So I was working away today, and I decided to put Queen’s “A Night At The Opera” on my Google Play. (I don’t remember the last time I listened to music that wasn’t on my computer or the Internet.) Each track of this album is practically imprinted on my DNA, as I used to play it over and over again when I was a teenager in the 1970s. Listening to it in order again after all these years brought back a bunch of memories. It felt comfortable somehow.
The first thing I noticed after listening to a few songs was that the styles of the tracks varied wildly. If it weren’t for the layers and layers of Roy Thomas Baker (the producer) harmonies, and the recurring Brian May guitar overdubs, you’d think that this was a compilation album. This is what you get when you have all four band members writing away independently, I suppose.
A track by track discussion follows – if you’re not interested in this album, feel free to go back to Facebook or something.
“Death On Two Legs”: There are a few ironclad rules of life. One is this: never jilt a songwriter. He or she has writing skill and a platform. Your flaws will be broadcast to millions. I have no idea who the protagonist of this Freddie Mercury song is, but I’m sure, by about the third verse or so, he or she (I guess he) wishes that he had never met Mr. Bulsara (to call him by his given last name), or at least had treated him a little better.
Random Freddie Mercury fact from Wikipedia: his father was born in 1908, and lived until 2003. His mother was born in 1922, and is still alive.
“Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon”: If one of P.G. Wodehouse’s idle Englishmen from the 1920s had happened to be gifted with songwriting ability, a piano, and regular access to Roy Thomas Baker (the producer), this is probably what he would write. Bicycling every Wednesday evening! Pip pip, old boy!
“I’m In Love With My Car”: I love this song more than words than say. It’s eminently listenable, but its lyrics – written by drummer Roger Taylor – are, um, less than poetic. The couplet
Told my girl I had to forget her
Rather buy me a new carburettor
is awe-inspiring in its, um, uniqueness. In other parts of the song, Taylor – who also sings, and quite well – rhapsodizes about his car’s “grease gun” and ruminates about his “automolove”. Um, er, um. But it’s such an enjoyable song to listen to.
“You’re My Best Friend”: With some relief – what, exactly, is that man doing with his car? – it’s time to turn to a scene of pleasant domesticity. This song, written by bassist John Deacon, is about a man who is happy at home with his best friend. This song is light enough to float above the ground at a height of about two feet, but you can’t help but feel happy for the writer – after all, it is really nice to have someone to love and who loves you. And frothy is way better than sappy: compare this to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Our House”, for example.
“’39” is an epic tale set to music, including Deacon on bouncy double bass. A group of brave volunteers set out to find new lands and apparently finds them. Yay! Though I’m not 100% clear what is happening here:
For the earth is old and grey, little darling we’ll away
But my love this cannot be
For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year
Your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me
On closer reading, I realize that I have no idea what Brian May is saying here. Have the volunteers time travelled or something?
“Sweet Lady” is my least favourite song on the album because it is the most conventionally mid-70s rockish. It’s got a catchy riff, but meh.
“Seaside Rendezvous” is another little Freddie Mercury ditty in which the hero protagonist is an upper-class adventurer from times past. In this incarnation, he has a lot more disposable income, frequent flyer miles, and androgyny than the plucky hero of “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon”. Tres charmant, my dear!
Personal interlude: when I was 17, I got a part-time job working at a Consumers Distributing in Leaside, unloading trucks full of merchandise, filling customer orders, and getting paid minimum wage. The favourite band of the teenage guys who worked in the back room at the store was, unanimously, Queen – so much so that when I mentioned that I liked Queen too, they assumed that I was pretending to like them in order to fit in. Given that the average teenage guy who worked in a catalogue store was not likely to have exceptionally gay-positive attitudes – especially in the 1970s – this shows that Freddie Mercury was an exceptional front man indeed.
Random Freddie Mercury fact from Wikipedia: When he was 17, he and his family fled Zanzibar for safety reasons. (This was in 1963, which was the year that Zanzibar stopped being a British protectorate.) I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had to flee my homeland for safety reasons – of course, the probability of a murderous despot taking over Don Mills in 1977 was probably quite low.
Back when all music was on vinyl, this was the end of side one. Side one was a light-hearted romp, if you don’t count the volunteers suffering who knows what privations on board their expeditionary ship. But side two… is heavy. We’re going to be dealing with mad prophets, heartbreak, life, death, and a whole lot of operatic harmonies. This requires a serious emotional commitment. Strap yourself in!
If you’re looking to save yourself eight minutes, I can summarize “The Prophet’s Song” for you: some dude preaches of death and destruction. People believe him for a while, then don’t. There you go: except for a bunch of harmonies and random multi-tracked guitar parts, that’s about it. I like this song, but it takes a bit of time to get through.
“Love Of My Life”: I’ve always thought that Freddie Mercury was at his best when writing about heartbreak. His lost love songs are simpler, and aren’t so full of flourishes that you wish that either (a) someone could give him some Ritalin or (b) you could just go and lie down for a while. This song is beautiful and even a bit touching, and it gets away with having a harp at the beginning and end without seeming like overkill. (For another example, check out “Nevermore” from Queen II.)
“Good Company” is another Brian May epic, this time about a man who grows up, gets married, starts his own firm, works a bit too hard, is widowed, and then sits at home and ponders a lot. All this in just 3:23, and with George Formby style banjo as well! The moral of this song, if there is one, is that focusing too much on one’s career might be a bad idea:
I hardly noticed Sally as we parted company…
I am assuming that Sally passed away, though there’s always the possibility that she might have left him for one of the jolly adventurers from the Freddie Mercury songs on side one. The song isn’t entirely clear on that point. Anyway, it’s hard to feel too gloomy when there’s all this banjo stuff going on. Plinka-plink-plink!
Random Freddie Mercury fact from Wikipedia: before joining (and naming) Queen, he was in bands named The Hectics, Ibex, Wreckage, and Sour Milk Sea.
And then, of course, there’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. You probably know all about this song, of course. The operatic back-and-forth. The layers and layers of Roy Thomas Baker (the producer) harmonies. Bismillah! Let me go!
Given what eventually happened to Freddie Mercury, this bit of the song is more than a little ominous:
Too late, my time has come
Sent shivers down my spine,
Body’s aching all the time.
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go,
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.
A bummer, man. This and Joy Division’s Closer album are what got me thinking about my mortality at a precociously young age, which was depressing. It doesn’t help that this song ends with a loud, and presumably terminal, gong.
Random Freddie Mercury fact from Wikipedia: His vocal range extended from bass F2 to soprano F6. That’s a long way.
The album ends with “God Save The Queen”, during which we all stand at attention, listen to the seemingly endless guitar harmonics, and give our sovereign and this album the respect they rightfully deserve. Long to reign over us!