Sunday, August 5, 2018

Killer Queen

Pompus? Yes. Pretentious? Of course. Over the top? Undoubtedly. "Bohemian Rhapsody?"  No, actually I meant Peter O'Toole's performance in Lawrence of Arabia. O'Toole was one of the greatest movie actors of his (or any) time because he could be all those things and make it work. Brilliantly. Queen was the Peter O'Toole of rock, pushing the envelope in every direction, and (mostly) pulling it off. Unfortunately, A Night At The Opera suffers from an issue similiar to that of Bowie's Hunky Dory or Lennon's Imagine: A Night At The Opera is so much more than "The Album With 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'" It's an epic, beautifully composed rock album, with all the pieces - including "Rhapsody" - in the right places. A Night At The Opera is to the seventies what Sgt. Pepper was to the sixties, a tour de force that happens to encompass the most famous song in the world! What makes the LP shine is how well the album works as a musical whole. It functions as ONE perfectly structured piece of rhapsodic music rather than a mere collection of songs. One track logically leads to another, and even "silly" tunes like "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon" or "Seaside Rendezvous." fit perfectly in the larger framework of the album. A Night at the Opera (AM9) has been ablaze on our turntables for forty years!

What makes the early 70s rock's golden years is its incredible diversity. While the Laurel Canyon set embellished their folk risings with jazz and orchestration, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull peppered their progressive slant with madrigals and mandolins. The Eagles made country a top seller as Zeppelin rocked like no one had before (or maybe will again). Small wonder that Queen was able to capture our collective imagination with vaudeville, mock operas and theatrics.

Sheer Heart Attack (AM8) is the strongest LP in Queen's storied career (the stronger album does not necessarily suggest that it had more impact or longer legs).  Capturing the first major transition of their career, the album incorporates aspects of prog-like hard rock (Queen II) and the more eclectic arena rock of A Night at the Opera to produce the band's catchiest set of melodies. The album lacks anything as timeless as "Bohemian Rhapsody," but pretty much every album in the history of the world fails in this respect.  Where Sheer Heart Attack vastly outperforms A Night at the Opera is in its consistency.  In fact, when Sheer Heart Attack does opt for shorter "filler" pieces ("Lily of the Valley," "Dear Friends," "Misfire") the results are some of the LP's finest moments.

Sheer Heart Attack is much more diverse than the band's first two LPs, a shift that allows May and (especially) Mercury to flex their musical muscle for the first time. Campy glam rock ("In the Lap of the Gods"), Aerosmithy hard core ("Stone Cold Crazy"), and even atmospheric proto-dream pop (May's stunning "She Makes Me") are all ably performed. That, coupled with the fact that many of the best selections here weren't huge "hits" ("Killer Queen" being the only exception), makes Sheer Heart Attack an excellent entry point into the band's early discography for a listener looking to explore beyond a greatest hits compilation. 

Released shortly after the blockbuster, genre-defining success of A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races (AM7) was constructed, not as something to try and top it, but to refine what A Night at the Opera accomplished, a "sister album," so to speak. The title of each LP, taken from the titles of Marx Brothers' films suggest that the latter was a mere sequel the other, when in fact it's a very different kind of album and stands individually by its own right. An important difference is in the album's structure: no more long, sophisticated epics like Bohemian Rhapsody and the Prophet's Song, or short little anecdotes like Lazying On A Sunday Afternoon; ten songs, all of them of standard radio lenghth, roughly between three and five minutes, with only two exceptions. Not only does it end Queen's progressive opera-rock era, it also ends Freddie Mercury's domination of the band. Not only did Freddie and guitarist Brian May supply the same number of songs, which is a first by itself; the album clearly belongs mostly to Brian. Songs of his open and close the album, and it also starts with an instrumental introduction which is something of a medley of only his own contributions to the album. These changes should have made it much more commercialy appealing than the band's previous albums, but strangely enough it did poorly compared to 'A Night At The Opera' and 'Sheer Heart Attack' (except for in Japan, where 'A Day At The Races' was Queen's first no. 1 album).

An aside: It's interesting to note that there are many observers from the Indian intelligentsia who place the achievements of Freddie Mercury (nee Farrokh Bulsara) on the same plateau as that of Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, in essence taking the colonizer's art form and representing it in a manner richer and more dazzling than many Anglophones thought possible. Right on, Freddy!

And another: Many would insist that in Queen, The Tubes and Kiss there is proof that glam wasn't dead. So be it. If Queen is glam then indeed Jethro Tull deserved their Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal performance. The Tubes were theatrics and parody, and a Kiss is still a Kiss (a sigh is just a sigh) - no categorization necessary.

And yet another: The early 70s are touted by many as a renaissance. Wrong word. A renaissance is a period of rebirth, like the phoenix re-spawning from its ashes, like Europe emerging from the dark ages. The Renaissance in Europe, arguably began with the bronze doors of the Florentine Baptistery, when art was given a time and place. From a 20th Century music vantage point, there had been no dark ages, nothing to rise above or out of. If anything, the early 70s were a golden age, a belle époque, the apogee, a culmination - long live the Queen.

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