With Queen recording A Night at the Opera in six different studios, spending approximately 45,000 dollars in pounds which made it the most expensive album of its time, and Freddie Mercury expressing a desire to “go to greater extremes,” this album epitomizes Queen’s style: 1970’s excess, glam and progressive rock extravagance, and classical music versatility.
Freddie Mercury joined Brian May and Roger Taylor in their band Smile when their lead singer left in 1970. By 1971 they changed their name to Queen and added bassist John Deacon before they released their self-titled debut album in 1973. The album was received positively as critics claimed Queen to have potential because they followed the raw, non-synthesized works that could contend with Led Zeppelin’s heavy metal. The band picked up momentum as they released two more albums in 1974, titled Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack, that gained success in their native United Kingdom.
After changing their recording managers and Freddie Mercury expressing a desire to push their music in a different direction, the band eagerly began their fourth album. Queen would finally break through to an international audience with the release of A Night at the Opera. The album stayed at number 1 on United Kingdom’s top charts for four consecutive weeks, and number 4 in the United States. The name was inspired from an evening where the band watched the 1935 film of the same name, A Night at the Opera. With twelve tracks, four written by Mercury, four written by May, and the rest written by Taylor and Deacon, the album demonstrates a variety of styles and different “acts” that integrate a hybrid of vintage soundtracks, classical music and opera, and heavy-metal.
A Night at the Opera starts off with bang on the classic opener, “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…),” a hate song with vicious lyrics that incited a lawsuit from their old manager for defamation. With raunchy lines written by Mercury such as “You suck my blood like a leech,” “Do you feel like suicide (I think you should),” and “You’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride,” these lyrics alone pushed the album to desired extremes. The song also featured an exploration of innovative guitar riffs from May and versatility through a compelling hybrid of electric guitar and bass mixed with hints of double bass and piano. “Death on Two Legs…” is a compelling track that demonstrated Queen can remain in a heavy-metal genre.
The album takes an abrupt, comical twist in the one-minute tune, “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” Lightening up from May’s heavier guitar riffs and pushing the instrumental line through a predominant piano line, Mercury juxtaposes his lyrics to paint clever ideas, like an ordinary guy painting in the Louvre, that makes a whimsical song simply require repeating. May finishes “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” with many guitar hooks and licks that make “I’m in Love with My Car” a natural transition.
“I’m in Love with My Car” takes elements of the previous two songs and combines those themes. The song demonstrates this with comical humor in the lyrics, “Told my girl I’ll have to forget her, Rather buy me a new carburetor,” dubbed over vocals that sound as if a large choir sung in the background, and a combination of guitar and piano lines. The song was a huge financial success for songwriter Roger Taylor, as it was the B-side to the single “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
While Taylor’s song fits in with the album, it did not to prove to have the same lasting power as bassist John Deacon’s famous track, “You’re My Best Friend.” Deacon’s piece would quickly hit the top ten charts and become a “classic Queen” song. Deacon’s talents not only shined with charming lyrics dedicated to his wife, but also in having a catchy walking bass lines and acquisition of Wurlitzer electric piano skills. Freddie said in a BBC interview about incorporating electric piano, “I refused to play the damn thing (the Wurlitzer). It’s tiny and horrible and I don’t like them. Why play those things when you’ve got a lovely superb grand piano? No, I think, basically what he is trying to say is it was the desired effect.”
May takes the stage in songwriting with the next two tracks, “39” and “Sweet Lady.” “39” turns away from previous tracks when May formatted the song to mix nostalgic bluesy acoustic guitar with a lyrical story about travelers who journey for 100 years and end up in a sci-fi-esque future. In addition, “Sweet Lady” also demonstrated creative ingenuity by turning a fast rock song into a unusual ¾ meter until the bridge. “Sweet Lady” highlighted May’s guitar solo abilities, but the vocal melody lacks as it is completely similar to the guitar line. In addition, lines like “You call me up and feed me all the lines, You call me sweet like I’m some kind of cheese, Waiting on the shelf” don’t seem to demonstrate the same profound lyrical thought that May displayed in “39.”
The next song, Mercury’s “Seaside Rendezvous” echoes the same whimsical, Charlie-Chaplin charm as “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” Another short number with a jazzy piano part, hooky guitar licks and laughable kazoo parts, “Seaside Rendezvous” creates a desire to ride a tandem bicycle through an old silent-film comedy scene. No question that it fits in with the 1935 comedy movie theme of A Night at the Opera and sticks in the listener’s head for days following.
The later part of the album incorporated more unique recording methods as it progresses towards “Bohemian Rhapsody.” For example, “The Prophet’s Song” takes a Zeppelin-esque song and makes it original by using Queen’s signature multi-tracking voices, as well as a tape delay technique to speed up May’s guitar solo. “Love of My Life” takes advantage of multi-tracking as well by incorporating multiple vocal tracks all sung by Mercury, and harp, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar performed by May. This song was a duet highlight on all future tours and May still plays it in remembrance of Mercury. “Good Company”utilizes a hybrid of Deacy Amp (created by and named after bassist John Deacon) with ukulele to create another intriguing sound quality to this album. While these songs demonstrated musical talent and added flavor to A Night at the Opera, they did not carry the same commercial thunder as the song that followed them.
Queen’s perpetual classic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” remains the climax of the album. Mercury shocked their producer Roy Thomas Baker when introducing the skeletal work of the song. Baker said about Mercury introducing the song to him, “He played the beginning bit on the piano,” he recalled, “then stopped and said, “‘This is where the opera section comes in.’” Dedicating over 70 hours and three weeks to multi-tracking the opera section, May said that the band never got frustrated in the tape transferring process because they were creating something legendary.
A song which does not follow any traditional commercial music framework – writing a ballad-opera-hard-rock structure versus a conventional verse-chorus format – made this song a challenge for EMIs to release this as a single. However, considering that the song was in a indiscernible genre, was three minutes longer than most acceptable commercial work, and had lyrics which lacked complete understanding, “Bohemian Rhapsody” still reached legendary status through its years of critical acclaim. The song remained number one in UK for over nine weeks, top ten Billboard hits, and remained in the charts for over 24 weeks. Mercury described “Bohemian Rhapsody” as “… one of those pieces I wrote for the album: just writing my batch of songs. In its early stages I almost rejected it, but then it grew.” A risky song which intended to be incorporated into the album instead immortalized A Night at the Opera.
A Night at the Opera finishes with a tribute to Jimi Hendrix with “God Save the Queen.” It serves as a good outro number for the album, but quietly sits in the shadows of its preceding tracks. A Night at the Opera is a fantastic album that demonstrates Queen’s ability to push creative boundaries by mixing opera and ballads with heavy-metal, to diversify their lyrical base from writing songs ranging from a fondness for their cars to complicated, religious-reference stories and to produce works that could never be fully replicated. This album highlights the talents of each band member and propelled them towards a successful career with international recognition.
A Night at the Opera is an album that demonstrates pristine songwriting, musical ingenuity, and extraordinary production techniques. The album represents work from each member in the band, displaying each individual’s capability for strong songwriting, including the success from Mercury pushing Deacon to create one of Queen’s hit singles. While the album’s songs don’t have a consistent lyrical theme throughout by expressing different emotions and interests of each band member, Queen’s musicality brands their distinct sound. While the songwriter usually took the vocal solo to his respectable song, the impeccable layering of Taylor, Mercury, and May’s voices made each song recognizable as Queen’s. With each band member transitioning and overlapping different instruments which the band desired – from bass to piano (Deacon in “You’re my Best Friend”), or guitar to ukulele (May in “Good Company”), or vocals to kazoo (All in “Seaside Rendezvous”), they created a richer sound that was distinctly all their own. Just as important as the musical talent came the brilliant editing and production from Roy Thomas Baker. Baker made the vocal layering consistent and pushed their technical equipment and studio time to its limits to produce a masterpiece.
A Night at the Opera was the prime of their albums and launched them into a superstar career with monetary success and a comfortable period where they didn’t have to work as hard musically to save the band. An extensive work such as A Night at the Opera encouraged Queen to explore new recording techniques. Queen decided to stop working with Roy Thomas Baker and produced future albums on their own. While the next album A Day at the Races included classic hits such as “Good-Old Fashioned Lover Boy” and “Somebody to Love,” critics claimed that the album did not live up to its predecessor. Without Baker, the newer albums lacked the same edge, careful tracking, and technical innovation as their older albums. However, Queen continued to grow to superstar status and become one of the largest stadium concert shows in the world (they were an exceptional live band).
Queen created other great singles such “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” on the remarkable News of the World release (1977). The band removed their “no-synthesizers” policy as they entered the 80’s, and with their new works Queen transitioned from rock to rock/pop star status. The 1980s saw the band release five rather forgettable albums, with the exception of The Game (1980). It wasn’t the Queen we knew but they filled arenas to record breaking levels and were still beloved by their huge fan base. Ironically, with Mercury facing terminal illness, Queen’s last recording revived some of that old magic on Innuendo, with tracks like “Princes of the Universe” and “The Show Must Go On.” Queen were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and remain one of the most revered and successful bands in rock history.
Reviewer: Hillary Millecam
IRC: Bill Pulice
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