Inspired by a blog I came across recently (unfortunately I can’t find the link but there are loads of such blogs around), I have spent the last few days compiling my personal ranking of Queen songs, and I am just in the process of writing it all up, beginning with 185 – 161. I had in fact already started all of this when the Classic Rock readers’ poll listing came out – I am looking forward to comparing my ranking with theirs in due course. At the moment, I am just thinking about what my rankings are telling me about my favourite/least favourite Queen albums.
So I now have a database of 185 Queen songs (I explain here what I did/didn’t count as a ‘Queen’ song) – each one numbered from 185 (least favourite) to 01 (favourite). I decided to see if a bit of elementary mathematics (it would need to be) could help me formulate a ‘definitive’ ranking of albums. I was intrigued as to whether it would confirm what ‘gut instinct’ has always told me, which is roughly something like this:
1-2 Sheer Heart Attack & A Night At The Opera (usually ‘Opera’ at 1 but it seems to alternate in my mind)
3 Queen II
4 A Day At The Races
6-8 News Of The World, The Works, Innuendo
9 The Game
10 A Kind Of Magic
11-12 Flash Gordon OST, Made In Heaven
14 Hot Space
15 The Miracle
I worked out the mean score for each album (the old-school ‘average’ – add up all the individual items and then divide by the number of items). This is what I got (mean score in brackets):
1 A Day At The Races (45.5)
2 A Night At The Opera (57.2) – but it was 47.5 without God Save The Queen
3. Queen II (63.4)
4. Sheer Heart Attack (67.2)
5. Queen (68.8)
6. Innuendo (78.3)
7. A Kind Of Magic (80.3)
8. The Works (87.3)
9. News Of The World (88.2)
10. The Game (91.9)
11. Jazz (100.3)
12. Hot Space (103.5)
13. Made In Heaven (113.1)
14. The Miracle (115.7)
15. Flash Gordon (138.3)
The big surprise there is that A Day At The Races came out the fairly comfortable winner. I have exceptionally fond memories of the album – it was the first one I ever bought – but I have never seriously considered it my absolute favourite.
I scored the tracks on A Day At The Races as follows: 9, 15, 19, 27, 46, 56, 61, 68, 72, 82. So consistency wins out, at least by this mean measure. I have of course always seen it as a very ‘solid’ album: there is nothing at the very top (the highest is 09 – Somebody To Love), but there is also nothing lower than 82 (Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy).
Ten very good tracks – the epitome of ‘solid’ – whereas a ‘great’ album that includes perhaps twelve or thirteen tracks may still include a couple of weaker songs which pull the overall average down. For example, I scored A Night At The Opera: 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 28, 41, 78, 102, 109, 135, 164. It has five songs in the top ten but the ‘weaker’ songs bring the average down.
I should perhaps make clear that I don’t dislike God Save The Queen (number 164), but I found it an interesting headache where to rank short songs that I really like (such as some of the Flash Gordon songs but also songs like Dear Friends, which was at 141) and the God Save The Queen and Wedding March (170) traditional arrangements – part of a discussion for another time about what criteria we might use to rate a song.
The other thing that stands out for me from the mean list is that I seem to rate the individual elements of A Kind Of Magic higher than my gut sense of the album as a whole. Conversely, I like Flash Gordon as a soundtrack but that doesn’t come through when broken down on a track-by-track basis. The cold logic of mathematics, I suppose. It’s the old adage about the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts: the numbers are struggling to express how I feel about an album as an overall listening experience.
I then ranked them according to the median (list the individual items and the median is the one in the middle). Supposedly this is good for filtering out a small number of outliers that dramatically skew the average and therefore gives you a better sense of where the bulk of the numbers are. This is what I got:
1. Queen II (23)
2. A Night At The Opera (35) – 28 without God Save The Queen
3. A Day At The Races (51)
4. Sheer Heart Attack (65)
5. Queen (67)
6. Innuendo (72)
7. A Kind Of Magic (80)
8. The Game (84)
9. News Of The World (94)
10. The Works (99)
11. Jazz (101)
12. Hot Space (107)
13. Made In Heaven (116)
14. The Miracle (135)
15. Flash Gordon (152)
So this calculation yielded slightly different results. A Day At The Races is closer to where I would instinctively have put it. The big surprise was Queen II coming out top. When I look at how I scored the tracks, I find that it is an album very much of two halves (and I don’t mean the two sides, Black and White): six absolutely fantastic songs and five merely ‘good’ songs. It’s the very opposite of the consistency of A Day At The Races but the good tracks are so good (five in the top twenty) that it ends up winning.
This is how I scored Queen II:
02 – White Queen (As It Began)
12 – Seven Seas Of Rhye
14 – The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
16 – Father To Son
18 – Nevermore
23 – The March Of The Black Queen
88 – Ogre Battle
112 – Some Day One Day
115 – Procession
145 – Funny How Love Is
152 – The Loser In The End (sorry, Rog)
Great fun to do – and I will be doing a lot more analysis in the next few days and weeks.
Plenty of material here that is good but just rather ordinary by Queen’s exceptional standards. Another couple of singles feature, as do some of the better non-album, b-side tracks. Only the first album and A Day At The Races have yet to feature anywhere on the list so far.
160. Dreamer’s Ball (May), Jazz, 1978
Another nod to America from Brian – this time he evokes the New Orleans jazz scene – Dreamer’s Ball (the title sometimes appears without an apostrophe) is in truth one of his weaker efforts, a poor relation of the magnificent big-band sound of Good Company. The rather ponderous feel is perhaps deliberate, conjuring up the image of a cast-off, booze-soaked dreamer at the bar, drowning his sorrows. The acoustic early-take released in 2011 is somewhat leaden, though the finished version features nice multi-tracked lead guitar and backing vocals. Best moment: the guitars from 2:48 to 3:10.
159. Friends Will Be Friends (Deacon/Mercury), A Kind Of Magic, 1986
This song tries a little too hard to capture the anthemic, arms-in-the-air quality of Queen’s best stadium-ready songs (the video is a big clue to its intent – the nearest Freddie ever got to crowdsurfing). Released as a single to coincide with the Magic Tour, it was inexplicably placed between We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions in the set-list – an egregious error. As often, the guitar breaks (particularly at roughly 1:58 and in the outro at 3:44) are the best bits.
158. It’s A Beautiful Day (Reprise) (Queen), Made In Heaven, 1995
157. It’s A Beautiful Day (Queen), Made In Heaven, 1995
Apparently, a half-idea of Freddie’s from The Game sessions (a bit like what became the opening bit to Breakthru), it’s such a shame he didn’t pursue it further. A wonderfully optimistic lyric, less decadent and hedonistic than Don’t Stop Me Now. Nicely moulded into a coherent shape by the band, including samples of early songs on the reprise.
156. Coming Soon (Taylor), The Game, 1980
After his two funky missteps on the Jazz album, this is more typical Roger fare. Propelled along by a driving drum beat, I Wanna Testify-type vocal flourishes and what sounds like Roger on rhythm guitar, this doesn’t quite hit the heights, though the backing vocals at 1:35 and the end are gorgeous. A Human Body would perhaps have been a better choice of second Roger song on The Game, with this as the non-album b-side.
155. Tear It Up (May), The Works, 1984
A sledgehammer of a song from Brian that lacks the subtle shades of his very best heavy songs. A tribute to wild partying but without the wit of Freddie’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Full-on, driving guitar compensates for awful, crashing drums. Despite the lyrical theme, it was an unlikely set opener on the Works tour. Even more surprising that it remained in the set for the Magic Tour. Even more surprising that it was resurrected by Q+AL.
154. Let Me In Your Heart Again (May), released 2014
Another promising but unfinished idea (again, one wonders why), this one from The Works sessions and nicely shaped into something releasable by Brian and Roger. The Anita Dobson version is worth a listen for Brian’s guitars, though perhaps not for the singing.
153. A Dozen Red Roses For My Darling (Taylor), b-side, 1986
An example of where that ’80s big-yet-compressed, dry drum sound works well (taking the lead in this instrumental), this is a delightfully left-field Roger creation. The repeated guitar riff is great, as are the synths and the atmospheric break at roughly 2:09 (sounding like a cross between something from side two of David Bowie’s Low album and the X-Files theme).
152. The Loser In The End (Taylor), Queen II, 1974
Perched at the end of side one on the original vinyl release, ‘The Loser…’ follows uneasily – both lyrically and musically – in the wake of Brian’s magnificently dark and introspective songs, the juxtaposition as jarring as the guitar treatments in the song itself. The theme is typically early-years Roger – the inter-generational tensions involved in growing up and embracing rock-‘n’-roll, girls and fast cars. Best moment: Roger’s percussion, particularly the repeated marimba sounds, for example at 0:06).
151. Feelings, Feelings (May), released 2011
From the News Of The World sessions, this song didn’t make it through the weeding process and at roughly two minutes’ duration obviously remained unfinished and unpolished. It’s upbeat, rocky feel is reminiscent of It’s Late and the latter part of the BBC session version of Spread Your Wings from the same period.
150. The Invisible Man (Queen), The Miracle, 1989
One of Queen’s more ‘humorous’ pieces, it certainly has an infectious bassline and nice guitar from Brian – though, take away the various aural flourishes and it’s not immediately obvious what else. Many people will doubtless disagree but it’s also one of their less likeable, ‘thematic’ videos.
149. Sleeping On The Sidewalk (May), News Of The World, 1977
In a sign of things to come, much of this blues-y piece was apparently recorded in a single take. Like many of Brian’s lyrics, he is wrestling with the price of fame and success – though with more humour that is typical in his songs. The live version from the News Of The World tour, released in 2017 with Freddie on vocal, was an unexpected delight.
148. One Year Of Love (Deacon), A Kind Of Magic, 1986
Another of Freddie’s more ‘shouty’ vocals from the ’80s, ‘One Year…’ comes complete with saxophone solo and orchestral arrangement. It is by no means the worst of the ‘mushy ballad’ type but, with its plodding beat, struggles to go anywhere particularly interesting and is sorely missing Brian’s guitar.
147. Crash Dive On Mingo City (May), Flash Gordon, 1980
It may only last a minute or so but Brian’s guitar, joined by Roger on timpani, evokes Flash’s frantic crash-dive through the city’s defence shield, ruining the wedding and killing Ming in the process.
146. The Hitman (Queen), Innuendo, 1991
This certainly sounds like a no-holds-barred Brian rocker, though there is a lengthy quote ‘out there’ attributed to Brian, saying that the original idea came from Freddie with further work from John. It is full-on and relentless, leaving little room for subtlety, though it has some outstanding guitar from Brian.
145. Funny How Love Is (Mercury), Queen II, 1974
The weakest of Freddie’s songs on Queen II, ‘Funny…’ is notable for the Phil Spector-esque ‘wall of sound’ arrangement, courtesy of Robin Cable’s production (also featured on Freddie’s Larry Lurex arrangement of I Can Hear Music). A somewhat slight song, although it comes in at nearly three minutes, the fade-out starts ridiculously early.
144. Man On The Prowl (Mercury), The Works, 1984
A more full-on Elvis-inspired, rockabilly arrangement than Crazy Little Thing Called Love, this is upbeat throughout, and has a great middle-eight (“Well I keep dreaming about my baby…”) and piano solo to finish – courtesy of Fred Mandel (originally of Mott The Hoople fame).
143. Hang On In There (Queen), b-side, 1989
This track didn’t make the Miracle album but is undoubtedly better than some that did. It sounds like a number of studio jams spliced onto a basic song, notably at roughly 2:30 and 3:10 (the latter Brian-John-Roger jam is particularly good, using part of what has become known as Fiddly Jam).
142. Life Is Real (Song For Lennon) (Mercury), Hot Space, 1982
A somewhat uncharacteristically serious ‘price-of-fame’ lyrical theme from ’80s Freddie, the song doesn’t quite do justice to the undoubtedly heartfelt sentiments. Like (say) The Invisible Man, strip away the flourishes and what is left is something rather ordinary by Queen standards, which would probably not have made the cut on any of the first six albums.
141. Dear Friends (May), Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
At just one minute and nine seconds, this is an affecting piano ballad in miniature. One cannot help but feel that, by the ’80s, an idea such as this would have been worked on to bring it closer to a more conventional three-minute length or abandoned. Best moment: the backing vocals from 0:32.
Intrigued and inspired by a blog I came across on Twitter in late-October 2018 – annoyingly, I can’t find the link, but there are plenty like it – I began drawing up a complete list of Queen songs, ranked from ‘worst’ to ‘best’.
Obviously this is all completely subjective, and I don’t doubt that my views will change as I go along. If nothing else, it’s great fun to do and a perfect excuse to listen to and appreciate (to a greater or lesser extent) every single Queen song – especially the ones I usually unthinkingly dismiss and rarely play. I don’t really have a musical vocabulary, but I will try and explain my thinking as best I can. Any time references relate to versions I found on the official Queen channel on YouTube, unless stated otherwise.
First, a few words about what’s in and what’s not. I fully accept that this is a bit arbitrary, though there is a logic of sorts.
It encompasses every Queen studio song released either on an album or as a b-side up to Freddie’s death – so Mad The Swine makes the cut.
I decided to include God Save The Queen and The Wedding March, even though they are arrangements of traditional pieces of music, because they are very obviously ‘Queen-ified’.
On reflection, I decided to include the Made In Heaven album because Freddie was involved in at least some of the recording process. On that criterion, I have also included Feelings, Feelings and the three tracks that featured on Queen Forever. I have not, however, included No One But You, which had no Freddie involvement.
There are no live tracks or session tracks – including no We Will Rock You (fast). Boo.
To keep things simple, I am counting reprises as separate tracks – except Seven Seas Of Rhye from the first album (which, strictly speaking, isn’t a reprise anyway!).
Other than the reprises, which all stand as separate tracks on albums, there are no officially released early takes, remixes or reworkings included – so no Forever (boo…again), for example, and (mercifully) no Blurred Vision, which would otherwise have been propping up the entire Queen oeuvre.
I decided against ‘Track 13’, as a piece of ambient music rather than a song as such.
From 185 to 161…
Mainly b-sides, plus incidental and dialogue-heavy pieces from the Flash Gordon soundtrack. There are a number of songs from the Miracle sessions. Two singles (both minor hits) also feature.
185. Chinese Torture (Queen), The Miracle bonus track, 1989
A Brian experimental ‘thing’ that echoes bits of his ’86 Magic Tour solo (but it’s no Brighton Rock).
184. Stealin (Queen), b-side, 1989
From the Miracle sessions, this has obviously taken shape from a jamming session. A quintessential ‘minor’ b-side song.
183. Lost Opportunity (Queen), b-side, 1991
From the Innuendo sessions, it’s a blues piece that would have been suited to Brian’s first solo album (indeed it has the same feel as Nothing But Blue).
182. Don’t Try Suicide (Mercury), The Game, 1980
My least favourite Queen album track. As an attempt at black humour, it comes up short (“…You’re just gonna’ hate it…Nobody gives a damn”). The brief up-tempo bits (“You need help…” and the guitar solo) rescue it from being completely awful. It would have been far better suited as an exclusive b-side release.
181. The Ring (Hypnotic Seduction Of Dale) (Mercury), Flash Gordon, 1980
180. Arboria (Planet Of The Tree Men) (Deacon), Flash Gordon, 1980
179. Ming’s Theme (In the Court of Ming the Merciless) (Mercury), Flash Gordon, 1980
Essentially mood music. Ming’s Theme contains some fairly menacing synthesizer.
177. Marriage of Dale and Ming (And Flash Approaching) (May), Flash Gordon, 1980
176. Flash to the Rescue (May), Flash Gordon, 1980
Essentially narrative interludes, helping the story along. Marriage Of Dale And Ming includes some nice guitar on the Flash snippets. Flash To The Rescue carries a sense of heightening drama, as if setting up the action to come.
175. Body Language (Mercury), Hot Space, 1882
Queen’s worst choice of single – and a lead-off single at that. By all accounts, this was more or less an exclusively Freddie creation in the studio. Typical of his more aggressive, ‘shouty’ style of singing in the ’80s. There is little or no Brian guitar. When played live on the Hot Space tour, it was considerably rockier and much improved. This won’t be the last time I say those words.
174. Execution of Flash (Deacon), Flash Gordon, 1980
Short and simple – but effective: a few basic notes on guitar (presumably played by John) combining well with a suitably funereal orchestral sound.
173. Hijack My Heart (Queen), b-side, 1989
Another song from the Miracle sessions. With Roger on vocals, this sounds like it could have featured on Shove It! – the first Cross album (but really a Roger solo album). The guitar riff is very Roger.
172. There Must Be More To Life Than This (Mercury), released 2014
Originally part of the Hot Space sessions, this version includes nice guitars and is superior to the version on Mr Bad Guy, but it suffers badly from a weak Michael Jackson’s vocal.
171. Thank God It’s Christmas (May/Taylor), 1984
The fact that this Christmas song only reached Number 21 in the UK charts speaks volumes. It’s middle-of-the-road and unadventurous fare with equally bland lyrics, and lacks any kind of genuine festive spirit (perhaps because it was recorded in the summer). The best thing about it is John’s driving bass.
170. The Wedding March (Arr. May), Flash Gordon, 1980
May’s short Queen-ified arrangement of Wagner’s Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, with a suitably brooding ending (Dale is after all being forced to marry the dastardly Ming).
169. My Baby Does Me (Queen), The Miracle, 1980
Typical of the funky, laid-back feel that Freddie and John were fond of creating in the ’80s, the problem is that it doesn’t really go anywhere, and is seriously marred by vacuous lyrics and a soulless drum-machine backing.
168. More Of That Jazz (Taylor), Jazz, 1978
Their weakest album closer, More Of That Jazz sits neglected and unloved in the musical and lyrical shadow cast by the exuberant Don’t Stop Me Now, which precedes it. Sounding very much like one of Roger’s more-or-less solo efforts, it is hampered by uninspired lyrics and further weakened by the unnecessary inclusion of a hideous montage of earlier tracks.
167. Party (Queen), The Miracle, 1989
The weakest (by far) of Queen’s album lead-off songs, this is based around a heavy, programmed drum beat. It’s rescued by some zippy guitar work from Brian.
166. Rain Must Fall (Queen), The Miracle, 1989
Another of the weaker Miracle tracks with a synthesized drum beat far too prominent in the mix. Freddie’s repeated use of “cool” dates the song. However, the basic track is considerably enhanced by Roger’s percussion, a scintillating guitar solo from Brian and some great bass from John – especially from roughly 3:10 onwards.
165. Fun It (Taylor), Jazz, 1978
Roger’s first experiment in funk in which he and Freddie share lead vocal duties. It includes several trademark Roger frills, but ultimately sounds like a demo. Like many of the songs on Jazz, it would surely have worked better with more inspired production. A foretaste of the cold ’80s drum sound to come.
164. God Save The Queen (Arr. May), A Night At The Opera, 1975
Originally recorded in 1974 to close the live show, Brian’s arrangement served two important functions: it was an inspired choice to close Queen’s ‘Sgt Pepper’ and it was surely the only thing that could have followed Bohemian Rhapsody.
163. In the Death Cell (Love Theme Reprise) (Taylor), Flash Gordon, 1980
162. Escape from the Swamp (Taylor), Flash Gordon, 1980
161. In the Space Capsule (The Love Theme) (Taylor), Flash Gordon, 1980
Three great mood pieces from Roger, combining timpani and synthesizer to great effect. There’s a haunting, ethereal quality to the synth sound, reminiscent of his excellent solo track, Fun In Space (which was being worked on at roughly the same time).
The film’s opening scenes take time to establish [Freddie] as an awkward, restless outsider, stumbling to realise vague dreams of stardom. Far from a fast-paced rollercoaster ride, I suspect that some will find these elements of the film ‘slow’. Above all, there are several scenes exploring the relationship between Freddie and Mary, the pivot around which the whole film revolves. Lucy Boynton as Mary is excellent throughout: the moment when she pretends to take a drink at Freddie’s insistence during a late-night phone call, thus signalling a release of sorts from his spell, is particularly affecting.
Having now seen ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for a second time, here’s an attempt to bring some order to a mad jumble of thoughts – what works and what doesn’t, whether the inaccuracies matter, whether it is fist-pumpingly brilliant or wince-inducingly awful, whether it is respectful of the Queen legacy, and above all whether it is a worthy addition to the Queen canon.
On the whole, I like the film. That was never a given. I am sure that nobody seriously expected a groundbreaking, genre-redefining, Oscar-sweeping piece of art – like the track Bohemian Rhapsody, say – but on the quality spectrum I was crossing my fingers for something more akin to ‘The Doors’ than ‘Spiceworld: The Movie’. It’s short-sighted to wax lyrical about every last Queen product – this replica sixpence, that t-shirt, this vodka, that board game. Some things are high quality and worthwhile; others are mediocre and a bit naff. There Must Be More To Life Than This (the Queen & Michael Jackson version) is ordinary at best. I never particularly got into The Cross. I have not seen – nor do I intend doing – the ‘We Will Rock You’ musical. Objectivity matters, even where ‘classic’ Queen is concerned and even more so in the case of post-Freddie and non-Queen projects.
With regards to the film, I hadn’t paid too much attention to the various high-profile squabbles and sackings over the years. But with the publication last year of a series of appetite-whetting stills, followed by the drip-drip release of various trailers, and finally the recent publicity and hype, I was aware of a consensus of sorts: the four central acting performances (particularly Rami Malek) are amazing; the concert scenes are great; the attention to ‘authenticity’ is astonishing, though they take liberties with the ‘real’ story; plus a vaguer sense that it is going to be a rock ‘n’ roll rollercoaster ride, propelled along by an irresistible soundtrack.
Well, yes and no.
The OST was the first surprise. To be honest, I had expected Queen Productions Ltd to churn out another rehashed ‘greatest hits’ package. What emerged was a well-above-par release, with little nuggets of gold dotted throughout – from the previously unreleased guitar-rich version of Don’t Stop Me Now and the Queen-ified ‘Fox’ fanfare to the delightfully re-recorded Doing All Right and (best of all) the raw, thumping live Fat Bottomed Girls from Paris in 1979 – not even the version from the widely available bootleg video. Definitely promising.
The second ‘surprise’ – if surprise it is – was how many of the rumours were just plain wrong, yet another reminder to consume media tittle-tattle with a large helping of scepticism. Some at least of Sacha Baron Cohen’s version of history appears to be nonsense, though the script (if indeed there even was a script at that stage) will have undergone a million re-writes since his time. Among other canards, Brian’s first wife Chrissy does indeed appear in the film, as do all the ‘wives’ (for use of inverted commas, see below), and the accusations of ‘hetero-washing’ (ignoring or downplaying Freddie’s homosexuality) are way wide of the mark – indeed, scenes of men kissing men probably outnumber those of heterosexual canoodling.
The main weakness is the balance of the script, a symptom of the lack of clarity about what sort of film this is trying to be. I wrote months ago on a fan forum that it was:
…far more important [for me] for the film to portray the power and impact of Queen’s live show.
In my mind, this was to be a film about Queen. But ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ purports to be a ‘biopic’ – a biographical film of Freddie’s life, focusing on the years from 1970 to 1985. In truth, it is a messy hybrid of the two. In part, it is a tongue-in-cheek whistle-stop re-enactment of key moments in the band’s history. Especially with the active involvement of Brian and Roger in the film’s production, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ feels at times like a vehicle for (some of) the band’s greatest hits – a visual jukebox – and will doubtless be enjoyed by many for this very reason.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is also an attempt at a deeper study of Freddie – flamboyant free spirit, creative genius, tortured soul. The film’s opening scenes take time to establish him as an awkward, restless outsider (a regular target for casual racism, for example), stumbling to realise vague dreams of stardom. Far from a fast-paced rollercoaster ride, I suspect that some will find these elements of the film ‘slow’. Above all, there are several scenes exploring the relationship between Freddie and Mary, the pivot around which the whole film revolves. Lucy Boynton as Mary is excellent throughout: the moment when she pretends to take a drink at Freddie’s insistence during a late-night phone call, thus signalling a release of sorts from his spell, is particularly affecting.
Comments by the historian Anthony Beevor, who wrote recently about war films, are interesting and relevant in relation to the film:
The real problem is that the needs of history and the needs of the movie industry are fundamentally incompatible. Hollywood has to simplify everything according to set formulae. Its films have to have heroes and, of course, baddies – moral equivocation is too complex. Feature films also have to have a whole range of staple ingredients if they are to make it through the financing, production and studio system to the box office. One element is the “arc of character”, in which the leading actors have to go through a form of moral metamorphosis as a result of the experiences they undergo. Endings have to be upbeat…
Ironically, the basic Freddie story does loosely conform to this by-the-numbers story arc: meteoric rise followed by downfall, before redemption (here during a Munich storm – the pouring rain a familiar trope, symbolising cleansing and re-birth) and the grand Live Aid finale. However, the script is unable to handle the sheer quantity of source material, resulting in ridiculously contrived situations and jaw-dropping narrative leaps. Thus, Freddie meets the band and (separately) Mary at the same Smile gig – the exact same night that Tim quits to join Humpy Bong. Elsewhere, Freddie and John debut with the band on stage at the same time – the night, coincidentally, of the broken microphone stand. Most ridiculous of all (as Alexis Petrides points out in The Guardian), Freddie turns up unannounced on Jim Hutton’s doorstep to declare his love, and then reconciles with his father over tea and cakes – all on the same morning – before nipping across to Wembley Stadium to steal the show at Live Aid. A busy day indeed.
This brings us more generally to the thorny issue of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts. Broadly speaking, events fall into one of two periods – ‘early’ and ‘late’. Within – and even across – these periods, the chronology is alarmingly fluid, and, as we were pre-warned, whole chunks of the Queen story are ignored, glossed over or turned upside down. A camper van, used for gigging up and down the country, is sold on Freddie’s initiative to pay for studio time: in reality, of course, Queen did almost the opposite, refusing to tread the usual ‘pub and club’ circuit – actually one of the things that immediately set them apart from run-of-the-mill bands. John Reid arrives early (around the time of the first album) and leaves late (at the time Freddie was offered a solo deal by CBS). Rock in Rio acts as a backdrop for Freddie’s break-up with Mary – events probably eight years apart in reality. Before Live Aid, Roger exclaims that the band haven’t played live for years – helping to set up the dramatic finale but, of course, a fiction.
Some of the inaccuracies are more puzzling, seemingly unimportant to the storyline. Freddie is shown smoking in ’75 – several years before he actually started. Dominique Beyrand, Roger’s then girlfriend, is referred to as his wife (they only married in 1988). Journalists raise the spectre of AIDS at a press conference in 1982 – a year before scientists had even formally identified the virus. Jim Hutton is working as a waiter at one of Freddie’s house parties when the two first meet. And photo evidence may provide evidence to the contrary, but some of the costumes just don’t ring true – Brian’s orange Adidas top in the We Will Rock You scene, to name one. Trivial though these details are, they nevertheless sit uncomfortably alongside Greg Brooks’ unwise assertion that “…the Fox team were obsessed with detail; getting every aspect of every scene perfectly right”.
Two figures loom large in the background. The role of arch-villain, as had been well trailed, is assigned to Paul Prenter, the eminence grise, fuelling Freddie’s hedonistic lifestyle and – motivated by infatuation and greed – increasingly blocking all contact between Freddie and the Queen ‘family’, and between Freddie and Mary. Prenter’s real part in the Queen story is well known, but I have sympathy (again) with the critic Alexis Petrides, who argues that the demonization of Prenter necessitates portraying the rest of the band as conventional, clean-living, sober chaps. Perhaps this is the reason why Dominique Beyrand is referred to as Roger’s wife – to juxtapose the band’s growing maturity and sense of responsibility with Freddie’s wild abandon (early scenes make clear the younger Roger’s fondness for partying). We see no wild Queen parties; there is no collective band meltdown in Munich.
Less expected was the portrayal of Jim Beach. In contrast to Prenter, he is a sober, steadying influence. Jim is an almost ubiquitous presence – during tricky negotiations with the record company, during a critical reconciliation scene in his office, even during recording sessions, dutifully completing paperwork at a side-table. He is there in the background at band rehearsals for Live Aid when Freddie reveals his HIV status to the band (the implication being, of course, that Jim already knew). In a Jeeves-ish final twist, it is Jim who increases the volume on the mixing desk at Live Aid before Queen’s set – in reality, it was Trip Khalaf.
The on-stage scenes are good, though it would be going too far to say that they faithfully ‘copy’ Queen live – the lengthy Live Aid sequence excepted. The use of ‘live’ recordings works extremely well, and the actors’ miming is good, particularly Malek’s lip-synching. Again, some aspects of the live scenes are just fabrications: for example, each member of the band – even John! – is shown introducing themselves to the audience as Freddie holds his microphone horizontally. We already knew about the placement of Fat Bottomed Girls early in their career: it is used to soundtrack a blistering first tour of the States.
Some inaccuracies are no big deal – the lighting rig a cross between the ‘pizza oven’ and the ‘G2 razors’, Freddie throwing his leather jacket across the stage towards the crowd, dry ice during We Will Rock You. We knew about the crowdsurfing from the trailers, of course. How I wished this had found its way to the cutting-room floor. Alas, no. Jim Morrison used to jump into the crowd. Maybe for him it was spiritual – his way of connecting with the audience. Freddie was a showman and entertainer, glorying in his superstar persona, urging us in the midst of ‘70s recession and industrial decline to drink champagne for breakfast. He was not a crowdsurfer.
And what of the band performances? Rami Malek is indeed excellent. The ‘biopic’ format does not best serve Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello, over-accentuating as it does Freddie’s role and importance, leaving their characters somewhat underdeveloped. I also struggled at first to reconcile what I saw on the screen with my own perceptions and preconceptions of my childhood heroes. Only on second viewing did I really warm to their performances. Gwilym Lee certainly captures Brian’s voice and mannerisms. The younger ‘Brian’, however, felt too carefree and jokey: I find it difficult to imagine Brian engaging in witty repartee. ‘My’ Brian is the epitome of solemnity – serious, studious and deeply thoughtful. Mazzello brings out John’s quiet steadiness, though his facial expressions veer uncomfortably close towards gurning at times, and his on-stage ‘Deacy’ moves are overexaggerated. Well done to Ben Hardy for nailing the Hammer To Fall drum parts. However, other than for his Galileos, non-Queen fans may wonder at Roger’s importance in the band. Of the four, his part seemed the most obviously underdeveloped, though he was involved in the film’s funniest exchange (ROGER: ‘So Kash, what are you doing later?’ KASHMIRA: ‘Homework’). I liked the irony around I’m In Love With My Car. Mocked by Brian and John in the film, it has outlasted pretty much every other non-single as a staple of the live set, as well as earning Roger hefty royalty cheques as the original Bohemian Rhapsody b-side.
How, then, to sum up ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’? At times preposterous and cheesy, overreaching in places and prone to missteps, drift and loss of direction. Yet also larger than life, irresistibly ambitious, often majestic and magnificent, and always, always totally compelling.
Rather like Queen, in fact. And rather like Freddie.
Essential listening in its day…Live Killers is flawed but brilliant nonetheless…Queen’s catalogue of restored and remastered live recordings currently contains a gaping pizza oven-shaped hole…[T]he quality of the Rainbow ’74 box set, recorded five years earlier than Live Killers, presumably on significantly inferior equipment, demonstrates that analogue recordings from the ‘70s era can be cleaned up to an exceptional standard.
Queen played at the Dallas Convention Center in Texas on 28 October 1978, the opening night of what became their Jazz world tour, which came to an end fourteen months later with a concert in aid of Kampuchea at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.
Recorded in continental Europe between January and March 1979, Live Killers is an album that I seldom play nowadays, preferring unofficial recordings, some of which are excellent, if obviously flawed in terms of sound quality. With the fortieth anniversary of its release approaching – and with fingers crossed for the appearance of some sort of retrospective late-’70s live package – this seems an opportune moment to re-join Queen on their 1979 European tour, to once again be “transported effortlessly from city to city”1, and to evaluate afresh an album that captured the band at a transition-point in their career – before Mack and Munich, before magic and miracles, before true global mega-stardom and mega-bucks.
In 1981, as a Queen-mad adolescent, I wrote the following in one of many scrapbook ‘biographies’:
In fact, everything about this album is commendable, from the striking cover to the interesting sleeve notes to, of course, the music.
Live Killers was everything a Queen fan could ask for, the perfect memento from their breathless classic-era concerts – whether you got to see them in the flesh back then or not.
The whole piece reads in similarly fulsome fashion. But scroll back to the opening sentence – “Queen had long been known for their out-sized stadium rock shows”. Not true. This ‘review’ (and others like it) is little more than imprecise, cliché-ridden hyperbole. It’s the Queen of legend, the stadium-bestriding giants of later folklore. The reality is that in the late-70s – pre-South America, pre-Live Aid, pre-Magic Tour – our heroes were still very much an indoor arena band.
Judging from the more discerning reviews on Amazon and from various posts on fan forums, one recurring strain of thought seems to be that the album slots into the decent-document-of-the-live-show-at-the-time category – in other words, nearly but not quite. Gary Graff, writing in Phil Sutcliffe’s excellent ‘Ultimate Illustrated History’ book, unintentionally (I think) damned the album with faint praise, describing it as “solid and at times striking”2. He’s writing, lest we forget, about arguably rock’s most compelling live act.
Live Killers has had a chequered history. It sold well, if not spectacularly, and some initial music press reviews, at least, were not entirely unfavourable. Its rawness and apparent lack of polish met with approval. ‘Record Mirror’ described it as “a triumph”. Even ‘Sounds’ awarded the album three stars out of five3. However, despite this and a number of grudgingly positive reviews of the subsequent Crazy Tour (of which the Mick Middles review in ‘Sounds’ is a classic example), the music press remained almost uniformly hostile to the band. Punk and new wave might have burned themselves out by 1979-1980, but ska (urban, working-class, multicultural) and the ‘New Romantics’ (synthesized electronic pop, highly stylised fashion) were the coming Big Things. Queen were decidedly uncool.
In particular, Live Killers struggled in comparison with Thin Lizzy’s critically acclaimed Live And Dangerous, released in 1978. There were certainly similarities: even the title ‘Live Killers’ carried echoes of the earlier release. Criticism of Queen’s performance – the apparent bias towards newer material, the use of recorded tape during the show, the lengthy guitar and timpani solos – segued into familiar attacks on the band as pompous, self-indulgent and out of touch. Thin Lizzy, on the other hand, better suited the new wave aesthetic: street-wise outsiders with lyrics that romanticized rough, tough working-class culture.
Criticism also surfaced from within the Queen camp. The official fortieth-anniversary history states that the band were “under pressure to come up with a live album”4. Georg Purvis attributes expressions of frustration and dissatisfaction to all four band members5, though he supplies few, if any, dates and supporting references to provide meaningful context. Elsewhere, in comments attributed to 1983, Brian talks wearily of the inescapability of live albums. On Redbeard’s In The Studio ‘rockumentary’ show about The Game, both Roger and Brian are dismissive of the album. A 2001 remaster was well received but I can find no evidence of anyone suggesting it was a major improvement on the original mix. It was seemingly not deemed worthy of a reissue as part of the 2011 remasters package and, at the time of writing, it does not appear to be available in the official Queen online shop.
Everyone releases a live record. It’s just a filler before the next studio album. It will curb the sale of bootlegs sold at exorbitant prices. It all sounds so remarkably un-Queen-like: the uncompromising perfectionists forced to compromise and to meet the expectations of others. This is hardly the obstinate, headstrong ‘Queen’ whose debut single featured a drum solo, who released a six-minute single (seven minutes when Roy Thomas Baker gets into his stride) against unanimous industry advice and who, filled with unwavering self-belief, walked away from John Reid’s management in 1978 and into the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s highest-paid directors.
Double (even triple) live albums were almost de rigueur: Seconds Out, Strangers In The Night, Tokyo Tapes, to name just a few, all date from this period. Plans for a Queen live album had repeatedly been shelved during their early career. The bootleg often circulated as ‘Sheetkickers’ appears to be a professionally mixed 40-minute edit of the February ‘74 Rainbow show. The November Rainbow shows were filmed, of course, as well as the 1977 Earls Court6 shows. Perhaps the feeling was that film would better capture the theatricality and visual power of the band. The 33-minute Queen At The Rainbow film was shown in cinemas in 1976, but without an accompanying audio soundtrack release. Once the home video market was established in the ‘80s, We Will Rock You, Rock In Rio and Live In Budapest all appeared within the space of three years.
As evidenced on the excellent Queenlive.ca website and in Brian’s Queen In 3D book7, the stunning front cover photograph is from one of the Japanese shows, subsequently manipulated to incorporate Brian into the shot. The original inner gatefold offered a busy montage of live shots drawn from across the band’s career, though (like the set list) leaning heavily towards recent tours. Impressive stuff.
Much less impressive, on the other hand, are the inner sleeve notes. Useful context and insightful remarks are buried away amidst cliché (“literally fighting its way up the charts”), misleading comment (Now I’m Here…“used as an encore and later dropped” – it was dropped for perhaps as little as a week8 on the News Of The World tour), the occasional baffling statement (Keep Yourself Alive “having gone full circle over the years” – so when was it played significantly differently, one wonders?) and a sprinkling of sugary sentiment (“a very singable tune with sentiments never forgotten by Queen fans”). From the single-minded foursome who supposedly almost wrecked the launch of Queen II by fussing over problems with the cover9, the egregious proofing errors – “eerieness”, “raport”, “his live album”, “form News Of The World” – are particularly inexcusable.
Cue the thunderclap and the album begins at breakneck speed. The fast version of We Will Rock You, previously unavailable, is as exhilarating as when I first heard it at Stafford Bingley Hall in May 1978 and remains my favourite Queen set opener. Let Me Entertain You sits in its rightful place near the beginning of the show. It is baffling why this song was placed as the closing track on side one of Jazz (even more incongruous, though obviously unintentional, is its placing in the middle of thirteen tracks on the Jazz CD). A six-song medley follows. End of side one: a chance to draw breath.
Side two leans heavily on audience participation, a quest for ‘authenticity’ that Roger was keen to emphasise in interviews at the time10. Now I’m Here features Freddie’s call-and-response routine: a later staple of the show (‘Day-O’), it was new on the Jazz tour. The acoustic set slows the pace with its more laid-back, singalong feel. Brian’s guitar solo dominates the magnificent third side, though it’s a shame that Spread Your Wings features its conventional ending rather than the sensational, upbeat BBC session version. Side four brings the show to a close with the obligatory encores.
Given the limitations of space (four sides, approximately 22 minutes each), it is a varied and well-balanced package, relatively faithful to the actual set list running order. However, debate has always surrounded the omissions deemed necessary to fit the show onto four sides. Three songs – If You Can’t Beat Them, Fat Bottomed Girls and It’s Late – were all ‘occasional’ rather than permanent fixtures of the set list over the fourteen-month world tour as a whole – played on some nights and not others, often alternated and usually the first to be dropped to make room for any new additions (for example, current single Don’t Stop Me Now was introduced on the European leg, Teo Torriatte was performed in Japan, and Mustapha, Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Save Me were all in the Crazy Tour set).
None of these ‘occasional’ songs was included on Live Killers. As a solid rather than exceptional track from the Jazz album, If You Can’t Beat Them is perhaps the least surprising, though the live version outshines the original. It’s Late was presumably left out on grounds of length. More surprising was the omission of Fat Bottomed Girls – recent single, inspiration for the Jazz promotional visuals and a full-throated stage rocker. The biggest shock, however, was the absence of Somebody To Love, again presumably due to its length – performed live, it lasted around seven minutes. Roger once commented that the band initially had difficulty translating the song to the stage11. But it remained a live staple almost to the very end, a bona fide Queen classic12.
The ever-evolving medley – not quite “play the Hits” [sic] as described in the sleeve notes – was another staple of the ‘70s show. Pacy and punchy, it featured snippets of singles and album tracks alike. Here, Roger’s vocal on I’m In Love With My Car and Brian’s harmonizer effects on Get Down Make Love are undoubted highlights. You’re My Best Friend, on the other hand, feels rather lightweight and out of place, though Queen fan, musician and YouTube reviewer James Rundle disagrees and singles it out for particular praise. It was dropped for the 1980 European tour.
Elsewhere the rather pointless Mustapha teaser sits incongruously at the beginning of side four. ‘Sounds’ magazine, among others, criticised the inclusion of the taped operatic section of Bohemian Rhapsody, also on side four. Yet it is difficult to see how it could have been left out: as Live Magic later proved with horrific effect, editing songs results in disaster.
The inclusion of the entire three-song acoustic mini-set is also debatable. Only the Magic Tour, which also included a medley of rock ‘n’ roll standards, featured a longer acoustic interlude. Between 1980 and 1982, Love Of My Life was the sole acoustic song, though the semi-acoustic Save Me featured earlier in the set. An obvious alternative would have been to omit Dreamer’s Ball and Brian’s long band introduction before ’39 (included, presumably, as light relief and to illustrate the exuberance of a typical Queen audience). As an aside, how ironic it seems to hear Brian referencing Roger’s tiger-skin trousers.
Based on the 1994 remaster track timings, the original four sides of vinyl add up to 22m 18s, 24m 52s, 22m 01s and 21m 08s respectively. Taking 25 minutes as the upper limit, an alternative track listing for the original vinyl release might have been:
Side One: We Will Rock You / Let Me Entertain You / If You Can’t Beat Them / Medley – omitting You’re My Best Friend
Side Two: Somebody To Love / Now I’m Here / Love Of My Life / ‘39
Side Three: Don’t Stop Me Now / Spread Your Wings / Brighton Rock
Side Four: Keep Yourself Alive13 / Bohemian Rhapsody – omitting Mustapha / Tie Your Mother Down / Sheer Heart Attack / We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions / God Save The Queen
The poor quality of the overall sound is often highlighted – and rightly so. With a few notable exceptions such as I’m In Love With My Car – where the instruments seem separated out and clearer in the mix – much of the album sounds muddied and muffled, like listening through cotton buds rather than headphones. In Purvis’s opinion, “the band sounds muddled, some of the instruments are poorly mixed, and the audience levels are inconsistent”14. Imagine an album restored to the standard of the version of Sheer Heart Attack included in the News Of The World box set15: recorded at one of the Paris shows, it is genuinely raw, pulsating and anarchic.
The extent to which the tapes were tampered with during the mixing process is a matter of debate. Mark Blake describes Live Killers as “an undoctored account…loud and messy”16. Purvis quotes Brian as insisting “vehemently” that there were no overdubs17. Phil Sutcliffe’s book, on the other hand, quotes Roger that “only the bass drum was live”18 – presumably speaking here with tongue firmly in cheek.
Given Queen’s reputation in the studio, this was never going to be a warts-‘n’-all release. Most – if not all – of the European shows were recorded, with songs selected from different nights. The website Queenlive.ca contains a brilliant track-by-track analysis, demonstrating that individual songs were often made up of recordings spliced together from different nights. I have neither a music producer’s ear nor a high-quality sound system. But even to this non-specialist, the change of ‘feel’ midway through songs and the ‘movement’ of instruments around the stereo mix were giant clues about the amount of general interference.
At times, the studio tampering is blatant. Why, for example, add an echo to Freddie’s introduction to Now I’m Here, recorded in Frankfurt on 2 February? The vocal at the beginning of Don’t Stop Me Now (up to “ecstasy”) has also almost certainly been added later. A tough song to sing, no doubt, and usually performed immediately after a frenetic and gruelling Now I’m Here, it was perhaps used as an opportunity for Freddie to catch his breath at the piano. The opening of the song was generally played with guitar substituting for the vocal. Of fourteen live recordings in my possession from 1979, the only exceptions to this are Newcastle (which includes three words: “Gonna have myself”) and the filmed Hammersmith show on Boxing Night, when he sang about half the opening lines, his voice being generally superb all evening after a four-day break.
Equally extraordinary was the selection of Love Of My Life as lead-off single, edging out Body Language in the most-bizarre-choice-of-first-single competition. From the band’s perspective, it obviously showcased the crowd-participation element of the show, as well as introducing a completely different side of their music to the general singles-buying public. This author has a vague recollection of Roger valiantly defending the single on a Radio 1 ‘Roundtable’ review show. It sank without trace (in the UK at least), their worst chart performance since Keep Yourself Alive. The obvious choice should surely have been We Will Rock You (fast) – new, catchy and a perfect advert for the album. The frenetic version of Keep Yourself Alive – debut single, of course – might also have worked well, an appropriate way to bookend this phase of their career.
Essential listening in its day (it was, after all, the only live product officially available until 1984), Live Killers is flawed but brilliant nonetheless. The original tapes sit in the archives as well as the complete Paris footage, at least according to Brian19. Queen’s catalogue of restored and remastered live recordings currently contains a gaping pizza oven-shaped hole. If there is to be some kind of re-release, it will almost certainly be an enhanced package, not just an improved version of the original Live Killers album. One hopes, naturally, for a complete, unadulterated document of the Jazz tour. Even allowing for Brian’s comments about persistent sound problems on the tour, the quality of the Rainbow ’74 box set, recorded five years earlier than Live Killers, presumably on significantly inferior equipment, demonstrates that analogue recordings from the ‘70s era can be cleaned up to an exceptional standard.
Six months later, when asked by the English teacher the title of my individual project, I proposed ‘Queen’. “But you ‘did’ Queen at the talent show and at the Christmas disco,” she protested wearily. How little she understood.
Memories, my memories
How long can you stay
To haunt my days1
(Brian May, All Dead, All Dead, 1977)
These reminiscences are neither comprehensive nor authoritative; still less do they amount to any kind of a history of Queen, ‘personal’ or otherwise. Rather, like the scrapbooks I used to lovingly fill, it is an attempt to glue down fading memories and slowly-blurring mental snapshots and to capture odd (literally, in some cases) anecdotes of a typically obsessive schoolboy, all of which are bound up in a variety of Queen-related items acquired over the years.
Much of what is recounted here occurred in my secondary school years from 1977 to 1982. Younger Queen fans reading this should remember that the 1970s were a distant land without YouTube, Spotify and BluRay, without MTV and VH1, without even home video machines. Radio 1 was transmitted on crackly medium wave in mono sound; Radio 2 was for old people. Quality rock music on the three (yes, three!) TV channels was virtually non-existent. Top Of The Pops was an excruciating mime-fest and The Old Grey Whistle Test, by the late-‘70s, privileged Annie Nightingale and new wave over Whispering Bob’s ‘progressive’ rock.2 If you happened to miss what little was broadcast – well, tough.
Yet, despite it all, we survived! For those who were there, “these days are all gone now, but some things remain…”
George Tremlett’s paperback was written in 1975 and published the following year. The final page offers a tantalising glimpse of the ‘new’ stage show, which opened with Bohemian Rhapsody, though the last entry in the appendix’s ‘Queen Chronology’ lists two nights in Brisbane, 22-23 April 1976, one of which was presumably scheduled (hence its listing) but does not appear actually to have taken place (according to my edition of Greg Brooks’ Queen Live). Greedy for knowledge of my new heroes, I must have picked the book up sometime in 1977 or – more likely – 1978, in any case well before the advent of glossy, informative and comprehensive music magazines like Q. In the weekly music papers – principally NME, Sounds & Melody Maker – coverage of Queen was scarce, uninformative and, in the main, hostile. Aside from the anodyne fan club biography, Tremlett was my introduction to the World of Queen.
The book is competently written and researched. Evidently, Tremlett enjoyed ready access to Brian’s parents and he quotes Brian’s father extensively; Freddie’s parents, Bomi & Jer Bulsara, by contrast, appear to have been much more guarded and unforthcoming (perhaps wishing to keep a low profile, mindful of widespread racial prejudice in 1970s England). The text adds a little colour to Brian’s often-repeated statement – on the documentary Days Of Our Lives, for example – that his father only really ‘got’ Queen after Brian flew his parents to Madison Square Garden (presumably in February 1977, Queen’s first show there).3 For example, though acknowledging the existence of family tensions, Harold May, speaking to the author in 1975, says: “We still think that Queen II was a masterpiece”.
My copy is dog-eared and much-thumbed; its black-and-white photos were long ago sacrificed for display on my bedroom walls. A separate appendix reprints personal questionnaires completed by the band (date unspecified but the most contemporary reference appears to be Queen II, released in March 1974). Something of the band’s individual personalities is revealed here. Freddie lists his ‘special talent’ as “ponsing and poovery”, a singular turn of phrase reminiscent of the equally unforgettable ‘Bechstein Debauchery’. John’s ‘dream’ is “wet”. Unsurprisingly, Brian seems to have approached the task the most earnestly of the four. After thirty-plus years, I finally tackled The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (Brian’s ‘favourite book’) – an interesting and typically cerebral read, if somewhat dated now.
This badge reminds me of the time I first discovered Queen through school friends, even though it was probably purchased much later. It’s an example of the cheap, knock-off seaside fare that we bought as kids; the 1978 Jazz font is juxtaposed with a 1977 promotional image. Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy started my singles collection (yes, it’s an EP); A Day At The Races was my first album, possibly picked up on holiday in Llandudno during the Whitsun school holidays. Albums were relatively expensive to buy in those days – about £4. In October ’77, as my mum was still sceptical about my fascination with Queen, she took me round to her friend’s house one evening; her friend’s son had a copy of the new album, News Of The World, and it was aired in full to check that I did actually like it. I remember nearly falling off the chair during the Sheer Heart Attack solo, worrying that the record player was faulty or that the needle had stuck.
Fellow-fanatic and school-friend Keith and I hatched a frankly ridiculous plan to enter the school Christmas talent competition and mime to We Are The Champions, Queen’s then-current single. Armed with a cassette tape player, an acoustic guitar, a genuine electric bass (minus amplifier or power lead) and a set of textbooks for drums (with real drumsticks, making all the difference), we cajoled friends Tommy and Shaun to join in – doubtless bribing them with 2oz of pear drops or the like. Bizarrely, we survived the ‘audition’ and then, foreshadowing Queen’s Live Aid triumph eight years later, stole the show on the night. I, by the way, was Freddie – an upside-down golf club substituting for the iconic microphone. Leotards, bangles and black nail varnish were mercifully absent. Looking back, I still feel a touch of guilt about the other entrants, who presumably had some genuine talent or other.
At the first years’ disco a few days later, Keith and I somehow coaxed the entire year group onto their hands and knees to hammer out We Will Rock You on the hall floor. An impressive sight, if somewhat odd – given that this now-iconic song had yet to find its place in the wider public consciousness and was, at that time, ‘merely’ a b-side. Six months later, when asked by the English teacher the title of my individual project, I proposed ‘Queen’. “But you ‘did’ Queen at the talent show and at the Christmas disco,” she protested wearily. How little she understood.
This Japanese import of the first album is, I think, one of the first ‘rarities’ I ever bought – and still a favourite. Apart from the cost of the item itself, buying a rarity involved either a trip to the nearest city where record shops were much better stocked or an agonising ten-day wait for the cheque to clear, if buying by mail order from the back of Sounds. Imported Japanese singles and LPs – at hugely inflated prices – were quite the rage in the late-‘70s, with their reputation for quality and excellent packaging. Certainly, the vinyl felt thicker and less flimsy than the British equivalent, the cover was made of thick card and each release was presented with an exotic wraparound label (the Japanese lettering prominently displayed) and a thin plastic covering.4 This particular item – the debut album – offered two additional attractions for me. Firstly, the distinctive red Elektra cover, quite different from the standard EMI version (Elektra was Queen’s record label in much of the non-European world in the ‘70s). Secondly, all Japanese LPs contained a lyric sheet – not included in the EMI release.
I was eager to have unravelled some of the rather difficult-to-decipher lines. Alas, I had failed to factor in the somewhat limited abilities of the translator. For example: “Gonna blast it around / This music’s gonna make you a star / Girl’s in your arms and she gassed / And you should go far…” is supposedly from the final verse of Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll. For years I struggled to nail down the precise wording of Freddie’s follow-up to Roger’s line “Do you think you’re better every day?” in Keep Yourself Alive. Our Japanese wordsmith came up with: “No, I just think all roads just lead right into my grave”. My 1994 Digital Master Series CD booklet, on the other hand, renders it thus: “I just think I’m two steps nearer to my grave”. One of my favourite Queen ironies is that Keep Yourself Alive, a live staple, was always performed towards the end of the set as a rousing, get-’em-out-of-their-seats, celebration of life; the meaning behind Brian’s lyrics is undoubtedly much darker.
This sew-on badge was, I think, a renewal gift from the fan club. I first joined in spring ’78 so it’s probably from 1979 or perhaps 1980. Sadly, I have very little memorabilia left from my years in the fan club. Just like the photos in Tremlett’s book, the quarterly magazines were mercilessly pillaged to decorate my bedroom (alongside the nude bicycle race poster from Jazz, which mum inexplicably allowed me to display). The tour programmes from 1978, 1979 (my favourite) and 1980 all met a similar fate. Insane acts of vandalism, when I reflect back, but this was twenty-five years or more before eBay. Besides, what does an acne-dotted thirteen-year-old understand of nostalgia?
Each member of the band wrote an annual letter for the fan club magazine.5 Freddie’s letters were always light and gossipy – buying a new piano, taking up smoking. I have no recollection of John’s, to be honest (humble apologies, John). I do, however, recall my frustration at Roger’s autumn ’78 contribution because he wasted precious space listing the tracks on the forthcoming album (Jazz). He also judged it to be their “best” yet. I doubt he or posterity now agrees. Brian’s contributions were densely packed and scrawled like a doctor’s prescription.
I somehow deciphered Brian’s all-but-illegible handwriting in the spring 1981 magazine, in which he proudly announced the release of the film Flash Gordon (music by Queen, of course) – ‘I managed to get in there and turn the music up’, or words to that effect. What lingers in the mind, however, is his heartfelt plea to us fans not to attend the screening if our local cinema had yet to install state-of-the-art stereo sound. I live in Wigan, not Leicester Square; we are pioneers of pie-eating, not of new technology. Do I choose the rock (no pun intended) or the hard place: either boycott brand new Queen music or snub the wishes of Brian May? I confess I chose the latter. Brian, I can only beg your forgiveness. I wonder, is this a good time to admit that I’ve never seen We Will Rock You?
This Jazz lyric sheet was a freebie sent to all fan club members in late-’78 after the release of the Jazz album, the first one not to include printed lyrics since their debut. Four individual portraits adorn the reverse. Brian looks pensive (nothing new there), as does Freddie; perhaps he is still dreaming of the Tour de France (which allegedly inspired him to write Bicycle Race when it passed close by their recording studio in Montreux). Roger holds a cigarette defiantly aloft; John sports his severe ‘skinhead’ haircut. The excellent Queen Live website dates Freddie’s shot to a press conference held the day after the infamous New Orleans party on 31 October 1978. It always puzzled me that they didn’t print the lyrics to Mustapha and I still can’t follow the words of Bicycle Race in print without being convinced by the end of the song that ‘bicycle’ is spelt incorrectly. Try it.
Within months of Jazz, Queen Live Killers was available; I was, by this time, a teenager and spending hours secreted in my bedroom. However, while normal lads thumbed girlie magazines or girlie bra-straps, I was using an old walking stick to mime Brian’s guitar parts (swapped for a tennis racquet during the acoustic set). A toy cannon perched perilously on a pile of Beano annuals doubled as a microphone for Roger’s vocals (more substantial vocal parts than Brian’s, I always thought). Silly, silly, silly. Or was I subconsciously revisiting Tim Staffell’s stories of Freddie miming to Jimi Hendrix with a twelve-inch ruler in the art room at Ealing College that I’d lapped up from reading Tremlett?
The picture from the Another One Bites The Dust picture sleeve is, of course, a still from the Play The Game video, released in mid-1980. Back then, the only way to be sure of seeing a video was on Top Of The Pops. This shot prompts the memory of a strike in the summer of 1980 (either at the BBC or by the Musicians’ Union or Equity; I forget which). TOTP was off air, a casualty of the strike, and I only caught the video once – perhaps on ITV’s Tiswas. I was devastated. For all I knew, it might never be broadcast in public again, thus demonstrating complete ignorance of the fact that we were in fact on the cusp of a phenomenal technological and communications revolution. Within three years, my parents had bought our first home video machine and I was able to watch (and watch again…and again…) Queen’s Greatest Flix, a sixty-minute tape of the band’s music videos, available at the press of a button. How lucky I felt.
Speaking of Tiswas (a raucous, groundbreaking, Saturday morning show aimed at kids but probably watched by as many adults – especially dads), I remember Roger and John making a guest appearance at the time of the Crazy Tour in ’79, offering a gold disc as a competition prize. The question was to name the two Marx Brothers’ films used as Queen album titles. Answers on a postcard. I duly sent off my entry, cleverly adding (or so I thought) that ‘Duck Soup’ was also the title of a Queen bootleg. I didn’t win.
Back to technology. I am reminded of dragging mum round town, hours before a long, boring coach journey to France during Easter 1981, scouring the high street for a curious item Roger was photographed holding in the 1980 tour programme. Wigan’s electrical retailers were collectively baffled by my description – why didn’t I take the photo, I wonder? And yet, by the following Christmas, a Sony Walkman was the must-have accessory for any teenage fan of music. Maybe Roger had picked his up on the 1980 US tour – itself a reminder of how far so-called ‘advanced’ Britain lagged technologically behind other parts of the world, notably Japan and the USA.
Of the myriad images taken of Queen over the years – with the tag ‘previously unseen’ increasingly the rule rather than the exception – why does this remain my favourite photograph of the band (well, of Freddie, to be precise)? For me, it captures quintessential ‘Queen’. Freddie’s mesmerising pose exudes pomp, grandeur and theatricality and endows the photograph with a symmetrical, choreographed quality, demonstrating an astonishing mastery of stagecraft. I adore the concert lighting from the mid-‘70s and remain baffled as to why the magnificent Hyde Park footage has never been cleaned up and officially released.6
The photograph also represents my favourite era of Queen (roughly ’74-‘76) and – heresy, I admit – for me, ‘Lap of the Gods…’ was always a more exhilarating set-closer than ‘Champions’. Yes, I realise that ‘Champions’ was actually the final encore, but you get my drift. Later-era Freddie was a showman, an entertainer, captivating and charismatic, to be sure. But this is early-era Freddie: camp and fey, yet majestic and arrogant. Incidentally, why, I ask myself, are dry ice and flash-bombs so under-used on stage these days? Are they disparaged, perhaps, as ‘70s-era kitsch?7
This is the front page of one of many Queen lists and ‘biographies’ I wrote through my teenage years. The font comes from The Game, simply because I found it the easiest to copy. Note the mock-serious use of the ‘Published’ symbol and date, as if this were some sort of official publication. I was obsessed with writing histories of Queen (I taught history for many years – is there a connection, I wonder?). My schoolboy efforts shamelessly plagiarised information (and not a few clichés) gleaned from Tremlett and a similar paperback written by Larry Pryce, as well as the fan club magazines, of course. These biographies were painstakingly ‘illustrated’ – another home for many of my cut-out magazine photos. It certainly helped me acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of the concert venues of the UK and USA, not to mention the catalogue numbers of all single and album releases up to Hot Space, after the release of which it became rather predictable: ‘Queen1’ (the catalogue number of Radio Ga Ga), ‘Queen2’ etc…spoiled the fun somewhat.
Unlike many record labels, EMI (was it their decision?) omitted song timings on record labels or sleeves. As a result, a particularly diverting (‘geekish’, some would say) activity was to use the stopwatch facility on my then-new digital watch to time the length of each track. As a Genesis, Led Zeppelin and Yes fan too, it irked me that Queen never indulged (a very ‘Roger’ word) in long, drawn-out epics. By the by, a consequence of this innocent pastime is that my collection of original picture sleeves is now virtually worthless. With one carefree wave of my biro, I forever disfigured them by inscribing the a-side and b-side timings in a suitably prominent position. No matter.
I agonised over the ‘true’ length of segued songs such as Flick Of The Wrist, Love Of My Life and Teo Torriatte. Sadly, EMI’s experts do not appear to have been similarly exercised in the run-up to the initial release of Queen’s back catalogue on CD. Faulty indexing/mastering of Queen II resulted in the final verse of The March Of The Black Queen being tacked on to the beginning of Funny How Love Is. An egregious error for any fan.
This sketch dates from 1979, I think. My dad was a draughtsman by trade, talented at drawing and painting. He spent hours helping me with my art homework, making me aware of ‘the vanishing point’, perspective and light and shade. He produced fantastic pencil drawings of Brian, first at Hyde Park8 and then on the Jazz tour, making ingenious use of the shapes in a razor blade to re-create the ‘pizza-oven’ roof of lights. After copying cartoon figures and caricatures, ‘Roger’ was my first effort at drawing a human face.
Image-wise, Roger was my favourite as a teenager, obsessed as I was with his immaculate white teeth and flowing blond hair (before ‘the snip’, around the time of the British shows in May/June 1977). Frustrating battles with mum over the length of my hair – usually the Friday before the start of the new school term – loomed over my teenage years and defined the limits of my adolescent rebelliousness. I always lost. Meanwhile, Brian’s musical sensibilities and extraordinary work at the cutting edge of astrophysics, stereo photography and animal welfare long ago secured his promotion to ‘favourite band member’ status. Besides, he and I share a birthday (the date, not the year). So there.
I wonder what you regard your most valuable Queen possession to be. For me, it is a simple piece of paper: the ticket stub for my first ever Queen concert, Stafford Bingley Hall, 6 May 1978, during the News Of The World European tour. Re-reading set lists and hearing recordings from the tour, I confess that virtually nothing of the concert itself has lingered in the memory. According to Queen Live, the band performed the standard set list. Perhaps I was just too young. Memories of my second gig – the Liverpool Empire, 6 December 1979, on the Crazy Tour – are much more vivid.
I have just two recollections of the Bingley concert. First, as a highly self-conscious eleven-year-old, I stupidly decided not to wear my glasses and so, standing at the back of the venue, saw virtually nothing except a myopic blur. Magnificent crown lighting rig? What magnificent crown lighting rig?! Second, the volume. As a kid of the mid-‘70s, music meant a transistor radio, a record player (or music centre, if money permitted) and the occasional disco in a large, echo-filled room. None of this had prepared me for Queen’s assault on the senses. I still half-jest to friends about the ‘ten’ minutes it took to disentangle actual music from the ear-splitting din that washed over me like a tsunami.
After the show, Keith and I wrote letters to the band via the fan club. I enclosed my ticket in my letter to Brian and waited. And waited. One day, weeks – or perhaps months – later, a ‘Queen’ envelope arrived, addressed in Brian’s unmistakeable hand and enclosing the aforementioned ticket, duly signed. Priceless.
A version of this article was first published as a ‘fan feature’ on the official Queen website in August 2012. These footnotes relate to information that has come to light in the intervening six years.
The viewer can almost feel the heat generated by the ‘pizza oven’ lighting rig (page 135) or reach out to touch the various drums and cymbals that surround Roger on stage (page 151, for example).
‘Queen In 3-D’ by Brian May
Brian May is an extraordinary individual. Best known as one of the members of the legendary group Queen and widely acknowledged to be one of the most innovative guitarists in the history of rock music, he is also an accomplished astrophysicist with a PhD in interplanetary dust and a tireless campaigner on behalf of the cause of animal welfare. May is also an aficionado of Victorian photography, his interest in which is closed linked to a lifelong passion for the world of 3-D photographs – stereoscopy.
The result is this magnificent book: lavishly packaged, beautifully presented and full of hundreds of previously unseen photographs – many but not all in 3-D – spanning the entirety of Queen’s career up to the final tour with Freddie Mercury in 1986 and beyond to Brian and Roger’s collaborations with Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert. The extraordinary influence on Brian of his parents – particularly his father, Harold, with whom he famously built his ‘Red Special’ guitar – is also evident through the inclusion of intimate family photographs, including Brian’s first efforts to take 3-D photographs in the back garden as a child and pictures of proud mum and dad visiting Brian on tour in the USA in 1977.
For the reader interested in learning the basics of stereoscopy, there is a full but accessible explanation at the beginning of the book of the principles and techniques of 3-D photography and, throughout, references to the different makes and models of camera used to take various photographs. The real joy of the book, however, is to be found in the photographs themselves – many taken spontaneously – capturing the band and its entourage on and off stage, at work and at play. For the Queen obsessive (like me), there is treasure to be found on every page.
Despite the limitations of camera technology, every phase of the band’s career is well represented, thanks in part to May’s (increasing) willingness to lend his camera(s) to others to capture pictures of the band, particularly on stage. The result is that ‘the early years’ are documented visually as never before – from shots of the band in rehearsal above a long-forgotten pub before the release of the first album to moments of relaxation during the recording of A Night At The Opera. Their tours of Japan are particularly well represented – perhaps because new technology was available to buy over there long before it hit western shops.
Though the older photographs inevitably lack a certain sharpness, the graininess actually serves to enhance their authenticity, irresistibly drawing the viewer into the scene. This book demonstrates that, at its most effective, 3-D photography offers a far more intimate and ‘realistic’ representation of a moment than conventional ‘flat’ photographs. Consider, for example, the feelings of claustrophobia induced in the viewer by the back-of-the-limousine photograph of the band on page 36 and the image of Freddie, Mary and John huddled in an aeroplane crossing the American continent on page 103. The viewer can almost feel the heat generated by the ‘pizza oven’ lighting rig (page 135) or reach out to touch the various drums and cymbals that surround Roger on stage (page 151, for example).
There is a substantial accompanying text (and captions), placing the individual photographs in their historical and geographical context. More than that, the text reads almost as a mini-history of the band, sketchy in places but nevertheless packed with insights and anecdotes, many previously unheard – at least by this reader. As May says in his introduction, the text is entirely his own, unmediated by a co-author or ghost writer. His ‘voice’ is instantly recognisable to visitors to ‘Brian’s Soapbox’ on his website and, for the most part, this works absolutely fine. Only occasionally do detours up and down the byways and ‘B’ roads of May’s many passions threaten to distract us on this wonderfully nostalgic journey – recurring references to animal rights, in particular. Less agreeable are references to up-to-the-minute (2017) political issues – particularly Trump and Brexit – the inclusion of which will inevitably ‘date’ those segments of the text.
Having paid £50 for the book, inevitably I find that the few errors and typos grate – not least, the thank-you dedication to Roger on page 4 (“benificence” – unless that’s an in-joke). There are also references to “Jeff Lynn” and “Max von Sidow”. The involvement of Queen archivist Greg Brooks ensures that the factual history is extremely accurate, though the caption on page 134 that the robot face on Roger’s bass drum was never used in Europe is simply wrong, as many photographs can attest. This reader did feel that the picture of the stage set-up at Madison Square Garden on page 167 was somewhat misleading. Its appearance beneath a chapter-heading stating ‘1980’ with a caption urging the reader to compare it with a picture taken in February 1977 implies a three-year gap between the two photographs, when in fact the page 167 picture is clearly from the News Of The World tour in November 1977 (the magnificent ‘Crown’ lighting rig is clearly visible) – a gap of only a few months. One puzzle is May’s reference to Led Zeppelin’s dramatic lighting effects on stage; he refers to witnessing a powerful performance of Kashmir in Wisconsin. Kashmir appeared on the Physical Graffiti album, released in 1975, but May dates the performance to “just before we were a proper touring entity”. Either his memory is faulty on this point or he is suggesting that Queen only really ‘got their act together’ with the live show from the A Night At The Opera tour later in 1975.
Nonetheless, these minor quibbles – hopefully, corrected or clarified in a future edition – pale into insignificance when set against the many, many delights to be found in this five-star book.
This review was first uploaded to Amazon in May 2017.