This is enormous. I can’t believe it fits into six and a half minutes (although to be fair, it does bleed into and out of the songs on either side).
There’s too much going on here to really keep track of, I don’t know how to approach it. I mean, look at the density of the technical breakdown over at Queensongs.info. This is a rhapsody on a par with the obvious one, and I think even more ambitious and striking.
First, I need to get something out of the way.
This song engages with race on at least some level, so I’m can’t dismiss the white queen/black queen duality of this album as just being a bit of fantasy cliché. There’s an n-word in the middle (“a little n– sugar and a rub-a-dub-a baby oil”), and it’s really not clear what sort of ‘black’ the titular queen is meant to be. (And even some of that’s assuming that light/dark duality narratives deserve a free ride, which they don’t).
I’m not qualified to talk about if this is problematic or not.
I’m not a big fan of moral relativism (or any sort of absolutism, for that matter), so I don’t think ‘it was a different time’ washes. But then, I’m also conscious that Freddie is the writer, and a Parsi Londoner, no doubt much more intensely familiar with the period’s racism than I am. But of course, being part of one oppressed and colonised ethnic group, doesn’t mean you can’t have problematic attitudes (or songs) about others. Racism and colonialism is part of the British cultural history, and at the very least, this song uses images of slavery, violence, sexuality and abuse that are relevant to that, possibly attaching them to a black queen character.
The lyrics are dense and lurid throughout, and it’s really hard to piece together who is who and what is what. I don’t want to excuse anything here, but my feeling is that this song is more complicated than any simple problematic reading would be. For a start, I get the sense at different points in the song that Freddie is casting himself as both the one thrown in the cellar and the powerful, sexualised and abusive queen.
I’ve been digging around for interpretations, and I find people saying it’s about being in an abusive relationship, people saying it’s a description of illicit sexual acts, people saying it’s a fantasy piece about an evil ruler.
All fit. All make sense. All could be entirely misguided. All of it sounds a bit too simple.
I still can’t work out who is speaking in the song. Who to identify with. It’s kind of fascinating, and the problematic undercurrents add to this. I’m uncomfortable with the amount of praise I’m about to heap on it, but given the density of the lyricism, I suspect any simple interpretation is immediately undermined enough to let the artfulness stand as art.
But like I say, I’m not qualified to say what’s what here.
I hope that makes sense.
Because what I really actually want to talk about is not the dense and unsettling imagery and lyrics, but the immense, rich, and terrifying tapestry of music.
This is an opus. A grand and ambitious work. Nestled into an early album, setting an operatic precedent for the band, but hiding in the back catalogue, too complicated to ever make it to stage. (Apparently the band used to do a medley that included little chunks from one of the sections here, but the piece couldn’t make it to stage, and it’s understandable.)
A piano intro stretches out from the track before, only to be halted by abrupt screams, guitar and Freddie’s recursive lyrics. The amount of screaming and harmonising here is almost immediately immense. With repitched vocal parts joining together in a downward spiral of noise.
This makes way for a long section that could be a song in and of itself, a dense one, pitching one way or the other, making space for intense rhythms and screaming guitars. There’s a lot of repetition and riffing here, with moments repeated and reshaped.
But there’s a distinct change of pace at one point, hammered piano and throbbing guitar, joined by church bells, and a further cascading piano part, and eventually a stunning vocal part that eventually starts looping like a skipping record.
Before dropping out to some naked vocal harmonies and barely there piano. The harmonising here is gorgeous, mostly multi-tracked Freddie, to my ear, but occasional bursts of the rest of the band. Again, it could be its own song in its own right, one of those sensitive piano moments.
Its position in the wider piece though, means that as more instruments pull in, it has to make way for something approaching a more simple rock section, where Taylor provides some light dueting, and some of the earlier themes are restated by guitar.
Eventually the drums take control of the march, but almost as soon as they do, a faintly regal guitar lick slows everything down to what sounds like an ending.
But isn’t, because vaudeville piano.
Or something like it.
The final section really does sound like an intro for the next track, detached from the march almost completely, but it’s here in this song, and it forms the end of the enormous and monstrous cycle.
That’s the quickest I can clatter through the piece. It’s a storming mass of sections and themes and ideas, all vying for position around each other. Except they don’t really compete, they complete.
Sure, like a microcosm of this whole side of the album, each part could be considered an isolated song, joined by connective melodic tissue. But this isn’t a simple patchwork, it’s an elaborate and convoluted structure, it begs you to dive in to it’s strange and threatening world. It dares you to follow along, to guess what to expect, and even within individually identifiable sections, it defies those expectations. Whether it’s a shift in rhythm, tonality, tempo, instrumentation, panning or harmony, every moment seems to offer up something; some new immensity.
The size is the thing. The scope is the thing. It’s not just that it’s a long track, it’s nowhere near as long in time as it feels to listen to it.
That looping trap in the middle. It’s such an intensity, such a huge and unsettling thing to insert into a piece of music. It’s not just a way of linking two different musical moments together, it’s a beast of production, a striking and challenging element of a striking and challenging piece of musical storytelling.
I could drown in this. I suspect I’ll be haunted by it.
According to that analysis linked to earlier, the song contains 24-30 different chords, using each note of the chromatic scale as the root at least once. The piece uses polyrhythms and irregular rhythms almost casually, as throw away moments in service of the wider density here.
In short, musically, it’s a marvel.
And I think you can hear it throughout. It bears a close listening, but it also rips forward at such a pace that it has to carry you along. It’s strange and engrossing, even without the dense and convoluted lyricism.
Whilst digging around for interpretation, I found a thread of people arguing about whether it was better than Bohemian Rhapsody. I’m probably going to hold back my feeling on that until I get to that particular piece of musical history, but I will say that I’m not surprised people raise the question. This is a similarly over the top elaborate and yet gripping structure.
It’s not a blueprint though, it’s its own thing. A huge blast of musical strangeness that stands alone as a wonderfully powerful suite of feelings, themes and motifs. It’s a beast. It’s not a march, it’s a cavalcade, a fury. The centrepiece one of the most fascinatingly ridiculous sides of vinyl I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering.
I just really hope it’s not being racist.
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.