[5 March 2014]
Sound Affects Editor
The UK’s Official Charts Company recently announced that Queen’s 1981 Greatest Hits collection is the first album in Britain to sell over six million copies. That figure, if you notice, also makes Greatest Hits the best-selling record in British history. To put that feat in perspective, note that the album outpaces popular works by fellow British royalty the Beatles (at number three on the country’s all-time sales list with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Oasis (number five with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?), and Pink Floyd (number seven for The Dark Side of the Moon). Even global superstars ABBA (number two), Michael Jackson (numbers six and nine), and Madonna (number 11) can’t best that.
Queen has long been considered a national treasure in its home country, but in other places (namely, the United States) the group has had to gradually allow its legacy to grow large enough to help it escape the dismissals of critics and earn it its proper place in the rock pantheon. Sniffed at for its penchant for campy bombast, its flights of fancy, and its brazen showmanship, history has proven those qualities to be among the band’s virtues. Look no further than 1985’s Live Aid extravaganza to see how Queen measures up in the wider scheme of music—it took the stage the same day as scores of other rock and pop icons, and in 20 minutes mopped the floor with the lot of them.
In commemoration of the band’s record-setting feat, Sound Affects offers up a Queen-themed List This countdown fixated squarely on its larger-than-life sensibilities. No, this is not a listing of the best Queen songs, hence the noted absence of “You’re My Best Friend”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “Under Pressure”, and other masterworks. What is on offer is a list of Queen’s awesomest songs, those outsized, bombastic undertakings meticulously crafted with the express purpose of leaving listeners deaf, dumb, and reeling. Queen based its career on that kind of aural shock and awe, meaning there’s no shortage of crowd-pleasing anthems to choose from. The hard part is simply limiting ourselves to ten entries.
From the start “In the Lap of the Gods” is an overblown spectacle so preposterous that it’s liable to prompt instant giggles. Truth be told, I wouldn’t doubt if that was Queen’s intention in the first place. Immediately, drummer Roger Taylor’s ludicrously high-pitched screeching overwhelms all other sounds, with the background music swelling like Wagner’s worst nightmare. It all crescendos with a unison utterance of the song’s title (the appearance of a placard stating “in Technicolor” would not at all be out of place when it happens), and in a cheeky display of studio trickery, the track immediately fades out, pans dramatically from one speaker to the next, and then increases back to ear-splitting volume. And this all occurs in less than a minute into the song!
“Tonight / I’m going to have myself a real good time,” Freddie Mercury croons at the start of “Don’t Stop Me Now”, a song whose breezy demeanor and delicate ivory-tickling at first gives little inkling as to the rollicking romp the singer is setting up. Following the first chorus, all restraint is discarded as the tempo kicks up. With that, Mercury is off to the races, throwing off preposterous lines like “I’m burning through the sky, yeah / 200 degrees / That’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit / I’m traveling at the speed of light” and “I’m a sex machine ready to reload / Like an atom bomb” borne of the giddiness he feels at the prospect of a night out on the town. The song’s insistent “Don’t stop me! Don’t stop me”’ bridge section—used to fantastic effect in a fight scene from the comedy Shaun of the Dead—is irresistible, and when it seems the track’s thrills can no longer be topped, in steps Brian May, who lets rip another classic guitar solo to up the excitement level to 11.
Queen’s grandiose theatrics weren’t just reserved for the stadium-filling rockers or the flights of studio whimsy—when deployed right, they added gravitas to the most tender moments. Take “Who Wants to Live Forever”, one of many songs from the A Kind of Magic album that the band wrote for the fantasy film Highlander. The curse of the movie’s immortal swordsman Connor MacLeod is that he is doomed to outlive everyone else, not least his beloved wife. Soundtracking the inevitable aging and death of MacLeod’s missus, this majestic number is an incredibly moving evocation of the immense grief portrayed in those scenes. Even divorced from its source material, the song’s emotive sweep is liable to elicit a tear or two.
Bombastically defiant even to the untrained ear to begin with, what makes “The Show Must Go On” so special are the circumstances of its creation. One of the singles from Innuendo, the last Queen album released before Mercury’s passing, this song is an astonishing display of what the singer was still capable of even as AIDS rapidly ravaged his body. “The Show Must Go On” presents an incomparable frontman, forced to confront his own mortality, mustering every last ounce of his power to make it to through to the final curtain call. Ever the consummate showman, Mercury asks for no sympathy and offers everything he has in return. Even though the posthumous Made in Heaven is considered by the band to be the concluding entry in the Queen discography, Innuendo‘s magnificent closing track is the perfect last will and testament for the band.
Queen doesn’t beat around the bush here: as boldly and as forcefully as possible, Queen’s trademark wall of multitracked harmonies repeatedly let listeners know they want it all, and they want it now. It’s not only the chorus that means business—the guitar chords and rhythm section slam as one, and Mercury’s delivery brandishes a ferocious edge that will be a surprise to those unfamiliar with the band’s harder rocking deep cuts. Hey, they guys knew what they wanted, and knew how to make their demands heard. And they want it now.
Strongly influenced by the Beatles, Queen too made plenty of use of vocal harmonies within the confines of its four-piece hard rock membership. Where Queen distinguished itself was in how it used studio wizardry to layer as many vocal tracks as it could, which lead the group to push the art of overdubbing to its mid-‘70s limits. Evidence of that boundary-testing can be heard on the soul-infused hit “Somebody to Love”, where the voices of Mercury, May, and Taylor are stacked endlessly atop one another to make a choir of voices. Backed by such a vocal armada, Mercury gives it extra gusto and consequently turns in a tour de force performance. In another of Queen’s clever arrangement touches, the music drops out after the voices peak during a false ending, only for Taylor’s heavyweight drumming to lead them back in with a gradual build-up to the song’s true climax.
Queen launches its third album Sheer Heart Attack with the megaton detonation that is “Brighton Rock”, another gargantuan testament to the virtues of overdubbing. Except instead of layers of vocal sediment, this cut is assembled from a veritable army of six strings. This tale of a couple’s stolen romantic holiday is amped up to the max by Queen’s powerhouse delivery, aided chiefly by Brian May’s percussive riffing. However, it’s the song’s middle section where May really gets to go crazy: utilizing a device called an Echoplex, he is able to create a delay effect that allows him to essentially engage himself in a guitar duel. As a further an embarrassment of riches, the song closes on one of May’s coolest riffs, which runs through a criminally low number of repetitions before the clock runs out.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is the song that turned Queen into a household name, and rightly so. Even in the age when long-winded album tracks still had a decent shot at commercial radio play, this tune’s nutty multi-segment structure (which includes a full-on opera section right smack in the middle) made for a tough sell. Fortunately for the band, it had the vision and the talent to turn a potentially dodgy high concept into what is frankly one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Yes, the mind-boggling layer of vocal overdubs in the opera section still astounds (did you know that the delay effect heard when Mercury sings the word “Magnifico” was achieved by recording the last syllable being sung at gradually lower pitches?), but the moment we all truly relish is the realization of the instrumental climax, an event where May’s heavy riffage gives the Waynes and Garths of the world an excuse to brazenly headbang their cares away.
These double A-side mates are forever conjoined, and it doesn’t feel right to separate them. Turn on the radio or go to the nearest sports venue to cheer on your favorite team, and you’re bound to hear the former’s earthshaking stomp followed swiftly by the latter’s victorious rally call. Together, these immortal anthems tell a riveting tale: the band came to rock you, and then it succeeded—the end. Yeah, it’s not exactly Bob Dylan, but that’s not the point. The point is it’s the height of audacity to issue songs as presumptive as these (these tracks are essentially telling every other band “We are the greatest” and “Haters gonna hate”), yet Queen handily fulfills every single boast heard on record. The one question remaining is: how come Britain hasn’t made this pairing its new national anthem yet?
Special notice goes out to the faster arrangement of “We Will Rock You” Queen frequently used to open shows.
The finalist on this list won’t be found on Greatest Hits or heard much on classic rock radio for that matter. However, it’s irrevocably etched into the memory banks of fans of both ‘80s action films and ‘90s syndicated television. Though the Highlander television series swapped out Christopher Lambert for Adrian Paul, there was no such substituting the franchise’s theme song, whose explosive might, siren-like guitar lines, and unshakable conviction demand immediate attention and give no quarter. When Mercury boasts “I am immortal / I have inside me blood of kings / I have no rival / No man can be my equal!” amidst the maelstrom, he’s as much talking about himself as he is the film’s protagonist (in one of the music video’s most stupendous moments, Mercury even bests Connor MacLeod when their weapons cross—with a mic stand, no less!). From the opening wall of harmonies on through to the charging tempo shift and May’s masonry-destroying solo, “Princes of the Universe” is a spectacle among spectacles, and if any Queen song must be declared the band’s personal theme, it should be this.