Consummate showmen and masters of the studio environment, in their first five albums the members of British rock group Queen transformed from ambitious contenders into elite practitioners of the genre.
Rock music’s six decades of existence have born witness to an innumerable amount of musicians whose essences are preserved via analog and digital immortality. Many of these artists have been decent, some of them above average, and even less of the whole lot have been truly worthy of that oft-overused adjective “great”. But very, very few are those who are rock’s rightful elite -- your Beatles, your Dylans, your Zeppelins, your Bowies. They are the pinnacle; the toppermost of the poppermost; the sort whose luminous talent and impressive accomplishments loom mightily over the entire genre.
Boasting sales of more than 300 million albums worldwide and responsible for enough classic songs to spill over multiple best-of compilations, Queen belongs in this most rarefied category of rock excellence. Beloved by countless fans the world over, but not always treated kindly by critics during its heyday (the band’s gleeful embrace of musical excess and stadium-sized showmanship was particularly an affront when punk reared its spiky head in the late 1970s), the British quartet has seen its cultural cache steadily increase decade after decade. Nearly 20 years following the death of singer Freddie Mercury, Queen is now rightfully regarded as true rock royalty. To mark the band’s 40th anniversary, Queen’s label Hollywood is in the process of issuing remastered editions of the quartet’s entire catalog in three waves, with the initial salvo consisting of its first five albums: Queen (1973), Queen II (1974), Sheer Heart Attack (1974), A Night at the Opera (1975), and A Day at the Races (1976).
Although the group’s promise is evident even in the recently-unearthed 1971 demos included on the second disc of the Queen reissue, diving into the band’s self-titled debut it’s amazing to hear how assured and skillful these musicians come across at a stage where lesser groups are typically still fumbling about. Having had a couple of years to work up material, play with a number of short-term bassists until drafting in finalist John Deacon, and hone its live act, Queen arrived on record in recognizable form, albeit consistently heavier and less overtly tongue-in-cheek than the greater public is generally used to. In spite of Queen’s fey glam-influenced appearance, the “Led Zeppelin meets Yes” comparison placed upon the ensemble by one former bassist is apt for this stage of the band’s existence, as its fondness for Jimmy Page-influenced “light and shade” acoustic/electric guitar extremes and fantasy-inspired multi-part song epics that segue seamlessly into one another placed it squarely between the two dominant forms of loud rock at the time, heavy metal and prog.
It’s the former style that Queen evidenced greater commonality with in those formative days, as all its early album covers boasted a “no synths” disclaimer (drawing the line between the contents and the perceived self-absorbed fiddlings of prog rock groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer), and guitarist Brian May favored thick, distorted power chord riffs from the Jimmy Page school of axe-slinging (drummer Roger Taylor even evidences the unmistakable strains of Zep frontman Robert Plant during his self-penned turn at the mic, “Modern Times Rock ‘N’ Roll”). If any single member of Queen hasn’t yet come into his own on the first LP, though, it’s Mercury, whose renowned vocal talents are downplayed in favor of a downright fierce delivery that is well-suited for that album’s metallic emphasis. It’s only on the slower numbers on Queen II that Mercury begins to blossom into the more varied and awe-inspiring vocalist now renowned as one of (if not the utmost) greatest singers to ever step out in front of a rock band. An equally dominant influence on the group was the Beatles, whose use of the studio-as-instrument and allowance of songwriting contributions from all its members Queen adopted as its modus operandi. The possibilities afforded by the recording process would be essential to the Queen sound. In order to evoke the mythical lands and days of yore it loved to detail in those early lyrics, Queen had to push contemporary rock production beyond its limits. Taking full advantage of the capabilities of stereo sound, the group and longtime producer Roy Thomas Baker (who manned the boards for the band’s first four albums) crafted pre-digital aural special effects from the most rudimentary sources, and layered heavenly harmonies and the unmistakable tone of May’s handmade Red Special guitar via meticulous multitracking to craft intricate orchestrations that pan from one stereo speaker to another.
While the band’s music was well worth perking one’s up for from the get-go, a problem shared by Queen and its successor Queen II is that the pair are overstuffed with ideas. Brimming with more melodies and chord changes than it knows what to do with at this stage, Queen hadn’t sorted out how to most effectively arrange its ambitious tunes. Of the pair, Queen II is more neatly organized than its predecessor by virtue of being a concept album about the battle between good and evil (split into “White” and “Black” sides on the original vinyl release). But no matter how thrilling individual moments in deep albums cuts such as “Great King Rat”, “March of the Black Queen”, and Iron Maiden-presaging “Orge Battle” can be, Queen’s combination of heavy bombast, esoteric flights of fancy, and studio wizardry only achieves an undeniable magic on the singles “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Seven Seas of Rhye” (the band’s first British hit).
Making a conscious effort to streamline its efforts just a tad, it’s on the group’s third album Sheer Heart Attack (1974) that everything starts clicking. Here Queen stops trying to throw the everything and the kitchen sink into each song, instead spinning off each strong idea -- piano-driven balladry, Noel Coward pastiches, overblown widescreen overtures, gonzo breakneck metal riffage that anticipates thrash by a decade -- into separate songs for proper attention and development.. As a result, Sheer Heart Attack is the strongest and most consistent Queen LP up to this point, with several tracks -- namely “Brighton Rock”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Now I’m Here”, “In the Lap of the Gods”, and especially “Killer Queen”, the group’s first utterly immaculate pop classic -- being top-rate contenders against the mainstream rock competition of the day.
The stately “Killer Queen” can in retrospect be seen as a pivotal turning point for the band, not the least because it was its breakthrough single in the United States. Following right after the expected cutting-edge mountain of guitar overdubs that constitute opening colossus “Brighton Rock”, “Killer Queen” is an abrupt contrast: more pop with occasional rock guitar licks than a rocker with pop melodies, Queen forgoes lyricizing mythological fascinations and Richard Dadd paintings for Mercury namechecking more earthly figures Marie Antoinette, John F. Kennedy, and Nikita Khrushchev in his account of a wily woman’s exploits, breathily delivering the whole affair with poise and flair. Like its parent record, it’s grand fun, finally letting the group’s campy sense of humor come to the fore in the music itself.
A Night at the Opera took Queen’s insistence on being top showmen to its logical conclusion. As signposted by the album title itself, A Night at the Opera unfolds like a multi-act production spectacle, where each song is perfectly placed to move the listener further along on the ride. Kicking off with the downright ominous high-drama of “Death on Two Legs’ (a retort against the group’s recently-deposed management where Mercury spits out venomous invectives at the targets of his ire), the album gives way to a kaleidoscope of styles, from 1920 jazz to space-folk narratives to top-of-the-line contemporary pop-rock. Amazingly, while the transitions between genres would conceivably throw listeners for a loop, none are jarring. Instead, Queen succeeds because it pulls from all the best tricks in the library of showbiz history to deliver laughs, heartache, grandeur, and spectacle to its audience at precisely the right moments.
A Night at the Opera was quite idiosyncratic -- with disco coming into its own around this period and punk just around the corner, it’s mind-boggling that May would choose to bust out his father’s ukulele banjo and play songs that sounded like soundtracks to long-lost silent films. Yet it’s the realization of such a unique sonic vision that pushes it into the realm of true excellence. It all works so beautifully -- even the much-lauded multi-part mock-opera “Bohemian Rhapsody” is slotted so that it works as the climax to the album, with the band’s rendition of “God Save the Queen” serving as a fitting curtain call. For all the fitting praise “Rhapsody” has amassed over the years, the genuine top tune on the record is “You’re My Best Friend”, John Deacon’s sublimely touching ode to his beloved wife. Aside from the midpoint slowdown caused by the overlong “The Prophet’s Song” (the one moment where Queen comes across as more concerned with entertaining itself in front of the mixing desk than its audience listening at home), A Night at the Opera stands as a breathtaking, involving creation, and unequivocally Queen’s finest album.
Still, no matter how fantastic of a overall accomplishment A Night at the Opera was, the nearly six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the trump card -- the best realized Queen epic up to that point, and the first deemed worthy enough to risk issuing as a single. In the context of A Night at the Opera, it served its appointed role in the endeavor, no more worthy of praise than other songs it shared tracklist space with. But when released into the wilds of the pop charts, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was an outsized monster, the daring scope and execution of which made competitors look quite middling, indeed. Audacious yet undeniable, “Bohemian Rhapsody” became a worldwide chart-topping smash, and finally transformed Queen from contenders for future superstardom into pop music regents.
After the triumph of A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races is a comparative comedown. With the group now firmly in command of the mechanics of pop songcraft (fittingly, the album spun off the most singles from any Queen LP up until then), A Day at the Races is an overt sequel to the record prior, all the way down to grabbing its title from a Marx Brothers movie. Although A Day at the Races is home to at least one immortal pop classic in the form of “Somebody to Love” and the rowdy rock-radio staple “Tie Your Mother Down”, it rarely reaches the spectacular heights Queen has attained just before. Meant to be a refinement of the A Night at the Opera formula that brought the band to superstardom rather than another brave leap forward, the general impression is that Queen seems to be coasting just a bit.
A Day at the Races is a good but not stupendous record, and history shows that future creative high points would be in store for Queen, with News of the World and its one-two knockout punch of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” not far away. As a commercial entity, Queen would go on to consolidate its success and emerge as global stadium gods at the dawn of the 1980s. Still, in spite of the stellar singles and legendary concert performances yet to come, Queen had already made its best albums. For a group that wrote with an album-first mentality and selected singles after a record was a completed concern, Queen was in the long run a superior singles band.
That’s not to downplay the majesty of these early LPs, though. As an album-making entity, Queen was essentially the perfect fusion of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin: applying soaring harmonies and diamond-hard guitars to any type of music that struck its fancy, it knew how to optimize the capabilities of the studio environment in order to execute its collective vision. Bigger, brasher, and more fun than most other rock groups even to the present, Queen’s vision and “the show must go on” attitude beckons to those seeking rousing musical delights. Queen’s perfectionist tendencies could result in some very dense listens that didn’t always deliver as riveting entertainment on long-playing record, but when they were operating at the peak of their powers as on A Night at the Opera, Mercury, May, Deacon, and Taylor were an unconquerable combination rightly deserving of the regal moniker they had adopted.