Thursday, July 28, 2011

The cosmos rocker

Media Moment: Bang! book
Queen-related: Co-written by Brian

I picked up BANG! The Complete History of the Universe at the same time I ordered the Phil Sutcliffe book a few months ago.

Although I haven’t read the book cover to cover, I did read the first two chapters in their entirety before flipping through the remainder and checking out the pictures and captions. (The book is actually quite an easy read so I will make a point to go back and read the whole thing at some point.)

What struck me immediately about the book was the tone of voice. It wasn’t a dry, technical overview of the universe and its history. It is in a linguistic style chosen for a lay audience, rather than died-in-the-wool astronomers. Although I’ve not seen an episode, I suspect the book has a similar appeal to the masses that Moore’s long-running The Sky at Night TV show probably aims for, which makes sense if they’re trying to reach the armchair astronomers of the world. Even Brian comments on the tone of the book on the Bang! website: “BANG! is written in ENGLISH, rather than the language of mathematics, designed to be clear to anyone not previously deeply immersed in Astronomy, but with an appetite for understanding.”

I scoured the book for references to Queen to see if Brian’s fan base would be catered to. There is none, except for a brief mention of Queen in Brian’s biography on the back cover (shown below). This was certainly not a gratuitous move since it is merely in keeping with acknowledging the credentials of each author. It just so happens that in addition to Brian’s professional affiliation with astronomy, he’s an occasional musician. There is one other Queen reference that I noticed . . . the preface photograph (shown above) was taken by Richard Gray. 

For the purposes of this book, I think that downplaying Brian’s musical profile was a good idea. It shows that his involvement with the project was not an honorary gesture or a marketing gimmick. He really does have street credibility in this area — he’s an expert in the specific field of astrophysics that his doctoral dissertation can attest to. 

There are specific references in the text to experiments, photographs, and such that Brian had a hand in. There is even a gem of a story that explains his childhood fascination with astronomy: “It was a book by Patrick Moore, The Earth, in the school library that introduced Brian to the amazing story of the trilobites, and inspired him to a life-long passion for astronomy” (May, Moore, & Lintott, 2007, p. 118). I wonder if Brian could have imagined that half a century later he’s be co-writing a book with that same author.

As a university instructor myself, I can appreciate the magnitude of what he’s accomplished with this book. He’s essentially co-written a textbook for astronomy buffs, albeit without any pedagogical tools. To put things in perspective, I’d be curious to see Justin Bieber or Rebecca Black write a textbook on comparative literature.

It’s not often that actors and musicians contribute specialized knowledge to the sciences in academia. Having a creative mind is usually counter-intuitive to thinking analytically. Switching from one creative endeavour to another is quite common — such as Costner with music or Mellencamp with painting — but when a personality is shown to be equally proficient with both left and right brain abilities, as Brian does, it’s a remarkable thing.

I’ll look forward to the sequel to BANG! called Cosmic Tourist which the three authors are currently working on.

May, B., P. Moore, & C. Lintott. (2007). Bang! The Complete History of the Universe. London: Carlton Books Limited.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Meddows-Taylor

Today is Roger’s 62nd birthday and what better day to discuss his double-barrelled last name than on the anniversary of his name coming into effect.

I remember reading the liner notes from my Queen album and noticed that Roger had a hyphenated last name, which was different than how the other three band members were credited. What was more puzzling to my 13-year-old mind, though, was why a man would have a hyphenated name at all? 

Here in North America, hyphenated names were a rarity. The only person I recall having a double-name was a woman . . . Farrah Fawcett-Majors back in the mid-70s. Now, of course, there are numerous reasons for hyphenating (for women, men, and children), and if hyphenating becomes problematic linguistically, families can opt for a portmanteau last name, where an entirely new surname is created from the syllables of the two or more family surnames.

As I researched surname traditions around the world for this blog entry, I came across many heated discussions going on in regards to women’s motives for hyphenating their name or choosing to keep their birth name upon marriage. It would seem that what a woman chooses to call herself is a call to arms for many patriarchal-focused men.

Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve become acutely aware of the naming tradition in many European countries to have hyphenated last names, including men: John Rhys-Davies, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tim Piggott-Smith, or even the Mountbatten-Windsors. According to one Wikipedia article on the double-barreled surname tradition, it’s a matter of prestige in carrying a privileged family name that’s been (usually patrilineally) descended for many generations. Many times, it signals a pedigree that can be used to one’s advantage in certain circles. This approach has been criticized as pretentious, however, so many individuals choose to go solo in this regard.

So what reasoning did Roger have for going with the double-barreled surname on that first album? Here is what I could muster up recently:

“Queen drummer Roger Meddows Taylor was born on Tuesday, July 26, 1949 at the West Norfolk and King’s Lynn Hospital in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, to Winifred and Michael Taylor. Michael was an inspector for the Potato Marketing Board. ‘Meddows’ was a family name that had been passed down [to] successive Taylor generations, and it was subsequently passed on to Roger as a middle name.”

But why drop it, then? Here’s what another Roger bio site had to say:

“Queen’s first album, called just Queen and issued on EMI in the UK on 13 July 1973, was the only one to hold Roger Taylor’s name in its long version — Roger Meddows-Taylor. Then he opted out of that family name and became Roger Taylor. That was better in some way and also worse, because we have now a musician, Roger Taylor, drummer of Duran Duran. We also have a writer Roger Taylor. And other Roger Taylors. So I decided to call my site Roger Meddows-Taylor's just not to make anyone confused. Besides, I like the name Meddows-Taylor, just because I like double names. As for now I only have one.”

Did he want to avoid being labelled as pretentious? I don’t know. I do get the impression, however, that he’s not that invested or interested in a double-identity anymore. I would be curious to know — apart from their unique first names — if any of his children have the Meddows surname formally passed down to them as an homage to his generational line. 

Whatever the case, happy birthday Roger.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Sir Topham Fatt

Is the term “fat” a derogatory word? I suppose it is depending on the context, who the term was aimed at, or the overall intent of the message. In North America, at least, its primary connotation has historically been a negative or insulting one; perhaps with roots in our fear of being judged as overweight in a fitness-obsessed culture.

Whatever the case, referring to someone or something as “fat” is generally considered a put-down and one so afflicted with the condition should strive for the opposite in order to have any social value. 

With a toddler in the house, my wife and I have become well acquainted with many of the 60+ UK-based Thomas the Tank Engine characters for quite a while now. We even went to see Thomas and Sir Topham Hatt as part of the Day Out With Thomas event held at our local Heritage Park when the live action version was making a tour through Western Canada and the American Pacific Northwest.

Seeing Sir Topham Hatt at Heritage Park was anticlimatic because, in addition to the gate admission, there was an additional fee to get your kid’s picture taken with him. As I was fuming about that, I remembered that Sir Topham Hatt used to be called The Fat Controller in some of the earlier Thomas books we have around the house.

Wait a minute, why would HiT Entertainment change the name of the most famous human on the Island of Sodor that dates back to 1945? Or maybe there were two similar-looking but different characters and I just didn’t notice. Nope, it was a name change as a visit to Wikipedia explained:

“In the American version, he has almost always been referred to by his actual name, Sir Topham Hatt, possibly because ‘fat’ is a more pejorative term in the U.S.”

In actuality, Sir Topham Hatt is the proper name for the character and it was his nickname, The Fat Controller, that was his moniker for the better part of half a century. But political correctness was about to catch up to the popular character as it was marketed globally.

If ‘fat’ is not a pejorative term in the U.K., that would help explain why Brian felt comfortable releasing a song called Fat Bottomed Girls and didn’t lose any sleep over it possibly offending someone. It’s an accepted part of the English spoken vernacular, at least in England.

So does Fat Bottomed Girls insult plus-sized women or celebrate them? I think Brian’s acknowledging that heavier, more Rubenesque females are just as desirable as the modelesque ones we typically see in the media.

However, the nude bicycle race poster that came with my Jazz album certainly didn’t favour heavier women in the photograph. Sup with that?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Crazy, Stupid Thing Called Love

Media Moment: Crazy, Stupid, Love. promo
Queen-related: Features CLTCL

You know, I just finish posted my blog entry about Canada Sings and start shutting things down for the night, and when I was about to turn the television off, I hear the familiar guitar chords to Crazy Little Thing Called Love

Wow, it didn’t take long to encounter another Queen media moment.

Thanks to the genius of PVR recording, I merely rewound the live broadcast to see what was going on with the song. It turned out to be a TV spot for a new Steve Carell movie called Crazy, Stupid, Love. that also features Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, and Josh Groban — another Queen connection through his Live at the Greek DVD.

The last time I remember hearing the song featured so prominently in a movie trailer was for Mr. Wrong with Ellen DeGeneres from 1996. But unlike that film, this clip actually used the lyrics in a mise-en-scène to reinforce the chaotic nature of romance as depicted in the movie.

So instead of being a sensory element relegated to the ears only, the trailer almost comes off as a reinterpreted music video given the emphasis on the visual. Here, the song literally carries the movie instead of the movie clip carrying the song.

Although not released yet, a quick stop at IMDb showed an early review that is very positive — “Crazy, Stupid, Love. is one of, if not the best, American romantic comedies of the past decade.” This user gave it 8.5/10. But who knows if this lengthy review was just an Internet tactic concocted by the producers to give the film an early leg up. Time will tell, I guess. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Canada sings, Vanilla judges


I caught a promo on TV the other day for an upcoming Glee-off reality-type show being produced here in Canada. All I know about it so far is that it’s called Canada Sings and they’re featuring three celebrity judges. Two of them are Canadian, Jann Arden and Pierre Bouvier, and the third is Texan Robert Van Winkle, better known as Vanilla Ice.

If this musical reality show is anything like American Idol, The Voice, or resembles the modern temper of the Glee soundtracks, a Queen song or two will no doubt make an appearance during the six-episode series.

If they do, it will be interesting to hear Ice’s comments as they relate to Queen. What can he honestly say about them? That they have such great tunes that he was compelled to rip one off sample one without bothering to get permission first?  

Besides, what musical insights can a rap star bring to an actual singing contest? Don’t they just talk and yell to a beat?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Shades of glory

Media Moment: Blades of Glory
Queen-related: Features Flash’s Theme

In my June 11, 2009 blog entry on Flesh Gordon, I commented on my surprise in hearing Flash’s Theme being featured in Blades of Glory. Specifically I wondered who on the production team would have opted for an obscure Queen song to highlight the climactic pairs’ performance with Will Ferrell and Jon Heder; a Queen song that wasn’t a big hit in North America. So why choose it when there are lots of other, more well known sci-fi themes they could have gone with?

Well, the movie was on TV again last night so I had another look it. It struck me that in addition to the Flash bit near the end of the film, there are a few other traces of Queen-related items throughout the movie.

For instance, the movie starts with an establishing shot of Jon Heder’s character showing some promise as a kid skating around a frozen pond. What I missed the first time I saw the film was that the song playing over this scene is Sarah Brightman’s Time To Say Goodbye from her album of the same name. It’s also the album that features a cover of Who Wants To Live Forever.

Later, when Will Ferrell’s character makes an appearance, it’s to the Billy Squier song The Stroke — a song and album, as we know, produced by Mack who also produced Queen’s early 80s stuff. And, of course, Billy Squier himself speaks at length of his shared stage time with Queen back in the day.

I could also mention that the finale takes place in Montréal, which is the city featured on their Queen Rock Montréal (aka We Will Rock You) concert film. This concert also has one of the few live performances of Flash’s Theme and The Hero. So to feature the song and to have it take place in Montréal is an interesting bit of coincidence, in my opinion.

I hate to be the one to point out the white elephant in the room, but there’s a latent homosexual overtone to both the skating routine — that is, the skaters’ reactions to many of the moves each had to make on one another — and to Freddie’s lifestyle and reputation.

Maybe there’s more to the story here, too. If a skating pair consisting of two men can achieve greatness against public perception, maybe this is a subtle echo of Queen’s finding greatness despite being unfairly branded a “gay” band. And then to pick a Queen song that speaks to a future (i.e., science fiction) that one of the skating judges deemed to be symbolic of where skating was headed, was a good choice. All bases are covered.

This film is a good example of why I’m so intrigued with the pop culture references to Queen that keep popping up lately. If we add up all of the connections to Queen to be found in this movie (as mentioned in this blog), I think we’d be hard-pressed to find a similar set of connections to, say, The Rolling Stones in a single movie like we do here.

I’ll admit, my knowledge of Queen trivia is greater than it is for The Kinks, for example, so I’m speaking from a biased perspective. However, maybe I should take a more critical look at movies that feature other bands’ songs and then see if I can find the six (or less) degrees of separation with that band and other elements of the film.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I want it stop

Media Moment: Value City Furniture TV spot
Queen-related: Features I Want It All

What the hell. These retailers that have “City” in their name must all have the same owner, same advertising agency, or synchronicity becomes serendipity for me as I stumble across TV commercials that have featured I Want It All lately.

Back in August 2009, I blogged about how a Dateline NBC episode with Chris Hansen featured IWIA in their coverage of the US economy, which was, one may suppose, “suggested” from the Circuit City television commercials that were running around that time on the networks.

Now I see a retailer called Value City Furniture using IWIA but with a distinctly different edit of the song. While Circuit City focused on the multi-tracked vocal from the chorus and followed that up with Brian’s blistering guitar solo to keep the viewer’s attention, Value City primarily loops Brian’s solo with a very brief — one occurrence only — snippet of the chorus vocal, then back to the solo.

I’m surprised that a chain like Value City would pay Queen Productions royalties for using the song. Every time the commercial plays, so does the song, and there’s a few more bucks for Brian. But is this added cost to the production of the commercial worth it to them? I have to wonder. Why not just use some canned guitar solo instead? Or pay to have a royalty free cover version of the song recorded and use that?

Like I alluded to in my Flash blog from a few weeks ago, I can’t say that I’m supportive of Queen songs being appropriated for completely unrelated commercial purposes by retailers. I think it weakens the integrity of the song and the songwriter’s intent. 

Or — here’s a scary thought — maybe Circuit City and Value City didn’t actually pay Queen Productions for the use of the song. Stranger things have happened. I would think, though, that Brian and Roger (and Jim Beach) wouldn’t let this kind of song pirating go on too long before shutting them done.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Freddie on Fremont

I was talking to a friend a few weeks back about my Queen blog and — to my surprise — she showed me this cell phone video she took while at Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. On the huge curved overhead screen was (essentially) a WATC and WWRY music video combined with a spectacular light show, a light show that is probably the main attraction for Fremont-goers these days.

My friend said that out of all the different bands/songs that were played on that huge three-block screen when she was there, this was her favourite, which is why she hasn’t deleted it from her phone yet.

Thanks, Ann.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

38’s special

Media Moment: Much More Music special
Queen-related: Stone Cold Crazy makes list of 100 greatest hard rock songs

Everyone loves lists. VH1 recognized this kind of draw back in 2006 and began producing a video series called “The Greatest” which chronicled the greatest moments/songs/bloopers/whatever for all manner of music, celebrities, and Internet phenomenon. A full list of the series can be found here.

Here in Canada, Much More Music rebroadcasts many VH1 programs and to date I’ve only seen two of the “Greatest” series: 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs and the 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80s. Queen was, fortunately, only featured in one of the series.

I’m surprised that Stone Cold Crazy was the Queen song selected for this countdown. It wasn’t a major hit for them (as far as I know) and there are certainly lots of other, more well known, hard rocking’ songs in their catalogue to choose from . . . such as Fat Bottomed Girls or Tie Your Mother Down.

What I do like about this choice, though, is that it represents the first song credited to all members. And it does rock harder than the Metallica version, in my opinion.