It goes without saying that Queen were one of the all-time great British bands of the ’70s. While Led Zeppelin may have sold more records, there was something oddly American about them. This was not the case with Queen. From their coat-of-arms logo, to their name itself — Queen were extremely proud of their English heritage. Maybe it it was that very British-ness that set them apart, but Freddie Mercury (vocals, piano), Brian May (guitar), John Deacon (bass), and Roger Taylor (drums) had something special right from the start.
Anglophiles were hip to them early on, but it took album number three, Sheer Heart Attack (1974), for the group to really catch on in the US. In particular, it was the single “Killer Queen” that broke through, although the whole record was great. Opening with Brian May’s amazing guitar work on “Brighton Rock” through classics such as “Now I’m Here,” and “Stone Cold Crazy,“ this was definitely one of the year’s best.
As an instant convert I needed to hear more, and quickly purchased their first album — simply titled Queen (1973). This was clearly a group who knew who they were right from the start. The very first track on the very first album is “Keep Yourself Alive,” which like “Liar” stayed in their set forever. There were also some seemingly unusual tunes, like “Great King Rat“ and the instrumental “Seven Seas Of Rhye.“ As time would tell, these other musical sides of Queen would prove integral to their overall sound and success.
Queen II (1974) was yet another revelation. The old adage about the “difficult sophomore effort” may have initially applied, but not to my ears. While the band may have had their entire lives to write their first record, the second was done on the fly, so to speak. In some respects, I find Queen II to be the most intriguing album of their career. From May’s “Procession”/”Father To Son” through to Mercury’s full lyrical version of “Seven Seas Of Rhye,” Queen II is an outstanding recording.
Queen-mania erupted worldwide with A Night At The Opera (1975), and the smash “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Nobody had ever heard anything like this, before or since. It is an amazing piece of work, and the stories of the recording process alone are the stuff of legend — not to mention the sales the song enjoyed. The whole album is a delight. There is of course the other hit, “You’re My Best Friend,” Roger Taylor’s “I’m In Love With My Car,” and the sweet “39” with a rare Brian May vocal. Fittingly, Queen topped it off with an instrumental version of “God Save The Queen.”
The group continued their Marx Bros. inspired LP titles with A Day At The Races (1976), and once again they took no prisoners. From the very first notes of “Tie Your Mother Down,” Queen continued to prove that they were no fluke. “Somebody To Love” was the biggest hit on the album, and other highlights include “You Take My Breath Away,” and John Deacon’s uncommon acoustic guitar playing on his “You And I.”
Those first five Queen records are undeniable. While there is certainly a progression from album to album, they were a world-class band from the beginning. It may have taken the world a couple of years to catch on, but it was definitely there. The Hollywood Records label has just launched a massive reissue campaign of the Queen catalog, beginning with these first five albums. The way they are doing it may makes this the most significant program of the year.
First of all there is the care that has been taken in the remastering process. The art of this highly-touted, yet previously disappointing aspect of the CD transfer has finally grown into its own. Through the work of dedicated and very talented engineers, the old days of just switching over the old tapes to aluminum discs has ended. Great care has been taken to balance out the highs and lows, to provide the warmth and ambience so well remembered from the analog days. This has obviously been the most difficult part of the task to get right, but one can really hear it with these 2011 editions.
Queen fans should find the bonus EPs included with each disc to be true diamonds in these treasures, though. The EPs include five to six extremely rare or never-before-released tracks from each album. None of them get any rarer than those included with Queen. The first five (of six) cuts were recorded as demos in 1971, before the band even had a contract. The only known source was a 12” acetate from Brian May’s private collection. The songs were all re-recorded later for the LP.
While those demos are a pretty incredible find, there are plenty more goodies as well. These include live sessions at the BBC, appearances on Top Of The Pops, concert recordings, remixes, and forgotten B-sides. The complete liner notes contain all the pictures and lyrics from the original releases, plus information about each of the bonus cuts.
The next five Queen albums in the series will be released later this year, and should prove to be just as fascinating. But for now I am very content to sit back and enjoy the first phase of the group’s remarkable journey.
God Save The Queen, indeed.