QUEEN: An Alternative Top Ten

Much loved by millions the world over, Queen left us with some great music. Despite their back catalogue being full of jewels, it seems whenever websites celebrate their legacy, we are presented with a hugely predictable trawl through their work, discussing the merits of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘We Are The Champions’, ‘Killer Queen’ et al. Fine tunes indeed, but we’ve all heard them to death – and there’s only so many times their greatest hits can be praised in the name of journalism…

Twenty-one and a bit years after Freddie Mercury’s passing, we’d like to pick out a few choice cuts from the Queen catalogue beyond the more obvious; some well-crafted, often theatrical and pompously brilliant tunes you won’t find on your run-of-the-mill compilation. These ten tunes are by no means a definitive selection – and if you ask tomorrow, such is the brilliance of Queen’s output we’d probably even choose a different ten (although there would still be nothing included from the terminally awful ‘Hot Space’ – even the best bands have off-days!). Hopefully, the chosen selection goes some way to presenting the range of styles that made Queen brilliant beyond their well-worn hits.

YOU AND I

With 1975’s hit single ‘You’re My Best Friend’, bassist John Deacon proved he could write just as well as his bandmates, and in terms of classic sounding pop, he struck gold again the following year with ‘You And I’. Although worthy of a single release, it was left to close side one of ‘A Day At The Races’. The simple sentiment and lovely bass line compliments Mercury’s vocal delivery just perfectly. It’s just one of many gold-standard Queen tunes that often gets overlooked. It was never played live.

KEEP PASSING THE OPEN WINDOWS

After the all-round dud ‘Hot Space’ in 1982, Queen returned with all guns blazing in 1984 and in ‘The Works’, they delivered perhaps their strongest album of the 1980s. There was an over-reliance on Fairlight keyboards to give the tunes their muscle, but it never detracts from the sheer quality of the songs. ‘Radio Ga Ga’ ‘Hammer To Fall’ and ‘I Want To Break Free’ still stand among the best Queen singles, but the album material on ‘The Works’ is just as strong. One of its most overlooked tunes, the Mercury penned ‘Keep Passing The Open Windows’ barely ever gets mentioned, despite having a great vocal melody, a killer intro and a superb bounciness all round. It’s a shame that Roger wasn’t given a better drum sound, but you can’t have everything.

BRING BACK THAT LEROY BROWN

This pastiche of a 1930s tune, with tack piano, banjo ukulele and an upright bass provides a quick glimpse into Mercury’s love of theatre…and enjoyment in the ridiculous. The studio take of ‘Leroy’ utilised the speeding up and slowing down of tapes allowing multiple Freddies to harmonise effectively. When the band played it live, it was presented as a fast-paced instrumental interlude – as in the clip above, from Hammersmith ’75 – but even without the vocals, the sense of fun still comes across. Very few bands of Queen’s stature would have got away with sticking this on an album without it sounding like a pure novelty. Okay, maybe Kansas would have too.

SHEER HEART ATTACK

This tune, although partly written in 1974, was not finished until 1977, by which time, revisionist history would have you believe that pomp and prog rock were killed by punk. Obviously, that’s rubbish, and regardless of musical fashion, Queen still shifted a bucketload of albums with their 1977 outing ‘News of the World’. Written by Roger Taylor, this song is one of the band’s most aggressive and while Rog himself sang on an early demo, the vocalist’s spot was given to Fred for most of the album take. While it often seems that he favours the piano based material, Mercury absolutely nails the performance here, while Brian May is just left to make some feedback noise, since all guitars on the studio recording were played by Roger. Naturally, this was a killer in the live set. This excellent clip comes from a 1979 performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon and Brian is back with guitar in hand. [Despite excellent quality bootlegs of shows filmed between 1976-1979 circulating among the fans, at the time of writing, no 70s Queen performances have been officially released on DVD.]

THE MILLIONAIRE WALTZ

Like ‘Leroy Brown’, this brings Mercury’s love of all things theatrical to the fore. A simple waltz, turned into a whole world of pomp (and eventual hard rock) in classic 70s Queen fashion, with an impressive array of multi-tracked vocals. Perhaps almost as impressive was the fact that it was included in their live set. Naturally, the live vocals appear less polished, but this clip (filmed in Houston, Dec 77) highlights both Freddie’s musical prowess at the piano and a jawdropping bassline from Mr. Deacon.

DEATH ON TWO LEGS (Dedicated To…)

With a piano intro which could lapse into a silent movie film score at any second, phasered guitars and over-the-top group vocals, pointed anger never sounded so good. Between the choirs of vocals, Taylor’s drum fills are awesome, while the rest of the band play their hearts out on this tale of (allegedly) being ripped off by former management. …And then, just as it feels like it should move into a natural climax, it stops dead – making way for ‘Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon’, a piece of vaudeville inspired silliness. Never before were two musically opposed tunes segued together! [The live clip comes from a 1977 gig at Earls Court, London.]

SON AND DAUGHTER

A high point of the band’s debut, this tune (written by May) works itself around a meaty guitar riff, over which Freddie gives an impressive vocal performance. There’s little else to say about this fine piece of hard rock, except perhaps the version recorded as part of Queen’s thurd BBC session on December 3rd 1973 (included in the clip) is even better! That session take allowed May time to drop in an extra solo – the piece of music which would become the middle section of ‘Brighton Rock’ the following year, and subsequently May’s showpiece ever since.

WAS IT ALL WORTH IT

Recorded for 1989’s masterpiece ‘The Miracle’, this tune mimics 70s hard rock Queen far more than many of their recordings from the 80s, centring around a solid guitar riff. Tinking keyboards give away the age of the track, however, but it doesn’t stop this being perhaps the finest blend of Queen’s hard rock roots and expensive eighties shininess. With it’s commanding tune and reflective lyric, ‘Was It All Worth It’ was – at the time – one of the strongest album closers ever…until Queen bettered it a couple of years later with the even more reflective ‘The Show Must Go On’.

MARCH OF THE BLACK QUEEN/FUNNY HOW LOVE IS

Lastly, a pair of tunes from the excellent ‘Queen II’, both written by Mercury. Writing the entirety of the album’s second side alone, he takes us through a fantasy world of ogres, wicked queens and fairy lumberjacks. A logical extension of ‘Great King Rat’ and ‘My Fairy King’ from the first record, the suite of songs allow the band to delve into some full on pomp rock, arguably peaking with this couplet. ‘March of the Black Queen’ presents the dark side of Queen’s earliest output, with backwards masking, shrieking falsetto and hard rock chops a plenty, counterbalanced by Fred at the piano tinkling happily and offering a strong vocal performance throughout – naturally with no hint of embarrassment with regard to the ridiculous fantasy concept. ‘Funny How Love Is’ lightens the tone with a selection of sleigh bells and a more sing-along approach. The multi-layered approach somehow manages to echo Phil Spector’s wall of sound, and if you can stretch your ears beyond the three-hundred layers of bells and voices, there’s John Deacon laying down a nifty bassline! …And all before getting “home in time for tea”. How eccentric!

December 2012