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Music DVD Review: Classic Albums – Queen: A Night at the Opera

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In this era of mp3 digital downloading of music, sometimes all you are able to get is literally a bare-bones, low-fi presentation of the music itself. If you’re lucky, you might be able to get some liner notes concerning the song titles, cover art, and a list of musicians who played on the album.

For the casual listener or musician who wants to know more about a standout record, Eagle Rock Entertainment has produced a fine set of DVDs known as “Classic Albums” that fills in the gaps. Classic Albums – Queen: The Making of A Night at the Opera, is one of the best documentaries in the series, along with Classic Albums: The Doors – The Doors, Classic Albums: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes, and Classic Albums: Pink Floyd – The Making of Dark Side of the Moon, just to name a few.

While The Beatles were the first rock band to use the recording studio as almost another musical instrument, you realize that Queen (and Pink Floyd before them) basically picked up where The Beatles left off. In 1974, Queen engineer Mike Stone and producer Roy Thomas Baker (Journey, The Cars) used various studio effects and recording techniques to create a very distinctive and unique sounding record that still resonates with the public today.

In fact, this documentary reveals that although Queen’s first three albums were very popular in the U.K., and “Killer Queen” (from Sheer Heart Attack) charted well in the U.S., A Night at the Opera is the album that served as the springboard to worldwide popularity for the band. This album spawned two hit singles, Freddie Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and John Deacon’s “You’re My Best Friend.” But the DVD addresses each song on the album in order of appearance.and contains interviews with executives from their U.S. record label (Joe Smith and Jac Holtzman of Elektra Records) and Baker.

The majority of the disc features new interviews with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, mixed in with archival clips of the late Freddie Mercury. While bassist John Deacon declined an offer to participate in this project, May and Taylor go to great lengths to let the viewers know that John Deacon was an integral part of the band’s sound and their ultimate success. Taylor explains that Deacon was encouraged to submit songs and was rather coy and shy about doing so. He was somewhat fearful of a negative reaction to “You’re My Best Friend,” but his colleagues embraced the song right away. It subsequently became one of the band’s biggest hits of all time.

May and Taylor provide a wealth of detailed information about the work that went on during the recording and writing of many of the songs on the album. Significantly, May explains that the difference between A Night at the Opera and Queen’s previous albums is that “it exists in a continuity of various musical styles” (vaudeville, opera, pop, heavy metal, and folk). 

In another segment, Taylor goes behind his drum kit to show how the drum track was assembled for “I’m In Love With My Car”. As part of the special bonus section, Taylor goes behind his drum kit again to illustrate what has been labeled as “Queen’s Sonic Boom of Sound.”

May and Taylor also discuss how Queen used overdubs to produce their trademark layered vocal harmonies. Basically, Mercury would take the melody, May took the middle harmony, and Taylor would do the high harmony. What would happen next is that all three of them would trade parts and then double those results.

May also explains how “Prophet” came about, including comments about his fascination with analog delay on guitars and how it was also put to good use on the vocals. My favorite part of the documentary is when May shows how he was able to create “a dixieland band effect” by using his guitar and his father’s “banjo/ukulele.”

As you might expect, there is some archival performance footage of the band, along with celebrity interviews with Ian Hunter, Nuno Bettencourt, and Joe Perry. The real treat is seeing May playing his homemade red special electric guitar and his 1970s Ovation 12-string guitar, especially on “39” and on Mercury’s ballad, “Love of My Life.”

All in all, this is a worthwhile DVD for Queen fans and musicians who want some additional knowledge about how A Night at the Opera was written and recorded. Pick it up. It’s worth it.

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About Carl J. Mancuso