The Essential: Queen
As flamboyant as they were musically diverse, the larger-than-life foursome filled stadiums across the globe and shifted millions of albums, not to mention singles, with their bombastic, mock-operatic, largely unclassifiable yet hugely accessible sound. There’s no stopping Sean Egan now…
There was never another band quite like Queen. Plenty of groups have essayed rock, prog rock, opera, funk, pop and 20s pastiche – but not all on the same album. Just as no other band exhibited a facility with so many styles, no other band was made up of four members of equal songwriting ability.
Pianist and frontman Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara), guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor all wrote Queen hits. Meanwhile, if harmony singing layered to pack the punch of a musical instrument was something taken up successfully by others (notably ELO), Queen were its pioneers and masters.
Queen’s lack of restraint or proportion means that they aren’t to everyone’s taste. Their corpus is both sublime and ridiculous, containing heartfelt pathos and effete affectation, great craftsmanship and doubtful taste – sometimes all in the space of one song.
They made some of the greatest popular music ever heard. We Will Rock You, You’re My Best Friend, Don’t Stop Me Now and Crazy Little Thing Called Love alone would have sealed a band’s reputation, but on top of these and other classics, Queen were responsible for the unique and epoch-marking Bohemian Rhapsody.
So vast is their multi-generational fanbase that more than two decades after the death of Mercury, and even following the subsequent retirement of Deacon, Queen’s brand name continues to be a big-bucks proposition.
Not only is We Will Rock You, a musical based on their songs, still packing them in, but in recent years they have successfully toured with guest vocalists. A much-awaited Freddie Mercury biopic will be with us any time now.
Here, we take a chronological look at the desirable vinyl product of an ensemble that – love ’em or hate ’em – were indisputably extraordinary. Rarest entries refer to UK releases, unless otherwise stated.
KEEP YOURSELF ALIVE/SON AND DAUGHTER
Queen’s opening salvo to the world was a galloping Brian May composition, subsequently appearing as the opening track on their eponymous long-playing debut. Although Keep Yourself Alive’s anthemic, defiant chorus is undeniably glam-like, the track is otherwise straight-ahead progressive rock, right down to a brief but impressive drum solo.
Rarest 1973 EMI (South Africa) £220
The keynote song of Queen’s first album was Mercury’s Great King Rat, a medieval epic that demonstrated the young pretenders’ unashamed kitchen-sink approach. Although too deep and discursive to be pop, the music on Queen is too agile to be guilty of the worst excesses of prog or heavy metal. It is, in other words, a new sound. The sound would be altered, refined and expanded down the years, but it would remain quintessentially Queen.
Rarest 1992 EMI (Czechoslovakia, green vinyl) £40
1992 EMI (Czechoslovakia, green vinyl) £40
SEVEN SEAS OF RHYE/SEE WHAT A FOOL I’VE BEEN
Queen’s first hit single arrived in early 1974 when the band secured a slot on Top Of The Pops after David Bowie bailed out of a scheduled appearance. This was despite the fact Seven Seas Of Rhye was not quite yet in the shops. Mercury had now developed the flimsy instrumental that closed the first album into a fully fledged song bursting with blood-and-thunder fantasy.
Rarest 1974 Elektra (New Zealand) £145
Despite Mick Rock’s lavish cover design, the contents of Queen II were not much more impressive than the album’s prosaic title. Father To Son is emblematic of the album’s faults. Its straining, bland melody, flavourless harmonies, squalling guitars, overly sheened production and unnecessarily extended playing time render it dull. It demonstrates that for all the time and care lavished upon this album, it’s actually a regression from the vitality and variety of its predecessor.
Rarest 1974 EMI (Denmark, gatefold sleeve) £80
KILLER QUEEN/FLICK OF THE WRIST
The hit side of this double-A release was tinged with 1930s crooning, but even the ultra-camp Noël Coward would have raised an eyebrow at this effete, fatuous creation. Yet the concoction works as enjoyably silly and baroque pop, partly because nobody ever recorded anything quite like it (nor would they want to). A transatlantic hit, it represented Queen’s breakthrough.
Rarest 1975 EMI (Italy) £165
SHEER HEART ATTACK
It might have seemed unwise for Queen to release a second album in 1974, but remarkably, it was their best effort yet. Sheer Heart Attack is also really the first proper Queen album, setting the pattern for the Queen-LP smörgåsbord of styles. On the first album on which all four Queen members contribute songs, hard rock – Stone Cold Crazy – sits cheek-by-jowl with epic surrealism – She Makes Me (Stormtrooper In Stilettos).
Rarest 1987 EMI (Japan) £205
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY/I’M IN LOVE WITH MY CAR
Bohemian Rhapsody topped the UK chart for nine weeks and cracked the then very conservative American Top 10. It’s a unique, sprawling, blissful mixture of ballad, opera and hard rock containing multiple key, mood and style changes. Some, including at times Mercury, suggested it was meaningless, but in fact the song contains a clear, and heart-breaking, narrative thread.
Rarest 1995 EMI £210
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
At the time, the most expensive album ever made in a British studio, A Night At The Opera remains Queen’s magnum opus. Bohemian Rhapsody was just the start of its eclecticism. Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon is more delightful granny music, Love Of My Life a heartbroken piano ballad, and Deacon’s life-affirming You’re My Best Friend the perfect pop song.
Rarest 2000 Hollywood (US, limited edition audiophile pressing) £175
YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND/’39
It was claimed that Queen were unhappy about the release of a second single from Opera. Yet this piece of radio bliss consolidated their new fame with a transatlantic hit that demonstrated that they weren’t all about bombast. Perhaps it was because of this that the band soon got over their moral qualms about what in those days was termed “ripping off the kids”: they pioneered the practice in the UK of plundering albums for singles.
Rarest 1976 EMI (Spain) £50
SOMEBODY TO LOVE/WHITE MAN
On the mid-tempo cry of romantic starvation on the A-side, the Queen mass harmonies never let up. Attached to Mercury’s lead vocal from the get-go, they sometimes follow him, sometimes finish lines for him, sometimes foreshadow him and sometimes make arch asides to the listener. May throws in a suitably melodramatic guitar solo. The track is a great big piece of perfumed whimsy, but one few can find it in their heart to dislike.
Rarest 1976 EMI (Denmark) £90
A DAY AT THE RACES
The fact its title and design were both inversions of those of their last album, plus its lack of a Bohemian Rhapsody, caused some to dismiss this LP as “Beggar’s Opera”. Possibly, but it’s also solid, varied and enjoyable. As well as Somebody To Love, it boasts the hard-riffing Tie Your Mother Down, 30s croon The Millionaire Waltz, the crunching lament for the fate of the Native American White Man and the oriental power ballad Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together).
Rarest 1996 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab £120
QUEEN’S FIRST E.P.
Tie Your Mother Down was also released on single, but – unlike the US – Britain was not yet ready for the avaricious act of mining a third 45 from an album. Queen got around that in Spring 1977 with Queen’s First EP, which made Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy a minor hit by placing it in front of Death On Two Legs, Tenement Funster and White Queen, all tracks from previous LPs. This peculiar Queen sampler made No. 17.
Rarest 1977 Elektra (Australia) £45
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS/WE WILL ROCK YOU
In an arms-waving affair, Mercury declares he and his fans the winners, although doesn’t ever quite state what the opposition constitutes. The song is indelibly wedded to its flip side, We Will Rock You. With its hypnotic title line, unceasing thundercrack percussion and army of handclaps, Queen had instantly created the live-participation number composer May intended.
Rarest 1977 EMI (Australia) £24
NEWS OF THE WORLD
With the punk wars raging, Queen found themselves in the critical firing line. On News Of The World, the harmonies are understated, running times mostly short and arrangements relatively basic. Although symbolically kept off the UK top spot by Never Mind The Bollocks, it was another fine effort. The rarest edition is a 40th anniversary pressing of 200-odd with exclusive artwork sold on one day at the MCM London Comic Con.
Rarest 2017 Virgin EMI (Marvel X-Men edition) £750
BICYCLE RACE/FAT BOTTOMED GIRLS
May’s brilliant, strutting boogie celebrating the fuller female fundament was quite a shock to hear blasting over decorous 1970s airwaves. Mercury’s Bicycle Race is catchy but bizarre in its invocation of the simple childhood pleasure. Each song on this double A-sided single refers to the other, the consequence of the blinding flash of insight that fat bottoms are sometimes placed on bicycle seats.
Rarest 1978 EMI (Philippines) £70
Judging by the album’s decadent New Orleans launch party, Queen quickly got over any sense of being chastened by punk. Jazz’s production is rather cold and hard, but as ever Queen proffer excellence and diversity, whether it be eerie exoticism in Mustapha, piano-dominated brooding in Jealousy, or acoustic balladry in Leaving Home Ain’t Easy. Rolling Stone, though, weren’t impressed, famously snarling: “Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band”.
Rarest 1979 EMI (France, picture disc) £100
DON’T STOP ME NOW/IN ONLY SEVEN DAYS
In reaching No. 9 in the UK, Jazz’s second single, unusually for the time, actually did better than the lead 45. It’s mainly because Don’t Stop Me Now is an intoxicating, headlong brew of seamless melody, pumping piano, brittle drums and hurricane harmonies. It also boasts a soupçon of daring, with Mercury’s lyric planting clues to his sexuality as he offers to make both men and women “supersonic”.
Rarest 1979 EMI (Mexico) £60
Mercury’s showmanship acquired Queen a reputation as one of the world’s best live acts. A double in-concert LP – a format Frampton Comes Alive! had recently made a viable proposition – therefore made perfect sense. Sadly, many Queen fans felt Live Killers a let-down, a poorly mixed selection of lacklustre Jazz tour performances. It also underlined how the multi-tracked intricacies of Bohemian Rhapsody defeated even Queen’s live prowess.
Rarest 1979 Elektra (Japan, coloured disc) £30
CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE/WE WILL ROCK YOU (LIVE)
Queen go old-time rock ‘n’ roll. Mercury graces his song with a quavering Elvis-alike vocal and a chorus that descends to the bottom of the singer’s socks. The fact the harmonies are a space age-variant of doo-wop underlines that the whole thing is pastiche, but it’s so damnably likeable that one would have to be a real sourpuss to invoke purity.
Rarest 1980 EMI International (Bolivia) £115
Following the longest gap yet between studio albums came an LP that briefly made Queen the biggest band in the world. Mercury promoted it with a startling mucho-macho look. The Game sees Queen reining back on their smörgåsbord approach. It’s spare, too: May’s lovelorn Sail Away Sweet Sister is one of the few lush tracks. Yet it also frequently achieves excellence, particularly Save Me, which is elegantly dignified like no previous Queen fare.
Rarest 1995 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (USA, numbered limited edition on 200g vinyl) £65
YOUR ACETATES AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT TRASH
When a pre-stardom Queen met a young Danny Baker
With their debut LP nearly ready for release, Queen decided to declare their genius to the world. Their chosen method was to take their album acetates to trendy West End record shop One Stop. Working behind the counter was a young Danny Baker.
In his memoir Going To Sea In A Sieve, Baker recalled one of the group announcing: “We want you to play our record in your shop. Constantly!” Manager John Gillespie put the record on the deck but after a minute of Keep Yourself Alive lifted the stylus. “Hate it,” he said, dismissing them as Deep Purple soundalikes. Baker ventured the compliment they sounded like Stray. The group exploded in outrage at being compared to such minnows. Four-letter words flew back and forth before the group exited as dramatically as they’d arrived. They left behind not just their acetates but a carrier bag of promotional kimonos. The acetates were thrown in the bin when the store took receipt of the commercially released version of the album, while Baker recalls he wore the kimonos for a while before tearing them up for dusters.
ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST/DRAGON ATTACK
For their critics, The Game saw Queen exceed even their own standards of avarice: this track was the album’s fourth UK single. Deacon’s lyric intriguingly equates the end of a relationship to slaughter, while his Chic-inspired bass riff is spellbinding. The overall result was a piece of funk so authentic that radio stations in the US assumed it to be the handiwork of a ‘black’ band.
Rarest 1980 EMI (Kenya) £110
Poor old Brian Blessed. Though an acclaimed Shakespearian actor, thanks to this 45 he’s best remembered for his hammy exclamation of “Gordon’s alive!”. Rumour has it, Queen constructed the soundtrack of Flash Gordon piecemeal, distracted by recording The Game. Flash’s Theme (as it is titled on the soundtrack) is iconic only by virtue of its “Flash! Ah-aaah!” refrain.
Rarest 1980 EMI (Mexico) £15
Without visuals, Queen’s musical accompaniment to the cheesy Star Wars bandwagon jumper is a slight listen. Yet there is some quality material present. Deacon’s Arboria (Planet Of The Tree Men) is haunting, and Mercury’s sensual contributions to The Kiss constitute some of the best singing he ever recorded. The Turkish release, which happens to be the most prized, hedged all bets by plastering a picture of Queen over Mercury’s minimalist cover design.
Rarest 1980 Max (Turkey) £75
Queen’s mélange approach could alienate as much as delight, but this collection seemed to please everybody: it’s officially the biggest-selling UK album of all time. Though the non-chronological tracklisting differed from territory to territory, it constituted wall-to-wall hits and underlined the breathtaking sweep of Queen’s talents. The release also arguably marked a demarcation point: some fans aver that, from this point on, Queen were never as good again.
Rarest 1981 Fálkinn (Iceland) £40
UNDER PRESSURE/SOUL BROTHER
With this collaboration with David Bowie, Queen engaged in the type of superstar team-up that is usually the preserve of anorak fantasy. Under Pressure wasn’t quite the aesthetic triumph one might assume from such a pairing of giants. It has a memorable bass riff and an impressively imperial mien, but the lyric overreaches itself, straining for significance but floundering in banality.
Rarest 1981 EMI International (Bolivia) £180
BODY LANGUAGE/LIFE IS REAL
Mercury’s Body Language is threaded with some notably fine bass work from Deacon, but that’s the only thing this bare, anonymous funk has to recommend it. Although a No. 11 in the States, it achieved a shockingly low UK chart placing of 25. The failure of all the Hot Space singles, the arbitrarily thrown-in Under Pressure excepted, could be interpreted as punishment for the glut of releases from The Game.
Rarest 1982 EMI (South Africa) £40
Queen’s long-standing No Synths policy was now history as they embraced modern funk with an absolutist fervour. The banks of artificial keys only compound the homogeneity created by Mercury singing lead on everything. The band can’t rescue matters because their melodic skills and virtuoso musicianship are not called into service by such rhythm-oriented music. The summery Deacon/Mercury Cool Cat is one of the few highlights.
Rarest 1982 EMI (Argentina) £40
RADIO GA GA/I GO CRAZY
By the mid 80s, videos were the tail wagging the music-industry dog. Roger Taylor’s alternately lilting and thumping lament for the image-less sounds he grew up hearing on the humble ol’ wireless is genuinely moving, if we leave aside the awkward fact that it was Queen who kicked off the video age with Bohemian Rhapsody, and helped cement it with this record’s lavish handclap-rally promo.
Rarest 1984 EMI (Peru) £20
Commercial failure put a swift end to Queen’s radical new direction. After a shell-shocked calendar year off, Queen returned with an album cleaving to their classic template, even if also conforming to the prevailing fashions of metronomic drums and synth riffs – a ‘Plastic Queen’ sound that would prevail. In the annals of comebacks, The Works is one of the most remarkable. All four of its singles made the UK Top 20, three of them making the Top 10.
Rarest 1984 EMI (Uruguay) £50
I WANT TO BREAK FREE/MACHINES (OR ‘BACK TO HUMANS’)
The album’s second single was Deacon-devised synth pop that could have been British chart faves Depeche Mode or Yazoo. Its melody and key changes are pedestrian, but there’s no denying the track’s catchiness. As with the taster single, the video helped hugely the record’s chart ascent – except in America, where the sight of Queen pouting in drag killed their career.
Rarest 1984 EMI International (Bolivia) £40
THE IVOR NOVELLO MYSTERY
Just how many Best Song awards did Queen win?
Reference books claim Queen, specifically Mercury, won two Ivor Novello Awards for Best Song. Gary Osborne, chair of the awards, however, reveals that the reference books are wrong.
Although Killer Queen was nominated for Best Popular Song in 1975, the accolade that year went to Carl Douglas for Kung Fu Fighting. The myth that Mercury won for Bohemian Rhapsody is more understandable. In light of the splendorous achievement of that record, it would have been absurd to give the award to anyone but Mercury. Sure enough, it went to… 10cc for I’m Not In Love. The awards committee’s blushes were spared by the fact that they had no option but to give Bohemian Rhapsody the prize for 1975’s Best Selling British Record. For the record, the other Ivor Novello awards Queen did win were Outstanding Contribution To British Music (1987), Best Selling A-Side (the re-released Bohemian Rhapsody, 1991), Best TV Commercial (May, 1991), International Hit Of The Year (Mercury, Living On My Own, 1993) and Outstanding Song Collection (2005).
THANK GOD IT’S CHRISTMAS
Overwhelmed with their recent success, Queen decided to issue this as a thanks to their fans. A May and Taylor co-write, it’s reasonably affecting but too intense to have that singalong quality of a perennial Yuletide anthem. The record stalled just outside the UK Top 20. The most desired version is a 12″ mispress which included the B-side tracks Man On The Prowl and Keep Passing The Open Windows.
Rarest 1984 EMI (Europe, 12″, mispress) £45
ONE VISION/BLURRED VISION
This group-written single was recorded and released so soon after Queen’s show-stealing performance at Live Aid that it was assumed to be a tribute to Bob Geldof rather than its real subject, Martin Luther King. The record is pretty confused as well. Its phased guitar riff, singalong chorus and “Whoa-whoa-ah!” vocal refrain are great stuff, but its compassion is sabotaged by an odd reference to fried chicken.
Rarest 1985 EMI (Uruguay) £140
THE COMPLETE WORKS
A pre-CD boxset marked by real conscientiousness. Included was a tour itinerary booklet, a Queen world map and a magazine containing album artwork and a discography. The music consisted of Queen’s entire catalogue up to that point. Each set was individually numbered. The price below is for unsigned copies: the 600 copies the band are reported to have autographed are the archetypal priceless artefacts.
Rarest 1985 EMI £160
A KIND OF MAGIC/A DOZEN RED ROSES FOR MY DARLING
Almost all the songs on the A Kind Of Magic album appear in the movie Highlander. They comment on or are inspired by the action, but work perfectly well divorced from the cinema experience in exactly the way that the Flash Gordon soundtrack does not. For the finger-popping title track, Taylor uses a line uttered by Christopher Lambert’s character Connor MacLeod.
Rarest 1986 EMI (Japan, 12-inch) £30
A KIND OF MAGIC
Queen could have issued a proper Highlander soundtrack, but their incidental music remained exclusive to the film. These tracks are all real songs and constitute a good set, which consolidated the band’s reinvigorating Live Aid triumph. After Mercury’s death, Who Wants To Live Forever came to seem like an early message of despair, but it was written before the singer’s HIV-positive diagnosis, and furthermore by May.
Rarest 1986 EMI (France, red vinyl) £140
I WANT IT ALL/HANG ON IN THERE
To banish the grievances that festered when Taylor got disproportionately rich after his I’m In Love With My Car appeared on the B-side of Bohemian Rhapsody, there was now a collective Queen writing credit in existence. That May sings the respites here, though, reveals the main composer. His caterwauling HM guitar is another symptom of Queen’s submission to the current musical trends.
Rarest 1989 EMI (South Africa) £10
After an unprecedented three-year gap, Queen returned with an album where fine craftsmanship was frequently ruined by cold shards of synthesiser and suffocating vocal mixes. Only Deacon’s warm, busy bass remains unblemished by the keeping-up-with-the-Howard-Joneses approach. Highlights are the title track and the reflective Was It All Worth It. The fact there was no tour to promote The Miracle gives rise to the possibility that Mercury knew he was uninsurable.
Rarest 1990 HMV (India) £30
An improvement. On Innuendo, drums are mixed mercifully lower and the classic Queen harmonies mixed higher, while there’s a predominance of the organic in preference to the plastic. The mystical Led Zep-alike title track was a most unlikely No.1 when released as the lead-off single. These Are The Days Of Our Lives is Taylor’s sweet elegy for a dying Mercury, while The Show Must Go On makes a fitting closer to the last Queen album of Freddie’s lifetime.
Rarest 1991 Parlophone £40
LIVE AT WEMBLEY ’86
Live Magic (1986) was no more valuable a document of Queen’s in-concert prowess than Live Killers had been, with the deficits this time revolving around savage editing. Ironically, the same year yielded recordings that made for a far better live album, even if it didn’t get a release for six years. This double set captured the band in post-Live Aid euphoria on their final tour and contains hits, deep cuts and why-the-hell-nots such as Big Spender.
Rarest 1992 Parlophone £75
MADE IN HEAVEN – Click here to buy
An AIDS-stricken Mercury passed away on 24 November, 1991. On Made In Heaven, Deacon, May and Taylor constructed an album around their deceased colleague’s voice. The result is easily the best Queen album since The Game. Bizarrely, Mercury comes across as more alive than ever, a consequence of his unusually breathy singing technique. The album was a worldwide success, eclipsing sales for many previous Queen releases.
Rarest 1995 Parlophone (gatefold, limited edition) £145