Queen and David Bowie
So what if this song didn't drift into my consciousness until years after the fact. It was released in 1981, well before "Modern Love." I was on some other planet, and not paying attention. But years later, my kids -- in their brief Queen phase -- found this song and wouldn't let it go. And now it's hard-wired into my soul.
Yeah, it's two masters of the Opening Riff, battling it out for diva top honors. But for me personally -- what this song says about modern life is so freakin' insightful...
This well may be the best percussion opener ever: one cymbal brush, then those handclaps, punctuated with stabs of electric piano (the piano is a percussion instrument, may I remind you), all strung along by that exquisite two-note bass line. It truly is one of the great bass lines of all time, even if stolen by Vanilla Ice ("Ice, Ice, Baby").
Fun facts to know and tell: Queen bassist John Deacon improvised this riff in the Montreux studio where they threw this song together, and then they all went out for pizza. When they came back from the break, Deacon had forgotten the riff. Luckily drummer Roger Taylor remembered it -- and the rest, as they say, was rock history.
Okay, so we're in pre-programmed follow-the-beat territory. But the lyrics bust us out; they're such a cry for help. As Bowie plangently sings, "It's the terror of knowing what the world is about / Watching some good friends screaming, 'Let me out.'" Bowie was always such a barometer for our 20th-century anxieties. (Which unfortunately haven't changed much in the 21st century.) How can we just follow the beat?
Because it's not just about me me me and my neuroses. It's about being part of a community, and registering the big picture. (Bowie was such a big-picture guy.) In the bridge -- which I attribute to Bowie, singing in his breathy falsetto -- "Turned away from it all like a blind man / Sat on a fence but it don't work / Keep comin' up with love, but it don't work..." He may be a wounded soul, but he's also a seeker, on a quest.
So here comes the answer, with Freddie Mercury's fling-it-all-out-there vocals: "Why don't we give love one more chance / Why don't we give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love...." We're an eon past the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love," with so many incidents to the contrary. Declaring faith in simple love seems radical again.
But maybe if you repeat it often enough -- it will happen.
It's a modern version of call-and-response, with wary, cynical David Bowie facing off against love-at-all-costs Freddie Mercury. And in the end, who wins?
Score one for the romantic. Because if we haven't got passion, the rest can all go to hell. And I like to think that Bowie was on board with that too. "This is our last dance," he proclaims magisterially in the final section, throwing down the gantlet. "This is ourselves / Under pressure."
Grace under pressure. What it's all about.