'A Night At The Opera': A Review by Rhys Thomas
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1975)
‘It was life or death, if the album hadn’t have worked it would have been the end of Queen.’ Roger Taylor, 2006.
‘A Night at The Opera’ is one of the greatest albums of all time. Fact. I’d go even further and say it was the greatest album of all time. Even people who dislike Queen (fools) acknowledge that this album is exceptional on every level. Musically, lyrically and artistically. Every home, every CD collection or iPod is incomplete without it. I cannot stress the brilliance of this record.
I first heard ‘A Night at the Opera’ on December 12th 1992 at 8.am. It was my 14th birthday. My mum had in fact asked me to write a list of things I wanted to give her some idea of what to buy me. That list comprised of ‘A Night at the Opera’ cassette, ‘A Day At The Races’ cassette, ‘Queen: Box of Flix’ video and ‘Queen Magic Years Vol. 2.’ I got them all, bar ‘A Day At The Races,’ so I ran away from home and lived rough for about an hour and came back apologising for being so ungrateful. ‘A Night At The Opera’ was the soundtrack to my youth really and the most played of all my Queen albums.
Queen took the strongest elements of their previous two albums to make the ultimate winning combination. The majestic, multi-layered over the top set pieces of ‘Queen II’ combined with the vaudeville, wit and diversity of ‘Sheer Heart Attack.’ The result was the most expensive album ever recorded at that time. It took over four months to make and made use of five recording studios – three of them at the same time.
It was 1975. Queen had almost made it, with two hit albums, three hit singles and sell out tours under their satin pants. ‘Killer Queen’ had won numerous awards including an Ivor Norvello for best song, yet the band were still earning just sixty pounds per week. John Deacon, recently married wanted an advance for a deposit to buy a house, Roger wanted, you guessed it, a car and Freddie a new piano, yet their manager refused to pay out. Queen were over worked and underpaid.
This was the last straw, so they hired leading music lawyer Jim Beach (who would later become the band’s manager and still is to this day) to get Queen out of their deal with Trident and find a new manager. They chose John Reid, the man who helped turn Elton John into one of the biggest stars in the world at that time. Trident agreed to release Queen from their contract at a price: a severance fee of £100,000 (that’s almost £600,000 in today’s money my friends) and the rights to one percent of the royalties of the band’s subsequent six albums. Unfortunately, Queen didn’t have the money. Nevertheless, EMI, their music publishers, agreed to advance money from future royalties to pay off the debt and John Reid told them to forget finances, get back in the studio and make their best album - ever.
What they delivered was an album which fused rock, opera, heavy metal, romance, ballads, pop, sci-fi folk, music hall, ‘trad jazz’ and the National Anthem. The Beatles didn’t experiment with so many different musical styles in their entire career, let alone on one album. Whether it was going to be commercially successful or not was, well, in the lap of the gods.
It’s no coincidence that the opening track on ‘A Night The Opera,’ ‘Death on Two Legs’ is dedicated to, well officially no one (for legal reasons), unofficially, to Queen’s former Manager, Norman Sheffield. It’s a superbly venomous song that Freddie sung with such scorn that his ears bled.
The chilling opening chords, the chainsaw-like guitar and Roger Taylor’s disturbing scream creates a hybrid of ‘Jaws’, ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ It’s still uncomfortable to listen to alone with all the lights off at full volume.
‘Lazing on A Sunday Afternoon’ and ‘Seaside Rendezvous’ both from Freddie’s lighter side, are a delicious mix of music hall and Gilbert and Sullivan. Both have an Edwardian charm which I’m sure no other rock band at the time were brave enough to emulate. ‘Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon’ has such a spring in its step, I think that the Samaritans should play it down the phone whilst the troubled are on hold, I’m sure it would save a few lives.
Freddie wasn’t the only one taking us back to a bygone age, ‘Good Company’ is another nostalgic song by Brian May, an homage to the music of his early childhood. Brian wrote the song on a genuine George Formby ukulele banjo, the first instrument he had learnt as a child. He was heavily influenced by Formby, Dixie Land Jazz and The Temperance Seven, a pseudo twenties trad jazz band who were popular in the late 50’s, early 60s. It was through listening to this music and playing the Ukulele where he learnt his craft, he’d even draw fret boards and strings on his palms so he could practice at chords school. That’s dedication.
To the naked ear, ‘Good Company’ sounds like a simple little ditty, a Ukulele, a couple of trumpets and a mini jazz band. Surely it was one of the easiest songs to record. WRONG! Every single trumpet, clarinet or trombone is in fact played by Brian on his self built Red Special guitar. To get the sound of the instruments, May used his effects pedal to play each individual note, which then had to be recorded separately, and then multi-tracked. It was very painstaking and very slow - rather like stop animation, but the final result remains musical highlight of his career. The fact that there were no short cuts and it all had to be done ‘by hand’ as it were make it all the more impressive.
‘39’ on the surface also sounds like a traditional folk song, but is much more than that, it’s a musical genre all of its own - Science Fiction Space Folk. According to Brian he woke up one morning with a revelation: Lots of people have written folk songs on acoustic guitars about sailors going off on a long trip to search for new lands, but no one has ever written a folk song about space men going off in a space ship. Let me just check Wikipedia.
Five minutes later….
No. No one else has ever written a folk song about space men. He’s right.
’39 is the tale of man going off to search for new worlds in space but due to the general relativity time dilation effect, he is traveling at speeds near light speed so his perception of time is different to those at home. He arrives back home at what he thinks is a year, but to people on earth one hundred years has passed. It’s a bit like ‘The Planet of The Apes’ (the good one, not the rubbish remake with Marky Mark) and like that film, ’39 has a similarly haunting twist at its conclusion when the traveller returns expecting to see his lover and in fact meets her elderly daughter as she has long since died - ‘Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me.’
There are three classic love songs on ‘A Night At The Opera.’ ‘Love of My Life’ is probably more famous as an emotional, audience participating sing-along on acoustic guitar at Queen concerts all over the world, but the original version on here is entirely different, a personal song written for Freddie’s long-term partner and love of his life Mary Austin.
The second is the Tamla/ Motown influenced ‘You’re My Best Friend.’ Baring in mind this is was only his second song he had written for the band, the artist formerly known as Deacon John provided Queen with a world wide hit which is still immensely popular and features in numerous films. TV shows and commercials. Whilst Freddie and Brian were hammering away at their own epics, John decided to learn the piano so bought himself a Fender electric piano and it was on this he wrote ‘You’re My Best Friend’ , the only conventional pop song on the album. It was written for his wife Veronica.
The third love song, written and sung by Roger Taylor is probably Queen’s most unconventional as it’s about a car. When Brian May first heard Roger’s demo of ‘I’m In Love With My Car’ he said, ‘You are joking, right?’ ‘No.’ replied Roger, ‘it’s about a man and he is in love with his car.’ Roger Taylor was into fast cars yes, and the exhaust of his Alpha Romeo appears in the song, but he was inspired by the band’s roadie/sound mixer/long time friend John Harris.
‘He didn’t have a girlfriend. He didn’t like to eat much. He wasn’t interested in stamps or drinking – but he loved to wash his car – a lot! He was very fond of his car and I can identify with that. I find my car more interesting that my girlfriend most days. It has more to say to me. It takes me places. It has some use!’ Roger Taylor (1989)
He’s joking by the way! ‘I’m in Love With My Car’ also reflects the attitudes of a lot of men who spend more time caressing their cars than their women. Taylor should also be credited for the line ‘Told my girl I had to forget her, rather buy me a new carburetor.’ Freddie isn’t the only one who can write humorous lyrics, Taylor was more than capable too and ‘I’m in Love With My Car’ never fails to make me chuckle when I hear it.
‘Prophet’s Song’ is another dramatic, quasi-biblical Queen epic written by Brian after having ‘a vision’ in his sleep whilst recuperating in hospital the previous year. It also contained an innovative section in the middle which Brian explained a few years later.
‘I had this fascination for delays which would make a sort of cannon effect and use it on guitar, which you can hear in ‘Brighton Rock’ and I wanted to use it on the voice as well. At one time we had Freddie experimenting for hours seeing what happened when the delay came back and singing with it, and somehow in my mind it all fitted in with what the song was trying to say.’ Brian May (1989)
The final song on the album is ‘God Save The Queen’ and rightly so. At the end of such a masterpiece, one feels that we really should stand and salute Queen for ‘A Night At The Opera.’
And that’s it…Hold on. I’m sure there’s still a song I’ve forgotten.
Of course! ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ How could I forget, but there’s no room left in this booklet to go into detail, so in one word I will tell you how earth shattering it was and why there will never be another song like it. Deep breath.
One night, at around 2am, after recording the Operatic section of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Roger and Freddie sat down to watch a film on the brand new video recorder (which was probably the size of a car back then) at the studio. They chose the Marx Brother’s Classic ‘A Night At The Opera.’ At which point they turned to each other and ‘Bing!’ Light bulb moment. It had many parallels with the album, the humour, wit, innovation and theatricality. Furthermore, it was a classic which Queen’s ‘Night At The Opera’ also became, instantly. Had they picked another film to watch that night, who knows what the album may have been called! ‘The Poseidon Adventure?’ ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?’ ‘Debbie Does Dallas?’
Even the album’s packaging oozed with sheer class. Pure white, embossed Queen Crest, pinks and pale blues, elegant font, a wonderful gatefold sleeve with lyrics presented like programme you’d find in the Royal Opera House at the turn of the Century. It was quintessentially British and stood head and shoulders above the likes of Roxy Music who shoved pictures of semi naked women in rock pools, smothered in seaweed on their covers to sell a few more albums.
Released in November 1975 ‘A Night At The Opera’ was Queen’s first Number One, platinum selling album. The gamble paid off for Queen’s new management who had invested so much money and faith in the band. Queen were finally the toast of the town and household names. The biggest band around. They had made it. The world was their oyster card. The question was – how would they top an album of such perfection? The World would find out almost exactly one year later with ‘A Day At The Races.’