RECORD COLLECTOR - JUNE 2002
Sheer Heart Attack (Nov July 1974)
Single: Killer Queen (October '74)
But what about: Brighton Rock, Lap Of The Gods, She Makes Me
Anyone familiar with the cyclical nature of rock music will doubtless be aware that Radiohead's seven-minute epic, 'Paranod Android', often gets compared to 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. However, those who really know their onions will be smug in the knowledge that this particular section of Oxford's finest's career in fact owes more to the meaty riffs an falsetto shrieks on Sheer Heart Attack's cinematic opener.
An epic in every sense of the word, 'Brighton Rock' has three main musical segments and continues the themes of decadence begun on the first two albums, only with a twist. After the ascending (and never-ending) guitar solo, which Brian May develops by repeatedly layering one section on top of another, we hear, for the first time, the spectacularly heavy guitar crunch that becomes a stand-out motif, and could almost be stolen from Kiss' Destroyer. Like that simple descending bass-driven tagline of Pink Floyd's 'Astronomy Domine', the initial excitement of such a primeval sound is matched only by its return, after other, more space-out and downright bizarre movements.
During the verse, Freddie plays two characters, one sung in falsetto (Jenny), the other (Jimmy). The two converse until May's hair-raising riff is coupled with Taylor's crisp hi-hat sound from 1:35 until 1:45. By 2:40, things have broken down completely, and Freddie and John may as well go for a walk. All the way through to 4:23, May is in effect playing solo, developing a style all of his own in around two minutes. It's as if he found a box of great riffs in the loft and decided to use them all on the same song.
The lyrics are based around Jimmy and Jenny, who meet on a holiday in Brighton. However, this is far from a tale of mods versus rockers. In the simplest sense, it's boy meets girl, has fling, girl gets scared off by over-protective mother and finally boy confesses to already having a partner. It's hardly rocket science, but the olde worlde language throughout is intriguing; Lines such as "Nothing 'ere need come between us" start the album on a typically grandiose fashion.
Fans at the time may have been well aware that the band had dreams of grandeur, which were often overflowing in the music, but perhaps it would take the less subtle 'Bohemian Rhapsody' to really hammer the point home and leave such imagery stained on the nation's collective consciousness.
In The Lap of The Gods
To remember this song only for its singalong ending (which is returned to in the album's accompanying, if further developed, reprise) is missing half of the story. After the Floydian screams of the intro, and the panning experiment around 0:35, the lyrics burst in sounding as if they're being sung through an aqualung. It's very much in the same vein as their other 20s-esque songs ('Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon', 'Good Old Fashioned Loverboy'), but develops into the realms of melancholy singalong at around 1:40.
In terms of bands who do that kind of thing today, Suede are as close as you could wish for. Admittedly, there are a few differences (not least the vocals of course), but Brian May has quite a disciple in Bernard Butler (and later Richard Oakes), especially when the guitar that begins just after the two-minute mark is the conversation point. On a full-on album like Sheer Heart Attack Queen would have known that the listener would need some sort of breather, and so gave us the first part of 'In The Lap Of The Gods'. But it's not long before the pace steps up again, with a neat little drum transition into 'Stone Cold Crazy'.
She Makes Me
Of course, only in a critique of Queen's first five albums (i.e. pre-'We Will Rock You') could one expect to find the following sentence. This song continues the tradition of the band as writers of the subtlest of songs, all at once musically adept and emotive in their very make-up. 'She Makes Me', a May composition, is, dare we say it, a cool Queen song that's built around a simple acoustic motif that runs throughout, rarely deviating.
Lyrically, it's about devotion, and the sense of powerlessness that can accompany it. The mood turns sour, reflecting this point, after three minutes, when the song virtualy unravels, detuning before the listener's very ears. A murkiness creeps in, along with sirens, what sounds like crates being dropped, and at 3:50, heavy panting. It goes from a fresh, catchy tune to a tired, dirty drudge. It's a spectral song about love that slips from adoration to something approaching confusion, both musically and lyrically. It's magnificent.
Queen's Archivist Speaks...
'Brighton Rock' was my induction into the rock guitar and Queen's thoroughly considered musical craftsmanship. The backing track is, as you might imagine, quite exquisite. You may think that you know this track well, but you don't - you can't. One must hear 'Brighton Rock' devoid of vocal distractions to truly appreciate all that is furiously active there. Be patient, the opportunity will come.
'Brighton Rock' was actually conceived for Queen II, but was not finished then and so was revisited at Wessex and Rockfield studios for Queen's third LP. The numerous 'rehearsal' takes in the vaults are testament to the painstaking work which went into every note and word of the track. Brian is on record as saying that when a band member gave over a song to Freddie, he truly gave it new dimensions, depth and life which would not otherwise have been realised. 'Brighton Rock' is top of the list in this respect.
'Happy Little Fuck' was the working title of this song. It was further referred to as 'Happy Little Day', 'Blackpool Rock' 'Bognor Ballad', 'Southend Sea Scout', 'Skiffle Rock' and 'Herne Bay'. Session engineer Mike Stone is the likely culprit of some of the titles, though like most other bands, Queen frequently employed working titles during the song development process. Ever heard of 'Under Dispute', 'Banana Blues', 'Don't Say No', 'Woolly Hat', 'Young And Crazy'? Well, you have, but you just know them as something else. Details will follow in the forthcoming Queen anthologies.
By contrast, 'She Makes Me' is a curious song. On the one hand it sounds decidedly under-produced, and on the other, overly so. Like everything Brian May gives to the world, the ballad is certainly far more than might first appear to be the case. His vocals have understated depth and the harmonies are as subtle as the lyric (which its creator typically avoided explaining). It is a composition that he sings himself and which never made it to the live shows.
As far as its history goes, the song title never deviated, and only a few pieces of out-takes survive in the archive. It's entirely feasible that the remnants left over are the result of pilfering here and there, during the original sessions, for pieces which ultimately went on to make up the master. This was common practice, and numerous tapes were left with the words 'Removed to reel 3' or 'removed to master', and the like. And no, none of the out-takes feature Freddie taking lead vocal.
A Night At The Opera (Dec '95)
Bohemian Rhapsody (October '75)
But what about: '39, I'm I Love With My Car, Death On Two Legs
Death On Two Legs
Queen understood the importance of a storming opener, yet never, in the early years at least, put a track at the beginning of an album with which an audience would be familiar. Instead, we got barnstormers like this one, which falls snugly into that large area of Freddie's work that operated from the point of view of somone who is consumed by anger. Yet there's always a love, or at least, a lost love, at the heart of the matter in terms of songs like this.
For the first minute and 37 seconds were true to Queen's love of the dramatic, but there's a strong sense of menace. Particularly worthy of attention is the way that May's guitar pops in at 0.48, just in the right speaker. Freddie himself sounds angrier than ever, as befits the lyrics. "Do you feel like suicide?". he asks, "I think you should" comes the reply from the mockingly operatic backing singers. Elsewhere, he over-stresses the point a little, flowing 'was the fin on you back part of the deal?" with "Shark!". Either way, however, we seem to be dealing with real hate, and it sets the album off on an interesting tangent.
The music itself also seems to have been recorded on a knife-edge - the key word here is precision. But there's experimentation as well, like the weird synth sounds at 2:04. All in all, 'Death On Two Legs' appears to be a small step forward for Queen at this point in their career' certainly 'Bohemian Rhapsody' out-shone anything else that the album had to offer, but this song is exciting, right through to its zipped-up ending.
Sticking out from most of the tracks on A Night At The Opera like a busking tramp in the Ritz, if not least for its simplicity, ' '39' sounds like the White Stripes coated in a film of shiny holographic paper, floating somewhere in space, yet still yearning for a time when wine, women and song were all that really mattered.
While Brian May's voice is no match for Mercury's histrionics, there is a folk subtlety in his desperate pleading during the chorus that simply charms the listener. The drums sound like they could've been recorded in the court of King Arthur, and they give a kind of sea-shanty feel to the track. Indeed, the lilting voices from 1:36 to 1:52 could be sirens on the rock.
The lyrics remain a mystery, with allusions to time travel throughout the chorus, ("In the land that our grandchildren knew") but on the whole the feel is one of a time forgotten. The quaint refrain at 3:18 further makes clear Queen's desire to experiment with sonics as well as songs.
I'm In Love With My Car
With the kind of drama and tension normally reserved for a Freddie Mercury-led number, 'I'm In Love With My Car' busts out of the speakers after the pomposity of 'Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon', with Roger Taylor delivering an only semi-tongue-in-cheek dedication to what comes across all to convincingly as the love of his life.
The intro is the most powerful aspect to the song, and it's returned to at 1:40 and 2:23. It may be sacrilege to say so, but the operatics on this track, particularly during the chorus, as luscious as any on A Night At The Opera, and possibly their best.
A simple enough song, beefed up beyond recognition with the band's grandest trimmings, there are ironic lyrics (try "with my hand on your grease gun, ooh, it's like a disease, son", or how about the dubious "string-back gloves in my automolove", we really are spoilt for choice!) and a slight nod to Seven Seas Of Rhye'. 'I'm In Love with My Car' just gets through the net, but more than stands up to repeated listens. It's the song that keeps on giving.
Queen's Archivist Speaks...
Few people in the Queen story inspired a song as scathing as 'Death On Two Legs'. the story behind the 'dedicated to . . .' note is well documented. One leaves it behind now, much as one leaves behind excreta, as Freddie would say. At the time, however, he admitted it was pretty 'nasty' and added that Brian was a bit worried by it. When all is said and done, although it's an angry 'fuck you' affair, it's a mesmerising, virtuoso piano performance. Freddie tried endless times to put don the piano track before finally getting it right. He swore, apologised, tried, gave the piano frustrated thrashings, and finally nailed it.
'Psycho Legs', as it was occasionally labelled, was recorded for the most part at Sarm Studios, and is again an insight into Freddie's ability to capture lyrics concisely, eloquently, telling his tale with a no-nonsense attitude, and demanding that the listener pay attention. The track was equally dramatic live, featuring as part of a medley and segueing seamlessly into 'Killer Queen'.
Despite appearing on Queen's first, and to date only EP( 1977) 'Death' was more or less lost in the wake of the more commercial 'Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy'. However, the new 5.1 mix is staggering, and may well attract the acclaim that bypassed it initially.
With the exception of the material written during Mercury's final years, Roger Taylor sang, or at least co-sang, all the songs he wrote for Queen. In concert too, Roger always sang the lead on 'I'm In Love With My Car, and the footage of this is highly impressive. Recently-unearthed demo recordings of the song in its very earliest form, are intriguing, featuring Roger's guide vocal and guitar and ad-libbed lyrics.
The song underwent significant alteration along the road to the finished master, and of the few out-take alternative takes, the LP recital (famously coupled with the mighty 'Bo Rhap' and thus earning its creator a fortuitous split of the royalties) is the most powerful and energetic - though others came close.
A Day At The Races (Dec 1976)
Somebody To Love (November '76)
But what about: Drowse, Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy
Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy
It's a hotly contested title, but when it comes to determining the campest song in Queen's back catalogue, 'Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy' must at least be in the Top Three. It could be included in this feature for aplomb alone. This relatively unexploited track is 'Killer Queen' magnified until it fades out of recognition, but with a humorous and quintessentially English filter over the top. We're definitely on a Charleston tip here - in fact, the song is virtually art deco.
It could have come straight from the camp soundtrack to a gangster movie where Tommy guns and big cars are the norm. But behind all this fun-poking lies a tune which demonstrates that this band could - apparently effortlessly - produce melodies that stuck immovably in the listener's head. From 1:25 onwards, for example, the track almost sounds like a lullaby or nursery rhyme.
There was never any doubt that Queen were far from a Lennon-esque band - but on this evidence, they should definitely be considered scholars of the McCartney writing school.
'Drowse' is the seond number in as many albums that disproves the theory that drummers who write songs are only allowed to do so because everyone else in the band feels sorry for them, and not because they have any real talent for the trade.
Roger Taylor distils his youthful memories into a hazy, lolling escapade that, to the modern ear at least, sounds exactly like the super Furry Animals at their most Radio 2 friendly.
The bulk of the song seems to have been drugged with elephant tranquilliser. Swirling and repetitive, it really couldn't have existed as a Mercury composition. Or rather, if it had, it would have been completely different. The lines sung as a group falsetto translate most effectively, with an alternating 'peak an trough' effect that lulls the listener before the stinging last line of each verse. The minor chord behind the line "bored you to rages of tears" is a particularly good example of this.
Thankfully, only during the bridge towards the end does Taylor's more throaty, visceral vocal style (something approaching a rock cliche) seep back through. Bearing the subject matter in mind - the frustration of that strange passing of time which occurs during adolescence - the overall feel of the song remains very much one of confused innocence.
Queen's Archivist Speaks...
When I first heard 'Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy', aged 13, it was fabulously refreshing, exciting and brave, What a gem to discover sandwiched between Brian's uncompromising 'White Man' and Roger's 'Drowse'.
I loved it when Freddie indulged his more eccentric side. There was 'Leroy Brown', 'Seaside Rendezvous' and 'Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon', and then in '76 came this. Yet 'Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy' is a seriously honed and crafted song. The bass, drums and lead guitars support lead and counterpoint vocals which are timed to perfection. This recording is one of Queen's finest. Rare footage of the band performing it semi-live on Top Of The Pops in 1977 (shown on TOTP2 recently) offers an alternative slant, but the album/EP cut is vastly superior.
The song did feature in Queen's live shows, but few recordings seem to have survived. Archive alternatives are limited to a few takes which falter or break down early. Nothing of any substance lurks unreleased, though the backing track, again, sounds absurdly alien without the familiar Mercurial tones.