Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Queen.
The first song on Queen’s self-titled, 1973 debut album is “Keep Yourself Alive.” Even now, 23 years after the death of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, that title casts a haunting shadow over the band’s legacy. By any method of accounting, Queen is one of the most popular and beloved rock groups in history. But it’s hard to imagine, let alone name, a band that took a more conflicted and contrarian path to superstardom. At a time when jaded self-seriousness was rock’s status quo, Mercury and company emphasized flamboyance. But unlike its contemporaries in the ’70s glam movement, Queen knew how to combine showmanship and theatricality with the pomp and circumstance (not to mention the virtuosic chops) of progressive rock. “Keep Yourself Alive,” which is also Queen’s first single, trumpeted the band’s august arrival at a time when its members were still struggling scenesters in London. But Queen’s music was never about survival. It’s about enjoying life to the hilt, and steeping oneself in abundance, decadence, and the finer points of conspicuous consumption—even if, or especially when, that means faking it until you make it.
Artifice plays a large part in the appeal of Queen. Mercury—born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar (now Tanzania) before spending his childhood in India, then moving to England when he was 17—was a master of reinvention, and he embodied the thespian quality of finding oneself through the masks one wears. Queen not only features the roller-coaster exuberance of “Keep Yourself Alive,” it goes through as many wardrobe changes as Mercury himself was known to undergo onstage: The galloping fantasia of “Great King Rat” segues into the spacious, swirling “My Fairy King,” and it’s just one of many stunning examples of the band’s agility and ambition. Following a year later, Queen II sinks even deeper into mythological themes and scope, but where so many prog bands at the time could be stodgy in their Tolkien-esque grandeur, Mercury was like Peter Pan fronting an amplified chamber orchestra. Queen was initially pegged as a Led Zeppelin wannabe, but the only thing Mercury and guitarist Brian May drew from Robert Plant and Jimmy Page was a strong songwriting dynamic and a penchant for the epic. Other than that, nothing like Queen had ever been heard before.
1974 was a banner year for Queen. Not yet even close to being superstars, Mercury and May—ably abetted by bassist John Deacon and drummer-vocalist Roger Taylor, both fine songwriters in their own rights who would wind up contributing greatly to the group’s stable of classics—released Queen II as well as Sheer Heart Attack. The latter album sharpened Queen’s focus with a hit that would become its signature song, the ornate, sumptuous “Killer Queen,” as well as the proto-thrash gem “Stone Cold Crazy” (later covered by Metallica, who didn’t have to do much to the song to make it sound like one of their own). A string of live shows from that year are captured on the new release Live At The Rainbow ’74, which shows Queen’s strengths as a concert draw—but also some of its weaknesses. At that point, the group was working more and more with complex arrangements, intricate layers of overdubs, and soaring harmonies, which had to be stripped to the bone in a live setting.
That over-the-top hugeness hit its peak on Queen’s next two albums, 1975’s A Night At The Opera and 1976’s A Day At The Races. Emboldened by the success of “Killer Queen” and the fact that fans on both sides of the Atlantic were finally learning how to digest the band’s excessive sound, Mercury unleashed his best-known composition, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song that tackled the same depth of idea and emotion Pink Floyd was shooting for at the time, yet making it somehow magically fun. The overwhelming triumph of “Bohemian Rhapsody” never overshadowed the painstaking, innovative studio work that went into its creation—but it has overshadowed A Night At The Opera as a whole. The sweet, heartfelt “You’re My Best Friend” also became a hit, a fate that any number of excellent tracks on the album deserved, including the searing, sneering “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…),” one of the most venomous kiss-offs in the history of popular music. A Day At The Races delivered another timeless Queen sing-along in the form of the glassy soul of “Somebody To Love”—alongside fist-pumping hard rock like “Tie Your Mother Down.” Still, it feels like Queen running in place for the first time, instead of stretching forward.
Queen’s next quantum leap came in 1977 with News Of The World. Just as punk was exploding all around it—and declaring bands like Queen bloated and irrelevant—Mercury and company mercilessly carved their sound into a the stark, stadium-ready stomp of “We Will Rock You” and its gorgeous, yin-yang counterpart, the ballad “We Are The Champions”—the latter lending a bittersweet tone to an otherwise fist-pumping song. And on “Sheer Heart Attack,” the band even delivers its own take on punk, albeit with bursts of arty weirdness and sci-fi noise. 1978’s Jazz didn’t fare as well, but its fearless march into unexplored territory, including the multilingual, culture-spanning “Mustapha” and the retro-futuristic Elvis Presley tribute “Dreamers Ball,” bolstered the unabashedly popular “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Bicycle Race,” which remain two of the oddest hits in Queen’s catalog. Not only was the group firing on all conceptual cylinders, they solidified their unique position in the rock pantheon: a band millions adored because it shocked and surprised, not in spite of it.
The ’80s didn’t hit Queen as much as Queen hit the ’80s. The band’s lush sound seemed tailor-made for the ’70s, but the sleek, shiny new decade provided the opportunity for the band to reinvent itself once again. The Game came out in 1980, and not only did it break the group’s self-imposed “no synthesizer” rule, it did so gleefully and minus irony. But for every synth-smeared, symphonic fit of exhibitionism like the album’s title track, there are curiosities like the crystal-cut funk of “Another One Bite The Dust” (which borrowed from Chic’s 1979 disco smash “Good Times”) and the rousing, surprisingly faithful rockabilly of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” With typical Queen perversity, the outliers became the disc’s biggest hits. At a time when much of rock’s establishment and fandom were violently rejecting disco, one of rock’s most visible bands thrust disco in their faces—all while counterbalancing it with a nod to rock’s 1950s roots. It’s pure bravura, an element that ought to be listed on The Game’s liner notes alongside guitars and drums. This year also saw the release of the group’s soundtrack to the film Flash Gordon, a campy, pulpy space-opera romp that fit Queen like a gauntlet.
Drugs, ego, and the leverage to do anything and everything it wanted contributed to the mixed results of Queen’s next two albums. 1982’s Hot Space and 1984’s The Works exemplified the band’s two extremes in the early ’80s: Hot Space is plastic, frictionless, and assertively erotic, while The Works is a return to the arena-rock anthem. Each album, in its own way, if far better than they’re usually given credit for; their main drawback is the general lack of diversity to be found among its songs, at least compared to the cornucopia of brazenness that accompanied its prior albums. That said, Hot Space birthed one of the most indelible songs of Queen’s career—and also of David Bowie’s. “Under Pressure,” the Queen/Bowie collaboration that would become synonymous with both, brought two of pop’s most unreachable acts and grounded them in simplicity and emotional vulnerability, all tied together with Deacon’s immortal bass hook.
Queen’s remaining albums of the ’80s, A Kind Of Magic and The Miracle, came out in 1986 and 1989, respectively. Between those years, in 1987, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS. The news was kept a secret at first, but soon his illness became too severe to hide. Accordingly, there’s a fatigue to A Kind Of Magic and The Miracle that’s livened only occasionally by stellar tracks like “Who Wants To Live Forever” and “Princes Of The Universe,” two songs from A Kind Of Magic that also appeared on the soundtrack to the 1986 fantasy film Highlander. With a tragic synchronicity, “Who Wants To Live Forever,” along with “Keep Yourself Alive,” seemed to bookend Mercury’s career; Queen’s final album with him at the helm, 1991’s lightweight, immaculate, poignant Innuendo, came out nine months before Mercury died on November 24, 1991. Four years later, Queen issued Made In Heaven, an album that posthumously featured songs Mercury had worked on and partially recorded before his death. As a record, it’s as uneven as its production would suggest; as a belated epitaph for Mercury, songs like “Too Much Love Will Kill You” are as chilling as they are courageous.
Queen without Mercury is not Queen. But that hasn’t stopped May, Deacon, and Taylor from continuing under that name after Mercury’s death, and their legal right to do so doesn’t diminish the lackluster nature of the trio’s recorded output with other singers. Most notably Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company fame—an incomparable singer in his own right—someone whose bluesy rasp doesn’t make 2008’s The Cosmos Rocks (released under the name Queen + Paul Rodgers) remotely approach the previous greatness of anyone involved. American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert is Queen’s most recent conscript, and while his voice and stage presence are far closer to Mercury’s than Rodgers’ ever were, the band’s original members seem wise enough to not be in a hurry to record an album with him; Queen’s upcoming album, Queen Forever, is reported to be comprised of stray tracks sung by Mercury but never released. Regardless of how the remaining founders of Queen choose to treat their legacy, their songs with Mercury—infused with a pure lust for existence in all its happiness, unhappiness, and glorious uncertainty—are powerful and enduring enough to transcend it all.
1. A Night At The Opera
2. News Of The World
4. Sheer Heart Attack
5. The Game