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Queen - A Night At The Opera CD (album) cover




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4 stars It Ain't Over Till The Fat Bottomed Girl Sings

Wading through the fields of rhapsodic blather that surrounds the making of this record, I had to fight the very strong temptation to conclude that deprived of the Beatles, Rock's finest scribes in the UK seemed desperate to adopt A Night at the Opera as the rather effete 70's child prodigy of Sgt Pepper. Judging by the more avuncular appeals for caution emanating from the other side of the pond, it seems Uncle Sam's appraisal of his nephew as nothing but a calculating little sprog not remotely equipped to follow in his father's footsteps, didn't fall entirely on deaf ears.

Despite some 300 million sales globally, Queen were always viewed with some suspicion in the USA as their provocative cocktail of pomp, glam, vaudeville twee and 'campness aforethought' did not sit easily with the regimented corp d'esprit of the heavily armoured division of rock fans. Amongst the 'earnest and hirsute', Fred and his troupers were considered too faggy to be heavy, too glib to be deep, too shiny to be dark and too goddamn ironic to be assimilated into any 'our gang versus the establishment' rallying cry. The rest of the world seemed more forgiving of their undermining of the traditional testosterone grunt of rawk and it could be argued that Europeans in particular, were more cognisant of the stylistic reference points that Queen employed (Noel Coward, cabaret, Music-Hall, Ivor Novello, operetta and those daring stage outfits worn by Mercury that were tantamount to Privates on Parade)

As far as musicianship goes, we can draw some telling comparisons with the aforementioned Fab Four e.g. apart from possibly Brian May, no-one in Queen or the Beatles would ever come close to be being described as a virtuoso but both bands also had three brilliant songwriters, one brilliant singer and one very ordinary drummer who sang all the crap songs.

Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To...) - The 'just dessert' course of Mercury's splenetic portrayal of one of those reptilian svengalis that inhabit the music biz. (The starter being that of Flick of the Wrist) Rarely has Freddie sounded this vicious and although it's easy to surmise he might just 'protest too much' and relish this villainy more than he abhors it, the lyrics leave no margin for such ambivalence:

Do you feel like suicide? (I think you should) Is your conscience all right does it plague you at night do you feel good, feel good?

Although the dedicatee is unnamed, their previous manager Norman Sheffield attempted to sue the band for defamation when he heard this track. Word to the wise Norm, if there's a smoking gun on the carpet, don't stoop to retrieve it with the casual rejoinder:

Whoops, I was wondering where I'd left that, thank you constable

May really steps up to the plate on this song and his crescendo of dissonant guitar effects on the intro sets the hostile atmosphere perfectly.Those familiar with Vincent Crane's piano on Gershatzer will probably detect a whiff of same from Mercury's florid scalar passage that precedes the sung sections. Great use is made of contrasting dynamics between the Spartan verses and massive choruses with the latter being punctuated brilliantly by Queen's signature stacked harmony layers.Yep, one of the 'hosepipe gang's' very finest songs.

Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon - Talk about contrasts, the inspiration here is clearly Noel Coward and British music-hall on a delightful (but all too brief) pastiche of 78 rpm wax cylinder antiquity. Even Brian May manages to coax a sepia tinted flavour out of his indelible guitar sound.

I'm in Love with my Car - This was probably the point at which most Queen fans started to approach a Roger Taylor track with the sort of trepidation that Beatles fans reserved for those by Ringo. Whether this burnt-out wreck was an attempt to sell Queen to the 'monster truck lovin' sh*t kicker' demographic is a moot point, but every tiresome boy racer cliché is here in abundance.

Told my girl I just had to forget her, rather buy me a new carburettor

There is not even a vestige of self-depreciating irony in Taylor's delivery and wedded to a composition that is a guttural dirge of droning barre chord angst, it just induces armchair road-rage in your reviewer. The hissy little oink even locked himself in a cupboard until Mercury relented in allowing this wretched song to appear on the B side of the Bohemian Rhapsody single. Now had the 'three talented ones' come up with an auto-mobile inspired tune, they might have populated a sleek cockpit with Danny La Rue as a drag racer (and I would pay to hear that).

You're My Best Friend - The Wurlitzer electric piano at the start always reminds me of Deep Purple's Demon's Eye but there the resemblance ends abruptly as we are ushered quickly thereafter into a sunny slice of breezy pop that would not disgrace even someone as accomplished in this medium as either Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan. Although hardly prolific, Deacon's first two compositions certainly enhance both the albums they appear on (see the even poppier Misfire from Sheer Heart Attack)

'39 - I've never been a big fan of Brian's voice because as decent as it is, he just comes across as a bit well, sickly and delicate or lacking in conviction I guess. Throw in a sci-fi story about time travel accompanied by a country and western 'hand on belt buckle' hootenanny thang y'all and you have one very unhappy furry listening critter. The high pitched and 'other worldly' backing vocals are inspired but despite this enticing promise they never actually herald the tune deviating from what was inevitable from the outset. Times like these a man gets to thinkin'...them horses look mighty purty.

Sweet Lady - Despite a promising riff in what is for a heads down stomper, an unusual 3/4 meter, this is ultimately very disappointing. Freddie could normally salvage some mediocre riffing with a memorable tune or sheer wanton bravura (eg. Tie Your Mother Down, Stone Cold Crazy) but fails miserably to deliver on this occasion. Even the section in 4/4 time that follows just resembles a slowly deflated imitation Zeppelin.

Seaside Rendezvous - A quite ingenious, brilliant and outrageously tongue in cheek appropriation of Trad Jazz/vaudeville scat featuring a 'sung' brass section where Mercury and Taylor imitate with astonishing realism, clarinet, trumpet and tuba. They also provided the 'tap dancing' percussion interlude via the surface of the mixing desk with thimbles on their fingers. Rock bands with a sense of humour that surmounts body fluids, body parts, groupies and fart gags are rarer than eskimo porn.

The Prophet's Song - Perhaps the most overtly proggy track of their career and that it was penned by Brian May should come as no real surprise as of the four, it was he who was responsible for stretching and pushing his colleagues into new and uncharted territory the most. A brooding and foreboding song that paces its development very carefully and even features a very ambitious vocal canon which due to its daunting complexity, was seldom tackled in the live realm. This was another piece that May reputedly conceived while recuperating from a near fatal bout of hepatitis while in hospital. Given such a perilous and fragile condition it's hardly surprising that some of the lyrics and imagery betray a dawning sense of his own mortality couched in terms of an apocalyptic biblical flood:

and two by two my human zoo they'll be running for to come out of the rain oh flee for your life who heed me not let all your treasure make you Deceive you not the fires of hell will take you should death await you

The influence of Zeppelin is at its most palpable on Prophet's Song but I can also detect faint traces of Yes, Wishbone Ash and even Sabbath in places. A killer verse melody that leads into an addictive chanted chorus and if the intention of the a cappella canon was to replicate the audible symptoms of delirium, they have succeeded wholesale.

Love of my Life - One of the most beautiful and regularly covered numbers in Mercury's hugely impressive songbook. Depending on which source you believe to be the most reliable, it was a heartfelt sentiment addressed to Freddie's first (and probably only) long-time girlfriend Mary Austin. 'Good' songs cannot probably be appreciated to their full extent from out-with their referential context, but 'great' songs like this encounter no such obstacles to communicating directly to the human heart in a universal language every single one of us can understand.

Good Company - like Seaside Rendezvous this inhabits a similar territory to the Beatles When I'm 64 but its 'George Formby washboard ukelele' surface hides a salutary moral tale contained in a witty and punning lyric sung by Brian about the perils of material success:

Now marriage is an institution sure, my wife and I our needs and nothing more All my friends by a year by and by disappear but we're safe behind our door I flourished in my humble trade my reputation grew The work devoured my waking hours but when my time was through Reward of all my efforts my own limited company.

Bohemian Rhapsody - Notwithstanding I became bored scatty by dint of its stay at Number 1 in the singles chart for what seemed at least 3 years of my adolescence, there is very little that remains unsaid about this particular landmark in popular music. Even stripped of the celebrated mini operetta that lies at its centre, Bohemian Rhapsody would still consist of an achingly beautiful and powerful ballad that builds towards a coruscating heavy rock finale unmatched in any mainstream rock or pop genre.(Prog just might be the only conceivable exception) With the benefit of hindsight, In the Lap of the Gods from the previous Sheer Heart Attack album could be viewed as a precursor to this ambitious extravaganza and there is ample evidence to suggest that not even its composer Mercury had any real concrete idea what it would sound like until its completion.There are several factors that make the piece's success all the more remarkable e.g. it has a multitude of climatic peaks throughout but no conventional chorus to speak of, it's nearly six minutes long dammit and how many chart topping singles have 6 discrete sections that vary so dramatically in texture, tempo and style?

The lyrics are deceptively simple but have a carefully considered ambiguity that has long fascinated me and to this day I have yet to arrive at any clear cut consensus even in my own befuddled head as to their meaning.There are some clear references to both Goethe's Faust (where the hero sells his soul to the devil in exchange for all worldly knowledge) and Albert Camus' The Outsider (where the hero shoots a man for apparently no reason and is subsequently sentenced to death) but neither really square up to the nightmarish imagery that Mercury's disassociation of the real and the imagined presents. Some commentators have speculated at inordinate length that the song represents our Fred's 'coming out' and bidding farewell to a heterosexuality he never felt comfortable with couched in terms of his fear of being judged a 'deviant sinner' with the resultant shaming of his family and his own Zoroastrianism faith. Whatever, like the equally cryptic Lamb Lies Down on Broadway it is unequivocally a moral fable concerned with atonement and redemption albeit expressed in a deliberately allegorical style

God Save the Queen - Maybe the praise heaped upon the young Brian as the new fastest gun at the 'geetar' corral had gone to his permed head. Covering your own national anthem on a guitar solo will inevitably result in two things: Your efforts will be compared to the frankly daunting precedent set by Hendrix and: you might just consider yourself fit to be deserving of such a comparison. Dream on not so clever clogs (The ego has landed)

I know I'll be swimming against the tide here but as enjoyable, accomplished and ground-breaking as A Night at the Opera undoubtedly was, I consider it in many ways an inferior album to its predecessor Sheer Heart Attack. Both are worthy additions to anyone's music collection but for me, the latter's songs are uniformly strong and the Roy Thomas Baker 'ear candy' had yet to rot the band's teeth (i.e. Queen had more balls m'lady)

ExittheLemming | 4/5 |


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