Buyer's Guide: Queen

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Queen were such a uniquely talented band that genre identification is virtually impossible. They could certainly rock as hard as anyone, but there are also elements of metal, jazz, funk, opera, vaudeville and ragtime in their music.

In the 20-odd years they were on the scene, from their inception in 1970 to the tragic death of frontman Freddie Mercury in 1992, Queen constantly reinvented themselves, pushing the envelope as their matchless musicality complemented the outrageous showmanship of Mercury.

Guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor were all successful students, combining their studies with a fermenting musical vision. The author was fortunate enough to see the band in October 1973 at Imperial College in London, around the release of their monumental debut album. They were overwhelming; an inspiring experience.

Queen’s intelligence and acuity demanded that they constantly took risks. But almost all of them came off. And none more so than Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the most remarkable hit singles ever. These days the track is something of a cliché, thanks in no small measure to Wayne’s World, but when it first hit the chart it defied convention in terms of length, lyricism and musical influence. Subsequently, Queen became iconic – individual yet such a huge influence on much of what’s happened musically in the past quarter-century. They scarcely put a foot wrong as the music developed in surprising directions. Even 1982’s Hot Space excursion into the dance realm wasn’t a complete failure.

Mercury’s flamboyant character and lifestyle gave the band an added media-savvy profile. After his death, Queen wisely decided they couldn’t even think of carrying on without him. But 12 years on their stock is higher than ever, thanks partly to the musical We Will Rock You, and the use of both that song and We Are The Champions at sporting events worldwide. Queen: typically British, but in such an atypical way.

ESSENTIAL - CLASSIC

Queen

EMI, 1973

A glorious hard rock marathon that was unlike anything else around at the time, this album started it all. Maybe it was the unmistakable unique sound of Brian May’s home-made guitar. Perhaps it was the panoramic production of Roy Thomas Baker. Or even the soaring voice of Freddie Mercury. Whatever the secret, Queen was one of those scary albums that simply burst its seams. The record was just too powerful, multi-dimensional and stunning to sit happily and contentedly in the grooves. The performances were all virtuoso. And those songs… oh, those songs: beginning with the cast-iron Keep Yourself Alive, breathless and languid in the same phrase, then Great King Rat, Son & Daughter, Liar, and finishing with Seven Seas Of Rhye. This was the stuff of legends.

ESENTIAL - CLASSIC

A Night At The Opera

EMI, 1975

Yes, the one with Bohemian Rhapsody, next to Stairway To Heaven the most played and analysed rock anthem ever. Yet a song nobody in their right mind would dare try to cover – well, apart from Bad News, Fuzzbox and Elaine Page. But this was just one jewel in a crown cluttered with precious gems.

This was the record where Queen really delivered in terms of diversity. You want metal? There’s Death On Two Legs and Sweet Lady. Pop? I’m In Love With My Car, You’re My Best Friend. Camp ditties: Seaside Rendezvous and Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon. Even a proggie moment: 39. And finishing with God Save The Queen is a moment when pretension, ego and self-deprecation collide perfectly.

SUPERIOR - REPUTATION CEMENTING

Sheer Heart Attack

EMI, 1974

Queen’s third album, and the one that saw them first developing their style into more diverse areas. They still had the hard rock roots [which thankfully they would never lose], with Brighton Rock, Killer Queen and Stone Cold Crazy among the finest fist-pounding anthems Queen ever did, while Tenement Funster proved to be a classy locale.

The band dipped their toes into ballad territory with Dear Friend and Lily Of The Valley, while there was a distinct Caribbean flavour to Misfire. There was a touch of ragtime with Bring Back That Leroy Brown, and In The Lap Of The GodsRevisited was an epic moment that would prove to be a stage favourite.

Sheer Heart Attack had a sense of joy and attitude about it that, years later, can be put down to confidence. Queen just knew they were on the verge of something spectacular.

SUPERIOR - REPUTATION CEMENTING

Live Killers

EMI, 1979

By the end of the 1970s Queen had become a true-blood mainstream band, the sort who regularly enjoyed a huge chart impact. So it wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone if their live shows were starting to suffer. But they didn’t.

Recorded earlier in 1979, the double Live Killers album was all the proof anyone could need that Queen were one of the best live bands in the world, and they could teach anyone a few tricks.

We Will Rock You opens up, and this metallic, bombastic and ferocious delivery just stuns. The inspired medley of Death On Two Legs, Killer Queen, Bicycle Race and I’m In Love With My Car works so well you’d swear this was the way the songs were created.

There are few better live albums than this, and the absence of the visual impact only serves to heighten the band’s sheer musical audacity and verve.

SUPERIOR - REPUTATION CEMENTING

Jazz

EMI, 1978

Often unfairly criticised for being a little too off-the-wall and idiosyncratic for general consumption, yet Jazz offers some of the most satisfying moments in Queen’s career.

Titled more for the fact that the band now really felt they could go anywhere musically than for the style of the songs, Jazz took some extreme turns. Mustapha has a middle-eastern sense of humour, Fat-Bottom Girls was a cod-macho piss-take and Bicycle Race offers up some neat Carry On-inspired double entendres. Don’t Stop Me Now is the Broadway song Cole Porter never wrote, Fun It has disco pretensions and Dreamers Ball comes straight off the music-hall stage.

Jazz isn’t a true rock album, but the spirit of it reflects the fact that nobody understood better than Queen what rock music should be all about. Jazz is a joy.

GOOD - WORTH EXPLORING

A Day At The Races

EMI, 1976

Many bands who had achieved even 10 per cent of what Queen had done with A Night At The Opera would have just sat back on their success and ridden the wave. But not Queen. From the opening fanfare that leads into the relentless Tie Your Mother Down, you know this isn’t going to be a wishy-washy, samey follow-up to… Opera.

Somebody To Love has some succulent gospel harmonies, Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy owes something to Noël Coward, and White Man takes a political manoeuvre into Native American territory. The band also show their ability to surprise on Teo Torriatte, which includes Japanese lyrics. As Queen were one of the biggest bands in the world, it gave them the mandate to be innovative.

GOOD - WORTH EXPLORING

Queen II

EMI, 1974

Arguably the heaviest Queen album. Ogre Battle hits the metal trail, The March Of The Black Queen offers prog rock retribution, Father To Son is eerily catchy, Nevermore is a prime-cut ballad.

Stylistically there’s nothing here that wasn’t on the superior debut, and in some respects you can hear the band struggling with the traditional problems of ‘the difficult second album’.

Queen II marked end of the first phase of the band’s career. The band pushed their rock and metal roots as far as they could, and were clearly looking to jump off the train to expand their horizons. It’s probably for this reason that the album lacks the sparkle and bite of Queen and the audacity of the subsequent Sheer Heart Attack.

**THE BEST AND WORST OF THE REST **

AVOID

Hot Space

EMI, 1982

In truth, there are no total duds in the Queen catalogue, only albums which are comparatively disappointing. Of these, Hot Space is certainly most culpable. It was Queen’s slightly misguided attempt to break into the dance market, and while they had the musical skills to carry this off, somehow the whole thing came across at the timer as a patchwork, ill-conceived record.

The main problem isn’t the style of the music, it’s the songwriting. With the exception of the excellent Under Pressure [a collaboration with David Bowie] and the engaging Body Language, the rest of the album falls a little short of the standard Queen fans took for granted.

A confused and unsatisfying release at the time.. But now…well, it’s worn better than you might expect. More a case of listing it below a lot of other Queen albums than totally avoiding.