A Very Special Christmas With Freddie Mercury and Co.

Forty years after the release of A Night at the Opera we're treated to a powerful set from Queen, the best British band of the '70s, at the mighty Hammersmith Odeon.
Eagle Vision

No one did over the top like Queen and Queen was equally over the top in the studio and on the stage, as this new live outing reveals within the first measures of “Now I’m Here”. Captured live on Christmas Eve 1975, just a little over a month after the release of what was then the group’s finest recorded hour, A Night at the Opera, and nearly two after “Bohemian Rhapsody” was let loose as the group’s great single. A Night at the Opera isn’t overrepresented here: much of the material comes from 1974’s Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack as well as 1973’s self-titled LP.

That’s no great surprise. The audience at the Hammersmith Odeon, gathered for a show that was simulcast on BBC radio and TV, wouldn’t have known the new record that well and for a band now on its fourth album Queen had an incredibly high yield of superior material. Indeed, if the show opens with “Now I’m Here”, it’s really a heavy version of “Ogre Battle” that serves to demonstrate the sheer power that Queen wielded once it really hit the boards. Forget Led Zeppelin, this was arguably the great British band of the ’70s, one that played to the best of its abilities on every possible occasion, with a vision and coherence that set it apart as much then as it still does today.

For the reputation that Freddie Mercury and friends would earn for the ballads, there’s not a lot of that to be found here. Even “Bohemian Rhapsody”, shed of its most grandiose burdens, comes off like a lean, amphetamine-driven beast (as part of a medley featuring “Killer Queen” and “The March of the Black Queen”); it’s rock and high art but mostly rock. The relentless pummeling is almost too much to take by the time we arrive at “Brighton Rock”, a song that may have very well have unknowingly helped usher in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

Guitarist Brian May has rarely received the kind of accolades he deserves for his guitar styling but he is the equal of the classic trinity of Page, Clapton, and Beck and perhaps could have even succeeded Clapton as God were Queen less a band of such impressive power when playing as an ensemble. In fact, the amazing mix of this show allows the listener to experience the real power of the John Deacon (bass) and Roger Taylor (drums) rhythm section as the group works through “Keep Yourself Alive”, “Liar” and “White Queen”.

There’s no room for mucking about and it’s hard to think of a group that was as consistently musical from measure to measure as Queen could be. (Christ, even May’s guitar solo has passages that positively unforgettable. When’s the last time that happened?) This is also pre-mustache Mercury, so although the stage outfits are, shall we say, not exactly street wear, the high camp of later years had not come in quite yet and the band looks here as much like gods from the future as anything this planet has ever seen. (Hey, it was no mistake that this band did the soundtrack to Flash just a few years down the road.)

Although it’s hard to determine which has more fire and audacity, this release or 2014’s Live at the Rainbow ‘74, both are excellent examples of a band playing in peak form. Bonus footage from Japan’s Budokan in Tokyo from May ’75 reveals that this was Queen’s first great era and one that was hard won but deeply appreciated. That performance and a 22-minute documentary looking back at the venue and show are the bonus features here and well worth the time it takes to work through them.

Of course, no discussion of Queen can come to a close without mentioning Mercury’s firepower as a vocalist but also his (and his band’s) sense of humor, which was almost always tempered by its ability to steamroll its audience with the unstoppable power of rock.

There are some acts whose vaults are raided on such a regular basis that one begs for a reprieve from the each of these releases as they decimate the vitality and integrity of once-great bands. But that’s not the case with Queen. As each of these archival pieces comes rolling out, one is reminded time and again how criminally overlooked the quartet’s full scope and abilities have become (especially on American shores). This is certainly as good a place as any to start deepening one’s appreciation of Queen. It’s largely absent the major hits but, viewing this performance, you realize that the hits were just icing on the cake.

A handsome booklet accompanies this visual release, featuring photos from the show and the soundcheck, providing listeners/viewers with an all-around excellent package.

Also, as the lads themselves liked to remind listeners on a regular basis: No synthesizers!

RATING 8 / 10