Tag Archives: Rock music

A Hobbit, Four Beatles, a Queen and a Led Zeppelin: How Tolkien Influenced British Music In The 1960s and 7os

Stew Fantasy Quote Meme

Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.

Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”

Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.

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The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”

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It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.

Beatles LOTR Poster

Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.

 

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It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.

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Lord of the Strings

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”

Freddie 1974

Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.

Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

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His Name Was Prince

Ellen on Prince

The world lost the diminutive genius Prince earlier today. He had the moves of James Brown, the guitar virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix (just listen to the incendiary intro to When Doves Cry), the sexually ambiguous look of Little Richard, the songwriting talent of a shed load of Motown writers and the funk credentials of George Clinton and Earth, Wind and Fire.

I saw him in concert when the Diamonds & Pearls tour reached Dublin in the summer of 1992. The show was in the showjumping arena at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), a place where Hitler’s brother once worked as a waiter (fact). The support acts were Curtis Stigers (remember him?) and Andrew Strong from The Commitments (remember him?). Then it was time for the main event at last.

Prince Dublin

The band struck up, the lights came on and the whole thing reached a crescendo, setting the scene for Prince’s arrival. Then right in the middle of the stage, a little glass coffin rose up with his Royal Purpleness within. The crowd went apeshit and the soundwave went through my head. Prince stepped out, this tiny whirling dervish, and the show never stopped moving for the next two hours. “You’re too funky for me, Dublin!” he said at one stage (and we were, he he). It was a truly dazzling gig. One of the best concerts I’ve ever seen and I’m not just saying that to jump on the bandwagon now he’s dead.

Prince Yellow Piano

Then there’s all the hits he wrote; When Doves Cry, Kiss, 1999, Batdance (right back at the start of the current superhero craze in 1989), Purple Rain, Raspberry Beret, Sign O’ The Times, Gett Off, Cream, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World and so on. He also created classic hits for other artists including I Feel For You by Chaka Khan, Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor and Manic Monday for The Bangles (written under the pseudonym Christopher).

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His identity was as fluid as his dance moves and image. In dispute with his record company in the early 90s, he became Symbol (above) or T.A.F.K.A.P. (The Artist Formerly Known As Prince) and wrote the word “Slave” across his face.

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Manadatory Credit: Photo by Brian Rasic / Rex Features (396812dh) PRINCE VARIOUS

He owned his own recording studio Paisley Park which was apparently where his body was found earlier today. Prince Rogers Nelson was a true original and there will never be another. It was a privilege to have grown up with his music and it will be there forever now. We never do get the great ones for long, do we? May he funk in peace.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

When Stardust Met Mercury

“Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest. He took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”

David Bowie on Freddie Mercury

It is interesting how many times the lives and careers of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury intersected over the years. Bowie, struggling to make a name for himself in the late 60s, played a gig at Freddie’s college in London (Bowie never went to college but was self-taught and a voracious reader). Freddie was there to help out. As there was no stage, Bowie told Freddie and the others to help him push some desks together to create a makeshift one and the show went ahead.

Freddie had a desire to become a rock star himself but was struggling to write songs. The man, who in just a few short years would go on to write what is routinely cited as the best song of all-time, Bohemian Rhapsody, would bang his head in frustration on his piano and ask: “how do they do it?” It’s possible he took inspiration from Bowie, a man writing his own material and performing it before Freddie’s very eyes. Bowie’s visual element wasn’t yet there. There’s no doubt that Freddie took inspiration from it when it was. Freddie changed his name to Mercury, messenger of the Gods but also a planet, just as Bowie had christened his alter ego Stardust in a celestial fashion. It was the Dionysian god-like approach to rock music that Jim Morrison had taken earlier.

Freddie and Queen drummer Roger Taylor had a stall in Kensington Market selling exotic clothes and various bits of tat. Even then, Freddie had an eye for the visual. So did Bowie, once again their paths crossed. Freddie’s stall with Roger was going nowhere, so they decided to close it. Freddie got a job at another stall. One day, David Bowie showed up looking for a pair of boots. Freddie fitted him for a pair and sold them to him (did Bowie remember Freddie from Ealing College? It’s possible he didn’t, but Freddie almost certainly remembered him. It wasn’t the first time a star had come down and bought something at the stall where Freddie worked. Noddy Holder from Slade dropped by and bought his iconic mirrored top hat there: “I got the hat off a guy in Kensington market, called Freddie,” Noddy said. “He said: ‘One day I’m gonna be a big pop star like you.’ I said: ‘Fuck off, Freddie.’ He became Freddie Mercury.” So Freddie was playing an important backstage part in glam rock already, seeing their choices, helping them into them and watching their fans react.)

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Noddy Hoider of Slade with the hat Freddie sold him
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Bowie in his pre-Ziggy dress-wearing phase

Roll on a few years and David Bowie has found his musical mojo in the character of alien rock god Ziggy Stardust. The 1970s were going to be about the visuals as much as the music.

Photo of David Bowie
Bowie as Ziggy Stardust Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor recalls: “Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar’s Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I’d seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-at??? They looked like spacemen.” Once again, Bowie was taking chances on stage as Mercury took mental notes in the audience.

Queen soon joined Bowie in the ranks of rock stardom. Bowie and Mercury both worked seperately with photographer Mick Rock. Rock was particularly fond of an old shot of German actress Marlene Dietrich and asked David and Freddie if they wanted to recreate it. Both divas saw the visual possibilities and favourable comparisons with glamorous old Hollywood and responded.

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Marlene Dietrich (left) and Mick Rock’s recreation with Freddie Mercury (right)

Mercury’s Dietrich pose would form the basis of Queen’s cover of their second album “Queen II” and be recreated in the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975.

Queen II

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Bowie’s Dietrich pose photographed by Mick Rock

In October 1977, Queen and Bowie released very similar anthems. Queen had “We Are The Champions” and Bowie had “Heroes.” They are both played regularly at sporting events.

Fast-forward to Montreux, Switzerland in 1981. Queen are recording their album Hot Space at Mountain Studios there. Bowie happens to be in town the same night at his apartment there. Engineer David Richards sees a chance at rock history and invites Bowie down to the studio. Bowie does backing vocals for Queen’s track “Cool Cat” (he later refuses permission for the song to be released and insists that his vocals are taken off the track. Some advance tapes had already been sent out with Bowie’s backing vocals on them and are worth quite a lot of money today. The song, minus Bowie’s vocals, was included on Hot Space) In the studio though, everyone seems happy and relaxed with Bowie’s minor contribution. Bowie wants more though and suggests that they write a song together. Roger Taylor already had a track called “Feel Like” which has many background elements of what would become “Under Pressure.” It would be rewritten, have Bowie’s vocals and that classic John Deacon bassline added.

Bowie and Queen could have written an obvious song about love but chose to write about pressure which is something both camps clearly understood. Fans only hear the joy in most music without considering the blood, sweat and tears that sometimes goes into the creation of it. Big stars that write their own material have to keep topping what they’ve done before. They become hostages to their own talent and fanbase in a way. So pressure was the common ground that Bowie and Queen chose to occupy and occupy it spectacularly they did.

Bowie took over the session which seems to have unnerved Brian May: “It was very hard, because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” May said Bowie “took over the song lyrically” and demanded control of the last mixing session. (Roger Taylor didn’t seem to mind Bowie’s instructions and felt that Queen could have done more with him at a later date.)

There is a well-known story of the vocal sparring session that developed between Mercury and Bowie. They weren’t supposed to hear the other’s contribution so as to keep their improvisations fresh. However, Bowie was secretly listening to what Mercury was doing. When Mercury got suspicious as to how Bowie was perfectly counterpointing him, Queen’s German producer Mack revealed the deception. “The bastard,” Mercury swore. It wasn’t the only way these two titans were competing with quantities of wine and cocaine allegedly being consumed to jazz up proceedings in the 24-hour session.

As the line “People On Streets” is repeated in the song, that was its title until it became “Under Pressure” at the last minute. Bowie refused to film a video for it but, even so, it gave Queen their second number one when it was released in November 1981 just after the release of their first and best Greatest Hits album. Bowie had hit the top spot the previous year with “Ashes to Ashes” and he would have another chart-topper 18 months later in 1983 with “Let’s Dance.” So the experiment worked for all concerned and is now considered one of the best duets ever recorded (even better than Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby, although that seems to grow in popularity every Christmas and will again, no doubt, with Bowie’s death.) With “Under Pressure,” David Bowie became a part of Queen history and vice versa.

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Their paths crossed again at Live Aid in 1985, when Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest live performance of all-time . Bowie had the unenviable task of having to go on after them and he raised his game. Queen did him a favour in one way as the crowd were already fired up from their performance and Bowie didn’t have to do much to excite them even though he did with a rousing rendition of “Rebel Rebel” and a seminal performance of “Heroes.”

The bassline from “Under Pressure” was sampled in the 1990 Vanilla Ice song “Ice Ice Baby” which also reached number one and once again brought the combined careers of Bowie and Mercury to public attention.

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Freddie Mercury knew he was dying for years before his actual passing (as Bowie did for the last 18 months of his life when diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2014.) Freddie had only publicly announced his HIV status on Saturday, November 23rd 1991 when he died of AIDS the next day to worldwide shock. Bowie did something similar, bringing out a new album on his birthday with his death being announced just two days later. The impact of Bowie’s death seems greater, possibly because there was no internet when Freddie died. Anyone and everyone could say their piece online about Bowie’s passing and they have.

At Mercury’s funeral, a wreath from David Bowie was sent with the hastily-scribbled note: “Will be missed.” Bowie appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 where he reunited with his old Ziggy Stardust bandmate Mick Ronson (Ronson died in 1993). Bowie performed “Heroes” and “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox filling in for Freddie on the duet. (As no video exists showing Bowie and Mercury singing “Under Pressure” together, this duet with Lennox was recut in 1999 to make it appear as if Bowie and Mercury were performing it on stage simultaneously.)

Bowie surprised everyone by getting down on one knee on stage at the old Wembley Stadium and saying The Lord’s Prayer. He hadn’t told Queen or anyone else and only decided to do it five minutes before going on.

When Bowie himself died in January 2016, Brian May described Bowie as a “fearsome” talent (it appears May is still unnerved by the “Under Pressure” sessions 35 years on.)

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Many internet memes appeared after Bowie’s death showing him reunited with Freddie Mercury in Heaven to sing “Under Pressure” again, reuniting them even in death. The show, as Freddie Mercury once sang, must go on.

Bowie and Fred Angels

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

A Night At The Opera: A Peek Behind The Curtain

 

“A masterpiece of sound, texture and melody. Its kaleidoscopic approach to record-making – layer after layer of instruments and voices piled on top of each other until it all blurs into one colorful explosion – would become a marker and pattern for everything that came after it.”

The above description would fit Queen’s 1975 album “A Night At The Opera” to a tee but it’s actually Ultimate Classic Rock magazine’s review of The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album. The recording techniques of George Martin and The Fab Four would be a huge influence on Queen’s early output.

ANATO 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. Thematically similar to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” “The Prophet’s Song” is based on a vivid dream Brian May had one night.

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, making it quite an uplifting and spellbinding experience.

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. It has a lullaby quality to begin with before the Gilbert & Sullivan-esque opera section gives way to hard rock (hello Wayne’s World!).

Freddie never explained what “Bo Rhap” 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. Queen would close all their live shows with the recorded version of “God Save The Queen” from the album.

“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 has never 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.

Original review: © Stewart Stafford, 2014. All rights reserved.

Revised review: © Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

All donations gratefully accepted here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.