31st October 2020

Thunderbolts and Lightening - Fan Feature by John Wing

1975 was the year in which UK inflation spiralled out of control and petrol increased by nearly 70%. A woman - Margaret Thatcher - became the leader of the opposition for the Conservative Party. The first true blockbuster ever opened this year in cinemas, called Jaws; and on TV, programmes such as Kojak and the Six Million Dollar Man were the big hitters. Meanwhile, across the water, a new company called Microsoft was created by Bill Gates and Paul Allen. It was also the start of the video recorder standards between VHS and Betamax. It was also the year when the Vietnam War finally came to an end. 

As a sixteen year old I didn't take much notice of the above with the exception of movies and TV shows. For me it wasn't the things I mention in the first paragraph that made 1975 so memorable, but a certain song entitled: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. This six minute epic written by Freddie Mercury exploded upon the scene turning the music world upside down, capturing the imagination of millions of people, striking at them like … well … thunderbolt and lightning!

I was already a Queen fan but this one track just reaffirmed what I already knew, that Queen were the greatest! And of course, this introduced a whole load of new fans to discover what I already had.

However, it wasn't just the fantastic song that caught people's attention it was also the accompanying video which only cost £4,500.00 at the time. This saw them on stage and brought back the idea used for the Queen II cover when it came to the opera section. Never truly before had a band created a video to express their creative juices in such an original and captivating way. This no doubt helped to promote the popularity of the composition. Suddenly, record producers and artists saw the potential in what this band had done. As usual, Queen led the way.

However, initially, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was almost not a single because at the time it was deemed too long for radio play. This is well emphasised in the recently released film of the same name. Roger Taylor years later said. "Record companies both sides of the Atlantic tried to cut the song, they said it was too long and wouldn't work. We thought, 'Well we could cut it, but it wouldn't make any sense,' it doesn't make much sense now and it would make even less sense then: you would miss all the different moods of the song. So, we said no. It'll either fly or it won't. Freddie had the bare bones of the song, even the composite harmonies, written on telephone books and bits of paper, so it was quite hard to keep track of what was going on."

Thank God Queen had the tenacity and determination to believe in their creation because it stayed in the number 1 slot in the UK for 9 weeks.

It really is difficult to appreciate how different and original this hit was when released. Nowadays (2020) I think it is taken too much for granted.

I remember Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics saying of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that pop music had been very much on the same plateau but when this six-minute opus was released, here was something that reached far above that terrain all other songs now strived for.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was the song that launched them into the stratosphere, and they became a super group. But what of the album that it was taken from?

I had to wait for Christmas before I could get my hands on the new record. I knew where my parents hid the Christmas presents, so, when they were out I would sneak into their bedroom and, as the record wasn’t wrapped yet, I would play snippets of the tracks, which of course only increased my desire to want to listen to the  whole LP. At last Christmas day came, and I played the album time and time again. What a masterpiece! I loved the simple cover with the band’s logo proudly displayed on a white background with the album’s title in a neat calligraphic font. The logo represented the star signs of each member with the phoenix rising from behind the Q. This was Freddie’s design. In fact, it would be used again for the next album but with a black background. This was a fold-out album just like Queen ll with the title tracks written in efficient italics with the name of the composer beneath it. There was a small photo of each member of the band, and when you pulled out the sleeve that contained the vinyl, both sides had coloured photos of the band live. One side depicted the group together on stage, while the other had individual shots of them on stage with Roger playing his drums, Brian on guitar singing into a microphone, John of course playing his bass, and Freddie, legs apart, holding his mic stand aloft, as smoke billowed from behind. I loved it!

I liked all the songs, except initially for ‘Sweet Lady’. It was only a long while after that I came to appreciate this track more. Why I wasn’t so keen on it originally, I really do not know. But there you are. On first hearing, it did not grab me like the others did. My favourite songs are – well, all of them including the aforementioned one. The opening track ‘Death On Two Legs’ is a brilliant starter, a really fearless song that grabs you by the balls and won’t let go until it has finished. You can definitely hear the venom in Freddie’s voice as he sings: Insane, you should be put inside. You’re a sewer-rat decaying in a cesspool of pride. Should be made unemployed, make yourself null-and-void, make me feel good. I feel good. Harsh words complemented by Brian’s relentless guitaring. Those in the know realised this was aimed at their old management with Freddie once declaring. One leaves them behind as one leaves excreta – we feel so relieved. The second track is in stark contrast to the blatant opener. Barely lasting a minute, ‘Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon’ is a delightful romp of roaring twenties pastiche. Before you have time to take this in, you’re hurled into the heavy pounding drumming of Roger Taylor screeching out ‘I’m In Love With My Car’ (the B side to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’), with his vocals in overdrive as he sings about his preference of his love of the automobile over his girlfriend -  a great rock track which became a popular live piece over the years. Things then calm down with the John Deacon composition, the infectious, ‘You’re My Best Friend’. This would be their next single which would reach a respectable number 7 in the UK charts. Then we have Brian May singing ’39’. A contemplative track with a lovely acoustic guitar about time travel and the loss of loved ones. It’s a return to the heavier side of Queen with Sweet Lady before finishing side 1 with the wonderfully crafted and clever vaudeville number, ‘Seaside Rendezvous’.

Side 2 opens with the eight and a half minute ambitious and gargantuan, ‘The Prophet’s Song’. This is my favourite of the whole album, even above the mighty ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and to be honest, one of my all-time favourite Queen songs. This is the nearest Queen get to Prog rock with its multi-layered guitars and harmonies about a world on the verge of destruction. Apparently, this was based on a dream Brian had, and is reminiscent of the biblical story of Noah and his ark. The middle section just has Freddie’s voice bouncing from speaker to speaker. Incredible vocalisation. I never tire of this epic composition. It ends on a quiet note, gently running into the next track, Freddie’s beautiful ballad, and another staple live piece, ‘Love Of My Life’. Here, Freddie is singing his heart out to the love of his life, Mary Austen. Still in thoughtful mood, ‘Good Company’ follows this, a Brian May arrangement with him singing, playing his ukulele, evocative of George Formby. Then, we have the incomparable and momentous ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. What more can be said about this mind-blowing Freddie single? It smashed everything else aside on release, and to be honest, puts all other songs to shame today. A glorious way to end such a majestic album. Of course, it truly ends with Queen’s rendition of the British National Anthem, ‘God Save The Queen’.

There you have it - A Night At The Opera.  A true musical masterpiece. Everyone should have in it their record collection, along with other greats such as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. These are the albums that will stand the test of time.

This album gave them their first number 1 staying in the British charts for 50 weeks, while it got them their highest entry so far (number 4) in America and remained in the US charts for 56 weeks. In Japan it peaked at number 9, with a total chart longevity of 52 weeks. It was a hit in virtually every country.

A Night At The Opera was recorded with the help of six different studios throughout London & the UK between August & November of 1975. The vocal layering for the chorus of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ alone raked up a week’s worth of 12-hour days. It’s reported to have cost £50.000 to make. The most expensive album at the time. Also, they named the album A Night at the Opera because at the time of recording they had been watching the 1935 Marx Brothers film of the same name.

The reviews were very positive. The Melody Maker said: I could condemn Queen for their self-congratulatory attitudes on this album, but they are so adroit. I just have to admit this is easily their best work to date. It contains the most intricate musicianship they have ever undertaken … The album is a gesture of their defiance to those who have refused to recognise their brilliance.

Meanwhile the NME said: More than anything else, A Night At The Opera is a consolidation of the previous album’s success in skilfully engineering the balance between artistry and effectology. Throughout, they demonstrate their individual song writing abilities and musicianship to devastating effect.

In an April 1976 review of A Night at the Opera, Kris Nicholson of the Rolling Stone publication made note of Queen’s apparent annoying weaknesses, notably a tendency toward lyrical abstraction. He labelled ‘The Prophet’s Song’ as the album’s best track, without making any mention of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Since then, Rolling Stone has given the single the accolades it deserves, naming ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time

1975 was also memorable for me because it was the first time I saw Queen live. Well, not in the true sense of the word, but on television. They played a special Christmas Eve concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Most of it was televised by the Old Grey Whistle Test and simultaneously on Radio 1. I remember being so enthralled by it, seeing them in action for the very first time. I wanted to see them live more than ever now, but that was still three years away.

It was truly a great year for Queen, and for me as well.


This is taken from my latest book called: ‘Queen – A Fan’s Perspective’ where I ask the reader to join me on an exciting and stimulating journey, incorporating the music of Queen through a fan’s eyes, where my growing up in the seventies and eighties, right up to the present day, runs parallel with the rise and majesty of Queen. This can be downloaded from any Amazon site, and also purchased as a paperback. Please note, for every copy sold I will donate 10% to the Mercury Phoenix Trust.

John Wing