Charles Spencer

Pain and pleasure

Pain and pleasure

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The so-called festive season is the time of year all serious drinkers dread. Their favourite pubs are filled with amateurs, largely consisting of braying office parties. It takes for ever to get served at the bar, and there is the ever-present danger of being sicked over by some daffy young secretary who has been overdoing the alcopops. Then when you’ve finally got your drink — my Christmas cheer used to consist of triple Scotches with a dash of ginger wine and a Guinness chaser — some moron from accounts will lean over and say, ‘Cheer up, mate, it might never happen.’ The trouble, of course, is that it already has.

Mercifully, such torment is behind me, just for today, and Starbucks is serving excellent slices of Christmas cake to go with the double tall latte with caramel. But what fresh hell is this? I refer to the record shops, where I now waste so many hours of my life, as well as more money than I ever spent on the booze.

In the frantic run-up to Christmas, these sanctuaries, too, were overrun with amateurs. The other day I had practically to fight to get into HMV in Oxford Street, and was almost knocked over by crowds of vicious grannies desperately trying to find where they keep the 78s these days. Frazzled mothers drifted like lost souls round the heavy-metal section, trying to find the ghastly album their ghastly child was insisting upon, and spotty youths brought Franz Ferdinand for their girlfriends in the forlorn hope of seeming cool.

For once I wasn’t in HMV for myself, but for my nephew Tom, who has just turned 13. It’s only a couple of years since I was buying him the Best of the Goodies for Christmas, one of the more embarrassing purchases I have ever had to make, certainly on a par with requesting my first packet of Durex from a dragon assistant at Boots.

But Tom’s getting hip now, and is soon off to Winchester. He wouldn’t want to be caught listening to the Goodies there. This year he wanted the new album from Eminem (his mother wasn’t keen, but it is a godfather’s job to introduce a little subversion into family life), the aforementioned Franz Ferdinand (they really are very good indeed) and records by the Zutons and Embrace, perfectly respectable bands both. Also on Tom’s wish list was the greatest hits of Guns n’ Roses — not one of my favourite outfits but teenagers need a bit of solipsistic angst and darkness in their lives. I was very keen on Black Sabbath when I was Tom’s age and spent hours watching that spooky spiral on the Vertigo label while under the influence of a delightfully trippy cough mixture called Phensedyl.

There was however one record on Tom’s list it greatly pained me to buy — a live album by Queen. If there is one band I can’t stomach it is Queen, with their nonsensically bombastic pomp rock (Bismillah!) and that frightful posturing frontman with the sticky-out teeth, Freddie Mercury. The really awful news is that the band is reforming next year, with Paul Rodgers, formerly of Free, taking over the vocal duties from the late Mercury.

Queen seem to have some malign stranglehold on record companies, ensuring that their songs always come first on compilation albums. As a result, I frequently find myself listening to the opening bars of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or, worse still, ‘We Are the Champions’ by mistake, before racing across the room to switch off the terrible racket sharpish.

My loathing for Queen was intensified by the witless Ben Elton musical, We Will Rock You, based on their hits, which has been running at the Dominion Theatre for a couple of years now despite a critical trashing. What I particularly hate about Queen is the bloated insincerity of their work, an insincerity that somehow doesn’t preclude an overweening sense of self-importance.

Not long after We Will Rock You opened, I found myself sitting in a small London fringe theatre and listening to two blokes with money in the musical bitching about the reviews, blissfully unaware that I was sitting in front of them. ‘The worst was that c**t Charles Spencer, who said he wouldn’t allow a Queen album to pollute his record collection,’ whined one of them. Reader, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. And, Tom, I do hope you grow out of Queen soon. It’s pop music for people who don’t like pop music.

Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.