An early collection of BBC radio sessions show Britain's glam rock kings taking their painstaking technique to a looser environment, with often winning results.
Queen was a band that thrived in two very different environments: the recording studio and the concert stage. In the studio, they were able to practice their fussy perfectionism, layering multi-tracked guitars and angelic harmonies alongside stop-on-a-dime time signature shifts. Onstage, they brought both their staggering rock anthems and campy theatrics to the people, led by the late, great Freddie Mercury, one of rock music’s most accomplished vocalists and charismatic frontmen.
Which is why On Air is such a curious and unusual posthumous release. Fitting squarely between these two settings, it’s a collection of the band’s six BBC Session radio appearances between 1973 and 1977. The timeframe is really the blessing here: during these years, Queen released their first six albums, arguably their “golden age", before they finally acquiesced to the mighty synthesizer and moved from conceptual glam rock to (mostly) slick pop singles.
On Air shows a mighty band moving through the early stage of its career with typical skill and confidence, and the sessions run the gamut from polished studio recreations (despite the “radio station session” environment, some of the songs definitely benefit from overdubs) to rough early run-throughs of songs that would get more oomph in their finished album versions. Interestingly, only songs from the first three albums (Queen, Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack) and the sixth (1977’s News of the World) get exposure here -- they were obviously preoccupied with taking over the world during the recording and releasing of albums four and five (A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races).
On Air is, among many other things, a terrific way to discover (or rediscover) both the singles and -- perhaps more importantly -- the deep album cuts from these early releases. Several songs from their self-titled debut album are present, including Mercury’s multifaceted, theatrical “My Fairy King", guitarist Brian May’s frenetic “Keep Yourself Alive”, and drummer Roger Taylor’s Sabbath-meets-Stooges speed metal “Modern Times Rock’n’Roll". Meanwhile, songs from the Queen II album struggle a bit on these recordings. Their initially-derided-yet-ultimately-reevaluated second album was essentially Queen in full prog rock mode, and many of these songs have a rough, unfinished feel that is in contrast to the more polished final product: Mercury’s guitar–drenched “Ogre Battle” sounds tentative, and May’s “White Queen (As It Began)” is a little rough around the edges. But there’s also the added treat of the high-octane, bluesy, Zeppelinesque “See What a Fool I’ve Been” (an early b-side).
With each subsequent BBC session chronicling subsequent Queen studio albums, a new side of the band is exposed. The handful of songs from Sheer Heart Attack highlight a leaner, meaner Queen inching away from some of the progressive rock atmosphere into more traditional rock fare. May’s “Now I’m Here” is a strutting, glam-rock stomper that may have been influenced by their early touring days with Mott the Hoople; the dark, slinky, piano-led funk of Mercury’s “Flick of the Wrist” shows a huge maturation of the singer/pianist’s songwriting skills, and Taylor -- always the shaggy rocker to the more showy, elaborate other members -- is at the top of his game with the sullen, rebellious “Tenement Funster” (which includes the priceless opening couplet: “My new purple shoes been amazin’ the people next door / And my rock ’n’ roll 45s been enraging the folks on the lower floor”).
The final BBC session was recorded on October 28, 1977, the day News of the World was released. At this point, the band is six albums into an illustrious career but are hardly resting on laurels. There’s an aggressive, guitar-heavy vibe to these tracks, including both the traditional boom, boom clap version and the “fast” full-band version of “We Will Rock You” (a version they opened with many times in concert), the jazzy, torch song majesty of Mercury’s “My Melancholy Blues” and bassist John Deacon’s single “Spread Your Wings". The latter is one of the set’s hidden gems – a fairly standard, low-key ballad in its initial album form, the band amps it up here, with brash, distorted-yet-melodic guitar and Mercury’s impassioned singing egging on the other guys and sounding like one of England’s greatest garage bands. They even take it one step further by playing the coda in double time while May solos his ass off and Mercury, Deacon, and Taylor breathlessly keep up.
Like pretty much everything Queen did in those early, career-forming years, On Air is a brilliant, blistering snapshot of a band that reveled in both campy excess and bruising hard rock. Several bands tried, but nobody was quite able to copy their sound, which sounds equally winning in the recording studio, the concert stage, or in a radio station.