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BRIGHTON ROCK IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT
by John Burbage
"I'd never like to see us get too far away from rock - I hope we're never too sophisticated, if that's the word, and that we'll always be able to get out there and so some rock and roll." These words, spoken a few months back by Queen guitarist Brian May were perhaps the first fleeting indication of Queen's carefully plotted course for the follow up to the brilliant, but bewildering "A Night At The Opera."
Now `exhibit A' has been introduced, and Queen's fifth, "A Day At The Races" shows the boys on solid ground again with a more fully matured perspective of their rate of advancement. "Somebody To Love" is the logical broad market successor to devastate the larger halls of these shores with their electrifying performances.
In three short years this band has come from relative obscurity to a firmly established identity and large venue SRO crowds throughout the world. For many groups this would be a dream come true, but the four young men comprising Queen's identity are hardly dreamers, and they make no pretense to disguise the fact that their meteoric rise to stardom was more inevitable than mere chance.
From their dim beginnings, approximately five years past, when Freddie Mercury plucked Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor from a group called Smile, the were conscious of being different from other bands. John Deacon joined on bass shortly thereafter and the band's lineup was firmed.
Had this volatile combination fizzled, the four could easily have chalked it up to experience and found comfortable existences pursuing other professions. May holds a Bachelor of Science in physics, Taylor holds a degree in biology, Deacon holds an honors degree in electronics, and Mercury studied graphic design and layout. But the power of positive thinking prevailed, and despite their curious aversion to gigging around the local clubs, the quartet stuck it out together, spending their time writing and rehearsing.
The reasoning behind the sparse live appearances was quite simple. Before the band went out to build an audience, they first had to create the band. The sound, the image, the very essence of Queen had to be carefully crafted prior to public unveiling.
In constructing an image, Queen had at their disposal a host of inspirations, from the legends of the sixties to the whirling vortex of the seventies. The band's capricious nature allowed them to pick and choose modicums of all styles, enabling them to metamorphasize according to the needs of the presentation. Still, the Queen sound was the foremost priority, and the quartet enlisted the services of Roy Thomas Baker to help them find it. Together they carefully constructed their sound around a strong but supple rock attack sans synthesizer and distinctive triple harmonies.
It wasn't long before Queen compiled a demo tape in a London studio and EMI signed them in the ensuing scramble. `Queen", the first album was released in October of 1973, along with the single "Keep Yourself Alive." Both quietly flopped due to severe illness in the band which caused most of their first US tour, supporting Mott The Hoople, to be scrapped. In retrospect, the only real weakness of "Queen" is the derivative nature of the songs, somewhere between Yes and Led Zeppelin. They hadn't quite jelled into something unique, but behind the songs it was plain that Queen was no ordinary `rock `n' roll' band. They took themselves and their music very seriously and lent careful ears to studio production. "Queen" was the group's rough first statement of ideas, remembered by Brian May as "a bit patchy in spots . . . but full of vitality."
So, armed with the ripples of the first big splash assault on America, the knockout of Britain, a snazzy group logo (a la Freddie) and their quadrupled determination, Queen huddled once again with Mr. Roy Thomas Baker and emerged with what still ranks as one of the best rock LPs of the decade, "Queen II." A blockbuster on every level, the second work found Queen welded into a unit, assertively epitomizing the concept of the well balanced rock band while incorporating innovative ideals concerning orchestral arrangements and exciting guitar voice combinations. Though Freddie had evolved into the "front man," everyone had an end to pull together and all pulled equally. Brian had built his own equipment (guitar included) to get the necessary sound and Freddie's continued work with the piano had widened the band's scope considerably. The white verses black contrast/conflict made for an interesting theme. Though the content varies from sonic blaster like "Father To Son" and "Ogre Battle" to the more complex tones of the processional portion of the "White Queen," the consistent point is the precision and musical excellence displayed by these four suddenly matured musicians.
Also important at the juncture was the distinction Queen made between studio and stage presentation. As Roger says " . . . No pretense of duplicating recordings was attempted and Queen opted for presenting modified versions of each song to incorporate the diverse elements of Queen's `show'."
Having firmly established a base and begun to work their magic on growing members everywhere, Queen set about mapping out the new territory and conducting further explorations before moving on. Another short conclave with Roy and the result was "Sheer Heart Attack," perhaps Queen's hardest rocking album to date, and also the source of the band's first US hit single "KIller Queen." "Sheer Heart Attack" was their expression of self confidence following the definitive rock LP, "Queen II." "We tried to apply the various studio techniques we'd learned while making the first two albums," reflects Freddie. Meticulously produced, "Sheer Heart Attack" presented a strong but safe selection of songs, including blistering heavy rockers like "Brighton Rock" and "Now I'm Here" from Brian and the slickness of Freddie's "Flick of the Wrist" and "Killer Queen." This temporary lull in Queen's continuing musical expansion aided the lads in two ways; first, it evidenced the development of more song writing potential within the group as Roger and John each contributed a song to the cause. Taylor's "Tenement Funster" is his standard rock piece and does little to disprove the rumor that his voice is in fact, the best in the group. "Misfire." on the other hand is a mellower, pop-oriented tune, from the soft splash bassist Deacon. Second, the album broke Queen as a major attraction on a worldwide level.
Most criticism of the group at this time centered on their fussy attitude toward studio recording. Not since the heyday of the Beatles had a rock group been so sound conscious and I suppose it's only fitting because when the time came to record their fourth album, Queen took a Beatle-like gamble. "After "Sheer Heart Attack," explains Brian, "we wanted to branch out again, to become more adventurous."
Ambitious may be a better description of what was to follow, as "Night At The Opera" startled even the groups's most ardent followers by taking almost as many different directions as there are tracks on the disc. The rock style we'd come to know and love were represented well enough by "Death On Two Legs" and Sweet Lady." Two full blown production numbers, "Prophet's Song" and "Bohemian Rhapsody," (which was to become The Single) provided belief for those enthralled with Queen's incredible vocal choreography and composition. These selections made up what we might consider the expected realm of Queen. What a surprise then to be confronted with the likes of "39" sounds like vintage circa "Yesterday and Today" material.
"Good Company" and "Lazing On a Sunday Afternoon" by Brian and Freddie respectively, put Queen into the "Music Hall" class (British vaudeville) with their good-time flavor, adding them to the cult of nostalgia struck bands such as the Kinks, Beatles ("When I'm Sixty-Four"), Bryan Ferry, Deaf School, etc.
Diversification paid off handsomely for Queen, but it was evident that not everything on "Night At The Opera" was accessible to their audience. They had recorded a host of varied material and presented it live quite admirably, but the whole Queen organization seemed to be growing over the heads of their fans.
"A Day At The Races," LP number five, should change all that. The ideas advanced on "Night At The Opera" are seen to be logical conclusions here. "Long Away" is another Brian May classic with a mid-60's pop feel. "Tie Your Mother Down," and "White Man" allay any fears of this group mellowing out. "Millionaire's Waltz" is the production extravaganza, highlighted by May's familiar Guitar signatures and an explosive rock bridge to an ending piano riff. The vocals, as usual, are superb, and the multi-voice harmonies on "Somebody To Love" and"Lover Boy" should more than satisfy the devoted.
So you get a charge out of hearing Bryan Ferry sing in French and German on "Roxy Music," eh, well how does Freddie Mercury singing in Japanese strike you? To find out, listen to "Teo Torveate" which closes the album in the same eastern flavor with which it begins.
"A Day At The Races" is a milestone in the career of Queen, as its lighter approach seems to have deflated the aloofness which pervaded its predecessor and returned to the band their sense of humor. It shows on the new album and I'm sure it will do likewise on Queen's upcoming US tour. Five albums later, the realm of Queen is still expanding, and the future forecast is best summed up in two words, "Manifest Destiny."
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