Friday, July 31, 2009

July 31: Queen, "A Night At The Opera"

Artist: Queen
Album: A Night At The Opera
Year: 1975
Label: Elektra

When it comes to epitomizing the ideals of rock and roll excess and overindulgence, most will look to any one of a number of "hair metal" bands of the 1980's, or perhaps Led Zeppelin. However, the truth of the matter is, few bands carried with them as much pomp and consistent lavishness than U.K. rock legends, Queen. With their determination to stay true to the ideals of rock and roll (many of their albums contained the phrase, "no synthesizers were used on this record"), the band constructed some of the most timeless, outlandish, and simply stunning pieces of music that the world has ever heard. In the case of Queen, it is impossible to find a weak point in their music, singing, or lyrics, and this also makes it a bit difficult to choose their "best" album. However, in the fall of 1975, the band entered a handful of studios and recorded what would become their finest musical effort. The results were released in the form of their spectacular 1975 release, A Night At The Opera.

The albums' title is taken from the 1935 Marx Brothers film, which the band watched one night during the recording of the album. In many ways, the source of the title is fitting, because while they were undeniably hard rockers, Queen always had a bit of "tongue in cheek" sarcasm to much of their music. Furthering their claim to be "the" band when it came to the idea of excess, when it was recorded, A Night At The Opera was, in fact, the most expensive album ever. The albums' most famous track, "Bohemian Rhapsody," took nearly three weeks alone to record, with those who were there claiming that there were so many vocal overdubs, that you could literally see through the tape. In many ways, all of the extra effort was well worth it, as the album topped the charts in seven countries, and has sold nearly ten million copies since it's release. With Mike "Clay" Stone handling the engineering duties, it is not surprising how much vocal work was done on the album. Stone was well known throughout his entire career for creating massive choruses and finding unique ways to work with the vocals, and his innovations and style have served as a major influence on producers who came after him. This amazing talent is perhaps no more obvious then during the "vocal jam/solo" halfway through "The Prophet's Song."

Thematically, A Night At The Opera is truly all over the board. The albums' opening song, "Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To...)" is a VERY slightly veiled attack on the bands' former manager. The song is so brutal and blatant, that their former manager actually attempted to sue the band for defamation after its release. The almost silly, "I'm In Love With My Car" was originally thought to be a joke by Brian May, and the song would later become a source of friction between Roger Meddows-Taylor and Freddie Mercury. In the liner notes, the song is dedicated to "Johnathan Harris," who was a roadie for the band that was rather passionate about his automobile. Queen delves into one of their stranger tunes, with the sci-fi themed, "'39." While many believe that the song is about World War II, it is, in fact, about a space flight and discusses the theory of time dilation, which Brian May studied during his time at Imperial College London. A Night At The Opera also contains a pair of Queen's most beloved songs in "You're My Best Friend" and the aforementioned "Bohemian Rhapsody." The album closes with Brian May's rendition of "God Save The Queen," and this, along with the rest of the songs on the album make A Night At The Opera one of the most thematically diverse albums ever recorded.

There are few who will argue that Brian May is one of the greatest guitarists in history. While he also plays twelve-string guitar, as well as harp and banjo on A Night At The Opera, it is his playing of the electric guitar that catapults him to his legendary status. Truth be told, the guitar he played the most, the so called "Red Special," was actually designed by May himself when he was only sixteen years old. May's riffs and solos embody everything that makes rock and roll great, and there are very few artists even close to his talent level. Oh, and along with being a guitar virtuoso, he also has a PhD in astrophysics...yes, a REAL PhD in astrophysics. Drummer Roger Meddows-Taylor is similarly one of the most innovative and influential percussionists in music history. From the march-like beats of "The Prophet's Song" to the shimmering cymbal work of "Bohemian Rhapsody," to the quirky tambourine of "'39," Meddows-Taylor shines brilliantly on every song on the album. He also takes the lead vocal duties on one of the many Queen songs he wrote, "I'm In Love With My Car." Bassist, John Deacon, also takes on a different role, as it is he who is playing Wurlitzer organ on the song he wrote, one of Queen's biggest hits, "You're My Best Friend." Deacon also designed and built many pieces of equipment for the band, including the "Deacy Amp" that helps to give Brian May his unique tone. On top of all this is Deacons' phenomenal bass playing. It is his playing that drives most of the songs on A Night At The Opera, and his switching between standard and double bass makes every note he plays truly perfect. While some of their songs are certainly a bit "over the top," the reality is that, when it comes down to it, one would be hard pressed to find a more talented trio of musicians.

Even with the amazing musicianship of the band, Queen is very much all about Freddie Mercury. By far one of the most dynamic and flamboyant performers in history, though many have tried, there has never been anyone able to even closely resemble Mercury's extraordinary talent. Mercury, who was born in India, cited singers as diverse as Liza Minnelli to Indian playback legend, Lata Mangeshkar to Aretha Franklin to John Lennon as influences on his singing. This is one of the reasons why Queen was able to record such varied song styles, as Mercury's voice morphed to brilliantly fit each mood required. Mercury's ability to harmonize with the seconds and thirds of octaves also sets him aside from his peers, and he was able to push his voice to the far ends of the vocal spectrum. From his deep, growl to his borderline falsetto reaches, there are truly few vocalists with the range and power of Freddie Mercury. Furthermore, few singers deliver with as much conviction and emotion as Mercury. As Spanish opera legend, Montserrat Caballé (with whom Mercury recorded an opera-esque album) said of Freddie's voice and style,"...the difference between Freddie and almost all the other rock stars was that he was selling the voice." With his legendary stage presence, unlimited vocal range, and phenomenal delivery, there are truly few singers who can even be mentioned in the same breath as Freddie Mercury.

Based on sheer talent alone, there are few bands in history that can hold a candle to the level of musicianship found in the ranks of Queen. Composed of some of the most legendary figures in music, the bands' music is rarely anything short of phenomenal. Brian May's innovations and style have served as the influence for countless guitar players, and his solos and riffs remain among the most sacred ever written. The rhythm section of Roger Meddows-Taylor and John Deacon still ranks amongst the finest duos ever, and their song contributions, as well as their musical contributions help to make A Night At The Opera rise above the rest of the Queen catalog. Rounding out the band is the unparalleled presence of Freddie Mercury, truly one of the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring figures in the history of music. Presenting a varied group of musical themes, the album flows perfectly, and there is not a bad moment anywhere to be found. Rapidly approaching the thirty-fifth anniversary of the albums' release, the music still sounds fresh and powerful, and continues to stand superior to an overwhelming majority of the music made since it's initial release. While the entire Queen catalog is well worth owning, their 1975 album, A Night At The Opera, is nothing short of astounding, and it remains one of the most fantastic musical masterpieces ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To...)," "The Prophet's Song," and "Bohemian Rhapsody."

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