It’s not really cool to be a Queen fan and it probably never has been, for whatever closed-minded reasons. I overheard one person saying that Queen fans were up there with Tool fans for the worst fan-base around. In spite of this, I’m going to break no new ground with this post but instead do what fans do best; praise the achievements of their idols. From this I hope that readers will at least check out some of the fairly overlooked (in terms of their catalogue) but impressive gems hidden within Queen‘s second album.
Early Childhood of Queen
I’ve been listening to Queen nearly all my life. Some of my earliest memories are digging through my parents record collection, destroying and absorbing them. A particular favourite of my younger self was Queen’s Greatest Hits, of which we had a warped copy of. I remember taking the record around to my grandmas house and attempting with her to iron out the warp, which didn’t work. Never the less I kept playing the disc, regardless of the skipping and scratches, which to my young mind seemed just as much a part of the music as the drums and guitar. I would take the record along with me to kindergarten – and not really interested to play outside – I would rather stand inside by the record player and listen to it spinning. I remember the record player being on an extremely high shelf, that I would have to crane my neck up to see. An enjoyable early memory indeed.
Since then I’ve been through all kinds of Queen phases. I received Made In Heaven as a gift just after it was released in 1995; I remember hearing of the albums release through a news article, and with the naive mind of a child tried to figure out how Freddie was able to send his vocals back down from the afterlife. That album was perhaps a bit too dark for a 5-year old, but I’ve grown to love it – one of the better posthumous releases. Later in my childhood I would dissect their music videos through VHS rentals, captivated by Freddie and the band, totally unaware of his sexuality and not understanding the cause of his death.
In my teens I would rediscover Queen through the re-release of Live At Wembley on DVD. I would gradually start collecting their albums on vinyl, albums I had been curious about since staring at their discography within the Greatest Hits liner notes as a young one. My introduction to the first two albums, Queen and Queen II was via a double sided cassette compilation that I was playing on a tape walkman as curiously late as the early 2000s (apparently beating the hipsters to the cassette trend). I’ve loved Queen I for some time, with great lesser known anthems such as Liar and Great King Rat, but it wasn’t until the last few weeks that I feel I’ve really unlocked Queen II. It turns out to be nowhere near the sophomore slump, and could quite possibly be their best album.
Re-discovering Queen II
My appreciation for Queen II lies predominantly in the second side of the album (vinyl edition), dubbed ‘side black’, though ‘side white’ (the first side) is great as well. Brian May writes nearly all of ‘side white’, which Roger Taylor contributing one song. Not to diminish their contributions, they’re a great introduction to album. May opens the album with the perhaps Pink Floyd influenced Procession, which links into his early epic of his Father To Son. Freddie gives a great vocal job, and there’s a slight psychedelic folk vibe running through the song, and a similiar song structure to Liar off the first album. This links into May’s White Queen, a live favorite from the early years of Queen, before Roger Taylor finishes the side with Loser In The End a glam rocking tribute to the sometimes rocky relationships of mother’s and sons (probably intentionally connecting thematically with Father To Son earlier). The riff reminds me some what of T.Rex’s Children Of The Revolution, yet it’s a heavier groove than that song, thanks to Roger’s slamming drums (an influential and all things said, pretty underrated rock drummer). Now onto ‘side back’…
Every man and his dog knows Bohemian Rhapsody – the very memorable intro riff, the complex song structure, heavy metal section and operatic vocals. But not many people, not even Queen fans (except the die-hards, or those interested in progressive rock albums), have fully dived into the second disc of Queen II. I’m assuming once it was well known amongst Queen fans, probably when they were fewer, when they first helped to get the disc on the charts in 1974, and packed out their first arena and stadium shows – before the We Will Rock You’s, the Bites The Dust’s and the Radio Ga Ga’s. Everything that made Bohemian Rhapsody such a massive and iconic hit is evident in the second side of Queen II, except arguably, it’s better. It hits a lot harder, the melodies are more complicated, the song structures and overdubs even more overboard. At least to my ears. It’s a little less accessible and obvious as Bohemian Rhapsody, the lyrics a bit vaguer. It feels like a songwriter reaching to the absolute top of abilities, and pushing the band around him to pretty incredible levels.
Side Black opens up with the bombastic rock epic of Ogre Battle,showing the diversity of Freddie’s writing ability even as of the early 70s. It features the kind of proto-metal, bluesy riffs that are a staple of early Queen, showing their often overlooked Zeppelin and Sabbath influences. The lyrical content concerns as the title suggests, a battle against a giant ogre creature that can swallow oceans and other such metaphors. A lot of early Queen lyrically seems strongly fantasy influenced; J.R. Tolkien and such, more so from Freddie than Brian and Roger I think (Deacon wouldn’t contribute a song until the 3rd album, Sheer Heart Attack). The song is damn catchy and became a live standard up until about 1977 – 78. On a side not, there’s even got a Super Nintendo/N64 series named after this song.
A gong hit at the end of Ogre Battle segues into the vaudeville progressive rock of The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, a song I’d previously overlooked until recently. The song is named after a 19th century painting by English artist Richard Dadd; the painting itself is impressively detailed and apparently took nine-years to paint. It’s another progressive hard rock jam, with an infectious chorus and very short verses, decorated with elaborate operatic vocal harmonies and lead work. I’d say it’s one of the odder songs of Freddie’s and yet it’s very infectious and probably could have been a single. It was thought to have never been played live, but an upcoming remastered version of Queen’s 1974 shows at the Rainbow in London is to their one and only performance of it. The short clip on youtube sounds pretty amazing.
We then have a piano ballad titled Nevermore which is nice and sweet but not particular stand-out, though connects to Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke in a way not dissimilar to The Beatles’ Abby Road medley, showing the impressive early ambition of the band, and Freddie’s ability to write an entire sequence of songs with relative ease. This segues into the highpoint of the album; and of early Queen in general, the precursor to Bohemian Rhapsody; overshadowed by that tracks might but no less impressive in terms of composition complexity; The March Of The Black Queen. I could listen to the song and describe the songs structure; how it segues from intro, to heavy sequence, to some other operatic sequence; fakes an ending and then returns with a orgasmic-ally fulfilling ending – or you could just listen for yourself:
A sort of Beach Boys-via-progressive Medieval rock track turns up next Funny How Love Is, before the big single that broke them in the UK, a vocal-remake of Seven Seas Of Rhye from the first album. You should all know that one already. A great hit single concludes a very ambitious album from a band that weren’t really that successful at the time; they were barely known at all. To quote queensongs.info, “in August 1973, Queen were still ‘commoners’, who’d failed to chart and who were lucky to be paid to make a second album at all”. Which makes the risks they took, and skills on display as such as fresh band even more impressive.
I feel I am getting increasingly bad at describing these songs, and it’s descending into fan-boy worship territory, so I’d better stop here. But to conclude, Queen II is really under-rated, go listen to it (side one is great as well, even though I skimmed over it in this review). I’ll be seeing Queen live with new replacement singer Adam Lambert in September, and while it’s easy to be cynical towards bands that are still turning out to fill arenas and make the cash decades after the deaths of their beloved front-men, I’ll put any pessimism to the side and appreciate seeing some of my life-long heroes, live and breathing, in the same room as me. You can be sure there will be another blog covering that show to come.