The 40th anniversary celebration of Queen’s career comes to an end with the recent release of this third five-CD box set. The project has been a massive one. Each of their 15 studio albums was meticulously remastered, with the participation of band members Brian May and Roger Taylor. In addition, each selection features a second CD, with numerous rarities, live versions, and B-sides.
Like many of their contemporaries, Queen found it to be something of a challenge to stay relevant in the eighties. Conventional wisdom had it that guitar bands were out, and colorful keyboard-oriented groups were in. Even with the world-class guitar player May in the band, Queen succumbed to this theory for a while.
The Works was released in 1984. The album leads off with the hit single “Radio Ga Ga” which, iin typical Queen style, sought to bite the hand that fed them. The song must have had a profound effect on the embryonic Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, for she would one day christen herself Lady Gaga in honor of it.
The Works also contains “I Want To Break Free,” which rose to number three in the UK, and enjoyed enormous radio play in the US. Fans of May’s unique guitar technique were offered a couple of great showcases for him in “Tear It Up,” and “Hammer To Fall.”
The six-song EP includes some interesting material from this period. The first has to be the Christmas single that never really caught on, “Thank God It’s Christmas.” The group’s appearance at the gigantic Rock In Rio in January 1985 is also celebrated here, with both “Is This The World We Created…?” and “It’s A Hard Life” which were recorded there. There is also the non-LP B-side “I Go Crazy” and a couple of remixes included.
Queen’s widely-praised performance at Live Aid on July 13, 1985 seemed to greatly inform their next album, A Kind Of Magic. From the initial single “One Vision” on, they seemed far more engaged in the world around them than they had ever before. “Friends Will Be Friends,” and “One Year Of Love” seem to deepen this focus. The title track would prove to be a world wide hit, and was used in the film Highlander as well.
Highlights of the bonus disc include the “Highlander Version” of “A Kind Of Magic.” There are also two more versions of “One Vision.” The single differs slightly from the LP release, but the recording of the song at Wembley Stadium on July 11, 1986 is something to hear.
Although Queen had experimented in a number of different genres throughout the eighties, they never succumbed to trendiness quite as completely as they did on their 1989 album The Miracle. Out of the 15 albums that make up the three box sets Hollywood Records has put out this year, The Miracle sounds the least like Queen.
Despite the presence of the very “Queen-like” single “I Want It All,” most of The Miracle sounds like it could have been recorded by any generic eighties studio band. Queen’s personality is almost completely drowned out in favor of trendy effects. Unfortunate examples abound: “Khashoggi’s Ship” recalls Robert Plant’s “Tall Cool One,” for instance. “Rain Must Fall” sounds like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had been recruited for a day, and “Scandal” tosses every single clichéd eighties musical effect into the blender regardless of context. On The Seinfeld Chronicles that year, there was a fictional film that the gang went to see, titled Prognosis Negative. That would have been a much more appropriate name than The Miracle.
Like the mythical phoenix, in 1991 Queen rose from the ashes and delivered one of their finest albums ever, Innuendo. This was to be the final Queen album released in Freddie Mercury’s lifetime, and he and the group came up with something very special. A key factor was fairly simple: since they possessed one of the finest guitarists in rock, they decided to start using him again. May’s distinctive guitar sound is all over Innuendo, and makes one wince at the previous decade’s reliance on keyboards and drivel.
Guitar driven rock was back in a big way in 1991, with the success of Guns N’ Roses, and the grunge bands. But a group of Queen’s stature never should have abandoned it in the first place. From the opening grandeur of “Innuendo,” this album has all of the elements of a “classic” Queen record. Except for a couple of instances, the dated keyboard washes are absent, and May’s guitar takes its rightful place as the perfect foil for Mercury’s incredible vocal flights.
Perversely enough, the wistful single “These Are The Days Of Our Lives” is the only track that sounds like it was recorded during the woeful sessions that produced The Miracle. “Headlong,” “Can’t Live Without You,” and “Ride The Wild Wind” are great guitar songs. The group even looks back fondly at some of their seventies trademarks, with the “Bohemian Rhapsody” type vocal layers employed on “All God’s People,” and the nearly prog-rock elements of “Don’t Try So Hard.” May’s playing on “The Hitman” is absolutely demonic, his best on record in years.
Sadly, Mercury passed away later that year, and that was the end of Queen. Well, not quite. This is big, big money rock and roll after all, and various offers were made to milk the legacy. The most honorable of these would have to be the 1995 Made In Heaven album, which consisted of unfinished vocals and tracks which the rest of the band completed for release.
Mercury could seemingly be all things when the mood struck him, from blazing heavy-metal front man, to symphonic campmeister ala “Bohemian Rhapsody,” to anything in between. One thing he never was though, was mawkish. In the attempt to provide a proper and tasteful tribute to him, the surviving members of Queen go a little overboard with Made In Heaven. It is an album for completists only, and kind of hard to listen to at times.
I think Innuendo makes for a far more appropriate sendoff. In any event, it seems that all of the Mercury and Queen material that was in the can has been released at this point. And I have to say that the three five-disc sets that Hollywood has released (plus bonus EPs of course) are an outstanding tribute to one of the greatest rock bands of the past 40 years.
As Mercury sings on the final track of Innuendo, “the show must go on.”