Queen, Progressive Rock, and Theology

Queen, Progressive Rock, and Theology January 11, 2019

I wanted to preface my review of the movie Bohemiah Rhapsody (which I posted yesterday) with some of the thoughts and interest I brought with me to the movie. But I soon saw that those would make much more sense in a separate post, and so I am including them here. I’ve begun working on a project about progressive rock and theology, and I was rather stunned when I read where Jerry Ewing, in his book Wonderous Stories “While no one would ever call Queen a prog band, early albums such as Queen (1973) and more specifically Queen II (1974) displayed a proggy art rock tendency…” (p.122). Unless one defines prog in specific narrow terms that beg the question, then the experimental character of Queen’s music is clear throughout their activity, and this comes through in the movie. We see them putting object on drums and in pianos, swinging speakers from a rope, as well as explicitly talking about being experimental and transgressing boundaries.

If it seems as though I am eager to include Queen in the book, I am. The album Made in Heaven (released after Freddie Mercury died) includes the songs with religious themes: Made in Heaven, My Life Has Been Saved, and Heaven for Everyone. And it seems to me that the long instrumental ending on A Beautiful Day (Reprise) makes Queen’s prog character, or at least influences and experimentation, clear, if eclectic drawing on opera and other genres, tempo changes, and use of recorded sounds do not do so. The album Innuendo similarly includes the songs Innuendo and All God’s People with religious themes. Bijou on that album once again seems to clearly fall in the prog category. And of course, A Night at the Opera which includes the song that gives the title to the movie that this post is about. If the case can be made to include Queen in the book I hope to write (together with a colleague in music), then I’ll want to explore more about the religious themes in their music, which go all the way back to the song “Jesus” on their very first album.

Does the above make Queen “prog”? And why has a Zoroastrian been singing about Jesus from the start? I want to explore the story, and dig behind the scenes as much as I can. Indeed, I’ve been thinking about which musical artists I might want to interview for the book, perhaps also doing a podcast in the process.

But at any rate, Queen is as much religiously transgressive as it is musically, not falling neatly into one category – even that of prog, which is defined (when it is defined at all) in terms of transgression of boundaries. The lack of clarity about whether the label fits makes it seem all the more important to discuss them in that context.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Is Queen more radically different from King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull, Van det Graaf Generator, and Gentle Giant than each of those is from one another? Should Queen be included in a volume on progressive rock and theology?

Of related interest, check out this article on the connections between rock and science fiction. I think my first album-length connection with the band Queen was the Flash Gordon soundtrack

 

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  • Susan Strouse

    Since the wise men were in all likelihood Zoroastrians who went to see Jesus, why wouldn’t a modern-day Zoroastrian continue the tradition?

    • Nick G

      Er… no. The “wise men”, like the rest of the birth narratives, are fictions. The main point of the narratives was to place Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, where the Messiah was supposed to be born, but secondarily, any remarkable person’s birth was expected to be marked by appropriately remarkable, generally supernatural happenings. These often included narrow escapes from death (like the “flight into Egypt” from Herod’s massacre of the innocents, which is unevidenced outside gMatthew), and sometimes some form of recognition from “wise” outsiders (e.g. Suetonius reports that on the day of the birth of Octavian, later the emperor Augustus, Publius Nigidius Figulus, a Pythagoean magus, foretold that he would be king of the world).

  • Scurra

    I genuinely can’t see how you could class Queen as anything other than prog-rock – and I suspect that the only people who might not want to do that are the same sort of folk that insist that e.g. Margaret Atwood didn’t write science fiction* – it’s always been an ‘uncool’ or ‘nerdy’ music genre, and therefore if “I” like it, it can’t be prog-rock because obviously “I” wouldn’t demean myself by liking prog-rock. I always love watching people put themselves through those sort of contortions (which ultimately and sadly often leads to the horror of the ‘guilty pleasure’. There’s no such thing. If you like a piece of music (or a film or a tv show etc.), then it’s a pleasure; there’s nothing ‘guilty’ about it.)

    And yes, frankly, a book about prog-rock and theology should probably have an entire chapter just on Bohemian Rhapsody, let alone anything else Queen did!

    *yes, so, OK, for a while that included Ms Atwood herself. 🙂

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Church is now almost completely irrelevant.

  • Progressive Republican

    I’d never considered Queen to be much more than a slightly better-than-average m-o-r band, but a fair case is made.

    Something to think about…

  • Ramblin’ Man

    I never thought of Queen as Prog-Rock, although they did write heavily ornamented songs. Allmusic does not list Prog-Rock as one of Queen’s styles.

  • Alistair Mutch

    It seems to me that Queen fit better with the art rock tradition personified by Roxy Music (who could be pretty heavy themselves at times thanks to their drummer) in years when there was a transgressive blurring of both pop and rock boundaries and genders in the likes of T Rex and Slade, as well as the enduring impact of Bowie. Bill Martin’s book has them on the periphery of prog, while Stephen Lambe has them as definitely not prog, but Bohemian Rhapsody as almost a parody of prog. So there’s just enough for a tenuous connection – but it would certainly relate to other religious themes. (I came here from a Tull forum)

    • Please do pass on my thanks to whoever shared this post in that forum, and thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts here!

    • Scurra

      Maybe it’s just a tribal thing? We should probably really always fall back onto Duke Ellington’s definition: there are only two sorts of music: Good Music and Bad Music.

      I can certainly see the argument that BR might be considered more of a parody than the ‘real’ thing; on the other hand, it might also be argued that it is, for that reason, possibly closer to an ur-song in the genre than anything anyone else ever managed.

      • And if we go that route, Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” was a deliberate parody of the prog rock concept album, and yet their status as prog is not questioned.

  • PJ Johnston

    I rather hope that you do write this chapter, which I would have liked someone to have written two decades ago. I happened upon your post as I was thinking about using the Queen song “Innuendo” as a fun exercise for students in my comparative theology course tomorrow. The song is a fantastic head-on collision between Indic and Western religious elements which (for me, anyway) results in a very appealing expression of religious hybridity. On the Indic side, I think the video suggests endless reincarnation or rebirth as all the many kinds of being there are until some kind of enlightenment is reached, one’s persona as a sort of temporary mask for a self, the obfuscation of self by ego, the middle way (“walk that fine line”), and some kind non-dual absolute deity masked by illusion which, revealing itself, would release one from whatever is limiting, meaningless, and painful in this kind of existence. Yet at the same time there are all these Western and/or monotheistic shadings: in the realm of rebirth, one can be anything you want to be (which seems exhilarating and good, and to enrich one rather than being a meaningless snare), one expects (demands is a better word I think) the ultimate face of reality to be a god behind the mask who will show how everything in samsaric life was good and true and meaningful despite the suffering, and one seems to get there like Freddie punching through the glass in the video – by fearlessly and ferociously inhabiting one’s individuality and one’s passions. It is something like the