Now that the national rending of garments and institutional donning of sackcloth and ashes has passed, a chance to take stock of all the Queen offered. At least early in the reign.
Wind Back Wednesday bends the knee to 2011 and a reissue series of the first five album from London’s four-piece pomp rock band – first of their name – whose members shared a title if not necessarily a crown with their almost as famous neighbour, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary.
Why 2011 for these reissues? Though the band had formed in 1970 and would release the self-titled debut in 1973, it was in 1971 that the “classic” lineup coalesced.
And if you’re wondering, Spectrum in the SMH at the time asked for a kind of “what makes up this thing you’ve been listening to” pie chart. That’s included here.
Queen; Queen II; Sheer Heart Attack; A Night At The Opera; A Day At The Races (Universal)
A 40th ANNIVERSARY ostensibly is the reason for a program of reissues of the full, now remastered, Queen catalogue, beginning with these first five albums released between 1973 and 1976 (all with not that essential bonus tracks). Of course, the more cynical may note the fact that having changed labels from EMI to Universal for a not inconsiderable sum, recoupment is in order.
If the somewhat hesitant self-titled debut did not make Freddie Bulsara/Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Meddows-May immediate stars it did at least give them a sense of who Queen could be if they had the confidence: a hard rock band with a hard to hold down pop sense which could appear from song to song and sometimes from verse to chorus. And they had three (and later four) songwriters who between them could tap into just about any style of popular song.
So on Queen II they went for more. Of everything.
Exhibit A is their first hit, Seven Seas Of Rhye, which rattles along, swoops and dives, puts out the guitar hero moves and ends with music hall singalong. Exhibit B could well be the triple hit late in the album begun by the romping electro folk of The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, continued in short interlude Nevermore, and topped by the Beach Boys-meets-Deep Purple flair of The March Of The Black Queen.
Here are the foundation stones of the still to come Bohemian Rhapsody, in the camp theatrics, the excess and touches sly humour underpinned by romantic classical borrowings, thick choral work, and racing hearts in none-more-‘70s guitar work.
Common wisdom has it that album number four, Night At The Opera, is the quintessential Queen album, not only for the ridiculous and still fabulous japery of Bohemian Rhapsody but also You’re My Best Friend (Deacon’s first contribution as a songwriter – not bad for the fourth stringer eh?) which is almost as much a pop radio standard.
But its predecessor, Sheer Heart Attack, is where Queen the rock band was at its peak with the rapid moves of Stone Cold Crazy and the power of Brighton Rock decidedly firm of intention, and then Killer Queen rippling with chutzpah as much as tune, Misfire putting on some moves and Dear Friends the soundtrack-in-waiting for a Richard Curtis film.
By A Day At The Races, the slickness was heading towards smugness and while the brains are still active there’s less heart at work. Tie Your Mother Down is a hoot, Somebody To Love is cute and You Take My Breath Away moving in its way, but something needed to change.
With early Queen ridiculousness was never more than one extra harmony vocal or one more guitar away, bombast was a constant companion and eagerness to be noticed, to be listened to, to be loved, was a given. That’s why listening can be an obstacle course – of taste, humour, upper limits of tolerance – but never a boring exercise.
20 per cent Jimi Hendrix
10 per cent English music hall
40 per cent ex-bucktoothed outsider schoolboy exultant
20 per cent indulgence
10 per cent Beatles