Well you live and learn don’t you friends? I had never looked up the English national anthem’s lyrics before* until just now when I was looking to make a cheap Queen gag. They’re shocking, including references to ‘Confound their politics / Frustrate their knavish tricks’ and, most bloody tellingly, ‘Like a torrent rush / Rebellious Scots to crush’ !! Goodness me. As if Freddie and co would ever want any of their knavish tricks frustrated!
Queen, the bands’ debut was released seven months too late to be part of the Glorious Year of Culture & Humanity’s Greatest Achievements, or 1972 as you mortals know it; don’t worry though it’s still good, just not quite as astonishing as it would have been then. A friend of mine taped his Fame reissue of Queen when I was 14, telling me it was ‘a bit shit compared to The Works‘ and on first listen I sort of agreed, except I stuck at it as you do when you only have a few tapes of your own and it grew on me, my own honest review by the time I was 16 would have rated it as ‘not quite as good as Queen II, but not shit’. I never got around to rebuying it on vinyl until a couple of years ago and as I put it on to listen to it for the first time in 20 years I was a) surprised at how much I really rated it and b) shocked that I could sing along with every single track. It was clearly lodged deep inside my brain, confound their knavish tricks!
Queen opens with the comparatively straight-forward hard driving ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ complete with all manner of flanging and phasing trickery from Brian May and self-mythologizing from Freddie Mercury. The band always seemed to get compared to Led Zeppelin in their early days but I really can’t hear it, they just sound like themselves right from the get go. This is especially true on the piano^ led ‘Doing All Right’ penned by May and Tim Staffell – making him the first non-Queen member to get a writing credit until Bowie on ‘Under Pressure’, the melodies are great and the heavier sections really do flare up just so, without losing the fab harmonies.
‘Great King Rat’ was always a real favourite of mine, partly because it was heavy and mostly because it had the word ‘whore’ in it which I thought was a bit naughty, still do. Whilst I do like it mostly for some excellent raw-sounding guitaring from May and Roger Meddows-Taylor’s^^ funky polyrhythms, it hasn’t aged massively well with all the different sections and stoppy-starty bits. If I had been in the band’s orbit at the time I’d have taken them aside and told them there was no future in putting together hugely ambitious songs with lots of different sections and complex structures, not if they wanted to be successful.
Ditto the totes bonkers ‘My Fairy King’ which has the rare effect of making me want to prance about the house in a most peculiar manner; talk about knavish tricks! It gets 1537 bonus points for mentioning ‘fallow deer’ which are a species I rather like but which are unfairly under represented in the hard rock oeuvre.
I think Queen serves its first true ace with ‘Liar’, heavy and massively, ridiculously, humungously overblown as only Queen could pull off, it rocks along to the beat of its’ own eccentricity, obeying only its own internal logic, taking no reference points from anybody else before or since. It’s also the second time Freddie Mercury drops his surname into a song he’s written on the LP. I love it, of course. Equally so the gently dextrous ‘The Night Comes Down’ featuring a great build up and harmonies that nobody else ever quite mastered, you can say that this track more than any other on Queen set the template for the band’s future sound.
My fave on the album was always Meddows-Taylor’s ‘Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll’ a 1:48 blast of rock with attitude, sounding like Mott The Hoople at their meanest. I always used to put that one on compilations for rockers of my acquaintance. Then we’re back on the heavy-heavy bombast of ‘Son And Daughter’ which is still a lyric I find baffling, even with the reissue’s handy lyric sheet – all I know is it has the word ‘shit’ in it, which is always good and some heavy riffola.
I have a bit of an issue with ‘Jesus’, which may say far more about me than Queen. I remember feeling very embarrassed about the song’s religiousness and I used to always turn it right down every time I played it, lest my hippy parents heard it and got concerned over my spiritual wellbeing to the point where they would stage an intervention with an astrologer, homeopath, or geomancer. I still feel that thrill of furtive embarrassment even now, bizarre. I do like the music but find it really embarrassing even now, shadows of the past.
Then with a quick instrumental blast of ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’*^ Queen are gone and Queen is done. It may not be their best LP but it sure beats the living shit out of The Works. As my tastes raced towards the heavier end of the spectrum it got more and more play when I was growing up and now I supposedly am, I find it a good time. Yes, it is quite callow and of its time in places, the band are in the process of finding their feet and balance together and it is all rather gauche, but there is a real power and latent talent that cuts through it all, preventing anyone frustrating their knavish tricks.
Happy and glorious – indeed, Long to reign o’er us – indubitably.
PS. For all you audiophile dudes and dudettes the 2011 remastering job was very well done indeed, nothing too intrusive or jarring has been done to the tunes here, other than a very noticeable increase in the quality of the sound.
*I’m usually too busy treating it with indifference at the rugby** before belting out our own glorious ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ which is the greatest song ever sung and never fails to make me weep, raw, salty tears of patriotism. Did you know it was the first anthem ever to be sung at a sporting event? 1905. Missed that one but I was there for this one:
**never booing it, that’s rank knavish behaviour and not something I’d ever want to be part of. Not rugby, that. Even if it is a Godawful dirge. Okay, I admit it, I may have gone off the subject a little bit here.
^played by Brian May, rarity spotters.
^^clearly by Queen II young Roger had decided that being double-barrelled really wasn’t very cool.
*^reminding me just how thrilling a track it is.