A wild ride with Queen

March 19, 2006


Given that I was an easily excitable lad of 14 in November 1978, when Queen released its seventh album, the full-color, fold-out poster that came with "Jazz" was no small part of its appeal, since it depicted 50 naked female bicyclists cued up at the starting line in a raunchy, distaff version of the Tour de France.

My mom confiscated the poster the day I bought the album, and it wasn't long before controversy prompted the English rockers to pull it from subsequent vinyl pressings. Nevertheless, "Jazz" remains a visceral and thrilling effort, and all the more so for its hints of forbidden pleasures.

"What is the deal with that guy?" Mom asked one day as she overheard Freddie Mercury yelping, "I'll pull you and I'll pill you / I'll Cruella-De-Vil you / And to thrill you, I'll use any device!" I had no idea then and I haven't really figured it out now, but it sure is a kick.

The strangest, most absurdly ambitious and most unlikely band in the classic-rock pantheon, Queen traces its roots to a group called Smile, typical of the blues-based, proto-heavy-metal rockers proliferating in the wake of psychedelia. When their singer quit in 1971, Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor formed a new band with operatic baritone Freddie Mercury and melodic bassist John Deacon, and over the course of their first three albums, they established Queen as flirtatiously ambisexual hard-rockers bridging the gap between metal and the glam movement.

The group began to show the breadth of its musical vision and perfect its style of symphonic rock with "A Night at the Opera" -- which featured the studio masterpiece "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- and "A Day at the Races," recorded at the same time but released a year apart in late '75 and '76. The band then proceeded to score its biggest commercial success to date with "News of the World," which yielded two smash hits in '77 with "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions."

Some bands would have been daunted in crafting a follow-up, but Queen spent the months between July and October '78 shuttling between studios in Montreux, Switzerland, and Nice, France, blissfully ignoring the outside world while writing and recording with Roy Thomas Baker, who had earlier produced "Bohemian Rhapsody."

In the interim after "News of the World," punk had exploded, and suddenly rock superstars were being excoriated for wretched excess and clueless conservatism. Some responded by paring back and punching up their sounds, a la the Rolling Stones on "Some Girls," Pink Floyd on "Animals" or Yes on "Going for the One." But Queen remained as unapologetically over-the-top as ever, from the incredibly lush sounds of "Jazz" to the inner gatefold sleeve depicting the musicians lounging around the studio amid an array of 14 guitars, a grand piano, two giant drum sets and a massive gong (though the front cover art, inspired by some graffiti Taylor saw on the Berlin Wall, was unusually minimalist for the group).

A genre-hopping tour of diverse musical styles -- including almost everything but jazz, oddly enough -- the album opens with Mercury singing nonsensical Arabic lyrics over the Middle Eastern-flavored "Mustapha." (The vocalist had been born as Farrokh Bulsara to Indian Parsi parents in Zanzibar.) Next comes the first of the disc's two hits on a double A-side single, "Fat Bottomed Girls," a loving homage to zaftig ladies penned by May and inspired by risque memories of his baby-sitter ("She was such a naughty nanny / You big woman you made a bad boy out of me").

The album's other hit was, of course, "Bicycle Race," a tour de force of layered backing vocals, intertwining guitar riffs and celebratory silliness ("Get on your bikes and ride!") which inspired that notorious poster and the naked cyclists who rode across the stage on tour. (I still don't think Mom knows my high school pal Luigi DePinto and I snuck into New York from Hoboken to see that show at Madison Square Garden.)

Elsewhere, Queen flirts with old-time vaudeville ("Dreamers Ball"); sexy disco/funk ("Fun It" and "More of That Jazz," which predict later efforts such as "The Game" and the "Flash Gordon" soundtrack); heartfelt Beatles-esque balladry ("Jealousy," "Leaving Home Ain't Easy," "In Only Seven Days"); heavy metal ("Dead on Time," "Stone Cold Crazy," "If You Can't Beat Them"), and defiant, anthemic rockers heralding its status as arena champions ("We'll give you crazy performance / We'll give you grounds for divorce / We'll give you piece de resistance / And a tour de force, of course!" Mercury sings in "Let Me Entertain You," while "Don't Stop Me Now" finds him proclaiming, "I'm a shooting star leaping through the skies!").

Predictably, English critics obsessed with punk panned "Jazz" upon its release. "If you have deaf relatives, you would buy this low-class replica of Gilbert and Sullivan as a Christmas present," wrote the New Musical Express, though in retrospect, you could argue that by adhering to its own weirdly distinctive and diverse vision, Queen made more of a "punk" statement than many dedicated followers of fashion.

What ultimately keeps me coming back to the album, however, is that ambiguous sexual energy running through all 13 tracks; the fact that each of them boasts more hooks than some bands have on an entire album, and the inviting sonic density of it all, painstakingly crafted via countless overdubs in the days before computers and Pro Tools.

"Just thinking of the hours and hours of careful, loving embroidery that went into that ... I don't know how we did it all, frankly," May told me recently. "The great, grand plan of it all was simply stupendous." Almost as stupendous, in fact, as 50 naked female bicyclists.


Brian May and Roger Taylor perform with the former vocalist of Free and Bad Company as "Queen + Paul Rodgers" at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim Rd., Rosemont. Tickets are $35-$200, through Ticket-master, (312) 559-1212; www.ticketmaster.com.