Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Somebody To Love. This is one of the great ‘anthem-rock’ songs by Queen. We will start with the original and then we will review covers from George Michael, and also the cast of the TV show ‘Glee.’
Queen and Somebody To Love:
The band Queen was a British quartet that assembled in London in the early 70s. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor met up with vocalist Farrokh Bulsara. They then tried out a number of bass players until they settled on John Deacon. At that point Bulsara changed his name to Freddie Mercury, and the band adopted the name Queen.
For a couple of years, the group attempted to gain publicity and score a record deal. In 1973, they signed a record contract with Trident/EMI. This was a great leap forward for the band, as Trident Studios had high-tech facilities that had been utilized by the Beatles and Elton John, among others.
Below is a group portrait of Queen. From L: Brian May; Freddie Mercury; John Deacon; Roger Taylor.Embed from Getty Images
For the next couple of years, Queen gained a dedicated following in the UK, but made relatively little commercial headway in the US. All that changed dramatically with the release of the group’s fourth album, A Night At the Opera, in 1975.
That album, titled after a Marx Brothers’ movie, contained the song Bohemian Rhapsody. A daring and amazing tour de force, it is a pop tune written in operatic style (“I see a little silhouette-o of a man — Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?”).
Mercury showed off his astonishing 4-octave vocal range in this tune. And before you could say “Beelzebub!” the group’s fame spread across the globe.
The record album contains the claim – “no synthesizers!” This is to emphasize that the incredible sounds they produced were a combination of special effects produced by Brian May and his Red Special guitar, and also through massive overdubbing by the members of the band.
At this point, we will take a brief detour to discuss the life and career of Queen guitarist Brian May, shown at left. How many rock musicians have a doctorate in astrophysics and have authored a textbook on the subject? As a physicist in a related field, I can vouch for the fact that May’s book (Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, co-authored with Patrick Moore) is both technically accurate and highly readable.
And how many rock musicians would also have served as Chancellor of a British university? Brian May is quite an amazing fellow.
At age 16, Brian May decided to construct a custom-made guitar with his father, Harold. Brian describes the project in the introduction to his book on the subject:
I designed an instrument from scratch, with the intention that it would have a capability beyond anything that was out there, more tunable, with a greater range of pitches and sounds, with a better tremolo, and with a capability of feeding back through the air in a ‘good’ way.
Suffice it to say that his guitar, the Red Special, was an awesome accomplishment. This is especially true since the instrument is made largely through ‘found’ parts in Harold May’s workshop. For example, the wood for the guitar was initially part of a fireplace!
May used the guitar on most of Queen’s songs. True to May’s intent, the Red Special is capable of producing amazing special effects. Plus, his guitar is supplemented by an array of sophisticated amplifiers, leading to stunning results.
The song Somebody To Love was written by Freddie Mercury, and appears on Queen’s fifth album from 1976, A Day at the Races. According to Mercury, the inspiration for the song and in particular the gospel choir came from his admiration of Aretha Franklin.
As a single, the song was quite successful; it reached #2 on the UK hits chart, and #13 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
The production values on this song are very similar to those in Queen’s first big US hit, Bohemian Rhapsody. However, whereas Bohemian Rhapsody was given an operatic treatment, the notion underlying Somebody To Love is that the tune is backed by a 100-member gospel choir.
Like the earlier Queen hits, Somebody To Love relies not on synthesizers, but on sophisticated overdubbing, supplemented by impressive special effects on guitar. For example, the “100-voice gospel choir” in this song is actually simulated by multiply-overdubbed backup vocals supplied by Mercury, May and Roger Taylor.
Below is a photo of Freddie Mercury performing at Madison Square Garden.Embed from Getty Images
The song describes a singer who is seriously depressed due to his inability to find a partner in love. The singer details his frustration in life, and even confesses to a crisis in his belief in God, because he is all alone in life.
Can anybody find me somebody to love?
Each morning I get up I die a little
Can barely stand on my feet
(take a look at yourself)
Take a look in the mirror and cry
Lord what you’re doing to me
I have spent all my years in believing you
But I just can’t get no relief,
[CHORUS] Lord! Somebody, somebody
Can anybody find me somebody to love?
I work (he works hard) hard every day of my life
I work ’til I ache my bones
At the end (at the end of the day) I take home my hard earned pay all on my own –
I get down on my knees
And I start to pray (praise the Lord)
‘Til the tears run down from my eyes
Here is the “official music video” from Queen. It combines the audio of the record with clips from Queen in the studio, and also live video from the group on tour.
To me, this is a really great song. Features of Queen songs that I would generally find over-the-top and irritating seem just right in this tune.
As usual, the production values are stunningly good. In particular, I think that the “gospel choir” idea is very successful here, and Freddie Mercury’s ethereal voice is in splendid form.
Also, there is a beautiful guitar solo from Brian May’s ‘Red Special;’ this works wonderfully in Somebody To Love.
Note also that Queen’s “music video” pre-dates the beginning of Music TeleVision (MTV) by several years. In fact, there are people who maintain that the success of Queen’s music videos in promoting their records was a major cause for the inauguration of MTV.
When I first heard Queen (in Bohemian Rhapsody), I thought: “What a novel concept and a stunning record. Of course, they could never reproduce this live – they rely too heavily on overdubbing, and studio special effects. My guess is that Freddie Mercury’s vocals are also enhanced, and he couldn’t duplicate this in person.”
Boy, was I wrong! Here is a live performance of Somebody To Love by Queen at the Montreal Forum in Nov. 1981.
Of course, the group can’t reproduce the “100-person gospel choir” in person, but nevertheless this is a most appealing live version of this song.
Freddie Mercury’s bravura performance here is just perfect for the big stadium tours that Queen specialized in. Mercury was a riveting and highly theatrical performer. Note that at the 5-minute mark, he takes a sip of water, then goes for the big notes and hits them, nailing the thunderous finale.
Queen subsequently became one of the most successful rock bands in history. Their Greatest Hits album outsold even the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper blockbuster. They consistently sold out stadium tours around the world.
Many of their songs, generally written by either Mercury or May, were not only smash hits, but tunes such as We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions turned into populist anthems frequently heard at sporting events.
However, even as their commercial success took off, Freddie Mercury’s health declined. As a youth, Mercury had several romantic relationships with women; however, he then became bisexual and later homosexual.
One gets the impression that, like so many people in the early 80s, he engaged in some risky sexual behavior. In any case, he discovered in 1987 that he had HIV, and around Easter of that year found that he had contracted AIDS.
Queen stopped touring but continued to record albums in the studio. However, as time went by Mercury’s condition worsened. He lost a considerable amount of weight, and eventually his haggard appearance caused a great deal of speculation regarding his health.
For a few years Mercury was quite coy with reporters about his sexual orientation and his health. Finally, on Nov. 22, 1991, Freddie Mercury issued a press release acknowledging that he had AIDS. Two days later, Mercury died at the age of 45 from bronchial pneumonia, brought on as a complication of AIDS.
Mercury’s death was devastating to his Queen bandmates and to his many fans. Brian May was particularly depressed as a result of his close friend’s demise. He checked himself into a clinic in Arizona, and later threw himself into various solo music projects.
Over the past 25 years, bassist John Deacon has retired. Roger Taylor and Brian May have re-united at various times, and have toured with a guest lead vocalist.
From 2004-2009, the band toured as Queen + Paul Rodgers, the former lead singer with Bad Company. And from 2011-present, the band has toured as Queen + Adam Lambert, who was previously a runner-up on the TV show American Idol.
Apparently a movie about Freddie Mercury’s life has been in the works for the past few years. Initially, actor Sacha Baron Cohen (‘Borat’) was slated to play Mercury. However, he withdrew after ‘creative differences’ with the surviving Queen band members.
Actor Ben Wishaw, who has played Q in the latest few James Bond movies, was slated to replace Cohen in playing Mercury. However, director Dexter Fletcher subsequently withdrew from the film, so we are not sure how this project is proceeding.
Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. With total record sales somewhere between 150 million and 300 million, they are one of the best-selling musical acts of all time. And in 2005, Brian May was named a Commander of the British Empire by the actual Queen for “services to the music industry and for charity work.”
George Michael and Somebody To Love:
George Michael is one of the most successful pop musicians in the world. I like to think of him as the British equivalent of Michael Jackson. George has not only achieved similar commercial success to the King of Pop, but he also shares some of the troubled personal issues experienced by the late Mr. Jackson.
Georgios Panayiotou was the son of a Greek Cypriot restaurateur who emigrated to Britain in the 1950s. Georgios took the stage name George Michael, and debuted in 1981 with partner Andrew Ridgeley in the duo Wham!
The group developed a strong following in the UK; however, their career took off after the 1984 release of their second album. This record, produced by George Michael, contained two blockbuster singles: Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and Careless Whisper.
This album made worldwide stars out of Wham! However, most of the publicity went to Michael, as the producer of the album, a sex symbol and a budding young star.
Below is a photo of George Michael circa 2004.Embed from Getty Images
Except in the US, the song Careless Whisper was released as a George Michael solo effort. Rumors began to spread that Wham! would break up, and in 1986 the group disbanded following a farewell concert at Wembley Stadium.
George Michael’s first solo album, Faith, solidified his burgeoning reputation. He wrote and produced every tune from the album, and played multiple instruments on several songs.
The album produced four songs that went to #1 on the Billboard pop lists in 1987. The album itself spent 51 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 album charts, and to date has sold over 25 million copies.
Despite all his commercial success, George Michael was overwhelmed with the fame and adulation he received. He went to some lengths to be appreciated as a serious artist, as opposed to being presented as a teen sex idol.
In 1991 Michael met Brazilian dress designer Anselmo Feleppa. They became a couple, but Michael was devastated when Feleppa died of an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage in 1993. Their relationship was a clandestine one, as it was not until 1998 that Michael acknowledged that he was gay.
On April 20, 1992, a Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert was held at London’s Wembley Stadium. The concert was televised world-wide to over 1 billion viewers, and it raised more than ₤20,000,000 for AIDS charities.
The three surviving members of Queen performed together with a number of guest artists, including Def Leppard, David Bowie, Guns ‘n Roses and Annie Lennox.
George Michael was also a guest performer. Here is his live performance of Somebody To Love, accompanied by the other members of Queen.
The Queen band is in great form here, highlighted by Brian May and his Red Special guitar. And George Michael has an actual gospel choir behind him.
Michael doesn’t quite have Freddie Mercury’s range, but he is a wonderfully talented vocalist, and this song is right in his wheelhouse. The crowd of 70,000 loves it, claps deliriously and sings along with him.
Somebody To Love was a highlight of the Freddie Mercury benefit concert. It was so well received that it sparked speculation that George Michael would be invited to join Queen. However, this did not materialize.
George Michael’s personal life is a study in contrasts. For example, he has raised millions of dollars for charity at various benefit concerts. He was particularly active in the British effort Band Aid, both with production of the song and a 1985 Live Aid charity concert. At the same time, it has been revealed that he was a subscriber in a tax-avoidance scheme called Liberty.
Michael was openly critical of both the US and British involvement in the 1993 Iraq War. He wrote a song, Shoot The Dog, which criticized the personal relationship between Tony Blair and George W. Bush that was instrumental in bringing British troops into the Iraq War.
Michael has gotten into trouble for having or soliciting sex in public. In 1998, he was arrested by an undercover policeman and accused of engaging in lewd acts in a public restroom in Beverly Hills, CA. This marked the first time that Michael publicly admitted to being gay.
Then in 2006, he was accused of engaging in public sex on Hampstead Heath in London. At that time Michael admitted that he cruises for anonymous sexual encounters. So, in his performance at the Freddie Mercury benefit concert, when he tells audience members, “For God’s sake, be careful!” you can be sure that he is speaking from personal experience.
George Michael’s commercial success and his dominance of British pop music in the late 1980s and 90s, would suggest that he should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Michael has sold more than 80 million records worldwide … [He] has garnered seven number one singles in the UK and eight number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.
He has also received a passel of awards, and
In 2004, the Radio Academy named Michael the most played artist on British radio during the period 1984–2004.
So far, he hasn’t made it in, but he would have my vote for induction into the Hall.
The Cast of ‘Glee’ and Somebody To Love:
The TV show Glee was a top-rated musical variety show on the Fox channel for six seasons from 2009 to 2015. Glee was initially the brainchild of Ian Brennan, who envisioned a movie based on his experiences in the Mt. Prospect (Illinois) high school show choir.
Brennan wrote the outline for a screenplay, but was unable to generate interest for a movie. Eventually the script found its way to Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the writers and producers of the edgy TV series Nip/Tuck.
Murphy and Falchuk re-cast the idea as a TV show, and the plot outline was re-written. Because of Murphy and Falchuk’s prior success on TV, the idea was quickly approved.
Below is a photo of the original student show choir in Glee. Back from L: Mark Salling; Kevin McHale; Chris Colfer; Cory Montieth. Front: Dianna Agron; Jenna Ushkowitz; Lea Michele; Amber Riley.Embed from Getty Images
The general plot of Glee follows a show choir at the fictional William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio. The school’s choir director assembles a diverse group of students, trains them in singing and dancing, and then enters them in regional and national competitions.
The geeky choir members are harassed by school jocks, and the choir director is constantly dealing with his nemesis, cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (played by Jane Lynch), who does everything in her power to shut down or otherwise hobble the show choir.
The songs in Glee were collected from a wide variety of sources. As time went on, the songs became more and more contemporary, in an effort to engage younger viewers.
Power rock ballads from the 70s and 80s seemed particularly well-suited to the song-and-dance theatrics of the show choir. For example, the 1981 Journey song Don’t Stop Believin’ was the most frequently-performed song on Glee. And, not surprisingly, the rock anthems of Queen were also extremely popular on the show.
Here is Somebody To Love performed by the cast of Glee.
This took place in Episode 5 of the first season of Glee. Since the song is naturally theatrical, the cast of Glee follows closely the Queen version of the song. Also, although several of the songs on Glee involve rather elaborate dance routines, in this case the actors simply move around onstage as part of the simulated show choir competition.
Central to this performance are the students played by Lea Michele and Cory Montieth. On the show, Montieth played the quarterback from the football team, whose defection to the show choir caused major tensions in the school. The actors Montieth and Michele had a real-life romantic relationship.
Montieth had a troubled youth that included drug dependency and a stint in rehab. Montieth’s addiction issues re-surfaced during his time with the show, and following the fourth season of Glee he again entered rehab, reportedly completing his recovery at the end of April, 2013.
However, in July of that year, Montieth was found dead in his hotel room in Vancouver. An autopsy ruled that he had died from a toxic mixture of alcohol and heroin. The fifth season of the show was delayed, as the producers determined how his character’s passing would be presented on the show.
Just a week after the tribute episode called ‘The Quarterback,’ that dealt with Montieth’s death, Murphy announced that the sixth season would be the final one of the series.
At the beginning of its run, Glee was a creative force and a gigantic hit. It used the show-choir theme as a means to review a number of issues faced by contemporary teens, and to highlight the tensions between various groups.
The show was known for its high production values. Both the song and dance routines were time-consuming and expensive for TV.
But it was difficult to sustain the novelty over the long haul. Faced with the prospect of either leaving the original cast in high school more or less permanently (as was done with shows like Happy Days), the producers opted to have the students graduate “on time.”
However, they then had to follow students after graduation, while trying to introduce new characters into the show. So Glee ended after its sixth season,
having produced 121 episodes and over 728 music performances.
Wikipedia, Somebody To Love (Queen Song)
Wikipedia, Queen (band)
Wikipedia, Freddie Mercury
Wikipedia, Brian May
Wikipedia, George Michael
Wikipedia, Glee (TV Series)
Wikipedia, Cory Montieth
Brian May’s Red Special: the Story of the Home-Made Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World, Brian May and Simon Bradley (Hal Leonard books, 2014).