As Pete brought up yesterday, we’re getting very sort of specific around here for a while, with songs from artists who were clearly inspired by other artists, and they want you to know it.
It’s not subtle.
Nope. Not subtle at all. This is Billy Squier in 1981, doing his best impression of Freddie Mercury as both songwriter and singer. And yes, it’s absolutely intentional — before his run of hits in the ’80s (and of course long before his rock-star career was run off the rails by one very bad decision), Squier opened for and admired Queen, and in fact asked Brian May to produce his second album. And so he did “The Stroke” as a Queen send-up and tribute.
The drum kicks in the intro bring to mind the famous opening of “We Will Rock You,” massed hand-clapping and all. And as an aside, that video for “We Will Rock You” offers another example of a problem we’ve mentioned before. Sometimes you just have to pretend. Singers can lip-synch anywhere, of course, and wearing a guitar without plugging it in is easy enough. But a drum kit is an awkward thing to lug around, especially if nobody’s going to play it, and even if you do drag one into a field, it just gets in the way. Even a piano is more manageable; it doesn’t interfere with the closeups, and nobody is really surprised to see a piano in an open field anymore.
Also, it’s hard to pretend to play drums. You can’t just wave the sticks around aimlessly, or even rhythmically. People will catch on to that pretty quickly. And if you try pulling your punches, so to speak, making drummerlike motions but not actually hitting your drums, you might hurt yourself, but mostly you’d look like a drummer who has lost the ability to judge distance and just keeps missing. Which is plausible as far as it goes, but doesn’t make a good impression.
So if you are the drummer, you finally just have to hit the things, and soon there is no meaningful difference between pretending to play drums and actually playing drums. And you can’t have that, not when nobody else has an amplifier to defend himself. So a question used to come up fairly often in the days of less sophisticated music videos, or when bands would make quick, one-song-and-out TV appearances: “What do we do with the drummer?” The answer is frequently “Oh, just give him a tambourine or something.” But Queen replied, “Drag the drum set out into the field, but make him sit next to it.” And on one of the great drum-driven records, too. Roger Taylor spends the video just looking distracted and uncomfortable and sort of cold.
OK, so on “The Stroke,” when Billy joins those drums, it’s actually pretty wonderful — Squier had the voice Freddie Mercury wished he had and kidded everybody into thinking he actually had. (We have great regard for Freddie Mercury as a rock artist and songwriter, but he had truly terrible instincts as a singer.)
The lyrics — well, yes, “The Stroke” does have some. A string of dirty-sounding, sort of threatening phrases and advice, and a general complaint about being “stroked” for the sake of being taken advantage of.
Now everybody, have you heard?
If you’re in the game,
Then the stroke’s the word
Don’t take no rhythm,
Don’t take no style
Got a thirst for killin’,
Grab your vial (Vial?)
The first verse seems to be addressed to some sort of political type who is advised to “spread your ear pollution, far and wide/Keep your contributions by your side,” while the second is addressed to, probably, someone else:
First you try to bed me,
You make my backbone slide (Ow.)
But when you found you bled me,
Skip on by,
Keep on stroke me, stroke me
Give me the business all night long
Soon Billy is shouting “Get yourself together, boy,” and it all ends abruptly after a falling vocal line on “Say you’re a winner but man, you’re just a sinner now,” and you know, the man has totally out-Queened Queen. “The Stroke” has a power-chord guitar solo-like thing, absolutely massive bass, and a subterranean string effect (about three minutes in) that hints at Brian May’s loooong whammy bar string-out on “Rock You.” It’s completely cool nonsense; it’s the great pop metal record Queen wanted to make, but never quite made.