Comedian and Queen fan Al Murray once said that in the days of cassettes, if you left one in your car stereo for long enough it would turn into Queen’s Greatest Hits . It is still the biggest selling album of all time in the UK, with six million copies sold. It has also sold eight million in the US and twenty-five million worldwide.
More than that, it is also arguably the greatest ‘greatest hits’ album of them all. And the way it begins – with Freddie Mercury’s rock opera masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody cutting to the disco smash Another One Bites The Dust, written by bassist John Deacon – is evidence of two things about Queen. First, that this band could master completely different genres. Second, that it wasn’t just their singer who could write great songs.
Mercury, of course, wrote many of the defining hits of the band’s career: Killer Queen, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Don’t Stop Me Now, Somebody To Love, We Are The Champions, and of course Bohemian Rhapsody.
But in a group overloaded with talent, there were four brilliant songwriters. Deacon’s most famous songs include You’re My Best Friend, I Want To Break Free and Spread Your Wings. Guitarist Brian May wrote We Will Rock You, Fat Bottomed Girls, Tie Your Mother Down, Now I’m Here, Hammer To Fall, The Show Must Go On and Flash. And drummer Roger Taylor wrote the UK number ones Innuendo and These Are the Days Of Our Lives, plus other huge hits such as Radio Ga Ga and A Kind Of Magic.
And while Freddie sang the hits – he was the lead singer, after all – both Taylor and May stepped up to the mic on a number of deep cuts from the band’s vast catalogue. And here they are. Listen to them in all their glory: in ascending order, the ten best Queen songs that Freddie didn’t sing…
10. Some Day One Day
In its original vinyl format, 1974’s Queen II was very much an album of two sides. The first was named ‘Side White’ and featured four tracks written by Brian May and one by Roger Taylor. The second, ‘Side Black’, contained six tracks by Freddie Mercury. Among those on ‘Side White’ was the first song the band recorded with May on lead vocals. Some Day One Day is a mournful acoustic ballad that May sings in an understated style, although the song is finished with a flourish more typical of Queen, with three guitar solos interwoven.
9. Modern Time Rock ’N’ Roll
On the debut album – titled simply Queen, and released in 1973 – May and Taylor provided backing vocals on various tracks, something that was integral to the band’s signature sound. But Taylor sang lead on the one song he wrote, Modern Times Rock ‘N’ Roll, a blast of fast and loose heavy metal that’s done in under two minutes. It proved that Taylor had a great high-end, raspy voice, as well as being a brilliant drummer and, of course, the best looking guy in the band.
8. She Makes Me (Stormtrooper In Stilettos)
The title was pure Freddie, but this dreamlike ballad from 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack was written and sung by Brian May. The strumming of acoustic guitars and May’s soft, melancholy vocal are reminiscent of George Harrison’s solo magnum opus All Things Must Pass (the one with My Sweet Lord on it). In a bizarre twist, May ended the song with what he called “nightmare New York sounds” – in the distance a police siren wailing, in the foreground the sighs of deep breathing. From the strait-laced May, it’s a pretty weird trip.
7. Sail Away Sweet Sister
For the band’s 1980 album The Game, their big breakthrough in the US, Brian May contributed three great songs. Freddie sang two of them: the melodramatic ballad Save Me, and the funk rock ass-kicker Dragon Attack. The third, Sail Away Sweet Sister, was sung by May, although Freddie took the lead mid-song, and harmony vocals enhanced a grandstanding chorus in the classic Queen tradition. May also harmonizes with himself, quite brilliantly, in a multi-tracked guitar solo.
6. Long Away
Queens’ fifth album A Day At The Races begins with the unmistakable sound of Brian May playing his famous hand-made ‘Red Special’ guitar – in the grandiose intro to his killer heavy rock song Tie Your Mother Down. With this guitar, also known as ‘The Fireplace’ and ‘The Old Lady’, May created a sound that was utterly unique. But for another song on this album – Long Away, which he wrote and sang – May wanted a different texture and feel. He used an electric Burns twelve-string, with the Red Special utilized only for a short solo. As a result, the song’s chiming riff sounded like The Byrds. And with weighty lyrics from May – “For every star in heaven/There’s a sad soul here today” – Long Away is one of the saddest songs that Queen ever recorded.
In 1976, when A Day In The Races was released, the golden age of glam rock had long since passed. But in Roger Taylor’s song Drowse there was an echo of the elegiac ballads of Mott The Hoople, and a melody evocative of the late-period T.Rex classic Teenage Dream.
Drowse is one of the subtlest Queen songs, and one of the deepest: in essence, a meditation on Taylor’s youth, in which he sings of his own teenage dream: “Never wanted to be the boy next door/Always thought I’d be something more.” But if the prevailing mood is one of rock star ennui, there is knowing humour at the end, as Taylor recalls the extent of his youthful ambition: “I think I’ll be Clint Eastwood/Oh no, Jimi Hendrix, he looks good/Let’s try William the Conqueror…”
4. All Dead, All Dead
For the Queen connoisseur, the 1977 album News Of The World is an unsung classic. It kicks off with two of the band’s most famous songs, We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, but the quality runs deep in tracks such as Spread Your Wings (a wonderful power ballad that flopped as a single), It’s Late (a heavy rocking throwback to the days of Queen II), Sheer Heart Attack (a proto-thrash metal blowout, not completed in time for the album of the same name), and a beautiful, piano-led song by Brian May – All Dead, All Dead. May would later reveal that the song was written in memory of his recently deceased pet cat.
3. Tenement Funster
Unusually for a drummer, Roger Taylor was writing and singing songs from the very start of Queen’s recording career. But it was on the band’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack, that he delivered his first great song. As indicated in the original working titles he had for the song – Teen Dreams and Young And Crazy – Taylor wrote Tenement Funster as a two-fingered salute to anyone and everyone who didn’t share his enthusiasm for loud rock ’n’ roll and the fashion choices that came with it.
The chorus was all attitude: “Oh, give me a good guitar, and you can say that my hair’s a disgrace/Or just give me an open car, I’ll make the speed of light outta this place.” It reads like clichéd claptrap, but Taylor sang it like he believed every word. And the band played it with a moody swagger. Queen never sounded cooler.
Brian May called it a “sci-fi skiffle” – an acoustic song in the folk tradition, but with a lyric in which May told the story of astronauts returning to Earth after a year-long space mission to discover that a whole century has passed in their absence. It was something to do with Einstein’s special theory of relativity, apparently. But whatever the scientific complexities in its narrative, ’39 was on a musical level a very simple song: so much so that George Michael used to busk it on the London Underground before he got famous with Wham! (Michael named ’39 as his favourite Queen song, and sang it with the surviving members of Queen at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in 1992). Freddie used to sing it in Queen concerts, but the version on A Night At The Opera, sung by May, is definitive.
1. I’m In Love With My Car
Roger Taylor didn’t have his own hit song until Radio Ga Ga in 1984, but he certainly made a few quid out of the one he wrote for A Night At The Opera. Famously, when Bohemian Rhapsody was released as a single, I’m In Love With My Car was the b-side, so earning Taylor an equal split of the royalties with Mercury: the source of some friction between the two.
For all that, I’m In Love With My Car was a great song in its own right. It was inspired by a Queen roadie who considered his Triumph sports car the love of his life, hence the note in the album credits: ‘Dedicated to Jonathan Harris, boy racer to the end.’ Taylor’s lyrics included much joking on this theme: “Told my girl I had to forget her/Rather buy me a new carburettor.”
Indeed, Brian May had dismissed the song as a joke when Taylor first played a demo for him. But the finished article was so good – a supercharged rock’n’roll number, played the way only Queen could, with Taylor the star of the show – that I’m In Love With My Car turned into a genuine Queen anthem. The joke was on Brian. And Freddie.