I Want to Break Free – A Posthumous Analysis

freddiewinkWhen I was a boy – and by that I mean a younger version of myself.

I don’t mean to imply that I’ve ever identified otherwise…

I was a massive Queen fan – and by that I mean I really enjoyed the music of Queen, I wasn’t the overweight monarchist I was in my early thirties…

In fact I was unhealthily underweight… but that’s not the point.

As a preteen Yorkshire-boy I enjoyed the works of Queen more than any other artist (except maybe Kate Bush or Adam Ant but nobody can really choose a single favourite can they?)

Too young to really understand the politics of sexuality that were breaking into popular culture and too young to appreciate some of the other wonders of my parents record collection, I would listen (much as I do now) to the same tracks over and over and over again.

Now that I’ve passed my 4th full decade on this plane, I realise I don’t listen to Queen nearly so much… hell, I don’t listen to them at all unless they pop up on the radio or a movie or television soundtrack.

But why?

I still enjoy their music; I still respect the lyrics and I still find relevance in their songs… I just don’t listen to them any more.

queen_news_of_the_worldI can cheer a dour or humourless day by singing along to King’s of the Wild Frontier or This Woman’s Work but hardly ever consider News of the World, with it’s thought provoking and melancholy murderous mecha-cover.

I don’t even own any of their albums (outside of A Kind of Magic – which I’m listening to as I type this – and their 3rd greatest hits album)… which is a crying shame considering the joy that Queen brought me in my youth.

With that as a backdrop and the scene set, I would like to narrate thoughts that arose following a brief workplace discussion regarding one of Queen’s actual “greatest” hits – “I Want to Break Free“…

A week ago, one of my web developers took it upon themselves to tidy our corner of the open plan office; the usual cleaner was off sick and this chap enjoys a tidy environment.

As my colleague set about looking for the office vacuum cleaner, another colleague remarked upon the how good the cleanliness-obsessed colleague would look dressed as Freddie Mercury in the music video of the song in question.

Our tidy-colleague (at the tender age of 21 and not being a fan of western music) had not heard the song… cue the whole team trying to explain the song, the video and their own interpretation of the song’s meaning.

It is well known that the video is influenced by the allegedly popular mancunian soap opera, Coronation Street, but the lyrics belie a potentially darker meaning.

The music video implies a need to break away from the tedium of domestic drudgery but the song itself appears to detail the death of a relationship and the potential rebirth of a new sexual adventure.

As colleagues argued that video was a possible allegory for domestic abuse, my own thoughts were drawn to the demonisation of Freddie’s sexuality in the press.

Granted, Freddie’s homosexuality was not the village-bell that it became more and more hammered in the months preceding his death but it was something of a stigma that he carried and it must have influenced his music, even then.

In the retrospective light of 2016, the song seems to me to be a heartfelt musing over the dichotomy faced by the lovers of the 1980s gay scene… Freddie, the protagonist of our song, falls in love with the love his life but at the same time feels trapped and yearns for the freedom offered by a promiscuous lifestyle or polyamorous relationship.

But then, having contemplated moving on and away from his love, our protagonist contemplates a reality without any love and so settles for what he has… still yearning for to break away to grass that appears greener and yet seems so barren at the same time.

Quite a sad song really.

Freddie died 25 years ago; in my memory his death became a media circus and a baton beaten in the war against AIDS; I often wonder what the world would be like had Freddie not died.

25 years on and the world is a very different place.

Wider societies opinions on sexuality and gender have progressed for the most part and the music industry has undergone numerous revolutions.

I’d like to think that Freddie would still be recording now, if not alone, in collaboration with his peers and the younger generation.

divinetrioCan you imagine the frenzy surrounding a boy-band collaboration between Freddie, Bowie and Jagger in the 21st century? Throw in Elton John and I think you would probably be able to call it a day – no need for any further pop music shenanigans…

Or maybe Freddie Mercury and Justin Timberlake?

Erm… I think I need the bathroom… Nurse?

Thinner McGuinner

I suppose it’s topical insofar as The Queen is in the news shaking hands with former IRA big wig, Martin McGuinness but a work colleague triggered this idea whilst talking about Stephen King’s Thinner yesterday.

If I was Queen and met the person who the press are holding responsible for the murder of my cousin, I’d probably want the meeting to turn out like this…

Martin McGuinner

Thinner!

Stainless Steel Screening

A Stainless Steel Rat Is BornThe other day, I posted about an author whose work has had a profound influence on my life: Harry Harrison.

I wrote the post as a reaction to a post on the author’s blog, which in turn was in response to some fan-boy questions that a close friend and I had previously posed to him.

Amongst those questions were a few related to the, sadly unplanned, conversions of more of Harry Harrison’s work to film. I would both love and hate to see The Stainless Steel Rat as a film; Love because I think they are some of the greatest stories of all time and hate because I have seen some of the travesties that have been borne of Hollywood.

The Stainless Steel Rat Gets DraftedIn my early adolescent years, I would often discuss potential film versions of The Stainless Steel Rat with the very same friend that submitted our questions to Harry Harrison.

Over the years we’ve considered a variety of different cast members and even made compilation tapes of soundtrack suggestions. Obviously a lot of our casting suggestions may seem dated now and Harry himself agrees that the ageing of past favourites makes it near impossible to select a known actor or actress for a role…

… of course it’s still fun to postulate, so here are a few ideas.

Slippery JimSlippery Jim DiGriz, The Stainless Steel Rat

Obviously the lead, Slippery Jim himself, is the most contentious decision.  James Bolivar DiGriz is often described as the James Bond of the space-ways; an analogy I am never 100% comfortable with.  To me, he’s more like a member of the Impossible Mission team that doesn’t kill; the Stainless Steel Rat is a master of disguise and this must  be one of the overriding factors to account for when casting him.  Not everybody can pull off a good disguise.

Slippery Jim is also a charmer; whilst witty repartee is the domain of the author, it takes a certain kind of actor to emulate charm.  In the books the charm comes from our own imaginative interpretation of the story but on the silver screen it is all about delivery.

Finally, Jim is relatively fit, albeit a borderline alcoholic.  This all depends on the time-line within the series but by and large, regardless of age, Jim is fit.  Granted he fluctuates between supreme fitness and mild slobbishness throughout but he’s no couch potato.

Bruce CampbellIn my youth I used to picture Jim as being portrayed by the likes of Bruce Willis or later by Bruce Campbell, whose work as the Daring Dragoon in Jack of All Trades is in no small way akin to Slippery Jim.

The problem now, is that everybody who I can think of is too old to play the Rat through every story.

Harry himself postulates this:

Very early on we were trying to get Steve McQueen, who would have made a very, very good Rat. But he snuffed it… Chances are we’d be better with a new, good actor. The older good actors are now on crutches! It would be like John Wayne with his pot belly running, you know!

I think Harry is right, it worked for Harry Potter.  The, largely unknown, leading cast aged through the story as the films were being produced.

Nathan FillonMy friend has put forward contemporary suggestions of his own (Jeffrey Donovan from Burn Notice and Matthew Bomer from White Collar) but admits they are based in part on their having played similar roles for television.

For my own choices, I’d go with either Nathan Fillon (Firefly, Castle) or the ubiquitous Christian Bale.  Of course, I’ll change my mind in another year or so.

Uma ThurmanAngelina DiGriz

The Stainless Steel Rat’s wife, Angelina DiGriz, is equally difficult to pick.  Angelina starts life as a woman turned psychopath by her hideous ugliness; an ugliness that she quickly remedies with the kind of cosmetic surgery that is only available in works of Science Fiction.

The actress playing Angelina must be a natural beauty and seductress; she should also be capable of playing a cold hearted killer.  I could never settle on an adequate Angelina in my youth and today I’d have to agree with Harry when he says:

Uma AgainThe actress who was in The Producers and Kill Bill 1 and 2, Uma Thurman, was very good. She was very feminine – especially in The Producers where she gets her clothes off – there was a lot of girl there!

I would also maybe consider Eliza Dushku (Tru Calling, Dollhouse) although it would take some doing to top Thurman.

Laurence FishburneInskipp

Harold Peters Inskipp, the “big man” that drafts Jim into Special Corp.  Some may not see Inskipp as a particularly key role in the stories but to me he is integral.  On introduction, Inskipp is described as a big man.  I include him here because I think Laurence Fishburne would play him wonderfully.

Soundtrack

As fun as it is to come up with ideas as to who should play who, I used to also anguish over the soundtrack to the film.  This is entirely different to the music I would listen to whilst reading the books, although some of the tracks we put onto compilation tapes may have been played whilst reading.

If I were to recreate a soundtrack now, it would be entirely different and many of the original tracks are lost to the dark recesses of poor memory.  There are far more tracks available to me now than in my youth, so I’ll concentrate on a few of the tracks that I remember.

Boomtown Rats - Rat TrapRat TrapBoomtown Rats : The connection here is obvious; the track always reminded me of the opening to the series, where Slippery Jim is cornered by Special Corp and recruited by Inskipp.

Billy don’t like it living here in this town
He says “Traps have been sprung long before he was born
He says “Hope bites the dust behind all the closed doors
And pus and grime ooze from its scab-crusted sores
There’s screaming and crying in the high-rise blocks”
It’s a rat trap, Billy, but you’re already caught

The lyrics may be a little grim and graphic but then so was the world that the Stainless Steel Rat operated in.  It may have been built up of steel and ferro-concrete but at its underbelly there was still destitution and desperation.

I always hear the song’s ending lyrics as:

IT’S A RAT TRAP JIMMY – AND WE’VE BEEN CAUGHT!

Even though it should be Judy instead of Jimmy.

Queen - Killer QueenKiller QueenQueen : As a youth this song epitomised Angelina.  All about a beautiful lady who would cut you down in an instant – besides, I was a huge Queen fan back then.

She’s a Killer Queen
Gunpowder, Gelatine
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind
Anytime

Wet Wet Wet - Angel EyesAngel EyesWet Wet Wet : I wasn’t a big fan of the Wets in my youth but this song was in the charts at the time.  The lyrics were quickly changed to “You know that Angelina, woa wo ho she sets you on fy-er, yo Jim, Whooomph” often with a mental image of Angelina igniting some petrol doused victim whilst Jim looks on in horror.

The saddest thing I’ve ever seen on my tv screen
Was a dying man who died for his dream
Toughest thing I’ve ever heard
Was that new-born scream in this naked world

People say I’m so automatic
People say I’m not so systematic
When I’m down I’m in manual, lord
And time on time again I walk on by
With the look of love

And with those angel eyes, woh woh
You set me on fire baby
And with those angel eyes, woh woh
C’mon now baby

Last year I had the pleasure of seeing the Wet’s lead singer, Marti Pellow, star in the musical Witches of Eastwick.  Marti took the role of Daryl van Horne and was truly awesome.  Maybe he would be a good Stainless Steel Rat…

I am sure that these discussions will carry on until such a time as the film and television industry wakes up and smells the money that could be made from the Stainless Steel Rat franchise.