American Culture

Freddie: no mere flash

Since we’re reclaiming our stake on Freddie Mercury this week, I suppose we need to reclaim all of him—including the schmaltz-fest that was Flash Gordon.

It’s common practice today for a band to accept a few bucks from someone who wants to appropriate its music for a soundtrack. Back in 1980, not so much. But Queen went far beyond that, aligning themselves so closely with science fiction schlock that they actually wrote the soundtrack.

And I loved every note of it.

In 1986, guitarist Brian May would spearhead the band’s surprisingly thoughtful soundtrack effort for Highlander. That movie’s most notable song, the elegiac “Who Wants to Live Forever,” stands as one of the greatest in the Queen canon.

But the 1980 effort on Flash Gordon was much different. It was heavy on the synth and pounded with a heart-beat bass that could punch out of any ribcage. Only two songs on the album featured lyrics, although dialogue from the movie was sprinkled liberally throughout.

I was eleven the year the movie came out, my veins coursing with all the science fiction I could inject. I lived on a steady diet of comic books. Star Wars, two movies old by then, hung everywhere in the air. I had Star Trek reruns on television, Creature Double-Feature on Saturdays, and Ridley Scott’s Alien lodged in my nightmares (I still can’t believe I was allowed to watch that one). Battlestar Galactica landed in my home every Sunday night, but as much as I wanted them to stick around, Adama and his wandering people, still lost, flew away at the end of an hour.

Buck Rogers had already successfully made his way to a big-screen revival in 1978, so it was only a matter of time before Flash Gordon came along. Whereas Buck Rogers in the 25th Century played as pretty standard B-movie sci-fi fare (which did well enough to spin off into a successful TV series), Flash Gordon played for camp—but then took itself too seriously while trying to do so. Even now when I sit through parts of the film, I can’t convince myself that the movie was self-aware enough to know what it was doing. It just seems so damn earnest.

I wasn’t especially discerning about my sci-fi, though. Quantity was far more important than quality. I wanted as much as I could get. For Flash Gordon, that included the soundtrack, which grabbed me the moment Ming the Merciless started triggering tidal waves and earthquakes in the movie’s opening sequence.

I rode my bike down to the local Music Merchant, a record store whose camel logo tried to evoke exotic Middle Eastern traders. The sales counter was usually populated by bored college students who didn’t have much time for kids. I sometimes went there with my cousin Jerome, though, in his mid-twenties, who would flip through the long bins of records the way you might flip through oversized index cards. He flipped through all of them, it seemed, on the lookout for misfiled albums that he wanted but were out of stock, or perhaps those forgotten gems a person hoped for but never expected to find.

I killed a lot of time in Music Merchant waiting for Jerome, so I knew right where the soundtracks were. I flipped to the F’s: Flash Gordon. Ah-ahhhhh!

Flash Gordon, Queen’s ninth studio album, sported a bright yellow cover with red art deco letters and a red lightning bolt flashing behind a side-tilted Saturn-like planet.

The album rose to #23 on the Billboard charts in the U.S., and poked its head into the top ten in the U.K., although the Germans and Austrians apparently loved it, where it topped out at #2 and #1, respectively. Those Austrians loved themselves some Flash Gordon.

So did I. I burned for that album.

I had coveted only two other albums in my life prior to that: the 1978 Bee Gees/Peter Frampton version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the 1979 soundtrack to The Muppet Movie. I don’t know what that says for my taste back then.

Flash Gordon represented my first “grown-up” album. True, it had only two songs on it with lyrics, and it was the soundtrack for a cheeseball sci-fi movie—but it was Queen. I didn’t know anything then about Freddie Mercury, about his legendary showmanship or his boundary-pushing sexuality. I knew “Another One Bites the Dust” and “We Are the Champions” and probably “We Will Rock You.”

And I knew “Flash! Ah-ahhhhh!”

Without DVDs or VCRs, the Flash Gordon soundtrack was my only connection to the movie. Most of the album was, let’s face it, unextraordinary, but that opening song begged me to turn myself into an arena rocker every time it played—an arena rocker from a distant galaxy, even. It allowed me to make the movie more magnificent in my head every time I spun the soundtrack on the turntable.

By the time I found the movie years later at a video rental store, I was profoundly disappointed.

Queen, too, failed to catch on for me over the years. Weird Al Yankovic’s “Another One Rides the Bus” entertained me more than the song it parodied. A decade and a half later, it would take Wayne and Garth to help me appreciate “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

By then, Freddie Mercury had been gone for years. At the time of his passing, people in my peer group hardly paid notice. Those who did scoffed at Mercury for being a “butt pirate.” As horrifying as it is, one of the things I remember most clearly about Mercury’s death is a fraternity brother’s slur, laughing as he said it: “He died of anal sex.”

I didn’t respond, not because I agreed but because I didn’t care about Freddie Mercury beyond the same passing-but-sincere “That’s too bad” I’d utter at anyone’s death. I’ve since learned that silence can be mistaken for assent.

The culture wars of political correctness were in full swing by then, but enlightenment came slowly, and northwestern Pennsylvania was still largely populated by the unconverted. Looking back, I’d smack us all upside the head in an effort to speed things up.

I credit Mercury for helping affect the change that did eventually happen, though, slow and uneven as it was. He gave AIDS a celebrity face that pushed HIV-awareness into the pop culture mainstream. That, in turn, helped push gay rights into the pop culture mainstream. We were able to start talking about those things, in part, because we lost Freddie Mercury’s voice from the conversation.

I have to admit, I still don’t like Queen’s music all that much. I’ve tried, but I just can’t get past it as overblown arena rock—which, I’m certain, makes me a Philistine in the eyes of many of my peers.

But I do appreciate what Mercury’s death really meant and what it helped make possible. I respect the impact he had on rock and roll, as a vocalist and as a showman. I still think fondly of that fantastic “Flash!” and the introduction it gave me to Mercury’s music.

The science fiction of my youth has given way to stranger, more troubling times than I could’ve possibly imagined back then. Freddie Mercury, in his way, helped me to better understand them. The man who asked “Who wants to live forever” has proven he was no mere flash at all.

4 replies »

  1. I don’t know how old you are, but please listen to some newer music and hear Queen’s influence. Please don’t talk about an influential musician as though he was the poster child of AIDS. That’s a disservice. Academic dissection is boring. Hear the music. If you think it’s cheesy, that’s fine. Still, smile and enjoy.

    • Amy: because an artist can’t be both talented musically and culturally/politically important?

      If so, you’re really, really going to hate the post coming up Thursday.

  2. Hey, Amy —

    I’m 42, so most of Queen’s big hits came just a tad before me. Growing up, I couldn’t get into them–and I tried, really. Even now, I still hear them fairly regularly because my eleven-year-old son likes some of their songs, so he fires them up on the iPod in the car all the time. Their music just doesn’t click with me, that’s all.

    For me, Freddie WAS the poster child for AIDS, which is why he’s important to me. His willingness to challenge social norms about sexuality made him larger than his music, but his death made him even bigger than that.