Queen Queen II

Kings Will Be Crowned: Queen’s ‘Queen II’ at 50

Queen’s 1974 sophomore album, Queen II is an overlooked progressive rock masterpiece that predicted so much of their later work. It’s also still enormous fun.

Queen II
EMI / Elektra
8 March 1974

In July 1973, the British quartet Queen released their self-titled debut, which contained two singles – the propulsive, guitar-driven “Keep Yourself Alive” and the pummeling, theatrical “Liar” – and while neither singles charted, the album performed respectably in the UK and reached the lower rungs of the US album charts. It’s a rather modest arrival for a band known for over-the-top musical gestures. Still, while Queen was a well-executed slab of heavy rock – think Black Sabbath taking a stab at glam rock – it was something of a test run for the follow-up, Queen II – a record that’s hardly their most popular, but certainly one of their most important, and one that shows incredible ambition and focus for four guys in their 20s.

While Queen’s second LP was made with essentially the same ingredients as its predecessor – Roy Thomas Baker produced the bulk of it, and the band members (Freddie Mercury on vocals and keyboards, Brian May on guitar, John Deacon on bass, and Roger Taylor on drums) firmly in place, Queen II was a quantum leap forward in songwriting, production, arranging, and production.

This is Queen preparing to step into its imperial period – arguably 1974 to 1978 – with so many aspects of that era beginning to take shape: over-the-top vocal overdubs, May’s multi-tracked guitars, Mercury’s winking sexual antics, you name it. It’s also Queen in full-on progressive rock mode. Later albums retained that prog aesthetic but were tempered with more (relatively) conventional pop/rock moments. Sheer Heart Attack had the symphonic pop madness of “Killer Queen”, A Night at the Opera included “You’re My Best Friend”, Deacon’s catchy singalong feel-good anthem, and A Day at the Races opened with “Tie Your Mother Down”, May’s meat-and-potatoes rocker. But Queen II seemed uncompromisingly heavy and idiosyncratic.

Queen II may or may not be a concept album, depending on your definition. Its two sides are divided into Side White and Side Black. May wrote all the songs on Side White, with the exception of Taylor’s typically heavy blues rocker “Loser in the End”. Side Black, on the other hand, contains all Mercury-penned songs (the first song Deacon would write for Queen, “Misfire”, ended up on Sheer Heart Attack, their next album).

While May, Taylor, and Mercury all wrote songs on the first record, it was on Queen II that their songwriting styles really began to gel. Opening with the brief, majestic multi-tracked guitar instrumental “Procession” (a bit of a sneak preview of their similarly-arranged cover of “God Save the Queen”, which closes the 1975 album A Night at the Opera), the album continues with “Father to Son”, which, like so many of May’s compositions, feeds his love for the convergences of heavy guitars and chiming acoustic guitars.

May’s dramatic ballad “White Queen (As It Began)” includes plenty of thorny, buzzing, sitar-like acoustic guitars, but not without the usual pummeling of electric power chords, and “Some Day, One Day” fulfills the usual Queen record quota of May singing at least one of his songs, this one a wistful slice of journeyman folk. Taylor’s side closer, “Loser in the End” (sung by Taylor) employs distorted, bluesy guitar, trippy psychedelic delay, odd bits of marimba, and lyrics that describe a mother whose rebellious offspring treat her like dirt: “She washed and fed and clothed and cared / For nearly 20 years / And all she gets is ‘Goodbye, Ma’ / And the night times for her tears” (teen rebellion is a common subject in Taylor’s songs).

While Side White is somewhat grounded in reality, the flip side sees Mercury taking progressive rock and all its fantasy-based themes and running with it. After all, the side begins with a song – no kidding – called “Ogre Battle”. Heavy, unrelenting drums and guitar usher in the song as Mercury earnestly belts out lyrics like “He gives a great big cry and he can swallow up the ocean / With a mighty tongue, he catches flies / And the palm of a hand, incredible size.”

The songs on Side Black all essentially run together in a giant, 20-minute medley. While they tend to vary in tempo and feel, they hang together remarkably well, as Mercury acts as a sort of narrator of a technicolor fantasy short story collection. “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke”, inspired by a Richard Dadd painting of the same name, jerks the listener around different time signatures as the soon-to-be-notorious Queen vocal harmonies go into overdrive and Mercury sings, “Pedagogue squinting, wears a frown / And a satyr peers under lady’s gown,” one of many lines that seem stuck in a bygone era. The whole thing would seem pretentious if it weren’t for the sheer enthusiasm and skill that went into the making of this strange, overstuffed delight of an album.

“The March of the Black Queen”, perhaps the centerpiece of Queen II (or at least Side Black), has been described on more than one occasion as a precursor to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the ageless freak single from A Night at the Opera. The multiple time signatures, ballad sections crashing into fast, heavy sections, impenetrable lyrics sung in a variety of octaves all bear this out. May has said, “You’ve got to bear in mind that we’d already made ‘My Fairy King’ on that first album, and we’d done ‘The March of the Black Queen’ on the second album, so we were well in tune with Freddie’s excursions into strange areas, and that was something that we really enjoyed.” Taylor once said in an interview that the multiple overdubs on “March of the Black Queen” caused the tape oxide to wear off to the point that the tape was transparent.  

But always the masters of light and shade, Side Black sees Queen, under the direction of Mercury, exploring less frantic styles as well. “Nevermore” is a brief, piano-led ballad of relative calm, a style the band would revisit on later albums with songs like “Lily of the Valley” and “Dear Friends”. One of the most significant outliers on Queen II, “Funny How Love Is”, takes cues from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, with Robin Cable taking over production duties. The vocal and instrument multi-tracking certainly gives off a “River Deep, Mountain High” vibe, which sounds delightfully out of place since Queen never really followed up with that sound on any subsequent album. It may be one of Queen’s most anomalous recordings, which is a shame because it suits them incredibly well.

Queen II closes with a callback to their debut LP, as “Seven Seas of Rhye” is a re-recording of their debut’s instrumental closing song, this time with lyrics. Mercury’s lightning-fast, arpeggiated piano leads the song as the group breathlessly keeps up. Mercury’s words continue the fantasy theme: “Be gone with you, you shod and shady senators / Give out the good, leave out the bad evil cries / I challenge the mighty Titan and his troubadours / And with a smile / I’ll take you to the seven seas of Rhye.”

“Seven Seas of Rhye” made the UK top ten but failed to chart anywhere else. Queen’s dedication and craft paid off, as their follow-up, Sheer Heart Attack, was a much bigger commercial success. Queen II may not get the same recognition or kudos as their subsequent works. Still, it’s a crucial entry in the band’s discography in that it created a template for the classic Queen sound, showing a band that was uncompromising in their vision and uniquely qualified to carry it out. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to listen to, even 50 years later.