Thursday, 2 August 2018

Queen




"It was a very excessive style of life. I think the excess leaked out from the music into life and became a need. Queen was a wonderful vehicle and a wonderful, magical combination, but I think it came close to destroying us all" - Brian May

As a teenage visitor to the many record shops that existed in the early/mid seventies, I had flipped past the sleeve of Queen's debut album, so I was familiar with it. I also saw the posters for their appearance at my local rock club, Friars in Aylesbury in 1973. I was too young to attend. I was also aware when they supported my favourite band, Mott The Hoople, in 1974. They burst into my sphere with the Seven Seas Of Rhye single and then with Killer Queen. It was the era of glam and, while Freddie Mercury fitted the bill for a glam rocker, with his long, dark hair, black nail varnish and flouncy white blouses, there were still several bands/artists I preferred - Mott, Bowie, Roxy Music, and Cockney Rebel. Queen, at that point, came in the second section. I knew they were credible in comparison to say, out and out glammers like Sweet, but in many ways I saw them as imitators as opposed to innovators. Some have accused them of being run-of-the-mill chancers, but that is somewhat harsh.

After a good heavy rock single in Now I'm Here, everything changed with the release of the remarkable behemoth that was Bohemian Rhapsody. Until then, believe me, Queen were nothing special in anyone's minds. Yes, Sheer Heart Attack had proved to be their breakthrough album, but they were still not rock royalty by any stretch of the imagination.

The huge success of the single found everyone liking them and, for a few brief years, they became my favourite band, as Mott and Roxy had split up and punk had not yet arrived. I went to see them in concert at Earl's Court in 1977 when they were still long-haired and be-bloused. Much as I loved the excitement of that show, punk and new wave soon took over my thoughts and my brief obsession with Queen became something I wanted to put behind me. Freddie went moustachioed, leather-clad and short-haired and, by 1979-80, they were a band to be dismissed. Part of the indulgent, preposterous old guard.

 

By 1984-85, they had a renaissance, rubber-stamped by the triumphant appearance at Live Aid that found me feeling affectionately proud of my faves from nine years earlier. They then garnered a whole host of new fans who knew little of Now I'm Here, Ogre Battle or The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke. They wanted to clap in unison to Radio GaGa, and they did, in their thousands. National treasurehood beckoned, the hits came thick and fast, then Freddie died and the whole world grieved, including old fans like me. The current craze for Queen nostalgia inspired by the Mercury biopic leaves me a bit cold, particularly with the movie's many inaccuracies, but every now and again I play the old "side two" of Queen II. That, for me, was Queen at their very best.

THE EARLY YEARS (1973-1979)



QUEEN (1973)


Keep Yourself Alive/Doing All Right/Great King Rat/My Fairy King/Liar/The Night Comes Down/Modern Times Rock 'n' Roll/Son And Daughter/Jesus/Seven Seas Of Rhye 

"We like some of the stuff on it, but we sometimes fell into the trap of over-arrangement" - Brian May           
This, Queen's debut album, went under the radar somewhat in 1973, overshadowed by Aladdin Sane, Goats Head Soup, Band On The Run, Mott, House Of The Holy, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Heartbreaker, even Cockney Rebel's Human Menagerie. I was "into" all those albums at the time. This one passed me by. I didn't latch on to Queen until the follow up, Queen II, the following year.

Queen did not seem to fit into any pigeonhole - long haired, but with a singer in black nail varnish, flowing blouses who carried a strangely laddish "chutzpah" for one so effete. This would carry him a long way. His "lads" audience stayed with him to the realms of super stardom.

The lyrics were all about fairies, kings, queens and rats, sort of Tolkeinesque with a nod to madcap artist Richard Dadd. Throw in a bit of quasi-religious stuff in there in tracks like Jesus  and the rocking Liar, a bit of 70s misogyny in Son And Daughter and you had a strange hotch-potch. Musically influenced by ZeppelinFree and Hendrix at the outset, but with a bit of acoustic delicacy appearing too, Queen were certainly interesting.

  

Their heavy fondness is there in the monumental LiarSon And DaughterGreat King Rat and the frenetic Roger Taylor-penned Modern Times Rock 'n' Roll. The lighter, poetic lilt can be found in The Night Comes Down, the beautiful Doing All Right (which does have an excellent "heavy" bit in it) and the ethereal My Fairy King.

Maybe I have heard A Night At The Opera just too many times, but, to be honest, I play this one more than I do that one these days. There is more than just curiosity in listening to this, there is some good material there.

I came across this interesting appraisal of the album from the three remaining members of the band, so here it is -

"....We like some of the stuff on it, but we sometimes fell into the trap of over-arrangement. You know, the songs changed over the years and some of them probably evolved too much. You can get so far into something that you forget what the song originally was. On a personal level, it was frustrating for me to take so long to get to this point. I wanted to record things with, for instance, tape echoes and multiple guitars five years ago. Now I've finally done it, but in the meantime so have other people! Which is a bit disappointing. But you have to get away from the idea that playing music is a competition. You should just keep on doing what you think is an interesting thing to do...."

— Brian May

"....There are a lot of things on the first album I don't like, though, for example the drum sound. There are parts of it which may sound contrived but it is very varied and it has lots of energy ... but then I think one of the best albums last year was the “Mott” album  from Mott The Hoople and that had loads of inconsistencies and rough bits...."

— Roger Taylor

"....And quite a lot of the songs on that first album were songs that we had had for a long while, and songs that we just used to play together, songs like “Keep Yourself Alive”, “Liar”, “Great King Rat”, and other numbers. They're songs that we just used to play. And we just went in and recorded them. And there were one or two numbers on that first album which were more sort of that first sort of sign of getting interested in doing things in the studio. “My Fairy King” was a number Freddie wrote when we only wrote while we were in the studio and it was built up in the studio. Whereas, you know as I said, there's other numbers where essentially live songs, basically just the track and then just a few ... backing vocals and guitar solos over the top and that was it...."

— John Deacon 



Above is an early picture of Freddie Mercury at De Lane Lea Studios, taken in 1971.

A track that survived from the sessions but remained unused was Mad The Swine that was supposed to come between Great King Rat and My Fairy King. Producer Roy Thomas Baker canned it because he didn't like the bongo-ish percussion. It is a mix of rock and dreamt acoustic backing, a bit like Doing All Right with some vaguely Beach Boys-esque harmonies on the chorus. Quite what it is about is unclear.

An early demo from the end of 1971 of Liar exists too and is an interesting listen as it is one of the very first of the band's available recordings. It is a pretty convincing version, if a bit hissy, but those great early Queen heavy rocks bits are all there. There is also a "long lost" version of Keep Yourself Alive that doesn't sound too much different to the original album version, to be honest. If anything, though, it is a bit more stompy and it contains a few mistakes too.



QUEEN II (1974)


Procession/Father To Son/White Queen/Some Day One Day/The Loser In The End/Ogre Battle/The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke/Nevermore/The March Of The Black Queen/Funny How Love Is/Seven Seas Of Rhye

"A lot of people thought we'd forsaken rock music" - Roger Taylor

In 1974, Queen were still something of a "cult" band. One (comparatively) minor chart hit in Seven Seas Of Rhye had brought them to people's attention and this, my personal favourite Queen album, still slipped under the radar in comparison to later works.

Lyrically, fairies, queens, dragonflies, ogres and the like were still prevalent and the music the mixture of "heavy" and piano-driven melodic delicacy that we had been introduced to on their 1973 debut album. There was, thankfully, no of the 1920s-style Mercury foppery that, in my opinion, so blighted A Night At The OperaA Day At The Races and, to a lesser extent Sheer Heart Attack. Give me white queens and ogre battles to lazing on a Sunday afternoon, which is a strange choice to make when assessing a "rock" band's music, but the "heavy" bits on White Queen", Father To Son and Ogre Battle win out and make Queen II a very credible album.

 

Despite the appeal of Father To Son and White Queen as openers, the ethereal Some Day One Day and the completely incongruous "Taylor track", The Loser In The End, (written by drummer Roger Taylor) where he regrets allowing his mother to wash his clothes for him in his youth, it is the old "side two" that steals the show.

Segued as one complete whole, Abbey Road style, we get one Queen classic after another - the afore-mentioned Ogre Battle; the artist Richard Dadd-inspired lyrical wonder of Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke (pictured at the bottom of the review); the beautiful but brief Nevermore leading into the tour de force and forerunner to Bohemian Rhapsody that is March Of The Black Queen (in many ways I prefer it to Rhapsody). Then it is the harmonious Funny How Love Is before the single Seven Seas Of Rhye signs off to what is, in my opinion, the finest twenty minutes in Queen's career.

Queen II is proof that Queen weren't always the "singles band" that some later albums unfortunately suggested they may be.

Finally - these band appraisals have been collated and appear online for all to see, but they are interesting, so I have no hesitation in including them here -

(On the concept of Side White and Side Black) Well... that was a concept that we developed at the time... it doesn't have any special meaning. But we were fascinated with these types of things... the wardrobe that we used at the time described it perfectly well...

 Freddie Mercury

The most important thing to me was the “Queen II “ album going into the charts – especially satisfying that, since the first one didn't do so well. It's nice to see some recognition for your work though I don't usually worry too much. Roger tends to worry more about what's happening on that side.

— John Deacon

That's when we first really got into production, and went completely over the top. I hated the title of the second album, “Queen II”, it was so unimaginative.

— Roger Taylor

When “Queen II” came out it didn't connect with everyone. A lot of people thought we'd forsaken rock music. They said: "Why don't you play things like “Liar” and “Keep Yourself Alive”?” All we could say was, give it another listen, it's there, but it's all layered, it's a new approach. Nowadays people say: "Why don't you play like “Queen II”?” A lot of our close fans think that, and I still like that album a lot. It's not perfect, it has the imperfections of youth and the excesses of youth, but I think that was our biggest single step ever. — Brian May

Brian May's comments are interesting when he says that people latterly have wanted him to play material like Queen II, showing that there were quite a few around, like me, for whom this was Queen's best album.



The b side of The Seven Seas Of Rhye was a track called See What A Fool I've Been and was probably the only time when Queen got the blues. It was a Brian May song baaed on The Way I Feel by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. It is a refreshingly heavy number featuring some great guitar and Queen going all Led Zeppelin

A suitably nice, melodic performance of Nevermore from a BBC Session also appears on the extended release of the album. 



SHEER HEART ATTACK (1974)


Brighton Rock/Killer Queen/Tenement Funster!/Flick Of The Wrist/Lily Of The Valley/Now I'm Here/In The Lap Of The Gods/Stone Cold Crazy/Dear Friends/Misfire/Bring Back That Leroy Brown/She Makes Me/In The Lap Of The Gods (Revisited)  

"We took it to extreme I suppose, but we are very interested in studio techniques and wanted to use what was available" - Freddie Mercury

1974's Queen II had been a most impressive, but not particularly noticed album. The chart single from that collection, the jaunty Seven Seas Of Rhye saw more people paying attention to this interesting band. Later that year, the huge hit single Killer Queen started the era of Queen dominance. Now I'm Here followed as another hit, making Sheer Heart Attack a popular album purchase.
           
Toning down the "fairies and elves" lyrics by now, concentrating on rockier themes and music, this was probably their purest "rock" album. The album's opener, the sprawling Brighton Rock with its extended Brian May guitar noodling in the middle, on to the classily flamboyant Killer Queen, through Roger Taylor's dense rock in Tenement Funster! to the mighty, grandiose, catchy but heavy Flick Of The Wrist, the old "side one" was a already proving to be an absolute corker.

Finishing off with the melodic mini-song Lily Of The Valley and the huge rock punch of Now I'm Here, Queen were laying down some serious credentials now.

The old "side two" was another breathless romp through several shorter songs, similar to side two of Queen II, bookended by the anthemic, singalong two Lap Of The Gods songs. Stone Cold Crazy was a couple of minutes of almost punky breakneck thrash and Bring Back That Leroy Brown saw the first unfortunate signs of Freddie Mercury's obsession with 1920s vaudeville. She Makes Me was an underrated Brian May "heavy" track and Misfire was the first of quite a few, and latterly much better, John Deacon songs. The whole feel of the thing was very Abbey Road-ish in its concept, but, despite that, it still retains a considerable amount of originality. The whole "chocolate box"/cornucopia of different styles approach was unique to Queen, in many ways.

Along with Queen II, this was Queen's finest work committed to album including the multi-million selling follow up A Night At The Opera. This was a more enjoyable work, in my opinion.

Freddie Mercury subsequently had this to say about the album -

"....The album is very varied, we took it to extreme I suppose, but we are very interested in studio techniques and wanted to use what was available. We learnt a lot about technique while we were making the first two albums. Of course there has been some criticism, and the constructive criticism has been very good for us. But to be frank I'm not that keen on the British music press, and they've been pretty unfair to us. I feel that up and coming journalists, by the large, put themselves above the artists. They've certainly been under a misconception about us. We've been called a supermarket hype. But if you see us up on a stage, that's what we're all about. We are basically a rock band...."

Mercury was certainly right about the "rock band" thing, because at the time, 1974-75, they rocked, as their Live At The Rainbow release, featuring two shows from 1974 and A Night At The Odeon, from 1975 prove. He kept confounding it, however, by the composing of many vaudeville-style whimsical songs that made the "rock band" quote somewhat questionable. Would Led Zeppelin have come up with Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon?



Above is the band with their Moet et Chandon.

BBC session performances of Flick Of The Wrist and Tenement Funster! are included on the extended release of the album. Both are performed authentically to their studio counterparts. Also present is an a capella recording of the vocal track for Bring Back That Leroy Brown. It contains a bit of percussion, piano and guitar.

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975)


Death On Two Legs/Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon/I'm In Love With My Car/You're My Best Friend/'39/Sweet Lady/Seaside Rendezvous/The Prophet's Song/Love Of My Life/Good Company/Bohemian Rhapsody/God Save The Queen

"On 'Queen II' we've gone berserk, but on this album I consciously restricted myself" - Freddie Mercury

This was the album that sent Queen into the stratosphere, largely due to the presence of the monster hit single Bohemian Rhapsody. For many, many people, it is their best album. Not for me, I prefer the three before it and the two after it. That is a matter of personal taste and mine is for Queen to rock, as opposed to swanning around on a Sunday afternoon. It is a veritable cornucopia of an album, full of different styles from one track to the next. As Brian May says (featured below), it contained some of their heaviest material side by side with some of their frothiest -

"It has a couple of the heaviest things we've ever done and probably some of the lightest things as well. It is probably closer to "Sheer Heart Attack" than the others in that it does dart around and create lots of different moods but we worked on it in the same way that we worked on "Queen II". a lot of it is very intense and very layered..."

Brian May

"...I did discipline myself - take vocals because they're my forté, especially harmonies and those kind of things. On "Queen II" we've gone berserk, but on this album I consciously restricted myself. That's brought the songwriting side of things across and I think those are some of the strongest songs we've ever written..."

Freddie Mercury

 

Back to how I feel about the album - I have an ambivalent relationship with Queen. When they rocked they were good. When they were good, they rocked. Unfortunately, rather like with the Paul McCartney “whimsy” songs on Beatles albums, songs like Lazing On A Sunday AfternoonSeaside Rendezvous and Good Company annoy me somewhat and I question what place they have on a rock album, alongside heavy things like Death On Two Legs and Sweet Lady, both of which sound great on this 2011 remaster by the way. As does the vocal harmony bit in the monumental The Prophet's Song as well. I have never heard it sounding so good, to be honest.

Roger Taylor's I'm In Love With My Car is a solid rocker and John Deacon's summery, Beach Boys-esque You're My Best Friend has a singalong appeal. Brian May's folky '39 is ok, but a little incongruous and Mercury's Love Of My Life is, of course, completely sumptuous. Then there is the titanic, ground-breaking Bohemian Rhapsody, the band's bountiful behemoth that really needs no introduction to anyone. Yes, everyone has heard it many times but that doesn't stop it being a work of creative genius, the effect of which, upon release, was simply seismic. After that, six minute singles became de rigeur



On a broader level, single chart success apart, this was Queen’s shot at the title. Their Sgt Pepper. Like Pepper it contained a few things I feel should not have been there and which, for me, render it unworthy of its “classic” status. The “Mercury foppery” tracks were, interestingly, rarely, if ever, played live by the band yet they keep appearing on albums alongside some great rock tracks. This exemplifies my eternal frustration with Queen. Were they a true rock band or were they something else. Maybe they were both and therein lay their appeal for many. If I just wanted rock, maybe I should have just stuck to Hendrix or Free.

As their albums went, I much preferred Queen IISheer Heart Attack and A Day At The Races anyway. A Night At The Opera is like a chocolate box - you've always got the coconut and coffee ones in there somewhere.



I remember the above effect in the Bohemian Rhapsody video was ground-breaking at the time.

A DAY AT THE RACES (1976)


Tie Your Mother Down/You Take My Breath Away/Long Away/The Millionaire Waltz/You and I/Somebody To Love/White Man/Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy/Drowse/Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together) 

"So it was very much gospel construction and allowed him to sing in the way which he loved" - Brian May
  
After 1975's multi-million seller A Night At The OperaQueen's star had never burned brighter and they needed to repeat the formula, quickly. They did too. In many ways, I enjoy this album much more than it's predecessor. It is a harder, rockier album, and that is how I like my Queen.

Queen had become massive by now - million-selling rock gods like Led Zeppelin as opposed to up-and-coming chancers on the make. They now had to live up to their own success and, most importantly, try to match Bohemian Rhapsody. A diffcult, almost impossible job. They almost pulled it off, though. They also produced the record themselves, feeling they needed a change in dispensing with the services of Roy Thomas Baker.

From A Night At The Opera onwards, Queen's albums were a mix of all sorts of different unconnected songs, like Beatles ones after the mid-sixties. In that respect, they lack a little in coherence or identity. Heavy tracks were followed by Mercury-penned vaudeville ones then John Deacon's poppy efforts. I have to say I prefer albums that stick to a musical theme.

    

The lead-off huge hit single, the gospel-influenced, anthemic Somebody To Love, although not quite matching the sheer creative majesty of Bohemian Rhapsody was a not half bad follow up. Many thought they could not possibly come up with another classic, but they did with this one. It has gone down in history as a true Queen classic. Mercury and Taylor overdubbed their vocals so much to make them sound like a huge gospel choir. 

Brian May said of the track, one of the most complex they had recorded -

"....It was all about Aretha Franklin for Freddie, she was a huge influence… so it was very much gospel construction and allowed him to sing in the way which he loved....”

Other rockers are the riffy opener Tie Your Mother DownBrian May's melodic Searchers/Byrds-influenced Long Away, the powerful heavy rock of the anti-colonial White Man, John Deacon's tuneful pop rock of You And IRoger Taylor's buzzy, guitar-driven Drowse and the singalong closer Teo Torriatte, with its Japanese chorus (ensuring huge sales in that country). Good move!

 

Incidentally, White Man was based on the plight of the Native American and featured a sort of stereotyped "red Indian" drum and guitar rhythm. As well as that it was the heaviest cut on the album. 

Freddie Mercury's You Take My Breath Away is a lovely track, but I guess it is Love Of My Life part two. Then, as was now usual, it seemed, came Mercury's 1920's vaudeville stuff - The Millionaire Waltz and the admittedly extremely catchy Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy. These additions were never my favourites but I guess they were part of the collective DNA of the band. Millionaire Waltz was, however, quite a complicated studio creation, with John Deacon playing an infectious "lead bass" that drives the song behind its many chord and pace changes. Personally, I find it frothy and indulgent, but one cannot deny the ingenuity involved in its structure. Listening to it again, I have come to appreciate its quirkiness. The same applies to Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy too.



Overall, this was an impressive album, though. Could this quality be continued? The next few albums would tell us. 

The cover was a direct inversion of A Night At The Opera's white cover, featuring the Queen crest against a black background. I remember buying this album on the day of release, and just staring at the cover, admiring it, such was the excitement around Queen at the time. For me, it never got as good as this for Queen again. Despite their eighties renaissance, this was their peak. 

  

Included on the extended release of the album is a version of Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy performed on Top Of The Pops in July 1977, the days when bands used to play live on the show. It is a good rendition, I have to say. 

NEWS OF THE WORLD (1977)


We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions/Sheer Heart Attack/All Dead, All Dead/Spread Your Wings/Fight From The Inside/Get Down Make Love/Sleeping On The Sidewalk/Who Needs You/It's Late/My Melancholy Blues

"It was very timely because the world was looking at punk and things being very stripped down" - Brian May

By October 1977, I had seen The Jam, Elvis Costello and Ian Dury live, I owned the first Clash album and was listening to The Ramones and The Stranglers. So, my favourite band of 1974-76, Queen, all of a sudden started to feel just a little “old hat”. Four great albums in row and huge popularity was now being tested by the maelstrom of punk. Queen, with their Freddie Mercury-driven campness and complex classically-influenced music suddenly seemed the very antithesis of snarling, three-chord punk. Queen were not to be beaten, though, and Brian May had this to say about the band's intentions at the time -

“....We'd already made a decision that after "A Night At The Opera" and "A Day At The Races", we wanted to go back to basics for "News Of The World". But it was very timely because the world was looking at punk and things being very stripped down. So in a sense we were conscious, but it was part of our evolution anyway....”

Queen, though, despite May's insistence that they were wilfully stripping things down and going back to basics, had also become a "stadium rock" band. With that in mind, they decided to write two "audience participation" songs. May said he envisaged a crowd clapping along in unison. Well, he certainly got his wish. What a pair of tub-thumpers he and Mercury came up with. The double 'A' side lead-off single, We Are The Champions with its terrace chant chorus and the unusual, quirky, metronomic We Will Rock You was a good start and went to number two, as I recall. It was a superb start to the album. However, the rest of the album didn’t really match those two. 

  

Granted, It’s Late was an impressive, extended, big production rocker, but those were no longer de rigeur in 1977. Roger Taylor’s Sheer Heart Attack (named after Queen’s third album, which now seemed an age ago) was a contrived attempt to be “punk”. All fast thrashing guitars and breakneck drums. It was actually quite convincing, I have to say. You certainly can't keep still listening to it. Taylor's songs often aren't the best thing about Queen albums, but this was one of his best. His other track on here, Fight From The Inside is pretty pedestrian and clunky, despite a solid riff.



Get Down Make Love was a somewhat bizarre piece of vocal/instrumental experimentation but there was no real place for songs like the grandiose pop balladry of John Deacon's Spread Your Wings, or his other song, the lightweight  Who Needs You, the sleepy harmonies of All Dead All Dead or the breezy, twenties-influenced jazz of Brian May's Sleeping On The Sidewalk in 1977’s musical milieu. Now, none of the tracks are unpleasant in any way but they are just culturally a bit out of time. I still quite liked the album upon release, but I had this feeling that this was a band who were being left behind. I sensed that Queen were on their way to becoming an irrelevance and soon found that I hid the fact that I liked them from some of my punk mates.

The closer, My Melancholy Blues was a Freddie Mercury piano-driven blues that would have sounded good in any era, but overall, this has the feel of an album released in the middle of some extremely changing times.

  

The non-album track that survives from this album's sessions is the heavy-ish rock thrash of Feelings, Feelings. It is an unremarkable number that comes to an abrupt end.

JAZZ (1978)


Mustapha/Fat Bottomed Girls/Jealousy/Bicycle Race/If You Can't Beat Them/Let Me Entertain You/Dead On Time/In Only Seven Days/Dreamers' Ball/Fun It/Leaving Home Ain't Easy/Don't Stop Me Now/More Of That Jazz  

"I'm having such a good time - I'm having a ball" 

By 1978, I was listening to Queen only out of loyalty to the band that had been my favourite from 1974-76, from Queen II through to A Day At The Races. Now, however, they seemed almost totally irrelevant. Bands like The Clash, The Jam, The Ramones, Blondie, The Stranglers and Stiff Little Fingers and artists like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury had completely taken over my listening habits to the detriment of poor old Queen. This was the last Queen album I bought upon release, hiding it as I scurried home in case any of my fellow punkers saw me. 

This was the album that finally saw much of the music media of the time turn on Queen, led by Dave Marsh in "Rolling Stone", who, incredibly unfairly, denounced them as "sexist" and "fascist". To me, there wasn't much sexist in openly gay Freddie Mercury singing with tongue-in-cheek about Fat Bottomed Girls. The song was simply silly, not offensive. What the media had not got wrong, though, was the fact that the Queen formula of multi-style indulgence was now wearing a bit thin and the camp vaudeville just seemed out of place now. 
       
I still bought this album though, and had to admit that If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, the now totally iconic Don’t Stop Me Now (but at the time not really give much attention) and the beautiful Leaving Home Ain’t Easy got the old Queen fan juices flowing again, just don’t tell my punk mates.

Further listens gained a little respect for Let Me Entertain You and Dead On Time, but only a little.

 

In Only Seven Days is a pretty feeble John Deacon song about a teenage summer romance and Brian May's Dreamer's Ball almost sounds like a Mercury "whimsy" song. To think I bought The Clash's Give 'Em Enough Rope and The Jam's All Mod Cons around the same time as this stuff probably sums it up.

The double 'A' side single contained two somewhat preposterous tracks - the nonsense that was Bicycle Race and the slightly better, rock romp of Fat Bottomed Girls. The latter track was always strangely mastered in that the beginning is really quiet and then the chorus is much louder. No amount of remastering changes this. Exactly the same problem occurs in the Arabic-chant influenced Mustapha. Quite what possessed Queen to record like this is unclear. We Are The Champions on the previous album was the same. Guess that was just how they wanted them to sound. For me, it doesn't work at all.

 

The Roger Taylor tracks are just that, Roger Taylor tracks. Indeed, More of That Jazz is an unlistenable waste of time. As for the rest of it, all these years later I still don't feel they have much to offer. Mercury's ballad Jealousy is ok. I suppose. Underwhelmed then and now. Sorry.

Included on the extended release of the album was an earthy, early version of Don't Stop Me Now with supposed "long-lost guitars". They appear a bit near the end but I have to admit I struggle to really notice them. Obsessive Queen fans will no doubt point out my ignorance, but there you go.



THE EIGHTIES AND THE SECOND PHASE (1980-1991)



THE GAME (1980)


Play The Game/Dragon Attack/Another One Bites The Dust/Need Your Loving Tonight/Crazy Little Thing Called Love/Rock It (Prime Jive)/Don't Try Suicide/Sail Away Sweet Sister/Coming Soon/Save Me  

    "We turned our whole studio technique around in a sense" - Brian May

Despite the presence of two excellent Queen experiments in funk rock in the superb, innovative hit single Another One Bites The Dust and the equally impressive Dragon Attack, and two mid 70s throwback big Queen rock ballads in Play The Game and Save Me, this album really is a low point in Queen’s career. Having been a huge fan in my teenage years, the band's 1973-1977 period, I now left Queen behind.

Released at the height of punk/new wave, apart from catching on to the disco/funk thing and diversifying a little, Queen really looked thoroughly out of place by now, despite an image change that saw Freddie Mercury cutting his hair, growing a big moustache and the band donning leather jackets and trying to look “hard”, as opposed to wearing flouncy blouses and singing about fairies and white queens. The music media at the time largely slated it, and rightly so, I'm afraid. Despite Mercury's moustachioed look having become iconic for many, I found it ludicrous at the time and still do, unfortunately. For me he was always sporting long black hair and wearing a white blouse - far more sensible. 

 
                                  
Only the excellent funk tracks really showed any credibility, to be honest. The big production rock just seemed like something from 1974-75 that should be left there. Play The Game would have taken the charts apart in 1974. Not now. People were listening to new wave, ska and post punk.

Crazy Little Thing Called Love was a huge hit, mind you, a fifties throwback that caught on with many non-Queen listeners. Not for me. I hated it then and I hate it now.

Tracks like Need Your Love TonightRock It (Prime Jive) and the totally execrable candidate for the unenviable title of “Queen’s worst song ever”, Don't Try Suicide offer nothing whatsoever. 

This was an anachronism of an album. Even the cover is uninspiring and seems cheaply done. 

The next album would be similarly dull and questionable in quality/credibility. Sorry. I don't like writing negative reviews, but sometimes albums have to be measured up against a band's other, far superior, works.



Brian May has since offered an insight into the band's thinking when recording the album -

"....Yeah, that was when we started trying to get outside what was normal for us. Plus we had a new engineer in Mack and a new environment in Munich. Everything was different. We turned our whole studio technique around in a sense, because Mack had come from a different background from us. We thought there was only one way of doing things, like doing a backing tracks: We would just do it until we got it right. If there were some bits where it speeded up or slowed down, then we would do it again until it was right. We had done some of our old backing tracks so many times, they were too stiff. Mack's first contribution was to say, "Well you don't have to do that. I can drop the whole thing in. If it breaks down after half a minute, then we can edit in and carry on if you just play along with the tempo". We laughed and said "Don't be silly. You can't do that". But in fact, you can. What you gain is the freshness, because often a lot of the backing tracks is first time though. It really helped a lot. There was less guitar on that album, but that's really not going to be the same forever; that was just an experiment....."

Ok, Brian, I get all that, but unfortunately it doesn't make it a better album. It sounds far more tired than fresh to me.

 

The b side to Play The Game was A Human Body, a strange, clunking Roger Taylor song beginning, bizarrely, about Antarctic explorer Captain Scott. It is completely inessential and, let's be honest, not very impressive - par for the course for this album then.

HOT SPACE (1982)


Staying Power/Dancer/Back Chat/Body Language/Action This Day/Put Out The Fire/Life Is Real/Calling All Girls/Las Palabras De Amor (Words Of Love)/Cool Cat/Under Pressure   

 “Experimenting with some black, funk stuff whatever you call it darlings” - Freddie Mercury

Released in 1982, before Queen’s “second coming” in 1984, Hot Space was a strange album. As Freddie Mercury told his audiences in live performances around 1981, the band were “experimenting with some black, funk stuff whatever you call it darlings..”. It was clumsy statement and indeed, this was a clumsy album. 

Everyone had to dabble in disco/funk it seemed - The Rolling Stones, Elton John, David Bowie, ABBA, Rod Stewart - many had already tried it. Queen, in fact, were very late in getting around to it. 

The band that once proudly trumpeted the fact that nobody played synthesiser on their early albums now released an album absolutely awash with them. It all sounded a bit incongruous, however, not convincing either as funk or as disco. Some people loved it, however, notably Michael Jackson, who claimed it had a big influence on his creating the Thriller album.

 
                                
Queen were most definitely serious “old hat” in 1982. Punk had been and gone, and New Wave. Two Tone had peaked and New Romanticism was all the rage. What better, then to win people back than to produce an album of cod white funk? Tracks like Staying PowerBack ChatBody Language and Dancer are all tolerable enough but they are not the real thing, neither are they anywhere near as good as Queen’s previous funk outings - Another One Bites The Dust and Dragon Attack, for example. The old “side one” of this sort of thing is ok though and I suppose kudos must be given to them for trying to diversify. They gave it a go. It just didn’t really work, sadly. In an age nowadays when everyone is looking back retrospectively at Queen's career, very few are ever going to pick any of this material out to go on any compilations or playlists. It didn't fit in, culturally, in 1982 and it doesn't now either. The essence of Queen is certainly not to be found anywhere here. Incidentally, The Jackson 5 did a disco/funk track called Body Language back in 1975 on their Moving Violation album - an influence, maybe?



“Side two” sees things go even more awry. Calling All Girls is positively awful. Hold on, was that a Roger Taylor song? Well, there you go. The song about John LennonLife Is Real, was well meant enough, obviously, and it even sounds remarkably like it could have come from Mind Games but it just doesn't quite come off. 

Las Palabras De Amor is a big production number in a style that harks back to their mid-seventies pomp, however in 1982 it just sounded dated. I remember hearing it at the time and recalling my Queen fan days of 1975-76 and quite liking it, but at the same time realising how dated it was.

Cool Cat is an interesting curio. It doesn’t sound remotely like either Queen or Mercury. Actually, if you listen to this and try to forget it is Queen, it becomes more enjoyable. For me, it is the best track on the album, oddly. Mercury's voice is much higher pitched than usual and the whole feel is a very laid-back jazzy one. The subsequent releases of the album have included the collaboration with David BowieUnder Pressure, which was an enormous hit, of course. It sits somewhat uncomfortably with the rest of the album. It's great, as we all know, but doesn't really seem part of the album.

  

A non-album track from the sessions in this period (possibly dating back to The Game) was Soul Brother, a bluesy ballad a bit similar to Cool Cat. Mercury's voice also used the same high pitch. He wrote the song for Brian May, who, of course, contributes some great guitar to it. Also around were live cuts of Action This Day and Calling All Girls which are ok, sounding powerful enough and making you forget that they weren't really very good songs.

THE WORKS (1984)


Radio Ga Ga/Tear It Up/It's A Hard Life/Man On The Prowl/Machines (Or Back To Humans)/I Want To Break Free/Keep Passing The Open Windows/Hammer To Fall/Is This The World We Created 

"Everybody ran into their frocks" - Freddie Mercury

After two decidedly below-par albums in 1980's The Game and 1982's Hot Space, Queen hit back, hard. Recording in the USA for the first time, the revisited their rock roots but managed to merge it with contemporary radio-friedly "pop"/dance sounds. It was 1984, so the airwaves and recording studios were awash with synthesisers and programmed synth drums. Why, even The Rolling Stones were at it. Where Queen dismally failed on Hot Space, they got it just right on this impressive album.

Music media reaction was much more positive than it had been for Hot Space and Queen's renaissance, that would end with their being "national treasures", began right here. For many fans, this was their first experience of Queen. Their fandom dates back to here, really. After all, it had been nine years since Bohemian Rhapsody. People who were ten then were now nineteen.
          
After some distinctly ropey songs, Roger Taylor came up with one of his finest compositions for Queen - the synth riff and synchronised handclap dominated perfect pop single, Radio Ga Ga, which melodically railed against the old enemy - the radio. Elvis Costello and The Clash had done so in the new wave years too. Tear It Up was a Brian May-inspired slab of convincing hard rock, with May himself on vocals, while It's A Hard Life was a classic Mercury rock ballad with an addictive hook, as always. Mercury returned to his beloved rockabilly for the upbeat, toe-tapping Man On The Prowl and Machines (Or Back To Humans) was a successful attempt at experimental sounds mixed with some genuine funk. They finally got it right on this strangely appealing effort. Some great Brian May guitar at the end of it.

I Want To Break Free was one of bassist John Deacon's best ever Queen songs. Assisted by a now iconic video featuring the band members in full drag and doing the hoovering and ironing, it is perfect in every way. Another excellent guitar solo and an impressive Mercury vocal. The melodic, harmonious rock of Mercury's Keep Passing The Open Windows is a forgotten but underrated track. Listening to it now I hear things in it I had completely forgotten about. It is not bad at all.



Now, thank the Lord above - Queen in their purest rock form, my favourite persona of the band, are back, and how! A powerful Brian May riff introduces the tour de force of rock that is Hammer To Fall. Mercury's vocal is peerless and a year later the band would storm Live Aid with this. Queen at their very best, in my view. I can never get enough of the song.

Finally, the album ends with Mercury and May's beautifully sad ballad concerning the contemporary news of poverty and starvation in Africa, Is This The World We Created, sung as an encore in their Live Aid set.

A more than convincing album after around seven years of patchy material. Queen phase two now truly begins.

  

The b side to Radio Ga Ga was I Go Crazy, a solid, riffy rocker that surely would have fitted in fine on to the album. It rocks breathlessly from beginning to end. Mercury is on great form vocally. The sound on it is a bit tinny, however.

A KIND OF MAGIC (1986)


One Vision/A Kind Of Magic/One Year Of Love/Pain Is Close To Pleasure/Friends Will Be Friends/Who Wants To Live Forever/Gimme The Prize/Don't Lose Your Head/Princes Of The Universe  

"The album's confused origins made for a somewhat uneven listening experience" - Mark Blake

After Queen's renaissance with 1984's The Works and the triumphant show-stopping Live Aid performance, they were hip again and seemingly could do no wrong. Maybe they got a bit lazy, because this is a typically mid-eighties, patchy album. There is some classic material on this album, don't get me wrong, but there is some questionable stuff too. The sound quality throughout is outstanding on the latest remastering, however. It was originally conceived as a soundtrack album for the 1986 film Highlander, six its songs coming from that concept. As Queen biographer Mark Blake has suggested, it leads to a lack of cohesion in the final album.
            
Let's be positive and talk about the good ones. One Vision is simply one of my favourite riffy Queen rockers of all time. When Brian May launches into it - wow. The stadium-friendly groove of A Kind Of Magic is pretty impossible to dislike, as is the anthemic, grandiose and powerful Friends Will Be Friends. The latter is the track that harks back to Queen's late seventies material more than any on the album. The plaintive Who Wants To Live Forever is heartbreakingly moving, of course, and would prove to be even more so five years later.

Now on to the less wonderful material. John Deacon's One Year Of Love is not a funk-rock outing, but an eighties-era Elton John-style ballad, redeemed by Mercury's vocal and a deep, resonating bass beat. It also has a late-night, easy-listening saxophone solo. Alright in that type of song, but is this Queen? Surely not! Look, it is pleasant enough, but you have to say Queen had become very middle-of-the-road with material like this. Pain Is Close To Pleasure is a slice of AOR eighties slick disco, that sounds like something Diana Ross may have put out around this time. How fans who had been into Queen since the start, like myself, could tolerate tosh like this is difficult to understand. The excellent sound quality detracts from what is a pretty awful track.



Gimme The Prize (Kurgan's Theme), one of several tracks from the soundtrack of the afore-mentioned film Highlander, gets things back on track with an excellent, muscular, thumping rocker full of chunky guitar, a classic Brian May solo, samples from the film and a powerful Mercury vocal.

Don't Lose Your Head is an unremarkable synth-rock number from Roger Taylor. Mercury's vocals are typically strong, but the song is similar to the worst ones on Hot Space. Again, what Queen fans see in this is beyond me. Princes Of The Universe is a bit clichéd lyrically, and musically, with its big clunky heavy riffs, but its ok. It has a quick snatch of Brighton Rock-style guitar at one point, though.

This is not a Queen album I revisit too often. I have to say, though, that listening to it now I have quite enjoyed it, but it certainly is no classic.

 

THE MIRACLE (1989)


Party/Khashoggi's Ship/The Miracle/I Want It All/The Invisible Man/Breakthru/Rain Must Fall/Scandal/My Baby Does Me/Was It All Worth It  

"'The Miracle' is a showcase for Freddie Mercury" - Rolling Stone             

This was Queen's first album for three years and, although it stands as an example of the band's mid-late eighties material and has the faults that era inevitably brought with it, I actually quite like it (and I am firmly a seventies Queen man).
                 
Roger Taylor blatantly steals the drum intro from Smokey Robinson & The Miracles Going To A Go-Go for the lively, rocking Party. The track is vibrant and fun, full of great guitar, despite some of the synth-y backing at times. It segues straight into Khashoggi's Ship with a supremely heavy riff. This is an underrated Queen rocker. This is Queen rocking as they always should do.

Now begins a run of four great hit singles in a row, the heart of this album - the melodic, Mercury vocal-dominated, inventive and grandiose The Miracle that also features some typical Brian May guitar; the heavy stadium singalong anthem of I Want It AllThe Invisible Man which is a stonking slab of Queen rock, with all four members name-checked. Despite its dance-ish rhythm it is infectious and rocks seriously at times; Breakthru is a breathless romp when it eventually kicks in. It is another piece of dance/rock fusion and it works superbly. I love all these tracks.

The quality fades somewhat now, however. Rain Must Fall is a lightweight, limp Deacon/Mercury collaboration. All very pleasant, but pretty unmemorable, really. Nice guitar solo in the middle though. Despite the programmed rhythms on a lot of this album's material, they still manage to fit in some pounding drums and killer Brian May guitar throughout, which is good. Scandal has a huge synth riff and an infectious vocal and feel, which again integrates some searing guitar in places. My Baby Does Me has a superb, muscular bass line and a great funk feel and quality vocal from Mercury. I love the ambience on this one. Was It All Worth It is a powerful, riffy and heavy look back at the band's beginnings. It is an underrated , marvellously inventive track that samples a classical piece in its riff, but I can't think which one it is (something Russian).

Despite my misgivings of some of Queen's Hot Space material, I feel this album has quite a good, appealing mix. Accepting that Queen had changed somewhat in the eighties, I have to say that as eighties albums go, it isn't a bad one. It is my favourite of their albums from that period.

There were several non-album tracks around in this period. The b side to I Want It All was a mid-pace, chugging, heavy-ish rocker in Hang On In ThereBreakthru had the melodic jazzy Mercury fun of Stealin' as its b side. The Invisible Man gave us the dance/rock of Hijack My Heart which was vaguely in the Another One Bites The Dust mode.

INNUENDO (1991)


Innuendo/I'm Going Slightly Mad/Headlong/I Can't Live With You/Don't Try So Hard/Ride The Wild Wind/All God's People/These Are The Days Of Our Lives/Delilah/The Hitman/Bijou/The Show Must Go On  

"I still love you" - Freddie Mercury       

Queen's last album released while the great Freddie Mercury walked the earth, was a solid affair, with  many echoes of their heavy-ish rock albums of the mid-seventies.
     
Innuendo is a lengthy, inventive, almost "prog-rock" in places number, with some excellent heavy bits plus a flamenco guitar part played by Yes's Steve Howe. There are also some bombastic, operatic parts. It is a song that changes mood and vibe many times throughout its nearly seven minutes. It is a superb piece of work, one of the band's last true classics. I'm Going Slightly Mad is an intoxicating, atmospheric Mercury song. It is a camp-ish, rather amusing typical Mercury ditty. Given the circumstances of the time, though, it always sounds very poignant to me. It has some excellent Brian May guitar in it, too. Headlong is, as its title suggests, a breathless number. It is one May had written for himself but, upon hearing Mercury sing it, decided it was better as a Queen song.  It is one of their finest later-era rockers. The same applies to May's I Can't Live With You, another catchy, riffy rocker. It appears in a more guitar-dominated format on the Queen Rocks compilation.

Don't Try So Hard is a Mercury piano and vocal ballad, plaintive and melodic. Ride The Wild Wind is one of Roger Taylor's better compositions - an upbeat, rhythmic number with some great guitar underpinning it. All God's People is a laid-back and melodic Mercury number that is ok but doesn't stick in the mind too much. Unlike the evocative, beautiful Mercury swansong, These Are The Days Of Our Lives. The video was heartbreaking. Even now I get sad listening to it. "I still love you" whispers Freddie at the end. Likewise.

A lot of Queen fans pretty much disown Delilah, a quirky song Freddie wrote about one of his cats. As a cat-lover myself, I have always related to it. Fans will be delighted to hear Hitman next, though, with is powerful chunky riffs. There is a copper-bottomed May guitar solo on it too. Bijou begins with some excellent guitar then Mercury sings a floaty verse before it ends with more sumptuous guitar. It is really a track that is all about Brian May's guitar parts.

The Show Must Go On is a bombastic stadium-pleaser to end the album. It has actually never been one of my favourites, although I can understand its appeal. Overall, this album has a bit of a feel of the posthumous Made In Heaven about it. Apparently a lot of it was recorded in different bits and then put together, largely due to Mercury's ever-declining health. as good as it is in places, you can sort of tell. As a fulfilled album, I prefer The Miracle.

 

The b side of I'm Going Slightly Mad was the sleepy, bluesy groove of Lost Opportunity. It was probably the bluesiest track Queen had done since 1974's See What A Fool I've Been.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: THE SOUNDTRACK (2018)


The thing with groups like Queen is that their legacy is so damn good, there will always be multifarious ways of recycling it and long-time fans, like myself and many others, will still enjoy bits of it. However, this exercise seems pretty superfluous to me, musically. Obviously it functions as a movie sountrack, but as regards the musical content, it is a bit here and there, for me. I have all the tracks, and all the live ones apart from the Live Aid ones, so it is those I am interested in, and in the studio tracks which have received some re-tweaking.

So I won’t particularly go through the album track by track, but pick out those tracks which are of interest to me.

 

At the beginning, it is nice to hear the Twentieth Century Fox Theme with a bit of added Queen guitar. The majestic Somebody To Love, though, seems to be the same to me. The studio tracks are the Bob Ludwig 2011 remasters, which all sound superb, anyway. They are the definitive ones, no need for any further messing around with.

Now, Doing All Right is a song from Queen that I have always liked and I was interested to hear the new remix of it. It is great to hear Tim Staffell “rejoin” on vocals and the new mix has even more of a trippy, dreamy folk-rock feel but thankfully it has kept the heavy guitar and drum part from the middle in it, which sounds sumptuously powerful. I am a “heavy” Queen fan as opposed to a “whimsical” one, as my reviews of all the individual albums state ad nauseam.

The Keep Yourself Alive live recording I already have, but it still good to hear it in isolation. The sound quality and muscularity is excellent. Great bass on it, and drums too. Killer Queen as presented here, has a few additional Brian May guitar bits stapled on rather pointlessly, in my opinion (maybe, although listening to it again, I'm not sure there are any changes) Anyway, I don’t subscribe to the view that May’s tinkering is some insult to Mercury’s memory, however, any more than the remixing of Doing All Right is. On this occasion, I simply don’t think there was any particular need for it.

It is good to have a thumping rocking live version of the lyrically-preposterous Fat Bottomed Girls, as the studio version has always come up short, for me, due to its odd verse/chorus sound imbalances.

We Will Rock You (Movie Mix) is a mix of studio and live versions of the song, which, personally, I can’t really see the point of. Either have it as a studio version or a live one.

Now, the Live Aid material. Because We Will Rock You and Crazy Little Thing Called Love are included in other versions they are not included, which is a shame, as I would have liked the whole performance. It is great to hear the crowd’s cheer as they launch into Radio Ga Ga. Such memories of watching it on the day and my pleasure at seeing my old seventies favourites giving it some. Until that point I had been a bit underwhelmed. After sitting through Nik Kershaw, Paul Young and Howard Jones can you blame me? That Hammer To Fall riff changed all that. What is the quote? Oh yes - “sheer bloody poetry”. Freddie strutting around during this stole the show.

The remixed version of  Don't Stop Me Now was included previously on the remaster of Jazz. It is beautifully heavy. Love it.

All in all, I am not quite sure of the point of this, other than its purpose as a soundtrack. “Greatest Hits” type customers will want the actual greatest hits. I guess this is just of interest to completists, to be honest. I have to say that the sound quality throughout the whole album is absolutely top notch.



                  FREDDIE MERCURY

                       1946 - 1991

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