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Queen


One of pop music’s most flamboyant and glam outfits, QUEEN garnered the essence of pomp, camp and kitsch, injecting their own pseudo-operatic take of hard-edged rock via vaudevillian vocals courtesy of their enigmatic but amiable frontman, Freddie Mercury. Rebuffed in some quarters for their over-elaborate indulgences on stage, and having hit singles and albums throughout the 70s and 80s, QUEEN were at the very pinnacle of their game when mainman Freddie was taken by AIDS in 1991.
Formed in London early 1971 from the ashes of post-psychedelic act Smile, by guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and the aforementioned vocalist par excellence Freddie (bassist John Deacon completed the line-up), QUEEN were picked up by E.M.I. Records when engineer John Anthony sent the company a demo tape. Incidentally, Smile were responsible for a lone US single, `Earth’ b/w `Step On Me’; Mercury, meanwhile (as Larry Lurex) issued a one-off solo 45 – just prior to QUEEN’s inaugural beginnings – with `I Can Hear Music’, the old BEACH BOYS nugget.
QUEEN made their live debut in April ‘73 at London’s famed Marquee club. A month later, the quartet unleashed their eponymous Roy Thomas-Baker produced debut album, QUEEN (1973) {*6} and from it one-that-got-away single `Keep Yourself Alive’. Influenced by LED ZEPPELIN and the more garish elements of glam-rock, the group had fashioned a unique, densely-layered sound around Mercury’s impressive vocal acrobatics and May’s fluid, coin-pick guitar style. Not quite setting the charts alight as yet, and on the fickle fringes of glam, prog and metal, there were other moments of grandeur by way of Mercury’s `Great King Rat’, `My Fairy King’ and `Liar’, plus May’s `Doing All Right’ (penned with Smile’s Jim Staffell). After an exhausting tour in support to friends MOTT THE HOOPLE, Top 10 success eventually came with the piano-led bombast of the `Seven Seas Of Rhye…’; a short taster of which closed their debut.
QUEEN II (1974) {*7} reached the Top 5, consolidating QUEEN’s new position as a headline act; while Mercury was allegedly known to be fairly shy in real life, onstage he embodied everything that the word QUEEN implied with a passionate theatricality unmatched in rock music. Almost conceptual in its mystical prog-friendly lyrics, tracks like `Father To Son’ (think superficial BEACH BOYS in heavy-mode) to the folky semi-acoustic `Some Day One Day’ (or the almost Spector-ish `Funny How Love Is’) or novelty ditty `The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’, the band were certainly finding their own way. For out-and-out rock buffs, `Ogre Battle’ and `The March Of The Black Queen’ and `White Queen (As It Began)’ had all the right ingredients.
The group really came into their own with the `Killer Queen’ single, an infectious slice of jaunty high camp that reached No.2 in late ‘74. The following month, QUEEN released their strongest album to date, SHEER HEART ATTACK (1974) {*8}, an eminently listenable collage of killer hooks, neo-metal riffs, OTT choruses and satin-clad dynamics that contained the likes of group composition `Stone Cold Crazy’ and the follow-up single, `Now I’m Here’. From the opening raucous riffs of `Brighton Rock’ (their hardest rock piece bar none), to the theatrics of `Flick Of The Wrist’ or `Tenement Funster’, and even soft ballad `Lily Of The Valley’, the QUEEN boys had shrugged off their unwanted “like LED ZEPP” tag.
But QUEEN, to use a particularly innocuous pun, were finally crowned, commercially at least with the `Bohemian Rhapsody’ single in late 1975. Surely one of the most annoyingly overplayed songs of all time next to `Stairway To Heaven’, the song was nevertheless something of an innovation at the time, a grandiose epic that gave new meaning to the term “rock opera”; forget concept albums, QUEEN could condense such lofty conceits into a meagre 6 minutes! The song was accompanied by what is widely regarded as the first promotional video, a quintessentially 70s affair that, in retrospect, resembles the title sequence of Doctor Who. Nevertheless, the single gave QUEEN an astonishing nine week run at the top of the charts over the Christmas period, ensuring similar success for the highly ambitious A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975) {*8} album. Apparently the most expensive project recorded up to that point, the record took QUEEN’s bombastic pretensions to new limits; Mercury’s multi-tracked vocals setting new standards in studio mastery. While most of QUEEN’s work was penned by Freddie and Brian, Roger and John were also talented songsmiths, the latter contributing one of the group’s loveliest songs, `You’re My Best Friend’, its heartfelt simplicity counterbalancing some of the album’s more excessive moments; other example coming through the singer’s `Love Of My Life’. The album also went Top 5 in the States, QUEEN having broken America with their irrepressible stage show earlier that year. One for the money or one for the show, fans just lapped up `Death On Two Legs’, `Sweet Lady’, `I’m In Love With My Car’ and the set’s longest track `The Prophet’s Song’.
Their ascent into world beater status continued with A DAY AT THE RACES (1976) {*6}, another No.1 album and a sequel of-sorts that spawned a further massive hit in `Somebody To Love’ plus the classic camp of `Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’. Possibly fixated more a tad by Marx Brothers film titles, that unique myriad of rhythms and styles found them at odds with some fans (preferring opener `Tie Your Mother Down’ and nothing else!), while new ones simply pored over the simplistic `You Take My Breath Away’ and Deacon’s `You And I’.
The anthemic double-header of the `We Are The Champions’ b/w `We Will Rock You’ single (leading out album six, NEWS OF THE WORLD (1977) {*6}) reached the No.2 spot the following year, presaging QUEEN’s move away from operatic artifice to more straight-ahead stadium rock. As close as the band ever got to a punk song, the fast-paced `Sheer Heart Attack’ was the set’s surprise piece; the second being the pseudo-funk of `Flight From The Inside’ and `Get Down, Make Love’; `Spread Your Wings’ was another decent though minor UK hit.
JAZZ (1978) {*5} confirmed QUEEN’s campy confidence, the album selling well despite their lack of inventiveness. The riff-heavy `Fat Bottomed Girls’ (coupled on vinyl hit 45 with `Bicycle Race’) could only have been recorded in the 70s, a gloriously unreconstructed paean to shapely women that just wouldn’t do in todays PC-controlled climate. Born in Zanzibar, only the mischievous Mercury could pull off something like opener `Mustapha’, but if the un-affiliated fan was looking for “jazz”, then they were under the wrong impression here; disco more the case for stuff like Top 10 smash `Don’t Stop Me Now’ and Taylor’s `Fun It’. A memento of their sold-out European tour was on the cards for their farewell-to-the-70s double-disc, LIVE KILLERS (1979) {*6}; ambitious as swaggering as ever, QUEEN pulled out all the stops on a run-through of all their best bits, even extending two of their classics `Brighton Rock’ and `Now I’m Here’ to over 12 and 8 minutes respectively.
While other rock monsters of their era were washed away on the tide of dour aggression that was punk, QUEEN looked to other musical forms to keep their sound fresh, namely 50s style rockabilly on the classic `Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, playful Freddie coming on like a camp Elvis in the video, decked out in biker gear with a leather cap, of course, de rigueur. The group also flirted with disco on the bass-heavy `Another One Bites The Dust’, a US No.1 that was later sampled by GRANDMASTER FLASH. Both tracks plus other hits `Save Me’ and `Play The Game’ were featured on THE GAME (1980) {*7}, QUEEN’s most consistent album since the mid-70s and a transatlantic chart topper.
It had to happen; by 1980, QUEEN had discovered the camp potential of new technology. Having already spruced up their ailing pomp-rock on their previous set, Mike Hodge’s kinky comic-strip adaptation of FLASH GORDON (1980) {*4} presented an opportunity to really get stuck in to their synthesizers. As an electro-fied take on the classic QUEEN sound, the `Flash’ single appeared all the more cosmic in the wake of their earthy recent hits. And in Freddie, the American football hunk turned saviour of the universe had found an equally outsized, cartoon-esque narrator. Mercury wasn’t going to save the singles charts from oblivion (he was 25 years too early) but it sounded like it. The segmented incidental music which filled up the rest of the soundtrack worked like a wet dream in the movie; transferred complete with dialogue as a bona fide QUEEN album, the critical consensus was as merciless as Ming himself. The brevity of the cues, the lack of any real themes (outside of the title), or any development of themes, made for a fleeting, frustrating listen, especially if you haven’t seen the film. Every band member is credited with “synth” (something they promised fans they’d never slide into) but it’s FM who’s most successful in manipulating his new toy, cranking out the JEAN-MICHEL JARRE-meets-VANGELIS melee of `Football Fight’ and the camp as boy scouts `Vultan’s Theme (Attack Of The Hawk Men)’, as well as crafting the brief electro-orchestral snippet, `The Kiss’. It was probably a good time for ROGER TAYLOR to assume a side-line solo career via 1981’s `Fun In Space’ LP; `Strange Frontier’ was his second UK Top 30 entry in ’84, while BRIAN MAY’s `Star Fleet Project’ had already shifted units the previous year.
While the band had been selling more records of late in the States than the UK, this trend was reversed with `Under Pressure’, a collaboration with BOWIE which topped the British charts. Accompanying album HOT SPACE (1982) {*4} ranks as one of the quartet’s dodgiest albums; pop-synth and pure sentimentality (the latter by way of `Life Is Real (Song For Lennon)’) was the order of the day. Leaving out any of their other hits, `Body Language’, `Las Palabras De Amor’ [The Words Of Love] and/or `Back Chat’, the album might well’ve sunk them forever.
But with THE WORKS (1984) {*6}, Freddie and Co once again enjoyed a run of Top 20 singles with the likes of `Radio Ga Ga’, `I Want To Break Free’, `It’s A Hard Life’ and `Hammer To Fall’ – accompanied of course by essential videos. While these were listenable enough they lacked the hard-edged rock brilliance of QUEEN’s best 70s work. Concert-wise, QUEEN were still a massive arena-pop draw, Freddie’s peerless ability to work a crowd evidenced on his famous Live Aid appearance in 1985. Versatile FREDDIE MERCURY had already assumed a parallel solo career on his own with a handful of gregarious UK hits (`Love Kills’ and `I Was Born To Love You’ the biggest), while his album `Mr. Bad Guy’ rose to No.6.
While the group’s back catalogue subsequently clogged up the album charts, QUEEN returned with new material in the shape of A KIND OF MAGIC (1986) {*6}. Maybe Live Aid went to QUEEN’s collective head, the album suffering from a kind of plodding stadium-friendly malaise that saw the group descending into self-parody. From the power-driven `One Vision’ and `A Kind Of Magic’ (both Top 10 hits), to `Friends Will Be Friends’ and May’s prophetically-touching `Who Wants To Live Forever’ (both Top 30), it nevertheless made No.1, as QUEEN continued to tour the world and play to record breaking audiences; LIVE MAGIC (1986) {*5} updated the group’s concert CV. Having smashed the charts with `The Great Pretender’ (and the title track forerunner) in the run-up to his second long-playing effort, `Barcelona’ (1988) – credited alongside opera diva Monserrat Caballe – Freddie was indeed showing off his musical spectrum.
QUEEN returned to the fray with THE MIRACLE (1989) {*6}, another No.1 album that contained few surprises, just five further hits in `I Want It All’, `Breakthru’, `The Invisible Man’, `Scandal’ and the title track. Fast forward two years, bearing in mind Freddie’s rumoured failing health, INNUENDO (1991) {*6} was another that divided the critics although hitting top spot. On reflection, it’d be churlish to criticise what must have been a very difficult album for the singer (and the band of course) to finish. Complementing both rock and pop territories, the title track found them back in Britain’s pole position (their first in ten years), while hit after hit after hit just seemed to keep coming; `I’m Going Slightly Mad’, `Headlong’ and `The Show Must Go On’ were in hindsight, Freddie’s autobiographical sign-offs. On the 24th of November, 1991, a matter of months after another GREATEST HITS was atop the charts, Freddie succumbed to AIDS. The following month, `Bohemian Rhapsody’ was re-released (flipped with “Innuendo” highlight `These Are The Days Of Our Ives’) and once again QUEEN were No.1 and, in turn, raising money for research into the killer disease. A tribute concert was held the following spring at Wembley Stadium, the cream of the music world’s top drawer stars paying their respects including ELTON JOHN, GUNS N’ ROSES, DEF LEPPARD and GEORGE MICHAEL; the latter pop idol was given the unenviable task of filling Freddie’s footprints by way of the collaborative 1993 chart-topper, `Five Live’ EP. Inevitably, QUEEN split although a posthumous album was released in 1995; MADE IN HEAVEN {*5} featuring material that Mercury and the boys had been working on prior to his death. While it didn’t exactly add anything significant to QUEEN’s stunning legacy (`Heaven For Everyone’, `A Winter’s Tale’, `Too Much Love Will Kill You’, `Let Me Live’ and `You Don’t Fool Me’ all reached UK Top 20 status), it tied up the loose ends, bringing the saga of one of music’s most flamboyantly colourful bands to a dignified close. Not quite!
With a resurgence of anything theatrical or West End, comedian/author Ben Elton (with MAY and TAYLOR in cooperation) unveiled his tongue-in-cheek cast musical `We Will Rock You’. Premiered at the Dominion Theatre on the 14th March 2002, and touring throughout the world, QUEEN’s songs have given a new lease of life – even a further decade into its run! Note that Deacon had left the band in October 1997, and was never fully replaced.
Just when it was thought they had all but abandoned the search for the perfect FREDDIE MERCURY replacement, along came ex-FREE man PAUL RODGERS. With QUEEN and new frontman Rodgers uniting for a one-off concert in Sheffield (May 2005), it was inevitable that the pairing would release the accompanying disc, RETURN OF THE CHAMPIONS (2005) {*3}, complete with mostly QUEEN greats plus FREE and BAD COMPANY tracks. Unperturbed by the lack of support from anyone outside the QUEEN camp (although playing to the masses at a mega-charity concert might’ve fooled them into submission), Rodgers and Co provided the world with fresh studio tracks on THE COSMOS ROCKS (2008) {*4}. One wonders if Freddie would’ve approved.
QUEEN’s next step was to replace Paul. And in 2011 they’d found former 2009 runner-up of American Idol, Adam Lambert. Fitting more in line with the hard-to-fill persona of Freddie, Adam co-headlined tours as the singer with QUEEN thereafter; a “Rhapsody” tour was scheduled for between 2019 and 2020. It arrived on the back of a high-end compilation album in 2018 that absorbed music for the greatly-received bio-pic entitled, “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The box-office smash starred Rami Malek in the role of Freddie, Gwilym Lee as Brian, Ben Hardy as Roger, and Joe Mazzello as John.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Apr2012-Jul2019

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