Music

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Rating Queen

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Tue 21 November, 2017

Ahead of Queen’s UK tour with Adam Lambert, Shaun Ponsonby examines the back catalogue of one of Britain’s best loved, wildly eccentric and misunderstood bands. 

Queen are a band very much taken for granted.

They have sold over 300 million records worldwide, their songs are sung at sporting events, played on every oldies radio station, used in all kinds of movies and are part of the fabric of British popular culture. But don’t you think they are an odd band to be that successful?

I mean, can you really think of a back catalogue as eccentric, where music hall, hard rock, prog, folk, opera and pop sit side by side?

Some of Queen’s albums – especially their early material – are really, really weird.

I guess that is unsurprising. In Queen you had four very different types of songwriters that really shouldn’t have meshed together as well as they did. Early on, drummer Roger Taylor was often responsible for some of the weirder material, bassist John Deacon was more pop and R&B whilst Brian May took every possible opportunity to rock out, and Freddie somehow easily brought all three disparate styles together, all the while adding a dose of campy music hall over the top for shits and giggles. Each band member wrote a hit single in each of these styles.

For me, though, the most astonishing thing about Queen is Freddie Mercury, and not for the reasons you might expect.

Yes, he was a one of a kind showman, one of Britain’s favourite songwriters and one of the greatest singers in rock.

But Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar. He went to boarding school in Bombay. He and his family fled their family home and took refuge in London, and he was bisexual. So in Freddie Mercury you have a queer East African refugee who became a defining British icon in the 1970s, when Bernard Manning was one of the country’s top TV stars. This is genuinely an astonishing feat.

Always ridiculed by critics, Queen nevertheless maintained a loyal audience and remain one of the people’s favourite bands. That May and Taylor can regularly tour arenas in 2017 without Mercury is a testament to how the songs have become bigger than the band.

Many have questioned some of May and Taylor’s decisions since Mercury passed (Deacon retired from public view in 1997). Some of them are understandable, such as buddying about with the likes of 5ive. Others are baffling. There are people out there claiming that Freddie would be turning in his grave over the We Will Rock You musical. Seriously? Freddie would have jumped at the chance to have his music on the West End stage, and well you know it.

In any case, what they have managed to do is keep Queen a force in British culture. Their legend is very much alive, and subsequent generations continue to discover these songs and become even bigger die hards than you could imagine. So we can scoff at their supposed indignity, or we can cut them some slack and remember Freddie’s wishes on his deathbed; “Do what you want with my music, just never make me boring”.

In all honesty, their back catalogue is so vast and eclectic, that anyone who claims to not like any Queen song whatsoever is a lying, point scoring moron who is desperate to sound cooler than everybody else, and is failing miserably as a result.

But how do their albums hold up in 2017? Let’s find out.

👉 Mike Garson Interview: “Bowie never stayed in a comfort zone”👈

15. Flash Gordon [1981]

A real oddity in Queen’s back catalogue, the Flash Gordon soundtrack isn’t exactly the most enjoyable of listens.

Though it kicked off the trend for rock bands soundtracking films that was prevalent throughout the 80s, I can’t say I have actually sat down and listened to it more than once. It is a full-on soundtrack. This is, in essence, the score for the movie, and features only two actual songs.

The first is Flash itself. It’s goofy, it’s fun, its weirdly effective. Pretty much everything you would want if you heard Queen were composing a comic book soundtrack. The other is The Hero, an almost metallic roar, a considerably less well known song that served as the theme for the film’s end credits.

It serves its purpose more than well as a soundtrack, but there really isn’t any hidden gem to appeal to the casual fan, and you’re likely to only find it enthralling if you are a die-hard Queen fan, of the film or of sci-fi movie soundtracks. Much of it also the kind of album that people who claim to hate Queen the most would like.

14. Made In Heaven [1995]

This is a mish-mash, but I feel a little bad ranking it so low.

It is well known now that the last couple of albums that Queen made were done so with the knowledge that Mercury could lose his battle with AIDS at any time. That they not only made The Miracle and Innuendo in this time, but also promoted them with some of their more creative videos is extraordinary.

As soon as Innuendo was released, the band returned to the studio, and began putting down tracks for another album, Freddie wishing to keep working until he could work no longer. On some tracks – such as the dance-oriented You Don’t Fool MeMercury, in more pain than I’m sure I have ever been in, would down some vodka, prop himself up, and record three takes of his vocals to what was essentially a drum machine to help him keep time, arguing that he didn’t have enough time to wait for the rest of the band to write music around it.

He didn’t even finish some of the songs himself, which explains why Brian May takes the last verse of Mother Love (the last song Mercury ever sang in the studio) and why the two men share vocals with Roger Taylor on the Somebody To Love-ish Let Me Live.

The final track, known only as Track 13, is a 22 minute ambient piece that – coming 22 years after the band’s debut – appears to follow the course of Queen’s career, most notably in the darkness that appears 18 minutes in, when Mercury would have passed away.

It is far from the band’s best (evidently, it is placed at number 14). It does, however, feel like the right album for the group to leave on. There is something definitively final about it.

13. Hot Space [1982]

Often considered the absolute nadir of Queen’s recorded output, Hot Space was born out of the monster hit the band achieved with The Game’s funk inspired Another One Bites The Dust. Not initially even considered for single status, it was none other than Michael Jackson – bizarrely, a fan of the band who would regularly attend their shows – who suggested they release it as a single. This world conquering success (Queen’s best-selling single, more than even Bohemian Rhapsody) led to the band deciding “Hey! Let’s make a disco album!

Although they had a knack for mixing genres, Queen at this point were still predominantly seen as a rock band. So although it wasn’t a complete sharp turn, it still left a good proportion of their audience confused, and thus the annals of pop history has written this one off as a disaster.

But was it really?

Truth be told, the album begins pretty strongly. Staying Power, Dancer and Back Chat all sound exactly like what you would want Queen doing pop-disco.

Freddie of course sounds like he is having the time of his life on this one, and his delivery really does elevate much of the material. Though, sadly, the “disco” half of the record runs out of steam after this. Body Language is a terrible song (though it is notable for being the first video banned from MTV) and Action This Day barely exists.

Side two actually switches to more standard fare. May’s Put Out The Fire gives the rock fans something to enjoy, and the ballad Las Palabras De Amor is a tribute to the band’s South American audience, who shot them into stadiums for the first time.

Most people see the collaboration with David Bowie – an artist with whom Queen shared a sense of theatre and love of artifice – on Under Pressure as the album’s saving grace, but it doesn’t really feel like part of the album. More like a big hit that they tacked on to the end. Despite being the first single, and a monster worldwide hit, it doesn’t represent the record in any meaningful way. It is, however, one of the finest singles that either Queen or Bowie ever released.

So, it isn’t quite a disco album, only the first half goes down that route. But the mixture of funk, post-disco, rock, balladry and superstar duets had one lasting legacy – it served as the blueprint used by Michael Jackson for Thriller.

Is it a great album? God, no. But it isn’t disaster that people make out either.

12. A Kind of Magic [1986]

A Kind of Magic is one of the oddest albums a large band has ever made, and it has quite the backstory.

A lot of people had written Queen off by 1985. They still had some big hits – 1984’s The Works did feature the likes of Radio Ga Ga and I Want To Break Free, after all.

But they had fallen out of favour somewhat. After Hot Space, you probably couldn’t call them a rock band anymore, and they were becoming increasingly pop. Then there was the unpleasantness in South Africa.

The band unwisely decided to play a residency in Bophuthatswana at the height of apartheid. They gave a whole host of excuses for doing it, but there really wasn’t a sufficient one. The backlash they received only heightened the idea that Queen were done.

It was therefore surprising when they were added to the bill at Live Aid. The guys who played Sun City a few months ago are now championing Africa?

What was even more surprising to many is that they completely stole the show. It is absolutely one of the greatest performances of theirs or anybody’s career, and Bowie, Jagger, U2, McCartney, Elton and The Who watching in the wings could do nothing about it. It is the precise moment in time when Queen became a genuinely classic band.

Against the odds, Queen were revitalised. They immediately recorded the song One Vision, which ended up as the opening track on A Kind of Magic.

All but two of the songs on the rest of the album feature in the film Highlander. Some of them, such as Princes of the Universe, Gimme The Prize and Don’t Lose Your Head make specific reference to the film (with the latter two even featuring dialogue). Others, such as May‘s beautiful Who Wants To Live Forever? and Taylor‘s title track are more tenuous and work better as standalone songs.

It makes the whole thing kind of confused. It’s a soundtrack, without being a soundtrack, despite being a soundtrack. But it does feature some of the band’s heaviest songs since the 70s, and probably the last time they verged on heavy metal.

Of note, the European Magic Tour of 1986 was the last Queen tour until they re-grouped with Paul Rodgers in 2005. Freddie’s last show was at Knebworth Park on 9th August 1986.

11. Jazz [1978]

There was an infamous review of this album in Rolling Stone magazine that pretty much sums up the critics’ response to the band. Dave Marsh wrote; “Queen hasn’t the imagination to play jazz — Queen hasn’t the imagination, for that matter, to play rock & roll… Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band.”

There’s something precarious about Marsh ragging on Queen for being pompous. After all, he is a notorious Springsteen buff. How anybody could love Jungleland but loathe Queen for being full of themselves is beyond me. The difference between Springsteen’s epics and Queen’s is that Queen are very aware of their own ridiculousness. And that really is Jazz all over.

Why would anyone on the face of the Earth take Bicycle Race seriously? Or Fat Bottomed Girls? Or Mustapha? And does Mustapha take on meaning with added knowledge of Freddie’s background?

That Queen could so seamlessly jump from abject silliness to a tender piano ballad like Jealousy, often considered to be one of the most underrated songs in the band’s back catalogue, is an immense talent in itself.

Aside from the singles, If You Can’t Beat ‘Em is a rare example of bass player John Deacon writing a rock song, albeit one with a very pop chorus, Dreamers Ball is a laid back tribute to Elvis Presley and Fun It is a somewhat bizarre precursor to Another One Bites The Dust.

Don’t Stop Me Now, meanwhile, has arguably become one of the band’s defining hits, despite being one of Brian May’s least favourite.

10. The Game [1980]

May has often exclaimed that at some point during the promotion for The Game, Queen very briefly became the biggest band in the world.

It’s hard to argue. Bohemian Rhapsody might be the most iconic song in their back catalogue, but it’s not their biggest selling. Believe it or not, Another One Bites The Dust sold more copies than Bo Rhap, thanks to its unprecedented success in America.

It came so late in the promotion too – the final single released from the album.

The public got its first taste of The Game when Crazy Little Thing Called Love was released as a single in 1979, giving the band their first US number one. The follow-up singles Save Me and almost title track Play The Game (the video for which saw the debut of Freddie’s iconic moustache, inspired by the gay scene in Munich, where the album was recorded) hardly made a dent in America. At some point during their US tour, friend of the band Michael Jackson suggested that they release Another One Bites The Dust as a single. Taylor seemed particularly bemused, believing it would never be a hit. He was wrong.

Already known for genre hopping (sometimes within one song), what Another One Bites The Dust did was open Queen up to an entirely different audience. It was number one on the R&B chart and was hammered on black radio, with many assuming they were a black band.

John Deacon was always a secret weapon, able to pull out incredible pop songs in the middle of the madness. For any lesser band, his R&B influences could have been at odds with the hard rock stylings of May and Taylor. But with that one song, he managed to transcend what Queen was.

The rest of the album is a bit of a mixed bag, truth be told. The second half in particular has some pretty dire moments – Freddie’s dreadful Don’t Try Suicide being particularly lousy. Taylor’s Rock It (Prime Jive) and Coming Soon are both also pretty nondescript. Thankfully the likes of Dragon Attack and Deacon’s infectious power pop Need Your Lovin’ Tonight counterbalance these.

Beyond the hit singles, the album is responsible for a few other major events. Firstly, after years of the phrase “No synthesisers” appearing in Queen’s album sleeves to denote the fact that none of the sounds heard on the album were played artificially (if you heard a harp, Brian was playing a damn harp, d’ya dig?), The Game was the first to feature synthesisers, most notably on opener Play The Game.

Secondly, during the promotion Queen became the first major rock band to play the stadiums of South America, elevating into the stadium rock status of their idols, from Led Zeppelin to The Who. They proved to be a record breaking draw; in Buenos Aires, they drew a crowd of 300,000—at the time by far the largest single concert crowd in Argentine history, and they remained a massive band in Latin America. However, the tour was fraught due to the climate of some of the countries they were playing in at the time.

Taylor, May and manager Jim Beach have all recounted their experiences at various times, from the head of security’s recommendation being based on the fact that he had “killed 212 people”, bullet cases littering the floor as they unloaded the equipment, and one memorable traffic jam where the policeman escorting them solved the issue by standing up in the car, putting his head through the sun roof and firing his gun in the air.

9. Queen [1973]

Like most debut albums, Queen finds a band still finding their way. It is the one where their initial influences are most apparent, from the obvious Led Zeppelin-isms in Keep Yourself Alive and Son and Daughter to The Beatles reference in the wonderful The Night Comes Down. In fact, on the Led Zep front, it does underline how underrated Queen were as a hard rock band in their early days.

Some of the songs come from past projects too. Doin’ All Right is a song from May and Taylor’s previous band Smile, giving it a more glam makeover from the original’s psychedelic nuances.

Of particular note, the bizarre My Fairy King is the song that gave the former Farrokh Bulsara his new name, as he sings “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me”. Already known to friends as Freddie, he adopted the surname Mercury, partially in order to separate his extroverted onstage persona with his more introverted private one.

The highlight of the album is Liar. Out of all the songs, it is probably the one that best points to where Queen would go over the next few years. Roger Taylor has said that in the beginning, the band wanted to fuse the heaviness of the likes of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath with the harmonies of the likes of the Beach Boys and Crosby Stills and Nash, but it just as easily could have been an amalgamation of prog rock and glam, which at the time were arguably the most popular rock genres on the album (prog) and singles (glam) charts.

Liar absolutely does captures all of that, and it remained – along with May’s opener Keep Yourself Alive – as one of the few live favourites on the album to remain in the band’s set list throughout the decade. It was last played in 1985 during Freddie’s penultimate tour.

But perhaps the most impressive fact about the album is the way it was recorded. Not being able to afford studio time of their own, they recorded, produced and mixed the entire record in down time, i.e. waiting around the studios for them to become empty, and using the other artist’s leftover time after their sessions.

Whilst waiting around, Freddie recorded vocals for producer Robin Cable, who was recording versions of The Ronettes’ I Can Hear Music and Dusty Springfield’s Goin’ Back, which he was inspired to do after a recent visit from Phil Spector. Freddie brought May and Taylor with him and the songs were released under the pseudonym Larry Lurex two weeks before Queen’s debut single.

8. The Works [1984]

After the disappointment felt on the heels of Hot Space, the band went off in different directions. Taylor made his second solo album, the moderately successful Strange Frontier. May jammed with Eddie Van Halen on the goofy but ultimately enjoyable Star Fleet Project, which wasn’t initially intended for release. Mercury began work on what would become his Mr. Bad Guy album, collaborated with Giorgio Moroder on the song Love Kills and managed to spend some time recording with Michael Jackson.

When Queen reconvened in the studio to make their next record, Roger Taylor exclaimed “Let’s give them the works”.

Perhaps scolded by the relative failure of Hot Space, there was more in the way of hard rock on the record, most notably in Tear It Up and especially Hammer To Fall, which was probably their heaviest song since the turn of the decade.

It isn’t the only reference to their past – It’s a Hard Life opens with a reference to Ruggiero Leoncavallo‘s opera Pagliacci, which feels much more at home on the band’s bat shit crazy 70s albums than their more pop albums of the 80s.

But that doesn’t mean the album is a complete throwback, with Radio Ga Ga (inspired some gobbledegook that came out of Taylor’s infant son’s mouth) and Machines (or Back to Humans) utilising the latest synth technology. Is This The World We Created…? is a little atypical in the band’s back catalogue; featuring just Mercury’s voice and May on acoustic guitar, and with lyrics that threaten to become political.

But one of the things that sticks out most about the album is the visuals. The videos for the album’s singles were some of their best and, in at least one case, as bat shit crazy as their 70s albums were musically.

Radio Ga Ga was a stylish tribute to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and I Want To Break Free is the now iconic film of the band in drag in homage to Coronation Street that breaks in the middle so Freddie can pay tribute to Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky with the Royal Ballet. Perhaps due to the lack of translation between the history of UK drag acts in the mainstream and knowledge of Coronation Street, MTV banned the video in America.

But as out there as I Want To Break Free may have appeared, It’s a Hard Life would have seemed even more bizarre. Taking its cue from the aforementioned Pagliacci reference, director Tim Pope made a decidedly operatic looking video, complete with Mercury walking around a palace dressed as some kind of wealthy prawn. He’s clearly loving every ridiculous minute. The rest of the band not so much. Taylor expressed that it was “the most stupid music video ever made,” but that is the reason it is so enjoyable.

7. A Day At The Races [1976]

Imagine being in the position of having to follow up Bohemian Rhapsody? How the hell do you do that?

Well, that’s what Queen were faced with in 1976. Not only had they released one of the defining songs of the millennium, kicked off the music video craze and stayed number one for nine astonishing weeks, they did it with a six minute song that was opera, ballad and heavy metal. They had also saved their behinds with the song’s parent album, A Night At The Opera.

When it came to make the follow-up, they understandably opted not to mess with the formula. The album feels pretty well fashioned after its predecessor. Both albums are named after Marx Brothers films and feature very similar front covers. A Day At The Races really is A Night At The Opera II.

Much of it feels pretty familiar on the record too. The songs sung by May and Taylor even feel like call backs to the hallmarks of the last album. Long Away is a folk-ish song like ’39 and Drowse is in the same bizarre 6/8 time signature as I’m In Love With My Car, and neither are as good as the Opera material. The Millionaire Waltz maintains the music hall traditions that the band had kept up to this point too.

But maybe the best songs on the album surpass the best songs on Opera. Somebody To LoveFreddie’s tribute to Aretha Franklin – is, I would argue, the best song he ever wrote. May’s metallic opener Tie Your Mother Down is probably their best frivolous rock song. You Take My Breath Away is one of their very best piano ballads too.

Despite this, it doesn’t quite work as a whole like their previous records. Queen were becoming a very different band.

6. The Miracle [1989]

Perhaps a surprising one to be rated so highly, but then Queen were so eclectic that everyone is going to have radically different thoughts on placings.

This was the first Queen album since Mercury’s diagnosis of HIV/AIDS. Still a death sentence at this point, and his condition not disclosed to the public, he chose to continue working until he could work no more. What is interesting is, despite what he and the band were facing, The Miracle is probably their most joyful pop album.

Take a look at how the album starts. The opening song is called Party. Take a listen to The Invisible Man, as danceable as any goofy 80s hit. What about Breakthru’? One of the most uplifting pop songs of their career. And I Want It All is one of their definitive stabs at stadium rock bombast.

The title track sees Freddie looking at all the wonderful things on the planet, from the Taj Mahal to Jimi Hendrix and “Sunday mornings with a cup of tea”. It is pretty inspiring to hear a man on the brink of death sing about the world in this way, but equally heart breaking to know he was still so in love with life.

The album isn’t without darkness. Scandal is particularly personal to May and Mercury. Throughout the late 80s, both men had been subjected to unwanted tabloid attention. May had been targeted for his divorce from his first wife and subsequent relationship with Anita Dobson.

Freddie had it even worse. His illness was still kept a secret from the public, but speculation was rife. His increasingly gaunt appearance was causing alarm, and the press were frankly shameless in their approach. The paparazzi would stop at nothing, hoping to get pictures of an ailing Mercury inside the walls of his home. The Murdoch press ran stories like “AIDS Kills Freddie’s Two Lovers”, and his former assistant Paul Prenter sold his story to the press and claimed Freddie was ill for a measly £32,000.

By this point, Freddie’s doctors had informed his inner circle that he was unlikely to see Christmas. This makes the final track on The Miracle all the more poignant. It’s called Was It All Worth It? and harks back to the band’s earlier sounds. In it, Freddie looks over his life and asks the titular question. The response? “Yes, it was a worthwhile experience”. He knew his life was cut short, but he didn’t regret a minute of it.

5. Innuendo [1991]

Given that Freddie was expected to pass away by Christmas 1989, the fact that he was able to make and promote another album is incredible.

Innuendo feels much darker than The Miracle, but perhaps that is to be expected. It also finds the band in a rather reflective mood.

The title track was a loose tribute to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. It could have showed up on any of the bands early 70s albums. It is heavy, camp, symphonic and broken up into sections (including a flamenco section courtesy of Yes guitarist Steve Howe).  It served as the band’s final number one single in Freddie’s lifetime and, arguably, at six and a half minutes, the weirdest song to ever hit number one on the charts.

Taylor’s Ride The Wild Wind could be a sequel to 1975’s I’m In Love With My Car, Don’t Try So Hard could easily have come from The Game era. May’s rockers are as reliable as ever, with Headlong, I Can’t Live With You and The Hitman being as strong as many of his rockers from the 70s.

There are, of course, songs inspired by Mercury’s condition. The gut wrenching The Show Must Go On is a fitting epitaph for him, whilst Freddie uses I’m Going Slightly Mad to describe his illness with humour and Noel Coward-esque one liners, along with a fittingly whacky video.

The album’s masterstroke though is Taylor’s These Are The Days Of Our Lives. Written about his feelings about his life and family, it takes on completely new meaning in Mercury’s hands. This is only elevated in the video, which served as his final on screen appearance. He is visibly ill, frail and barely resembled the charismatic figure the world knew and loved. In the final moments he looks directly into the camera and whispers the song’s final line; “I still love you”. He then waves off screen, never to be seen again.

The video was filmed in May 1991, but wouldn’t be seen in the UK until after Freddie’s death that November when the song was released as a single, with proceeds going to AIDS charity, the Terence Higgins Trust. Queen would form their own AIDS charity, The Mercury Phoenix Trust, the following year.

Mercury released a statement to the press regarding his condition less than 24 hours before he succumbed to it. As the first major rock star to die of the disease, the impact was felt all over the world. Misconceptions about the illness were still widespread, and many criticised Mercury for not disclosing his diagnosis earlier. But by doing so at all, he gave the rest of the band a gift. Queen as an entity were able to use his death to raise awareness about the realities of AIDS, which began with a star studded 1992 tribute concert to Freddie which was watched by over one billion people worldwide, and have gone on to raise millions for AIDS research.

4. Queen II [1974]

The proggiest of all Queen albums, I often think parts of this sound a little like Rush did in their heavier, swords and sorcery period.

The first half of the album kicks into gear with Father To Son – immediately far more representative of the band than anything on their debut, and moves quickly onto White Queen (As It Began). It becomes apparent at this point that a major theme in May’s songwriting would be along the lines of coming-of-age and nostalgia over the loss of childhood. Father To Son is self-explanatory in that regard, but White Queen dates back from 1968 and was written about a girl he had a crush on in school.

Admittedly the first half of the record winds down a lot from the opening. But it’s the second side of the record that is the real wonder.

Composed entirely by Mercury, it moves from heavy metal of Ogre Battle, to the camp Fairy Fellar’s Master Stroke (inspired by a Richard Dadd painting of the same name), to the gorgeous balladry of Nevermore, past the uber prog of March of the Black Queen and the Phil Spector tribute Funny How Love Is with so much ease that it makes you wonder how this all could have come out of the same man’s head.

Not only that, he caps it all off with Seven Seas of Rhye – the band’s first Top 10 hit, and still one of their finest.

Also of note, despite being one of the band’s lesser known albums, the Marlene Dietrich inspired front cover has become one of their most iconic images, thanks to it forming the basis for the Bohemian Rhapsody video the following year.

3. News of the World [1977]

1977 is often seen as year zero for punk, and with it came a new attitude.

Well, I say “new”. Queen were never popular with critics, but the vitriol hit a whole new level after punk hit. 1976’s A Day At The Races had songs like The Millionaire Waltz and Teo Torriate, which were never going to give them street cred. Although, I would maintain that Freddie Mercury going on stage in sparkling leotards and telling the press he was “bringing ballet to the masses” in the middle of 1977 is far more punk than anything Johnny Rotten ever did (sorry, folks! Rotten wouldn’t have dared do that).

Queen could hardly reinvent themselves as a punk band. But they could cut out some of their more extravagant excesses, and this would be necessary for their own survival. News of the World does that…to a point.

There is still a lot of extravagance in there. We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions open the album – two of the band’s most iconic hits – and despite the more stripped back nature, they still have the kind of bravado that would be banished from punk. They are, however, total crowd pleasers, adopted in the sports arena as much as they are the concert halls, with both written for the purpose of being crowd pleasers.  Ditto for John Deacon’s underrated proto-power ballad Spread Your Wings.

Then you get Sheer Heart Attack. The title had been used for a previous album, but the unfinished track was dusted off for this record. It is about as punk as Queen could reasonably get, and was a natural high point for the band’s shows at the time. Similarly, the epic It’s Late builds to a heaviness that Queen would rarely reach again.

There are also far more looser moments abound. May takes the vocals on Sleeping On The Sidewalk, a laid back blues jam that sounds like the band having fun more than anything else. Mercury isn’t even present on the track, and reportedly the backing track was recorded in one take without the band’s knowledge. Equally, Deacon’s Who Needs You and the gorgeous closing My Melancholy Blues show a more stripped back side to the band that the record buying public had rarely heard.

The album became their biggest in America until The Game, and was supported by a major US tour, and this is where much of their American audience were captivated. Nine Inch Nails even recorded an aggressive version of the psychedelic Get Down Make Love in 1990, whilst Slash has named Fight From The Inside as one of his favourite riffs of all time.

At one point during the mixing, Sid Vicious (or “Simon Ferocious”, as Freddie called him) stumbled in the studio, mocking Mercury for his comment about “bringing ballet to the masses”. Mercury reportedly picked him up by the scruff of the neck and threw him out of the studio. So much for the tough punks, eh?

2. A Night At The Opera [1975]

In truth, this is probably the quintessential Queen album. After all, it is the one with Bohemian Rhapsody on it.

A Night At The Opera came about following the band’s separation from their management. They weren’t signed to EMI, who were releasing their records. They were signed to production company Trident, who leased their records to EMI. This essentially led to the band being swindled out of their earnings.

The album was made in this climate, and there are times when it shows. None more so than opener Death On 2 Legs, a song so vindictive toward former manager Norman Sheffield that Brian May felt bad singing his backing vocals; “Feel good, are you satisfied?/Do you feel like suicide?/I think you should”.

Speaking of May, he contributes only one of his signature rock songs, Sweet Lady, which in a strange move for a rock song is presented in 3/4 time and has been named by Taylor as the most difficult drum part he’s ever played on record.

May’s other songs had more of a folkish feel to them. ’39 is what he referred to as a “sci-fi skiffle” and is irresistible to sing along to and Good Company is the second song in as many albums to find him digging out his old ukulele, the instrument he learned to play before guitar. He also contributes The Prophet’s Song, which feels like a continuation of the likes of Queen II’s Ogre Battle – and features a glorious mid-section in which Mercury takes a vocal solo, harmonising with himself.

The album also features Deacon’s first single release. You’re My Best Friend had the mammoth task of following up the album’s lead single, but actually serves incredibly well to off-set the insanity of that song with a cheerful pop song, deserving of its Top 10 status.

Equally notable is Freddie’s Love of My Life, an ode to former girlfriend Mary Austin, to whom he had recently come out as gay (although it is more reasonable to assume that Mercury was bisexual). Played on piano on record, when it was introduced into the live set two years later, it featured as an acoustic duet between May and Mercury, and became such a concert staple that Freddie would almost always cease singing, allowing the audience to take over.

And that brings us to Bohemian Rhapsody.

Jeez. There is nothing we can tell you about Bohemian Rhapsody. I mean, it’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s like writing about Stairway To Heaven or telling you about how Deep Purple wrote Smoke On The Water. Everybody knows literally everything there is to know about Bohemian Rhapsody, from the record company not wanting to release it, to Kenny Everett playing it 14 times in two days right up to the historic music videos and the unprecedented nine weeks at number one. We’ve heard it a million times, but it is occasionally worth listening to it closely so as not to take Freddie’s painstaking vision for granted.

It was undoubtedly the best representation of the album, though. It sums all 43 minutes up pretty damn well.

1. Sheer Heart Attack [1974]

This really feels like the album where Queen became Queen.

The third album is the all-important one.  The first one you spend your whole life preparing for. The second one you need to knock off fairly quickly. Album number three is where you prove your staying power. Queen not only proved it, they surpassed their previous two albums and achieved their biggest hit to date.

Killer Queen really does announce the arrival of Queen as a radio band. Freddie’s vaudevillian camp was in full effect for the first time, and their previously wayward sound had started to tighten for mass consumption.

The album’s other hit was Now I’m Here, a live stable throughout the rest of their performing career. Written by May about their first tour of America with Mott The Hoople (notice the line “Down in the city just Hoople and me”), which had to be cut short after Brian contracted Hepatitis.

The rest of the album is as wildly eccentric as any of Queen’s albums of the period. Heavy opener Brighton Rock all of a sudden becomes a showcase for May’s histrionics, the pummelling Stone Cold Crazy pre-dates speed metal and was famously covered by Metallica. Lily of the Valley is one of Freddie’s finest piano ballads, and Brian’s Dear Friends almost matches it in the lullaby stakes.

There are two completely unrelated songs called In The Lap of the Gods. The first is a dramatic, almost operatic festival of weirdness. The second, the anthemic closer they would use until We Are The Champions came along. There’s also Deacon’s first recorded tune, a charming little ditty called Misfire that really should be longer.

It’s hardly the album with the most hits, but maybe that is part of its appeal. It’s the sound of a band coming into their own, not yet jaded by the industry. And it remains a thrill after 40 years.

Queen + Adam Lambert play the Echo Arena, Liverpool on Tuesday 28th November and Manchester Arena on Saturday 9th December.

The Merchant host a Queen night called God Save The Queen on Saturday 25th November.

Image from artist’s Facebook page.

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Thu 14

Dinosaur Jr

December 14 @ 7:00 pm - 10:30 pm
Sat 16

Michael Head and The Red Elastic Band

December 16 @ 7:00 pm - 10:30 pm
Sat 16

Ben Nicky

December 16 @ 7:00 pm - 10:30 pm
Wed 20

Andre Rieu

December 20 @ 7:00 pm - 10:30 pm

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