Sunday, February 24, 2019

Rediscovering Queen

With my wife and daughter away for a few days, I had the luxury of sitting back and cranking some tunes. As I go through yet another difficult patch with my health, it’s been nice to be able to relax for a bit and let the music entertain and heal. There are things to be done around the house, but they’ll get done.

As I’ve mentioned on my feed, Miranda has become a huge Queen fan. I’ve always liked them myself. But after giving the kiddo a crash course in Queen and going to see the very enjoyable Bohemian Rhapsody movie with the family, I found myself getting into the music more than ever before. Sometimes things just click, I guess, or your tastes change (and hopefully improve) as you age. I had a friend in high school who was an enormous Queen fan, and he’d play their albums whenever I went over to visit him. At the time I thought, yeah, that’s some pretty cool music, but that was about the extent of it. Better late than never, I guess.

So I’d heard most of the Queen catalog, and at one point I owned at least half of the albums, maybe more. But looking through my CD collection (yeah, I still use those little shiny discs), I found that I now owned only one Queen album! That simply would not do. So I decided to splurge on the entire catalog and listen to everything, from Queen to Made in Heaven, in chronological order. Huge thanks, by the way, to Easy Street Records in Seattle for having everything I was looking for. I was expecting to have to traipse all over the area to cobble the catalog together.

It took me three days, but now I’ve heard all the albums. And boy, is it a treat to be able to discover – or, in this case, rediscover – music that makes your spirits soar. I never really sat down and actively listened to Queen before, the way we did when we were kids, sitting in front of our record players with our headphones on. Those catchy choruses and the stomp-stomp claps – the things you’re sure to catch in passing – are great ear candy indeed, but there’s so much more that opens itself up on closer inspection.

First Impressions, Second Time Around

Here are some observations from my binge-listening excursion:
  • I love how the band integrated so many styles into their music with seeming effortlessness, and how they were so delightfully arty in the ’70s while avoiding the excesses of progressive rock. (And I say that as a huge fan of Yes and Pink Floyd.) They could move from thrash to piano-hall music to funk to rockabilly, and it didn’t sound forced or contrived at all – it was all simply a part of their repertoire.
  • Every single member was a rock-solid songwriter, and they all wrote hits. Not like three of the Beatles and then there’s Ringo, but all four guys. And not just that, but all four of them wrote songs that went to No. 1 on the charts somewhere in the world. I knew Brian May wrote and sang some of their songs, but I was unaware of just how much everyone contributed. Freddie Mercury probably only wrote half of their songs, if I had to guess from looking at all the album credits. And Brian happened to write some of my favorites: “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “We Will Rock You,” “39,” “The Prophet’s Song,” “Dragon Attack,” “Hammer to Fall,” “Headlong,” “Keep Yourself Alive” – the list goes on.
  • It almost seems unfair for one band to have three amazing singers. Having Freddie in your band would be more than enough, but then you get Brian, who could easily be a lead singer in any other group, and Roger Taylor, who not only has an awesomely raspy rock ‘n’ roll voice but also was responsible for hitting the highest falsetto notes in those gorgeous stacked vocal parts Queen were so well known for.

  • How cool is it that Brian built his own guitar with his dad, out of scraps like a fireplace mantle and motorcycle springs, and it’s been his main ax throughout his entire career? That’s a huge part of why no one else sounds like Brian and never will. (Gotta love those multi-tracked guitar harmonies, too.) And just to add to his delightful quirkiness, he uses a sixpence for a pick. And the guy has a Ph.D. in astrophysics. How much cooler can one dude get?
  • Roger and John are a kickass rhythm section. Freddie and Brian cast such a huge shadow that Roger and John tend to get overlooked, but Roger has some serious chops (and could also play a mean guitar himself), and John, even though he was the quiet guy and never sang, laid down some killer grooves over the years. And to top it off, John’s songs were just as excellent as anyone else’s – “You’re My Best Friend” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” anyone?
  • It goes without saying, but Freddie was probably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll front man ever.

I think their music has staying power because, obviously, it’s good and (mostly) doesn’t sound dated, but also, again, because there’s just so much there. The music rewards repeated listens. The band never seemed to take themselves too seriously, yet they still managed to put out top-quality music and were always dedicated to being entertainers of the highest degree.

Some Thoughts on All the Albums


Queen comes charging out of the gates with “Keep Yourself Alive,” complete with some sweet vocal harmonies and a double-tracked guitar solo – the core of the Queen sound in embryonic form. But other songs – like “Doing All Right,” which predated Queen – sound almost nothing like what Queen will become known for. And then there’s the sludgy riff driving “Son and Daughter” that would be right at home on a Black Sabbath record.

In between is a grab bag of shifting tempos and styles that always leaves the listener in anticipation of what direction the music is going to shift in next. But you also get a wonderful taste of the vocal acrobatics to come when Roger belts out a sustained A5 in the intro to “My Fairy King” – and that’s not even as high as his falsetto would go over the years.

Overall, this is a record rooted in hard rock that shows great promise for the things to come.

Queen II

Probably the least known of all their albums, but boy, is it a gem. Brian and Roger wrote everything on side one (the “white side”); Freddie wrote everything on side two (the “black side”). And Brian really shines here, from his songwriting (the anthemic “Father to Son”) to his voice and guitar work (the folky “Some Day One Day,” channeling George Harrison). Roger, meanwhile, is in full rock ‘n’ roll force on “Loser in the End.”

Freddie’s side of the record takes on fantastical themes like ogres and fairies, a sign of his creative outpouring to come, and there are indeed some hints of the genius that birthed “Bohemian Rhapsody” beginning to emerge, notably in the ambitious “March of the Black Queen.”

Sheer Heart Attack

Queen’s signature sound begins to take greater shape. “Killer Queen” is the hit song here, and it feels almost out of place alongside chugging rockers like the opening “Brighton Rock,” with a long, wild solo from Brian, and “Stone Cold Crazy,” which is pretty much the template for thrash metal. “Now I’m Here,” meanwhile, marries full-on ’70s rock ‘n’ roll to those gorgeous Queen melodies and stacked vocals and falsettos.

There’s light-hearted stuff, too, from the Tin Pan Alley goofiness of “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” to John Deacon’s “Misfire,” which seems to be about, well, premature ejaculation. And “Dear Friends” is a short, beautiful lullaby that might just bring a tear to your eye.

A Night at the Opera

This is Queen at the height of their creative powers. What’s amazing about this record is that it would be a gem even if “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the absolute pinnacle of their career, weren’t on it. There’s just so much good stuff packed in here, from start to finish.

It opens with “Death on Two Legs,” which lyrically is a devastating takedown of their first manager and musically is just as forceful – the classic stacked Queen vocals never sounded more aggressive than they did here.

From there we move into the vaudeville of “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” which could be dismissed if not for Brian’s harmonized triple-tracked solo at the end. It’s one of my all-time favorite Brian moments and never fails to make me smile.

Brian, in fact, turns in his best songwriting on this record, from the joyful acoustic singalong “39” to the art-rock power of “The Prophet’s Song,” capped off by a long middle section where Freddie harmonizes with himself in rounds, completely a cappella – makes my hair stand on end just thinking about it.

“You’re My Best Friend” is John’s standout contribution – such a heartwarming love song. Freddie’s “Love of My Life” will make your eyes leak. Even the lunkheaded lyrics of Roger’s goofy “I’m in Love With My Car” fit right in to this motley assemblage of musical goodness.

In fact, listening to this record always makes me think of how important sequencing is. On their early records, Queen made a lot of their songs segue into each other, in the style of Pink Floyd and Zappa. And you can’t do that unless the songs fit well together in the first place. That’s an art that’s been lost with the decline of the record-listening experience. Listening to a good album is like being immersed in a story, with all its ups and downs and highs and lows. This album delivers that in spades. The individual songs are amazing on their own, but listening to them in the context of what’s around them takes them all to another level.

This was my favorite Queen album by a long shot before I embarked on my listening binge, and it remains so.

A Day at the Races

Comparisons between this and A Night at the Opera are inevitable. The albums have nearly identical cover art – one white, one black – and both are named after (of all things) Marx Brothers movies. And although this is a terrific album in its own right, it unfortunately pales in comparison with its predecessor. Not that it’s bad in any way, but following up “Bohemian Rhapsody” would be a tall order for anyone to fill.

This record is best known for “Somebody to Love,” featuring its multi-tracked Queen gospel choir and Roger’s inhumanly high falsetto. “Tie Your Mother Down,” Brian’s rocker that kicks off the record, was the other big hit.

Freddie owns most of the other highlights, from the achingly yearning piano-driven love song “Take My Breath Away” to the delightful theatricality of “The Millionaire’s Waltz.” We also get one of Brian’s most unappreciated songs, “Long Away.” Imagine if the Byrds, the Beatles, and ELO got together in the studio to create some magic, and you have a sense of what this one is like – pure rock ‘n’ roll sweetness fueled by 12-string guitar. Uncharacteristic for Queen, but it works really well.

Brian’s closing tune, “Teo Torriatte,” is a majestic nod to Queen’s Japanese fans, complete with the choruses sung in Japanese. But what happens at the very end of the song is what caught my attention. I knew it well from the intro to “Tie Your Mother Down,” but I never noticed before that it comes back to bookend the album. It’s an auditory illusion called a Shepard tone, a little repeating musical motif that sounds like it’s forever ascending (or, in some cases, descending). Pink Floyd used the same trick at the very end of “Echoes,” and I’m always delighted to hear it – especially in this case, as the musical snippet the band created to make the effect sounds so ethereal, otherworldly, and beautiful, like the music of Queen soaring off into the heavens. A lovely little touch to end the album.

News of the World

If you went by the two opening cuts on this album alone, you might think Queen was all about Freddie and Brian. “We Will Rock You,” the ultimate stadium rocker, was Brian’s baby. “We Are the Champions,” the beautiful, powerful anthemic ballad, was Freddie’s.

But more than any other album in their catalog, News of the World really shows just how much every member brought to the mix, as it’s probably their most democratically assembled record. John wrote two songs, Roger wrote two and sang lead on one (and shared the lead with Freddie on the other), and Brian wrote four and sang lead on two. You could argue that Freddie and Brian were Queen’s greatest strengths, and you’d be right, but if you really want to understand what made Queen tick, what each person brought to the band, this is the album to listen to.

Now, when you open up an album with “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” back to back, you’d think it would be all downhill from there. But there’s plenty more to dig into, from John’s Latin-tinged “Who Needs You” to Brian’s wistful “All Dead, All Dead” and the bluesy “Sleeping on the Sidewalk.” Roger, meanwhile, brings the funk on “Fight From the Inside” and nearly beats punk at its own game with “Sheer Heart Attack.” (To top it off, he plays bass and rhythm guitar on each cut, in addition to drums. Pretty impressive.)

And then there’s Freddie, who would be excused if he didn’t write another lick of music on this record after giving us “We Are the Champions.” Yet he gives us two more, including the soft jazz shuffle of “My Melancholy Blues” to close the album. But we simply have to talk about “Get Down Make Love,” which is as delightfully filthy, both musically and lyrically, as you might expect from the title. I can only think of a small handful of rock ‘n’ roll front men who could pull off lyrics so outrageously over the top as these and not make them sound like Spinal Tap, and Freddie is most definitely one of them. The highlight is the freakout middle section, driven by a thumping piano, swirling sound effects, and Freddie’s moans and screams. It’s basically Queen’s “Whole Lotta Love,” and it’s fantastic.

How lucky for all of us that fate brought these four guys together to make such incredible music. News of the World is one of their finest moments.


Right up front, I have to admit I long to live in a time when a band could sing about Allah and fat-bottomed girls in back-to-back songs and no one would bat an eye. That’s how Queen opens this album, with the one-two punch of “Mustapha” and Brian’s stupendous “Fat Bottomed Girls,” which, after “BoRhap,” may just be my favorite Queen song. From the down-and-dirty guitar riff, to the singalong richness of the vocal harmonies in the chorus, to Freddie’s spot-on delivery of the lyrics, it’s just about the perfect song to my ears. And yes, I admit I’m fond of the subject matter. It would seem that Dr. May likes big butts and he cannot lie.

Freddie, for his part, always managed to skirt the line between over the top and ridiculous, and he did it with swaggering authority on “Fat Bottomed Girls.” But even the stuff that crosses over into ridiculousness is great fun. Case in point – “Mustapha.” It opens up sounding like an Islamic call to prayer and makes repeated references to “Mustapha Ibrahim” while telling us that “Allah will pray for you.” Most of the rest of it sounds like gibberish, but it fits the mood perfectly, teetering on the edge of hyperactive zaniness in a way none of their other tracks do. Freddie comes from a Zoroastrian family, so I doubt he’s writing an ode to Islam here. I think he was just into the mood he created with this song. It is truly one of the weirdest things in the entire Queen catalog, and I love it dearly.

Speaking of the absurd, there’s also the fantastically goofy “Bicycle Race,” the companion piece to “Fat Bottomed Girls” (“fat bottomed girls will be riding today/So look out for those beauties, oh yeah”). And the gems just keep coming. There’s John’s upbeat rocker “If You Can’t Beat Them.” There’s Brian’s “Dead on Time,” a hard-rocking throwback to the sound of their early albums. There’s the melancholy beauty of “In Only Seven Days” and “Leaving Home Ain’t Easy,” the blues shuffle of “The Dreamer’s Ball,” and of course the hit song (though not one of my personal favorites) “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

That’s a lot of awesomeness packed into one record. In fact, I’d say this is probably Queen’s last great album. Not that they wouldn’t go on to make more great songs, but I don’t find an album that’s so consistently satisfying all the way through after this one.

The Game

John was Queen’s secret weapon. While everyone else was busy writing and singing, John quietly held down the bottom end with some pretty amazing bass work – all while doing his own writing and letting other people sing his songs. And I’d wager that when most people think of this album, their minds leap right to John’s killer bass line that pins down his song “Another One Bites the Dust.”

That’s definitely one of the best tracks here, and it charted a new path for Queen musically, as they broke from their eclectic ways and began writing more conventional songs, albeit still with an unmistakable Queen touch. The best example here of a bridge between old and new styles is the opener, “Play the Game,” which, with its beautiful melody, distinctive piano and guitar work, and stacked vocal harmonies, could have been perfectly at home on any of their ’70s albums. The one thing that makes it different is the addition of a synthesizer, which for Queen was a big deal, as they’d always boasted on their albums up to this point that they didn’t use any synths to create their sounds. It was the dawn of a new era for sure.

The other cut most people know from this album is Freddie’s rockabilly tribute to Elvis, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which topped the charts in the United States. But there’s more goodness here that the two big hits tend to overshadow. “Need Your Loving Tonight,” another tune from John, has a bright, happy hook in the refrain that’s nearly impossible not to sing along with, while Roger’s “Rock It” lives up to its title and then some. But the real hidden gem is “Dragon Attack.” Surprisingly not written by John but by Brian, it has one of the funkiest bass lines of any Queen song. I prefer it to the bass line on “Another One Bites the Dust,” but they’re both undeniably great.

Flash Gordon

You’ve probably heard the theme song from this soundtrack that was released as a single, but that version actually doesn’t exist on the album. Most of it’s there on the first cut, but the single version includes different dialogue and sound effects from the film. You’ll find it all here on the soundtrack, but it’s sprinkled throughout the record, just as Brian’s main “Flash” theme keeps popping in and out.

In between are some beautiful atmospheric interludes, some moments of tension and drama, and of course some campy humor. How could it be otherwise with this movie? It’s by far the oddest record in Queen’s catalog, but it has an unexpected quality to it that makes you want to keep listening, as the moods ebb and flow along. It’s almost like a continuous 36-minute song.

One of the things I find most interesting is that all four members contributed separately and simultaneously to the writing of the music – apparently because of the time constraints they had to make the soundtrack. Yet it holds together really well, which is testament to how well these guys worked together. They were clearly all on the same wavelength.

Among the highlights: the traditional wedding march, reimagined on multitracked Brian May guitar – and it sounds every bit as awesome as you’d expect. If you like Brian’s treatment of “God Save the Queen” on A Night at the Opera and the 20th Century Fox fanfare on the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack, you’ll love this one, too.

Hot Space

Remember how I mentioned the importance of song sequencing on an album? I’m half-convinced that putting so much dance-based music up front had people tuning out of this record before they gave it a chance.

Truth is, there’s plenty of music in the second half that sounds more characteristically like Queen, showing a natural progression of their sound from The Game. The material on side one is dominated by synthesizers and drum machines and at times bears little resemblance to Queen’s signature sound, but even those tunes, in their own way, point the way toward things like the pulsating electronics of “Radio Ga Ga” on the next record.

No, it’s not a great album, but it does have its moments. Michael Jackson cited it as inspiration for his Thriller album, so you know it has to have something going for it. Of course, the record is probably best known for its last-minute addition, Freddie’s duet with David Bowie on “Under Pressure.” That song sounds out of place from the rest of the album, but it’s also probably the best thing about the album.

The Works

Here Queen starts to settle into their latter-day style, where the electronics begin to embellish the rock ‘n’ roll rather than overpower it. The kitchen-sink approach that characterized their most adventurous ’70s music is long gone now, but the layered guitars and the gorgeous vocal harmonies aren’t. “Hammer to Fall” is a standout rocker, and “Man on the Prowl” is the sequel to “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” that most people don’t know about.

But for me, this record is all about “Radio Ga Ga.” So soothing, so dreamy, and those vocal melodies are straight from heaven. It conjures up warm memories of my childhood, when I’d sit in front of my radio without any cares and listen to the new music hitting the airwaves, and when artists like The Buggles and Gary Numan were exploring the possibilities of electronic music. Makes me yearn for more innocent days. I think it’s one of Queen’s most beautiful songs, and without a doubt Roger Taylor’s greatest artistic achievement.

A Kind of Magic

Queen’s second soundtrack album, this one for the Highlander film. In places, it feels like a step backward from The Works musically. Some of the tunes are awfully weak, reminiscent at times of the more unremarkable pop explorations of Hot Space. Yet in between are some sweet vocal harmonies and one of Brian’s most arresting solos, reminiscent of bagpipes, on “Gimme the Prize,” a rip-roaring rocker.

The opener, Roger’s “One Vision,” is pretty solid, too, with a funny ending lyric (“gimme gimme gimme fried chicken!”) that reminds you Queen never took themselves too seriously. However, this record is probably best known for Brian’s grandiose ballad “Who Wants to Live Forever,” which was written for the characters in the movie but took on much greater significance after Freddie’s death.

The Miracle

This record closes out a decade that was very hit-and-miss for Queen. The Miracle has echoes of the previous album, in that there are a few cuts where the guys embrace their hard-rock side alongside some straight pop-rock tunes that fail to impress. “I Want It All” is the best rocker of the bunch, though the lyrical message leaves something to be desired. The title track, on the other hand, serves up a wonderful peace-and-love message and celebrates the miracle of life, and there’s an incendiary guitar solo toward the end that sounds unlike anything else Brian has ever done.

But my favorite here is probably the electronics-driven “The Invisible Man,” with all four members getting playfully name-checked as the tune chugs happily along.


Freddie says goodbye on a high note.

The title track is a satisfying return to classic Queen form, moving through multiple dramatic sections and moods, including a lovely flamenco-guitar bit in the middle that was performed (whether in whole or in part is unclear) by Brian’s friend Steve Howe, who happened to stop by the studio and got roped into playing.

“Headlong,” meanwhile, is a fantastic high-energy rocker – for my money, their last truly great song. And “Bijou” is an emotional tour de force built around Brian’s mournful guitar. Just a gorgeous, heart-tugging tune.

“The Show Must Go On” isn’t my favorite, but it’s the last song on the last album before Freddie died, and even though he was very ill by the time of the recording, he went in and belted out one final great vocal performance, with everything he had to give. Brian says that given the demanding nature of the vocal part, he was concerned for Freddie that he wouldn’t be physically able to sing it. Freddie’s response? He downed a shot of vodka, declared that he’d do it, and then went and did it, like a champ. What a way to bow out. He was a fighter till the end.

Made in Heaven

Queen’s final record has the surviving members adding new music to older tracks – some previously unreleased, some taken from Freddie’s solo works, some built around vocals Freddie recorded before he died. It’s quite a stirring tribute to their friend.

The chills start right from the beginning, with Freddie singing about what a beautiful day it is, and they don’t let up. “A Winter’s Tale” has Freddie remarking on the gorgeous view out his window as Brian’s weeping guitar practically channels David Gilmour. It was the last full song Freddie wrote on his own. “Ooh, it’s bliss,” he sings as the song fades out. You really get the sense that he was at peace with his condition and looking ahead to what may lie beyond for him.

“Mother Love,” containing the final vocal recording of Freddie’s life, is a highlight among highlights. The last minute or so is absolutely devastating. Brian sings the final verse because Freddie needed a rest – but Freddie never made it back to the studio. So Brian is left to carry on, completing the work that Freddie left behind. Then the music fades into a live setting, where we hear Freddie leading an adoring crowd in one of his famous “Ay-Oh” singalongs – a haunting reminder of what a fantastic showman he was. From the background emerges another noise: What sounds like a radio dial scanning through the stations is actually a millisecond of every song Queen ever recorded, flashing by in the blink of an eye, like a life gone too soon. And the last thing we hear is a crying baby – a reminder, perhaps, that the cycle of life goes on after we’re gone.

The lyric from “Mother Love” that I can’t shake: “I can’t take it if you see me cry/I long for peace before I die.”

But if it sounds like this is a maudlin record, it isn’t. It’s a celebration of a life fully lived, and very tastefully done. What a great record for the classic Queen lineup to close out their career on.

Ranking the Royalty

Picking favorites is sort of like picking your favorite kid, but here’s what I’d currently consider my top 25 Queen songs. No drastic changes from before I went on this listening binge – I mostly gained a deeper appreciation for music I already enjoyed. But there are a few new entries, either of songs I’d never heard before or ones I’d completely forgotten about.

Aside from “BoRhap” at the top, any of this is subject to change at any time.

My Queen Top 25 Playlist Would Be...

Bohemian Rhapsody
Fat Bottomed Girls
We Will Rock You
Radio Ga Ga
Hammer to Fall
Gimme the Prize
Death on Two Legs
Get Down Make Love
Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
One Vision
Keep Yourself Alive
Dragon Attack
The Prophet’s Song
Flash Gordon Theme
You’re My Best Friend
Sheer Heart Attack
Love of My Life
We Are the Champions
Bicycle Race
Another One Bites the Dust

Ranking the Albums? Not Quite As Hard...

I don’t dislike any of them, but if I had to pick:

A Night at the Opera
News of the World
Sheer Heart Attack
The Game
The Works
A Day at the Races
Made in Heaven
Queen II
Flash Gordon
A Kind of Magic
The Miracle
Hot Space

Her Majesty’s Therapy

Music has always been my drug of choice. It affects me far more than any other art form. It’s not unusual for a good song to give me goose bumps, and Queen’s music has done that in abundance over the past few days. I’ve lived with a crappy, malfunctioning body for several years now, and with my latest flare-up of whatever this is that the doctors can’t figure out, it’s been a godsend to have some good music to soothe me. Queen came back into my line of sight just when I needed them to, and for that I’m grateful for the gift of music they left behind for us.

I love writing about music almost as much as I love listening to it, hence this post. Writing helps in its own way. So if you took the time to read it, thanks. And may you find and embrace the music that lifts your spirits when you need it in your own life.