Queen: Crowning Achievements
Queen’s attention-grabbing sound made an almost immediate impact in England via early songs like “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Seven Seas of Rhye” and “Procession,” from the band’s first two albums, Queen (1973) and Queen II (1974). But the band broke out worldwide with its first American hit, “Killer Queen,” from the Sheer Heart Attack album (1974). Recording this track wasn’t easy for May, who had been laid low by the band’s first American tour with glam rockers Mott the Hoople.
“I was very sick the first time Freddie played me this new song he’d written called ‘Killer Queen,’ ” May recalls. “I was laying in my room at Rockfield [the legendary residential rock studio in Wales]. After that first American tour I had hepatitis and then I had very bad stomach problems [a duodenal ulcer—GW Ed]. So at that point I was just feeling sick 20 hours a day. And I remember feeling very depressed laying there hearing Freddie play this song. ’Cause I thought, I can’t even get out of bed to participate in recording this. Maybe the group will have to go on without me. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. It was really bad. But then I did go into the hospital and I got fixed up, thank God. And when I got out, we were able to finish off ‘Killer Queen.’ They had recorded most of it, leaving space for the guitar. So I did the solo, with the three-part guitar harmony counterpoint, where each part has its own voice. Plus there’s another little block of guitar harmony that comes in. I also had strong feelings about one of the vocal harmony bits in the chorus, so we had another go at that. I’m really very happy with that song. It was made in a very craftsmanlike manner. There’s a lot to listen to, but it never gets cluttered. There’s always space for the little ideas to come through.”
The song showcases Mercury’s fondness for the vaudeville and music hall traditions of the pre-rock era. These styles had been tapped in the Sixties by groups like the Beatles and the Kinks, but Mercury reintroduced these genres to rock at a whole new level of over-the-top, campy bombast. Queen’s lead singer was equally in love with the stagey melodrama of grand opera. The early Seventies were a time when many progressive rock groups were drawing on classical music. But where these musicians were generally deadly serious, Mercury brought an outlandish sense of humor and frivolity to his appropriation of operatic forms. A highly capable keyboardist, Mercury, like May, chose to emphasize orchestration and attitude over displays of solo virtuosity. This gave Queen a unique and ideal place in the Seventies rock landscape. Their music offered harmonic sophistication on a par with prog rock but with none of prog’s stuffy self-importance. It was an incredibly winning combination.
In both their humor and their penchant for massive musical arrangements, Queen were well matched with Roy Thomas Baker. The eccentric British producer had been instrumental in signing Queen to a deal with Trident Audio Productions. In Baker, they’d essentially teamed up with the Keith Moon of rock engineering— a man whose appetite for audio excess knew no limits. The Queen/Baker collaboration found perhaps its greatest expression in the band’s next hit. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from the 1975 masterpiece A Night at the Opera, is probably the best-loved Queen song of them all. It has often been voted the greatest rock song of all time by critics and fans.
According to May, the epic “Rhapsody,” with its many segues, mood swings and flights of choral fancy, was “Freddie’s baby entirely. We just helped him bring it to life. He would come into the studio armed with these little pieces of company paper from his dad’s office, with the notes to the chords scribbled all over them in Freddie’s own particular fashion. It wasn’t musical notation, but As and Bs and Cs and sharps in blocks—like buses zooming all over his bits of paper. We played a backing track which left the gaps and he would go, ‘Bum bum bum, that’s what happens here…’ He knew exactly what he was doing all along. He had it all in his head.”
Audible evidence of May’s statement can be gleaned from a short film on the new DVD called Inside the Rhapsody. In it, May presides over a playback of the original multitrack master for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” soloing guitar tracks, vocal harmonies and other parts, tracing the evolution of the song in the studio. We hear Mercury on piano, leading Deacon and Taylor through a flawless basic track, played from beginning to end, apparently, without the aid of a click track to establish tempo. Then we hear the layers and layers of guitars and vocals start to pile up. “We were stretching the limits of technology in those days,” says May. “It was all 16-track [analog]. We had to do a lot of bouncing as we went along, and the tape got very worn. The legendary story that people think we made up is really true. We held the tape up to the light one day—we’d been wondering where all the top end was going—and we discovered we had virtually a transparent piece of tape. All the oxide had gotten rubbed off in the course of all those overdubs. It was time to hurriedly make a copy and get on with finishing the track.”
The overwhelming success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” when it was first released in 1975 was boosted by director Bruce Gowers’ groundbreaking video clip—a work that predates the MTV era by a good five years and is generally hailed as one of the most influential rock videos of all time. Kicking off the Greatest Video Hits DVD, the “Bohemian Rhapsody” clip looks as good as ever, and has acquired a new sonic dimension thanks to a DTS 5.1 surround sound remix of the track specially prepared by May and Roy Thomas Baker in collaboration with Elliot Scheiner. (The threesome also remixed “You’re My Best Friend” for 5.1 surround. Fourteen other tracks received 5.1 remixes from Justin Shirley- Smith.) These remixes brought May and Baker together for the first time in years.
“We had a great time,” says the guitarist. “Roy’s a laugh. He’ll give the impression that he’s not paying attention. But he’ll suddenly come up with the most penetrating comment or observation and crucially change the mix. He’s always been like that. He has unusual insights. He’s a very interesting and colorful character.”
Following in the wake of A Night at the Opera’s success, Baker guided Queen through 1976’s A Day at the Races. (Both albums take their titles from 1930s films by the Marx Brothers, who enjoyed a huge revival in popularity during the Seventies.) That album yielded indispensable Queen classics like “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Long Away” and “Somebody to Love.” But Queen struck off on their own for the next album, News of the World (1977), producing the disc themselves, with assistance from their longtime engineer Mike Stone. This shift in direction is dramatically apparent on the album’s opening track, the instant anthem “We Will Rock You.” By this time, the punk rock revolution was underway. And Queen responded with what has become the ultimate boot boy, football hooligan chant. Where earlier Queen hits had been remarkable for their lavish production, “We Will Rock You” is stripped and stark—just voices, stomping and clapping for the most part. Only at the end does May’s guitar come roaring in for a vituperative chordal outro solo.
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