Icon: Queen

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 09.15.11 in Icons

It’s not often that a single band features one charismatic showman, two virtuosos, three lead vocalists and four smash songwriters. An unusually democratic quartet that maintained its original membership for 20 years, Queen expanded the possibilities of studio recording, initially doing so with guitars, drums, piano, their own voices and little else. Their harmonies were astounding, their arrangement skills superb. Possessing the eccentricities of a cult band with the popularity of an international phenomenon, Queen ranks among the world’s eighth most popular recording acts, and is estimated to have sold 300 million units – more than the Rolling Stones, Mariah Carey, Pink Floyd, AC/DC or the Bee Gees.

Although they curtailed much of their stylistic capriciousness soon after their American sales dropped in the early ’80s, this quintessentially British hard rock group could do everything, and did, much to the delight of several fan generations and the chagrin of its original critics. Queen is one of the best bands ever to have consistently received some of the worst reviews of its day, and it wasn’t until Freddie Mercury died of AIDS in 1991 that this changed. Like any act that stuck around, Queen wasn’t perfect, although this particular critic would argue that its first four albums are pretty damn close, and the 11 that followed all feature at least one knockout cut. Here then is a guide through Queen’s regal output that acknowledges both its crown jewels and royal stinkers.

In Chronological Order



The most conventional of the band's early albums, Queen's 1973 debut nevertheless mixes glam metal anthems, folky balladry, a proggy gospel tune that might've fit in then-recent Jesus Christ Superstar (but not your average church), an ease with melody that doesn't yet approach pure pop, and enough ear-grabbing guitar flash and tra-la-la to announce that this was a group not interested in building a fanbase slowly with a realistic, road-tested sound. Judging from its earliest output, Queen aimed to be Sgt. Pepper's Heavy Rock Club Band, and wanted the popularity that goes with it — right away.

This debut's mix of ballast and light, darkness and luster shows an unmistakable Led Zeppelin influence: Vinyl side openers "Keep Yourself Alive" and "Liar" bring unabashed heavy metal riffs tempered by Zep's command of dynamics and structure, while "Son and Daughter" cops that foursome's trick of doubling a nasty guitar melody on the bass for added heft. Yet there's nothing remotely bluesy about Freddie Mercury's performance, no concern for rootsy authenticity or keeping every element as corpulent as possible. Instead there's inexhaustible exuberance and glorious excess. Where other groups would put one or two ear-catching riffs or memorable guitar sounds, Queen spit out several.

Mercury yields his lead vocal position only once — not to guitarist Brian May, who'll soon become a steady vocal presence, but to Roger Taylor on the drummer's brief but ballsy rave-up "Modern Times Rock 'n' Roll." But there are already hints of the overdubbed choirs to come in the multi-tracked vocals of "My Fairy King," a piano-pounding Mercury extravaganza that in sound and sentiment points the way to the over-the-top splendor of Queen II.

Queen II


Halfway between glam and progressive rock, Queen's first album of 1974 is its most extreme. Inspired by prog's continuous LP sides (or at least Abbey Road), Queen II's rarely silent suites pay tribute to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound technique; not by packing a studio with musicians as Brian Wilson had done, but by layering overdub upon overdub of dense distorted guitar that suggests shoegaze 15 years before My Bloody Valentine. Nowadays anyone can make their guitar hum like a violin with the right software, but in '74 many of the effects on Brian May's "Procession"/"Father to Son" were unprecedented. Note also the severe stereo panning on Roger Taylor's hyper-aggressive tom-toms; the microphones nearly recoil at the volume and violence of his strokes.

Divided into a May-dominated "white" LP side and a Freddie Mercury-composed "black" side, Queen II overdoses on monarchy and mythology; every other song is framed in English folklore. Given the glam context of Mick Rock's iconic Marlene Dietrich-esque band photo on the album cover, "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" seems like a fairly transparent coding of Mercury's sexuality, but in actuality it's a detailed rendering of Richard Dadd's ridiculously ornate 19th-century painting of the same name, translated into resplendent vocal and guitar curlicues. "Funny How Love Is" goes for the Spector sound in a big, blatant way: There are so many acoustic guitars scraping away simultaneously that they feel like sandpaper on your ears. The album concludes with a rollicking "Seven Seas of Rhye," a mere snippet on the debut but the band's first U.K. hit single here. There'd be many more.

Sheer Heart Attack


Having achieved its breakthrough U.K. single earlier that year with "Seven Seas of Rhye," Queen reeled in the prog, upped the pop, and pushed its magpie ways to a higher level of willfulness with its second album of '74. Launched with its debut American hit, the glam-tastic "Killer Queen," Sheer Heart Attack makes room for an attention-grabbing Brian May guitar workout on its opening "Brighton Rock," but then condenses the arrangements into pop-sized chunks and gives Freddie Mercury's piano more prominence. While May multi-tracks his solos in complex harmonies and overlapping echoes, the riffs that define guitar-led tracks like future live staple "Now I'm Here" and proto-speed-metal "Stone Cold Crazy" (famously covered in 1990 by Metallica) are now more straightforward.

Part of this shift was practical: Queen had begun touring regularly, and a good chunk of Queen II was way too complex to ever be replicated live. Recording began while May recuperated from hepatitis and then an ulcer, so the band left him spaces that he now fills more judiciously. Bassist John Deacon makes his presence felt; his first composition to appear on a Queen album, the carefree Caribbean "Misfire," is a harbinger of the hits he'd soon score. Mercury's "Flick of the Wrist" doesn't name, but almost certainly attacks, former Queen manager Norman Sheffield, who would soon be lacerated with even less mercy on the lead track of the foursome's even more varied, much more popular '75 extravaganza A Night at the Opera.

Most of all, Sheer Heart Attack is defined by its clean, music-hall-influenced vocal lines. No matter how many May guitars dart in and out of the mix, every melody is memorable. Even if you can't comfortably hit all the notes (and face it, mortals, you can't), your heart will sing along.

A Night At The Opera


One of rock's most famously eclectic and enduring monuments, Queen's fourth album is the one that'll forever define them. A Night at the Opera was the first record the quartet created in the wake of a significant international hit — Sheer Heart Attack's "Killer Queen" — and the band was clearly eager to top itself. ("Oooh, Freddie would've loved to have done that," producer Roy Thomas Baker once cracked when that phrase was used to describe the band's ambition here.) Said to have been the most expensive album of its era (and certainly sounding like it) this late-'75 smash is revered not only because it's a milestone of analog overdubbing, but also because the fun Queen had outdoing itself is so obvious.

Diss tracks are a dime a dozen today, but "Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to...)" — Freddie Mercury's second merciless attack on former manager Norman Sheffield — predated punk's vitriol by several months. Brian May's opening salvo of Spanish guitar leads masterfully translated to heavy metal reaffirms Queen's rock cred within seconds, as does Mercury's wrathful vocal, and the fact that both are joined by a choir declaring "You're a sewer rat swimming in a cesspool of pride" in impeccable four-part harmony makes the cut as funny as it is vicious.

The jump cut into the frolicsome, Tiny Tim-ish "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon" is a joke only Queen and Paul McCartney could pull off, a we-can-do-anything-we-bloody-well-want move that's utterly rock 'n' roll, even when the music is anything but. A key to Queen's universality is that no matter how far it goes out on an effete limb, the quartet returns to dude-friendly rock; Roger Taylor's "I'm in Love With My Car" manages to be both macho and strangely melancholy because its singer acknowledges he can't sustain a relationship with a woman and an automobile at the same time. Even when dealt a rock track as direct and dumb as May's "Sweet Lady," Mercury both embodies the music and twists it, while John Deacon's "You're My Best Friend" remains Queen's greatest, sincerest pop tune.

Of course, all of this is leading up to "Bohemian Rhapsody," rock's most famous and most fastidiously coded coming out song. It's so ridiculously and beautifully fanciful precisely because Mercury had to rely on abstraction: He was living and indeed still sleeping with his longtime girlfriend Mary Austin when he entered his first gay relationship shortly before writing the track. His old self is the man he's killed off; he fears going to hell for it, and yet he's determined to escape both his internal demons and society's condemnation. "I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all," is a line that every member of a minority that's been trained to hate itself understands.

A Day At The Races


How could a band follow a beast as monstrous as A Night at the Opera? Queen did it with one nearly as immoderate. Released at the closing of 1976, its fifth album lacks its predecessor's front-to-end songwriting strength; Roger Taylor and John Deacon's contributions here lack the memorability of their previous efforts, and the way A Day at the Races is packaged and sequenced so similarly to Opera undercuts some of its impact.

Races nevertheless ranks among Queen's finest because its high points are so lofty. "Tie Your Mother Down" is almost certainly Brian May's attempt at raising the bar of nastiness established with Opera's "Death on Two Legs," and his chugging, boogie-'til-we-puke guitar riff opened Queen concerts on a raucous note for years to come. Meanwhile, Freddie Mercury gets more daring: He covertly aims his obligatory music-hall ditty "Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy" at another guy. His lead blends with the band's "Hey boy" background vocals to blur the difference between the song's protagonist and its object, thus enabling the singer's highly civilized yet not-at-all old-fashioned depiction of same-sex romance to sail over the heads of much of Queen's initial audience. Mercury's rapturous piano ballad "You Take My Breath Away" features some of his loveliest upper register singing, and May's Beatle-y "Long Away" ranks among the band's many hidden treasures.

A secular gospel song that seeks salvation in earthly affection, the album's pop hit, "Somebody to Love," is one of the few Queen tracks that seem to invite cover versions. Although it boasts an overdubbed choir nearly as large as the one that animates "Bohemian Rhapsody," it relies not on guitar pyrotechnics, but on simple piano and voices. But its range of notes is extensive; Mercury wrote "Somebody" as a tribute to his beloved Aretha Franklin, and although George Michael nailed the tune at 1992's Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, few in his wake have. When considering a karaoke night out, don't say I didn't warn you.

News Of The World


When Queen's sixth album hit in fall 1977, first-wave U.K. punk was peaking: News of the World was released the day after Never Mind the Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. Arguably the first punk retrofitting by a decidedly un-punk band, Roger Taylor's "Sheer Heart Attack" harnessed the genre's speed and fury even while snipping it, and much of the rest was decidedly leaner and meaner than the band's opulent standard: "We Will Rock You" is nothing but voices, foot stomps, handclaps, and 30 final seconds of guitar. The closest Queen gets to music hall is Freddie Mercury's closing torch song "My Melancholy Blues," a stark cabaret number. Vocal choirs and guitar orchestrations linger elsewhere, but rarely dominate.

What's left is solid hard rock that's particularly firm on Mercury's "Get Down Make Love," one of the most sexually explicit high-profile songs of its day. Despite its two flop singles (John Deacon's power ballad "Spread Your Wings" and Brian May's Bad Company-styled "It's Late"), Queen's least eclectic, most conventional rock album is also one of its biggest U.S. sellers. It's the first time May's songwriting contributions outnumber Mercury's, and the first time Taylor and Deacon chip in two songs each. It's tempting to say that its de-emphasis of Mercury's personality is key to News's success, but he sings most of it, and does so in high style.

Few songs have aged as remarkably as his "We Are the Champions." Like "We Will Rock You," it was conceived to inspire audience participation. And, on the surface, it's a song for winners. But given that Mercury died in late 1991 of AIDS and that his homosexuality instantly became common knowledge and that students in conservative American towns still fight for the right to perform his songs for precisely those reasons, "Champions" has morphed into an anthem for the underdogs. The line "I've had my share of sand kicked in my face" almost certainly refers to those comic book ads for Charles Atlas's bodybuilding guides where the weakling is humiliated at the beach by the beefier, manlier bully. As if directly addressing future generations of bullied kids who would claim the singer as a hero, Mercury adds, "But I've come through." Few would argue otherwise.



Queen's first and most audacious four albums were co-produced by Roy Thomas Baker, a former sound engineer whose ability to get an aggressive yet intricate sound via countless overdubs became synonymous with the band. Having closely observed his work, Queen produced itself on A Day at the Races and settled for Baker's engineer Mike Stone on News of the World with at times less extraordinary, more conventional dividends. Meanwhile, Baker helmed the Cars' 1978 debut, a new-wave milestone. The producer then returned, and although Jazz was panned at the time (most famously in Rolling Stone, where Dave Marsh proclaimed "Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band"), this late-'78 return to form ranks among the band's cheekiest achievements.

Rolling Stone's fascist argument is flimsy and ridiculous. It's based on the claim that Queen asserts a condescending cultural superiority through what the magazine characterized as glib musical parodies that belittle both the source material and its audience. The magazine deemed "Mustapha," the opening Arabic track, "merely a clumsy and pretentious rewrite of 'Hernando's Hideaway,' which has about as much to do with Middle Eastern culture as street-corner souvlaki." Born Farrokh Bulsara, Freddie Mercury — a Parsi who grew up in Zanzibar and then India until completing high school — kept his ethnicity a secret and passed as a white Brit. But if any world-class '70s rocker could do justice to Middle Eastern music, it would be Mercury, whose "Mustapha" distills Arabic-Persian styles as masterfully as his "Bohemian Rhapsody" draws from opera.

Built on the condensed song structures that harken back to Sheer Heart Attack, the rest of Jazz is just as accomplished. Mercury's "Bicycle Race" seems frivolous and pop, but its complex chords and fluctuating time signatures are total prog. The flip of its AA-side single, May's "Fat Bottomed Girls" employs folk-pop harmonies, churning rock guitar and Broadway razzle-dazzle without sounding like any one thing. Roger Taylor's funky "Fun It" points in the rhythm-driven direction of The Game and Hot Space, while Mercury's "Don't Stop Me Now" delivers piano-pounding, ABBA-level giddiness. This would be Baker's last Queen collaboration, but it's a blast.

The Game


Back in the '70s, when rock acts largely stuck to rocking and American bands in particular strove to appear genuine, flitting about from one genre to the next flew in the face of cool. Restless, yet cred-heavy new-wave upstarts like Elvis Costello and Talking Heads changed all that. Pop — particularly in early-'80s England — also became considerably hipper and more experimental. With this 1980 blockbuster, Queen ramped up its pop: The Game's two No. 1 singles — Freddie Mercury's rockabilly "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and John Deacon's flagrantly Chic and fantastic disco-funk "Another One Bites the Dust" — veered furthest from the band's hard rock foundation.

Recorded in Giorgio Moroder's Munich studio with ELO's German producer Mack, the quartet's ninth album — its sole U.S. chart-topper — features far less fussy performances. The overdubbed layers that previously packed tracks are scaled back and reserved for crescendos, and the new-wave influence is unmistakable: Roger Deacon's "Need Your Loving Tonight" bobs and bops like the Knack; the chiming intro to Mercury's "Don't Try Suicide" is pure Police, while Roger Taylor's "Coming Soon" chugs away in jacked-up pub-rock fashion à la Nick Lowe.

Most startlingly, Queen — a band whose command of studio effects and guitar pedal was so electronically advanced that each of their previous albums bore some variation on a "no synths" declaration in the credits — began embracing synthesizers: Opening track "Play the Game" generates a show-stopping Oberheim OB-X-generated solo that shoots like lasers in smoke-machine fog. It wouldn't be the last.

Flash Gordon


Unlike most rock records connected to movies, Queen's Flash Gordon LP isn't a grab-bag of pop songs, but an actual film soundtrack. This means there are only two vocal cuts: "Flash's Theme," which is nearly the same crazy, flippant track as the "Flash" single included on Queen hits collections but with different dialogue snippets, and "The Hero," a crash-collision of the band's splendidly pompous '70s prog-rock and composer Howard Blake's equally florid orchestral score. Most of the instrumentals lay heavy on the synths recently added to the quartet's arsenal on 1980's The Game. Aside from Freddie Mercury's "Football Fight," May's "Battle Theme," and the aforementioned vocal numbers, the band rarely plays as a unit, and nearly everything's brief, foreboding, and retro-futuristic. There are few guitar heroics, but heaps of intentionally hokey film lines. The deliberately daffy result hammers the first nail in the coffin of Queen's just-peaked U.S. popularity.

Hot Space


At the height of the disco boom, some of rock's biggest stars released club tracks. And although the old guard hated them, those particular Rod Stewart, Rolling Stones, Wings and Kiss hits were brilliant. This is not one of those records. Recorded in the wake of Queen's surprisingly streetwise chart-topper "Another One Bites the Dust," 1982's Hot Space is still routinely cited as disastrous, and this time the haters are right.

It's not really disco: The vinyl album's first side features dance-rock that skews in different directions — funk (John Deacon's "Back Chat") synth-pop (Mercury's "Body Language"), and new wave (Roger Taylor's "Action This Day"). The second side is pop-rock much like what appeared on 1980's The Game, only lighter: Mercury's "Life Is Real (Song For Lennon)" pays tribute with a pastiche of the late Beatle's solo ballads. The disc's most traditionally rocking cut, May's "Put Out the Fire," protest laws that facilitate gun ownership and excuse crimes of passion. But both sides are almost unrelentingly awkward because the tunes are negligible, the performances mostly non-committal.

Released six months before the album, "Under Pressure" is everything the rest is not. It's mad-catchy: Deacon's opening bass riff made Vanilla Ice a star when the rapper sampled it in 1990's "Ice Ice Baby." The presence of David Bowie, who co-wrote it and shares lead with Mercury, provokes one of Queen's smartest, most passionate singles. Too bad he didn't stick around for the album.

The Works


Queen's 1984 album benefits from lessons learned on 1982's Hot Space. It retains and improves upon that infamous dud's dance beats and synths — not enough to yield much club play, but this time the tracks that feature them aren't sequenced one after another. Most of the songwriting is considerably more substantial both musically and lyrically: Check the difference between The Game's goofy "Don't Try Suicide" and this one's far gentler "Just Keep Passing the Open Windows."

It still has its filler: Freddie Mercury's Elvis-y "Man on the Prowl" fails to recapture the offhand magic of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and Brian May's "Tear It Up" strains too hard to follow its title's advice. But the best of The Works emphasizes Queen's reflective side, one that would continue to mature until yielding the quartet's late career apex, 1991's Innuendo.

Opening track and lead single "Radio Ga Ga" looks back lovingly on radio's glory days while disdaining its then-current state with lasting consequences: The Roger Taylor-written song became Queen's final U.S. Top 40 title. The next single, John Deacon's simple yet soaring "I Want to Break Free," was justifiably just as big overseas, but its video featured the band in drag spoofing a U.K. soap opera Coronation Street that was unknown in America. MTV balked, and the band's American cachet faded until Mercury's late '91 passing.

A Kind Of Magic


Although America had cooled on Queen in the mid '80s, the band experienced a second surge in popularity throughout the rest of the world following its legendary 1985 Live Aid appearance; a performance so galvanizing it was in 2005 voted by music industry insiders to be the greatest live gig ever. 1986's A Kind of Magic continues down the thoughtful path forged by '84's The Works with a largely inferior payoff: Although Roger Taylor's title track betters his own "Radio Ga Ga" by employing a lighter touch, the opening riff-rocker "One Vision" gets ham-fisted with its rewrite of the previous album's "Hammer to Fall" John Deacon's "One Year of Love" mimics '80s easy-listening ballads so accurately that you'd swear it was recorded by Air Supply if not for Mercury's far richer cry.

This time Brain May pulls the rabbit out of the hat: His "Who Wants to Live Forever" also firmly adheres to '80s power ballad formula — big drums, even bigger orchestra, and a positively massive crescendo. Akin to "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls and Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is," it's nevertheless so emotionally rich that it transcends its familiar design. Mercury charges into its melodrama like a bull confronts a matador, and the protracted denouement that follows his exit is presciently eerie, as if May knew something Mercury's doctors hadn't yet discovered.

The Miracle


Queen's 1989 album was the first one recorded with the secret knowledge that Freddie Mercury had AIDS. At the time, such a diagnosis was almost always a death sentence, and Queen ceased to exist as a concert act. The result is a transitional album: On some level, the foursome forges ahead as if nothing had happened. Like its '80s predecessors, The Miracle is unabashedly commercial high-end rock. Lacking a playful pop anthem like A Kind of Magic's title track or a lush ballad like that album's "Who Wants to Live Forever," it's strikingly heavier than Queen's last few discs, and suggests that all concerned were intent on keeping up a front. Its biggest hit, "I Want It Now," feels like a coat of armor.

It's the first time Mercury is featured on every track for which there's a vocal, and although it's also the first album on which all cuts are collectively credited to Queen, this shift makes their later output more about Mercury. Although The Miracle doesn't yet reach the level of autobiography that would make 1991's Innuendo such a striking achievement, the movement in that self-reflexive direction accounts for its most compelling material. While "Scandal" lashes out at the tabloids that began leaking rumors of Mercury's illness, "Was It All Worth It" looks back on Queen's legacy as if the band was already history. Mercury sings it with so much bravado that it's obvious that the answer to the title's question is an affirmative one.



Queen's final album completed and released during Freddie Mercury's lifetime is also the one that most closely resembles the records of its '70s hot streak. Mercury's lung power is sometimes compromised by the advance stages of his illness, yet his aura most certainly is not: The intensity and death-defying irreverence of 1991's Innuendo make this an exceptional, extraordinary album.

Yes, the drum sound is at times abrasive, and it's regrettable the synth strings that similarly date the arrangements weren't supplied by a real orchestra. But Innuendo's fiery performances and uniformly vibrant, substantial songwriting more than compensate. Mercury contemplates his life and what was to come, and the band responds with inspiration that suits the context. There's the unmistakable sense that this is the end, and so Queen with heroic grace returns full circle to its aesthetic beginnings.

That duality pays huge dividends both musically and emotionally. The opening title track is pure prog: Even Yes's Steve Howe drops by midway for some virtuosic flamenco guitar runs that push Brian May to play faster and flashier than he had in years. "I'm Going Slightly Mad" features a bravura camp vocal from Mercury, who channels Noel Coward in both style and sentiment. An American rock radio favorite, "Headlong" kicks butt as if Mercury had been in the best of health, while "These Are the Days of Our Lives" and "The Show Must Go On" candidly form Innuendo's spiritual core. Delivered in one knockout vocal take when Mercury could barely walk, the latter presents a brave face while revealing the struggle to maintain that façade. The effect is devastating.

Made In Heaven


In the wake of Freddie Mercury's death on Nov. 24, 1991, Queen's popularity surged. Featured in Wayne's World and on a reissued single right after Mercury passed, "Bohemian Rhapsody" became an international phenomenon all over again; 1992's star-packed and quite remarkable Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert stoked back catalog sales, and several more phenomenally successful hits collections meant that Mercury attained sainthood, not just for his music, but for publically acknowledging his illness the day before he died.

Released in 1994, Made in Heaven is comprised of underexposed and previously unreleased Mercury vocals set to instrumentation recorded by the other Queen members long after their singer's passing. After finishing 1991's Innuendo, Mercury recorded as much as he could, but could only finish the vocals on one song, the seasonal fantasia "A Winter's Tale." Consequently there's nothing here that was completed with Mercury's full participation. What the band assembled in his absence has an unmistakable religious and even moralistic tone — "Made in Heaven," "Let Me Live, "My Life Has Been Saved," "Heaven For Everyone" and, most notably, "Too Much Love Will Kill You." Until his diagnosis, Mercury was one of rock's most legendary hedonists: For him to be posthumously reconfigured and re-remembered this way is kind of weird.