Rapt fans at a Queen concert, 1973
Four decades ago this summer I attended a pool party for our eighth grade class – our last splash together before becoming lowly high school freshmen. We were invited to bring our favorite records to play on the sound system. I brought along Queen’s latest LP, A Night at the Opera, featuring the iconic finale, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was a hit. Of the records brought to the party mine got played through a couple of times. My cool factor rose several notches. Cool enough to have an actual girl sit on my shoulders for a round of “chicken fight” with another boy-girl pair.
The first time I heard Queen on the radio (’75) I was drawn to their dense and unique sound. I went to the drug store and bought the single “Killer Queen,” with its scintillating B-side, “Flick of the Wrist” featuring some exotically Middle Eastern guitar leads. A rocking band with some tight female harmonies – or so I thought. Turns out those high-pitched vocals belonged to Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor.
When “Bohemian Rhapsody” became the definitive rock anthem of the spring of ’76 I scraped together seven bucks to buy A Night at the Opera. After immersing myself in it for weeks I turned to collecting their older albums – a good exercise, because in my evaluation everything Queen did after Opera was marked by steady decline. By the ’80s they would become unlistenable to my ears.
Side 1 of Sheer Heart Attack (’75) is Queen’s high water mark. Book-ended by two sizzling rockers by guitarist Brian May (“Brighton Rock” and “Now I’m Here”), the middle section is comprised of “Killer Queen” and a three-track suite: Taylor’s proto-grunge “Tenement Funster,” featuring a guitar break that nods to David Gilmour on “Time”; the frenetic “Flick of the Wrist,” and the classically infused “Lily of the Valley.”
To say Queen II (’74) is excessive is an understatement. The tracks are so busy and overwrought there’s hardly one I can nowadays listen all the way through, though each has its moments. “Ogre Battle,” for example, opens with shredding, Hendrix-like backwards riff that preludes speed metal.
But the self-titled Queen (’73) has some real jewels. Best known for the single “Keep Yourself Alive” and the AOR favorite “Liar,” the album has lyrical depth to match a musical range that keeps the listener guessing. It includes a dark and obscure track buried at the end of side one. The more I hear it the more convinced I am that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is its counterpart, or aftermath.
“A band is a like a sausage factory”
In a 1985 interview with Los Angeles DJ Mary Turner, Freddie Mercury cautioned listeners not to read anything into Queen’s music. There are no hidden messages, no political stances; they were not out to change the world. For Mercury, pop music is a business aimed at satisfying consumers. He categorized Queen’s music as “escapist.” Moreover, the songs were like sausages to be eaten and then, well, you know. He especially didn’t see the need for people go prowling around the band’s old material, or cling to it. They should move on to enjoy new things. For Mercury, exploring other genres and making different kinds of music prevented boredom. Anything and everything was possible, acceptable.
Well, perhaps that aesthetic had been at play all along. So much so that Mercury left space for rather looming figure to make three appearances on Queen.
“Great King Rat” (side 1, track 3) is about a “dirty old man” who leads people into destruction. After a tempo change the voice become first person; he beckons people not to believe their Bibles, and reminds them that when “the great Lord when he died, sinners knelt at his side.”
“Jesus” (side 2, track 5) is highly visual, depicting crowds “going down to see the Lord Jesus,” in search of healing. It’s impossible to determine the slant of this song: curious historical sketch or mocking satire: an “unclean” leper kneeling at Jesus’ feet “rang his bell.”
But the innermost track — the one an impatient listener might skip while flipping the vinyl to get to “Liar” — is no joke.
Bismillah, no! We will not let you go…
“My Fairy King” is Queen at their theatrical best, encapsulating the ground they would cover over their first four albums in four minutes and four seconds. Lyrically, it depicts a land brimming with childhood imagination. Its king “can see things that are not there for you and me.” Lions lie down down with deer; dragons fly like sparrows through the air. In this world the king “can do right and nothing wrong.”
Then came men to savage in the night
To run like thieves and to kill like knives
To take away the power from the magic hand
To bring about the ruin to the promised land
The scene turns to “burning hell with screaming pain,” and a voice calls out in the cacophony, “Son of heaven set me free and let me go.”
A plaintive section follows with a piano line and lyric that anticipate the theme of “Bohemian Rhapsody”:
Someone, someone…has drained the colour from my wings
Broken my fairy circle ring
And shamed the king in all his pride
Changed the winds and wronged the tides
O Mother Mercury
Look what they’ve done to me (yeah)
I cannot run I cannot hide
The denouement of guitar and piano builds in intensity before subsiding in a pool of dying notes, like the light fading from a Maxfield Parrish painting.
As if to say, nothing really matters.