Queen - Styles And Tribulations...or a study of the various genres Queen have dabbled in over their career (Part I)
Click here to read Part II
by Simon Mann
Being born in the same year as Queen formed, I wasn’t able to appreciate their early output while it was fresh. I grew up hearing a few songs along the way (one of my earliest memories is of the operatic section of the Bohemian Rhapsody video on, I assume, Top Of The Pops). As I reached my teenage years and started listening to more chart music, Queen released The Works, probably reaching their most commercial era with singles such as Radio Ga Ga, I Want To Break Free and It’s A Hard Life. I was aware of the songs, but none of them grabbed me in the way they later would.
Fast forward a couple of years to the summer of 1986 and my brother and I were staying with our Grandparents in Morden, Surrey for a couple of weeks. One day our Uncle Phil came over to take us into London for the day. I only really remember two things about the day – firstly we had the most incredible pizza at The Chicago Pizza Pie Factory (I don’t think it exists any more, sadly) and secondly Phil told us he needed to pop into the Virgin Megastore before we left for home as he wanted to get an album by a band he was going to see the following week at Wembley.
Getting in the car he popped the tape in the player and wound up the volume. This was the first time I heard One Vision. I was starting to develop a taste for rock music, having grown up listening to my parents’ rock ‘n’ roll collection and being excited by the guitars and drums. This song took it all up a level and I sat there taking in all the energy. A Kind Of Magic next, closer to the pop I heard in the charts on a regular basis. I don’t remember how much of the album I heard on the way back to Morden, but I do know I was hooked. I had to search this band out.
One of the bonuses of coming to a band later on in their career is that there is a back catalogue to explore, and that, whatever your views or tastes, it is a necessary part of forming the later sound of the band. There maybe songs like those you have fallen in love with; there may be surprises along the way. Fortunately for me, there were more surprises than similarities and this is one of the main reasons I came to love the band as I have. Having become a member of the online community of Queen fans, I have been party to many discussions of the different directions the band have taken over the years and have come to appreciate that songs I adore may be detested by others – some who are younger than I and therefore have their attitudes and tastes shaped by more modern trends, others who were fans from the start and therefore saw the changes as they happened, stunned that their favourite band could take such a strange turn in their musical style. In the same way, some songs that do little for me may be firm favourites of other fans. Here I am going to try to round up some of the stylistic directions the band moved in through their career.
Setting The Stall: Queen – Sheer Heart Attack.
Broadly speaking, Queen started out as a rock band, taking their inspiration from such bands as Led Zeppelin and The Who, but with a visual flair which would soon come to be associated with the Glam Rock movement. Their debut album took some of the more straight ahead rock songs from their live set with dynamics, rather than stylistic changes, giving variation. At this stage the band performed as a bass/guitar/drums line-up, with little being added in the way of instrumentation apart from the piano, an instrument Freddie played and had been writing for, but was unable to transport to gigs. Lyrics hinted at a more Progressive Rock angle than was necessarily apparent from the music – Freddie’s fantastical land of Rhye being a cornerstone of his lyrical output during the first couple of albums.
On the whole, it is the underlying songs which are the album’s strength (ignoring, for the purposes of this article, the band’s undeniable talents on their instruments), rather than the wealth of styles they would later become famed for. Arrangements are a step up from the average rock band of the era, with Brian’s multi-tracked guitar taking centre stage on many of the tracks, hinting at what was to come, but it all sounded familiar enough to grab an audience from the start.
The progressive angle was more widely explored on their second album, fittingly entitled Queen II. For their first album, the band used studio downtime to record, limiting their creativeness to a certain extent, but this time the studio was theirs and boy, did they use it. Here we start to see greater experimentation, larger vocal harmonies, tighter guitar orchestras and the start of a journey into other musical styles. Production is tighter and slicker giving the album a more polished and powerful sound and this gives the songs more impact to the point that you barely notice the band starting to sneak in different styles that the average rock fan may not normally listen to.
The album opens with Procession, the first solo Brian May guitar-orchestra piece, stylistically close to a Pavan. A slow, almost plodding, multi-tracked guitar piece in ¾ time, it lulls the listener into a false sense of security before the opening power chords of Father To Son blast out (particularly powerful on last year’s remasters). Lyrically a sentimental piece about the Father/Son relationship, the song is slower, yet more powerful than most of the rockers from the first album. May became very adept at creating very powerful rock tracks over the years and it is my opinion that this is where it started.
Following a couple of laid back May tracks, we reach Loser In The End. Taking its cue lyrically from Father To Son, this is about the Mother/Son relationship. Musically it is more jarring, with the drums effected using the Echoplex that Brian had been using on his guitar, to give complex rhythms throughout, riding out at the end on fills that seemingly ignore bars and beats without ever missing the first beat of the bar to give a solid, yet manic, ending to the song.
Flipping the vinyl we come to Side Black and it is here that we start to really see the band develop stylistically. When we look at the credits it becomes clear that, at least in the early days, the driving force behind Queen’s stylistic flexibility is Freddie. With the benefit of just a couple of years of hindsight, this would seem obvious, although it is also doing a disservice to the other members of the band, who all brought their own tastes to the table over the forthcoming years.
Ogre Battle, a heavy rocker written on guitar by a pianist, is driven by riffs that a guitarist probably wouldn’t come up with. Simplistic patterns repeated across different strings belie Freddie’s lack of finesse on the instrument but are counterpointed by a relatively complex song structure, including a dissonant middle section where a guitar solo would normally be, giving the listener the musical impression of the titular battle. As the song blasts to a finish, we are led into The Fairy Fellers Master Stroke, a piano driven piece written about a Richard Dadd painting hanging in the Tate Gallery in London. The track is quite high energy, without really straying into rock territory and the lyrics, which narrate the scene in the painting, are probably closer to Progressive Rock. Next comes Nevermore, a plaintive piano song, halfway between ballad and lullaby performed on piano and bass, with sparing guitar embellishments.
Towards the end of the album we reach what some consider the jewel in the crown that is Queen II, The March Of The Black Queen. To those who have ears to listen, this is Bohemian Rhapsody The Prelude. Varying styles and dynamics, huge guitars, small delicate piano sections, vast vocal choirs, energy aplenty, the album has been building towards this point and the band have been building towards this song. We start to hear nods towards the Vaudeville style that Freddie will explore further over the next couple of albums. This appears, to me at least, to be Freddie’s way of trying things to see how well they work, before going at it full bore.
After the seriousness of TMOTBQ is a sixties style ditty in the production style of Phil Spector, Funny How Love is, before the album closes with the same track as the first album, that wild piano riff that heralds Seven Seas Of Rhye. Built into a full song in the time since we heard the taster, this is their “Kitchen sink” song – everything, including the kitchen sink, is thrown in to make it a brilliant 3 minute pop song that will grab the listener’s attention and drag the band into the public consciousness, peaking at number 10 in the UK singles charts. The B side is a rarity for Queen, a non-album track, called See What A Fool I’ve Been. Like Son & Daughter on Queen, this is a Blues based number, although much more laid back. Two versions were recorded, with this one camped up by Freddie. Check out the BBC version on the 2011 bonus disc to hear a “Straighter” version (in both respects of the word!).
Moving onto the band’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack, we still have great evidence of the band’s Rock roots (Brighton Rock, Tenement Funster, Flick Of The Wrist, etc), but we start to see greater experimentation. This is where Freddie starts pushing in different directions, seeing how far he can go within the confines of the band.
Killer Queen, an almost Mediaeval song, utilises a piano tuned to sound like a harpsichord with bouncy drums and bass to give a wonderful upbeat feel without straying too far into Pop territory. That area is more comfortably covered by John Deacon. His first recorded song, Misfire, is here, pointing in the direction his writing would later take the band.
This album also saw their first foray towards Anthemic Rock, in the shape of In The Lap Of The Gods…Revisited, a style they would later become world renowned for, Jazz, with Bring Back That Leroy Brown, and a Lullaby in the shape of Dear Friends. How many rock bands can you name who include a Lullaby in their catalogue???
These first three albums set out the stall for what Queen would later become. Pretty much all the ingredients were in place by this time, they just needed the success that Seven Seas Of Rhye and Killer Queen afforded them, such that they could start to push the boundaries without worrying so much about whether they would be accepted. The next phase saw them push boundaries like never before…
Worldwide Success: A Night At The Opera – The Game
Three weeks prior to the release of their new album, a single was released. A single which was to change the face of modern popular music. So much has been said about Bohemian Rhapsody, by better people than I, that I will do no more than mention that it includes Acapella, Ballad, Opera and Heavy Metal.
If the lead single was this good, what else was awaiting us when we got to hear the album?
When their new manager, John Reid, took on the job of extricating them from their previous management deal with the comment “Leave that to me, you just go off and make the album of your lives,” they took him at his word. Although my favourite album is Queen II, A Night At The Opera is everything I love about the band. They are unafraid to try any style and sound totally confident and accomplished when they do. ANATO refuses to be pigeonholed and is stronger for it.
Rock is ably catered for in Sweet Lady (in ¾ time) and The Prophet’s Song from Brian and Freddie’s Death On Two Legs, but before we can get too comfortable things start moving in different directions.
Freddie finally shows his Vaudeville colours, with Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon and Seaside Rendezvous, Deacy comes forward with one of his best Pop songs, You’re My Best Friend, and Roger Taylor gives us a love song devoted to a car… We also get the world’s first (only?!) Folk song about the general theory of relativity and Brian’s take on Dixieland Jazz, before finishing with the aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody and a multi-tracked God Save The Queen.
A Day At The Races followed in 1976. Often seen as a companion album to A Night at The Opera it continues the range of genres, opening (and closing), like Queen II, with a guitar orchestra piece, this time based on the Shepard Tone principle – a seemingly ever ascending guitar riff which works like an auditory version of an M C Escher optical illusion – which then moves into the melody from White Man, this album’s Hard Rocker.
On this album we have Boogie Rock (Tie Your Mother Down), Piano Ballad (You Take My Breath Away, Waltz (The Millionaire Waltz), Vaudeville (Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy), Pop Rock (Long Away and You & I, the latter generally accepted among the fan base as one of Deacon’s greatest compositions), another Anthem, this time with Japanese lyrics (Teo Torriatte) and Freddie’s favourite of his own songs in the shape of the Gospel flavoured Somebody To Love, written with Aretha Franklin in mind.
Queen were about to make a shift in the way they produced their material. 1977 arrived and, with it, Punk Rock. If one thing united all of Queen’s songs, it was the over-the-top production values they shared. Suddenly there was a backlash against Prog Rock and the kind of lumbering dinosaur bands that youngsters associated with this kind of music. Queen needed to evolve if they were to survive. For a band who had demonstrated a wide range of tastes and styles, this should be a piece of cake…
The album opens with the perfect trio to pull this off. The first couldn’t possibly be more stripped back and the next was to become one of the most played stadium anthems ever. We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions set out the stall, before the band kick into a track to rival anything by any of the main Punk bands of the day. Sheer Heart Attack had been written a couple of years earlier (giving its name to their 3rd album) but had been held back in favour of Stone Cold Crazy. Whether by accident or design, this delay meant its release was perfectly timed to prove that Queen could do Punk with the best of them. Again we have a couple of ballads on the album and the rock is taken care of via my personal favourite track by the band, It’s Late. This builds from a (relatively) quiet intro of guitar and vocals into a maelstrom by the end, with all the band playing as well as they ever did. For building from one extreme to the other (as far as dynamics are concerned) I feel this track is only eclipsed by White Man on the previous album – when that track suddenly comes to a false ending, you are left with just the sound of the guitar hissing out of breath. Incredible!
Deacon again gives us a Pop Ballad in Spread Your Wings, one of those hidden gems that should have made a Greatest Hits album and, therefore, embedded itself more firmly in the public consciousness, but missed out on the cut by stalling just outside of the top 30. This time, however, he has a second track on the album, a lovely Latin ditty called Who Needs You, on which he plays acoustic guitar (not for the first time, as he played a lot of rhythm guitar on the Sheer Heart Attack album whilst Brian was incapacitated).
May gives us another Blues number in Sleeping On The Sidewalk and Freddie closes the album with a nice laid back Lounge Jazz number in My Melancholy Blues, but his left field track on this album defies labelling. Get Down, Make Love is, I suppose, what you may call Alternative. With verses driven by sparse bass and drums and minimal guitar phrases, the chorus kicks in to a more standard Rock format, but it’s the middle section where the band show they’re not afraid to try new things. It’s a guitar solo in the purest sense, as there is only a guitar playing, but it sounds nothing like you would expect an electric guitar to sound. It is run through a synth type effect giving Sci-Fi, other-worldly tones which May has since used when playing his solo live.
1978’s Jazz comes next with, as we would expect, a fair slab of rock. Surprisingly, with two notable exceptions, most of the heavier material on the album comes from Freddie, John and Roger, but one of those exceptions is Fat Bottomed Girls. On the face of it, a straight ahead rocker, but listen closer and you can hear Country influences in some of the licks Brian plays. Again a couple of ballads bring the tempo down a bit, but the stylistic interest on this album comes in the shape of, again, a couple of Freddie penned numbers.
The album opens with a barnstormer of a track. A rocker, the difference in Mustapha comes in the scales and tone used. An Eastern feel permeates the song matching the lyrical content. The actual lyrics have never been officially published (check out the lyric sheets in the albums), and the language used has been debated among the fan community – is it Persian? Is it Indian? Is it another language? General consensus is that it covers all these bases. Sonically the song moves from really tightly EQd, mono mixed verses to much greater, stereo sections, with a more traditional EQ range.
Further through the album we find the quirky Freddie composition Bicycle Race. More Pop than Rock, with a solo section which eschews the traditional lead guitar for a bicycle bell solo…
The penultimate track on the album is, interestingly, one of Queen’s most successful sellers over the years – Don’t Stop Me Now – a piano driven rocker with guitar only being allowed in for the solo. A mix included on last year’s remasters includes a guitar track and, despite the playing being exemplary (as you would expect from Brian), sonically the track gets too busy, reinforcing Freddie’s decision to leave it out of the final version we know and love.
Final note goes to a Jazz/Blues number in Dreamers Ball. The underlying structure is fairly standard for the genre (as evidenced by the bonus Early Acoustic Take), with Brian’s multi-tracked guitar adding a new dimension.
We now come to The Game. An album which, for me, starts to signal the change in general direction the band were about to take.
The Game is the first album where we see the sound of the band becoming a little more commercial, a little more Poppy. A Funky edge starts to creep in with Brian’s Dragon Attack (even including a bass solo), and Freddie’s Don’t Try Suicide. A nod towards Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rockabilly come in the shape of Rock It (Prime Jive) and Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
The big song here, though, is Another One Bites The Dust. The sound of Queen through the early eighties can trace its roots back to this one song, written by bassist John Deacon.
John was a guest in the studio while Chic were recording their track Good Times. He left with the inspiration for one of the band’s biggest hits. Being such a departure from the band’s normal sound the others were a little reserved when it came to the recording process – Roger recorded a short 4 bar section which was then looped to give a beat for Deacon to build on, and John himself recorded most of the guitars (very little here is Brian!).
The band weren’t sure what to do with the song, but Michael Jackson heard it and implored them to release it as a single. It became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly on black radio stations in America where it got huge airplay, with most of the audience not knowing that the band were a group of white Englishmen.
The success of Another One Bites The Dust encouraged the band to push in a new Funk/Dance direction for their next outing in 1982.
Click here to read Part II