Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Bite-sized Queen

These are all of Queen's studio albums, together with introductions from my longer reviews (which can be accessed here) :-

Queen (1973)

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.

Queen II (1974)

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 Opera. A 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.

Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

1974's Queen II had been a most impressive, but not particularly noticed album. Here, it all started to change. The chart single from the previous 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. The singles aren't its only treasures, however, and it remains my favourite album of theirs.

A Night At The Opera (1975)

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. This album was too much of a mix of styles for my liking (although, admittedly, Queen albums were often like that). It is a veritable cornucopia of an album, full of different styles from one track to the next, which, for me, leads to a lack of cohesion and flow. As Brian May said of it, it contained some of their heaviest material side by side with some of their frothiest.

A Day At The Races (1976)

After 1975's multi-million seller A Night At The Opera, Queen'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. The band 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 but Queen never really gave their listeners that, and therein lies one of the reasons for their popularity, I also have to acknowledge. 

News Of The World (1976)

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. It all started to go wrong from here, for me. 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.

Jazz (1978)

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.

The Game (1980)

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.

Hot Space (1982)

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.

The Works (1984)

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-friendly "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.

A Kind Of Magic (1986)

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 highly 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.

The Miracle (1989)

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). 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. 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. 

Innuendo (1991)

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. 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.

Made In Heaven (1995)

This was Queen-Freddie Mercury's posthumous swansong album, made up of parts of songs recorded by an ailing Mercury in his final months before his passing in November 1991. Not all of the songs date from Mercury's final months, however, as many of them are created from snippets of songs recorded during sessions for earlier albums and Mercury's solo albums. Indeed, it was only A Winter's Tale, Mother Love and You Don't Fool Me that met the first criteria. Anyway, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon worked on them over subsequent years, along with other previously unused songs, adding new instrumentation. The result is an obviously poignant, but eminently credible album, which many Queen aficionados prefer to its predecessor, Innuendo. 

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