Welcome back to our comprehensive review of everything Queen. Let the ceremonies resume!
NEWS OF THE WORLD (1977)
Queen had certainly seen success on both sides of the Atlantic prior to 1977’s News of the World. Even so, the album broke new ground for the group by outselling all of their previous work. News of the World was the first Queen record to go double platinum in the U.K., and went quadruple platinum in the U.S. The album also broke the band’s trend to name albums after Marx Brothers films (following that sequence, News of the World could have been titled Room Service, although that doesn’t have quite the same epic ring to it).
The popularity of News of the World was primarily driven by the album’s opening two tracks, issued as a double A-sided single. “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions” remain staples at sports stadiums around the world (despite the heavy allusion to theatre in the latter tune).
While that double A-sided single deserved the attention, the real gems on News of the World lie a bit deeper in its grooves. The heavy rocker “Sheer Heart Attack” finally found a home on wax, although Freddie had taken over its vocal duties from Roger Taylor. Roger does get his moment the spotlight, with “Fight from the Inside,” another rocker which he penned. “Who Needs You” puts Queen into a subdued Latin-esque groove, while “My Melancholy Blues” ends the album on a mellow, emotional note.
The true standout here however, is “Get Down, Make Love,” which opens the album’s second side. There’s no entendre here – the sexual content of the song is extremely straightforward (made even more-so by Mercury’s between-verse moaning and groaning). Yet the musical backdrop–a minor key start/stop rhythm–adds a sense of darkness to the track, perhaps even a mildly sinister element. Like many of my generation, I first discovered the track as a Nine Inch Nails b-side, but Queen’s original remains the definitive version, in all of its slimy sexiness.
Queen’s seventh album in five years closed out the band’s prolific run in the 1970s. Jazz opens with the theatrical “Mustapha,” with lyrics that may very well be meaningless, but nonetheless sound authoritative and mystical.
From there, Jazz offers no shortage of rockers. The saucy hit “Fat Bottomed Girls” paired with the more innocuous “Bicycle Race” gave the album a top 20 hit (and subsequently, a classic rock staple) in the U.S., while the driving, anthemic affirmation of “Don’t Stop Me Now” cracked the U.K. Top ten and is perhaps the best representation of Queen that Jazz offers.
Much of the album focuses on guitar driven rock rather than some of the more diverse styles that the band had been experimenting with on its recent albums. The John Deacon-penned “If You Can’t Beat Them,” the self aware “Let Me Entertain You,” and “Dead on Time” are the album’s strongest examples of this approach, while Roger Taylor’s “Fun It” leans more toward the dance vibe that would rear its head quite a bit on the band’s 1980s output.
All told, Jazz is one of the band’s most imminently accessible albums – what it lacks in adventurousness, it makes up for in consistency.
LIVE KILLERS (1979)
After Jazz and its enormous subsequent tour, perhaps while enjoying all the fame and fortune and everything that goes with it, Queen found themselves for the first time in no rush to begin brainstorming a new album. Given their heretofore prolific release schedule, however, record label EMI wasn’t about to go an entire year without making a new dime or two off one of their highest-charting acts, especially while Queen was still soaring at peak popularity the world over. So plans were finally cemented to push forward with the long-gestating (since as early as 1974) Queen live album. The gang themselves opted to produce the record alone, hand-picking and refining recorded performances from the European portion of their Jazz tour in early 1979. In the end they lived up to their reputation for grandiosity, offering a four-sided, 90-minute, 22-track LP loaded with their biggest hits. They even released a pair of singles – in the U.K. a “Love of My Life” played on guitar rather than piano, partly sung by the audience, and after which Freddie introduces his bandmates, and in the U.S. a “fast” (re: slightly faster) version of “We Will Rock You” – but despite the staying power (say, that should be the name of something) and healthy sales of the double-album, neither song itself sold well at all (and for the record, I’d say England got the better selection). This, compounded by Queen’s later dismissal of Live Killers as a subpar mixing job on their own behalf, reinforces the general weakness of this endeavor in light of their album-based winning streak up to that point.
The central factor hampering Live Killers is that it’s performed, well, live, whilst the band’s genius lies in the elaborate studio process that stitches together every touch of sonic lunacy and brilliance into a perfectly odd whole. Without the overdubs, multi-tracking harmonies, zany instruments, and precision mixing, they sound like a bit like a Queen cover band – all the notes are played correctly, the singing is impressive, the passion seems to be there, but it often sounds like a faded Xerox of the real thing. In keeping with (aka failing to avoid) live-performance tradition, most of the songs are sped up and sacrifice the band’s renowned complexity for arena rocking power. Not that it’s all dumbed-down – “Get Down, Make Love” goes psychedelic in the middle, “We Will Rock You” is beefed up with extra guitar parts, “Brighton Rock” naturally widens to 12 minutes of separate guitar and drum solo marathons, and some of the songs mimic their original album recordings quite faithfully (such as “Let Me Entertain You”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “We are the Champions”, and “You’re My Best Friend”) – but this being Queen, you wonder why the piano is present and accounted-for in some tracks but not others where it has no business being replaced by guitars, and it just doesn’t feel right to recognize imperfections in various line deliveries, or more painfully, to endure the muffled recording quality compared to the pristine sheen of the albums. Also the concert rituals themselves, while unavoidable and even endearing in and of themselves, are more a distraction than anything else if you’re just listening to the album rather than watching the performance. Freddie encouraging handclaps during “Keep Yourself Live”, the audience participation on “Love of My Life” – I’d rather hear Freddie do the choruses, thanks – and the endless call-and-response session that Freddie conducts with the crowd for “Now I’m Here”, doubling the track’s length to nearly nine minutes – yes, we appreciate the reminders that this is a live album, but other than that, what use do these parts serve?
One criticism I’m reluctant to make is Freddie subbing for Brian May on vocals in the “’39” performance. Pardon the blasphemy, but his particular manner of singing, legendary and God-like though it is, just doesn’t suit the song’s style as well as Brian’s plaintive sighs. They should’ve just let him step forward and take over that time.
On the other hand, if you wanted to hear all these great, classic Queen songs in a row and in a somewhat different context, this was your first chance to do so before the compilations came piling in down the line. Honestly none of them are far removed from the familiar studio originals, so unless you’re a nitpicking fanboy, you might not even notice the fluctuation in quality. Plus “I’m in Love with My Car” is blessedly a whole minute shorter than the real version! (alas, with none of the in-studio sound effects available, so is “Bicycle Race”)
Before marching on to Queen’s strange ’80s brew of games, hot spaces, kinds of magic, and miracles, it’s just as fascinating to consider the creative roads taken by each member outside the band. Though their individual solo careers never turned as many heads as their partnership in Queen itself, once worldwide fame and endless open doors became a reality for them in the late ’70s, Roger, Brian, and Freddie began considering how else to express their musical muses beyond the rhythms and established teamwork of the band. Herewith, a glimpse at modest John Deacon’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detour, then a longer overview of Roger Taylor’s, as he was the first one to record music on his own….
John Deacon has been the most quiet of the Queen members. It is known that John went into a severe depression after Freddie’s death, and has ultimately decided to retire shortly afterwards. He declined to do the Queen + Paul Rodgers project, and has kept a relatively low profile for about 20 years.
He has written some of the most memorable Queen songs, such as “You’re My Best Friend,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” “Friends Will Be Friends,” “Misfire,” “Spread Your Wings,” and “If You Can’t Beat Them.” However, he’s only done one major project outside of Queen: 1986’s The Immortals’ “No Turning Back”
…And that’s all you get from Mr. John Deacon!
Conversely, Roger Meddows Taylor is the member who has produced the most solo work outside of Queen. It all started with a cover of “I Wanna Testify,” which he recorded during Queen’s 1977 News of the World sessions.
Roger Taylor – Fun in Space (1981)
Being that Freddie and Brian were writing the majority of the album tracks in Queen, Roger got only one, sometimes two, tracks per album, making him the George Harrison of Queen, in a sense. In 1981 he released his first solo album, Fun in Space.
Though it’s hardly All Things Must Pass, it is a decent solo debut. Roger has written some amazing songs for Queen by the time Fun in Space was released – “I’m In Love With My Car,” “Sheer Heart Attack,” “Tenement Funster”, and “Modern Times Rock & Roll,” to name a few. From a fan’s perspective, the expectation may have been a bit high, and in that sense the album is a bit short of expectation. Fun in Space, simply put, is my least favorite of the solo albums. It’s the one that took me the longest to appreciate. Then again, there’s nowhere to go but up from here.
That’s not to say there aren’t some highpoints on the record. Side A’s opening two tracks “No Violins” and “Laugh or Cry” are excellent, and Side B brings us the highlights “Good Times Are Now” and “Interlude in Constantinople”.
The most amazing thing about this record is that its truly a solo record. Roger played all the instruments, wrote the songs, sang the words, and produced the album. The only assistance seems to be from David Richards, who engineered the album, and played “approximately 50% of the keyboards.” David would go on to fully produce Queen’s final recordings in the late 80s – The Miracle, Innuendo and Made in Heaven. The best example that shows what’s to come from the Taylor-Richards partnership is the beautifully-produced title track. Clearly, you can see what Richards brought to the table in those later Queen recordings.
Overall, Fun in Space is a good debut – not a great one, but a good, solid one.
Roger Taylor – Strange Frontier (1984)
I presume this was recorded during Queen’s 1983 “break,” where all the members took time off before coming back to record the Works album. Unfortunately for Roger, this album wasn’t released until a few months after the Queen’s Works, which helped make this release go relatively unnoticed in the summer of 1984.
Unlike Fun In Space, this album sees Roger doing most of the work, as opposed to all of it. David Richards has a more prominent role in piano and keys, as well as co-writing credit for a few tracks. Freddie, Brian and John all make guest appearances, as well as Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt. Brian plays guitar on the albums first single, “Man on Fire.”
In addition, Roger includes a couple covers, particularly Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” One must assume that the Dylan cover is indicative of Roger’s dislike of the then-current Thatcher-Reagan-era politics.
By 1984, Roger is writing some pretty incredible songs. In fact, some of Queen’s best ’80s tracks are from Roger. His surplus of material will also ensure that he has enough songs to start a new band, which he does, once the Works-Live Aid-A Kind of Magic-era of Queen draws to a close. Strange Frontier shows a nice progression from his previous effort, and hints at what’s to come.
The Cross – Shove it (1988)
By the end of 1986, Queen had played their last show ever (though it wasn’t known at the time), and Roger had written another album’s worth of material. Since Queen were on a break, he decided to take out an ad and find some musicians to form a band with. The result was The Cross. Roger Taylor, Clayton Moss, Peter Noone, Spike Edney & Josh Macrae. The album was Shove it.
Shove it was a unique record. It sees Roger using his sampler quite heavily (think of “More of that Jazz” from Queen’s Jazz album, and you’ll get the picture). Here’s the title track:
One of the major highlights is “Heaven for Everyone.” A song Roger wrote, which then would be re-worked by Queen for their final album. Depending on what country you bought Shove it in, you could get Freddie on vocals (U.K. version), as he did a guest appearance on the record. Or, you could get Roger (U.S. version). Incidentally, Freddie’s vocal take is the one that Queen “lifted” for the Made in Heaven album. Here is the lesser-known version with Roger’s vocals:
Shove it is a very “80s-sounding” record. Whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing is up to you. It’s definitely not a “Queen” record, and with the exception of Freddie’s Barcelona record, Shove it is probably the furthest album from the “Queen sound” that any of the members have made. Too many synths and samplers for my taste.
The Cross – Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know (1990)
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know sounds NOTHING like Shove it. Recorded between The Miracle and Innuendo sessions, this album has more of a “band” feel than its predecessor, due to the fact that Roger is now accepting creative input from others on his solo work. The opening track is a great example, as its written by all 5 members:
In fact, the only songs Roger wrote are the final 2 tracks – “Old Men (Lay Down)” and the beautiful “Final Destination.”
For the most part, this is a full-on rock album. Roger was obviously aware that Queen was almost over, so maybe he was trying to get another band off the ground for when Queen officially ended. Or maybe, he was burying himself in his work as a distraction from seeing his close friend slowly fade away in front of him. Maybe it was a little of both. Either way, Roger was writing and recording between 1984-1991 at every free moment, seemingly without a break. Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, along with 1991’s Blue Rock, are equally great records, and along with Brian’s solo records, are probably the most accessible of the Queen solo albums.
The Cross – Blue Rock (1991)
Blue Rock is a fun record. It’s similar in continuing with the “band” dynamic of its predecessor, with all members contributing a song or two to the mix. The album starts off with the rocker “Bad Attitude,” written by all 5 members.
As a result of the poor sales of the previous two Cross albums, Blue Rock was only released in about a handful of countries. In fact, you could count them on one hand. Japan (because Japan releases everything), Italy, France and Germany. As if this would be enough to guarantee no one would buy this record, Queen’s Innuendo was released a few months before Blue Rock, and was overshadowing it by enjoying a massive amount of success. In addition, sadly just two and a half months after Blue Rock’s release, Freddie had passed away. Needless to say, this record was doomed from the beginning. But it has some great moments, and is definitely worth tracking down a copy if you can. Here’s “Put It All Down On Love”
…And my favorite track on the album, “New Dark Ages.”
Roger Taylor – Happiness? (1994)
Roger’s first release after Freddie untimely death is called Happiness? Upon first listen, you can tell that Mr. Taylor is a mess of emotions, mostly ranging from angry to confused, which makes for a great record!
Of all the members of Queen, Roger is regarded as the most politically vocal, and that comes through in most of his solo records – sometimes subtly as a line or two, and sometimes with a megaphone – but his political views rear their head on just about every solo release. Happiness?’s lead single was one of those megaphone-type songs: “Nazis 1994.” It ended up being banned by the BBC for it’s “controversial nature.”
Songs like “Revelations” and “Happiness” leave me feeling that Roger was going through a what’s-the-meaning-of-life period. “Dear Mr. Murdoch” is about (obviously) Rupert Murdoch, criticizing him for being, among other things, the “king of the tits.”
Then there’s this gem:
Overall, Roger’s third actual solo album is his strongest so far. If you only buy one of Roger’s solo efforts, it clearly should be Happiness? or his follow-up, Electric Fire.
Roger Taylor – Electric Fire (1998)
Roger’s last solo album came out fifteen years ago. Damn, I’m old! Electric Fire sees Roger as still having much to say. Though less angry than Happiness?, the album is no less satisfying than its predecessor. The lead single was “Pressure on”…
The album also has an excellent cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”
Roger Taylor – Fun on Earth (2013)
Roger has been working on a solo album for the past five years. It is set to be released in October of this year, along with a boxed set called “The Lot,” containing all his solo material, including The Cross. The new album is called Fun on Earth, and contains a song that he released as a single a couple years ago:
According to Queen’s website, this statement was released in regards to the above song:
“What happened to the protest song?
Music is now so polished, shiny and predictable, we have forgotten to try and say something with it.
I am getting old and like everyone, have the right to say something about the state of control we live under – powerless to do anything about it.
In case you hadn’t noticed.
The high street is full of holes.
We are fighting a pointless actively negative war which is killing our young soldiers and which we simply cannot afford.
This war promotes and prolongs terrorism.
This is our Vietnam. Unwinnable. Pointless.
We are taxed and re-taxed while the nation is not only broke but utterly bankrupt, being propped up with tax payers money and money which is simply printed.
We are spied upon by 5 million cameras.
We have thousands of petty rules and regulations – more than ever before – no wonder people are bewildered and confused.
As a nation we own almost nothing including our water, electricity, gas, airspace and major manufacturers.
Personal privacy is non-existent.
We are directionless.
I’m pissed off – you should be too.
Having followed Queen through to the end of the ’70s and flashed-forward to Roger Taylor’s extensive, ongoing solo work, we draw the curtains now, and invite you to join us again next Monday and Wednesday for the final two parts of our Queen-a-palooza!