Wednesday, November 24, 2010

November 24: Queen, "Killer Queen"

Artist: Queen
Song: "Killer Queen"
Album: Sheer Heart Attack
Year: 1974

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For many of the greatest and most influential bands in history, there are a number of ways in which they can be categorized, so it is often best to simply use their name as the defining term.  Whether it is due to their unique musical approach or how much they defined a singular style, these are the bands without whom modern music would not exist in its current form.  Though many may seem them as nothing more than a hard rock band, there are few groups in history that created as complete and as diverse a sound on record as one finds within the catalog of Queen.  Fusing together everything from heavy metal to vaudeville, the band were in many ways the first "progressive rock" act, and the also boasted some of the most talented musicians of their generations.  Many of their singles remain today as some of the most beloved songs in history, and yet even within these singles, their amazing ability to bring their distinctive tone to every song can style can clearly be heard.  Whether it was the almost operatic feel of "Bohemian Rhapsody," the more straightforward rock of "Stone Cold Crazy," or the almost rockabilly sound of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," there is simply no way to sum the band up in a single song, as their musical range was simply too diverse.  However, to understand their abilities as musicians, writers, and masters of mood, one needs to look no further than their superb 1974 single, "Killer Queen."

In many ways, "Killer Queen" represents the final stage in the process of Queen understanding how to completely capture their musical visions in a single song.  Previous to its release, many of their songs seemed a bit unfinished or scattered, and "Killer Queen" plays as a complete musical thought, and proves this band could write in ways unlike any other performer in history.  The moment "Killer Queen" begins, it may almost seem a bit odd when one considers that at their core, Queen was a hard rock band.  The upright piano, played by Freddie Mercury, has a playful, almost vaudevillian sound to it, and later in the song, it is doubled by a grand piano.  The tone from the piano gives a fantastic sense of balance one the unmistakable sound of Brian May's guitar enters the picture.  May is also in what seems rare form on "Killer Queen" as he almost dances across the fret-board, presenting one of his most truly beautiful progressions of his career.  The solo he takes later in the song stands as perhaps his most vocal solo in the history of Queen, and it is in this part of the song that it becomes clear that his talents as a player know no limits.  The rhythm section of bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor play brilliantly as well, and it is their contributions that give "Killer Queen" a flow and pace that blend together jazz and rock in a way never heard elsewhere.  With all four musicians completely focused on the mood and tone they wish to achieve, it is not surprising that "Killer Queen" became a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

While the musical arrangement on "Killer Queen" is without question one of the most phenomenal pieces in history, it goes without saying that one cannot discuss anything about Queen without speaking of the one and only Freddie Mercury.  Certainly one of the most dynamic and captivating, and also possessing one of the widest vocal ranges in history, there are simply no words that can do justice to his ability as a frontman and vocalist.  On "Killer Queen," Mercury shows off his voice, as he works the entire vocal scale, as well as creating brilliant harmonies throughout the song.  Furthermore, his knack for creating a dramatic feel on songs has rarely played better than it does here, and there is a very theatrical feel to his performance.  As Mercury works every single word of the song, many different interpretations arise from his lyrics.  Mercury stated many times that "Killer Queen" was one of the first songs on which the lyrics came before the music, and this is perhaps the reason that there are so many meanings which one can derive.  Clearly, the song is about a woman who is rather "high maintenance," and while this cannot be argued, her actual profession is the place from which many debates have arisen.  Though the lyrics speak of a woman with the most expensive of tastes, there are many moments during "Killer Queen" that suggest she may have a job of "ill repute," and the fact that Mercury was able to disguise this within his amazing words and singing is one of the keys that makes "Killer Queen" such an extraordinary musical achievement.

Quite literally everything on "Killer Queen," from the music to the vocals to the lyrics are absolutely perfect, and it is also on this song that one begins to realize the full power of Queen as a band.  Bringing a complete and tightly focused musical vision, the song can easily be seen as the beginning of Queen's rise to legendary status, and the fact that they were able to so brilliantly blend together their hard rock roots with a mood that is almost that of a live theater show is what set them so far apart from their peers.  In both the music and the lyrics, there is a certain sense of sleaze, and yet it is played so brilliantly, that it sounds far more classy that it is when broken down into smaller elements.  This in many ways was the true genius of Queen, as throughout their career, they showed and uncanny ability for burying subtexts within their stunning rock arrangements.  On "Killer Queen," it is the mood that becomes the most overpowering, as one can feel the cabaret-style piano almost dictating the pace of the guitar, and yet there is no question that Brian May's work here is anything short of the embodiment of the term "rock and roll."  It is this talent for blending together so many sounds and ideas that makes Queen impossible to define in any way other than their actual music, and everything that makes them such a uniquely phenomenal band can be experienced in their 1974 single, "Killer Queen."

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