Friday, November 9, 2007

No. 230: A Night At The Opera

Band: Queen
Album: A Night At The Opera
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "A Night At The Opera" features two of the band's best songs, "You're My Best Friend" and "Bohemian Rhapsody," as well as some of their underrated tracks. It's the height of the band as they developed Freddie Mercury's songwriting voice, showing off the operatic pop that defines the band.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, Queen fits the definition of pompous stadium rock perfectly.
Best song: "Bohemian Rhapsody." Hands down.
Worst song: "Sweet Lady" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Actually, it is.

I came into this record with a pretty negative viewpoint. Queen isn't really on my radar at all; I have both "Classic Queen" and "Queen's Greatest Hits" on CD and I always found those two to be more than enough Queen for me.

I think I was wrong.

"A Night At The Opera" is amazing. Sure, it has its low points -- "Seaside Rendezvous" is stupid -- but, overall, this record is excellent. It's produced with a meticulous hand, full of multiple-tracked Freddie Mercury vocals and strange time signature movements. It falls into downright progressive rock at times and that delights me.


Here's something you probably don't know: Freddie Mercury was Indian. And not just Indian, but Indian Parsi, a community of Indians who followed Zoroastrianism. his birth name was Farrokh Bulsara and he was born in Zanzibar, though he was educated and grew up mostly in British India. His funeral was conducted by a Zoroastrian priest.

It's just part of the weird saga that was Mercury's life. A Sunday Times writer, after his death, made a curious comparison:

He wanted to pass as a white European rock’n’roll star. Curiously, people are horrified that Michael Jackson should be in such denial of his ethnic origins and yet don’t mind Mercury doing the same thing.

Obviously, I don't know what the rock and roll world was like in the 1970s; I wasn't even a thought in my parents' mind when Queen was starting out. But, I think Michael Jackson's issue isn't so much with race. That skin bleaching thing is just the tip of the MJ-is-crazy iceberg.

Mercury was a notoriously shy and private person in the media (and exactly the opposite in the rock and roll party scene), so some of this could just be that he didn't want any undue attention given to him. He was more straightforward about his sexual orientation, but because of the music circle he ran in --glam rock -- sexuality was more nebulous. Race isn't.

Furthermore, Queen was placed on the United Nations list of blacklisted artists in the 1980s for playing a series of shows in Sun City, South Africa during apartheid. That, to me, is pretty much reprehensible, especially for someone with colonialized roots. Clearly, Mercury

Nevertheless, he did a good job of hiding his Indian ancestry. I didn't know today of his heritage and probably wouldn't have found out if I didn't think "Mercury sounds like a stage name" and then look it up.


"A Nigh At The Opera" is almost the epitome of 1970s pomp rock. I consider myself something of a musical omnivore, so I don't want to take sides on the punk rock/stadium rock debate/progressive rock war or whatever.

I guess it's easy to say that now, as I didn't live through Queen's wanking around stadia in the 1970s. Like many people about my age, my first exposure to the band was from "Wayne's World." Still, it's important to take Queen for what they are. They're pompous and ridiculously out there. This is nothing new. In the words of my friend Ellen:

"That Queen song was really subtle and understated" doesn't get said much. Except maybe about "Fat Bottomed Girls."

Oddly enough, the band's closest shot at subtlety isn't a Mercury- or May-penned song, but one of their hits on the album. "You're My Best Friend," written by bass player John Richard Deacon about his wife, showcases Mercury's wonderful lower register and excellent keyboard-playing abilities. The song is gentle and pretty, something you don't hear a lot about Queen.

In fact, the album's other highlights are anything but gentle. The fantastic opener, "Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to...)," recalls the band's early metal and progressive roots. Basically a "fuck you" to Queen's former manager, Norman Sheffield, who supposedly stole from the band. May's signature guitar sound falls around Mercury's sneer. Throwing around insults like they're nothing, Mercury tells the song's subject "now you can kiss my ass good-bye" before his triple-tracked harmonies come in. It's wonderful.

Drummer Roger Taylor wrote and sung "I'm in Love with My Car," another near-metal record from the band. It's probably his favorite song and I have to admit that I didn't know it was a Queen record until yesterday. Still, May's guitar is effected beyond belief, getting a wah/fuzz sound that you only find on Queen or Fucking Champs records.

Finally, the reason anyone knows Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody." Anyone who's reading this knows that I am a sucker for anything that references literature and the rumor (never really substantiated) is that "Fred's thing" (as it was known by the band during recording) was written largely about one of my favorite books (Camus' L’Étranger). In fact, the first segment of "Bohemian Rhapsody" has had probably 100 meanings attached to it, though, Mercury never really confirmed or denied any of them.

The song begins with an easy, 45-second multi-tracked near-a capella from Mercury (the video has the band lip syncing the four parts). Mercury's piano balladry around the second segment of the song (our good friend Wikipedia has the song broken down) is rivaled only by Elton John's "Love Lies Bleeding" in its brilliance and the song is only rivaled by King Crimson in its changes.

The song's legacy is pretty amazing. It's been cited by a million people as one of the greatest songs ever, though I wonder if there's a tint of irony in there. Certainly the "Galileo" portion is patently ludicrous and seems to either be drug-induced or written around simply the rhythm of the words.

Nevertheless, it's an amazing track and a lot of fun. Like the other highlights of the record, it's not subtle, but it's certainly great and one of the most revered rock songs.

Anyway, here it is, because it's so great:


"A Night At The Opera" is almost the picture of Queen. It features Mercury's four-octave voice in its full form, May's guitar and the band's epic productions with a hint of metal. It's a treat and something I'd recommend to anyone with an appreication for operatic pop.

1 comment:

kellydwyer said...

As a Queen freak and a proud owner of a Guild replica of Brian May's guitar, this album leaves me wanting a bit more.

I don't think I'm pulling a snobbish, "yeah, 'Marquee Moon' was good, maaan; but if you're a real fan, you prefer 'Adventure'" bit, either. Of the 70s Queen albums, it's the one I listen to the least.

They've done the rococo stuff better on other albums than the pieces from this album ("Seaside Rendezvous," etc), the wrought-out prog stuff was done better on other albums, and the May-rock was more focused on other discs (though the step-slow solo on "Sweet Lady" rises above what is your typical, ubiquitous 70s cock rock; great sound on that solo).

They've truly done it all better, on different albums; but because "Rhapsody" and "Best Friend" are so lovely, this one took off.