Thursday, 26 December 2019

Queen - The Early Years (1973-1978)


Albums covered here are:-

Queen (1973)
Queen II (1974)
Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
A Night At The Opera (1975)
A Day At The Races (1976)
News Of The World (1977)
and Jazz (1978)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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QUEEN (1973)

1. Keep Yourself Alive
2. Doing All Right
3. Great King Rat
4. My Fairy King
5. Liar
6. The Night Comes Down
7. Modern Times Rock 'n' Roll
8. Son And Daughter
9. Jesus
10. Seven Seas Of Rhye                

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.

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QUEEN II (1974)

1. Procession
2. Father To Son
3. White Queen
4. Some Day One Day
5. The Loser In The End
6. Ogre Battle
7. The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke
8. Nevermore
9. The March Of The Black Queen
10. Funny How Love Is
11. Seven Seas Of Rhye

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. 

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SHEER HEART ATTACK (1974)

1. Brighton Rock
2. Killer Queen
3. Tenement Funster!
4. Flick Of The Wrist
5. Lily Of The Valley
6. Now I'm Here
7. In The Lap Of The Gods
8. Stone Cold Crazy
9. Dear Friends
10. Misfire
11. Bring Back That Leroy Brown
12. She Makes Me
13. In The Lap Of The Gods (Revisited)   

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.

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A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975)

1. Death On Two Legs
2. Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon
3. I'm In Love With My Car
4. You're My Best Friend
5. '39
6. Sweet Lady
7. Seaside Rendezvous
8. The Prophet's Song
9. Love Of My Life
10. Good Company
11. Bohemian Rhapsody
12. God Save The Queen

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.

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A DAY AT THE RACES (1976)

1. Tie Your Mother Down
2. You Take My Breath Away
3. Long Away
4. The Millionaire Waltz

5. You And I
6. Somebody To Love
7. White Man
8. Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy
9. Drowse
10. Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)          
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. 

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NEWS OF THE WORLD (1977)

1. We Will Rock You
2. We Are The Champions
3. Sheer Heart Attack
4. All Dead, All Dead
5. Spread Your Wings
6. Fight From The Inside
7. Get Down Make Love
8. Sleeping On The Sidewalk
9. Who Needs You
10. It's Late
11. My Melancholy Blues

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.

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JAZZ (1978)

1. Mustapha
2. Fat Bottomed Girls
3. Jealousy
4. Bicycle Race
5. If You Can't Beat Them
6. Let Me Entertain You
7. Dead On Time
8. In Only Seven Days
9. Dreamers' Ball
10. Fun It
11. Leaving Home Ain't Easy
12. Don't Stop Me Now
13. More Of That Jazz   

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.

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