Freddie Mercury brings opera to the masses [August 2, 1992]
Plus: Felix, Betty Boo, Prefab Sprout, and Morrisey
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of August 2, 1992.
📰 In London, Madness organize the first Madstock festival in Finsbury Park.
📽️In the cinema: Disney musical Newsies (known as The News Boys over here), starring a young Christian Bale.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ by Snap! But today, let’s take a look at…
This week’s Number 5: ‘Barcelona’ — Freddie Mercury and Monsterrat Caballé
Last Saturday, I went to see a new opera that was written by an old friend of mine. The opera was stunning, and I am immensely proud of her—look at these reviews!
When I told my older brother that I was going to see my friend’s opera, he laughed and said, “yeah, that’s the kind of thing your friends do alright.” Then he told me about the kind of friends he grew up with. One of his pals once got so drunk that he agreed, for a dare, to amputate his own finger.
I grew up in a fairly typical working-class family. We didn’t engage with opera, ballet, classical music, Victorian novels, foreign films, or broadsheet newspapers.
In other words, we had a strong sense of what was High Culture, and we took care to keep to our side of the divide.
Working class people can enjoy High Culture, of course. But the idea of High and Low Culture (or Popular Culture) is very much about class.
The Greeks were the first people to codify the idea of a cultural elite. They gave us the idea of the Humanities, or Liberal Arts—which literally means any area of study that doesn’t teach you a practical skill.
Liberal Arts study was only an option for people who didn’t have to worry about an income. Everyone else had to learn Mechanical Arts (i.e. a trade), and that would be your whole life. You couldn’t work as a blacksmith and use your evenings to do an Open University degree in rhetoric.
For thousands of years, certain parts of culture remained inaccessible to working-class people. That didn’t mean that working people were entirely without culture. They went off and developed cultural forms that suited their energy and interests, like folk music, sports, and certain kinds of theatre. Cultural elites generally sneered at these common entertainments.
And so, there’s always been this distinct line between High Culture and Popular Culture. But the line keeps moving.
Take opera, for example.
The official history of opera is that it was invented in the 16th century by a group of Italian nobles and intellectuals, who were attempting to revive the true experience of Greek theatre. These great minds theorised that Greek drama was intended to be sung, not spoken, and tried to create a new form of theatre that would match the Greeks. The first of these works—and the first known opera—was Dafne by Jacopo Peri, which debuted in 1597.
Except that’s not true. It’s like claiming that Lin Manuel Miranda invented hip-hop in 2015 so that Hamilton could sound the way Shakespeare intended.
Musicologist Susan McClary writes:
“Despite the humanistic red herrings proffered by Peri…and others to the effect that they were reviving Greek performance practices, these gentlemen knew very well that they were basing their new reciting style on the improvisatory practices of contemporary popular music. Thus the eagerness with which the humanist myth was constructed and elaborated sought both to conceal the vulgar origins of its techniques and to flatter the erudition of its cultivated patrons.”—The Politics of Silence and Sound
Anyway, whether opera was High or Low, it turned out to be enormously popular. Public opera houses began to appear across Europe, and people like Rossini, Verdi and Mozart created accessible operas that functioned as mass entertainment.
Then, sometime around the end of 19th century, other forms of popular musical entertainment began to emerge. Plebs drifted towards music hall and vaudeville. Opera became a high-brow pursuit, exclusively for toffs.
In the 1970s, prog rock bands started playing around with elements of opera.
None of them did this more than Queen, a band fronted by a man with a four-octave range and the soul of a great prima donna. The early Queen albums are all basically one-act operas (Personal favourite: Queen II.)
None of this was accidental. Freddie was a lover of forms that were considered High Culture, and he was quite open about his desire to introduce these forms to pop music. This led to the famous altercation with the Sex Pistols, in which Sid Vicious said, “still bringing ballet to the masses, are you?” and Freddie said, “aren’t you that Simon Ferocious or something?”
The Royal Ballet appeared onstage with Queen in 1979, shortly after Sid Vicious died. They danced to ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, a rockabilly throwback number. Mercury brought a little High Culture to the masses, in much the same way that you give a cat a tablet: by hiding it inside something tasty.
In 1986, Queen were buzzing after the success of Live Aid. Their new album, A Kind of Magic, had put them back on top. It was a lot less operatic than previous records (even if ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ kind of feels like an aria.)
The subsequent Magic tour played to over 400,000 fans across Europe. On the Spanish leg, a radio interviewer asked Freddie who his favourite singer was. He replied:
“I am not just saying this because I am in Spain but, as far as I am concerned, Montserrat Caballé has the best voice of anybody in existence.”
Montserrat Caballé had been a minor figure in opera until 1965, when she was an understudy on a production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at Carnegie Hall. The lead soprano dropped out, Caballé stepped up, and she delivered a performance that earned her a 25-minute standing ovation from the New York audience.
After that, Caballé became one of the most beloved sopranos on earth. In opera circles, anyway. The average pop music fan would have never heard of her.
Caballé received word about what Mercury had said on the radio, and she sent a message back to him: would he like to help create a theme song for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics?
They arranged to discuss things over lunch in Barcelona in 1987. Caballé, being a proper, old-school opera diva, kept Mercury waiting for three hours before she deigned to make an appearance. This probably made him like her more. Game recognise game.
The two bonded instantly and started improvising while Freddie played piano. The audio of these sessions is extraordinary, like watching a pair of superheros doing loop-the-loops across the sky as they both say holy shit, you can fly too!
The sessions gave birth to an entire album named Barcelona, filled with pop-oprea crossover numbers. The record didn’t make much of a dent in the charts in 1988, but there was a sense that its moment had not yet come and things would be different when the 1992 Olympics took place.
But a lot can happen in four years.
First, and perhaps most unexpectedly, opera actually did go mainstream in 1990. Italy were World Cup hosts that year, and BBC decided to lean into the Italian theme by using an opera aria to soundtrack their coverage. The song they chose was Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turnadot.
England got close to the final of that very emotional tournament, and ‘Nessun Dorma’ became the unofficial sound of football heartbreak and triumph. It reached Number 2 in the charts, which inspired the Three Tenors album, which went on to sell 10 million copies worldwide. It proved that opera could be a commercial success, in the right context.
And then, of course, the other thing happened. Freddie didn’t make it to the 1992 Olympics. He died in Novemeber 1991.
Cabellé didn’t perform the song at the Olympics in the end. Seven years later, she did sing it in Barcelona, right before the 1999 Champions League final. She was accompanied by a recording of Freddie’s voice.
The difference between High Culture and Pop Culture has always been whatever we want it to be.
These days, the debate has taken a weird twist. Pop Culture is now utterly dominant, and High Culture is kind of on the run.
For example, there was recently a public feud between Martin Scorsese and fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marty’s voice was almost completely drowned out by people saying that Disney-funded movies are perfect, and everything else is toxic Film Bro trash. There are people out there arguing that non-Marvel movies actually cause harm, and that asking people to watch foreign or old films is classist and ableist.
There are serious consequences to this. The biggest benefit of High Culture is that it often provided patronage to great artists. Not only are we now seeing less investment in boundary-pushing art, but government barbarians are attacking the source and shutting down university Humanities programmes.
Still. Art always finds a way. Freddie Mercury brought ballet to the masses. My friend wrote an opera. It never really matters if any of it is High or Low Culture. All that matters is that it’s beautiful.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 14 (New Entry): ‘Don’t You Want Me’ — Felix
This is, according to Wikipedia, the first major hit in the genre known as Hardbag.
Hardbag is a genre that combines Handbag (which is very upbeat and poppy) with Hardcore (which is very fast and has jaggy beats.) Hardbag is a much better name than the alternative, Handcore.
Number 23 (New Entry): ‘Silent Lucidity’ — Queensryche
Another genre crossover! We’ve had Popera and Hardbag, and now here is some Progressive Metal, which is basically Pink Floyd with their amps up to 11.
The big mystery of this track is why Queensryche re-released it so quickly (it first came out in April 1991, just 14 months ago). Is it because of its success at the Grammys? Sound off in the comments if you know what happened.
Number 30 (New Entry): ‘Let Me Take You There’ — Betty Boo
Not many people could make that “hamper/pamper/cashews and champers” rhyme work, but Betty Boo can do anything.
Number 39 (New Entry): ‘If You Don’t Love Me’ — Prefab Sprout
‘If You Don’t Love Me’ should have been a minor footnote in the Prefab Sprout story. Paddy McAloon had been making his unique brand of melancholy dreampop since 1978, producing some fine hits like ‘When Love Breaks Down’ and ‘Cars and Girls’ (and also that annoying “hot dog/jumping frog/Albuquerque” one.)
In 1992, they released a Best Of and went on a long hiatus. ‘If You Don’t Love Me’ is a pleasant enough bit of filler from that compilation, and it flickered around the lower reaches of the UK Top 40 for a few weeks.
But then, America went crazy for it! ‘If You Don’t Love Me’ reached Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving them their first Stateside hit.
Despite this, the Sprouts still went on their hiatus. We won’t hear from them again until 1997.
Number 56 (New Entry): ‘Baby Got Back’ — Sir Mix-A-Lot
We normally focus on the Top 40, but let’s take a second to talk about this song, which peaked at Number 56.
Sir Mix-A-Lot did no business whatsoever outside of the United States. This track did not appear on the radio, and I doubt it was even available in the shops (except as a specialist import).
Over the years, however, it has filtered into our consciousness. I’m not sure how I first heard it, but I was definitely familiar with the song when Rachel sang it to her baby in that one episode of Friends.
It’s one of many American things that just worm their way into our brains without us noticing. Why do I know so much about Charlie Brown’s Christmas, even though I’ve never seen it? Why do I know the rules of baseball? Why?
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Album of the Week
Your Arsenal — Morrissey
Morrissey’s first three albums struggled to escape the shadow of his past. Which is understandable: The Smiths were colossal figures in British indie music, and everyone was dying to see if Morrissey could write a truly great song without Johnny Marr.
(Answer: no, he couldn’t, although ‘Suedehead’ is close.)
His fourth album, Your Arsenal, is a little different, in that it is his first album to be overshadowed by his future.
Around the time of Your Arsenal’s release, Morrissey played the inaugural Madstock Festival in Finsbury Park. During the show, he draped himself in a Union Flag, while being cheered on by a skinhead element in the audience. In response, he was hit with what would now be called “cancellation”. NME called him racist; the band Cornershop burned his posters.
There was much debate about whether Moz had gone rightwing, or if this was all some kind of complex statement about society. Your Arsenal threw fuel on the fire with lyrics like “We are the last truly British people you will ever know”, and by singing “England for the English” on a track called ‘The National Front Disco’.
So, what about the record itself?
Well, if you listen to ‘The National Front Disco’, you might notice it sounds a bit more glam than some of Moz’s previous efforts. That’s because the man in the producer’s chair is none other than Mick Ronson, the former Spider From Mars.
Ronson’s fingerprints are all over this record, such as the big rock stomper ‘Glamorous Glue’, which is one of the most enjoyable moments on Your Arsenal:
Plus, there is ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Some Day’, which is such a blatant rip-off of Bowie’s ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ that Bowie covered it on his next album:
Your Arsenal is very tight and focused, and it manages to be consistently quite good all the way through, without ever hitting the highs of a classic Smiths album (or Bowie album, for that matter.)
But sometimes it feels like something is missing. The best-known track, ‘You’re The One For Me Fatty’, has a smashing chorus but seems a little bereft of ideas on the verse.
The better single, ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’, has the opposite problem (great verse, no chorus):
There’s no shame in releasing a quite good album. The vast majority of recording artists would kill to make a record half as good as Your Arsenal.
But this is Morrissey, and the fact is that Your Arsenal is the point where he starts transforming from the godlike genius of The Queen Is Dead and starts to become the person that The Simpsons would one day parody as Quilloughby.
(Quilloughby’s song, by the way, is better than a lot of Morrissey’s solo efforts.)
Another big duet as Janet Jackson teams up with Luther Vandross. See you then!
"Baby Got Back" was inescapable over here. On the radio, in stores, in the clubs. My guess is a good 80% of people over a certain age can jump in and rap along at any given point of the track.
Also: No spoilers, but I hope we're talking about "The Best Things in Life Are free" next week. Another example of a song that outshined (and outlasted) the movie it was featured in, and one of my faves by either artist.
P.S. Interestingly (or not), the current iteration of Queensryche flew through my airport recently. I'm always struck by how normal artists seem off stage. Regular clothes, basic pleasantries, etc. Morrissey probably wouldn't be caught dead in such a pedestrian terminal, of course...
I'm convinced that Donkey's cover version of Baby Got Back (at the end of Shrek) is what brought that track into the clubs over here!
I don't know the story of the Queensryche tune. These days whenever I see their name I'm reminded of this performance of a song of theirs in a Karaoke bar in Edinburgh. The singer is Britney Slayes, a well respected Metal singer and not some rando, but still! Imagine if your tune was up next?