bands that he let record in his studio to sign publishing contracts with him. As a result, even though he played a key role in helping to get “Teenage Kicks” on the airwaves, he saw nary a cent from its success. Sire Records wisely locked up the publishing rights. As time went on, Terri Hooley went bankrupt on several occasions. Several times he tried to re-establish his record store as a viable business, but each time he ended up failing because he just didn’t know how to manage his books, as they say. There has been a movie made about his life that I will link to in the comments below. Even though he never became rich, Terri Hooley remains a beloved figure in the Irish punk music scene and is, himself, quite pleased to have played the part in its success that he did. Not all rewards have to do with money.

Meanwhile, as “Teenage Kicks” was airing on John Peel’s radio show, the citizens of Derry were over the moon with pride. In lives filled with knocks and daily humiliations, the happiness they felt fell like raindrops from the sky when The Undertones from Derry became famous. The song, which is nothing more than a two-and-a-half minute long celebration of teenage hoochie-coo, offered such a reprieve from the constant pressure of living under occupation that it entered into the cultural DNA of the community, much as conflict and hatred had for years previously. But this time there was something different to talk about. This time the feeling was one of joy and pride and happiness. It must have been such a relief to have had something good happen to Derry for a change. Proof of the cultural significance of this song and the emotions that it espoused can be seen in how it was used in an episode of the amazing television series Derry Girls. *(I have written about Derry Girls before in a post that you can read here).  The show takes place in Derry and integrates the impact of The Troubles into the comedic storylines that take place in each episode much in the same way that M*A*S*H* did with the Korean War. In the episode in question (Season , Ep. ), the mothers of the teenage Derry Girl stars are preparing to attend their high school reunion. Needless to say, much time is spent dredging up memories of the past all the while focussing on some naughty thing that the moms were all involved with at the end of the dance twenty years earlier. I won’t say what this naughty thing was one way or the other, but the entire episode really showed how important it was for all of these characters to have the chance to be normal and happy and have fun once in a while. The key moment of the show was when the reunion dance was about to begin. The DJ announced that it was time for the national anthem. Everyone groaned, expecting it to be “God Save the Queen”, which, if played, would have been just another in an endless series of reminders that they are ruled by foreigners. Instead, the opening notes of “Teenage Kicks” play, and everyone falls about the place. Angst is instantly replaced by joy. All is well. The reunion unfolds with laughter and drinking and singing and fun. The playing of “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones reminded everyone there that there is a reason to keep on fighting back against oppression, even if that fight is standing your ground and believing in your own right to happiness and good times. Sometimes anthems are born on the battlefield. Sometimes they are born on the dance floor. Whatever the case, “Teenage Kicks” is a balm that has soothed a nation’s soul. It may be the most punk song ever recorded.

I will end this post by telling you that I had no difficulty at all finding rousing sing-along versions of “Teenage Kicks” on video being sung in and around Derry. The song truly means a lot to the citizens of Derry. In the links below, I will post The Undertones singing “Teenage Kicks”, of course, but I will also show school children singing it, fans at football games singing it and on and on it goes. As I said off of the top, sometimes a song is more than just a song. This has been one of those times. 

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” as sung by 700 school children near the walls of Derry can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” as sung by football fans can be found here.

The link to the video for the movie Good Vibrations, about the life and times of Terri Hooley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Undertones can be found here.

The link to the official website for Derry, Ireland, can be found here

The title of this series comes from a line in the song “Boxcar” by the awesome band Jawbreaker. Please show these folks some love by visiting them at their website. Jawbreaker merch is really cool. I am hoping that I might find some under the Christmas tree…hint, hint. The link to Jawbreaker’s website can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

News and Notes For This Day: November 3, 2023

Technology and Information: Part

I have devoted a large portion of the last few years of my life to writing about music. I really came of age as a music blogger while working on a series entitled The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History. This series looked at the stories behind 500 songs compiled by Rolling Stone Magazine, along with radio station KEXP FM from Seattle. Writing the five hundred posts that made up this series took some time but it was a whole lot of fun. One of the best things about doing such a project was the interactivity I enjoyed with my readers. Since these were some of the most popular and important songs ever recorded in modern music history, many of them resonated with readers who, in turn, happily shared their own stories relating to each song. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the comments that came after each post was published just as much as I did creating each post in the first place. By the time the countdown was nearing its conclusion I had decided that I wanted to share the conclusion of the series with those who had followed along and contributed so much. So, I contacted the twenty five readers who had made the greatest number of comments throughout the series and asked them to nominate their own favourite song. This song would become known as an Honourable Mention song. The only conditions I put in place were that the nominated song couldn’t be one that I had previously written about during the countdown and that I wanted each person to tell me a little bit about what their song meant to them. One of the twenty five people that I reached out to was a woman from Vancouver named JoAnne Teal. The song she nominated was “Round Here” by The Counting Crows. *(You can read that post here. In that post I describe how JoAnne and I came to know each other and what having her in my life meant to me). JoAnne has been a treasured friend for over the past fifteen or so years. She is someone who I considered a mentor as well as a muse. She was a gentle soul and a truly lovely person. Yesterday I discovered that she had passed away. Today’s post is a tribute to someone who made the world a better place simply by being herself. But her death is also a cautionary tale that has much to do with technology and how we live so much of our lives online these days. God Bless you JoAnne and thank you for taking a shine to a meat and potatoes writer like me. I miss you tons. Here is what happened.

I have spent a lot of time this past week writing about social media and the dangers inherent in investing too much of ourselves into the products created by companies such as Twitter and Facebook. With Twitter and Facebook, I have talked a lot about how they operate using algorithms that track your habits and interests and then tailor content for you. In doing so, you don’t get to see all of the available content being created by those you follow. Instead, you get a version of reality that is tailored for you. One of the things that happens on Facebook in particular is that, every now and again, you will notice that certain “friends” that you follow have stopped appearing on your feed. The reason for this is that what they are posting doesn’t match your algorithm formula and, consequently, they drop off of your feed. With that in mind, in the past week or so I found myself thinking about JoAnne. Specifically, I had begun to notice that she didn’t seem to be interacting with me anymore. I felt that this was odd but, Facebook being Facebook, I figured that she had fallen off of the feed as people sometimes do and that was all there was to that. JoAnne had recently retired from her job with the Alzheimer’s Society in British Columbia and had taken up the popular puzzle game Wordle. Much of our recent interactions had been related to how we had each managed to do with the daily Wordle puzzle. Yesterday I decided that enough was enough and that it was time to click on my friend’s name and see what she had been up to lately and drop in for a Facebook Messenger chat. 

So I logged into Facebook. I went to the search bar at the top of the screen and began typing in her name. I was expecting her name to appear on the list of names that appeared on the drop-down menu as soon as I typed in the letter “J” but such was not the case. I spelled her name completely out. She was nowhere to be found on the search list. I re-typed her name using different variations of JoAnne i.e., “Joanne” and “Jo-anne” but no luck there, either.  I called up my own “Friends” list and scrolled through it from top to bottom. She wasn’t listed. That was odd. I took her absence from my own list to mean that she had unfriended me (which would have been devastating in its own way) or else that JoAnne had already done what so many others have been thinking of and had closed out her account. In order to check to see if she was still on Facebook, I selected the name of a mutual writer pal and friend named Kern Windraith. Surely JoAnne would still be on Kern’s list even if she wasn’t on mine any longer. But she was nowhere to be found on Kern’s list either. This led me to try one last ditch maneuver which was to follow my own advice from yesterday’s post and stop using Facebook as a middleman in my search and instead, go directly to JoAnne’s own fabulous blog. Once I clicked on the link to her blog (that you can click on if you read the Counting Crows post from above), I found that her blog had changed from containing all of her beautiful, beautiful writing into something that now was an apparel website called JTealWriter of all things.  I tried to find her using the Google search engine, all to no avail. Now I began to fear the worst. So I circled back to Facebook and contacted Kern about my concerns. It was Kern who broke the news to me later that night. Our friend was dead and gone. The most disconcerting thing about it was what happened to her legacy.

All of us….you as well as me….have all slowly but surely have allowed technology to become intertwined with the very core of who we are. Just think of all the email messages we have saved online or the family photographs that we store “on the Cloud” for safekeeping. Consider all of the social interactions you have had with friends and family because of things you have posted on Facebook or Instagram or some other social media site. And if you are someone who writes for a living or as a hobby, consider the amount of your work that only exists in digital form on a website like Facebook or a writing site like WordPress. I have written almost 900 blog posts since I have retired. None of them exist on paper in the real world. They are all archived digitally through WordPress. In the case of JoAnne Teal, Kern was not sure if it was via wishes left in her Will or simply the actions of family members left behind but, all of JoAnne’s social media presence was deleted and scrubbed clean. All of her wonderful stories on her blog have been removed. Her Facebook account was closed and all posts and comments erased. I cannot even find an image of her online to place in this post of remembrance. The extent of the erasure of her online presence even extends to the comments that she left on my posts over the years. This includes the one she left on the Counting Crows post thanking me for including her in the countdown and talking about why “Round Here” mattered to her. All of her supportive comments that she gave to me over the years with regard to my own writing have disappeared too. Poof! Just like that! Gone! If I found myself on the witness stand in a court of law and had to prove that my fifteen year relationship with JoAnne was real, I would be hard pressed to be able to do so. I never met JoAnne in person. We never shook hands or hugged. I never spoke to her in real life so I don’t even know the sound of her voice. I don’t know if she wore perfume or if she was shorter or taller than me or the same height as me. For all intent and purposes as you read these words, it is as if JoAnne Teal never existed. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe this life I think I am leading is actually just like the movie The Matrix and I am really laying in a pod plugged into some machine that siphons away my life energy to fuel other sentient beings. How else can I explain how someone who seemed so special and to whom I gave my friendship and respect could so completely and utterly cease to be?!  I believe that JoAnne was real. But my belief is shaken or as we sometimes say in my house, I am shooketh.

The bigger picture lesson to take from this is how easily someone’s identity can be erased and eliminated. Because we have all invested so much of ourselves and our lives into our online existence, we find ourselves precariously close to losing everything we value with a few clicks of a computer mouse. It clearly shows just how fragile our grip is on the lives which we think we are leading. Let’s take this a step further and say that Facebook and the Federal Government continue to be at loggerheads and Facebook were to threaten to lock out Canadian account holders from using their platform. How much precious personal information or photographs or correspondence would you lose in a heartbeat? How would you ever get it all back? Do you have hard copies of your family photographs anymore? We could extrapolate this out to show how easily hostile governments/leaders could control your identity, too. I am sure that my lovely friend JoAnne was a real person who lived and breathed and talked and slept but I am at a loss to prove that to you today because of what has happened to her online presence which is completely gone. 

This brings up two additional points. On a related but different note, you may be aware that there is a new Beatles song that has just been released called “Now and Then”. There is a video that I will link to at the bottom of this post that describes how the song came to be known as the last Beatles song. The short strokes are that the song was created using a demo cassette tape that John Lennon had recorded on a homemade tape recorder after he and Yoko Ono had moved to New York City. The tape was not a professional endeavour by any stretch. However, with new technology that was available today, Peter Jackson (who directed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as the Beatles documentary called Get Back) was able to lift John Lennon’s voice off of this cassette tape, polish the sound quality up and mix it into new recordings of other instrumental parts recorded this year by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and, just like that, the world has a “new” Beatles song to enjoy. I know that for many fans, being able to hear John Lennon sing again will seem like a treasured gift. However, as Goerge Harrison says aloud in the video for this song, “We might be opening up a can of worms” by taking a snippet of someone’s voice that was never meant to be heard and turning that into new music in that person’s name. What I think of the quality of the song is not as important as how it was made. I agree with Harrison that the use of technology to create new realities is frightening. Just like the way the Internet initially was a wonderful step forward to society, what was done to create the new Beatles song could, if used by bad actors, create a whole myriad of problems in the future. History can be rewritten on a whim. Whole new portions of history can be altered to seem real. US Presidents could be made to give speeches espousing the benefits of slavery, for one small example. Anything is possible with the technology used to make a simple song come to life. It is truly a case of Frankenstein’s monster. And we know that didn’t end well.

The second and final aspect of how modern technology impacts identity and history can be found in the existence of an entity many of you will be familiar with and that is our friend, Siri (or Alexa, if you are a Google customer). You may know that Siri is the automated virtual assistant who exists within your computer. Many people like to consult with Siri about such things as what the temperature is outside or how to spell a word or if Siri will start a certain playlist of music for them. As a virtual assistant, Siri/Alexa appear to be tools that we can summon and dismiss as we see fit. But have you ever wondered if Siri is spying on you? I am pretty sure that Siri’s technology is actively listening to everything that goes on in my home. There have been dozens of times when, as a family, we have been eating dinner or watching television together and chatting away as we do. Suddenly, without any of us having our phones, iPads or computers up and running, Siri will self-activate to join our conversation. In each of those instances, we have never summoned Siri nor mentioned Siri’s name. We were just talking between ourselves only to have Siri join us in a manner that is appropriate for our conversation which says to me that Siri was listening all along. On the one hand, this is a gross invasion of privacy that has been foisted upon us because of our reliance on technology to do so many of the everyday things that we do. That we willingly bring listening devices into our homes and freely disclose our personal information in front of these devices seems crazy to think about. But we all do it, every day, all of the time. The other side to this situation is that if, in fact, Siri/Alexa are recording every single utterance being made 24/7 in our homes then somewhere in the world exists a precious historical record of each of our lives. I am not sure why someone in a basement office somewhere would care about archiving the making of the MacInnes Family’s grocery lists or our discussions about how school went that day but the possibility realistically exists that this information has been recorded and is being kept somewhere by someone for purposes unknown. It would be wonderful to get a print out of our lives together with the ones we love. That book would be a thick one for sure!

In the case of my friend JoAnne and The Beatles and with Siri/Alexa, the history of our lives is rife for manipulation and abuse. I would like to be optimistic and say that it is also set up for positive purposes such as the celebration of a life lived with dignity and grace and purpose like that of my friend JoAnne, too. For now, we have to anticipate the worst case scenario of having our memories erased at the click of some benevolent overlord’s computer button or else having our memories and information held for ransom by cyber thieves. In these cases, it behooves us to take steps to ensure that we have our own hard copies of those photos, certificates and other documents and conversations that have value to us and to those who love us. I know that Facebook enables you to download your history which, I hope, includes actual transcripts of conversations you have with friends and family, videos clips, photos and so on. It might be worthwhile checking out. As for me and my writer pal, JoAnne. I don’t have much to show for our friendship except the feelings I have in my heart. I can picture her thumbnail image in my mind but I know that in time even that will fade and become clouded until such time as her image disappears entirely and she is truly gone. I wish I had known she was sick. I wish I could have acted to save the evidence of our friendship. Most of all, I wish she was still here. But she is not. My friend is gone. Technology is what enabled us to have known each other in the first place so I am grateful that such things as computers and interactive message boards ever existed. Believe it or not, I am thankful that facebook exists because it allowed the two of us to stay connected after our writing community disbanded all those years ago. However, the threads of those connections have proven to be tenuous at best. In times like these, the old adage of holding close to the ones you love applies. But even more to the point, don’t rely on others to protect your relationships and your identity for you. It is up to all of us to do that ourselves. If I had known how JoAnne’s life was going to end, I would have taken steps to have saved our conversations and her comments as they held great value to me. Rest in peace, JoAnne. Thanks for being part of this world and of my life. I am better for you having been there. May Peace Be With You now and forever more.

The link to the video for the making of the song “Now and Then” by The Beatles can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History….Song #10: Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #10: Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

Here we go with the first of ten great songs that all could be depending on your point of view. Today, we start with one of the most original and magnificent songs of them all….”Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the lead single from the Queen album, “A Night at the Opera” that was released in 1975. The song became Queen’s first hit and was their breakthrough hit in America. But, as popular as the song was when it was released and still is today, there remain many questions as to the scores of references sprinkled liberally throughout “Bohemian Rhapsody”, as well as, what the song is actually about. So, in the rest of this post, I intend to walk you through the context in which this song was written, how it was structured and stitched together, what some of the odder references mean and then, finally, give you my take on what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is all about. So, make yourselves comfortable…this is going to be quite a story because, after all, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is quite a song. Here we go!

It is important to start our journey with a reminder that Queen was a prog. rock band when they first started out. On their first two albums, they produced songs with a mythological basis to them. Prog. rock was popular at the time, with bands like early Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes and Rush all releasing many albums heavily laden with weighty songs containing weighty lyrics and lengthy solos. It wasn’t until Queen released their third album, “Sheer Heart Attack” in 1974 that they began to take a turn toward more Pop-oriented, theatrical music such as “Killer Queen” *(which you can read about here). So, when it came time for their fourth album, “A Night at the Opera”, Queen were poised to continue exploring songs with a cabaret-type feel to them. The biggest of which was a song called, “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was billed, not as a rock opera, like Tommy by The Who but, instead as a mock opera. Freddy Mercury had been dabbling with the idea of creating a Pop song using the five-part operatic story structure format for some time prior to formally writing “Bohemian Rhapsody”. In those earlier days, Mercury had scraps of song segments, as well as an overall structure mapped out that contained an opera part in the middle. The very first part of the song to be written was the line, “Mama! I just killed a man. Put a gun against his head. Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” When Mercury brought the idea for “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the band and played a rough sketch of the song on piano for them, they all thought it had the potential to be a hit. Little did they know the contortions they would end up twisting themselves in when it came time to properly attempt to record all of the many voices and style changes that populate this song. In order to appreciate what the band went through and what they managed to accomplish in the end, let’s first take a look at the five parts to this song and walk through what sort of play we are witnessing as the song rolls along.

Five-act plays were quite common in English theatrical history. Shakespeare is the most obvious example of this structural format. So, when Freddy Mercury constructed “Bohemian Rhapsody” he simply followed in the footsteps of those who’d come before him and made a five-act song. Here are those five acts:

Act : The song begins with an a capella verse that questions whether this is real life or simply fantasy.

Act : The song then transitions to a ballad section in which the narrator confesses his sin to his mother. That sin is that he has killed a man and that he is sorry for the sadness he is about to cause her because he knows the authorities will catch him and he will probably be punished by death.

Act : This is the operatic section of the song. In it, the narrator descends into Hell……..seriously, he does! If Beelzebub (the Devil) is mentioned here, where else would he be?! In any case, a battle for his soul ensues in which the narrator calls upon Bismillah to save his soul *(Bismillah is a term from the Qur’an and means, essentially, “in the name of Allah”).

Act : This is the rock section that emerges out of the Hell scene. The narrator has survived, albeit, in a changed form but has emerged stronger and more defiant for the experience in Hell.

Act : This is the quiet CODA section at the end where the narrator sings in a whispery voice that “nothing really matters, nothing really matters, nothing really matters to me……anyway the wind blows. This is the section that finds the narrator at peace and unafraid of who he now is and what awaits him in the future.

***As a bit of trivia for you, the references to Galileo that precedes the Opera section, is a tip-of-the-hat to guitarist, Brian May, who has a university degree in Astro-Physics. The reference to Scaramouche is a nod to a famous cowardly character in Italian dramas of the past.

When Queen came together to record the song, they did so one Act or section at a time. In the case of any section that possessed harmonies and/or choir-type singing…..those segments were the hardest to record. Regardless of what section they were recording, there were always only four men singing and yet, at times, it sounds like a church choir filling every square inch of space with the sound of their voices. Because the mid-1970s was not yet a time of digital recording, all tracks were recorded on tape. In the case of the opera segment…..each band member recorded themselves multiple times…..together as a foursome, as duos, and individually and then, again, at different octave levels. The final effect was to give the sense that sounds are coming at the listener from all directions and at multiple octave levels, all at once. That Queen had to do this while recording on tape meant that they were constantly having to splice small tape segments together, play those to create a new, shared sound, splice that newly taped segment again and add a new layer of sound to it, play it again, record it again, add to it again and so on and so forth. In the end, there were almost 200 overdubs used just on the opera section alone! The complexity of the recording process resulted in “Bohemian Rhapsody” being the most expensive song ever to record (at the time), as well as being a song that was virtually impossible to reproduce live. Thus, the studio version has ended up being the deluxe version of the song while, on stage, Freddy Mercury tended to sing all of the choral parts on his own for the sake of simplicity.

So where does such an original song idea come from and what is “Bohemian Rhapsody” really about? Well, Freddy Mercury took that secret to his grave. All that he would ever say about what the song meant was that it was about relationships and silly rhyming lines for fun. The remaining members of Queen….Roger Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon…..have all said that the band had a rule that stated it was up to the writer of the song to discuss its’ meaning and since Freddy Mercury wanted the meaning to remain unsaid, they were going to honour his wishes. So, they have shed no light on the mystery, either. However, one clue was revealed by the man who became Freddy Mercury’s partner during the last decade of his life. That man was named Jim Hutton. In an interview, Hutton stated that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was Freddy Mercury’s way of coming out and announcing that he was Gay.

I don’t know if that is true but, if you re-examine the song lyrics with “coming out” in mind, the song reads differently and certain aspects of it seem to actually make more sense. For the sake of some context, let’s remember a couple of things about Freddy Mercury’s life prior to 1975, when “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released. First of all, it is not always easy being Gay today, let alone back in the 1970s…..pre-AIDS, pre-Stonewall Riots, pre-Pride flags and parades, pre-straight/Gay Alliance spaces in schools, pre-same sex marriages…..in fact, homosexuality was still against the law in many areas of the world in 1975. So, even though Freddy Mercury always knew he was Gay, he did what many Gay men did at the time, he hid it by dating a woman named Mary Austin. Add to this by remembering the fact that Freddy Mercury was not actually British. He was born in Africa…..Zanzibar, to be specific. While in Africa, he was raised in a religion called Zoroastrianism, which is an ancient Persian-influenced religion. Without going into a big essay on the history of Zoroastrianism, suffice it to say, homosexuality was not condoned.

So, in 1975, publicly announcing that he was Gay was a move that was fraught with life-changing implications for Freddy Mercury. In doing so, he was turning his back on his heritage, he was shaming his parents and family and he was striding into a world where being Gay was a dangerous thing to be and for which there were few public role models to emulate. So, let’s examine the song again, Act by Act, with the underlying concept of this song being Freddy Mercury’s coming out announcement.

Act : the a capella questioning of whether this is the real life or is this just fantasy, takes on a whole new meaning here, if you believe Freddy Mercury is announcing that his public persona was just a facade up until this moment and that now, he was about to make his real debut.

Act : the confessional “I just killed a man” section takes on new meaning if the man being killed is the old Freddy. That he confesses to his mom indicates how important her absolution was in real life when he came out as being Gay. Having a supportive home environment is so critically important for any young person who comes out so, it is not surprising that this scene is filled with angst and sadness and sorrow and fear of shame.

Act : the descent into Hell. Having announced that he is Gay to his family in Act , Freddy Mercury now has to enter the court of public opinion. He knows that his news will be received with charity by some segment of the population and will be met with ridicule, threats and scorn by others. This casting of ethical judgement plays out in the back-and-forth battle for the narrator’s soul.

Act : The defiant rock n’ roll segment is a statement that Freddy is making that he will stand by his decision to go public and will be fitter, stronger and happier as a result of becoming the person he was always meant to be.

Act : the quite CODA of whispery singing about “nothing really matters….” is the breath he takes after all is said and done. The hoopla over his announcement is over. The blowback from those opposed, has been absorbed. Now he is surrounded by his true friends who value him for who he really is. With that comes peace.

Again, let me be clear that the afore-mentioned part of this post is purely speculation on my part, based mostly on Freddy’s statement that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about relationships and what Jim Hutton said after Freddy Mercury’s death, that the song was about him coming out as being Gay. Whatever the case, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is, a musical masterpiece! I place such a tremendous value on creativity and originality and this song has both in copious amounts. Even though this is potentially a very serious song, I think the Joy that emanates from it for so many people symbolizes the Joy and Peace that people feel when they are allowed the freedom to be who they truly are. If “Bohemian Rhapsody” is truly Freddy Mercury’s coming out party then, it pleases me all the more. I have always believed that Love is Love and that all should be free to love and be loved in return in ways that make them feel most comfortable. I am happy that Freddy Mercury found Love and Peace in his lifetime and that he died as someone who was comfortable in his own skin. You can’t ask for much more from life than that. Rest in Peace, Freddy.

So now, let’s get to the videos. I will play two for you. The first will be the classic, “official” video which features the four band members in shadowy light, diamond-posed. This video is very special because it was one of the very first music videos ever made. Up until that time music videos, as promotional/marketing tools, were very rare. The video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” changed that, not just for Queen but, for artists everywhere. The second video will be a live performance. In this performance, you will see how the band had to re-structure the song to simplify it enough so that they could actually play it live. Freddy Mercury turns most of the choral singing into solo singing as performed by himself.

So, without further delay, here is “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, can be found here.

The link to the video of the live performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Queen, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting artists and bands who dare to be original. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Secured By miniOrange