Counterbalance No. 134: Queen's 'A Night at the Opera'
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Is this the 134th most acclaimed album of all time? Apparently so. Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango? That’s up to you. Queen’s 1975 blockbuster is this week’s Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: It's confession time, Klinger. My knowledge of Queen's music comes mostly from their Greatest Hits albums. I know—it’s shameful. As a result, I had no real knowledge of Queen's A Night at the Opera, and was not prepared for how absolutely ridiculous this record is from start to finish. Now before everyone gets out the pitchforks, let me be frank—I like the ridiculousness of this record. There is a refreshing irreverence in Queen's vaudevillian approach to rock 'n' roll. I'm not really sure what I was expecting when I dropped the needle on this album—aside from Freddie Mercury's amazing vocal work and Brian May's exquisitely overdubbed guitar work—but what I found is hard to describe using the rock 'n' roll lexicon.
Maybe "Bohemian Rhapsody" should have been a pretty good indication of what I might find, but even then, that song is hardly representative of this audacious work. 134 Counterbalances in and for the first time, I'm at a loss for words.
Klinger: No I think you were on to something with the word "ridiculous", Mendelsohn. I've been through this album now more times than I care to say, and I can't help thinking that aside from a couple of moments of excellence, A Night at the Opera is essentially a parody of a rock album. I'm sure I'm going to get eviscerated for this, but I found most of the tracks on here to be overdone past the point of edibility. They're mostly winking takes on Zeppelinesque rock ("I'm in Love with My Car"), grandiose muddles ("The Prophet's Song"), or just the kind of cutesy-wootsy, hot-patootie razzle dazzle that I was under the impression rock 'n' roll had consigned to the dustbin of history.
There are so many examples of Freddie Mercury swanning about like the Bertie Wooster of rock that it casts an odd light on the non-vaudevillian moments on the record. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that if "Bohemian Rhapsody" weren't on this album, the Great List might have placed A Night at the Opera somewhere in the vicinity of the other two Queen albums (Sheer Heart Attack at No. 1176 and A Day at the Races at No. 2670) it has ranked. There, I said it.
Mendelsohn: And here I thought the angry mob would be showing up at my house tonight. Thanks for getting me off the hook, Klinger. I owe you one.
It's not that I exactly disagree with any of the points you just made. Maybe A Night at the Opera is a parody of a rock album—a sort of tongue-in-cheek send up of the ponderousness of heavy rock at the time. If it is, it is one of the finest examples of rock 'n' roll trolling ever made, and executed by one of its own at a time when 1970s rock excess was really getting rolling. To top it all off, it made Queen an even bigger name, effectively cementing them into that rock excess they may or may note have been trying to send up. This odd collection of miss-mashed songs turned Queen into one of the biggest acts of the decade.
By all rights, this album should have killed their career. It should have made them a laughing stock. The Tin Pan alley-esque "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon" and "Seasside Rendezvous", the sappy "You're My Best Friend", and "Love of My Life" head up the ridiculous list. And then there's "I'm In Love with My Car", and the strange sci-fi strummer "'39." Not to mention "God Save the Queen", which I assume is either a homage or a send up—or both—of Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner".
The ridiculous songs handily outnumber the relatively normal rock records on this album. But Queen makes it work. They do it with such aplomb and a genuine sense of exuberance that it's hard to not to get caught up in the theatrical presentation of it all.
But yeah, without "Bohemian Rhapsody", this album would definitely be wallowing around in the 1000s. I can't let you jump on that grenade by yourself, Klinger.
Klinger: Thanks, man. Interesting tidbit I stumbled upon in my research, by the way: in the original Rolling Stone review, critic Kris Nicholson manages to write 200-plus words about A Night at the Opera without even mentioning "Bohemian Rhapsody". He talks a good bit about "The Prophet's Song", which most of us think of as "The Big Long Song That Isn't Bohemian Rhapsody". Fascinating. It tells me that either a) "Bohemian Rhapsody" didn't make much of an impression or b) Nicholson didn't make it all the way through the album. (Possibly more common than we suspect back in those early days of rock criticism. And people call us lazy!)
But I do have to disagree with you about "You're My Best Friend". For me that's one of the high points of the album, mostly because it's one of the rare times when Freddie Mercury doesn't sound like he's trying to astound us with his feats of astonishment and derring-do for their own sake. It's a refreshing bit of sincerity on an album where that's in rare supply. The other time is, of course, "Bohemian Rhapsody", which appears to be just about the only song Mercury wrote for this album where he wasn't channeling Noel Coward. (I'll bet you five bucks "Death on Two Legs" was originally conceived as a tango.) Believe it or not, I remember when this song was first a hit back in the mid-'70s, and I recall getting seven-year-old me getting a big kick out of all the crazy opera stuff. It sounded so different than anything else on the radio at the time. And while the song has really lost a lot of its novelty and urgency over the years, when you lean forward you see that there's a lot going on. Mercury manages to inject a real vulnerability into the song, especially during the non-Scaramouche bits. By the time you get to the "nothing really matters" part, you understand that the song is a lot more personal than you might have initially thought. I suspect that's why the song has endured long past its Wayne's World resurrection.
Mendelsohn: "You're My Best Friend" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" have been completely colored by my pop culture experience, which may be why I dislike the one and love the other. "You're My Best Friend", while a sincere snatch in an otherwise audacious record—and a songwriting coup for Queen bassist John Deacon—pops up in one too many commercials and silly movie montages for my liking. So while it is instantly recognizable and joyous, I have an adverse reaction due to prolonged exposure to television. This is most certainly my own problem to deal with and is definitely a disservice to a well-executed piece of pop song craft.
"Bohemian Rhapsody", on the other hand, is one of those songs that I will love until the day I die, thanks in great part to Wayne's World. I was a pre-teen when that movie came out—a movie that for all intents and purposes was my first real introduction to rock music—such as it was. "Bohemian Rhapsody" had the bombast needed to capture my attention, the excellent melody and enough non-sensical sounding lyrics to keep my 12-year-old brain enthralled. Of course, instead of going out and getting a Queen album or two, I opted to save up my allowance and just buy the Wayne's World soundtrack. Don't look at me like that. I was 12.
It may be important to note the timing of Freddie Mercury's death and the release of Wayne's World, and how those to events really helped to spike interest in a band that had been struggling to stay relevant. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was re-released as a single in the UK after Mercury's death in 1991 and stayed on the charts for several weeks. The next year the song returned to the charts in the US following the success of Wayne's World.
Klinger: Yes, it's really pretty fascinating how Queen's image came to be rehabilitated. When Disney started its own label, Hollywood Records, one wag in Spy Magazine mocked them for signing Queen, a group "for whom there is no noticeable nostalgia", Of course, that almost immediately proved to be another suspiciously canny business move for Disney, but the seeds of the group's comeback were sown as early as 1985, when they mopped the floor with the New Wavers at Live Aid.
At any rate, I understand that there may be a level of irony to Queen's sensibilities that I really should be better about wrapping my head around. We Americans are always being told that we don't understand irony, and when I try to work my way through A Night at the Opera, I start to think that they might be right. But then again, I only recently heard just how much humo(u)r there is in the Beatles' appropriation of girl group songs into their early repertoire. So maybe it's me. Maybe growing up the suburban Midwest in the 1980s made me more provincial than I’d like to admit. Maybe someday it'll all kick in for me. That's the great thing about music, I reckon. It has a tendency to sneak up on you.