[2 December 2011]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
When you get right down to it, Queen is one of the most misunderstood bands in all of rock history.
Today, they’re remembered for their era-defining, arena-rocking epics (“We Will Rock You”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Another One Bites the Dust”), and – to a lesser extent – their expertly executed pop numbers (“Under Pressure”, “You’re My Best Friend”, “I Want to Break Free”). What’s odd, however, is the fact that none of their albums – save A Night at the Opera – has ever been given the same critical hosannas as their near-endless list of hit singles. In fact, during their two-decade existence with Freddie Mercury, the band was never treated kindly in critical circles, which isn’t too surprising when you realize that running concurrent with them (until 1980) was none other than Led Zeppelin, whose ever-dramatic presence always managed to make Queen sound absolutely poppy and disposable in comparison (although in Queen’s defense, they never once shied away from a pop hook they didn’t like).
As such, with Hollywood’s epic 15-album re-release effort this year (to tie in with the group’s 40th anniversary), there rests a hope that the band’s catalogue will be rediscovered, perhaps even completely revalidated. For this, Hollywood did several things. First off, they broke up the band’s discography into three separate five-album box sets. Although this may be a bit of a shrewd move on the label’s part, the truth is there is quite a bit of logic to the manoeuvre, as the band’s discography breaks quite well into a three act structure: the first five LPs (1973-6) show the group starting from their proto-rock early days and gradually developing more ambition, skill, and songwriting finesse, culminating in their undisputed masterwork, A Night at the Opera. The second set, covering their albums from 1977-1982, show the band perfecting their sound before moving it into a more pop-friendly, danceable direction. The last set, spanning from 1984-1995, shows the group practically losing their way in their pursuit of pure pop music, culminating in their absolute nadir (1986’s painful A Kind of Magic), but not before redeeming themselves with their last studio effort made while Mercury was still alive (1991’s rock throwback Innuendo).
Secondly, the label hired Bob Ludwig to remaster the group’s complete catalogue, which, while certainly welcome (the group’s early efforts certainly sounded flatter in their early CD embodiments), doesn’t actually provide any new revelations to speak of. Lastly – and most critically – Hollywood decided to round up all the group’s rarities, separate them out by album, and then attach them to each album in the form of a bonus EP. It’s a great move that provides a lot of insight into each album’s development and eventual interpretation (let’s not forget Queen’s reputation as a live act). For Queen fans, the answer is unfortunately, yes, these releases are now the new standard of which to truly appreciate the band. That said, Hollywood has taken the somewhat unusual move of allowing the first set to go directly to all retail outlets that are willing to carry it, while leaving the last two sets as Amazon exclusives. This review focuses on those latter sets.
Following 1976’s A Day at the Races – itself a direct sequel to A Night at the Opera in virtually every way, right down to its Marx Brothers-indebted title – the band cut back on the operatic and focused their efforts towards doing one thing and one thing only: rocking arenas. As such, the quartet’s 1977 opus News of the World (a.k.a. The Album That Comes Free with the Purchase of Every Sports Arena) opens with one of the greatest one-two punches in the history of all of rock music: “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”. Yes, those hooks still scrape ceilings and make crowds chant in unison, and very little else needs to be mentioned: we know their power and effect, and this remaster doesn’t diminish their stature in the least. From here on out, the album surges forward on pure rock adrenaline, following those two tracks up with “Sheer Heart Attack” (uncompleted when the album of that name came out in 1974), which is almost punk-like in its appearance (although no punk band would ever be able to pull of the vocal harmonies that Mercury manages here). Then, the album swings along with more anthems (“Spread Your Wings”), funk-like rhythms (the groovy “Fight from the Inside”), and surprisingly minimalist rock numbers (the neglected, sexy strut of “Get Down, Make Love”, which runs on only the barest of elements, making its climax all the more intense).
Although the band flirted with many styles, few people remember just how diverse Queen’s songwriting was. “Who Needs You” is all Spanish-guitars and samba rhythms, while “My Melancholy Blues” strips the band down to pure Broadway pomp, leaving Mercury fragile and alone at the piano on a song he wrote himself. It’s a beautiful end to what is truly one of the band’s best end-to-end burners. (The bonus material here is fascinating, although a live “We Will Rock You” takes the cake, adding a whole new stream of guitar melodies that completely transform the song into something else altogether – a must-hear.)
While the flip-side of News of the World revealed many eclectic wonders, the band’s 1978 no-it’s-not-really-a-jazz-album Jazz was quite upfront about such flights of fancy, opening with the Persian/Arabic-sung opera-rock (oprock?) of “Mustapha”, which is about as unconventional a song as the band had penned (it was, rather surprisingly, released as the disc’s fourth single, but it failed to chart in any country), all while other tracks wound up mixing in sitars (the by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser “Jealousy”).
The album features a plethora of pop wonders (John Deacon’s top-notch one-two punch of “If You Can’t Beat Them” and “In Only Seven Days”), some of Brian May’s most furious riffing (“Dead on Time”), and one of the group’s most laid-back numbers ever (the Elvis Presley tribute “Dreamer’s Ball”). There are, of course, some iconic hits strewn about (“Bicycle Race”, “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”), but much as how A Day at the Races aped A Night at the Opera a little too close for comfort, the same could be said for Jazz in relation to News of the World, which continues to mix the group’s noted pop works with eclectic detours, although here – even as high as this album’s great points are – it all feels slightly redundant; a sequel which does all the moves of the original but doesn’t bring anything new to the table (aside from the wretched, poorly thought-out idea to play a snippet of each track at the very end of the last song “More of That Jazz”).
From here on out, however, the waters get noticeably choppier. The turn of the decade brought about not one but two new Queen efforts: a regular ol’ rock album The Game and the soundtrack to the film Flash Gordon. The former clearly shows just how far down the pop pipeline the band is willing to go: generic anthems (“Rock It (Prime Jive)”), more than a few throwback tracks to rock music’s not-so-humble beginnings (the dated-yet-intriguing “Coming Soon”, the still-fantastic “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”), and, perhaps worst of all, tracks which feel like they were assembled from a How To Build a Queen Song kit (“Dragon Attack”). This all, however, falls down in comparison to their disco (yes, disco) effort: “Another One Bites the Dust”, which followed “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” to become their second (and final) U.S. chart-topper. It’s a standout moment from an album that shows the law of diminishing returns in full effect. Which, speaking of ...
... brings us to Flash Gordon. This here is an album that doesn’t work as an album, although the band may not be entirely to blame for that. After all, the group composed a solid theme song (U.K. Top 10 hit “Flash”) and numerous instrumental bits (most of which were penned by Brian May), which suit the film just fine. Why Flash doesn’t work as an album, however, is due to the numerous bits of film dialogue dropped in on nearly every track. Sometimes entire scenes are dropped in the mix, but never do these chunks of dialogue ever add up to a coherent summation of the film’s plot. As such, as respectable as Queen’s music is here, Flash Gordon as a whole is one of the band’s less essential efforts.
After the huge success of The Game‘s singles, you begin to see the band slowly ditch the hard-rock tendencies from their early days in favour of a sound that’s poppier, less guitar-driven, and far, far more radio-friendly. This is no more evident than on 1982’s Hot Space, which, for all intensive purposes, is their out-and-out “dance” album, filled with synth patterns, tight horn sections, and May playing more “decorative” guitar than actual rock guitar. Although the album is still best known for its closing track – their still-fantastic David Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure”, which stands up even mightier when compared to its multitude of terrible covers – the truth is that Hot Space holds up best out of any of their “pop albums” from here to 1991’s Innuendo. Although tracks like “Back Chat” feel like the band is riding the last possible wave they can of the disco movement, groove-based cuts like “Staying Power” and the woefully neglected “Body Language” show the band’s pop tendencies to be in full form, with the occasional “throwback track” tossed in for extra measure (“Life is Real (Song for Lennon)” being chief among them).
Hot Space, however, indicates the start of the group’s creative downfall, as the next three subsequent albums – 1984’s The Works, 1986’s A Kind of Magic, and 1989’s The Miracle (which still features one of the most ill-conceived album covers of all time) – all show the band becoming a pale imitation of itself. While The Works still features a great deal of pop hits (Roger Taylor’s anti-industry screed “Radio Ga Ga”, Deacon’s incredible “I Want to Break Free”) and the occasional surprise (the catchy “Hammer to Fall”, the remarkably vulnerable acoustic ballad “Is This the World We Created?”), tracks like “Keep Passing the Open Windows” and the inexplicable U2-crossed-with-Trans experiment “Machines (Back to Humans)” show a band who have very much lost what made them special. Although a Queen without drama proves to be a Queen at its most banal, the meandering Highlander almost-soundtrack A Kind of Magic is even worse. Save for the party-starting opener “One Vision”, A Kind of Magic proves to be one of the most dated, tired albums in the entire Queen discography. It’s one of those albums where things aren’t necessarily out-and-out bad – Mercury doesn’t try to rap or anything – but the songs are just so tired, bland, and generic that it feels like the group isn’t even trying anymore (heck, the bonus EP for this album, which also features a lovely piano rendition of the track “Forever”, is more interesting and satisfying than A Kind of Magic itself!). The Miracle shows the group somewhat giving in to the “sounds” of the 80s, copping synthy pop riffs one minute (as on the title track) before trying to be a hair-metal band the next (“I Want It All”). The sentiments are clichéd (the chorus to “Rain Must Fall” is ... “in every life a little rain must fall”), and were it not for one brilliant stab of thundering dance-rock (“The Invisible Man”, hands down the best dance track they ever penned), this album would be ultimately disposable.
As such, 1991’s Innuendo (the last album to be completed during Mercury’s lifetime) is nothing short of a surprise: a genuine return to the band’s rock roots, reviving their flair for the dramatic to excellent results. Opener (and U.K. No. 1) “Innuendo” mixes Spanish guitar with May’s usual crunching rock riffs, and when paired with the ailing Mercury’s powerful vocal performance, it shows that Queen have swerved back to what made them so special to begin with. Although the group could score pop hits seemingly at will, that wasn’t what made them special. Their operatic rock was something no one had truly heard before, and when the band focuses on just that, they reach heights other bands only dream of. Innuendo‘s great tracks roll along one after another: the swirling “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, the very 80s-rock leaning “Headlong”, and the last truly great song that the band ever penned: the surging, overdramatic “The Show Must Go On”. Innuendo‘s second half does show the group leaning a bit back into their late-80s pop tendencies a bit, but overall, the group managed to save themselves from the brink right before the end (also, Innuendo‘s bonus EP contains a rare B-side called “Lost Opportunity”, which is the loosest, most bluesy song the band had ever laid to tape – a definite keeper).
Following Mercury’s tragic passing, the group reconvened to put together one final effort, assembling various outtakes and song fragments and fleshing them out to form Made in Heaven, the group’s final true album. Mercury knew he was near the end of his life, so was at the time writing a series of very uplifting, life-affirming songs, which the band then gave a very spacious, airy production. The album received many positive notices upon its release, but the honest-to-goodness truth is that none of these songs are all that memorable. The lyrics are clichéd, the production very safe in nature, and the song structures are reminiscent of virtually every Queen song that came before it. Nothing new is brought to the table, and no great catharsis is achieved. Although there’s nothing wrong with the sentiments of the album, the truth is that it just doesn’t contain that much staying power. In fact, this is where the bonus EPs come into play, enhancing our understanding of this swan song. On the bonus EP that accompanies The Game, we’re treated to an early take of Made in Heaven centerpiece “It’s a Beautiful Day”, which is listed as an original, spontaneous idea that the band just happened to lay down on tape before revisiting over a decade later. It’s fun to hear Mercury just freestyle this number, and then comparing it to its final form all those years later.
After spending time with all of the band’s re-releases, you begin to find that their back catalogue is quite uneven, especially when viewing their releases in the mid-late 80s (also, certain gripes may be laid down by fans expecting some of the live albums – much less their stints at Wembley or Live Aid to be included – the truth is that those events are best seen, not just heard). Yet when Queen went for the dramatic, the operatic, and even the ridiculous, you realize that no other band on earth came even matching them in terms of arena-shaking impact. You may not need every Queen album on your hard drive, but the band’s essentials are essential for a reason.