This week, we’re going back to the hero worship well to discuss the best songs from my absolute favorite band, Queen.
Well, I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t avoid devoting at least one column to the most important rock band in my own life. To me, there will never be a group that I personally owe more to than seventies glam gods Queen. In the early nineties, the tragic death of lead singer Freddie Mercury and a key placement of rock classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the film Wayne’s World led to a revival of interest in Queen’s music. This was happening just as I was becoming old enough to foster my own love of music. To this day, I can’t fully describe it. Something about the sound of this band was absolutely magical. The first two albums I ever owned were A Night At The Opera and News Of The World. Because I didn’t have my own CD player yet, I would spend hours at my dad’s stereo in the front room wearing his giant studio headphones and pouring over every single note. I’d follow the lyric sheets to each song and came to the point where I could anticipate the first note of the next song as one song would finish. To this day, I continue to voraciously tear through new music in the hopes that I can recapture just a little bit of that wonder again. While I’ve had plenty of great moments with music since, I’ve never caught up to the dragon that those albums became.
I hardly think we need to spend much time writing the biography of Queen. If you don’t know this band, that’s your own fault. What I do want is to take some time to share why I appreciate this group so much and maybe give a few people new reasons to go back and rediscover how good their music really was. In a lot of ways, this band was absolutely perfect. The four members all creatively contributed to the final product. They consistently made music that was both interesting and commercially appealing. Through two and a half decades, their music never stopped evolving but they also never lost sight of their own greatest strengths. Queen shaped my musical tastes as an adult in many ways. Outside of their fantastic ability to utilize each others strengths, this band taught me to become an independent thinker in terms of music. Think about it. While everyone else was wearing flannel and rocking out to ultra masculine grunge rock, I was worshipping a band that reached their height 25 years before, didn’t have a problem making silly music, and had a tendency to dress in sparkles. Let’s not even talk about the fact that a middle school kid in early nineties Missouri would face some social challenges appreciating the music of anyone that challenged traditional gender roles or sexual orientation. Maybe they didn’t make me the most popular kid, but this music was undeniably mine. Throughout the years, Queen has been able to keep my own tastes centered around the idea that the quality of art is measured solely by my own personal response to it. I owe the gents for that. So, this week we’re delving back into the hero worship category to celebrate the best songs Queen ever. Of course, there will be just a few caveats to makes things a bit more interesting.
“Now I’m Here”
“The Invisible Man”
“I Go Crazy”
“No One But You”
“Stone Cold Crazy”
“Sheer Heart Attack”
“It’s a Hard Life”
“I Want To Break Free”
“Funny How Love Is”
“Doing All Right”
a notable exclusion.
I may have tipped my hand slightly with the honorable mentions here. You may have noticed that the list lacked any hint of a radio hit. That’s because I’m taking them out of the equation this week. The whole point of giving someone a hero worship column is that they have enough great works to justify their own column. Here, I just didn’t see much point in discussing the songs that we all already know and love. Yes, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded. Let’s just assume it would have a place on the list and move on to talk about something you don’t already know backwards and forwards. One of my major complaints with the critical reception of Queen is that they are too often treated like a singles band specifically because they had so much radio success. While they did have a laundry list of hit songs, this was a band that made great albums all around. I’m focusing here on those songs that you didn’t grow up with, but were just as great nonetheless. Now, again I have to specifically relate the conversation to songs that were commercially successful in the United States. Queen was an international band and what wasn’t released as a single in the States could have been a huge hit in France, Japan, or the Netherlands. I’m just avoiding that bullet by specifically eliminating only the songs that I don’t think you could hear on an American classic rock radio station today. These would include:
“Keep Yourself Alive”
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love”
“Fat Bottomed Girls/Bicycle Race”
“We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions”
“Radio Ga Ga”
“Hammer to Fall”
“A Kind of Magic”
“Play the Game”
“Somebody To Love”
“You’re My Best Friend”
“Another One Bites the Dust”
“I Want It All”
“Who Wants to Live Forever”
“The Show Must Go On”
I’m probably being a little too liberal in assuming that the average American would know some of these (particularly anything written after 1982), but I’ve stuck with what I feel is just a little too exposed between commercial success, availability on ‘greatest hits’ compilations, and constant radio play. Regardless, you’re about to see that there is still plenty of great music to discuss.
10. “Is This The World We Created…?”
There are a lot of people that either deride Queen’s work during the eighties as ridiculous commercial pop or simply ignore it altogether. I have a different opinion. I think Queen were one of the very few artists from the seventies to successfully transform themselves into a band that was both still holding true to what made them great while continuing a path of commercial success. Case in point, “Is This The World We Created…?” Following the release of and subsequent touring for their 1982 album Hot Space, the four members of Queen opted to take a break from the band the following year, indulging in solo projects and taking the chance to stretch in individual directions. While a spring tour of South America had been an early possibility, especially following the band’s success there two years prior, equipment and promotional problems brought an end to these plans. Brian May worked with Eddie Van Halen and others on the Star Fleet Project, while Freddie Mercury began work on his solo album. By August 1983, however, the band had reunited and began work on their eleventh studio album. It would be Queen’s first album for EMI (and its United States affiliate Capitol Records) worldwide after the band nullified its recording deal with Elektra for the US, Canada, Australia and Japan.
Recording for The Works commenced at Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles – Queen’s first time recording in America – and Musicland Studios in Munich. Also during this time, their manager Jim Beach offered them the opportunity to compose the soundtrack for the film The Hotel New Hampshire. The band agreed, but soon discovered much of their time was being spent on the soundtrack instead of the upcoming album, and the project fell through. Only one song written for the soundtrack, “Keep Passing the Open Windows”, made it onto The Works. By November 1983, Roger Taylor’s “Radio Ga Ga” was chosen as the first single from the album. The Works was released on February 27, 1984.
“Is This the World We Created…?” was written in Munich after Mercury and May watched the news of poverty in Africa; the song was performed at Live Aid as an encore. Mercury wrote most of the lyrics and May wrote the chords and made small lyrical contributions. The song was recorded with an Ovation but live May used Taylor’s Gibson Chet Atkins CE nylon-stringed guitar. A piano was tracked at the recording sessions for this song, but ultimately not included in the final mix. Originally, a Mercury composition,”There Must Be More to Life Than This” (which was around since the Hot Space sessions and finally ended up on his solo album Mr. Bad Guy) was supposed to be the album’s last track. I think we can all be thankful for that.
I’ve been known to make more than a few excuses for the songs Queen put on The Works. For “Is This the World We Created…?”, I don’t need excuses. This one is up there with the very best of anything the band ever did. The reason why I love it so much is that it flies in the face of everything Queen was known for. This was a band that became known for over the top, bombastic performances. Here, they end this album, during the most overblown of time periods, with a simple Mercury-May ballad. In reality, they are displaying the bands greatest strength here. It is a simple melody, played well, and delivered with with a true sense of earnesty that allows you to suspend cynicism and just enjoy the ride. That’s all I need for constant rotation.
9. “Don’t Stop Me Now”
Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” has a special place in my heart. I few years ago I was working as a chef in New York City. I was working at an authentic Trattoria under an Italian owner of some repute in his native Rome. We had brought an intern over from Rome, who was a brilliant young cook. The only problem was, he couldn’t speak a word of English, well almost. One night, as we’re working my iPod kicked on “Don’t Stop Me Now” on shuffle. All of a sudden, my little compatriot was an English wizard. He knew every single word by heart. Written by Freddie Mercury, it was recorded in August/September 1978 at Super Bear Studios in Berre-les-Alpes (Alpes-Maritimes), France, and is the twelfth track on Jazz. Musically, the song is based around Mercury’s piano playing, with John Deacon and Roger Taylor providing a bass guitar and drums backing track. The song also provides an example of Queen’s trademark style of multitrack harmony vocals for the chorus lines.
The single reached number 9 in the UK charts but only number 86 in the US. Viewed at the time of release as one of the lesser songs in the Queen canon, it was only performed live during 1979, with the last performance in the Crazy Tour. It has subsequently become one of Queen’s most popular songs thanks to placement in media outside of radio. It was the first single by Queen to be released on a cassette tape.
In 2005, this song was voted as “The Greatest Driving Song Ever” by viewers of the BBC television program Top Gear, but the trophy given to Roger Taylor was mis-engraved, reading Stop Me Now. Of course, most Americans know the song for its inclusion in the film Shaun of the Dead. The song is played on a jukebox in the Winchester pub as three of the main characters circle around the zombie pub landlord while hitting him over the head with pool cues in rhythm with the song, leading Shaun to utter the line; “David, kill the Queen!” Most recently, the song was used by Google to create tribute video to Freddie Mercury on what would have been his birthday in 2011.
8. “Sail Away, Sweet Sister”
Earlier, I mentioned something about Queen’s real strength in being earnest enough to make us happy with even their cheesiest moments. “Sail Away, Sweet Sister” is perhaps my strongest argument along those lines. The Game is the eighth studio album by British rock band Queen released on June 27, 1980. It was the only Queen album to reach No. 1 in the US and became Queen’s best selling studio album in the US with four million copies sold to date, tying News of the World‘s US sales tally. The album received very favorable reviews. Notable songs on the album include the bass-driven “Another One Bites the Dust” and the rockabilly “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, both of which reached No. 1 in the US. The Game was the first Queen album to use a synthesiser (an Oberheim OB-X). It is estimated to have sold 12 million copies worldwide.
The album features a more pop/rock sound than its predecessor, Jazz. The album’s style would be augmented on Queen’s next release Hot SpaceThe Game). At approximately 35 minutes 39 seconds, The Game is the 2nd shortest of Queen’s studio albums, with their subsequent soundtrack for the film Flash Gordon being shorter by 39 seconds.
Yeah, that was when we started trying to get outside what was normal for us. Plus we had a new engineer in Mack and a new environment in Munich. Everything was different. We turned our whole studio technique around in a sense, because Mack had come from a different background from us. We thought there was only one way of doing things, like doing a backing tracks: We would just do it until we got it right. If there were some bits where it speeded up or slowed down, then we would do it again until it was right. We had done some of our old backing tracks so many times, they were too stiff. Mack’s first contribution was to say, “Well you don’t have to do that. I can drop the whole thing in. If it breaks down after half a minute, then we can edit in and carry on if you just play along with the tempo”. We laughed and said “Don’t be silly. You can’t do that”. But in fact, you can. What you gain is the freshness, because often a lot of the backing tracks is first time though. It really helped a lot. There was less guitar on that album, but that’s really not going to be the same forever; that was just an experiment.
The Game is host to some of Queen’s best remembered songs, but my personal favorite is one that’s hardly ever mentioned. Hidden in the middle of the record with a token Brian May vocal, “Sail Away, Sweet Sister” is one of my absolutely favorite Queen songs. In truth, it is the only reason I ever reach for my copy of The Game. There is a blueprint here for what would become the soft ballad machine of the late-eighties. Nevertheless, “Sail Away, Sweet Sister” has a secret weapon. Namely, Queen is playing it. Brian May was known for being the sharper edge of the Queen songwriting team. In truth, he was probably the group’s best ballad writer. This song is ungodly cheesy, but it is pulled off so well that I’m chanting along with the chorus involuntarily.
7. “Tie Your Mother Down”
It is apparent to anyone that reads this column on a regular basis that I believe Queen is one of the very best groups in rock history. A Day at the Races is as good a reason as any why. It was the band’s first completely self-produced album, and the first not to feature producer Roy Thomas Baker. Recorded at Sarm East, The Manor and Wessex Studios in England, A Day at the Races was engineered by Mike Stone. The title of the album followed suit with its predecessor A Night at the Opera in taking its name from a film by the Marx Brothers. The album peaked at #1 in the UK, Japan and the Netherlands. It reached number 5 on the US Billboard 200 and was Queen’s fifth album to ship gold in the US, and subsequently reached platinum status in the same country. A Night at the Opera had turned Queen into international superstars. A Day at the Races cemented that status.
The band’s A Night at the Opera Tour began in November 1975, and covered Europe, the United States, Japan, and Australia. By it’s end, “Bohemian Rhapsoday” was well on its way to becoming one of the most beloved songs in rock history. By 1976, Queen were back in the studio recording A Day at the Races, which is often regarded as a sequel album to A Night at the Opera. It again borrowed the name of a Marx Brothers movie, and its cover was similar to that of A Night at the Opera, a variation on the same Queen Crest. Groucho Marx actually invited Queen to visit him in his Los Angeles home in March 1977, and the band thanked him in person, and performed “’39″ a cappella. Musically, A Day at the Races was by both fans’ and critics’ standards a strong effort, reaching number one in the UK and Japan, and number five in the US. The major hit on the album was “Somebody to Love”, a gospel-inspired song in which Mercury, May, and Taylor multi-tracked their voices to create a 100-voice gospel choir. The song went to number 2 in the United Kingdom, and number 13 on the US singles chart. The album also featured one of the band’s heaviest songs (and the reason for our discussion here), Brian May’s “Tie Your Mother Down”, which became a staple of their live shows.
A Day at the Races was a massive commercial success. In the UK the first track to be released as a single was “Somebody to Love” in November 1976, reaching number 2. “Tie Your Mother Down” followed in March 1977, reaching number 1, and “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy” in May 1977, reaching number 17. In the US, “Somebody to Love” was released in December 1976 and reached number 13. It was followed by “Tie Your Mother Down” in March 1977, which reached number 49. Also during 1976, Queen played one of their most famous gigs, a free concert in Hyde Park, London. It set an attendance record, with 150,000 people confirmed in the audience.
“Every molecule of Day At The Races – every iota – is us. No session men. We don’t try to reproduce that onstage.”
The Washington Post described A Day at the Races as “a judicious blend of heavy metal rockers and classically influenced, almost operatic, torch songs.” The Winnipeg Free Press was also appreciative, writing, “Races is a reconfirmation of Queen’s position as the best of the third wave of English rock groups.” Q awarded it 4/5 stars, writing, “The breadth of its ambition remains ever impressive, as do tracks such as May’s stomping ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ and Mercury’s baroque one-two, ‘Somebody To Love’ and ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’.” George Starostin wrote, “considering that it does have its fair share of undisputable classics and that the boys’ songwriting and arranging are still at an all-time high, I give it a nine with no remorse.”
In 2006, a national BBC poll saw A Day at the Races voted the 67th greatest album of all time. The same year, in a worldwide Guinness and NME poll to find the “Greatest 100 Albums of All Time”, A Day at the Races was voted #87. It was also featured in Classic Rock and Metal Hammer‘s “The 200 Greatest Albums of the 70s,” being listed as one of the 20 greatest albums of 1976. Out ranked it No. 20 of 100 in a poll of “more than 100 actors, comedians, musicians, writers, critics, performance artists, label reps, and DJs, asking each to list the 10 albums that left the most indelible impressions on their lives.” In the 1987 edition of the The World Critics List, the BBC’s Peter Powell ranked A Day at the Races the 6th greatest album of all time, and Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times included the record in his “The Great Albums” in 2006.
“Tie Your Mother Down” was written in Tenerife, when May was working on his PhD in Astronomy in early 1968. He wrote it on Spanish guitar and thought he’d change the title and chorus later on, but Mercury liked it and they kept it that way. The song is preceded by a one-minute instrumental intro using a Shepard tone harmonium figure, which is actually a reprise of the ending of “Teo Torriatte”: this was intended to create a “circle” in the album, typical, for example, of Pink Floyd’s albums. The ascending scale was created by recording a descending scale on a harmonium and playing it backwards for the record. A music video was made for the song, directed by Bruce Gowers, based on a performance clip shot at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York in February 1977 during the band’s US arena headlining tour. After its release in 1976, the song was played by Queen on every subsequent tour.
Now, for Queen fans, “Tie Your Mother Down” is a no-brainer for inclusion. This is one of the unifying anthems of the bands career. That makes it only more stupefying to me that it isn’t one of their best known songs amongst the general public (stateside, at least). If there is one song that could justify the entire existence of arena rock, it’s this one. That’s still not to say that arena rock is necessary, but “Tie Your Mother Down” is the kind of song that seems big enough to fill any sized venue and make the place seem too small. This is an absolutely classic rock song in the truest meaning of the term.
6. “Seven Seas of Rhye”
Queen II, released in March 1974, is an interesting case in the band’s catalog. It was recorded at Trident Studios, London in August 1973 with co-producers Roy Thomas Baker and Robin Cable, and engineered by Mike Stone. The two sides of the original LP were labelled “Side White” and “Side Black” (instead of the conventional sides “1″ and “2″), with corresponding photos of the band dressed in white or in black on either side of the record’s label face. It is also a concept album, with the white side having songs with a more emotional theme and the black side almost entirely about fantasy, often with quite dark themes. Mick Rock’s album cover photograph was frequently re-used by the band throughout its career, most notably in the music videos for the songs “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975), and “One Vision” (1985).
As 1974 drew to a close, public reaction to Queen II had been enthusiastic. The album was also ranked by Disc as the 5th best of the year. While the album remains one of the band’s lesser-known works, it has since retained a cult following and has in recent years been cited by a number of music publications, fellow artists and fans as one of Queen’s finest works. In 1987, the Post-Tribune ranked Queen II 9th in an article covering “albums that should be in everyone’s record collection, but aren’t.” In the 1994 edition of The Guinness All Time Top 1000 Albums, Queen II was voted number 202 in the all-time greatest rock and pop albums. In 2003, Q magazine included Queen II in a list of fifty little-known albums recommended by the magazine to supplement their “The 50 Best British Albums Ever” poll. In 2005, Kerrang! readers voted Queen II the 72nd greatest British rock album ever. In 2006, the album was featured in Classic Rock and Metal Hammer’s “The 200 Greatest Albums of the 70s,” being listed alongside Sheer Heart Attack as one of the 20 greatest albums of 1974. In 2008, IGN Music named Queen II as one of their “10 Classic Glam Rock Albums”, writing, “Queen gave glam a bigger, more anthemic sound with this glittery opus. Combined with Freddie Mercury’s underrated keyboard work, Brian May’s ringing leads and pristine riffs created a backdrop for songs that were by turns ferocious and elegant.” In 2010, Mojo ranked Queen II as the 60th greatest album ever released on the Elektra Records label. Along with the Queen albums Sheer Heart Attack and A Night at the Opera, Queen II is featured in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, where it is described as “a distinctly dark album” which “displayed their diversity,” and contrasted with their later “expansive, stadium-pleasing anthems.” Allmusic awarded the record 4/5 stars, and said, “Queen is coiled, tense, and vicious here, delivering on their inherent sense of drama, and that gives Queen II real power as music, as well as a true cohesion…Queen II is one of the favorites of their hardcore fans.” Pitchfork awarded the album 7.8/10, writing, “Dizzying, overstuffed, and unflinching, Queen II is a die-hard fan favorite, and arguably the band’s most underrated record.” In 2009, The Quietus published an article highlighting Queen’s “lesser-known brilliance” to coincide with the release of that year’s Absolute Greatest compilation, describing Queen II as “an absolute scorcher of an album”.
Endorsements from younger recording artists have introduced the album to a new generation of fans. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, Guns N’ Roses lead singer Axl Rose said of the record, “With Queen, I have my favorite: Queen II. Whenever their newest record would come out and have all these other kinds of music on it, at first I’d only like this song or that song. But after a period of time listening to it, it would open my mind up to so many different styles. I really appreciate them for that. That’s something I’ve always wanted to be able to achieve”. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan spoke to Melody Maker in August 1993 about “the records which changed his life,” stating, “I worked at this record store where we had lots of old records, and I found Queen II, probably their least popular album. It’s so over the top, so many vocal and guitar track overdubs – total Queen overload. I loved it. I loved the cool, weird, ambiguous songs about Freddie’s sexuality and the way it shifts from heavy to beautiful ballads.”
Hidden amongst all of the great and underappreciated works on Queen II is perhaps one of my absolute favorites in “Seven Seas of Rhye”. “Seven Seas of Rhye” had been half-written at the time of recording for Queen’s first album, so a short instrumental clip of it was included there. However, when Queen finished the song, it ended up being much different from what they’d first envisioned. It was the band’s first hit single, peaking at number 10 in the UK charts. The song, like many of the songs on the album, and on Queen and Sheer Heart Attack, is about a fantasy world named Rhye. The song became a live favorite throughout Queen’s existence. It features a distinctive arpeggiated piano introduction – on the Queen II recording, the arpeggios are played with both the right and left hands, an octave apart, whereas on the Queen recording, and most live performances, Mercury played the simpler one-handed version of these arpeggios. The theme also appears at the end of “It’s a Beautiful Day (reprise)” on the album Made In Heaven. This version ends with a cross fade, instruments blending into a “singsong”-style rendition of “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside”. The seven seas of Rhye are also mentioned in another Queen song, “Lily of the Valley” from Sheer Heart Attack; in the lyric “Messenger from Seven Seas has flown/To tell the king of Rhye he’s lost his throne”. This song is over the top progressive rock at its very finest because it also displays Mercury and May’s ability to take almost any concept and make it into pop gold. “Seven Seas of Rhye” is a wonderful song that still can make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
5. “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited”
Sheer Heart Attack was Queen’s third album, released in November 1974. It was produced by the band and Roy Thomas Baker and distributed by EMI in the UK, and Elektra in the US. To many, this is considered the band’s first great and overall best work. I have days where I’m just about convinced by that argument. The album launched Queen to mainstream popularity both in the UK and internationally: the first single, “Killer Queen” reached #2 in the British charts and provided them with their first top 20 hit in the US, peaking at #12 on the Billboard singles chart. Sheer Heart Attack was also the first Queen album to hit the US top 20, peaking at #12 in 1975. Digressing from the progressive themes featured on their first two albums, this album featured more conventional rock tracks and marked a step towards the classic Queen sound. In recent years, it has been listed by multiple publications as one of the band’s best works.
With its powerful chorus and stadium rock-esque sound, “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited” could perhaps be considered the forerunner to “We Are the Champions”. NME wrote, “A feast. No duffers, and four songs that will just run and run: ‘Killer Queen’, ‘Flick of the Wrist’, ‘Now I’m Here’, and ‘In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited’“. This entire album is great, but I’ve always been a fan of Queen (and particularly Mercury’s) ability to turn a simple chorus into an anthem. There is evidence of that ability on the first two records, but on “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited” you have the first example of the full blown power these guys could display with just one massive chorus. I feel as if this is the bastard stepchild of Sheer Heart Attack. While the band made their fame on “Killer Queen” and would turn “Now I’m Here” into a constant of their live performances, “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited” is a true gem that hardly ever gets a worthwile mention. When I put a copy of this record on however, this is constantly the song I’m looking to hear.
4. “All Dead, All Dead”
News of the World was Queen’s sixth studio record, released in 1977. Containing the hit songs “We Will Rock You”, “We Are the Champions” and “Spread Your Wings”, it went 4x platinum in the US, 2x platinum in the UK and achieved high certifications around the world. News of the World was the second album to be produced solely by the band (the first being the aforementioned A Day at the Races) and recorded at Sarm West and Wessex Studios, London and co-produced and engineered by Mike Stone.
“All Dead, All Dead” was written and sung by Brian May, and features Mercury on piano and backing vocals. It is rumoured that the song is about the passing of May’s cat. On an episode of In the Studio with Redbeard, he confirmed that claim. Like “Is This The World We Created…?”, “All Dead, All Dead” is brilliant because of its simplicity. News of the World marked a transition for Mercury towards playing more straightforward blues-influenced melodies on the piano and it matches perfectly with May’s haunting vocal and guitar interlude. To me, the defining characteristic of Brian May’s songwriting is his strength with the theme of lament. You can see it plainly on his ode to Mercury “No One But You”, but it is downright surprising to find out that May was the pen behind Mercury’s astonishing farewell “The Show Must Go On”. All of that comes back to what he is doing here on “All Dead, All Dead”. I have always considered this song to be the true heart and soul of News of the World.
3. “Son & Daughter”
Released in July 1973, I often veer outside of the mainstream Queen fan to claim that their self-titled debut is in fact the band’s strongest single album. It was recorded at Trident Studios and De Lane Lea Music Centre, London, with production by Roy Thomas Baker (as Roy Baker), John Anthony and Queen. The album was influenced by the progressive rock, hard rock, and heavy metal of the day and covers subjects such as folklore (“My Fairy King”) and religion (“Jesus”). Freddie Mercury composed five of the ten tracks, Brian May composed four songs, including “Doing All Right”, which was co-written by Smile band-mate Tim Staffell and drummer Roger Taylor composed and sang “Modern Times Rock and Roll”. The final song on the album is a short instrumental version of “Seven Seas of Rhye”. The band included the comment ‘No synthesisers’ on the album sleeve, a purist principle of May’s, as some listeners had mistaken their elaborate multi-tracking and effects processed by guitar and vocal sounds as synthesisers. You might have noticed I continue May’s tradition today at the end of every column. Bassist John Deacon was credited on the sleeve notes of the original vinyl release as “Deacon John”.
“Son and Daughter” was written by May and was the B-side for the single “Keep Yourself Alive”. Written in 1972 for the first album and a regular feature in Queen’s live set until well into 1975, the song originally housed his famous guitar solo. The album version of the song does not feature the guitar solo. The solo would not be properly recorded until 1974, for “Brighton Rock” from Sheer Heart Attack. Until this time, and occasionally afterward, the guitar solo would take over the middle of “Son and Daughter” during concerts, allowing the rest of the band a bit of a rest and costume change.
Unlike other songs from Queen’s early period which crept back into circulation in the live set of their 1984-86 tours, such as “Liar”, “Keep Yourself Alive”, “The Seven Seas of Rhye” and “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited”, “Son and Daughter” stayed off the setlists after Queen’s hit singles began to dominate their live show. The song is indicative of their very earliest sound, influenced by blues rock and heavy metal. To this day, I consider it among the strongest material they ever recorded. All four members are just cranking the absolutely dirtiest sound you could hear in 1973. As a matter of fact, I was using this song in the early nineties to prove my favorite band could have blown Nirvana off the stage, if they wanted to. May’s guitar work is absolutely top notch here and would easily fit into the meanest Melvins record. Those who claim Queen was a band of all fluff and studio finish need to listen to this song on full blast and shut the fuck up.
2. “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)”
There are moments you experience with music that justify slaving through every terrible album you’ve endured. Moments so great that they send goosebumps down your arms or bring tears to your eyes. If you are extremely lucky, you’ll find a song that keeps bringing that moment to you, no matter how many times you’ve played it. “Teo Torriatte” is one of those magical songs for me. Rarely have I been able to finish this one without joining the final chorus with all the power my voice can muster. To this day, I have to make sure to avoid the song when I’m wearing headphones in a public place. It’s that damn good.
“Teo Torriatte” was May’s tribute to the Japanese fans. The song is notable for having two choruses sung in Japanese; it is one of only three Queen songs (the others being “Las Palabras de Amor” from Hot Space and “Mustapha”, from Jazz) in which an entire verse or chorus is sung in a language other than English. The song features a piano, a plastic piano, and a harmonium, all of which are played by May. It is the only point in the album in which Mercury does not play piano. It was released as a single exclusively in Japan, reaching number 49 on the charts there (The B-side was “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”). “Teo Torriatte” was covered by Japanese singer Kokia on her 2008 Christmas album Christmas Gift, and by Mêlée in 2010 and can be found on the Japanese version of their album The Masquerade in 2010. Andre Matos (former Angra singer) covered the song on the Japanese Edition of his 2010 effort Mentalize. Queen’s version is also one of 38 songs included on the benefit album, Songs for Japan (compiled in response to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku), released on March 25, 2011.
As the closing track to 1976′s A Day at the Races, I have a hard time arguing that there is a better all-time opening-closing track combo than “Tie Your Mother Down” and “Teo Torriatte”. The album’s closing harmonium melody is also its opening melody; the sequence was attached to the beginning of “Tie Your Mother Down”, the first track on the album. May described it as “a never-ending staircase”, otherwise commonly known, musically, as a Shepard tone. The band brought in a local choir to sing the chorus at the end and that is where the magic really happened. If there is a single moment in all of music when you can point and prove that a song is more than just the sum of its parts, it is during this final chorus. I challenge you to listen to this moment and not immediately want to form a band. Just try it.
1. “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)”
Well, anyone who owns A Night at the Opera should have seen this selection coming. I would place “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)” on a good many lists. As a matter of fact, I’ve already placed it on a list of the greatest Side A, Track 1′s of all time and the album was number one on a birthday list I made last year. A Night at the Opera was Queen’s fourth studio album and easily their most well-known, released in November 1975. Co-produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Queen, it was the most expensive album ever recorded at the time of its release. A commercial success, A Night at the Opera has been voted by the public and cited by music publications as one of Queen’s finest works. The album takes its name from the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera, which the band watched one night at the studio complex when recording. The album was originally released by EMI in the UK, where it topped the UK Albums Chart for four non-consecutive weeks, and Elektra Records in the US, where it peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and became the band’s first platinum selling album in the US.
“Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…)” could only be referred to as Freddie Mercury’s hate letter towards Queen’s ex-manager, Norman Sheffield, who is reputed to have mistreated the band and abused his role as their manager from 1972 to 1975. Though it never made a direct reference to him, upon listening to the song, Sheffield attempted to sue the band for defamation, and this revealed to the public the subject of the song. Sheffield later admitted that it probably gave the band an incentive to dedicate the song to him after he decided to sue them. Before releasing the album, EMI, the publishers, paid “a substantial sum” to Sheffield in an out of court settlement. During live performances, Mercury would usually rededicate the song to “a real motherfucker of a gentleman”, although this line was censored on the version that appeared on their Live Killers album in 1979. Other than on the version of said live album, he’d said it was dedicated to a “motherfucker I used to know”.
In the Classic Albums documentary about the making of A Night at the Opera, Brian May stated that the band at first was somewhat taken aback by the incisiveness of Mercury’s lyrics. After the song came together, it was agreed that the “author should have his way”, and the song went on as penned. As with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, most of the guitar parts on this song were initially played on piano by Mercury, to demonstrate to May how they needed to be played on guitar. “Death on Two Legs” remained on the setlist until, and well into, The Game Tour in 1980, then was dropped. The piano introduction though was played through the Hot Space and Works tours. The song has been covered plenty of times, most notably by Rooney on a Queen tribute album. Of course, only the combination of Roger, John, Brian, and Freddie could really make the thing shine.
The reason for the song’s placement here is apparent to me. Maybe other than “Bohemian Rhapsody”, there is no song that better defines all of Queen’s hallmarks than “Death On Two Legs”. Psychologists refer to a phenomena of the human brain as flashbulb memories; moments in your life that seem frozen in time by the brain. For whatever reason, we can remember everything about these split seconds. You remember the way you were standing or the smell of the room. My first listen to “Death On Two Legs” was one of those moments. With the headphones on in my parents living room on my eleventh birthday, just after the family and friends had finally scattered off. The first notes of Freddie’s classical piano followed quickly by one of the most menacing guitar riffs I have ever heard. This was theatrical, but with a real earnest gravitas that hit like a haymaker to the solar-plexus.
I’ve spoken, at length, about the various qualities of May and Mercury. What I haven’t gotten around to is that another quality that made Queen so fantastic was the fact that it wouldn’t have been the same band without all four members. Outside of the fact that all four were responsible for penning at least one radio hit over the course of their careers, they also maintained an extremely cooperative process in the studio. More importantly to “Death On Two Legs”, you have the vocal contributions of Roger Taylor. Those amazing vocal harmonies that absolutely defined the band are most often associated with the virtuoso vocal abilities of Mercury. While he deserves a boatload of that credit, this band doesn’t sound the same without Taylor providing the rough edge to those harmonies. He’s the one bridging the apocalyptic guitar work with Mercury’s elegant piano. In between the two lies that vocal harmony that you only buy because Taylor provides the anchor. So, here you have it. In one three minute song, I’ve got everything I need for a lifetime of musical exploring. This is the song that sets my own path of scouring record stores and liner notes. Anyone who has shared that experience knows exactly why “Death On Two Legs” is sitting at number one.
Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns here.