The Great Albums

Queen, A Day at the Races, A Night at the Opera

When Bob Marley confronted the dragon


July 14, 2002



All right, so it's cheating a bit to address not one but two albums for the first entry in this column by Queen. But while the fourth and fifth releases by the revered British art-rockers and glam-popsters were separated by 12-1/2 months, the two discs shared more than similar cover art and titles lifted from movies by the Marx Brothers.

Singer Freddie Mercury said that, despite the gap in the release dates, many of the songs were initially conceived in the same period and intended to be part of an epic double album. The record company prevented that from happening, figuring that two separate releases would be more profitable than one giant blockbuster. Because it contains the undeniably mind-blowing studio accomplishment of "Bohemian Rhapsody," "A Night at the Opera" is often ranked as the greater effort. But song for song, its followup is by far the stronger album, and from this vantage point, more than 20 years down the road, fans tend to consider the two of a piece.

Queen's roots can be traced to another group named Smile, which was typical of the blues-based, proto-heavy-metal hard rockers who proliferated in England in the wake of the late-'60s psychedelic explosion. When Smile's lead vocalist quit in 1971, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor formed a new group with flamboyant singer Freddie Mercury, formerly of a band called Wreckage, and a solid and ultra-melodic bass player named John Deacon.

The quartet's early releases consisted of fairly straightforward rock, distinguished primarily by Mercury's theatrical, Broadway-flavored singing style. Though the group won its early success at the height of the ambisexual glam-rock movement--the name clearly had a double meaning--and Mercury was always obviously bisexual or homosexual, the press made surprisingly little of this aspect of its identity (older rock critics shunned the group as a teeny-bopper hype in the same way that they slighted Led Zeppelin). Many fans in the traditionally meat-and-potatoes metal audience also seemed oblivious: Queen rocked hard and delivered good, solid tunes, and that was all that mattered. Who cared what Mercury did in his private life?

Having won a measure of success over the course of its first three albums, Queen was able to fully indulge its vision of symphonic rock for the first time with "A Night at the Opera," which was released in December 1975. The product of months of studio craftsmanship, it was one of the most expensive records ever made up to that point. But every penny that was spent can be heard in the grooves via the gorgeous harmony vocals, the lush, swelling orchestrations, and the masterfully recorded instrumental flourishes.

Critics have charged that the album can be laughably pretentious and bombastic, and indeed it is in spots. But that's exactly what fans love about it, and Queen (especially via the persona of the irrepressible Mercury) can be heard smiling right along with its skeptics and naysayers. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the classic single at the heart of the disc.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" was recorded over an intense three-week span and painstakingly spliced together from numerous different segments. The goal of producing a merger of rock and opera had been attempted numerous times since the mid-'60s, but in one song, Queen actually got closer than notable album-length predecessors such as "Tommy," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and the Pretty Things' psychedelic nugget, "S.F. Sorrow," in the sense of producing both an epic story set to song and a great rock tune that embraces operatic motifs.

Whether the enduring influence of this is a good thing or a bad thing can be debated, but it was certainly worth trying once, and Queen did it best. As for exactly what the libretto is about, I confess to remaining uncertain even after 27 years of listening. There's a lot of talk on fan Web sites about Mercury's alleged embrace of Zoroastrianism and that strange religion's tales of cosmic battles between good and evil. But as for what Galileo or Beelzebub have to do with any of that, you've got me.

In the end, like Wayne and Garth in their Pacer in that unforgettable scene from "Wayne's World," I prefer to enjoy the words for the way they sound and how Mercury and his bandmates deliver them with personality and gusto, rather than dwelling on what they may or may not mean. The other joy of the tune is of course the bizarre and dramatic mood changes and musical shifts as it jumps from genre to genre. Throughout, the musicians display a level of technique and craftsmanship that easily parallels that of any of the acclaimed progressive-rock bands of the era. Yet there are more hooks per segment than can be found on entire triple albums by Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

At heart, Queen was always a Beatlesesque pop band, and it never neglected melody, even when it was rocking out with a metallic crunch, as it does on the album's other standout tracks, "Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To ...)" and "I'm in Love With My Car." The rest of the disc never quite measures up to these peaks. The jaunty " '39" is a pleasant enough Paul McCartney-style trifle, but "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon" (not the Kinks song), Deacon's "You're My Best Friend," and the absolutely dreadful "Sweet Lady" go nowhere fast, and the other progressive-rock epic, "The Prophet's Song," fails in every way that "Bohemian Rhapsody" so stellarly succeeds.

Following in December 1976, "A Day at the Races" includes several songs that would have been better substituted for the subpar titles just mentioned. The disc boasts the band's best heavy-metal tune ever in the rollicking, rampaging "Tie Your Mother Down." May's indelible guitar riff is as potent as anything Jimmy Page ever crafted (note Mercury's nod to Led Zeppelin in the tossed-off line, "Give me every inch of your love!"), and Taylor's crash-cymbal accents on the BAH-BAH, BAH-BAH rhythmic hook is a rock classic, soon to be stolen by countless bands that followed.

In fact, the music is so gripping and influential that you might not notice the rather disturbing incestuous BD/S&M storyline in the song, until you stop to think about it. (Even now, in the age of Marilyn Manson and Eminem, the daring sexual subtexts of much of Queen's work is nothing short of extraordinary and shocking, made all the more potent by the fact that so many listeners never got it.)

The album's charms continue. A major hit in the U.K., "Somebody to Love" (not the Jefferson Airplane song) is perhaps Queen's finest ballad, striking just the right balance of beauty, grandeur and emotion without being needlessly sappy; nothing in the heyday of hair-metal power-balladry ever came close. Driven by Mercury's lovely piano, the second ballad, "You and I," is almost as good. The influence of the Beatles, in particular McCartney, comes through loud and clear once more on "Long Away" and "The Millionaire Waltz," a prime example of Queen-style orchestration. The languorous "Drowse" is an outstanding operatic vocal performance, and "Teo Torriatte" ends the day on a breathtakingly gorgeous note. (Like "Bohemian Rhapsody," its lyrics venture into another tongue--Japanese--despite the Italian-sounding title.)

Neither "A Day at the Races" nor "A Night at the Opera" are the one Queen album to buy if you're buying only one. (For that, I'd choose "Jazz," though I'm sure other fans would take issue and push for "News of the World," the album that came after "A Day at the Races" and which features the massive one-two punch of "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions.")

But paired together on your home CD burner or loaded into the multidisc player as the Do-It-Yourself double album it should have been in the first place, the combination of these two discs stands as the best testament to the musical muscle and songwriting strength of the band that is still providing new revelations, unforgettable singalong choruses, moments of headbanging glory, and plenty of fodder for arguing and head-scratching 2-1/2 decades after its peak and 11 years after Mercury's death from AIDS in November 1991.