Who says a Saturday night can’t be a combination of class, camp and blazing rock? That recipe was a familiar one for British rock gods Queen — one they routinely flaunted over their two-plus decades in the spotlight. And it was never on better display than on the band’s fourth album, A Night at the Opera. At the time it was recorded in 1975, the album was the most expensive ever produced. And who would expect anything less from Freddie Mercury and company.
The album begins with one of the all-time great build-ups, with Mercury’s piano giving way to orchestration and, ultimately, a biting Brian May guitar solo. All of this ushers in some of the most incisive lyrics of Mercury’s career in “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated…).” The track was apparently Freddie’s poison letter to the band’s former manager. In a word, it is brutal.
But in typical Queen fashion, a biting commentary is followed by a playful laugh. “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” is a 1:07 giggle on the way to the album’s next heavy rocker, the red-blooded “I’m in Love with My Car.” With lead vocals by drummer Roger Taylor, “Car” is both ridiculous and pulse-pumping. With searing guitar fills and backing vocals that sound like a choir of angels chasing a muscle car off a bridge, the song is as rawk as the band ever got.
The sunshiny ballad “You’re My Best Friend” follows, driven by the unique pulse of a Wurlitzer Electric Piano. Written by bassist John Deacon for his wife, the song is a celebration of love and partnership. And for those who cherish great guitar tones, you can’t beat Brian May’s multi-tracked solo.
May’s dreamlike acoustic stomp, “’39,” follows, decorating the landscape of the album with yet another vivid splash of color. With slightly trippy lyrics about space travelers who return home to find everyone they loved to be long dead (thanks to time-travelling shenanigans), this L. Ron Hubbard premise somehow comes off sounding like an Irish sea ballad…and totally works.
The band again switches gears with the heavy, distorted “Sweet Lady.” Perhaps lacking the musical creativity of “Death on Two Legs” or the lyrical fun of “I’m in Love with My Car,” the track falls just a bit flat, given the high standard that has already been set by this point in the record. Still, May gives yet another clinic on lead guitar in the fade out.
Again, the band masterfully switch gears with “Seaside Rendezvous,” a prance down Tin Pan Alley. It’s a bit silly — and yes, that’s a kazoo you hear in the middle. Still, it’s a great change of pace before the dark, moody prog piece that follows, “The Prophet’s Song.” With lyrics almost Biblical in nature and enough clever movements to satisfy the most curmudgeonly Yes fan, the song manages not to crack a smile in the midst of the Sturm und Drang. And the multi-Freddie choir piece in the middle serves as fair warning for the album’s most famous track, just a few songs later.
Again, the band continues an unbroken streak of successful changes of pace with the achingly tender “Love of My Life.” That the band manage to out-romance “You’re My Best Friend” is nothing short of a minor miracle. That they do it so beautifully is a tribute to Mercury, who wrote the song for his then-girlfriend, Mary Austin.
“Good Company” is another trip down the English seaside promenade, with Brian May taking the vocals and doing a fair strum on the banjo, with a strangely appropriate accompaniment from his beloved Red Special. As the piffle fades away, the listener’s head can only be spinning by this point. What possible ground has the band not yet covered? Surely, by track 10, we’ve seen all their tricks…right? Well…
What can you say about “Bohemian Rhapsody” that hasn’t already been declared and celebrated hundreds of times before? It is a major landmark in the history of recorded music. With three distinctive movements — the opening melancholy ballad, the middle “opera” and the metal ride-out — the composition is more than a song, it’s an epic journey from the depths of the human soul to the heights of cartooniness. Somehow, aided by the sonic expertise of producer Roy Thomas Baker, Mercury and his Queen cohorts make it not merely work; they make it move the soul. Even after thousands upon thousands of spins on FM radio and enough Wayne’s World imitations to make one hurl, it still resonates.
The album closes with the pomp and splendor of “God Save the Queen.” Yes, that “God Save the Queen.” The real one — perhaps the only song big enough to see this band and this album off the stage. Take a bow, boys.
A Night at the Opera tracklisting:
1. “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…)”
2. “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”
3. “I’m in Love with My Car”
4. “You’re My Best Friend”
6. “Sweet Lady”
7. “Seaside Rendezvous”
1. “The Prophet’s Song”
2. “Love of My Life”
3. “Good Company”
4. "Bohemian Rhapsody”
5. “God Save the Queen” http://www.gibson.com/en-us/Lifestyle/Features/queen-1016
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