What adventures they’ll have…



Queen’s Queen II

Fantasy worlds created in childhood sometimes spill over into adulthood. Thus we have E R Eddison’s peculiarly childish naming scheme for the races in his otherwise sublime novel The Worm Orobouros (with Witches, Demons, and even Pixies being his warring nations of basically human warriors). Thus we also have Emily Brontë continuing to write poems about the invented lands of Angria and Gondal (which she and her siblings had worked on intensely as children) right through to the end of her life. And thus we also have the world of Rhye — or hints of it — a childhood fantasy world created by Freddie Bulsara and his sister, which crept into reality when Bulsara became Mercury, and Queen recorded their first two albums.


I’m picking Queen II (from 1974) as the fifth of my top five fantasy concept albums, but really I’m picking the fantasy concept album that might have been, had Freddie Mercury taken over the whole thing and expanded the handful of fantasy-themed songs on the group’s first two releases into a complete concept album. My fantasy fantasy concept album, you could say.

And what an album it would have been! Early Queen manage a misty-morning never-never sound that tints many of their non-fantasy songs with the fantastic (“Nevermore”, “White Queen”); they also manage an almost religious grandiosity with equal conviction (the epic “Prophet’s Song”, “Jesus”) — both essential elements in a full-fleshed fantasy. When actual make-believe enters into it, we get something as baroque and filigree as the Art Nouveau-esque “My Fairy King”, as operatic as “The March of the Black Queen”, or something in the straight-ahead rock leagues like “Ogre Battle”. There’s humour, (“she boils and she bakes and she never dots her i’s” from “Black Queen”) — something which can puncture the make-believe bubble unless handled properly (in this case, with sufficient bombast) — there’s lyricism, and there’s even something that sounds like it was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (“Can’t go east cos you gotta go south” from “Ogre Battle”), though of course D&D wasn’t released till 1974 (and I doubt it reached England immediately), while Queen II was recorded in 1973.

Centrepiece of the whole thing must be “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke”, a rendering in music of Richard Dadd’s intensely-detailed painting (and quoting from the peculiar poem Dadd wrote to accompany the picture, apparently in an attempt to prove it was a rationally reasoned-out subject, and not entirely produced by madness). At a mere 2 minutes 41 seconds, the song contains almost as many textures and details as the painting, and is one of the few examples of one work of art inspiring another of equal value.

Speaking of works of art inspiring others, there have been (I think) two fantasy novels written using Queen’s fantasy songs for inspiration. I read one, in the late eighties (I think), and can’t remember what it was called or who wrote it. And I don’t really want to. The secret of a successful adaptation from music to literature is, I suspect, not to be too literal. When I realised the plot of the novel was building up to a battle between two ogres, my heart sank. I remember glancing at another fantasy novel more recently which was inspired by Queen’s fantasy songs, but can’t remember the details, and the internet (in a brief search, I have to admit), seems equally disinclined. (I did uncover a video game, Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, from 1995, though).

Well, that’s it for my top five fantasy-themed concept albums. I’m sure there are others, perhaps even betters. If I discover one, you’ll find it in a future Mewsings. Here’s the full five, which have been presented in no particular order:


Hawkwind’s Chronicle of the Black Sword

Ah, Hawkwind. Rocksters of Reality! Spacefarers of the Science-Fictional! Plunderers of Pulp! Barbarians of Blanga!

That’s enough of that. Let’s just say I like them, and The Chronicle of the Black Sword is one of my favourite of their many albums.

Those many albums… Sometimes I think Hawkwind aren’t so much a band as an anthology series, or an old pulp magazine. Weird Tales, say, or New Worlds. Pick up any lurid-covered issue of Weird Tales in its heyday, and you’d find a mix of stories by individually excellent authors, presided over and brought into some sort of unity by the vision of the editor, shaky-handed Farnsworth Wright (the “Tyrant Pharnabeezer”, to some of those who had to deal with his rejections), or, for New Worlds, (and quite fittingly in this case) the staunchly bearded Michael Moorcock. Pick up any lurid-covered Hawkwind album and you’ll find the same mix of authorial styles, presided over this time by chief Hawk Dave Brock (who has been called a lot worse than “the Tyrant Pharnabeezer” by those ex-members who’ve departed over creative differences, or been plain fired, but I think without him we wouldn’t have nearly so much — or as good — Hawkwind as we do. Hell, we wouldn’t have Hawkwind. Besides, I love his singing voice and thudding guitar).

Pick any two Hawkwind albums and play them back to back, and at times you’d be hard pressed to guess they were from the same band. You’ve got sixties druggy droning on their debut, a punk-like tightness in the Calvert/Charisma years, electronic trancy weirdness on It Is The Business of the Future To Be Dangerous, and oodles of straight-ahead rock (1980’s Levitation being a particular high point, for me).


Hawkwind's Chronicle of the Black Sword, cover by John Coulthart

The Chronicle of the Black Sword is mostly straight-ahead rock, with a few patches of moody instrumental, and the beautiful breathy synth lament “Zarozinia”. Having listened to the album a good few times since I bought it back in something like 1987 (it was released in 1984), I find it impossible to judge how well it works, as a fantasy concept album, in transporting you to its particular story world. Why? Because all I have to do is hear the deep whomping thrum of the electronic drone that opens “Song of the Swords”, the album’s first track, and I’m there, in Hawkwind/Moorcock/Elric land, and I stay there till “Horn of Destiny” at the end. (With perhaps a slight jar at “Needle Gun” which opens side two, because it’s Jerry Cornelius, not Elric.)

But Chronicle is just a taster of the full Hawkwind/Moorcock/Elric experience, to be found on Live Chronicles, a double album and DVD of the accompanying live show. (Which, I always kick myself to recall, I had the chance of seeing when Hawkwind put on a reprise of the show at Conspiracy ’87, but, at the time, I was too scared of the idea of going to a rock concert to do it!) Here we get songs from Chronicle of the Black Sword and Hawkwind’s back catalogue, as well as some new linking tracks, woven into the tale of doomed Elric Womanslayer and the final battle between Law and Chaos.

Cover to US release of Chronicle of the Black Sword

Cover to US release of Chronicle of the Black Sword

How I’d love a full studio treatment of the whole show! Because, like it though I do, Live Chronicles just doesn’t have the full thumping aural richness of its studio-based little brother, and in the case of a song like “Moonglum” (written, sung and lead-guitared by the wonderfully reggae-voiced Huw Lloyd Langton), this is a crime, because this sublime piece of tune-smithery hasn’t, as far as I know, ever been studio recorded.

Ah well. Perhaps I should put the full-studio Chronicles (a triple album, I’d like to think) down as my fantasy fantasy album, the one I’d most like to hear had it ever been recorded.

Or I could, if I hadn’t already reserved that slot for the last of my top five fantasy concept albums, which I’ll be covering in the next Mewsings…