The Best Of Queen
In lieu of the Queen Remasters coming to a store near you I would like to take a critical reevaluation of the bands discography. The years I’ll be briefly synopsizing span 1973-1980 because, after that, they started to suck tailpipe.
Other than Brian May’s guitar sound, amazingly unique and recognizable even then, Queen I wears its influences on their collective sleeves. Led Zeppelin was the musical template and Yes was the model for the Tolkeinesque lyrical wankery. And lyrical wankery is what it was, folks; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. “Great King Rat” and “My Fairy King” were two of the worst offenders, but the award for the worst Queen song EVER was, and will always remain, “Jesus”. Freddie Mercury, singing in a most dramatic and serious manner, retelling the story of Jesus Of Nazareth over plodding and corny heavy metal instrumentation, should be enough to put you off your dinner, if not turn you into a full-blown atheist. Truth be told only three songs make the grade, and they’re all penned by May: “Keep Yourself Alive”, “Doin’ All Right” and “The Night Comes Down”.
Although there was still a good deal of medieval overtones to this album, the bands musical attack was more focused here. They were starting to differentiate themselves from their peers, even penning their first “hit” with “The Seven Seas Of Rhye”. The sides of the album (remember album sides, kiddies?) are pretty evenly split between May and Mercury, May’s being labeled as Side White and Mercury’s as…surprise!…Side Black. I’ve always preferred May’s compositions on this; no reason, really, I just prefer the tunes. Many musicians cite this as their favorite Queen album. For me, that didn’t come ‘till the next one.
And here’s where it all came together. The Queen sound, so to speak, where the band truly broke away and forged a unique identity. You still had the rockers (Brighton Rock, Now I’m here, Stone Cold Crazy), some ballads (Lily Of The Valley, Dear Friends), but Sheer Heart Attack was the first time Queen showed their sense of humor (Bring Back That Leroy Brown) and gave the world the first real Queen classic in Killer Queen, a song that still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did back then. For many fans the true Queen starts here.
Yes, the one that has Bohemian Rhapsody on it. That one song, though deserving of its place in rock and roll history, has unfairly eclipsed the rest of this album, which happens to contain some of the best music this band would ever produce. I would put the opening four songs on this album against any other band’s first four songs (on any album) in the history of the genre, Beatles included (I don’t count the novelty number Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon; I consider that an entertaining but slight interlude). Death On Two Legs, I’m In Love With My Car, You’re My Best Friend and ’39 are pretty special, but the really amazing fact is that each was penned by a different member of the group. There are other standouts, too: May’s The Prophets Song rivals Bohemian Rhapsody in its ambition, and Good Company, also by May, is a charming piece of nostalgia. The lyrical pretensions were still there, but so what? That’s just part of the Queen charm.
In every sense this is a sequel to A Night at the Opera. It feels a little light, although it really does contain some great songs, chief among them Somebody To Love, Millionaire Waltz and Tie Your Mother Down. Some songs have a hazy, lazy overtone to them and tend to bog down the rest of the album. Drowse sounds just like you’d think it’d sound, White Man is clueless heavy metal drivel and Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy is Bring Back That Leroy Brown Part II. Overall, it’s just an ok Queen album.
The cover artwork by science fiction artist (and Mad magazine cover artist) Kelly Freas is iconic. The Red Hot Chili Peppers copied it’s concept for their Mother’s Milk album back in ’89. But great artwork isn’t enough, is it? Thankfully the band realized that they perhaps pushed the operatic envelope as far as they could with …Races, and got dirty with News Of The World. It sounds like nothing the band had released up to this point and is all the better for it. Get Down Make Love, hippy-dippy title aside, was covered beautifully by Nine Inch Nails and is by far the weirdest number in Queen’s catalog. Jesus, they even answered the punk rockers with their own sonic boom, Sheer Heart Attack, which was a precursor to thrash metal. All Dead, All Dead, Sleeping On The Sidewalk, My Melancholy Blues, Fight From The Inside and Who Needs You are all uncharacteristically dark, perhaps giving us a peek into the band dynamics around this time. And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this album contained the still fantastic We Will Rock You (that solo still thrills!) and the somewhat maudlin and definitely overplayed We Are The Champions.
Rolling Stone remarked that Jazz was “utter jive”, and although I hate to side with that rag I have to admit that they got it partly right. Mustapha is Middle East weirdness, but I kind of dig it; it certainly wouldn’t get aired in these times, though. The best songs this time around are not the straight ahead rockers, they are most definitely the ballads and the oddballs: In Only Seven Days, Dreamers Ball, Roger Taylor’s Fun It (and More Of That Jazz) and Freddie’s not-so-subtle coming out show tune Don’t Stop Me Now.
How do you judge a live album? Every band in the 70’s put one a double live album, and Queen was overdue. I don’t particularly cotton to live albums much, and this one is no exception.
Nobody prior to 1980 associated the term “funky” with Queen. With the release of Another One Bites The Dust and the album (and, in particular May’s Dragon Attack) they had assimilated that genre into their collective as well. In addition to funk the band also embraced the New Wave; Taylor and Deacon in particular. It’s the most varied album in a discography full of varied albums, and The Game not only turned out to be Queen’s biggest selling album to date but also led to their downfall, at least in the United States. The British Isles stayed true to them until the bitter end. Queen reached their zenith with The Game, an unabashed ‘pop’ album and the critics, as usual, loathed it.
Then things started to go downhill after that, and fast. After releasing “Under Pressure” with David Bowie they offered up Hot Space, a strange hodge-podge of watered down funk, cheesy lyrics and an earnest, but sappy tribute to the recently assassinated John Lennon (“Life Is Real–Song For Lennon“). Brian May, understandably, went into a deep depression not long after the album was released.
And then things got ugly and I stopped caring…