Queen: Queen on Air - The Complete BBC Radio Sessions (Deluxe 6-CD Edition)
These leaner versions of well-known tracks showcase a version of Queen with less pomp but plenty of circumstance.
Freddie Mercury is a legend now, and Queen is a band for the ages. It is easy to forget, though, that Mercury and his band’s star had descended significantly, at least in the United States, before the singer’s AIDS-related 1991 death.
When Hollywood Records paid a reported $10 million for the rights to Queen’s catalog in February 1990, most in the music industry scoffed at the investment. Once a hit-generating juggernaut in the U.S., the band hadn’t toured the country since the release of their 1982 commercial and critical disappointment Hot Space. Their show-stealing performance at 1985’s Live Aid concert had generated international momentum for the band, but where a new Queen record was once a platinum-selling guarantee in the States, neither A Kind of Magic (1986) nor The Miracle (1989) had gone gold. But with Mercury’s untimely death, the reassessment of his career began, and the band’s back-catalog returned Hollywood’s investment ten times over inside of five years.
Curating the legacy of a legend is a fractious undertaking and many record labels in such positions have arguably mishandled the responsibility. Look at Columbia’s milking of Jeff Buckley’s meager legacy or Geffen’s release of Kurt Cobain’s home recordings. Hollywood has, for the most part, served Mercury and his bandmates well and, in the case of Queen On Air, has performed an invaluable service, making available the complete run of recordings the band completed for BBC Radio between 1973 and 1977.
The label has given fans options: a two-CD or three-LP set containing all six BBC recording sessions, or a deluxe six-CD box including the BBC sessions on two discs, highlights from three different live concert broadcasts on one CD, and three CDs collecting various radio interviews conducted between 1977 and 1992. Chris Ingalls has justifiably called the BBC sessions a “brilliant, blistering snapshot of a band that reveled in both campy excess and bruising hard rock". Even casual Queen fans will want to pick up that abbreviated set. The question is: does the deluxe box provide the die-hard fan sufficient bang for the extra bucks?
Queen On Air, whether the standard or deluxe edition, is an expansion on Hollywood’s 1995 single-CD release Queen at the BBC. That collection offered eight songs cherry-picked from the 1973 sessions. Those songs appear on the first disc of the On Air set, and it’s an interesting revelation to hear the versions that were left behind.
It turns out that the At the BBC producers selected tracks exclusively from the first and third sessions, apparently deciding those first-session versions of “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Liar” were superior to versions recorded during their second session. Meanwhile, the longer, looser version of “Son and Daughter” recorded during the third session also bettered its earlier version. Getting to hear all versions in this collection, the band does sound more self-assured during the first and third recording sessions (Feb. and Dec. ‘73 respectively). During that second July recording session, the band sounds restless and seems to be using the opportunity to stretch towards new sounds or to try new options. Further evidence of this can be heard in the sole non-album cut from that second session, Brian May’s “See What a Fool I’ve Been”, which appears here in a bluesier version than would eventually be released as a B-side.
All of the cuts from On Air’s second disc are being released for the first time and comprise recordings done in April and October of 1974 and October 1977, and there are several revelations at hand. The raw aggression of “Modern Times Rock and Roll” pre-figures punk by a couple of months, and one can’t help but wonder if a few among the nascent punks who would soon be pissing on the band weren’t listening and taking notes at this point. Mercury performs “Nevermore” on piano, mostly unadorned until the version works to a messy, noisy conclusion: not as pretty as the album version, but they were definitely onto something with their play of quiet ballad building into an operatic denouement. Is one hearing elements of “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” genesis here? Also of interest, of course, is the sped-up version of “We Will Rock You”, which has never been heard as a studio version (though which has long been available in a live setting on the Live Killers release). The highlight of these tracks, though, is undoubtedly the under-appreciated single “Spread Your Wings”, which features an uplifting, animated vocal performance from Mercury.
It is important to note that these BBC recordings were not live in-studio cuts. For each session, this studio-meticulous band had only a few hours to cut three or four tracks for airplay. There was no time for the kind of studio madness the band would become known for, though they were able to bring in previously recorded backing tapes to play over and fill out their sound. Freddie would still have his echoing, multi-voiced tracking of “Now I’m Here”, and May could riff over his previously recorded rhythm accompaniments. They could even morph a synthetically-twisted, moaning interlude of “Get Down, Make Love” into “It’s Late.” So, while this is not Queen unadorned, there was less pomp at hand. The band, though, demonstrate themselves nonetheless full of circumstance.
The true live tracks arrive on the third disc: highlights from a September 1973 performance at London’s Hippodrome, a 1981 concert from São Paulo, Brazil, and a June 1986 show from Mannheim, Germany. The time-warp of these three concerts on one disc gives an amplified view of the band’s peak live powers. The first performance comes shortly before their successful run at the Rainbow while the last was recorded within a month of the band’s final performance ever. You can hear Mercury grow from a cheeky theatre fop to a sharp-tongued master of the stadium stage.
The music is and always will be the main draw, and the three music CDs of the deluxe set deliver. One can wish, perhaps, that we had the full live shows instead of the highlights, but this was how they were broadcast, so the recordings are faithful to the title. Equally true to the title, and bothersome for it, is the decision to include the deejay talk with the recordings. The put-on drunk- and stoned-inflected banter of the deejays sound dated. It amplifies the authenticity of these recorded artifacts, but it detracts from their listenability. We know from the earlier example of Queen At the BBC that they don’t need to be there.
The question of need will no doubt extend to the deluxe edition’s three remaining CDs, which collect 17 interviews that span of 220 minutes. Grumbling is inevitable, but Hollywood have, I’d argue, ably protected themselves from accusations of money-grubbing by giving fans a choice of formats. Again, the casual and even most deep fans will be well-served by the 2-CD or 3-LP versions of On Air. Completists have the deluxe option, and while it’s hard to imagine even the most joyfully obsessive Queen fan giving the interview CDs multiple listens, there are many fun or rewarding moments to be found. Having recently read Mark Blake’s excellent bio of the band, Is this the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen, these interviews provided additional light to that narrative.
It’s interesting and worthwhile, too, to hear the band members speaking in their voices. Queen, the band, did a better job than most during their heyday of keeping the monolithic facade of the band itself at the forefront, hiding their individual personalities behind it. In print interviews, especially, the band members were often guarded and given to corporate-speak. The spontaneity of the live microphone captures the members in less guarded moments and humanizes them. The band’s combative relationship with the music print media comes through in some the conversations, as does their humor. If there’s anything to criticize beyond the sound quality of some of the recordings -- did Kenny Everett always sound so incoherent and, if so, how did he ever become a radio institution? -- it’s that the BBC didn’t apparently find the band interesting enough to interview until they were already superstars. The earliest discussion here is from 1977, following the release of A Day At the Races; wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear the band who made those 1973-74 BBC studio recordings reflect upon their creative process? Tom Browne’s News of the World-era interview elicits recollections of the band’s earlier years, as does a brief conversation with producer Roy Thomas Baker, but these are, of course, retrospective, so shaped by hindsight.
The deluxe edition of Queen On Air serves the band’s legacy well. Its handsome packaging and informative, well-documented booklet attest to the care that went into its creation. Having the whole of Queen’s BBC studio recordings available can only enhance the band’s status. The bonus live material merely emphasizes what was already known: that they were among the best stage acts of their era. The interviews humanize them and, ultimately, add to our understanding of both their creative powers and music-business prowess.