Off the Charts

Queen in the ’70s

Now that the first trailers have been released for Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about Freddie Mercury and the band Queen, the extraordinary song that the movie was named after is back to selling like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. By all means, download “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Queen’s long list of hits. But don’t ignore other interesting tracks that, although they never made the big time, help to define the band.

To be honest, this whole column could be devoted to the first two albums, Queen (1973) and Queen II (1974). Those collections not only preview what the four Brits would become over their 15 studio albums, but also give a glimmer of a path they might have taken.

The first album ranges from rock so heavy that it sinks (“Great King Rat”) to shimmering webs of imagination (“My Fairy King”). Somewhere in the middle, and a harbinger of guitarist Brian May’s introspective, nostalgia-themed lyrics, is “The Night Comes Down.” The originality of the intro alone makes this worth hearing, the way May uses running guitar lines as percussion. It could be heading toward a metal headbanging number (they were very into a certain young band called Black Sabbath at the time), but that’s the next surprise. This almost painfully brittle opening relaxes at about 0:55 into a lyrical melody, sung by Mercury. But underpinning the flowing vocal lines is the relentless tight march of May’s guitar, an effective emotional paradox.

 

Queen II finds front-man Mercury flavoring the band’s tone with his obsession with the fantastical. If you want to know what the multi-part, contrastive compositional style of “Bohemian Rhapsody” developed from, listen to “March of the Black Queen.”  But you’ll learn even more about Mercury from “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke.” It’s a rock song named after and inspired by a painting in the Tate Gallery. That’s Queen in a nutshell: somehow equally nerdy and hardcore.

Charles Dadd painted his jam-packed, ribald version of fairyland in the mid 19th-century while incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. Apparently his madness spoke to Mercury’s; the song is as busy and frantic as its visual source. This video shows the elements in the Dadd painting as they come up in the song:

 

“Bohemian Rhapsody” was introduced to the world on the 1975 album A Night at the Opera, one of the most-analyzed records in rock history, so one I will skip over here. Queen followed up A Night at the Opera with an album that parallels it almost song by song; they even named it after another Marx Brothers movie, A Day at the Races (1976).

While May’s “The Prophet” on Night is less misguided (if not less pompous) than his “White Man” on Races, Roger Taylor makes a contribution to the later album that’s substantively more interesting than his fun but silly toe-tapper “I’m in Love with My Car” (released as the B-side to “Bo Rhap” and a significant hit of its own).

In “Drowse,” May and bassist John Deacon use mild distortion to create an underwater texture. It’s an ideal sonic environment for a song that’s basically about how good it would be to nap through life. Taylor is in rare, pithy form, wise and wise-cracking. His deadpan, understated delivery – normally his “singing” is closer to screaming – makes all the difference as he drops truths like “Thinkin’ it right / Doin’ it wrong / It’s easier from an armchair.”

 

The closest thing A Day at the Races has to parallel Opera’s “Bo Rhap” is “The Millionaire Waltz,” a lush, multi-movement Mercury creation. It shows off his admirable if idiosyncratic piano chops, a skill he lost interest in as prowling and voguing around the stage became the focus of his performance style. Mercury’s sweepingly melodramatic falsetto is backed here by more vocal harmonies –largely sung by himself– than producer Roy Thomas Baker could do with the 24-track analog tape, causing him to “bounce” each generation of 24 tracks down into sub-mixes (the technique used for “Bo Rhap” as well).

May’s waltzing guitar symphony in the middle of this cut is a glorious thing to behold.

 

The News of the World album (1977), beloved as much for its sci-fi cover art as it is for introducing the world to “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” did very well in the U.S. While that famous pair of songs is still heard in sports arenas around the world, “Sleeping on the Sidewalk” never got much attention.

Brian May’s shyly snide takedown of the recording industry deserves a latter-day listen, both for its message and its construction. The opening guitar riff sets up a loping blues rhythm that carries this tale of a trumpet player swept up by record execs and then unceremoniously dumped. Queen had its share of problems with bad contracts in its first few years, but while Mercury always wanted revenge — listen to the songs “Flick of the Wrist” and “Death on Two Legs” to hear his fury – May seems to have longed for the time when they weren’t famous, or even signed, and could just go about the business of playing music:

 

Despite its name, the 1978 album Jazz contains no music in that genre. But included in its mix of wonderfully bizarre classic Mercury-penned hits (“Bicycle Race”) and perhaps the worst song Taylor ever wrote (“Fun It”) is a delightful gem by May.

“Dreamers Ball” relishes two of ʼ70s-era Queen’s best features, which the band allowed to slip away over the following decade. First, there’s May’s soulful, singing guitar lines in tight counterpoint, with as much lyricism and richness as a full orchestra. Starting in 1980, the “No synths” line Queen had proudly displayed on their LP jackets was a thing of the past. And once synthesized sounds came into Queen’s music, the role of May’s guitar changed as well.

And then there’s Mercury’s silky, supple voice, which he purposefully roughed up with cigarettes in the early 1980s because he liked the more macho sound it gave him. So, enjoy this last vestige of Queen’s more delicate nature:

 

Despite the changes in the band’s musical attitudes (not to mention their changing attitudes toward working together), they remained an ensemble with all original members until Mercury’s death from AIDS in 1992; Queen put out one last studio album in 1995, using archived material. Tune in next time for a look at their output beginning in 1980.