In the late 90s and throughout the 00s, Brian May and Roger Taylor seemed intent on squeezing every penny possible out of the name Queen and its branding. Via various hits collections, a lightweight sing-along musical and the despicable Queen + Paul Rodgers album and shows (surely the most expensive tribute/cabaret band ever), the name Queen has been continually dragged through the mud. With the latter, it would have been far less objectionable if they’d opted for a new start and a new band name – although I suspect May Rodgers Taylor wouldn’t have read very well on an album sleeve. Who knows what Freddie would have thought? I suspect he would have loved the idea of the camp musical – he may have even considered doing something similar himself had things turned out differently, but as for the Queen + Paul Rodgers thing, it’s anyone’s guess.
Anyway, all that aside, the original Queen recorded some brilliant music during their near twenty year reign. They had their off days (step forward ‘Hot Space’), but then every great band does. At their seventies best they recorded some of the most wonderfully grandiose music and throughout the eighties, some of their pop tendencies were unsurpassed. Three of the four members even had success with extra-curricular activities – although, rather unsurprisingly, Roger Taylor’s work often gets overlooked.
After a couple of lightweight solo outings – 1981’s ‘Fun In Space’ and 1984’s ‘Strange Frontier’, Taylor formed a pop-rock band, The Cross, featuring Rog on vocals and guitar as opposed to the drums. They would eventually record three albums, although it’s only their first – ‘Shove It’ – which has ever had a proper UK release.
The album’s title track combines the one two hard rock punch of Queen’s ‘Tear It Up’ with the Fairlight keyboard heart of ‘Radio Ga Ga’. While it shows great promise for attention grabbing and is littered with samples of old Queen songs, it is let down by a chanty vocal, a la ‘Guns In The Sky’ by INXS (featured on their ‘Kick’ masterpiece, also released in 1987). For those of you who are either too young to remember or otherwise have somehow blocked it from your memories, this edgy, technologically savvy approach seemed very much the fashion in the late eighties. Similarly ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ almost descends into a slightly cod rap delivery in places. It saves face by employing a brilliant sharply played rhythm guitar but ultimately there’s a feeling that it tries a little too hard.
The album’s lead single ‘Cowboys and Indians’ employs the softer edge of Taylor’s vocal at times, which combined with a very simple but effective rhythm guitar and female backing vocals makes the end result rather pleasing. Chances are you’ll wish Spike Edney would take his synthesized brass noises and parp off somewhere else. Although given the technology of the time it was easier to use synthesized horns than to hire a real brass section, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Also, like so much other stuff from the period, the bass is very low in the mix (as it is throughout most of the album) and it leaves the listener wondering how many of the bass parts aren’t provided by a keyboard somewhere, despite a real bass player being on board (one Peter Noone – not to be confused with the bloke who fronted Herman’s Hermits).
‘Stand Up For Love’ also shows a much better side of The Cross. While the electronic edges are still in place, Roger’s voice is given more clout by the use of female backing vocals in a soul/pop style and an appearance from some real horns. It aims for a punchy soul vibe, but still winds up sounding like 80s rock/pop due to the production sound and general approach. After one listen to the intro of ‘Love On a Tightrope’, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s going to turn into ‘Radio Ga Ga’ at any given moment; it employs a similar Fairlight keyboard muscle – even going as far as using the same sounds in places (I’m sure with a very knowing wink from Roger). Another edgy, very 1987 guitar part is used here but used too sparingly; nearly all the good elements in this song are drowned by Spike Edney’s heavy handed synths. By the time it gets to a verse featuring lyrics from ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ you know it’s barrel scraping time…
It shouldn’t work, but the spiky approach of ‘Rough Justice’ is fairly enjoyable – albeit in an eighties way. Roger and lead guitarist Clayton Moss lay down some sharp edges, while Peter Noone’s bass occasionally breaks into a funk slap between the simple rhythms (and it’s nice to actually be able to pick out something which sounds like a real bass here). Another stand out, ‘Contact’ employs a brilliant rhythm based guitar riff and a very mechanical approach all round, and from a songwriting perspective it’s strong also. There’s a clear definition between the verse and a well used pre-chorus; while for the chorus itself, the techy edge gives way to a gentler style of pop, not a million miles away from something Bowie could have offered during his overtly commercial 1983-87 period. The hard sax solo is something the track could have easily done without, though.
The big draw here is the early version of ‘Heaven For Everyone’. The Cross’s original single release featured Taylor on vocals, but for the album version, Freddie Mercury was bought in to perform the lead vocal. Listening to the album version from ‘Shove It’, it’s more than obvious that ‘Made In Heaven is a great song; however, the musical arrangement is in need of embellishment. The guitar work is fine and does the required job, but it’s lacking the grandiosity it deserves, while the drum sound sounds like a man bashing on a biscuit tin and the bass work is almost non existent, aside from occasional touches of not very well played fretless. As expected, Freddie’s vocal is totally professional and despite the music lacking in certain areas, he takes the job in hand and nails it. The version released by Queen in 1995 retains Freddie’s 1987 vocal, while Taylor, May and Deacon offer an arrangement far more suitable – far more Queen. The (unnecessary) spoken intro from The Cross’s recording is done away with and generally (as befits most great Queen arrangements) the music has a confidence – almost effortlessness – about it. Thanks to Queen’s 1995 re-creation, ‘Heaven For Everyone’ became known by all – not just the most die-hard of Queen fans. Although the Queen recording is arguably superior on every level, ‘Heaven For Everyone’ is still one of The Cross’s best songs.
‘Shove It’ is an album which could be best described using the well used phrase “of its time”. If approached as a totally eighties album, there’s not a lot wrong with most of it – and some of it is great at what it does. However, even at its mechanical best, you’ll find very little which comes close to the greatness of the Taylor penned ‘Radio Ga Ga’. Unless you’re a huge Queen fan with time on your hands, if you want no nonsense tunes driven by a Fairlight, it almost goes without saying you’re much better off sticking with your copy of ‘The Works’.