Got to love the fairground noises! It’s karaoke time here at Hotlips House – time to strut your stuff in the kitchen while using the mop as the mike stand. In early live performances Freddy Mercury wore stage clothes made from Zandra Rhodes bedsheets (allegedly) – so you can do that too if you want the full experience.
As far as I can tell, this song has no connection with the Graham Greene novel of the same name, except they both portray a blighted romance and the funfair noises at the start hint at the Brighton Pier arcades, scene of some of the action in the book. It’s interesting to note that when the song came out in 1974, Greene was only 70 years old (he lived until 1991). I wonder if he heard it and made the connection? But I digress.
This song is a gorgeous vignette of a story – boy meets girls, love ensues, there is guilt, they part, she pines, there is betrayal. It’s a masterpiece of compressed narrative, almost like Shakespeare. In fact there is some playful use of theatrical language – “Jenny will you stay, tarry with me pray, Nothing e’er need come between us, tell me love what do you say?” And the lines “It’s so good to know there’s still a little magic in the air. I’ll weave my spell” reminds me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a magic juice is administered in the moonlight.
Although the song is short, its structure is operatic. The ‘narrator’ tells the story in the first two couplets, followed by a duet between the male and female characters, Jimmy and Jenny, with Freddy singing both parts using high and low register voicing. Then the ‘chorus ensemble’ rejoin with an emotional response. The long instrumental section lets us settle into our feelings, when a final dramatic reveal brings a shocking climax.
For me, the other stand-out musical feature is more subtle, in the melody. The line “Oh, Rock of Ages do not crumble, love is breathing still” seems to have some deep emotional effect on me. It’s like a gospel choir, bringing both a plea and a reassurance.
‘Rock of Ages’ is a a pun on Brighton Rock (the confectionery) but it comes from a phrase used in a famous Christian hymn to refer poetically to God, by describing the divine properties of eternal stability and permanence. In these uncertain lockdown days, this is a prayer I can offer up. Let’s sing it together. Now, where’s the mop?
Rock of Ages hymn – Wikipedia
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – play by William Shakespeare – Wikipedia
Brighton Rock – novel by Graham Greene – Wikipedia
Brighton Rock – Queen live at ‘A Night At The Odeon’ 1975 (10:54)
Brighton Rock – Queen live at Earls Court 1977 (13:32)