I bought Sheer Heart Attack on vinyl for the princely sum of £4 in Rhyl on November 1st 1986. It was also the same day I saw the film Highlander at the cinema with friends and a very recent ex-girlfriend sitting with her friends a few rows behind me. You can read more about my impressions of the film here and I’ll get on with how I feel about the album.
The cover is very American looking – with the band oiled up and lounging like they’re on some proper nice drugs, all sun-tanned and shizzle.
The first track on the album is called ‘Brighton Rock’ maybe after the Graham Greene novel and perhaps also because it’s a good pun and if we know anything about Queen it’s that they like a good play on words. As a far distant precursor for some Green Day songs the track tells the story of Jimmy and Jenny meeting in Brighton for a dirty bank holiday weekend together.
The song features some great guitar riffs, drum patterns, and a monster of a guitar solo from Brian May. Unsurprisingly it was the big haired guitar hero that wrote the song. The song was supposed to be on Queen II and would have sat very nicely on that album if there had been any room for it. Perhaps because of the three minute solo it was decided to save it for the next album. Looped echoes build up the guitar lines into a complex form and it’s a treat to see May do this on their live videos. I love the tempo of the track and Freddie’s vocal gymnastics – perhaps that’s why he was fond of leotards?
This shorter live version gives a different take on the song before May started milking it to death while the others went for a fag backstage.
I was familiar with the next track ‘Killer Queen’ from the Greatest Hits album and perhaps overly familiar as I played it to death. It was good to finally read the lyrics though and realise that the misheard lyric – ‘she keeps the moon in a shadow in a pretty cabinet’ referred to champagne brands Moet and Chandon! It seemed a little more practical a habit than lassoing the moon and sticking it in a cupboard.
The song is a lot simpler and less rocky than a lot of stuff from this period which might explain why it did so well when it was released as a single – people perhaps liked the novelty value of it. Perhaps the reason it was more piano based and less guitar orientated, although it does contain a trademark multi-tracked solo from May, is that he was temporarily out of action in hospital recovering from hepatitis and/or a stomach ulcer depending on which biography you read. Whatever the story, Mercury’s lyrics are great and the final Queen sound is superb.
On ‘Tenement Funster’ we hear the rock n’ roll voice of Roger Taylor singing about similar themes of rebelliousness and going out on the town to those incorporated in ‘Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘The Loser in the End’ from the previous albums, only this time he’s moved out from dear ol’ ma and got a place of his own and a pair of new purple shoes. Someday, one day, I’ll burn all the stuff Taylor sang for Queen onto a CD and listen to it in my car. I have a lot of his solo stuff and The Cross album, but I always prefer what he did with his main team.
As it happens here’s a Spotify playlist of Roger Taylor’s lead vocals for those of you Spotifiers out there (I’ve been a bit cheeky and added a Cross track on the end because some people seem to think it’s a Queen song…).
After ‘Tenement Funster’ we are led straight into ‘Flick of the Wrist’ which may or may not, like “Death on Two Legs” on the next album, be about Queen’s manager at the time (who they subsequently managed to escape from after allegedly making very little money from their first three albums and associated gigs). ‘If You Can’t Beat them Join them’ on the later Jazz album also seems to carry some angry sentiment towards “legal contracts”.
Like ‘Death on Two Legs’ the lyrics harangue the subject with vile accusations of violent actions and give a similar impression as to that given by Carter’s ‘Sheriff Fatman’ although I know which one I’d rather jump up and down to. The repeat of the memorable line ‘baby you’ve been had’ leads us into “Lily of the Valley” the last track in what might be viewed as a medley of conjoined triplets along with ‘Tenement Funster’ and ‘Lily of the Valley’.
‘Lily of the Valley’ is almost the shortest track on the album and features more piano and lilting vocals from Freddie that ebb and flow like the sea – perhaps one of the seven since the song contains a reference to the king of Rhye.
There’s some misguided internet chatter to suggest that the song was penned to mark the end of Queen’s fantasy / prog-rock leanings. Although Sheer Heart Attack is an obvious departure ‘Lily of the Valley’ was written before ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘The Prophet’s Song’, ’39, ‘Dragon Attack’ etc. etc. so their interest in fantasy was hardly suppressed (and would help them with their later Flash Gordon and Highlander music).
Essentially, according to May, the song is about Freddie looking at his girlfriend and realising that he needed to be elsewhere. It’s a viable and welcome explanation of a song I have been curious about for some years. Like Jack Skellington I often would ask myself ‘but what does it mean?’. I thought it might be some kind of biblical reference, but now I know better.
‘Now I’m Here’ was also familiar to me from the Greatest Hits and is one of my favourites and must be listened to loud and on a good stereo system. For me it is Queen at their best – all the elements come together – you have a great rocking tune with great riffs, lead and backing vocals working in harmony in both stereo channels with some clever delayed echo effects, some clever guitar effects, excellent drumming and a good story about touring US cities with Mott the Hoople. It’s a simple song with some hidden complexities but not so many that it can’t be played live in its entirety – unlike such, some would say, over-produced tracks as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Ogre Battle’ and ‘The Prophet’s Song’.
I’ve often wondered who ‘Peaches’ was in the line “down in the dungeon just Peaches and me.” With the advent of the interweb the wonder years are over. Turns out that it is widely documented on said electronic cloud that Peach was Debra Vidacovich friend of May’s in New Orleans. The dungeon is not an S&M attraction but should have a capital letter as it is the name of a private club that attracted all types such as Led Zeppelin.
Like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on A Night at the Opera ‘In the Lap of the Gods’ is a song of three parts, featuring some revolving stereo and crazy-ass high notes from Roger Taylor and which would not seem out of place on the next album. The opening vocals from Taylor are guaranteed to wake you up if you have it on random play or have nodded off listening to the album at night with your headphones on.
‘Stone Cold Crazy’ is an old song possibly written by Freddie before he joined Queen but beaten into shape as an almost thrash metal number for early live performances and eventually this album by all four band members. The humorous lyrics deal with gangsters, with Freddie dreaming he was Al Capone.
‘Dear Friends’ is the shortest track on the album being just over a minute long and is a typically downbeat May song, although for some reason Freddie opted to do the lead vocals.
‘Misfire’ is worthy of note because it was the first composition by John Deacon (remember him, he’s the quiet one on bass who made sure the bills and the band got paid) to get onto a Queen album, and he plays pretty much all the guitars on the track. It sounds like very ‘early early’ Queen if that makes sense, and perhaps could have done with another verse instead of the looping overlaid guitar patterns we get before the fade out. For me it’s very much an album track.
Bring Back That Leroy Brown’ was written and sung by Mercury. He plays piano, May plays ukulele-banjo and Deacon double bass. The song’s title is a reference to ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown’ by Jim Croce who died in a plane crash the previous year. It’s another track where the band display their intent not to be typecast and experiment and ‘fun it’.
‘She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos)’ is another very low-key Beatles-ish composition by May with Deacon joining him on acoustic guitar and some very atmospheric sounds of New York and breathing on the end of the track (is it beyond the realms of possibility that Depeche Mode heard this track and subliminally used the same idea for the their ER ventilator ending for ‘Blasphemous Rumours’?). I think it’s a bit of a flat penultimate album track and it’s a good job ‘In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited’ is there at the end to avoid a real downer.
‘In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited’ is perhaps Queen’s first ‘stadium pleaser’ with its massive easy to sing along to vocal nonsense ‘woah woah la la la woah’ etc. and in that way is more like ‘We Are The Champions’ than it is ‘In the Lap of the Gods’. Perhaps it should’ve been called ‘…Reimagined’ or ‘Rebooted’.