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A Night At The Opera by Queen: The Essentials

In November 1975, the most audacious rock and roll / pop album since The Beatles’ Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released – A Night at the Opera by Queen.  It was a spirited shot across the bow of the 1970s excesses of the glam-glitter-psychedelic rock and roll world by being cheekily glam and outrageous with their tongue firmly in their cheeks.  

Queen_A_Night_At_The_OperaAt the time my musical world was mainly confined to the wonderful world of 1970s AM pop radio. Within one hour we were able to hear: The Beatles (as well as solo songs by John-Paul-George-Ringo), Carol King, Three Dog Night, Jerry Reed, Stevie Wonder, John Denver, Carly Simon, the Temptations, the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Tammy Wynette, Doobie Brothers, the Osmonds, etc … a diversity that is unfathomable in today’s fractured broadcast world.  Then, in 1973 (age 13), I got my first job delivering newspapers and purchased two magazine subscriptions, Rolling Stone and Circus. I was also able to purchase the Holy Grail for a 1970s teenager – a stereo system complete with turntable and speakers.

My first LP purchases included all the usual suspects: Beatles, Deep Purple, Led Zep, Foghat and Pink Floyd. And then, based on the stories I was reading in Circus, I took a leap of faith and ordered an import copy of the debut LP by a new band from England called Queen. Three weeks later it arrived; when the needle dropped and the opening guitar riff from “Keep Yourself Alive” filled my bedroom I knew I had found a new favorite band. 

Problem was: I could not convince any of my friends of their brilliance.  They preferred Carly Simon, Chicago, the Eagles and (God help them) Tony Orlando and Dawn. Next year, Queen II arrived and with its dense sound and elaborate arrangements I made no headway in convincing my friends to embrace this band. The thaw began with the third LP, Sheer Heart Attack and the hit song “Killer Queen.” 

And then A Night at the Opera arrived. The album took its name from the classic Marx Brothers movie of the same name, which the band watched one night at the studio complex during recording. The music contained within was an astonishingly mixed bag – one song could be Led Zep, the next Spike Jones and the next Yes. It covered musical styles from heavy metal to pop to folk to mystical sci-fi to 1920s jazz and old English music hall ditties – all performed with exquisite gloss and panache, with a sly wink.

At the time, A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever recorded and it turned Queen into one of the biggest bands in the world, paving their path into becoming English rock and roll royalty on the same dias with the Beatles, the Stones and The Who. It also finally convinced my high school friends that Queen were, after all, a pretty damn good band.

Queen Night_At_The_Opera LP cover

LP Cover opened

At the start of 1975, despite having two Top Ten albums and two Top Ten singles to their name, Queen found themselves in serious dire financial straits. They had been touring and recording relentlessly for five years, and none of their hard work had started to pay off yet, which raised concerns for the band members.  So they threw themselves into the recording of A Night at the Opera with gusto. They knew rather early on that they had something special on their hands, and invited the press for a special hearing of the album only days before they were due to go on tour again. The feeling among the band was that the LP was going to change their lives one way or the other – either it was going to be a hit or become a massive failure and kill the band’s career. The album was still being mixed hours before the playback, and further tweaks and edits were made afterward, but the general consensus was that Queen had recorded a masterpiece, and that it was a major step forward from their previous three albums. Thirty-eight years later, it’s hard to disagree.

SIDE ONE (remember, LPs have two sides; you have to flip it over to listen to the entire album.)
  1. “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…)”

Composed by Freddie Mercury. Vocal by Mercury. This is Freddie’s vitriolic letter towards Queen’s ex-manager, Norman Sheffield, who, from 1972 to 75, was reputed to have mistreated the band and abused his role. Prior to the recording of A Night at the Opera the band fired Sheffield and began legal proceedings against him. Though the song never mentions him by name, upon listening to a playback of the song Sheffield was appalled and sued the band and the record label for defamation which resulted in an out of court settlement. In the Classic Albums documentary about the making of A Night at the Opera, Brian May stated that the band at first was somewhat taken aback by the incisiveness of Mercury’s lyrics and described by Mercury as being, “so vindictive that I felt bad singing it.”During live performances, Mercury would usually rededicate the song to “a real motherfucker of a gentleman.”

The song fades in with Mercury’s ominous piano (straight out of a 1950s horror soundtrack) accented by May’s death-toll style guitar chords. Most of the guitar parts on this song were initially played on piano by Mercury, to demonstrate to May how they needed to be played on guitar.

  1. Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon

Composed by Freddie Mercury. All vocals by Mercury. One of Mercury’s silliest upbeat ditties, v-e-r-y British. To create the 1920s “megaphone” sound, Mercury’s lead vocal was sung in the studio and reproduced through headphones sitting in a tin bucket elsewhere in the studio. A microphone then picked up the sound from the bucket which gave it the “hollow” sound.

  1. I’m in Love with My Car

Composed and sung by drummer Roger Taylor with a “driving” (a-hem) beat. It is probably Taylor’s most famous song in the Queen catalogue. The song was initially taken as a joke by guitarist Brian May, who after first hearing the demo thought that Taylor couldn’t be serious. The revving sounds at the conclusion of the song come from Taylor’s current car at the time, an Alfa Romeo. The lyrics were inspired by one of the band’s roadies, Jonathan Harris, whose Triumph TR4 was evidently the “love of his life”. The song is dedicated to him, the album says: “Dedicated to Johnathan Harris, boy racer to the end”. Taylor played the guitars in the original demo, but they were later re-recorded by May.

  1. You’re My Best Friend

Composed by bassist John Deacon. Vocals by Freddie Mercury. “You’re My Best Friend” was written by bass player John Deacon for his wife, Veronica Tetzlaff. It was a catchy bit of pop shuffle which reached the Top Ten on the charts. Deacon composed the song while he was learning to play the Wurlitzer Electric Piano on the recording and overdubbed the bass later on. On stage Mercury refused to play a Wurlitzer piano; he called it a “horrible” instrument in an interview. “Why play that thing when you have a grand piano available?” Freddie quipped.

  1. ’39

Composed and sung by Brian May. This may the first rock song that accurately uses Einstein’s special theory of relativity as a theme. May graduated from Imperial College with a degree in mathematics and physics and was working on his Ph.D. when Queen became successful, so he abandoned his doctoral work (which he completed in 2007). 

“’39” is a sci-fi folk-rock skiffle that relates the tale of a group of space explorers who embark on what is, from their perspective, a year-long voyage. Upon their return, however, they realize that a hundred years have passed and because of the time dilation the loved ones they left behind are now all dead. A haunting song, and a bone fide Queen classic.

NOTES: George Michael claimed that “’39” was his favorite Queen song, and that he used to busk the song in the London Underground as a teenager. He later performed “’39” at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in April 1992.

While Queen was on their 1977 American tour, they were invited by Groucho Marx to visit him at his LA home. He wanted to thank them personally for naming their two most popular LPs after the two most successful Marx brother’s films – A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. During the band’s visit they performed “’39” a cappella for the ill comedian, who died five months later.

  1. Sweet Lady

Written by Brian May. Sung by Freddie Mercury. “Sweet Lady” is an unusual distorted guitar crunching rocker. What makes it unusual?  It’s written in 3/4 meter (which gives way to 4/4 at the bridge) which is not a typical time signature for a rock and roll song. Roger Taylor called this the most difficult drumming part he ever recorded.  The song’s crunchy guitar chords have an early “We Will Rock You” feel to them.

  1. Seaside Rendezvous

Written by Freddie Mercury. Vocals by Mercury.  Another classic Mercury cheeky ditty. The song is notable for the “instrumental” bridge section which begins at around 0:51 into the song. It is performed entirely by Mercury and Taylor using their voices alone. Mercury imitates woodwind instruments including a clarinet and Taylor mostly brass instruments, including tubas and trumpets, and even a kazoo. The “tap dance” segment is performed by Mercury and Taylor on the mixing desk with thimbles on their fingers. Mercury plays both grand piano and jangle honky-tonk.

SIDE TWO
  1. The Prophet’s Song

Composed by Brian May. Vocals by Freddie Mercury. It is a heavy and dark number with a strong progressive rock influence. On the show In the Studio with Redbeard, May explained that he wrote the song after a dream he’d had about a great flood while he was recovering from being ill while recording the Sheer Heart Attack album.

The overt Biblical references (the great flood) should also be filtered through May’s astrophysics background. In 1974 – a massive human skeleton was found somewhere in the Sahara Desert (36 ft. tall). Some speculated it could be one of the Fallen Angels that God kicked from Heaven, along with Satan.  At the time, an archeological / astronomical theory was being postulated of the “lost” planet Nibiru, whose humanlike creatures once lived on Earth. Due to an internal struggle for power they destroyed everything and everyone on earth, except Noah and his family, in a great flood.

The song includes the dazzling centerpiece – an amazing vocal canon sung by Mercury. The vocal, and later instrumental canon, was produced by early tape delay devices. At over eight minutes in length, is also Queen’s longest song.

  1. Love of My Life

Written by Freddie Mercury. Vocals by Mercury. Written for Mercury’s girlfriend at the time, Mary Austin it is one of Queen’s most covered songs Mercury plays piano and did all of the vocals with multi-tracking precision. May played the harp, doing it chord by chord and pasting the takes to form the entire part. He eventually arranged the song so it could be played on an acoustic 12 string for live performances.

“Love of My Life” became one of Queen’s concert favorites. During performances Mercury often stopped singing and allowed the audience to take over.

  10. Good Company

Composed and sung by Brian May. It is a narrative tale of a man who in young age was advised by his father to “take care of those you call your own, and keep good company”. In his younger years, the singer follows his father’s advice, keeping his friends and marrying a girl named Sally. As he grows older, he becomes increasingly skilled at and dedicated to his occupation, working long nights and neglecting his family and friends. Eventually, the man’s efforts are rewarded, he begins his own Limited Company (a pun) and becomes so dedicated to his business, he hardly notices as his wife leaves him. The song concludes with the speaker as an elderly man, puffing on his pipe and pondering the lessons of his life, which he has no one left to share with.

May provides all vocals and plays a “Genuine Aloha” ukulele, and remarkably recreates a Dixieland-style jazz band, on his homemade Red Special guitar and Deacy Amp.

11. Bohemian Rhapsody

Composed by Freddie Mercury. Vocals by Mercury.  This song is Queen’s “Stairway to Heaven” and “Freebird.” It was a massive hit in 1975-76, and sixteen years later it was introduced to another generation of listeners when it was featured in the hit movie “Wayne’s World.” In 2004 it was inducted into the Grammy hall of Fame and in 2012 it was voted the UK’s “Favorite Number One Song” of the past 60 years.

Bohemian_RhapsodyIt is also one of the most unusual and complex rock and roll songs ever to become a hit. It has no chorus, and consists of several sections: a ballad segment ending with a guitar solo, an operatic passage, and a hard rock section. At the time, it was the most expensive single ever made and it remains one of the most elaborate recordings in popular music history.[1]

All piano, bass and drum parts, as well as the vocal arrangements, were thought up by Mercury on a daily basis and written down “in blocks” on a phonebook. The other members of Queen recorded their respective instruments for each “section” of the song with no concept of what the final mix would sound like. The sections were held together by a drum click to keep all layers synchronized The now famous operatic section was originally intended to be only a short interlude of “Galileos” that connected the ballad and hard rock portions of the song.

The entire piece took three weeks to record, and in some sections featured 180 separate overdubs. Since the studios of the time only offered 24-track analogue tape, it was necessary for the three to overdub themselves many times and “bounce” these down to successive sub-mixes. Mercury, May and Taylor reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day.

Mercury wrote most of “Bohemian Rhapsody” at his home in Holland Road, Kensington, in west London. Much of Queen’s material was written in the studio according to Brian May, but this song “was all in Freddie’s mind” before they started., Judith Peraino said that “Mercury intended… [this song] to be a ‘mock opera’, something outside the norm of rock songs, and it does follow a certain operatic logic: choruses of multi-tracked voices alternate with aria-like solos, the emotions are excessive, the plot confusing.”

Mercury refused to explain his lyrics other than saying it was about relationships. “It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them … it didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?”

Brian May supports suggestions that the song contained veiled references to Mercury’s personal traumas. He recalls “Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song.” In a BBC Three documentary about the making of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Roger Taylor maintains that the true meaning of the song is “fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle.[7]

Basically, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about a young man who has accidentally kills someone and, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil. On the night before his execution, he calls for God in Arabic, “Bismillah”, and with the help of angels, regains his soul from Shaitan.[19]

Still others interpreted them as Mercury’s way of dealing with personal issues. Music scholar Sheila Whiteley observes that Mercury reached a turning point in his personal life in the year he wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody”. He had been living with Mary Austin for seven years but had just embarked on his first gay love affair. She suggests that the song provides an insight into Mercury’s emotional state at the time, “living with Mary (‘Mamma’, as in Mother Mary) and wanting to break away (‘Mamma Mia let me go’).”

The a cappella opening was too complex to perform live, mainly the operatic middle section proved a problem. Because of extensive multi-tracking, it could not be performed on stage. Starting in 1977 the band adopted their lasting way of playing the song live. The opening ballad section would be played live on stage, and after Brian May’s guitar solo, the lights would go down, the band would leave the stage, and the operatic section would be played from tape, while stage lights provided a light show based around the voices of the opera section. A blast of pyrotechnics after Roger Taylor’s high note on the final “for me” would announce the band’s return for the hard rock section and closing ballad.

12. God Save the Queen

Brian May recorded the anthem in 1974 before their Sheer Heart Attack tour. He played a guide piano which was edited out later and added several layers of guitars.  Guitar layering is one of May’s distinctive techniques as a rock guitarist. He has said that the technique was developed whilst looking for a violin sound. After the song was completed it was played as an outro at virtually every concert while the band was taking their bows. May has stated that he performed the song on roof of Buckingham Palace as an homage to Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

PRODUCTION DETAILS

A Night At The Opera by Queen

Freddie Mercury – vocals, vocals, Bechstein Debauchery, and more vocals, jangle piano and vocal orchestration of woodwinds on Seaside Rendezvous, operatic vocals on Bohemian Rhapsody.

Brian May – guitars, orchestral backdrops, vocals, lead vocals on ‘39 and Good Company, toy koto on The Prophets Song, orchestral harp on Love Of My Life, genuine ‘aloha’ ukulele (made in Japan) and guitar jazz band on Good Company, operatic vocals on Bohemian Rhapsody.

Roger Taylor – drums, percussion, vocals, lead vocals on I’m In Love With My Car, bass drum and tambourine on ’39, vocal orchestrations of brass on Seaside Rendezvous, operatic vocals on Bohemian Rhapsody, timpani and gong on Bohemian Rhapsody and God Save The Queen, orchestral cymbals on God Save The Queen.

John Deacon – bass guitar, electric piano on You’re My Best Friend, double bass on ’39.

Produced by: Queen and Roy Thomas Baker.

Recorded: August – November 1975 at Sarm Studios, Olympic Studios, Scorpio Studios, Lansdowne Studios, Roundhouse Studios, London; Rockfield Studios, Monmouth. (God Save The Queen recorded July – October 1974 at Wessex Studios.)

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