At the advent of the 1970s, the already exponentially expanding world of rock music was ready to spawn yet another wave of unique, thriving sub-divisions: metal, glam, arena rock, soft rock, progressive, power pop…and an incoming quartet of Brits calling themselves Queen conquered pretty much every single one of them, as well as pioneering a rock-opera fusion all their own, and covering every pre-established pop music genre from the 60s as well. The started out as young men, hard men, shouting in the street about taking on the world some day, and that they did. They paid their dues, time after time, but eventually wrestled the crown away from their competitors Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Pink Floyd to assume the throne as the most popular rock band in the world from the mid-’70s to the ’80s. Some might argue for Zeppelin or Floyd as the superior artists, but panoramic talent and cultural legacy are major factors to consider, and for starters, Queen was hands-down the most stylistically ambidextrous musical group since The Beatles. They’ve also contributed more everlastingly beloved songs to the musical language of our daily lives than all three aforementioned artists combined, great as they were. But immortal mega-hits such as “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and “Another One Bites the Dust” barely get the narrative ball rolling toward representing the band’s extraordinary recorded body of work. If success weren’t so luck-of-the-draw, we’d be looking at 100 more Queen classics heard everywhere all the time, from extreme sporting events (try “Sheer Heart Attack”, for starters) and karaoke nights (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown”) to movie soundtracks (“Funny How Love is”) and funerals (“Let Me Live”).
There’s so much madness in their career, for better (A Night at the Opera) or worse (A Kind of Magic) that we here at Popblerd were compelled to do it all justice with a Note for Note, and not a moment too soon: Queen celebrates the 40th anniversary of their debut album this year. Short half their line-up – Freddie Mercury passed away in 1991, John Deacon bowed out of music entirely once the posthumous 1995 record came out – the band presses on, having recently closed out the 2012 summer Olympics, and currently organizing two separate release projects. But rather than rummage through the post-Mercury scraps, we’re going to turn back the clock and chronicle the band’s legitimate lifespan, 1973-1995, with glances at the myriad side projects to boot. Today we start in the prenatal stages, when Queen was but a gleam in the eyes of music partners Brian and Roger Taylor…
THE PRE-QUEEN YEARS (1968-1972)
Smile: Gettin’ Smile (1970)
Smile was formed in 1968 by Brian May, Tim Staffell & Roger Taylor. Freddie was Tim’s friend and became a fan of the band. They were signed my Mercury Records in 1969 and recorded 6 songs total. In 1970, Tim quit, and Freddie urged them to forge ahead, with him on vocals. They auditioned a bunch of bass players and settled on John Deacon. At that point, Queen was born.
The album had been bootlegged for years, and the only legitimate version on vinyl wasn’t released until 1982, when it surfaced as a Japanese import. The album is notable for the early version of “Doin’ Alright,” which appeared on Queen I in 1973. Here’s the Smile version with Tim on vocals:
It also showed the multi-layered vocals that would eventually become the Queen trademark.
Larry Lurex: I Can Hear Music / Goin’ Back (1973)
Larry Lurex was a project that Queen did while recording the Queen I at Trident Studios. In 1972, the house engineer was trying to imitate Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” and had asked Queen to perform a couple tracks so he could experiment a bit. They chose two covers: the Beach Boys’ “I Can Hear Music” and Dusty Springfield’s “Goin’ Back”
Unfortunately, these two gems have also been circulating as bootlegs for years, and usually at the wrong speed. Many of the “Legitimate” CDs that came out in the 90s with these songs have been incorrect as well. I recommend either purchasing the original 7”, or picking up the 2-CD set, Freddie Mercury: Lover of Life, Singer of Songs: The Best Of Freddie Mercury Solo
Queen’s first record is heavy on the prog-rock and proto-metal, showing only faint signs of their eventual tagging as tongue-in-cheek arena rock court jesters. They’re pitched more towards Led Zeppelin than KISS (who at this point were still a year off from their own debut), yet a bandwagon-hopping, full-on hard rock assault the likes of older pioneers like Deep Purple, The Who, and Black Sabbath was clearly not the only pursuit this foursome had in mind. Originally written even before Queen by Brian May and Tim Staffell for their very short-lived blues rock group Smile, you’ve got “Doing All Right” at track 2, escalating from soulful harmonized piano balladry to a jazzy mid-section to wild guitar riffs and then back again, and showing that the whiplash-inducing tempo-shifts that helped make “Bohemian Rhapsody” (among many others) such a singular masterpiece were in fact built into Queen’s machinery from the very beginning. There’s also some hints at campy flair in the lyrical fantasia of “My Fairy King”, the heart-stopping choral exclamations in the otherwise chugging “Son & Daughter”, and Roger Taylor’s triumphant sign off to “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll”.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the oddly direct Bible studies excerpt of “Jesus” is meant as deadpan satire or anything subversive. It’s just out of place, and calls attention to the incohesive assortment here. Ironically for a band so enamored of pageantry, Queen only once and quite loosely tried a concept album (their follow-up, Queen II), but even considering the patchwork assembly of each of the 14 subsequent records they’d make, the 10 songs on this debut just feel less unified than anything else they’d do until the ’80s (when the magical alchemy of genre experimentation and mood swings wore off and the conflicting styles began to sound like oil and water together on albums like The Works and A Kind of Magic). The sequencing is fine, set to a steady ebb and flow of aggression, barring the anticlimax of closer “Seven Seas of Rhye” (a half-written song at the time with a great introduction but no actual song to back it up, that they intended to flesh out for the opening track of their sophomore album, but that second, expanded version ultimately became a finale again for Queen II), but as enjoyable and compelling as all the songs are, on their own they don’t have quite enough character to establish a lasting identity for the work as a whole. For one thing, the band’s explorations into Freddie’s make-believe fantasy land of Rhye that disappeared after their 3rd album only pop up once here (twice if you count the song title of instrumental “Seven Seas of Rhye”), leaving a random impression. More to the point, however, the album sounds like the band getting an initial feel for their surroundings and boundaries. It’s a powerhouse of a debut, no question – seems like every track reaches at least one point of blasting, head-banging majesty, providing plenty for rock enthusiasts to salute – but we haven’t gotten to the properly nutty Queen of lore just yet.
- “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me”, a line in “My Fairy King”, is said to have inspired Farrokh Bulsara to adopt the bitchin’ nom de plume Freddie Mercury. I dunno, though, the song “Liar” also mentions his surname: “Liar I have sailed the seas/Liar from Mars to Mercury”.
- “The Night Comes Down” as heard on the album is the original, unaltered demo version, considered superior to all the refined re-recordings during album sessions
- the closest approximation to their musical style at this point would probably be The Who, if only for the musical tributes paid in the opening and closing tracks: “Keep Yourself Alive” has a gallop highly reminiscent of “Pinball Wizard”, while “Seven Seas of Rhye” opens (and in this case closes, because it’s only a minute long) with a memorable rush of piano playing punctuated by dramatic guitar stings…in other words, a bit-sized re-write of “Baba O’Riley”.
QUEEN II (1974)
You’d think the band often associated with prog-rock and that eventually became known for their grandiosity (their most famous album is nothing short of a night at the opera, after al) would be pioneers for, or if nothing else frequent abusers of the concept album format, yet Queen II, a medieval fantasy told in indirect increments while split into an overworld/underworld “white” side one and “black” side two, is as narratively unified as they ever tried to be across a whole album. A good number of official concept albums throughout history are liberally identified as such, with maybe half of an album’s tracks hinting at a recurring theme, then colorful press releases, fan hyperbole, and ensuing word-of-mouth helping seal the deal, and Queen II seems to be another case. If you remove the white/black division of record sides, this album is hardly more of the novelty concept mold than its predecessor Queen or its same-year follow-up, Sheer Heart Attack, both of which also sprinkle in references to Mercury’s land of Rhye, but it’s still fun to try to filter the overall package through this lens, and the interconnected flow is bolstered immeasurably by designing each track to bleed into the next; since sharply changing tempo and mood within individual songs is a Queen trademark, it’s a bit of clever meta-trick (well, in retrospect) that they pull the same stunt here on an album level. For those not paying close attention, you probably won’t even realize when a new song begins, since half the time it sounds like a new song has taken over two or three different times during the same track.
Queen II combines older compositions (half the album was written during prior sessions for their eponymous debut, and a couple were even taken from pre-Queen days) and the rush of fertility inspired by the recording of album #1, so it wasn’t technically conceived with the story in mind, hence why it’s impossible to grasp what exactly the story is here, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s more of a feeling that we’re traveling through this fantasy realm, not involving ourselves in particular matters. It seems Freddie and the gang were tickled by the aesthetics of the white/black concept more than its potential as a song cycle. Even with songs like “Father to Son”, “The Loser in the End”, and “Funny How Love is” having nothing to do with faraway kingdoms (and even the seemingly tailored-for-concept titled “White Queen” is just made to seem like it’s part of the motif, even though it’s actually a very personal song Brian May wrote about a woman he loved), the lyrics are general enough that you can easily take the leap and imagine that they’re referring to people within this place. And while it might be argued that it’s the style of music which sets the mood for an album-length soar through Rhye, the evidence for that – elegant flourishes (an opening funeral march, harpsichords, the ethereal piano interlude of “Nevermore”), bombastic showmanship, dramatic rock ‘n’ roll highs and tender balladry lows – is actually just vintage Queen. Queen II may be the maiden voyage for this ingredients list – much more so than Queen I, where you could see it taking shape, but was still in the rough draft phase – but their next four albums stuck just as closely to it.
I reckon it’s for the best that this is they didn’t limit themselves to storylines or types of music after this, though, since one of the great joys of the subsequent records during Queen’s ’70s golden age (up through 1980’s The Game) is their uninhibited eclecticism. I wasn’t around during this time, but I can only imagine as a fan of Queen that it was exciting to wonder what wild angle they’d rock out to next after each album. Vaudeville, Arabian, Elvis throwback, sci-fi orchestration, funk, disco, gospel? So many Queen flavors to choose from when all was said and done. For Queen II, the stylistic detours aren’t quite as out-there, but you still get the Queen guarantee of emotional variety. This isn’t just 11 tracks of hard rock mayhem – we open with a regal salute-the-flag march, then launch into the heavens with one of May’s mightiest epics before down-shifting to slow motion for a tale of heartache (“White Queen”) that briefly gnarls itself into a heavy metal howl, followed by what sounds like a man pensively surveying the land from atop a mountain (“Some Day One Day”), then an aggressive Roger Taylor attack before the official “descent” into the black realm of Freddie Mercury’s side 2 via the intense battle cries of “Ogre Battle”. From there, the coiled energy of “The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke” releases into the fragile beauty of “Nevermore”, which in turn serves as an introduction to the climactic multi-part masterpiece that is “March of the Black Queen”. After that we get a breather of a straightforward acoustic anthem, and then “Seven Seas of Rhye” plays us out on an invigorating wave of melodic classic rock.
There are some all-time champions in the mix – “Father to Son”, “Ogre Battle”, and “The March of the Black Queen” are undeniable powerhouses, and there is either brilliance or an irresistible allure to many of the softer/alternate cuts:”Nevermore”, “Some Day One Day”, “The Fairy-Feller’s Master Stroke”, and “Funny How Love is”. The band’s virtuosity as rockers, as artists, and as producers continues its ascension – the solos are even more ambitious than on the last album, the songs written more cohesively, their Beatles-esque adventures in studio recording leading to some effective risk-taking (for one thing, the first 30 seconds of “Ogre Battle” is actually its last 30 seconds played backwards!), Freddie’s reputation as the greatest rock vocalist in history secured one track after another as he sings the ever-loving crap out of every note on the spectrum, and the tone of the music beginning to hint at ye-olde-English tropes that would come to define a big part of their image.
If the album is “underrated” as is often claimed, it’s because there aren’t many choruses or hooks, and each song in general uses considerably less repetition than is typical of audience-friendly rock music. This isn’t verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus territory, so no matter how roaring or eccentric the music gets, it doesn’t stick in the normal way. The fair-weather music fan doesn’t want to hear long winding jams and might not appreciate the scope of the album when they’re looking for a catchy single. I know because I more or less was this ungrateful dolt as a youngster. In my teen years, my first Queen purchase was their Greatest Hits comp (the ’90s one with the purple cover); all I wanted was to hear the hits I already knew and hopefully discover others that were as identical as possible. To me, the one track with the least amount of pomp and pop was “Seven Seas of Rhye” (in retrospect it’s actually “Now I’m Here”, probably, but I don’t even remember hearing that song until years later when I owned Sheer Heart Attack), also the oldest song on the collection, the only one that pre-dates Sheer Heart Attack, and I readily skipped over it during every run through the disc. Even THAT song wasn’t Queen enough for a kid whose gateways to the band were “We Will Rock You”, “Somebody to Love”, and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, yet in the context of Queen II, it’s clearly the would-be radio breakthrough. So yeah, maybe casual listeners don’t have much use for Queen II since it’s not as colorful and grinning as they seemed at their prime – the album is loaded with trademark Queen-isms, but it’s harder-edged and never winks at the audience. For seasoned subjects of her majesty, however, it’s a blistering ride with a tinge of whimsy emanating off the Tolkien imagery, making it feel a bit like a fantasy book on tape interpreted by the heavy metal equivalent of Gilbert & Sullivan.
SHEER HEART ATTACK (1974)
What’s notable about their 3rd album, that which began turning heads worldwide, isn’t their by-now-idiosyncratic use of operatic ornamentation, but rather that it’s where Queen lays down the Zeppelin/Jethro Tull influenced pretense and starts to have fun. Or maybe they were getting their jollies since the first day they played together, but this is where they started inviting listeners to join the merrymaking, introducing silly homages (“Bring Back Leroy Brown”, a Jim Croce tribute), jaunty finger-snapping vaudeville (“Killer Queen”, their first crossover hit), de-fanged light rock (“Misfire”, which some attribute a Caribbean flavor to, but I don’t really hear it myself, not that it isn’t a sweet little number anyway), and a self-aware sense of melodrama (I could never take “Brighton Rock”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos)”, or “Flick of the Wrist” seriously…it just sounds too obvious that this is all horseplay for the band). We hear the last few remnants of fantasyland prog-gery, and even more complementary than the Queen/Queen II mirroring of “Seven Seas of Rhye” closers is the subtle bridging from Queen II to this at the very beginning of the album, when we hear the final notes of the previous album’s “Rhye” finale playing in the distant carnival ambience, but otherwise consider this the start of Queen: Mach II. They’ve initiated playful mode. Their enthusiasm for studio technique helps bring their expanding stylistic range to finer fruition. The mixing is better than ever, the genre playing field is getting blurrier, and bassist John Deacon has finally joined the songwriting game (the breezy “Misfire”, his first in a streak of token gentle-hearted beauties highlighting the next few albums). It’s an exciting time.
Relatively speaking, though, this qualifies as an ace Queen album without ever coming off as outstanding. The best songs – “Leroy Brown”, “Now I’m Here”, “Misfire”, “Flick of the Wrist”, “Lap of the Gods Revisited” – are like templates for future touchdowns. Take those six and update them with their higher-ranking successors: respectively, “Seasize Rendevous”, “It’s Late”, “You and I”, “Death on Two Legs”, “We Will Rock You”. “Killer Queen” is an inimitable accomplishment in their catalog, granted, and there’s a whole lot going on – the finger-snapping, the Beach Boys choirs and harmonies, drum fills and bell chimes, the different singing tracks stacked atop one another, some of Freddie’s offbeat vocal musings (his delivery of “fastidious and precise” is cute), the threat of rock and roll fury from those electric guitar licks that never actually arrives, Freddie’s piano work that holds it all together, the frolicsome sensation. Imminently likable and inventive, just not a full-out masterpiece if you ask me. So it goes with the album. The less essential tracks aren’t bad, but they show a sag in the songwriting dynamism at which Queen excels in its brightest moments, and unfortunately at least half the album is like this: from “Lily of the Valley” and Roger Taylor’s typically decent but should probably be in a different band altogether entry “Tenement Funster” to the first “In the Lap of the Gods” (with Freddie’s hideous slowed-down singing) to the manic-yet-disposable “Stone Cold Crazy” to the appreciably skewed (but easily forgotten) cautionary love story “She Makes Me”, there’s a lot here that could’ve been withheld as B-sides.
Best Song: as an unapologetic lover of the band’s wacky side (maybe even more than their rock songs), I’d choose “Bring Back That Leroy Brown”. Rock music, even the excellent kind, is dime a dozen, but giddy genre hybrids like this are hard to come by
Worst Song: “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos)” – great title, average song. It has its defenders, though.
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975)
And here we are, the apex of the Queen story. Against an avalanche of odds – being deeply in debt after Sheer Heart Attack, then producing the most massively expensive album ever at the time and having the studio and even their peers fear for the marketability of its unbridled excess – A Night at the Opera launched Queen into super-stardom, cinching their worldwide fame, and certifying them as rock Gods until the early ’80s with the misunderstood downfall of Hot Space. This is where Freddie’s id goes wild – more multi-layered harmonies than ever, a much wider range of absurd, tongue-in-cheek styles, yet still somehow as fiercely rocking as they’ve ever been, and a big step further into the balletic grandiosity Freddie has been harboring all along (it would come to a head on the next album, and then disappear altogether until the very end of his solo career).
Actually, it’s not some eye-opening improvement over the previous albums, or all that different an approach compared to their other ’70s work, but it gets everything right. In hindsight, the ingredients sprinkled in are all familiar Queen-isms, but, be it the tons of extra time and money spent, the all-in audacity of the project, or the crucial synchronicity here of Queen’s inherent flamboyance and the desperate explosion of inspiration they had, the final concoction is the band’s masterpiece. The only other occasion on which they aimed as high was the admitted sequel, next year’s A Day at the Races, and it’s no coincidence that it ranks second only to this behemoth. The resulting alchemy was probably a case of all the stars aligning by chance, because they after this brief period of anything-goes bravado, after they got back to basics for 1978’s News of the World, they never re-captured the glory that A Night at the Opera proved was their birthright. There were still great songs and very good albums to come, but the genre hopping and loony embellishments did not coalesce into brilliant projects the way they did for their duet of Marx Bros. records.
But that’s for later. During our Night at the Opera, here are the usual suspects:
- the speed-metal hard rock (“Death on Two Legs”) is perfectly calibrated and gets molded into a furious opera sting
- Roger Taylor uses his menacing growl for goofy contrast to serenade his car, his most memorably silly composition (not to mention an enduringly popular, all-purpose automobile anthem), if not an especially good song on its own, precisely due to the not-quite-intentional-enough disparity between its poker-faced lyrical hilarity (“cars don’t talk back they’re just four wheeled friends now”) and Roger’s humorless singing (might’ve been better if Freddie took on the vocals and camped it up)
- the vaudeville (“Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”) is jubilantly whimsical and doesn’t overstay its welcome
- the epic prog-rock (“The Prophet Song”) is the most stunning composition of Queen’s career
- John Deacon’s second solo credit (“You’re My Best Friend”) cements him as the sentimental one of the group, while becoming its own eternally useful pop culture standard (how many hundreds of movies, shows, commercials, and mix-tapes have employed it to romanticize friendship by now?)
- the softer side of Brian May (“’39”) yields Queen’s most underrated gem of all time (see below)
- one ballad (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) made history and is widely considered their crowning achievement, while the other (“Love of My Life”) is just goddamn beautiful, a triumph of unadorned performance
- and the novelty songs (if anything can be tagged as such, given their characteristic rainbow of styles, but in this case it would be both Seaside Rendezvous and Good Company) illuminate how much joy explodes out of this record. You might never hear a happier song than “Seaside”, no matter how many other songs have tried. It includes a dash of just about everything to enhance the giddy love-struck mood of good cheer. If they were still making the kinds of rom-com musicals of the ’40s-’50s when this album came into existence, I can only imagine how magically this song could be translated into a terrific, choreographed dance for Gene Kelly. “Good Company”, inspired by Brian May’s childhood memories of retro groups like The Temperance Seven, is Dixieland-jazz bomp played on rock instruments, sounding like it was recorded at the 1923 county fair. Aside from the banjo-lele, the whole thing is performed with guitar trickery; segments emulating trombone honks and clarinet noodling are all pure guitar. How many rock musicians were even trying this sort of thing in the ’70s? Or ever? Further evidence of the controversial theory that Queen was the true successor to the Beatles’ throne. More than anyone since the dissolution of the Fab Four, Queen fused bold, virtuosic in-studio experimentation with an overriding knack for making addictively entertaining music. Plus they liked paying homage to bygone-era forms, much like The Beatles. A Night at the Opera is kind of the ’70s answer to the White Album (with tracks like “Good Company” and “Seaside Rendezvous” immediately calling to mind the sepia-toned nostalgic sounds of “Honey Pie” and “Martha My Dear”), with a pinch of The Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society minus the twee.
“Seaside” doesn’t make much sense packed between the rougher “Sweet Lady” and towering, ominous “Prophet Song”, but that’s part of the album’s charm. Albums can sometimes be a united coalition of ideas and sounds from a certain period in a band’s evolution, but by and large they are simply filled with the most recent compilation of recordings the band has completed. It’s a snap-shot and time capsule of their artistic process, but there’s still an element of arbitrary grouping to the majority of records out there. As stated before, Queen is even more openly guilty of this random approach to tracklist-filling than anyone because of how tonally and sonically unique so many of their songs can be, but there were a few legendary occasions when their musical buffet felt like a true work of art. “Death on Two Legs” has nothing whatsoever in common with “Seaside Rendezvous”, to name just one example on here, but the uncommonly high quality of the songwriting and production in conjunction with the repeat experience of listening to these songs together as a ragtag family (whether you were there for the hype in 1975 or found it later) somehow mashes them all up into a single, magnificent entity. Queen is peerless in this regard: being the 31 Flavors of rock and pop music, cranking it up to previously unreached extremes, and injecting so much humor, passion, humanity, and showmanship that they can’t be reduced to the common derogatory labels of musicians on their level: douchey rock stars OR pretentious artistes. With A Night at the Opera, they fulfill the dream of music makers the world over: having fun, indulging all their whims, pushing themselves to do undiscovered heights, translating their enthusiasm directly to the listener, setting a precedent in their field, and taking over the world in the process.
Best Song: there are several amazing tracks on this album, so there’s hardly a wrong answer (well, it would be “I’m in Love with My Car”, but let’s not be downers). My personal choice is “’39”, a one-of-a-kind song in the Queen catalog. It’s their only stab at folk music, hiding a heartbreaking story worthy of a sci-fi novel in its melancholy, gently bouncing acoustic strum (shades of Peter, Paul and Mary here).
Worst Song: the Car song. “Sweet Lady” is arguably filler, but there is a kickass classic rock sensibility there, and Roger Taylor says it was the most challenging drum session he ever did, so you gotta respect that, I guess.
A DAY AT THE RACES (1976)
By their own admission, Queen kept the ball rolling after A Night at the Opera, conceiving and recording the follow-up with the very same ambitious, rollicking attitude, only this time they were liberated from financial struggles and time constraints, and set loose to enjoy doing whatever the hell they wanted. And even though you can easily liken all the tracks to familiar Opera counterparts (“Tie Your Mother Down” = “Death on Two Legs”, “You and I” = “You’re My Best Friend”, “White Man” = “The Prophet Song”, “Long Away” = “’39”, “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” = “Good Company”, “You Take My Breath Away” = “Love of My Life”, “The Millionaire Waltz” = “Bohemian Rhapsody”), everything but Roger Taylor’s pointless “Drowse” tingles with surprise and wonder. Hearing it for the first time, you have no idea what to expect. After going in every possible direction at once during A Night at the Opera, where will Queen travel next? Will they concentrate on the rock ‘n’ roll? Take on even larger flights of classical fancy? Invent dub-step? Hearing it for the 100th time, I marvel not just at how much ground it covers, but how meticulously and whole-heartedly the band draws us into one wholly immersive experience after another, even while not deviating all that much from what can now be seen as a carried-over blueprint. It’s one of the most direct sequels in the half-century history of albums, and though it doesn’t come together with quite the same strange beauty as Opera, it would be a high-water mark for the band all its own in a world where Opera never existed. As a 10-track work of operatic rock music, from the content itself to the packaging to the cultural prominence, A Day at the Races exudes a magisterial grace and sumptuous warmth, feeling more like a lavish chamber piece than its wild, careening predecessor.
Opening with gong-striking fanfare and the foreshadowing chords to track 7’s “White Man” that, freed from their eventual context, evoke the grand arrival of some badass royalty, the album launches with the riff-tastic “Tie Your Mother Down”, one of their most relentless pure rockers, but then immediately down-shift into “You Take My Breath Away”, a haunting piano ballad book-ended by stacks of gospel harmonies, to be followed by “Long Away”, a wistful slice of (by then) old-fashioned classic rock yearning, the kind made for sitting at the beach and getting lost in thought as the sun melts into the sea. From there we turn back to the theatrical for “The Millionaire Waltz”, which with its elegant pace, classical music sway, and intensely intimate ebb-and-flow, could be mistaken for the private bedroom lullaby of a king by his symphony orchestra. It is a rich, fascinating composition all-around, arguably superior to the song that inspired it, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, whose famously bombastic “Scaramouche” tangent may be an untouchable moment of genius, but the basic (effective, lovely) slow-jam that fills out the rest isn’t nearly as dramatically intoxicating and stunningly coalescent as “Waltz” (and Freddie’s breathy, lusty turn at the mic is even more Frank N. Furter-ly melodramatic than it was on “Rhapsody”). This is part one of what might be Queen’s all-time greatest sequence of tracks, linking “You & I” and “Somebody to Love”. For thirteen straight minutes, they sustain a creative and emotional zenith, while none of the three tracks sound the slightest bit alike. Indeed, it’s more like they’re circumnavigating the rainbow of Queen-isms, from extravagant opera (“Waltz”) to melodic gold mined from magnanimous pathos (“You & I”) to magnificent soul and intrepid genre experimentation (they own the full-tilt gospel in “Somebody to Love” better than any pop music has ever embraced the form before or since). “You & I”, John Deacon’s lone song on Races, is also his best work in a line of sneaky, album-stealing greats (he also wrote “Another One Bites the Dust” and “I Want to Break Free”, among others), a simply heart-soaring love song sculpted into pop perfection that should be a staple of radio stations and wedding receptions rather than one of the band’s most obscure tracks (not a single, never even played live). “Somebody to Love” needs no introduction, of course – it was the breakaway sensation of the album, solidifying their power as a versatile rock outfit. Taking his cue from Aretha Franklin, Freddie drafts another (or THE) quintessential maximalist anthem, and the band synthesizes their talents (for roller coaster ride of breathtaking peaks and valleys, immensely layered harmonies – here reportedly 100 voices deep of Freddie, Brian, and Roger multi-tracked into infinity, Freddie’s bottomless well of passion as a singer) for what boils down to the most amazing musical number never used for a Disney cartoon: it’s designed (incidentally) precisely like those opening musical numbers where the hard-toiling protagonist pines for a better life and one true love. Maybe that’s why it worked so well performed by Anne Hathaway in that forgotten fantasy comedy Ella Enchanted (where it was actually kinda awkward, but the songwriting and required pomposity (which Hathaway ably fulfills) are unimpeachable).
From here, the album drifts to a close in its second half. Three of the four remaining songs – “White Man”, “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy”, and “Teo Torriate” – are exceptional pieces but plateau at a lower level than the album’s incredible mid-section. Many hold “White Man” in contempt for its misappropriation of Native American indignation over the eponymous villain’s oppression of their kind; Freddie was African, and the other three were British lads, so adopting the persecuted POV of American Indians is about as tasteful as a white guy singing about how painful it was to get whipped as a plantation slave. You can see why people might be offended, but it’s actually a powerful song that conveys its message with scorching, poetic lyrics (among Queen’s very best, I’d say) and a heavy sound that eschews the stately, gorgeous melodicism emblematic of A Day at the Races in favor of a progressive style that recalls the pummeling contemplation of “The Prophet’s Song”, aka a brief return to their Black Sabbath/Led Zeppelin side, and also pre-dating grunge music by about a decade (it sounds a lot like future grunge classics like “Black Hole Sun”). Out of place on this album? Kind of, but very much worth it.
“Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” doesn’t make much sense sandwiched between the humorless duo of “White Man” and “Drowse” but sharp tonal turns are pretty much Queen’s signature touch, so don’t bother complaining. It’s the album’s novelty toss-off, a charming ragtime homage stuffed with detail. File it alongside “Bring Back That Leroy Brown”, “Good Company”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, and “Man on the Prowl”, the frivolous fun gang of stylistic throwbacks.
If anything on A Day at the Races merits the scorn sometimes heaped on “White Man”, it’s actually Roger Taylor’s “Drowse”, which barely even resembles a Queen song. Some credit for being an unusual item in their library – it’s not trying to copy any exact styles from the band’s past (although the guitars and Taylor’s vocals produce flashbacks to “I’m in Love with My Car”), but it’s a dull experience anyway, having no melody, no virtuoso instrumentation, no cuckoo flights of fancy, and a sound that just seems lost in the wild. No offense to Taylor, but this couldn’t have come from anyone but him. He eventually writes some better songs (particularly for News of the World and The Game) but he was always the foursome’s weakest composer, and “Drowse” is the worst Queen song they had recorded up to that point in their career.
The album doesn’t end there, though, of course. Queen knows their showmanship, and wouldn’t let an album like this close out with anything less than a lighter-waving group sing-along. “Teo Torriate” isn’t terribly interesting as a composition (apart from that “never-ending staircase” effect at the end) – in-between those Japanese choruses, it’s a dark piano dirge like track 2’s “You Take My Breath Away” – but it fits snugly into the feel of the album as a whole, and does leave you with a poignant sense of closure (“let us never lose the lessons we have learned…”).
Stay tuned later this week for the continuation onto News of the World, Jazz, and the budding independent career of Roger Taylor!