THE QUEEN IS DEAD | Queen’s Greatest Hits & Me

In the glorious summer between leaving school and going to university, I did a lot of driving around.

Actually, this isn’t strictly true. It was Dave who did all the driving, and I that did all the being driven around. I had proved such an apparent danger to the public, behind the wheel of an automobile, that I had failed two driving tests in a row. (Dave had the gall to pass his first time with barely any lessons; our other friend, Gary, was even gearing up for his Advanced Driving Test.)

Under this circumstance, I used my enforced passenger status to dream up ever more obscure, out of the way, driving destinations. Sadly, the rationale behind these expeditions was neither obscure, nor out of the way. A typical evening’s gambit ran thus: “I’ve heard there’s a pub in where they serve an amazing pint of ; also the men there are outnumbered by women by a ratio of 2:1.” (In truth, the promised excess of available young females never materialized; at least none that were willing to turn two blind eyes to our pathetic desperation. To own two truths, the pub with its amazing pint was invariably a bit of a let down too, and the inevitable long journey home was a drawn out and dejected one.)

To fill the hours of winding darkness as the roads unravelled before us, Dave’s car came equipped with two albums on cassette: Christopher Cross’s eponymous debut (the one with the flamingo on the cover) and Queen’s Greatest Hits. (To this day, I have never once listened to Christopher Cross; it just didn’t get played.) Queen’s Greatest Hits – “That’s hits with a silent ‘S’, Dave,” I can hear my younger self saying – I have listened to enough times to last me my whole life through. (By rights, this would be just the once, but you will appreciate that, thanks to Dave, I have heard it a lot, lot more times than that!)

It will come as no surprise that I don’t really get Queen – or the enduring affection people have for their music. So, if you are expecting a Wayne’s World Bohemian Rhapsody moment to hove into view, do think again: Dave may have had the moustache and stubble of a background artist in A Fistful of Dollars but, following a rather nasty car accident, he was going thin on top and had nothing to mosh with; and, while my hair was decidedly longer, it was teased into an Edwyn Collins inspired quiff that was shaking for no-one.

Thus it was that, more than any other album, Queen’s Greatest Hits soundtracked the summer of 1983. And not in any good way. My attempts to hijack the car’s tape player were, more often than not, put to the vote and rebuffed – a case of every one bites the dust, yuk yuk. Even the poppiest of my suggestions was rejected as being ‘too gay’, ‘too girly’ or ‘too weird!’ (I used to get that last accusation a lot. I still do.)

On one occasion, I managed to convince Dave and Gary to listen to a track taped off a John Peel session. The car filled with a slow, mechanical drumbeat, soaked in a marvelous studio resonance, which led into a rising howl, so melancholy and plaintive that the memory of it thrills me to this day: ‘It’s time that the tale were told, of how you took a child and you made him old.’ [1] The song had barely finished when Gary reached across from the front passenger seat and pushed the ‘eject’ button. “Thanks, Neil. That was depressing,” he said as he pulled the tape out and passed it back to me. Minutes later, he and Dave were singing along to Bicycle.

Nearing the time I was to leave Leeds for university, Dave and I were alone in the car, driving along the town street near home. Queen was playing loudly; Freddy Mercury was singing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now.’ Dave and I had been bickering all evening over something. We were tense with each other and neither was speaking. I was filled with an urgent rage and had the desire to get Dave’s attention by making some kind of dramatic gesture. The best I could come up with was to wind down the passenger window, eject the tape and throw it out into the road. There was the briefest of pauses, while Dave took this in, processed it and then began punching me very, very hard with his left fist. He swerved the car into the side of the road. He was angry. More than angry, in fact. “You bastard,” he said. He leaned across to yank open the passenger door. “Get out. Go back and get that tape, now!”

Dave being right-handed proved little consolation: my right arm was numb with pain. There was clearly more where that came from. I got out of the car and began walking back the way we had driven. In the minute or so it took me to reach the cassette tape lying there in the road, every single oncoming vehicle – including a bus – managed to drive over it reducing it to so much splintered roadkill. When I was able to run out to retrieve it, the casing was warped and concave, and brown tape spewed out of it like intestines.

I walked back to Dave waiting in his car. In the meantime, he had closed the passenger door; the window was still open; through it I showed him the remains of his Queen album. “It’s dead,” I said, trying to make a joke. Dave didn’t smile. Instead, he drove off and left me standing there holding the tape. Walking home, I pulled more tape out of its casing, until I ended up looking as if I was holding a scribble. I threw the whole thing in a bin by a bus stop.

In typical Dave fashion, he never mentioned the Queen Greatest Hits [2] incident again. Years later I would buy him a CD of the album to replace that original version, but I have never heard him play it. Only once did he, indirectly, make reference to the matter.

A few years later, I convinced Dave to let me play The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths in the car as we drove around. It was playing as we parked up at a pub somewhere. Leaving the engine running, Dave ejected the tape, climbed out and walked to the rear of his car. He put the cassette on the ground about ten feet behind us. He got back in and reversed backwards and forwards a few times until The Smiths were well and truly dead. He looked across at me. ‘Now we’re even,’ he said.


[1] The song is Reel Around Fountain by The Smiths. The version I taped was the only one of the Smiths session tracks I managed to record. Perhaps reactions would have been different had I taped one of the other, more upbeat choices the band played. The Peel Session of Reel Around The Fountain was released a year later on Hatful of Hollow and is ‘bloody marvellous’ to borrow another quote from Morrisey’s beloved Shelagh Delaney. (The lyric in the song, ‘I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice,’ is taken from A Taste of Honey.)

[2] To this day, I maintain that Queen’s Greatest Hit was the road at the top of Pudsey Town Street, heh heh.

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