The greatest band never to get the live album they deserved? For years it was a two-way tie between Led Zeppelin and Queen. Then Jimmy Page plugged that Zep-shaped hole with How The West Was Won, leaving Queen with creaky old Live Killers, a handful of ’tache-era makeweights and rock’s own wooden spoon.
Live At The Rainbow ’74 is the answer to somebody’s prayers: two (heavily bootlegged) shows, recorded at either end of that glorious, gaudy year in the fabled North London theatre, documenting the exact point the chrysalis cracked open and the butterfly wings began to unfurl. The first gig, booked on the back of Queen II, is a lap of honour for their first phase. The other, capturing them as they released Sheer Heart Attack, was the starting gun on their righteously successful second.
Perversely, it’s the latter that’s most disappointing. Sure, it’s got the better track-listing – anyone who wants to argue with Stone Cold Crazy and Now I’m Here is on a hiding to nothing. But it feels… wrong. Sluggish. Distant. Ogre Battle – that batty collision of Zeppelin, Tolkein and Aubrey Beardsley – sounds like four men wading through tar in Zandra Rhodes frocks. Not a good look however you slice it.
Now the good news: the Queen II show is truly tremendous. It’s the sound of a group juiced on their own unassailable confidence and boundless creativity. You can hear the band they started out as on Great King Rat and Keep Yourself Alive, and taste the band they would eventually become on White Queen.
There’s fun to be had in Freddie Mercury’s endearingly gauche stage patter, though not as much fun as hearing them snort through Modern Time Rock’N’Roll like horny steers on the Pamplona Bull Run, or elevating the bluesy See What A Fool I’ve Been from lowly B-side to high-kicking show closer. The story goes that they originally planned to release this as their third album, before the creative rush of Sheer Heart Attack distracted them. They should have. It’s that good.
You’ve got to wonder what else they’re sitting on: Hyde Park ’76, maybe? But for now, 40 years after the event, this is more than fine. Time to hand that wooden spoon back.