As a pre-teen fan of Queen in the late 70’s with vigilant parents, acquiring their music was difficult. While Queen’s lyric text is largely harmless, their generally adult-themed and possibly homoerotic subtext (i.e. “Don’t Try Suicide”, “Killer Queen”) was not deemed appropriate for my nine year old ears. I yearned to own “The Game,” but in the end my parents and I compromised on the largely instrumental “Flash Gordon” soundtrack. Strangely, this fit quite well into youthful musical conception. I had been exposed to musical storytelling by way of Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” as well as becoming healthily obsessed with the “Star Wars” soundtrack. “Flash Gordon” seemed to fit neatly somewhere between these two. Ultimately, it was cool to be nine in 1980 and own a Queen album, despite the fact that my friends thought it was totally lame.
Nostalgia aside, the average listener would definitely consider “Flash Gordon” a “fan-only” release by todays standards (although genuinely I like it more than “The Works”). As a soundtrack to a movie from the late 70s/early 80s camp fantasy movement (think “Krull” and “Conan”), “Flash Gordon” features an effectual if basic use of leitmotif. Queen gets a respectable amount of instrumental mileage from a small reservoir of melodic material, but more importantly they create an ambience that immediately references the movie. Outside of its instrumental aspect, the album also features the party-stoppin’ vocal track “Flash” and the end credit anthem “Hero”. These are both fun listens, but they do not represent the best of Queen’s radio-friendly repertoire.
However, Queen was a band with a highly complex and multifaceted identity. The theatrical style that they were so effectively developing on “Night at the Opera” was falling out of favor during the late 70s punk movement. As a result, their radio-friendly side was becoming increasingly streamlined with (great) songs like “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. Indulging in their symphonic and experimental side on the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack must have been a welcome release from the worries of the next big single. One cannot help but think that Mercury and crew got a good laugh at indulging in this more experimental component of their work, which would later result in songs like “Who Wants to Live Forever” and “Bijou”.
I also find the presentation of “Flash Gordon’s” text interesting. Outside of the aforementioned vocal tracks, the instrumental portions of this release feature quotes from the movie that (in a very general and effective fashion) sum up its loose plot. Today, I see this text as inextricably bound to the more ambient and theme-driven portions of the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack. This most assuredly led to my easy acceptance of the X-Files “Truth and the Light” recording many years later. However, without reference to the original text of the movie, the nostalgic value of this text is probably lost.
The lowdown: Many of the subtleties of “Flash Gordon” were lost on me in my youth. Besides the vocal tracks, I only ever remember energetically thrashing about in my nine year old room to “Football Fight”. However, new and old fans of the “Flash Gordon” movie may gain a greater understanding of Queen’s self realization of themselves as rock musicians with high aesthetic aspirations as the `80s came to pass.