Another selection of twenty incredible Queen songs, almost the best of the best and drawn fairly evenly from the ’70s and later. This collection features the three best tracks from The Miracle and no less than four tracks from their debut album, as well as the standout tracks from Flash Gordon, Hot Space, A Kind of Magic, News of the World and The Game.
40. Hammer to Fall (May), The Works, 1984
Brian’s most directly anti-war song, written at the height of the ‘second’ cold war and the popularity of CND, though on stage it was Roger who wore a T-shirt bearing an explicitly anti-nuclear message. It begins with a thumping guitar riff and doesn’t let up. It would have been an obvious way to end their comeback-of-sorts album, The Works, until the acoustic Is This the World We Created …? came along late in the day. The 12″ version is an extended Headbanger’s Mix with additional magic from Brian (though the ‘join’ at the beginning is a bit clunky).
Most Queen fans would probably disagree, but for me it’s the one song that didn’t quite work in the Live Aid set (I would have used Somebody to Love).
Best moment: the musical break at roughly 1:58 leading to a (for ’80s Queen) lengthy guitar solo.
39. A Kind of Magic (Taylor), A Kind of Magic, 1986
By the mid-’80s Roger was proving that he could write megahits too — though Freddie apparently re-worked the original idea somewhat. An infectious piece of uptempo pop, it transferred effortlessly to the stage and featured a quite superb ending. Brian’s playful guitar is utterly delightful in the studio and on stage. One of the better twelve-inch remixes from the ’80s. Best moment: “This rage that lasts a thousand years …” at 2:35.
38. Breakthru (Queen), The Miracle, 1989
An irresistibly infectious beat propels this song along: no wonder the video was set aboard a train. This song showcases John and Roger at their finest [note, however, that co-producer Dave Richards said at the time that it “has a synth bass line — it just didn’t seem to work with a live bass guitar”]. There are two ideas here merged into one, tacking Freddie’s A New Life Is Born onto the main song (apparently one of Roger’s). Best moment: the final chorus from 3:30.
37. I Want It All (Queen), The Miracle, 1989
The Miracle was arguably Queen’s patchiest album, but I Want It All delivers in spades, with a welcome helping of full-throated guitar and several blistering solos from Brian. Great drums, too, from Roger. The anthemic sound captures the ‘I want it all’ lyrical sentiments (the phrase apparently comes courtesy of Brian’s partner, Anita Dobson). Best moment: Brian’s vocal interlude (“I’m a man with a one-track mind …”) leading into an extended solo, with great backing from John and Roger.
36. These Are the Days of Our Lives (Queen), Innuendo, 1991
Roger’s gentle meditation on the passage of time — an enduring theme of his, though written now from the perspective of approaching middle age rather than of happy-go-lucky youth. The song is, of course, forever bound up with the death of Freddie and particularly the final video footage, in which he stands metaphorically naked before the camera, allowing the world to see the ravages of his illness. Truly heartbreaking to watch. Best moment: Brian’s guitar solo.
35. Vultan’s Theme (Attack of the Hawk Men) (Mercury), Flash Gordon, 1980
34. Battle Theme (May), Flash Gordon, 1980
The rebellion against Ming and the attack on Mingo City are here brilliantly brought to life in four blistering minutes. A driving beat from Roger and John accompanies Freddie’s synthesizer before Brian’s full-on guitar onslaught: this is heart-stopping stuff to accompany the onscreen heroics. The two pieces were briefly incorporated into the live set at the end of Brian’s solo. Best moment: “Flash!” at roughly 1:45 of Battle Theme.
33. We Are the Champions (Mercury), News of the World, 1977
A classic that — along with We Will Rock You — has gone on to capture the imagination of the world over the last forty years. Exceptionally lyrically daring at the time of its release (when Queen were hate figures for the punk-obsessed music press), the world has come to accept that the focus of the song is a collective ‘We’ — be it a Queen audience, a sports crowd or people in general.
As Brian has pointed out, Champions starts small and ends big — in typical Freddie style. Musically, it is straightforward — its power coming from the words and the anthemic chorus. On its release, the song was accompanied by a great ‘live’ video (with an ‘alternative’ version now produced) — shot in front of fan club members — far better than (say) Fat Bottomed Girls, filmed a year later, which comes across as pedestrian and by-the-book in comparison.
Best moment: Brian’s guitar in the final chorus, starting with the extraordinary elongated note at 2:41.
32. My Fairy King (Mercury), Queen, 1973
Was this the first Queen song ever played on the radio — track one of the first BBC session, broadcast in February 1973? It’s arguably also the first song to feature the complex vocal and musical arrangements that became such a feature of the early Queen sound. Mystical, mythological and biblical themes were common in Freddie’s early lyrics: here he borrows from the poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning (“And honey-bees had lost their stings / And horses were born with eagles’ wings”).
Piano-led, rather than guitar-driven, this was an exquisite foretaste of what was to come. Best moment: the delicate piano break at roughly 2:14 (“Someone, someone just drained the colour from my wings …”).
31. Was It All Worth It (Queen), The Miracle, 1989
A high-point on which to end the patchy Miracle album, this feels like an (at times tongue-in-cheek) valedictory reflection on the vicissitudes of the rock-‘n’-roll life set to a thumping riff. Here the synthesizer is also used to wonderfully surreal effect. Best moment: the synth intro and opening riff and then the closing riffs at 5:05.
30. She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos) (May), Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
A typically dark, moody and magnificent Brian affair. Sweaty and claustrophobic — probably written as Brian recovered from serious and prolonged bouts of illness in ’74. The closing minute or so is utterly brilliant and original. One story holds that the ponderous, doom-laden drumbeat was described by Roger as like ‘a stormtrooper in stilettos’ — hence the song’s subtitle. Best moment: the harmonies on “She makes me need / She is my love / She is my love” at 0:57.
29. Great King Rat (Mercury), Queen, 1973
Another early masterpiece. Harder than My Fairy King, here the guitars do the heavy lifting — it includes a brilliant multi-tracked solo from Brian. The biblical allusions are typical of early-era Freddie. There’s great percussion too from Roger buried away somewhat throughout the track, for example at 0:51. Best moment: when temptation beckons — “Now listen all you people” — at 2:43.
28. Love of My Life (Mercury), A Night at the Opera, 1975
Attention now focuses almost exclusively on the acoustic version performed live — a pivotal audience-participation moment in the show with, on recent tours, an ‘appearance’ by Freddie. It’s a shame that the original is somewhat overlooked: it’s a quite sublime ballad, infinitely superior to the slush that normally passes for a love song. There’s so much to enjoy, not least Brian’s harp and the tender vocal from Freddie. Best moment: the exquisite piano runs from 2:32 accompanying Brian’s delicate guitar.
27. You and I (Deacon), A Day at the Races, 1976
The most hidden of John’s hidden gems — to add insult to injury, it was released as a b-side to Tie Your Mother Down. This is John’s writing at its absolute peak, which could (and arguably should) have been a single. In roughly four minutes it encapsulates the whole A Day at the Races sound — an attractive radio-friendly melody, great guitars, Freddie’s driving piano, nice bass runs, a thick drum sound and lush backing vocal arrangements. Best moment: that exquisite guitar at 2:49.
26. Save Me (May), The Game, 1980
As Mack dragged the Queen sound into the ’80s, it seemed as if — with Sail Away Sweet Sister and Save Me — Brian was fighting a rearguard action on behalf of the ’70s. Reminiscent in some ways of the magnificent White Queen, there are lots of trademark early Queen sounds here. A groundbreaking video at the time, though for this young fan at the time (before home video recorders and the like) it was frustrating that on-stage ‘live’ footage of the band was used only intermittently.
Best moment: the short acoustic solo at 2:24 could have come from Queen II.
25. Under Pressure (Queen/Bowie), Hot Space, 1982
It really shouldn’t have worked — a collaboration more or less from scratch, a semi-drunken jam, rock-star egos loose in the studio — and yet it does, magnificently so. Both acts subsequently did it justice on stage — though, frustratingly, never on the same stage at the same time! Best moment: “Can’t we give ourselves …” at 2:36.
24. Liar (Mercury), Queen, 1973
Another one of the very earliest songs, of course, and a fan favourite — a bona fide Queen classic. One of the longer Queen songs, it goes through several mood changes, though retaining a hard-rock edge throughout. Great drums from Roger and featuring a number of guitar solos. On stage, a rare example of John singing (he shared Freddie’s microphone). Best moment: the closing section, particularly Roger’s drumming, which enabled him to look suitably moody and heroic when performed on stage.
23. The March of the Black Queen (Mercury), Queen II, 1974
It’s impossible to listen to Bohemian Rhapsody and not hear echoes of Black Queen. The most over-the-top track on Queen’s most over-the-top album. The listener is left gasping at their sheer arrogance: it feels as if every so-far unused musical idea from the sessions was added to the mix. It over-reaches and almost keels over under the weight of its grandiosity; yet, it is utterly audacious and quite magnificent.
When Queen II was first released on CD, faulty indexing/mastering resulted in the final verse being tacked on to the beginning of Funny How Love Is.
Best moment: “I reign with my left hand / I rule with my right / I’m lord of all darkness / I’m Queen of the night” from 4:22 (the section that featured in the medley on stage).
22. Keep Yourself Alive (May), Queen, 1973
Iconic in so many ways — first session, first single, first track on the first album. A mesmerising, meandering opening — the gradual build-up of instrumentation until the first verse kicks in. How many singles include the words “belladonic haze” and a drum solo? As Brian has noted, it’s not a little ironic that, on stage, the song took on a ‘good-to-be-alive, get-’em-out-of-their-seats’ quality: the lyrics are in fact somewhat darker (as one would expect with early Brian). Best moment: the long introduction — the beginning of an incredible journey for us all.
21. Who Wants to Live Forever (May), A Kind of Magic, 1986
Written to accompany the Highlander storyline (apparently, it was sketched out in Brian’s head within twenty minutes after seeing rushes of the film), the emotional power of the song was of course later given added poignancy with the news of Freddie’s health.
On the Magic Tour, Freddie spoke at (relative) length to the crowd about rumours of the band splitting up, before introducing the song (thus allowing time for Brian’s keyboard to be set up on stage). At Wembley (12 July), he said: “So forget those rumours. We’re going to stay together until we fucking well die, I’m sure.”
A somewhat rare example of where orchestra and rock band complement each other and combine with great dramatic effect. Good use, too, of two vocalists — Brian’s initial voice is vulnerable and naked whereas Freddie soars. Best moment: the power chords and Roger’s drums (presumably) at 2:50.
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