This one was pretty unexpected.
A little bit of context. I’ve devoted myself to this project partly on the basis of having spent a lot time defending my love of Queen to significantly more credible musos and writers than myself. For some people it baffles that I could simultaneously and authentically be raving about the late era Scott Walker records and ranting about everyone needing to hear the Queen that exists beyond the ubiquitous Greatest Hits.
I don’t think there’s actually a contradiction here. There’s a wide variety of song writing and performance out there (quite a major understatement), and there’s no reason why one can’t passionately adore quite diverse expressions of it. Queen have become naff to many through association with wedding discos and drunken singalongs. Scott Walker’s inaccessibility is a badge of honour for many. But it should never just be about that, if you can’t connect emotionally to the music, why are you bothering writing about it? I think I work quite hard to still get emotional about music.
You may notice this. You may have already noticed this.
Anyway, that’s off track. What I’m trying to get to is that my central thesis here is ‘Queen are better than you think, and a lot of their brilliance is hidden deeper in the albums than you think.’
But. Well. I’ve got to be honest here.
Even I always brushed off the first two albums.
They barely even scratch the surface of first volume of Greatest Hits, with one track representing both of the records, and that track isn’t even really on the first album (as with many things, we’ll get to that when the time comes).
So this début record, I feel like I’m coming to it for the first time.
I’ve done at least one ‘whole discography in one day’ before, so I know I’ve heard it all before, but I couldn’t really remember it.
Which is why I’ve actually been shocked to prove myself more right than I thought.
The production is a bit odd on this first record; the drums a bit washed out, the piano a little plonky (technical term).
But it’s good. It’s really good. I can imagine this dazzling utterly at the time, even standing against the rock giants of the era.
But my memory of it was as a pretty plodding and traditional rock record.
Doing All Right surprised me.
Second track, after that blast of joy and affirmation, we get a simple piano line and vocal, that unfolds into something like a Glen Campbell ballad. Pushes a lot of country buttons, before dropping first into spanish guitar thoughtfulness, and only unleashing the electrics halfway through, and then only for a brief, pounding set of flourishes.
Queen do this.
Right from the beginning, Queen did this.
A Queen song is quite often not a song, but a journey. Verse and chorus just a structure on which to explore different musical styles and techniques, ideas and ideals.
This is what excites me about them. The fact that even now, I barely know what to expect from a Queen track. Even the tracks that I’ve heard a million times, occasionally reveal a hidden moment of ‘wow, they really did that, didn’t they, that’s ridiculous’.
As this track pours from emotion to emotion, defiantly surviving, following the advice of the previous track, it routinely surprises.
Freddie’s range and diversity, accompanied by May’s diversity and range, is the only way they could possibly support this (don’t worry, we’re not going to always be talking just about the obvious leads, it just takes a while for the others to step to the front). The two are masters of tone with their instruments of choice. They can be tour guides to anywhere, because they are virtuosos, with a real eye for detail, and a willingness to put the hours in at the studio. I think that was apparent from the off.
It’s also worth giving a little nod to the fact that this is a bit of Queen arcana, in that I believe it’s the only track that was composed by Brian May and Tim Staffell. Staffell was singer in the proto-Queen: Smile.
It’s a lovely track. Heartfelt and mercurial, and it totally undermines my expectations of this record. Queen had it from the beginning.
My favourite moment, is the very end. After the second blast of guitar noodling and hammering drums, the song unfurls back to the title, sung in a glorious little Beach Boys harmony, with just a downbeat and quiet piano coda to finish. It’s probably corny as all hell, but that’s Queen. I accept that.
And right here, I think it’s perfect. Rounding off a rollercoaster with a gentle, warming hug.
We’re still on solid ground here.
Thanks Queen, you might just prove me right.
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.
Illustration by Emma.