Queen’s debut album wasn’t the first I owned. The blame for my interest in Queen lies squarely on my dad’s shoulders for letting me have Queen Greatest Hits on vinyl. From an obsession with that compilation came a desire to own the back catalogue on vinyl, which I managed to satisfy at the price of £4 an album over the following months, with the notable exception of Queen, Queen II and A Day at the Races which for some reason I bought on cassette instead.
My first CD purchase was fittingly Queen Greatest Hits with my last vinyl purchase being The Works. I recently bought a few of the Remasters on CD including the special editions of Queen and Queen II because I really wanted these two early albums to sound better than they did on the original CD releases. This is indeed the case – I can can’t claim miracles have been performed but they certainly sound satisfyingly clearer than previously. With the exception of some unnecessary compilations, a few live albums and foolish reincarnations of the band since Freddie Mercury’s death I have a complete run of albums.
I’ll try and tackle these in pairs, and stick to the original track listings rather than the extra tracks on reissues, so without any further ado…
This is most obviously influenced by religious and folklore themes. The latter being something that Led Zeppelin had a lot of time for and was perhaps in vogue for rock acts at the time. For me the Christian themed songs are the hardest to listen to these days. Viewing the album as a whole Queen are there front and centre setting out there stall for all that is going to come – multi-layered vocals and guitars, lilting melodies fighting heavy rock guitar and drums, pomp and splendour and some interesting story-telling and great vocals from Mercury, May and Taylor.
For me one of the strengths of Queen is that they had three band members capable of singing lead vocals and all band members were decent song writers. Obviously Freddie’s flamboyant performances helped immensely – especially given that Brian May and John Deacon generally come across as quite boring. Taylor I think had his moments behind the drums in terms of personality but nothing compared to Mercury, and of course May just let his guitar do the talking.
“Keep Yourself Alive” is a bit too repetitive and lyrically naïve for my liking. Having read that the song’s writer Brian May intended the song to sound a little ironic makes some sense. This irony is left by the wayside when it is delivered with such passion by Freddie. The question and answer with one minute to go lifts the song from banality, but then it descends into a ‘repeat to fade’ which I really dislike.
“Doing All Right”, originally a Smile song, contains some great lead and backing vocals and lays out a winning vocal formula in that it has Mercury leading with backing by both Taylor and May. It also features changes in style and tempo from lilting acoustic to big electric guitar riffs and rock drums in the middle and then back down to the soft vocals at the end. It’s one of my favourites because of the ‘rock out’ sections coupled with the soft ‘positive reinforcement’ vocals.
“Great King Rat” is a great musical story written by Mercury featuring some complex music passages and some ‘balls out’ vocals. May’s guitar parts seem to be having a conversation among themselves in the stereo channels while Taylor and Deacon keep the rhythm going. Never has a cow bell sounded so good! Christianity gets a mention and the song seems to fit the religious theme of other songs, there’s a lovely lull and then the tempo kicks up a gear and sounds almost like a cavalry charge to the finish line with a little bit of spontaneous applause perhaps for May before the song finished with a bit of chorus and a Taylor drum solo.
“My Fairy King”, written by Mercury, starts high tempo and then drops into a whimsical fantasy story with perhaps in hindsight some sexual innuendo. Roger Taylor provides some excellently high but controlled backing vocals while Mercury introduces the land of Rhye for the first time. It’s also notable for Freddie’s piano playing that was another important element lacking from a lot of their supposed contemporaries on the rock circuit at the time.
“Liar” sees the album falling back to its New Testament vibe and features a great guitar intro before the, again rather repetitive, vocals are introduced. More vocal multi-tracking is used for the disagreeing calls of ‘liar!’ and further cements the Queen ‘sound’ in our psyches where it will remain like an itch that could only be quelled by each subsequent album. There’s some more great guitar playing and on listening to the album repeatedly for this marathon I realise I underappreciated quite how many really good ‘solos’ May performs given that they are usually buried in the greater percussive body of the tracks. There’s also this idea of a controlled cacophony apparent in this song which modern rock bands like Muse emulate to great effect. Liar also sees song guitar flourishes from May that make his guitar sound like another voice in the rock choir.
“The Night Comes Down” is a revelation for me on the reissue – the intro is a lot more deeply layered and the Freddie’s high noted vocals are a lot clearer. For me the song is reminiscent of John Lennon and The Beatles and also The Doors – “Spanish Caravan” although for the latter I think Queen may have got there first and perhaps the notes are lifted from a piece of classical music anyway.
As soon as “The Night Comes Down” finishes we are tumbled immediately into the high tempo “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” with Taylor doing (awesome rock) lead vocals for the first time on a Queen album. The use of stereo is great considering it was recorded in the early 1970s and May’s guitar solo is nice, but the track is seems pretty much like a quick ditty (it is less than two short minutes long) in comparison to the multi-faceted theatre-like construction of the previous track. It’s also very American sounding somehow whereas the rest of the album sounds very British.
“Son and Daughter” written by May, but maybe expressing some of Mercury’s sexuality, is the outstanding track on the album in the absence of a full version of “Seven Seas of Rhye”. There are clear elements of Glam Rock and blues in the guitar riffs and the bass line but then also contains some of the classic elements of a Queen song – the high pitched multi-layered harmonised vocals, looping echoed guitar notes. Saying that I’m reminded of tracks like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” when I hear those crunchy distorted guitar riffs.
“Jesus” is a good story-telling song for me but is too close to an Evangelistic happy-clappy hippy tambourine song for me to like it too much. I am pretty allergic to anything that sounds too religious. I like the ‘rock out’ instrumental section about two thirds of the way through the track which I suspect was included due to a lack of lyrics and foreshadows such tracks as “Brighton Rock”.
“Seven Seas of Rhye” (Instrumental) gives a small hint of the classic song which was to feature on the next album in its finished form with some outrageously fantastical lyrics.
“Procession” is a funereal instrumental that starts off sounding like Ultravox’s “Vienna” before introducing the guitar parts of the next track which it merges seamlessly with.
“Father to Son” is a rather simple story written by May featuring a, somewhat unclear, message to a son which he will, the writer claims, be impelled to pass on to his son before he dies. There are some awesome guitar parts in the instrumental interlude, a hint of piano (played by May rather than Mercury) and some typical backing vocals from Taylor and May. I think the message is to just keep working on what has been laid down before you by your father and it’s quite an endearing one. It’s typical May subject matter left to Freddie to lift to another level with the help of exceptional guitar parts. reminds me a bit of Christopher Walken’s ‘your father gave me this watch…’ story from Pulp Fiction.
“White Queen (As It Began)” is a stand out track on the album which seems to be the first episode of the story finshed by “The March of the Black Queen”. There is great poetry in the lyrics which were written by May in the late Sixties when he was besotted by a student friend and should strike a chord with anyone involved in unrequited ‘too shy to say anything’ love, May makes his guitar sound sad by the choice of notes and foreshadows “Sail Away Sweet Sister” many years later. There’s a kind of medieval harpsichord sound to the guitar effects and some huge building emotional vocal moments before it dies back into a lamenting sadness. So sad it ends as it began.
On “Some Day One Day” we hear May doing lead vocals for Queen for the first time and his voice is both richly textured and melancholic. It’s not an outstanding track, but does lay Queen’s stall out once more in terms of saying ‘hey look what we can do’ especially when closely followed by another vocal turn by Roger Taylor. There’s also three distinct guitar elements that I guess explain why this track seldom saw the light of day in their live performances.
In “The Loser in the End” Taylor gets to show off his writing, drumming and his singing abilities with twice as many minutes as “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” to sing about his mammy. Ah sweet. May lifts the track with some great riffs and a nice solo before Roger bangs his drums about some more.
“Ogre Battle” is the first of four sensational tracks on the ‘black side’ which for me makes this album one of my favourites in the Queen library. It is an outrageously ambitious fantasy rock song with everything and the kitchen sink from the Queen arsenal thrown into the mix. It starts with a reverse of the end of the track (a trick that the Stone Roses seemed to like many years later) as the intro before a big vocal fanfare and the start of the story about two ogres beating the crap out of each other. Listening to it now still gets my heart pumping and I have to try my best to join in either vocally or on air guitar. It’s simply great. The gong ending and clock ticking leads directly into the next, and my equally favourite, track.
“The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” is a very tongue in cheek fantasy story based on a Richard Dadd oil painting of the same name which is usually on display in the Tate Britain, London. Rumours of innuendo in the lyrics have been played down, but it’s hard to believe Mercury didn’t intend some association to his sexuality. I have written a post about this previously.
“Nevermore” completes the three track medley with an excellent piano piece which flows directly from the previous track. Mercury’s vocals are excellent and the backing vocals and guitar are restrained at first until building towards the end of the track.
Piano introduces the “The March of the Black Queen” but the small gap and change in style make it clear this is not part of the medley. The track contains some very clever timing integrated into the layers of music making it as impossible as “Bohemian Rhapsody” to perform live and just like their more famous song it sounds like a number of songs sewn together as the tempo and indeed the theme of the lyrics changes quite dramatically on several occasions.
One can’t avoid thinking that Mercury is singing about himself in parts of this track. Again the track features the Queen ‘sound’ to great effect and at six and half minutes is the longest so far. While we’re on the subject of “Bho Rap” you can see that they used the cover shot from Queen II as the main imagery for the ‘video’ of the much later track.
“Funny How Love Is” is a quirky upbeat number that seemed to have rather distorted opening vocals which seem to have been ironed out somewhat on the remaster. Again this track merges with the last. It’s a little too much of a repetitive list and a little ‘twee’ for me with its mention of Adam and Eve and getting home in time for tea.
“Seven Seas of Rhye” seems to go nicely with “Ogre Battle” in its pure fantasy lyrics. It seems to descend into Fraggle Rock style jauntiness about halfway through but then the lyrics kick in again and Mercury tells everyone how much ass he is going to kick before taking you to the seaside. It’s a nice joke to include the old ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ song at the end, but it does wear a bit thin after repeat listenings and I would love to hear a version of the track without that ending. It’s almost, but not quite, as bad as the ‘fried chicken’ ending to “One Vision”.
If you only know Queen from hearing “We Are The Champions”, “We Will Rock You” or “Radio Ga Ga” I urge you to, no I insist, that you listen to Queen II at a bare minimum, and if you have the time and the inclination the first album and the third and fourth. It’ll show you how bloody great Queen were back when they were struggling artists before they even came up with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and could only dream of releasing one greatest hits album, never mind two (or three if you count the Queen+ money spinner that was Greatest Hits Volume III).
When I wrote “Tales from the New Found Land” I wanted to emulate some of the sense of Rhye in my story, but I have yet to figure out how to write a massive guitar hook and multi-layered high pitched vocals. My words can’t do the music justice. So I settled for some references in terms of place names and historical character names. Read it, you’ll see (but read “Muta” first to avoid confusion…).