Queen’s finest non-album release features in this magnificent selection (at number 50), as do tracks from most of their albums. Innuendo and News of the World both feature three times. No album released in Freddie’s lifetime has yet made its last appearance. Of the tracks listed 50–41, only two date from 1980 or later, and one of those has a ‘classic’ ’70s Queen sound!
60. Don’t Try So Hard (Queen), Innuendo, 1991
A simple, delicate ballad, this song is taken to quite another level by Freddie’s stunning vocal, which is nothing short of astonishing when one considers his undoubted physical frailty at that time. Superb understated use of synthesizers too. Best moment: “Oh what a beautiful world / This is the life for me” at roughly 2:02.
59. The Hero (May), Flash Gordon, 1980
It’s a shame that The Hero is rather let down by what was apparently some last-minute, seat-of-the-pants production: the ‘joins’ between the different sections of the song are somewhat glaring. Nevertheless, after a blistering reprise of Battle Theme, the core of the song (from roughly 0:50 to 1:40) is an outstanding slice of hero-saluting heavy rock. It was used as a brilliant (and unexpected!) set opener in 1982. Best moment: “All you gotta’ do is save the world!”
58. Staying Power (Mercury), Hot Space, 1982
Along with Back Chat, this was by far the best of Queen’s experiments in dance-funk. It’s baffling that one of these two songs was not released as the Hot Space lead-off single, if the band really wanted to announce their new musical direction. Packed with quirky ideas and with good use of the stereo mix, the horns blend in well too. There is internet chatter that (along with Body Language) this was largely a Freddie studio creation; certainly, there is little or no space for Brian and Roger. As usual, the live version was far rockier — and far better. Best moment: the horn-led instrumental break at 1:42.
57. Machines (Or ‘Back to Humans’) (May/Taylor), The Works, 1984
Machines is quite unlike anything else in the Queen canon and demonstrates a refreshing willingness to jettison traditional song structures in a manner reminiscent of their early albums. The conflict in the lyrics between humans and machines seems to be mirrored by the interplay between guitar/bass/drums and programmed Fairlight synthesizer ‘mechanical’ sounds. Best moment: the recurring hammer blows of guitar, bass and drums beginning at 0:46 (used to bring the band to the stage during the Works tour).
56. You Take My Breath Away (Mercury), A Day at the Races, 1976
Almost a solo Freddie effort, this is a beautifully naked and tender love song. On stage it was performed with just piano and voice — and for an early performance of the song at Hyde Park, Freddie sang falsetto parts. Best moment: the exquisite final line — “To tell you when I’ve found you / I love you”.
55. Bijou (Queen), Innuendo, 1991
Brian’s simple yet devastatingly effective inversion of the traditional song structure. Thus his beautifully mournful guitar ‘sings’ and Freddie’s vocal plays the part of the solo. Again, the synthesizer is nicely understated. It is perfectly situated on the album, leading into the magnificent The Show Must Go On. Best moment: Freddie’s brief vocal, the words again taking on a whole new significance in light of his illness — “You and me / We are destined, you’ll agree / To spend the rest of our lives with each other”.
54. Keep Passing the Open Windows (Mercury), The Works, 1984
A fantastic piece of pop-rock, with a great driving bassline from John and stirring, uplifting sentiments from Freddie — “Get yourself together / Things are looking better every day” — far better than his earlier Don’t Try Suicide. It would also have been a better choice for third Works single than It’s a Hard Life, working on the assumption that intra-band politics had reached a point where each was ‘entitled’ to one A-side single release. Best moment: John’s bass kicks in at 0:20.
53. Ride the Wild Wind (Taylor), Innuendo, 1991
A great uptempo beat drives this hymn to life in the fast lane — lyrically it is favourite Roger territory. Great drums throughout, too, and restrained use of synthesizers, adding lush textures rather than dominating the music. Best moment: Brian’s guitar sounds epic at roughly 3:00.
52. Mustapha (Mercury), Jazz, 1978
It would take something special to prevent Let Me Entertain You being placed as side one track one on Jazz — and Mustapha was certainly it. A delightful slice of left-field nonsense from Freddie. It’s not easy to disentangle the lyrics — some in English, some apparently in Arabic and Persian and some gibberish. Mustapha earned its place in the live set by popular demand.
The song is let down (as so often on Jazz) only by the production: the ‘epic’ Queen sound of old has well and truly gone and the drums, in particular, have lost their natural depth, now sounding artificial, tinny and dull. The instruments sound compressed and lifeless (except for a brief segment starting at 1:20 when the sound ‘breaks out’ and makes full use of the available ‘space’, repeated at 2:33).
51. One Vision (Queen), A Kind of Magic, 1986
We of course know more about this song’s creative development than probably any other Queen song due to the fact that the recording process was filmed by the so-called Torpedo Twins, regular Queen collaborators at the time. Recorded in the afterglow of Live Aid, One Vision wears its internationalist, humanitarian sentiments on its sleeve. It’s a great riff from Brian. Best moment: Roger’s thudding bass drum in the introduction.
50. See What a Fool I’ve Been (Arr. May), b-side, 1974
Here it is: Queen’s finest non-album song. There are two excellent studio versions of the song available. The original b-side recording — complete with blistering multi-tracked guitars and Freddie at his most outrageously camp — and the BBC session version, more closely aligned with the way the song was performed on stage and with alternative lyrics.
We now know a little more about the genesis of the song in the Smile days. It was based on a chord sequence and a couple of lines of lyrics that Brian remembered hearing. As he was unable to recall the specific song, he says that the composer credit was left as ‘Trad. arr. — May’. The original song has since been tracked down. Notwithstanding the above, when the song has featured on recent Queen releases such as Queen On Air, it is credited to ‘May’.
Best moment: Freddie’s blatantly camp vocal delivery — “Oh tantrums! / It don’t feel the same / Now hit it … like that!”
49. Bicycle Race (Mercury), Jazz, 1978
Straight out of the tradition of eccentric Freddie songs (The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, Bring Back That Leroy Brown, Seaside Rendezvous), this is a smorgasbord of quirky musical ideas, time-signature changes and tongue-in-cheek lyrics (marred only by the rather banal lyrics of the chorus). The instrumental version (released in 2011) is a great listen too. Best moment: “Bicycle races are coming your way …” at roughly 1:00 and the accompanying piano.
48. Spread Your Wings (Deacon), News of the World, 1977
Overlooked for Queen’s Greatest Hits, this terrific John Deacon song remains one of their finest hidden gems, though its placing on the magnificent side three of Live Killers has perhaps earned it a wider audience over the years. It was resurrected but quickly dropped for the 2017 Queen + Adam Lambert News of the World fortieth-anniversary tour, with Brian claiming that the song didn’t quite take off with audiences as well as they had hoped.
The track contains some great incidental piano and acoustic guitar. The BBC session version includes a superb uptempo final section that for some reason was not performed on stage. The ‘raw sessions’ version that featured in the fortieth-anniversary box set is a treat as well. Best moment: the long outro from 3:29.
47. Bring Back That Leroy Brown (Mercury), Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
Arguably the first song to show off the band’s willingness to dabble in radically different musical styles and pastiche, Leroy Brown is an indicator of what was to come. A joy from start to finish, especially Brian’s ukulele. Best moment: a toss-up between the musical break at roughly 0:49, leading to John’s double bass solo, and Brian’s ukulele solo at 1:57.
46. Long Away (May), A Day at the Races, 1976
A Brian song — one of many — about absence, longing and loneliness. Of the four members of the band, he was clearly the one most troubled by life away on the road. Certain Queen songs suited Brian’s vocal, exemplified perfectly here: “For every star in heaven / there’s a sad soul here today”. There’s a great jangly 12-string guitar sound throughout. Best moment: the short multi-tracked solo at 1:47.
45. It’s Late (May), News of the World, 1977
One of Brian’s tales of emotional upheaval, reimagined around three ‘scenes’ and set to a thumping guitar-based rock backdrop. Brian’s solo leading into an extended musical break is exceptional, as is the closing section. The alternative version released in 2017, also a delight, contains more up-front piano from Freddie. Best moment: Brian’s multi-tracked solo, starting at 3:29, and the long riff at 3:50, leading into the uptempo rock-‘n’-roll section.
44. All Dead, All Dead (May), News of the World, 1977
Eschewing the lush arrangements of their earlier material, the song is a model of stark simplicity — piano, minimal guitar and Freddie on backing vocals. One of the unexpected surprises of the 2017 fortieth anniversary News of the World box set was the version with Freddie on lead vocal. It was nice to have the mystery of the opening lines, which I love, solved. For me, they perfectly capture the bittersweet quality of the memories of those you have loved who have passed away: they “haunt” you but you never want to forget them (“How long can you stay …”).
On balance I think I prefer the Brian version, though that might just be because of its familiarity and its ‘polished’ quality. Of the four, he consistently wrote the most intensely personal lyrics, often about absence and lost love. Here he seems to sing his own poetical, old-fashioned words (“ado”, “fleeted”) with complete authenticity, even though he doesn’t have Freddie’s expressiveness. Best moment: Roger’s drum and John’s bass after 2:29 (which isn’t in Freddie’s demo version).
43. Princes of the Universe (Mercury), A Kind of Magic, 1986
Similar in many ways to The Hero (lyrically, certainly), this is a rare slice of hard rock from ’80s Freddie, packing a wealth of ideas into three-and-a-half frantic minutes, with time-signature changes aplenty. A great vocal from Freddie, a huge drum sound and truly epic guitars from Brian. Best moment: the backing vocals at 1:00.
42. Sail Away Sweet Sister (May), The Game, 1980
It felt at the time that Brian was the guardian of the traditional Queen sound, as the band moved in a radically different direction. Sail Away is another emotional epic with tasteful use of acoustic guitar and synthesizer. The downbeat ending from 2:47, particularly John’s bass, is great. Best moment: Freddie’s middle-eight, ending with the traditional Queen backing chorus at 1:57 and Brian’s multi-tracked solo. Classic ’70s Queen.
41. I’m In Love With My Car (Taylor), A Night at the Opera, 1975
So much has been written about this song over the years. They even poked fun at it in the movie script (though Roger has always had the last laugh — the large royalty cheques continuing to arrive as the original b-side of Bohemian Rhapsody). It’s the quintessential Queen song about fast cars, set to a rolling beat and featuring Roger’s best ever vocal performance, backed by typically lavish backing vocal arrangements. Best moment: the backing vocals at 0:59 and again at 2:10 and 2:22.
Queen songs ranked — from Pain Is So Close to Pleasure (’86) to Tie Your Mother Down (’76)
Queen songs ranked — from Hammer to Fall (’84) to Who Wants to Live Forever (’86)
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