God Save the Queen, Parts II and III
Revisiting Queen's Second and Third Acts

As you get older, time just slips away from you. Days go by in a blink, whole months just disappear, and it’s no good trying to hold on to them. I remember when I was younger, summer vacations seemed to stretch on forever. Three whole months without school! This year, the summer came and went in no time at all. It snowed here in the Chicago suburbs last week. I looked at the calendar, and I realized we have six weeks left of 2011.

All of which brings us to God Save the Queen, my planned three-column series which is now a two-column series. Think of it like Joe’s Garage. Act One came out in May, and here is Acts Two and Three, a double-record set for the price of a single. I only have six columns left this year, and three of them are spoken for, giving me very little space to get to David Mead, Kate Bush, the Black Keys, the Roots and whatever else comes down the pike.

So here’s the second and third installment of my Queen retrospective, combined into one easy-to-read column. The final batch of five remasters hit stores at the beginning of the month, and I’ve been savoring every second of them. (Well, except for the seconds on A Kind of Magic, but we’ll get there.) It’s been pretty emotional for me to experience these records again, particularly the final ones. Queen was a shameless, adventurous, try-anything-once kind of band, and it was so gratifying to remember that they stayed that way straight to the end, Mercury’s debilitating illness be damned.

So, picking up where we left off.

News of the World (1977)

Also known as “the one with ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are the Champions’ on it.” News of the World kicks off with its two best-known songs (and arguably Queen’s most famous numbers), and you can hear right away that this album will be different. After the opulent extravagance of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, this album is stripped back, raw, the sound of four guys playing their hearts out in a room.

And it’s a great reminder that Queen was a tremendous rock band. These songs are almost entirely guitar, bass, drums, piano and vocal, and they sound like they were recorded live. “We Will Rock You” is the mission statement – stomping feet, handclaps, vocals and a blistering guitar solo, and that’s it. But when I say stripped back, I don’t mean less dramatic, as anyone who has heard “We Are the Champions” can attest. Songs like the soaring “Spread Your Wings” are every bit as towering as the stuff on Opera/Races. They just lack the guitar orchestras and the insane vocal arrangements.

As a kid, I was never a huge fan of Roger Taylor’s contributions to Queen’s repertoire. This time through, I’m having a much more favorable reaction to Rockin’ Roger. “Fight From the Inside” is a relentless stomper, on which Taylor does his best John Bonham impression, and “Sheer Heart Attack” is the heaviest and fastest tune in the band’s catalog. Mercury, meanwhile, is all over the place here, giving us a taste of funk experiments to come on “Get Down, Make Love” and ending things with the lovely piano ballad “My Melancholy Blues.”

But Brian May takes the prize with the six-minute “It’s Late,” one of Queen’s greatest rock songs. It contains a positively immortal guitar riff, a jam section that knocks me out each time I hear it, and some golden singing from Mercury, one of the finest frontmen ever. I remember being disappointed with this album as a teenager, mainly because it wasn’t as complex and over-the-top as previous albums, but I’m over that now. News of the World is just an incredible rock record.

Jazz (1978)

Teenage me was let down by News of the World for not being as insanely diverse as Queen could be, but he was baffled by Jazz for heading in the opposite direction entirely. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the band’s weirdest record, no two songs sounding anything alike. Here’s just the first four songs, by way of example: we open with the Arabian nightmare of “Mustapha,” Mercury unveiling his perfect pronunciation (he was born in Zanzibar); segue into flat-out sex rocker “Fat Bottomed Girls,” glide into the lovely piano piece “Jealousy,” and then tumble right into the loopy prog-fluff “Bicycle Race.”

It’s enough to give you whiplash, and the whole record continues in that vein. The massive production is back – armies of vocals up against oceans of guitars and perfectly-played pianos. “Bicycle Race” is utterly harmless, but the band clearly labored over it. The second disc of this remaster includes an instrumental mix, which reveals just how tricky and difficult it is. It’s a seriously intense piece of music, and it’s not even Mercury’s finest hour here – that’d be “Don’t Stop Me Now,” an irrepressible anthem inexplicably sequenced 12th out of 13 here.

Before that, you get a whole bunch of Queen goodness. Mercury’s “Let Me Entertain You” is awesome, another testament to the tight rock outfit this band was. See also: “Dead on Time,” a killer piece of proto-metal. John Deacon’s ballad “In Only Seven Days” is lovely, May plays the blues in three-part harmony on “Dreamer’s Ball,” and Taylor’s goofy “Fun It” sets the stage for “Another One Bites the Dust.” Jazz is a complex, bizarre record, one that doesn’t seem to have a comfortable home in the catalog. But it’s worthy nonetheless.

The Game (1980)

In a lot of ways, this one’s similar – the songs are all over the map, the production intricate. But The Game is the most compact, easily-digestible Queen album yet. It’s 35 minutes long, contains no outsize epics, and just concentrates on fine pop songs. I remember liking this one as a teen, mainly for Brian May’s contributions – the four-on-the-floor “Dragon Attack” (which I covered once, on synthesizers) and the two second-side ballads, “Sail Away Sweet Sister” and “Save Me.”

It’s John Deacon who provides the big hit this time: “Another One Bites the Dust,” a minimalist experiment in groove. This may actually have been the first Queen song I heard – I remember hanging out at a playground with my babysitters, swinging higher and higher while this played on the radio. (I also remember hearing Weird Al Yankovic’s parody, “Another One Rides the Bus,” and laughing until I couldn’t breathe.) Mercury sings the living hell out of this song, but it hasn’t aged very well, particularly when the band relies on weird synth noises instead of writing a bridge.

Speaking of Mercury, he’s all over the map again here, contributing the opening anthem “Play the Game,” the Elvis homage “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (which I admit to not understanding at all when I was a teen), and the bizarre, tossed-off “Don’t Try Suicide.” Turns out teenage me was right – it’s May who pulls it out of the tailspin. Both “Sail Away Sweet Sister” (which May sings) and “Save Me” are solid, serious-minded tunes with heart. I love ‘em both.

The Game is the first Queen album that doesn’t work as well as it should, the first one with as many stumbles as out-and-out successes. It also features two first appearances: Mercury’s trademark mustache takes its place on his upper lip, and the synthesizer nudges its way into the Queen sound. The band took the success of “Another One Bites the Dust” as a sign they should keep on experimenting with synths, and boy, did they ever.

Flash Gordon (1980)

I take it back – this is Queen’s weirdest record, a 35-minute, mostly-instrumental score to one of the campiest sci-fi movies ever made. I haven’t seen the film since I was about 10, but I remember watching it again and again – I recorded it off HBO on our top-loading, extremely slow VCR, and wore that tape out. As I may have said earlier, the inherent silliness in something like Flash Gordon (which depicted a football star’s fight against an intergalactic empire, with the help of a winged Brian Blessed) didn’t really register with me.

The soundtrack is chock full of dialogue from the film, and hearing it again brought scenes and images back into my mind with startling clarity. There are only two actual songs here, both of them deliriously campy: “Flash’s Theme” (the one that goes, “Flash! Ah-ah!”) and “The Hero.” The rest is very ‘80s synth noodling, the sort of thing that accompanied episodes of Doctor Who from the same decade. But man, do I remember this synth noodling. Not sure how this works as a standalone Queen album, nor how often I’ll listen to this remaster. But as a soundtrack intimately tied to its film, it’s pretty great.

Hot Space (1982)

Of all of these old Queen records, this was the one I was dreading revisiting. Hot Space is the band’s full-bore dive into ‘80s synth pop, with a touch of disco on the side. It’s the poppiest pop album they made, the one on which Roger Taylor and John Deacon are largely replaced by machines, at least for the first half. Its cover is pure ‘80s as well, all solid colors and silhouettes. Of all of the band’s albums, this one has aged the worst.

But you know what? I like it, a lot. As you might expect from Queen, they didn’t half-ass this move into the dancehall, and it’s their sheer conviction that makes this work. These songs are undeniably goofy, but then, so are “Bicycle Race” and “I’m in Love With My Car,” and they don’t come in for nearly the stick this album does. The first half is much more synthetic than the second, but there are gems here: “Dancer” brings the rock, as much as this album allows, and “Back Chat” is stupidly catchy. Granted, Mercury’s “Body Language” is embarrassing, but it’s followed right up with Taylor’s fantastic “Action This Day.” That tune’s just unstoppable.

Here’s the key to appreciating these songs – listen to the way the band played them live. The second disc of this remaster has live takes of “Staying Power,” “Action This Day” and “Calling All Girls,” and they’re all guitar-heavy rockers. Dated production aside, the songs on Hot Space are largely wonderful, and the second side brings even more goodies: the rollicking “Put Out the Fire,” the gentle and touching “Life is Real (Song for Lennon),” the breezy “Calling All Girls,” and May’s pretty “Las Palabras De Amor.”

But the band saves the best for last – “Under Pressure,” rightly the most famous song from this album, is an inspired collaboration with David Bowie. Some of it sounds made up on the spot, but some of it sounds like the most intricate composition on this record. It works so very well. Hot Space has a bad rep, and I disliked it pretty intensely as a kid, but it holds up a lot better than you’d expect. Some of it, frankly, is marvelous.

The Works (1984)

If Hot Space was the band diving headfirst into pop music, The Works is them coming fully to grips with what a Queen pop record should be. I’ve always considered it their best album of the ‘80s, and revisiting it didn’t change that opinion one iota. This is the sound of four guys staring the ‘80s straight in the face, and making a good old-fashioned Queen album.

That’s not to say they don’t take the decade into account. The album opens with “Radio Ga Ga,” a beautifully-written song performed almost entirely on synthesizers, like a Vangelis track with lyrics. (It’s a song in praise of radio, thought at the time to be on its way out thanks to the rise of MTV, and its video ironically made the track a big hit.) But it also contains two muscular rockers, the kind Queen hadn’t delivered in a while: “Tear It Up” and “Hammer to Fall.” It sports the rockabilly “Man on the Prowl,” and the glorious pop of “Keep Passing the Open Windows.”

And then there is “It’s a Hard Life,” my favorite Queen song of the Me Decade. It’s a classic Queen anthem, with a beautiful piano melody, a stunning solo by May, and Mercury singing like his life depended on it. I could listen to this song on repeat for days and not be bored. The rest of The Works has trouble competing, but not much. Taylor’s “Machines (Back to Humans)” marries guitars and synths admirably, Deacon’s wonderful “I Want to Break Free” brings a lilting Dire Straits beat into the mix, and sparse closer “Is This the World We Created” is almost impossibly pretty.

Yeah, The Works is tremendous. I know several people who dismiss everything Queen did after 1979, but this album is proof that they were still at the top of their game in the ‘80s. I loved it as a kid, and I love it now.

A Kind of Magic (1986)

And then there’s this big ball of cheese. A Kind of Magic doubles as the soundtrack to Highlander, another super-campy sci-fi flick, but even that doesn’t excuse much of the warmed-over, sappy, synth-y music here. Just look at the cover, it should tell you all you need to know. This is the most goopy pop record to bear the Queen name. Songs like “One Year of Love” and “Pain is So Close to Pleasure” and “Friends Will Be Friends” aren’t worthy of that name, frankly.

There are high points. “One Vision” isn’t bad – it’s a guitar-heavy tune straight out of an action movie. (It was written for Iron Eagle, in fact.) “Princes of the Universe” is a prog-rocky epic. And then there is “Who Wants to Live Forever,” the single best reason to buy this album. Amidst all the Velveeta and swords-and-sorcery on display here, it’s a moment of true transcendence – Brian May’s song is moving, soaring, lovely, and the orchestral arrangement brings it to new heights. My friend Mike Ferrier and I used this song (and its instrumental piano take, included on the second disc here) on the soundtrack of our high school space opera Sourcil and Nez, and it always brings back those memories.

But that’s the one moment of real power on a record that wastes an awful lot of time and talent on half-baked fluff. This is Queen’s worst album, and even so, it has some redeeming qualities. But not many.

The Miracle (1989)

I remember there was some speculation that Queen had hung it up before The Miracle came out. I’m really grateful that turned out to be baseless, not only because A Kind of Magic makes for a lousy swan song, but because The Miracle is so good. Recorded in the wake of both Brian May’s highly public marital separation, and Freddie Mercury’s highly private AIDS diagnosis, The Miracle is the first record that credits all lyrics and music to Queen as a unit. I don’t know whether to nod to that, or to an uncommonly strong burst of inspiration, but the songs here are tight and strong and unfailingly enjoyable.

The title track, especially, is pure Queen goodness. It starts off as a peaceful synth-y ballad, but dissolves into a prog-rock midsection, a blistering little jam, and a grand, Marillon-esque coda. “I Want It All” is a convincing rocker with some great flourishes by May, and a double-time jam smack in the middle. “The Invisible Man” should be too goofy to work, but it does, in a way that the similar tunes on Hot Space didn’t. “Breakthru” is a pure pop song, and even though the three tracks that follow it aren’t as good, they’re still interesting.

But it’s the final track, “Was It All Worth It,” that knocks this one home. No one knew it at the time, but this song is Mercury taking stock of his life and career, knowing both will soon be at an end. It’s not maudlin in the slightest – would you expect anything else from Freddie Mercury? It’s huge and triumphant, a rock and roll powerhouse with some truly camp orchestration. The song just sounds important. Reliving it now, hearing Mercury sing “it was a worthwhile experience” is pretty powerful. It’s an astonishing closer to a really good Queen album.

Innuendo (1991)

And so we come to this, the last album Mercury made with the band. He was evidently wasting away while recording it, dying by degrees, but you’d never know it. His voice is strong and grand on this whole thing, and the band sounds reinvigorated – this is the best Queen album since The Works, easy, and maybe even since the ‘70s. They were working on borrowed time, and they knew it, and that lends an urgency to the proceedings that just can’t be faked.

Of course, we didn’t have any idea at the time. Mercury kept his illness quiet, only announcing it one day before he died, in November 1991. Mercury, for all his showmanship, was an intensely private person – his funeral was closed to the public, with only 35 or so of his closest friends there. He kept the mask up until the very end. Innuendo was written and recorded with full knowledge that Mercury’s life would soon be over, but it’s just as crazy and campy and adventurous as anything the band ever did. Very little of it is reflective, and none of it acknowledges its own finality.

Even so, there are two songs that seem to stand as Mercury’s final statements on his life and death. Both were written by other band members, but they were specifically designed for Mercury to sing. Taylor’s “These Are the Days of Our Lives” is one of the prettiest things in the band’s latter-day repertoire. Reminiscent of Mike and the Mechanics, the song is graceful and grateful, looking back with no regrets, and forward with no fear.

And then there’s “The Show Must Go On,” May’s interpretation of Mercury’s struggle to keep the mask in place, continue performing and not let on how ill he truly was. This song’s a dramatic masterpiece, late-period Queen at their absolute peak. May was initially slated to sing it, due to Mercury’s failing health, but Freddie came in and nailed it in one take. And holy god, just listen to him. He’s incredible, unstoppable. “I’ll face it with a grin, I’m never giving in…”

The rest of Innuendo is, while not quite at those lofty heights, just plain excellent. The title track is a multi-part epic, stretching to 6:33, and featuring some guitar heroics from Steve Howe of Yes. “Headlong” and “The Hitman” rock like nobody’s business, “I Can’t Live With You” is a marvelous pop gem, “Don’t Try So Hard” is a gorgeous bit of ambience (with some astounding falsetto vocals from Mercury), and “All God’s People” is a semi-sequel to “Somebody to Love,” with the band massing vocals into a giant choir. I even like “Delilah,” the synth-heavy tribute to Mercury’s cat.

Innuendo is a fine, fine way for Queen to go out. It’s just as weird and wacky as anything they’ve done, but more urgent, more vital. And as final sentiments go, you can’t do better than “The Show Must Go On.” I listened to this album nearly every day for months in 1991, and it still stands up. I love it very much.

Made in Heaven (1995)

Which means I’m still not sure about this one. Billed as the final album with Freddie Mercury, it was in fact assembled from stray vocal tracks and unfinished bits he left behind. Some of the songs had been previously recorded as b-sides, and the band added new instrumentation over the original lead vocal tracks. Some were taken from Mercury’s solo album Mr. Bad Guy and Queen-ized, keeping Freddie’s original vocals. And one, “You Don’t Fool Me,” was literally pieced together from random snatches of vocals recorded in the last weeks of Mercury’s life, and given shape by producer David Richards.

Given all that, the fact that it’s a cohesive and overall very good album is kind of miraculous. I can’t fault the band’s intentions – they wanted us to hear every last thing Freddie sang, as a way of keeping him close and letting him go. Several of these tracks were co-written and sung by Mercury before his death, including “A Winter’s Tale,” his last solo composition, and “Mother Love,” his final vocal performance. I’d want to hear those, certainly, and I can understand wanting to construct an album around them. But the process makes me uneasy.

Actually listening to the record alleviates that considerably, however. It’s just so good to hear Freddie’s voice again, and the band obviously crafted these tracks with love. Made in Heaven doesn’t feel quite like a Queen album, since it’s so serious and introspective – there isn’t a single detour into campy goofiness, the hallmark of each of the 14 albums that precede it. But it’s a good pop record, with some wonderful performances by Mercury. “A Winter’s Tale” is particularly moving, a song that could easily be about peaceful death.

Made in Heaven is kind of unnecessary, and I have some reservations about the way it was put together. But most of them melt away while it’s playing, and I revel in one final visit with Freddie Mercury. Not sure it’s an album he would have liked very much, but it’s one I do. I was in college, my senior year, when this came out, and though I thought I was over Mercury’s death, listening to this record brought it all back. In a lot of ways, it still does.

Rest in peace, Freddie.

So that’s the lot, not counting that godawful The Cosmos Rocks thing that we’re not mentioning ever again. As before, I’ve barely even touched on the bonus tracks on the second discs here, so let’s do that now. In addition to the usual demos, remixes and single versions, there are nine b-sides and lost tracks I’d never heard. None of them were revelatory, but all were enjoyable. I’ve already mentioned the live takes on Hot Space, but aside from those, my very favorite thing here might surprise you: a no-synths, full-band version of “Football Fight” from Flash Gordon. Seriously, it rocks.

This concludes my little tour through Queen’s back catalog. They will always be one of my favorite bands, and hearing all of these records again just confirmed it for me. They were one of a kind – there’s never been a band quite like them, and there likely never will be again. If you’ve never bought a Queen album, I hope this little excursion has convinced you to pick a few of them up. Thirty-seven-year-old me agrees with 14-year-old me: you won’t regret it.

Next week, David Mead, Kate Bush, Noel Gallagher and/or Meshell Ndegeocello. 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.