This lost live record captures one of rock’s most unassailable giants, right when it was discovering how to really belt out its “fee-fi-fo-fums”.
Few artists have had a year quite like Queen in 1974. Bowie in ’77 comes to mind, and not much else. The group released two one-of-a-kind rock masterpieces that year – Queen II in March and Sheer Heart Attack in November – showcasing a luxurious sonic palette that had evolved dramatically from its relatively anemic 1973 debut. And because of all this incredibly prolific studio work, the live record that was supposed to follow Queen II ended up getting shelved.
Forty years later, we get to hear this lost concert and then some, thanks to a lovingly packaged, fantastic-sounding release from Hollywood Records. Queen played the Rainbow Theatre in London three times in 1974 – a March 31 performance that was originally slated for live album fodder, and two conquering-hero shows in November, right as “Killer Queen” was topping the charts. Live at the Rainbow ’74 gives us that first show in its entirety, along with a second disc of material culled from the later gigs, capturing one of rock’s most unassailable giants right when it was discovering how to really belt out its “fee-fi-fo-fums".
Holy shit, to have been there to see this. The Rainbow was a 3,000-seat venue, but from the majestic opening chords of “Father to Son” on, Queen delivers a massive-sounding spectacle fit for Wembley. Brian May’s guitars are upfront and gutsy, his effect-pedal mastery making them sound everywhere at once. Roger Taylor is downright frenetic at times, his fills rolling like boulders. And of course, Freddie Mercury’s voice towers above it all, soothing and cajoling like electrified silk.
Then comes the perennial live favorite “Ogre Battle”, a song that represents everything that makes Queen II one of the all-time slept-on classics – blazing, jittery blues riffage, operatic harmonies, and wild lines like “the ogre men are still inside the two-way mirror mountain". Live at the Rainbow ’74 gives us two chances to hear Queen play “Ogre Battle” when it was fresh in their minds, and that alone makes it a treasure.
It’s remarkable to hear this band effortlessly replicating a studio sound that was getting progressively lusher. May’s wizardry helps, but the way he, Mercury, and Taylor harmonized is probably even more important. Queen didn’t just have the greatest lead singer of all time – it had two other dudes who could nail impossible-sounding high notes. I would say that the “I! Want! You!” chorus of “Son and Daughter” sounds angelic here, if it wasn’t bristling with palpable human energy.
Of the two discs, I lean toward the second, because it’s a compelling glimpse at the band getting its head around how to pull off Sheer Heart Attack live. “Killer Queen” only appears for a minute as part of a medley; “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” is apparently performed for the first time ever (Mercury confesses “That was new for both you and us” after ripping through it); “Stone Cold Crazy” burns with a superhuman fervor that could only have been enhanced by its newness.
But on the whole, you really can’t go wrong here – skip the first set and you miss a scorching medley of “Jailhouse Rock”, “Stupid Cupid”, and “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, for instance. Live at the Rainbow ’74 doesn’t just succeed as an album full of raucous, fantastical, peerlessly executed rock and roll. It also thrills by pinpointing a place and time when a great band made the leap from the streets of London into the lap of the gods.
Photo: Courtesy of queenworld.com.