Queen’s 1975 album “A Night At The Opera” begins with Freddie Mercury’s flowery piano-playing drifting in out of nowhere. It’s lulling you into a false sense of security, however, as Brian May’s angry guitar riff kicks in with a siren for backing. It builds to a crescendo of stabbing, Psycho-esque licks before a sudden Exorcist-like scream cuts across it and we cut to silence before Freddie’s teasing piano comes in again. The late DJ Gerry Ryan once said this album was “the most over-produced record of all-time.” Look at all the sounds we’ve already had in the opening seconds and he may have had a point. He may also have been a tad unfair. As Brian May said, Queen had more tools to play with in the studio by the mid-70s than the The Beatles had enjoyed back in the 60s and they were determined to take full advantage of them.
Those opening sounds are the intro to a song written by Freddie called “Death On Two Legs” tantalisingly sub-titled “Dedicated to…” It’s Freddie at his most vitriolic recalling John Lennon’s goading of Paul McCartney in his “nasty” song “How Do You Sleep.” “Death On Two Legs” was rumoured to be about Queen’s first managers, the Sheffield brothers, they certainly thought it was about them as they sued Queen (even though they nor anyone else is mentioned by name in the song). What were they so annoyed about? Check out some of the lines Freddie wrote: “Dog with disease/You’re the king of the sleaze/Put your money where your mouth is Mr Know All/Was the fin on your back part of the deal?…SHARK!” Even Brian May asked Freddie if he was sure he wanted to be so full-on but Freddie was insistent. On their live album “Live Killers” four years later, “Death On Two Legs” was described as “the source of many tedious legal battles.” Freddie’s introduction to the song on stage has to be bleeped out three times, I’ll leave it up to you to decide what he said, he was clearly unrepentant. It does end on a positive note: “Make me feel good/I feel good.”
It’s straight into the Noel Coward-esque “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” and we’re back to the Music Hall (the British version of American vaudeville and something Paul McCartney was constantly accused of writing for). Freddie’s muffled vocals were achieved by feeding them into a tin can and re-recording them on a microphone. A simple trick that pays off brilliantly. Whimsical again, the media never got the humour in Queen’s songs and videos and always tore them to shreds.
Next, we’re piling into Roger Taylor’s “I’m In Love WIth My Car.” Freddie and Brian were the Lennon and McCartney of Queen writing most of the early albums between them with Roger Taylor struggling to get any of his early songs into the mix, this being one of them. Brian May couldn’t believe Roger was serious submitting a song with that title for consideration and took offence to it. It’s got this rolling waltz-time beat to it and showcases Roger’s astonishingly high vocals (“the dog whistle voice” Freddie accurately called it). The track became a live favourite in later years and Roger arguably saved Queen in the 80s with his songwriting on huge hits like “Radio Ga Ga” and “A Kind of Magic” when Freddie was more interested in partying than writing lyrics. Here, like the car engines at the end, he was just revving up.
“You’re My Best Friend,” John Deacon’s gorgeous ode to the usually unspoken love of friendship (it was about his wife, actually) is next. Freddie puts in a great vocal on a song that isn’t his.
“’39”, a Brian May composition, is next and it starts out with some folky guitar before a jaunty, country-and-western-style sing-along rolls out before us. The song is about exploration. With its “milky sea” and “new world” references, I always thought it was about The Pilgrim Fathers sailing from Plymouth, England to the New World on The Mayflower. Turns out it was about space travel.
“Sweet Lady” is the closest thing the album comes to filler but is a good rock song that kicks off with Freddie going “Ooh, I like it!”, so he’s clearly into it. The repetition of “Sweet Lady” does get on your nerves a bit but “Seaside Rendezvous” is straight around the corner. It’s okay, again a little bit fillerish for my liking, slight and forgettable.
Brian May’s “The Prophet’s Song” is next and probably the best Queen song you’ve never heard. It’s Queen at their scariest with this apocalyptic epic. Look at the use of words “warning” “storm” “bone-white haze” “Hell” “death” “madman” and you can see where they are going. It’s dark stuff with some absolutely glorious soaring harmonies from the band and a middle section where Freddie repeatedly sings “now I know” in multi-tracked a cappella that just builds and builds and is quite eerie when he starts singing “death all around” like a mantra. Brian said that when Freddie sang backing vocals to his lead vocals, the takes were so similar that the sound phased together. That is a mark of how accurate Freddie was as a singer and how much concentration he put into recording.
From the Book of Revelations to the Book of Love with Love Of My Life. It’s got Brian May on harp but was stripped back to just guitar and vocals more effectively for live performances. Freddie always got the crowd to sing along during it, occasionally standing back and letting the crowd sing it back to him while he stood and applauded their efforts. Even audiences that didn’t speak English knew the words. YouTube it, it’s quite an uplifting experience, spellbinding.
Brian May takes over vocals for his own composition “Good Company” and it’s hard not to hear an echo of The Beatles “When I’m 64” in there, from the cheerful tone of the song with its underlying theme of a despondent man ageing to the use of ukulele (George Formby, a famous British comedian and ukulele player was one of The Beatles favourites) May has admitted that Beatles records, especially The White Album, were The Bible for Queen. All writers have to work out their influences through imitation before they find their own voice.
The second last song on the album is Bohemian Rhapsody, unquestionably one of the greatest songs ever written. A very strange magnum opus with many different parts (ballad, opera, heavy rock), it was actually three songs Freddie had written that he threw together with spectacular results. Freddie never explained what that song was about. If anyone put any theories to him about what they thought the song meant, Freddie just stared at them for a moment and then laughed. He gave nothing away about his songs or himself. The name Freddie Mercury comes from a line in the song My Fairy King on Queen’s self-titled first album from 1973. The line was “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me.” So Freddie Mercury is the “Mama” of Bohemian Rhapsody. “Freddie Mercury just killed a man.” Who is the man? Freddie Mercury was born Farookh Bulsara, could his alter-ego Freddie be the one “killing” him? What sort of death is it? The next line is “Put a gun against his head/Pulled my trigger now he’s dead.” The gun, of course, is a phallic symbol and the use of “my trigger” is significant. Normally you would write “THE trigger”, why is the “my” so important? So Freddie Mercury is “killing” the old Farookh Bulsara by pulling “his” (Farookh’s) trigger (an orgasm? It’s all very Freudian.). It was around 1975 that Freddie Mercury became gay. He was leaving the old him behind, was he worried about having “gone and thrown it all away” meaning a possible negative reaction from family, friends, the media and the public? I’m sure it was on his mind, he’d put everything he had into music and becoming a star and he had a lot riding on this album. Queen were not just poor, they were in debt and needed a smash hit album. Although Bohemian Rhapsody is a very intense, heartfelt song, there is that intentional, overarching preposterousness that means it’s not entirely meant to be taken seriously.
The curtain comes royally down on the album with Queen’s version of the British national anthem “God Save The Queen.” Jimi Hendrix was clearly the influence here with his rock version of America’s national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” still fresh in the memory from a few years before. Freddie Mercury was obsessed with Hendrix and once saw him 14 nights in a row in various pubs and clubs around London.
“A Night At The Opera” is widely regarded as Queen’s best-ever album. Some of their later albums had big hits with some filler on them, particularly “News Of The World” and “Jazz.” It’s my favourite Queen album and one that I never get tired of listening to. The songs are so varied and timeless and universal like all great albums should be. With each passing year, the death of Freddie Mercury is felt more and more sharply. There never has been another one of him in the years since he died and there never will be. This album will be listened to for as long as music is played and that must make old Fred smile wherever he is.
Album produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Queen.
© 2014, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.
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To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.