For about a year and a half, Queen was my favorite band. Period.
I can’t even remember the first Queen song I heard. But I know it wasn’t “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I vividly recall hearing that for the first time, as intended, at the end of 1975’s A Night at the Opera, and gasping for breath as it unspooled. By that time, though, I was already a Queen fan. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard 1976’s A Day at the Races before A Night at the Opera.
You can blame Hollywood Records for that. When they remastered and re-released Queen’s catalog in the U.S. for the band’s 20th anniversary in 1991, they did so in random order. I can’t quite remember how it broke down, but the label sent these out into the world in groups of four, with no rhyme or reason – ‘80s synth-pop next to ‘70s drama-rock next to the Flash Gordon soundtrack.
So I collected the Queen catalog in random order, as the remasters came out, and tried to fit them together into a picture of this band that was like no other I’d ever heard. I was a pretty dramatic kid in high school, and Queen fit that mold perfectly for me. If Queen were anything, they were hugely dramatic. They didn’t just make records, they threw extravagant musical parties, and invited every style and genre they could think of to come on in and have a good time.
Right at the center of this maelstrom was Freddie Mercury, the first musician I honestly idolized. He was flamboyant, he was ridiculous, he was outsize, he was clearly omnisexual, he was campy and grand and silly and brilliant. But at 17, I didn’t care about any of that. All I cared about was this: Freddie Mercury could play and sing anything. Anything at all. His voice… man, his voice. He’s rightly considered one of rock’s all-time finest singers. He was almost supernaturally gifted, and no matter what type of songs he chose to sing, he would have been a superstar.
And with Queen, genre walls just didn’t exist. They were the first band I encountered whose albums played like mix tapes. From crushing rock to swinging jazz to funk to disco to opera, they threw everything at the wall, chucked everything into their massive cosmic blender and hit puree. They were phenomenally democratic – all four members brought songs to the table, and sang lead, and their differing influences rubbed up against one another. You’d think it would be uncomfortable and jarring, but every time, they made their insane diversity work.
The best, most over-the-top amazing songs on every Queen album came from Mercury. He’s the one who brought in Broadway and ballet and ‘30s balladry, and later, reggae and rap. He was, in a lot of ways, my gateway to a dozen different styles I may not have explored otherwise.
And Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS in November of 1991 was the first celebrity demise to truly affect me. I remember waking up to my alarm clock radio that morning, and hearing the news – one day after he’d announced his disease to the world, he succumbed to it. I walked around in a numb haze that day, trying to come to grips with the idea that there would be no more new Queen music. (This was before posthumous LP Made in Heaven was announced, of course.)
I’ve been listening to the Queen catalog for 20 years now, and my appreciation of it has only deepened. I still have never come across another band like them. Ironically, I think I understand and appreciate the ridiculousness of a lot of what they did now more than I did at 17. When you’re young, the world is full of outsize dramatic gestures, but as you get old and you calm down, those gestures start to look like flailing.
Mercury’s never did, at least to me. Queen could be silly, sure – just check out the video for “I Want to Break Free,” which all but ended their career in America. But Mercury himself was a grandly dramatic person, and each of his excesses seemed to flow naturally from his personality. He was genuinely a big ball of ideas, and he wrote them large. Sometimes his tendency to try anything failed him, but more often than not, it worked, and it painted a picture of a born performer showing you his heart in the only way he knew how.
This year is Queen’s 40th anniversary, and in celebration, the surviving band members are remastering the catalog again, and releasing it with oodles of bonus tracks. And so I am dutifully buying it all one more time, and joyfully making my way through it. This time, they’re doing it right – three batches of five studio albums, all in chronological order (with, presumably, the live records to follow).
So this is God Save the Queen, my three-part journey through Queen’s studio catalog – one column for each batch of reissues, as they come out. I’ve spent the last few days with the first five. The bottom line is, of course, that you should buy all of these immediately, if you like campy and wonderful pop music. These early records chart a progression that leads to the ecstatic explosion of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it’s music no other band could have made.
Here’s my attempt at telling you why.
One thing I’d forgotten is what a rock band Queen was when they started out. Man alive, does this first record rock. It is stripped-down and raw and bare, even in this spit-shined new version, and Brian May’s guitar is everywhere. You could almost call some of it metal, particularly “Modern Times Rock and Roll” and the progressive monster “Liar.” I remember thinking of this as Queen’s humble beginnings, but there’s nothing humble about this album at all.
“Keep Yourself Alive” announces itself right away, with May’s chugging guitar, but it’s Mercury’s supple voice, layered but not yet expanded into celestial choirs, that leaves the greatest impression. “Liar” is his tour-de-force here – he snarls and swoops and makes death-defying leaps with that voice. It’s just remarkable. But then listen to “Doing All Right,” where he achieves a restrained subtlety that’s simply beautiful.
I guess my initial teenage dismissal of this record had more to do with the fact that the band’s trademarks haven’t fully established themselves yet. May never constructs a guitar orchestra here, the band’s remarkable harmonies are present but not yet knock-you-down amazing, and Mercury rarely plays piano. But as a document of a phenomenally talented rock band just slamming its way through some powerhouse tunes – seriously, just listen to “Great King Rat” – this is monumental.
Queen II (1974).
Now this, this is where Queen starts to establish itself as a band like no other. I recall having an argument with someone many years ago over whether the early, fairies-and-giants Queen was better than the later synths-and-love-songs Queen. I was vehemently on the side of the later work. I don’t know if I’d take the same position now, as much as I love that stuff. Queen II is just supernaturally good, fairy tale lyrics and all.
The whole thing, in fact, plays like a dark fairy story. The first half of the album is more restrained, coming as it does largely from the mind of Brian May, but it’s still magical. It’s here that May really establishes his guitar-as-orchestra trademark, overdubbing himself dozens of times. The opening instrumental “Procession” is almost entirely May’s guitar, and he makes those six strings weep on the colossally gorgeous “White Queen (As It Began).”
But it’s the second half that sends Queen II into the stratosphere, and it’s all Freddie Mercury. He wrote all of the final six songs on this album, and I’m not sure there’s a stretch of Queen music anywhere else that lays out his particular genius like this one does. It never stops moving – “Ogre Battle” is a nimble epic that glides right into the manic “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke,” and then dissipates into the lovely “Nevermore.” And then there is “The March of the Black Queen,” a masterpiece of flailing piano and soaring vocals that could easily have spun out into silliness. But it doesn’t.
I still don’t have much of an emotional attachment to Queen II – the Brothers Grimm stuff really keeps me at a distance. But listening to it, you can hear the band gaining confidence by the note, crafting its identity out of ambition and sheer joy. I didn’t have a lot of time for Queen II when I was a teen, but now I consider it one of early Queen’s best records.
Sheer Heart Attack (1974).
I remain amazed that they put this one out the same year as Queen II. It’s a more grounded effort, but somehow more ambitious than its predecessor, and it sounds like it took years of work to craft.
While the first two albums never found Queen straying too far from the ‘70s pomp-rock mold, Sheer Heart Attack is all over the place. It’s the first mixtape Queen album, nimbly leaping from one genre to the next, and blithely segueing all of those genres together into mad medleys. This is Queen’s most self-assured record yet, and it’s fitting that it’s the one on which they put away the fantasy lyrics and tell earthbound stories.
This is just the second half. It opens with “In the Lap of the Gods,” a massive bit of high drama, vocal harmonies spilling out all over. That slams into “Stone Cold Crazy,” an honest-to-god slab of molten metal (so convincing that Metallica didn’t change it at all when they covered it in 1990), which then stops short for a minute-long piano ditty called “Dear Friends.”
Then comes “Misfire,” a two-minute classic acoustic pop song, and it’s followed directly by “Bring Back That Leroy Brown,” a ‘30s-style jazz stomper, complete with ukulele, banjo and acoustic bass. Seriously, all it needs is a washboard, but the harmonies on this one are breathtaking. And then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, it segues from that into “She Makes Me,” a strummed ballad with a martial drum beat. The finale is “In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited,” tying it all together. But seriously, none of these songs sound even remotely like one another.
I remember listening to this all the way through for the first time in my car, and not being able to keep up with all the sharp left turns the band was throwing at me. (I handled the sharp turns on the road just fine, thank you.) Sheer Heart Attack still impresses me. Oh, and I didn’t even mention that it also includes “Killer Queen,” one of Mercury’s best singles. It’s also the only song I’ve ever stumped a piano bar player with. This album is just incredible.
A Night at the Opera (1975).
For many people, this is Queen’s finest hour. It’s difficult to argue. This album marked the apex of their studio ambitions – after this, they started stripping back, becoming ever so slightly more straightforward. But A Night at the Opera is an uncontrolled burst of anything-goes insanity, and if you’ve never heard it, you’re going to want to buckle up.
Diving through this again for the first time in a while, I’m struck anew by what a weird record it is. It’s one of Queen’s most successful albums, but the band was clearly not looking to shift units. This is a record that sequences venomous rant “Death on Two Legs” next to jazzy, field-of-flowers lilt “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” next to deliriously silly ham-fisted rocker “I’m in Love With My Car” as if every band expects its fans to make these leaps.
Everybody stepped up on this one. John Deacon contributed “You’re My Best Friend,” a moment of electric-piano sweetness amidst the chaos. Brian May hit a home run with “’39,” a toe-tapping folk song about time-traveling space explorers, and composed a guitar jazz band score for the remarkable “Good Company.” And Roger Taylor wrote the aforementioned “I’m in Love With My Car,” perhaps the album’s silliest moment (and that is saying something), and then played it perfectly straight.
But it’s Mercury whose horizons just explode on this thing. Vocally, he’s never sounded better – listen to the a capella section of “The Prophet’s Song” for some of the best rock vocals you’re likely to hear, and then be amazed and moved by his tender reading of “Love of My Life.” And there isn’t a more Freddie Mercury song than “Seaside Rendezvous.” That one has a kazoo choir. Really.
It all leads to Mercury’s masterpiece, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which has certainly been overplayed. (Damn you, Wayne and Garth.) But try listening with fresh ears. This thing is unbelievable, more like a particularly complex show tune than a rock anthem. Just the vocal arrangement alone is enough to drop your jaw, and when the operatic section crashes into a full-on rock explosion, it’s an iconic moment. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the moment when Queen went so far over the top they couldn’t see land anymore, and I’m glad they took their moment and seized it.
A Night at the Opera holds up brilliantly, 36 years after its release. I’ve heard a lot of operatic rock bands in my time, but I’ve never heard another album like this one. I remember driving my friend Chris around in my car and listening to the second half of this album one afternoon, by way of explaining why I love this band so much. It still holds true. Is this their best record? I still can’t choose, but I will say this: they never hit these heights of pure ambition again.
A Day at the Races (1976).
In thinking about it, this may be the first Queen album I heard. It was either this or News of the World. Yes, A Day at the Races is a clear sequel, taking its name from another Marx Brothers movie and arriving with a similar cover design. But no, this isn’t A Night at the Opera part two. This is the pullback, the more subdued follow-up, the surest sign that Queen is not going to give us another “Bohemian Rhapsody,” ever.
But hell, A Day at the Races is a splendid record in its own right. It’s more meat-and-potatoes than its predecessor, but it still glimmers and shines. It opens with a more traditional ‘70s rocker (“Tie Your Mother Down”), and includes straightforward pop tunes “Long Away,” “You and I” and closing ballad “Teo Torriattte.” There are no startling moments in any of these songs, but they’re all very enjoyable.
And it’s not like Freddie Mercury is silent. “The Millionaire Waltz” is wonderful, showing off his godlike falsetto and bringing in some of those operatic harmonies. “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” is the record’s most toe-tapping moment – it’s truly awesome. And “You Take My Breath Away” is almost inhumanly beautiful. It may be Mercury’s most fragile and gorgeous track, and May’s whispering guitars add immeasurably.
And then there is “Somebody to Love,” the gospel-pomp hit single. I love this song, completely and unabashedly. Mercury sings the living hell out of it, too. (He even sells the line “They say I’ve got a lot of water in my brain.”) “Somebody to Love” makes me grin like an idiot every time. If that’s not the mark of wondrous pop music, I don’t know what is.
So yeah, A Day at the Races is a bit of a comedown after A Night at the Opera’s brilliant excess. But it’s a solid, thoroughly entertaining effort. I have great affection for this album, and I still come away from it satisfied.
I haven’t mentioned any of the new bonus tracks. Each of the remasters comes with a bonus EP of demos, b-sides and remixes, and they’re all worth hearing. I’m especially fond of the a capella mixes of “Leroy Brown” and the operatic section of “Bohemian.” Hearing these vocal arrangements unadorned is revelatory. And it’s also good to have “Mad the Swine” and “See What a Fool I’ve Been.”
Queen’s UK label has announced the second run of reissues (from News of the World to Hot Space) for next month. We should get them over here shortly, so look for another installment of God Save the Queen soon.
I know some of you follow this column for news about me and my life, so I thought I would tell you that I officiated my sister Emily’s wedding last weekend. It was a perfect outdoor ceremony, and I was honored to be the one to say “man and wife.” I’ve written quite a bit more about it on Patch this week here. Congrats and love to Emily and Bill, as they start their life together.
I’m very tired, so I’m calling it a night. Next week, some forgotten gems from this year, including the Foo Fighters, The Head and the Heart, and Explosions in the Sky. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.