Here you go, record #3 of the 1537*, Queen A Kind of Magic, I remember cleaning out our goat shed when I was 14 to earn the readies for this one which I bought on 25 June 1986**, kids today would probably just upload it directly into their central cortex via their Apple iGroans. Ha, wimps! they’ll never know the joy of back-breaking labour combined with smelling of goat droppings for three days, it’s what made me what I am today. (twitches uncontrollably, laughs manically).
I fell for Queen hard at Live Aid in 1985, apart from a youthful dalliance with the Beatles and a fifth generation cassette version of Eliminator this was the first flush of love for me and it burned me righteous and true. I immediately set about getting taped copies of every Queen LP I could possibly get and then, when funds permitted, started buying them, Jazz was first up but when I found out that they were ACTUALLY ABOUT TO RELEASE A NEW LP I got a little bit excited.
This excitement hit absolute fever pitch when I learned that it was a sort of soundtrack to ‘the coolest film ever’^ called Hi, Linda or, something similar (I may have misheard my friend James at the time). I remember A Kind of Magic and Highlander coming out simultaneously but Wikipedia tells me they were months and months apart. All I ever wanted to be in the whole wide world was Christophe Lambert in Highlander – not the bits where he was a hairy Scots dude^^, but when he got to be all cool and French in New York wearing a beige trench coat and light blue jeans, whilst decapitating people and, in a particularly memorable (for me at least) scene, kissing a tit. Truly he was the greatest role model I have ever had.
But I digress, the track I liked best wasn’t even in the film, ‘One Vision’ having been optioned for one called Iron Eagle, which I’ve yet to see. The guitar at the beginning of this track, where it cuts through the keyboards and vocal mulch immediately joined the opening bits of ‘Money For Nothing’ and the whole of ‘Hammer to Fall’ as my favourite bits of heavy guitar, ever. In fact this evening I discovered, much to my children’s appalled disbelief, that I can still air guitar my way through the whole of this track note-for-note. I used to think that this was just the best, rockingest track around, but sadly, if I look at it without the aid of my nostalgiascope, it just sounds a bit pedestrian and clunky to me now, which genuinely does make me feel sad – I blame those damn Ramones!
Luckily I found ‘A Kind of Magic’, which until tonight I would have sworn was called ‘It’s A Kind of Magic’, to have fared much better over time. It sounds precisely the way it was always intended, a clever, bouncy pop song with some good instrumental flourishes and one of my favourite Mercury vocals. I never got to see Queen in the flesh but I know they used to play a rockier version of this live.
Next up was ‘One Year of Love’, the first big pop ballad here and one of the tracks I came to like best, cranking it up on my Walkman whilst wishing for even ‘Three Minutes of Love’ (of the romantic kind, obviously) with Miss X, or Miss Y*. It was also notable for provoking my first air-saxing (that’s not a spelling mistake). I’ve not watched Highlander for at least 18 years but I’m pretty sure this was the soundtrack to the afore-mentioned knocker fondling scene in the film.
Unfortunately we then hit the two worst tracks of A Kind of Magic, ‘Pain is so Close to Pleasure’ for all its slightly kinky titular overtones is a forgettable ringer for an offcut from Hot Space and as for ‘Friends Will Be Friends’ … I just hate it. It’s the aural equivalent of a reel of Spielberg film endings, or mainlining 8oz of icing sugar – devoid of any real dietary worth. Yuk! I used to tolerate it at best, back when, but now … (shudders). I was surprised how violently I disliked this one.
Side 2 opens up with the real big ballad ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’, which I was surprised to find I still rather liked. Some skyscrapingly heartfelt vocals from Mercury coupled with clever Michael Kamen led orchestration, make for a good tune, albeit the most obviously soundtrackalacious cut here. I also particularly liked the note of disquiet at the end, which from memory is where he buried his true love in the film: Post-Spoiler Alert.
Best of all though was the next track ‘Gimme The Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)’, a real surprise to me this time – although I do vaguely remember it topping my Sunday night Queen Top 10 chart for five weeks running**. It is great to hear Freddie Mercury really let rip on a proper rock track, using all that firepower properly again. Some rather tasty riffing and soloing from Brian May and some driving rhythm in amongst all the completely over the top snippets from the film. It made me a bit nostalgic for their earliest work. Subtlety never being one of Queen’s virtues, you believe it when Mercury sings,
Give me your kings, let me squeeze them in my hands,
Your puny princes,
Your so-called leaders of your land,
I’ll eat them whole before I’m done,
The battle’s fought and the game is won,
I am the one the only one,
I am the god of kingdom come
After the synth-led ‘Don’t Lose Your Head’, which has shades of U2s ‘Lemon’ about it (trust me on that one, I was surprised myself), we get a bit more of the same with the ‘Gimme The Prize’-but-with-extra-pomp-rock ‘Princes of The Universe’. Yup, we get 94-part vocal multitracking, time signature changes galore, fast bits, slow pompous bits, a brilliant ‘Now I’m Here’-style guitar gallop from Brian May and all the trimmings. If you ever liked Queen you’ll find a place for it, if not you’ll just think its everything that was ever wrong with them – myself, I can see both arguments. Chutzpah – it cuts both ways.
I feel about A Kind of Magic pretty much as I thought I would before I span it. It hits the nostalgia button for me back to a magically vivid time of my life and some of the tracks still do it for me, but not as much as I’d really hoped. It’s a real product of its times, the big glossy worldwide-event commercial release which would be worked on by a band for at least three years, the sort of monster that doesn’t really seem to exist even for the biggest bands anymore. The things that drew me to Queen are all there, the charisma, the musical chops, the track-by-track genre switchings, but to a much more diluted extent than in an LP like A Day At The Races.
It was the sort of LP that would very shortly push me through the doors marked ‘Heavy: Abandon Hope all Ye Who Enter Here (P.S: Grow A Mullet)’. I can still sketch the band logo from A Kind of Magic in seconds flat, 27 years later and that has to count for something.
Just to undermine my own dramatic conclusion above I also bought the 12″ Who Wants To Live Forever when it came out the following year, partly for the cover picture of Christophe Lambert, in Scots mode but mostly for ‘Forever (Piano version’ – a, umm, piano-heavy version of the tune which I am afraid to report just sounds like lift muzak to me now, but would have featured high in the Queen Top 10 in May ’87 I’m sure.
I couldn’t resist this version.
*for reasons of emotional and marital harmony I’m not at liberty to divulge the current tally. Umm, if you’re reading this dear the number has gone down to around 1515. Honest.
**and my son was born exactly 14 years later. Cosmic.
^my diary, 1986.
^^not that there’s anything wrong with that Mr HMO.
*names redacted to protect them from unwanted press attention which would inevitably attend being outed as the, blameless, objects of 1537’s teenage affections. They don’t deserve that, no let them be.