Daily Mail Review: 'Majestic Pomp'
We STILL rock you: Re-releases chart Queen's rise to power
By Adrian Thrills
Queen: The Queen Reissues (Island)
Verdict: Majestic pomp
Rating: 4 Star Rating
Freddie Mercury once predicted that Queen would be ‘the Cecil B. DeMille of rock’. A natural showman, he saw nothing wrong in comparing his over-the-top approach to that of an American film director noted for his flamboyance.
And Queen lived up to Freddie’s billing. One of the most successful British groups of all time, they set the benchmark for stadium-rock, stole the show at 1985’s Live Aid and gave us such crowd-pleasing anthems as We Are The Champions and Another One Bites The Dust.
Twenty years after Mercury’s death, their legacy lives on. Some of the world’s biggest acts, from the Foo Fighters to Katy Perry, cite them as a major influence. Lady Gaga named herself after one of their hits, Radio Ga-Ga. The stage musical We Will Rock You continues its West End run.
But, before the theatrics took centre-stage, Queen were a different proposition. Next week sees the re-release of the band’s first five albums, putting the onus back on Queen as a ground-breaking guitar band who forged their own path between the art-rock of David Bowie and the riffs of Led Zeppelin.
Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Queen’s formation, the re-issues cover the period from the group’s self-titled 1973 debut to 1976’s A Day At The Races.
The albums, all available individually, have been re-mastered to include some bonus material.
All four members were accomplished songwriters. All bar bassist John Deacon were also gifted singers, and the contrasting voices of Mercury, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor — usually painstakingly multi-tracked and over-dubbed — added a trademark richness and depth to the music.
Their early years were astonishingly prolific, with five albums released in a three-year burst. The workload was draining, but it gave the band creative momentum. They were at their rawest on their debut. Recorded in the same studio, and at the same time, as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (Queen, with a smaller budget, worked the night shift), it was an energetic heavy-rock record that has since been hailed by Foo Fighter Dave Grohl as the best album ever.
It also contained a few subtle hints of what was to come: the vocal interplay was far from run-of-the-mill, while folky numbers like Doing All Right and My Fairy King featured the tempo changes for which Queen would become famous.
Queen II, out the following year, was bolder. Although it remains one of the group’s least celebrated releases (May says they ‘dished up too much for people to swallow’), it contained the beginnings of Queen as we now remember them.
Flamboyant: Queen's lead singer Freddie Mercury remains a rock legend 20 years after his death
It was a concept LP divided into a ‘white’ side and a ‘black’ one. The first featured the elegant ballad White Queen (As It Began), but the darker songs were the best: The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke was quirky progressive-rock, The March Of The Black Queen a forerunner of Bohemian Rhapsody.
Queen fully hit their stride with Sheer Heart Attack, their second album of 1974. May was initially absent with a stomach ulcer, but the band left room for him to come in later.
In doing so, they produced an astonishingly varied clutch of songs.
Killer Queen was a pop master-class, Dear Friends a lovely piano ballad, and Bring Back That Leroy Brown a jazzy piece that featured May on banjo and ukulele. Queen had entered their imperial phase.
A Night At The Opera, although overshadowed by its 11th track, Bohemian Rhapsody, was even better. It contained one of Mercury’s greatest love songs, Love Of My Life, alongside whimsical pieces like Seaside Rendezvous. Even Bohemian Rhapsody, its complex harmonies apparently written on the back of a phonebook, was mischievously sequenced between the Dixieland of Good Company and May’s eloquent, guitar-led arrangement of the National Anthem.
By the time they made A Day At The Races, Queen had abandoned their early, progressive leanings in favour of polished, radio-friendly pop. But the songs were still strong. Tie Your Mother Down was a stomping rocker. The three-part harmonies of Somebody To Love were overdubbed so many times the band took on the mantle of a gospel choir.
Queen went on to sweep all before them and, while the subsequent albums are to be re-issued later this year (one batch in June, another in September), there is something special about the first five.
In the golden years between 1973 and 1976, Queen were hungry, ambitious and fiercely determined to push the boundaries of rock.
It feels good to remember them this way.
The Queen reissues are out on Monday. A companion album, Deep Cuts Volume One, also out next week, features highlights from the five albums on a single CD.
Album by album: Queen's first five
Queen - Sparkling debut. Key track: Keep Yourself Alive, a vibrant debut single. 7/10
Queen II - Overlooked gem. Key track: Seven Seas Of Rhye, the band’s first hit. 8/10
Sheer Heart Attack - The imperial phase begins. Key track: Killer Queen — great harmonies. 9/10
A Night At The Opera - Queen’s crowning glory. Key track: Bohemian Rhapsody. 10/10
A Day At The Races - Swaggering, radio-friendly pop. Key track: Somebody To Love. 8/10