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A Royal Celebration

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Dear readers, would you be upstanding to celebrate the pageantry, pomp and sheer rock and roll majesty that is Queen. Yes, they celebrate turning 40 this year. Well it marks the official anniversary of the full line-up. John Deacon or Deacon John as he’s billed on their first album (yes, I’m a Queen nerd) did not join as bassist until March 1970. And so in conjunction with this 40th anniversary the band have seen quite the

resurgence in popularity and have blessed fans with a huge bag of goodies to celebrate.

Their musical, We Will Rock You won the Laurence Olivier Award last month, an exhibition of early live photos has opened in London called Stormtrooper in Stilettos, and their first five albums have been reissued, re-mastered and repackaged with a new disc of bonus un-released material for each album. And I have had the pleasure of hearing all five. In the words of Mr. Mercury, “Let’s do it!”

The band’s first album, eponymously titled Queen, debuted in 1973. It was recorded in Trident Studios mostly at night-time. The night time sessions began when their label mate David Bowie was finished in the studio. Most nights would not begin until 3am as Bowie was a bigger star at the time. The sessions would have to end at seven as staff filed in and began to clean up in and around the studio. As a result there is none of the trademark Queen Sound. Brian May states that “there was all this technology around, but we were not given time to experiment.”

Roger Taylor also recalls similar problems with the recording. His drum sound was far too loud and not “fashionable, and so they pushed the dry drum sound on us.” This was achieved by taping Taylor’s drums to within an inch of their life. The album is not bad, and indeed has signs of what would later be defined as early 1970’s Queen. Mystical lyrics, harmonies and complex arrangements are all apparent if not as big as they would later become. The best examples are Liar, Great King Rat and Doing All Right. The album is central to the band’s development as it features their first single release, Keep Yourself Alive. The bonus disc features demos of Liar, Keep Yourself Alive and the Night Comes Down. The album was lukewarmly received but Queen was on the map, and indeed on the road.

To support the first album, they toured extensively. Mostly England and Ireland, but the itineraries were solid and wide reaching. All this experience would lead to an altogether tighter, more confident band on their second studio release. Again, signs of severe ego at work. The second album was called Queen II. You can’t really hate a band that deems their own names important enough for two album titles, can you?

Queen II opens up with the first of Brian May’s forays into guitar based experimentation, Procession which shows the guitarist’s intricate use of guitar as an effect. This minute long intro was used as a precursor to every Queen live show for the next two years. Father and Son follows, which is possibly one of my favourite early Queen songs. The songs on this album are very heavy and obviously influenced by The Who and Led Zeppelin. It’s all heavy guitars and drums, no tape on Taylor’s drums this time around. This album is also significant on vinyl, as it is divided up into two sides, Side White and Side Black. The Black Side is dedicated entirely to fantasy, the white side to emotional tracks.

The standout tracks on Side Black are Ogre Battle, The Fairy-Teller’s Master Stroke and the track that many see as the precursor to Bohemian Rhapsody. The March of the Black Queen signifies the Queen of this era. That is long, epic songs that feature different styles and indeed different time signatures. This song is a pure primal beast.

 

Their third album, Sheer Heart Attack, which was my first exposure to Queen as a youngster age 8, is my favourite Queen album. Kerrang Magazine voted the album in at Number 8 in their list of 100 Greatest British Rock Albums of All Time. Musically, lyrically and production wise it is in my opinion, their heaviest and indeed greatest album. And it featured their first, accessible hit in Killer Queen. The track is musically, the least complex and as such easiest to digest song on this album.

Elsewhere on the album, all four members are represented. May wrote Brighton Rock, which featured a more intricate use of the techniques he used on Procession on Queen II. Deacon wrote the tropical, throwaway but highly infectious track, Misfire. And Taylor wrote Tenement Funster. A typical Taylor song, dealing with youth and rebellion. The song was the first in an overlapping 3 song melody which would segue into Flick of the Wrist and the beautiful, aching last part, Lily of The Valley.

This album also featured perennial Queen rocker, Now I’m Here. The song used to open the shows to accompany the tour. A tour which indeed was to date Queen’s biggest. It was their first world tour, consisting of a 7 month trek across 77 dates. Taking in mainland Europe and more importantly the USA, where the album climbed to Number 20 on the Billboard Chart. The album would cement the band’s hard rock reputation, and the success gave them the opportunity to spend more time in the studio for their next album, A Night at the Opera.

Named after the famed Marx Brothers movie, this album is touted by Queen purists as their “masterpiece.” Indeed all the factors that would give this argument weight are evident. Every song is completely different, but sounding like a band that finally found their musical feet. Styles range from prog rock (Sweet Lady, The Prophet’s Song), vaudeville (Seaside Rendezvous), folk (’39), radio friendly rock (You’re My Best Friend) and the daddy of them all, Bohemian Rhapsody.

I’m probably going to be shot, but due to over familiarity this is my least favourite song on the album. That being said, the album is nothing short of fantastic with the only dip in quality being the tired sounding Sweet Lady. Gripes aside, the album delivers on every level and shows Queen at their studio peak. The touring would only increase from here, and by this stage they had cemented their reputation as a live band. As a result, their studio output suffered. Not in lack of quality, but from Opera on, their studio work was solid but not challenging or groundbreaking.

This can be said of their fifth and the final of the reissues, A Day at the Races. Again, the Marx Brothers provide the title. There are some quality songs, Somebody to Love, Tie Your Mother Down; You Take My Breath Away and the Millionaire’s Waltz. Critically the album was uber – successful, going to Number One in the UK, Japan and The Netherlands. It registered in at a not disappointingly number 5 on the US Billboard. The album was supported by in this writer’s opinion the strongest live line-up on the band. I have heard and seen bootlegs of the band from this tour and they are on fire.

If you’re a Queen fan you will, or should own all these albums already. I do, including two on vinyl. But these re-issues should not be viewed as mere cash ins. The sound quality, which was fine the first time out, is beautifully toned up. Every nuance is captured in every song, and the work is clear to be heard. Queen was not and never will be a fashionable band, but these albums speak for themselves. They serve as an aural scrapbook of a band going through their paces, and fine tuning their sound until they found that sound that is as recognisable as the birds in the trees or the traffic on the roads. Bow down before the majesty of Queen; crank the speakers up to 11 and crack open the champers, darlings!!!

 

Queen                                      6 / 10

Queen II                                  8.5 / 10

Sheer Heart Attack                  9.5 / 10

A Night at the Opera               8 / 10

A Day at the Races                  6.5 / 10

 

 

 

 

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Written by thepanch

April 6, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Posted in Music

Tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

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