Death on two legs (dedicated to…..

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*GASP*

This record has at least four perfect songs on it.

This is at least one of them.

Death on two legs.

I’m actually having trouble breathing, this is so good.

First of all, it has the most dramatic and over the top intro yet. Possibly throughout the Queen catalogue. Pianos orbit from space, getting replaced by ominous guitars and increasing crunches before a guitar shrieks and it all drops to tiny, tiny stacatto piano stabs for the song proper.

What an incredible thing, a whole world of music before you even begin the song, and it’s all a bluff, with a song that starts calm and actually stays simple.

The intro is so ominous, it’s played over the death animation of dystopian Queen themed computer game The eYe.* It’s a wonderful piece of melodrama, starting open and optimistic, but being overwhelmed by something genuinely dark and unsettling that grows and grows until it is ripped away.

To Freddie’s simple piano. The cascading arpeggios a fake out. Actually we’ve just got such a simple piano part, innocently walking into what becomes a lions den of guitars. The themes of the song are stated perfectly in these moments, both sonically and thematically. We hear a microcosm of the entire song in the actual intro (post the intro, but before Freddie starts singing).

You can hear the guitar start imitating the piano, and then slowly taking over, with a more elaborate solo over the key riff.

And then Freddie starts spitting bile.

Apparently Queen’s former manager took them to court over this, claiming defamation. They settled out of court, but of course, now everyone has a pretty good idea who this song is about. Freddie used to refer to him simply as a ‘motherfucker of a gentleman’. And there’s a class rage running through the words.

But I discovered the song as a child, so was mostly just excited by the use of the word ass (although nowadays, I find the vocal hissing effect on the ‘kiss’ more interesting).

Another lyrical highlight is Freddie adding a backing vocal to explain his own pun:

Was the fin on your back part of the deal… (shark!)

They say if you have to explain the joke, it wasn’t funny, but something about the gleeful way this punctuates the phrase is wonderful.

Brian used to feel bad singing it, because it is just so full of hate. But what I find most interesting is the direct pleasure it takes in this viciousness.

Insane, you should be put inside

You’re a sewer-rat decaying in a cesspool of pride

Should be made unemployed

Make yourself null-and-void

Make me feel good

I feel good

Skipping over the unpleasant mental health stigmatising, we see lyrics not just designed to hurt and be hurtful, but to feel good about it. Freddie delights in this hatred, the catharsis of being able to shout about vileness from his stage.

It’s not actually very pleasant.

But by god is it a great song.

Like a lot of this record, it’s deceptively simple. Intro aside, there’s rarely that many layers at once. The guitar drives us forward, the vocal spits and claws, the drums punch out and perforate, but it all runs calmly together. It’s almost restrained, leaving space for those odd stabs of vocal effect, choral harmony or odd bursts of drum.

The guitar solo is a perfect example of this, everything drops out to let it stop the show. Guitar slowing down and then winding up to rejoin the drums and concisely blast some outrage out. It’s not just the words that are sharp, everything is.

It’s a precise song. Surprisingly. It’s surgical anger. And it ends like this too, one last feel good, and then what sounds like the song being zipped up, wrapped in time for the next track, which couldn’t be further apart from it, tonally.

But it works, because everything has been said, everything stated, and everything wrapped up in tight, hard guitar work.

It’s a perfect little song, and an outrageous little opener. Blasting in with that intro, tearing through the vinyl like a cannonball, and blasting out of site before you’ve had time to notice it.

It’s deft and perfect, through all the rage.

What a way to begin.

This is a night at the opera. Full drama. Full energy. Full tilt.

Brace yourselves.

 

*Yes. This is a thing that exists. In the real world. It happened. I love Queen. Even when they sell out, they sell out in the most gloriously ridiculous way imaginable. The intro also features in the nonsensical and badly built intro cutscene, if you want a bit more Queen themed nightmare world building.

 

 

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.

Lazing on a sunday afternoon

Lazing

“Everything on “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” is something that I’m really sort of.”

There’s a particular sigh I only ever do on a Sunday. It’s slightly odd, really, as Sunday should theoretically be pretty meaningless to me these days, as I don’t work Mondays. But there is something particular about Sundays anyway. I felt it just half an hour ago, after a lazy afternoon’s board games, a contented sigh into some lovely jazz and a quiet room of people smiling to themselves.

It’s a specific thing, pretty personal, but we think of it as pretty universal.

The above quote is Freddie, talking about the song, and I love that turn at the end ‘something that I’m really sort of.’

Being really sort of is a good place to start.

And I’m really sort of fond of this track.

It’s a silly little thing, in many ways. Freddie Noel Cowards the vocal line (which is literally sung through a bucket, if you’re wondering) and gleefully runs through the ditty, painting a life of occasionally mundane but overtly classy loucheness.

The whole piece (pretty much) is restated in the guitar solo at the end, shifted oddly in key to make space for the next track. (The guitar is also recorded through the ‘play the track through a bucket, and then pick it up with a second mic’ technique, though it’s not as obvious).

There’s a little depth to it though, the much more hardworking types over at Queensongs.info note that there are actually 19 different chords in this one minute piece.

It’s funny, isn’t it. Queen will put as much effort into a minute long throwaway as into anything else. It doesn’t throw away, it sticks, and it charms. As Freddie notes, it tells us something about him, has a lot of him in it. Not just the loucheness, but the hard-working attention to detail underneath. They’ll find a bucket to get that old timey magic, and condense the whole thing into itself for the solo.

It’s not a lazy song, is what I’m saying.

And the way that tiny playful piano intro bounces out of the rage of the last track, and the way the warmth of the final guitar line escalates into the next.

It’s all there.

Listening closely this time, I notice a loveliness in Freddie’s backing vocals as well. On his last repeat, the way his ‘weee-ell, ooo-ooh, ooh Sun-day’ runs underneath is utterly ridiculous. I love it.

I come from London town, I’m just an ordinary guy

Fridays I go painting in the Louvre

There’s a couple of things here, but I think it’s sweet that as much as there’s a lightness being made, you can see Freddie in this. Simultaneously ordinary and utterly not. Casually dropping a masterpiece on a Friday night.

There’s also a pleasing loop to the piece, I like that on Tuesday he’s on honeymoon, from last Saturday’s proposing. But you find out the wrong way round.

Then there’s the backing vocal banter, Freddie rolling his eyes at himself.

It’s a lot of lovely little detail, in a well executed vaudeville ditty. It’s a homage to the past, it’s a homage to Freddie.

And it’s the perfect foil to what came before. All raged out, time for a lazing.

It’s bloody charming, is what it is.

 

 

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.

I’m in love with my car

CarLove

So here’s the thing.

Despite the hate-filled start, this is an album about love. I count somewhere between four and seven love songs, depending on how you define love songs.

It’s got two of the sweetest love songs in the world, one about friendship, but written for a lifelong romantic partner, the other apparently romantic, but written for a lifelong friend. It’s lovely, actually.

Then there’s the slightly kinky love song, and the one about the seaside, and the one about forgetting to love properly.

And then there’s this.

It’s about cars.

I’m in love with my car.

Roger Taylor still loves a curveball.

And a car.

That’s his Alfa Romeo at the beginning, though the song is dedicated to one of the band’s roadies ‘Johnathan Harris, boy racer to the end’.

I really should be doing better research than dipping into wikipedia, but I’ll be honest, this is the best story ever.

Roger loved this song, and begged Freddie to let it be the B-side to Bohemian Rhapsody. Somehow the argument escalated to the point where Roger Taylor locked himself in a cupboard until the band agreed. This of course, ended up being a very profitable cupboard locking, as Bohemian Rhapsody went on to be the third bestselling single in the UK, and Taylor will have got half of the songwriting royalties on the initial release (all the nostalgia releases backed it with other tracks). Apparently this caused friction forever.

But still, lot of money to make from arguing yourself into a cupboard.

Bless him.

Looking at the song, it’s got an odd charm, but you have to dig for it. It’s a good warm up for later filthy innuendoes, but it doesn’t quite seem to notice them. Apparently Brian May thought the song was a joke when they first went to record it.

Increasingly, actually, this is making me feel bad for Roger.

Told my girl I’ll have to forget her,

Rather buy me a new carburettor.

It’s heartfelt, for all the absurdity. Almost too much. I suspect there is a knowingness, but, especially when sandwiched between Freddie vocal lines, it’s hard for Taylor to nail it. He’s got a great voice, a solid growl, but it just sounds a bit too into it. A bit too excited by the whole process

Such a thrill when your radials squeal.

It’s all a bit Top Gear. Masculinity taking itself too seriously in its attempt to make light of itself.

But it’s still got some bloody glorious couplets.

The guitars swan through the whole song, surging and roaring in all the right places. It’s a solid piece, but it’s surrounded by such clever, witty and beautiful song-writing that it does, sadly, pale a bit in comparison.

It’s possibly my fault. I really don’t like cars that much. And I shouldn’t kinkshame those that do.

Because there’s some real love here. If not for the vehicle, then for the boy racer.

Whatever gets your pistons a pumpin’, I guess.

With my hand’s on your grease gun,

Oh it’s like a disease son,

Filth.

I still love you, Roger.

 

 

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.

You’re my best friend

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This is one of my favourites.

It might just be my favourite.

It’s so deep in my heart.

I can’t describe it.

You’re my best friend.

It’s there in those first tones, right from the off. The lovely contrasting tones of the wurlitzer. The way the notes play off each other, and provide a bed for the rest of the song. Those drums, that vocal, that sentiment.

It’s all perfect. A beautiful, deftly crafted pop song.

In an album (and career) full of pomp, ceremony and bombast, we just have something so straightforward, the three minute pop song, in all its glory.

It’s Queen, so it doesn’t really repeat itself, there’s no real chorus, just a sequence of immediately memorable hooks.

And some of the sweetest lyrics ever written. The rounding out of a love song into the simplest possible terms. With Freddie’s faintly orgasmic ohs just sealing the deal.

It’s John Deacon, by the way, only his second song on the records, and it’s just sheer joy. He liked the sound of the wurlitzer, Freddie refused to play it, so he got one, took it home, learnt to play, and wrote a song for his wife-to-be.

And it’s not about the romance or the sex or the trappings, it’s about that beating core of friendship at the heart of any long term relationship. It cuts to the core in its simplicity, and gives you something irresistible to sing.

The vocal is purred at times, Freddie knows how to hold back, when to overstate. I think you can hear it in his performance, there’s a delicacy here, a breathlessness, a quietness, almost. With the chorus thickening it out.

There’s a guitar solo in there somewhere, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still just about those words, that keyboard.

I don’t know how and when to dive into this, but it has to be said that this album made me. I can still sing along to every song, without the lyric sheet. I had a vinyl copy scavenged from my brother for a huge chunk of my childhood, and I would just loop it. Saved of the scratches on my car boot sale Greatest Hits, it was so glorious to revel properly in this track. Let it seep into me.

And now it’s there, always, at my core, reminding me just how important friendship is to me. I strive to build all my relationships of the simple ideas of togetherness found in that wurlitzer.

And it reminds me specifically of a dear departed best friend. And I think about singing this at him. I see his face in those keyboards. Feel him near me as I listen.

Sure, you can build a romance out of this much love, but I think it’s so glorious that one of the greatest love songs ever written is about friendship.

Because it’s the most beautiful thing.

This track is a gift of a thing. Standing proudly in a mass of drama, just a simple beacon of light.

And those fucking keyboards.

Did I tell you I love those keyboards?

I could drown in them.

Put the track back to the beginning again. Hear those keys pepper each other with noise.

Shut your eyes, and think about your friends, your loved ones.

Picture their faces, and sing them a truth.

You’re my sunshine

And I want you to know

That my feelings are true

I really love you

You’re my best friend.

It’s a perfect love song, because it feels real, honest, open and for everybody.

 

And that’s the thing about love, isn’t it? Not that it’s a unique bond between two people, but that it seems such a unifying and obvious thing. That we can hear it in a song, and feel it in our bones, and radiate it outwards.

Like my other favourite love song, Naive Melody, this song isn’t just about connecting with someone, falling for them, it’s about being at home with them, singing with them, breathing life into each other.

Breathing life into the world.

Queen, you’re my best friend, because you’ve been with me forever, and you’ve inspired and held and loved me. You filled me with love and made me pour it out into the world.

Music, you’re my best friend, you are, quite simply my sunshine, the thing that gives me life.

And people, all of you, you’re my best friend, you make me live. I’ve got you to help me forgive. I want you to know.

Emma, you’re my best friend.

Will, you’re my best friend.

Anna and Chris and Lou and Caro and Justin and Jen and Kier and Amy and Jess and Luke and everyone. Everyone.

You’re my best friend.

And I love the things, I really love the things that you do.

If a measure of a song is the things it can make you feel. The people it can remind you of. The weight of what it makes you know. The way it pushes through you?

Then this is it, this is the song you’re looking for. Just a perfect three minutes and some trite but true words, sung well, with perfect backing, and a simple passion.

If it was just this song, I’d still love Queen forever.

Like a best friend.

 

 

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.

’39

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Probably my favourite Brian May fact is that he was doing a PhD from 1970 to 1974, and it was Queen’s success that put it on hold. He went back to finish up writing it all up and finally finished in 2007 (apparently not much research had been done on his topic in between, but it was ‘becoming trendy’ again). I remember reading it in the paper while I was at uni, and it genuinely delighted me.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure that here we have out first song in which Brian let his astrophysics out of the bag, but (a) you have to pay attention to spot it and (b) it’s basically a bloody sea shanty.

’39.

It’s proper lovely, you know.

Anyway, what sounds like a simple song about loves lost on high seas adventures, it’s actually about time dilation. The seas are milky for a reason.

It sounds like a trip on the seas but the two ’39s in the song have at least a hundred years in between. Depending on your perspective.

How utterly gorgeous is that? A love song about time dilation? This is basically Interstellar in a three minute shanty.

And some of the absolute loveliest lyrics on the topic of loss too.

I’m not really explaining it am I.

So listen in.

The ship sails out in 39 ‘into the blue and sunny morn’, and the twenty people aboard ‘sailed across the milky seas. Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried.’

The chorus doesn’t make much sense the first time around, measuring distance in years, writing letters in sand and with grandchildren knowing the past better than you did.

Then Roger Taylor wails operatically for a bit, and there’s some striking guitar play underneath.

So we’re back in ’39, and the Volunteers come home with news of a new world.

For the earth is old and grey, little darling we’ll away

But my love this cannot be

For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year

Your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me

Can you spot it?

Travelling at the speed of light, time starts to act weird. So when these astronauts go out into the milky way, looking for a new home. The mission takes a year, but they travelled so fast that they experienced ‘less time’ than anyone back home. (This is totally legit, by the way, a real cosmic effect predicted by Einstein’s special theory of relativity).

So yeah, the ship comes home, to find not the lover left behind, but a child.

And that line:

Your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me

It’s perfect.

It’s like one of those shortest ever short story things. A few words (that should be punctuated better, but that’s Queen liner notes for you), and something impossibly sad, utterly strange yet totally familiar is shared. Looking to your children and seeing the lost loved ones of previous generations.

If the whole set up was just for that line, it’d be worth it.

It’s a perfect little bit of science fiction. Never going into too much detail, no weight of exposition, just a clever bit of science showing you some real possible future, and the emotional whack of the familiar. We’ve all lost loved ones, we can feel along at home.

And of course, the folksy setting is perfectly chosen, underscoring the anachronistic references, and helping resonate across the ages.

The song feels really eternal, and it’s totally possible to just read it as a traditional song about how people change if you leave them behind (cf. Good Company, later this album, exploring some similar ideas from a totally different angle).

It’s not my favourite, but it’s hard to fault it, it’s clever, witty, beautiful, heartfelt.

And it’s a bloody science fiction sea shanty!

Two little wikipedia anecdotes to get out of the way, because they’re too cool to miss.

Firstly, my favourite story since Roger Taylor locked himself in a cupboard: Brian joked that John Deacon should play double bass to give it more a folky feel. Two days later, Deacy showed up at the studio double bass at the ready, having taught himself how to play it.

Have I told you lately that I love John Deacon?

Secondly, a tiny tidbit. This album and the next are named after Marx brothers’ movies. Apparently Queen went to see Groucho a few months before he died, and they sung an a cappella version of this. This fills my heart with joy.

So yes. ’39. A simple song of love and loss, with a great deal underneath it.

All the hope of the stars, and all the sadness of living with loss.

All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand

 

For my life

Still ahead

Pity Me.

 

 

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.

Sweet Lady

SweetLady

In probably the most supremely Queenly contrast ever, Brian jumps from folksy to rocksy, and from wistful to kinky.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, but still some kind of wonderful.

For a start, one of my favourite lines ever:

You call me sweet like I’m some kind of cheese

Sweet Lady.

A Roger Taylor quote hoiked from wikipedia sums something up beautifully*:

There’s an old song called “Sweet Lady”, which Brian wrote, on A Night At The Opera, and he was saying, ‘I want it to go like this,’ and he wanted it to do three different things at once and that was a bit hard to understand.

So here we have Queen’s only really punchy hard rock song on the album…and it’s in waltz time.

I love these guys.

Semantically, it’s Brian exploring relationships, and it feels a bit more switch, although possibly this is just the second verse being the Sweet Lady, talking back to the narrator.

I want to read it as deeply submissive, a dommed relationship to accompany the stormtrooper. But really, I think we’re just hearing people talking past each other. It’s not about Brian wanting someone to sweet to put him on a lead, it’s just a straightforward argument.

The narrator gets the call, complains about the implied jealousy, and gets sarky. The response is just as irate, possibly missing the irony.

And the bridge leaves us with a pretty banal sentiment, that doesn’t really approach the incident.

So despite sounding like a pretty sexy rock song, it’s actually just a banal fight, pretty damning in its pointlessness.

But, well, at least it sounds pretty sexy.

Brian does do something really clever with the riff, which sounds more urgent and pulsing than you’d expect from anything in 3/4 time. It’s catchy and exciting. The intro isn’t as thrilling as we like from a Queen track, but it’s solid, and ropes you in.

And of course, Freddie sings the hell out of it. Actually managing to get genuine venom into the cheese line.

There’s also something nice in the banal bridge also being the only bit in 4/4, just to undermine itself.

I’m going to give this one to the guitars, basically. The album needed a traditional rocker, and it got one, with a heck of a riff (and actually, I almost prefer the way the walking up return from the riff used in the verse).

The song surges on into all of these little weird variations on itself, pulling in different energies and ideas, but still keeping that pulse going through clever manipulation of guitar effects.

The chorus has such a weird underpinning guitar part, bursting into these weird little knots of guitar, losing the laid back groove for something more urgent, but less aggressive.

And then there’s guitar solo finale, various repeating motifs playing over each other, lots of delay and echo, lots of Brian, basically.

It’s not the best thing here, but it’s still got it going on.

I wants a groove, and so it nails one.

Can’t complain, realistically.

Sweeter than some cheeses, but with a bite of bitterness.

Definitely worth a taste.

 

 

*That something may simply be that he had little idea what was going on in the band, and that’s why I love him.

 

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.

Seaside Rendezvous

Seaside-01

A return to the vaudeville, and a pretty lovely partner piece to ‘happy little fuck’, or whatever they ended up calling that.

We’re back on the seaside, but this time, things are a bit…erm…more light hearted?

Seaside Rendezvous.

It’s a torrent of bouncy lyrical playfulness, bounding between lovely period detail, rhyme, rhythm and chatty backing vocals. It never lets up, and it just lets go.

And then, of course, there’s that mid-section.

This is an absolute wonder of silliness. Roger and Freddie basically trying to have the most fun possible (in a way that is no doubt incredibly challenging, technically). It’s credited in the liner notes as ‘Vocal Orchestration of Brass – Roger Taylor’ and ‘Vocal Orchestration of Woodwind – Freddie Mercury’, but its basically incredibly well executed titting about.

An entire solo made up of mouth-imitated trumpets, trombones and clarinets, kazoos and slide-whistles. A Freddie-desired actual tap solo was eventually performed using thimbles on the mixing desk, but still, it’s in there.

Apparently, at one point, Roger hits a C6, the highest vocal note on the record. Which, when you account for all the falsetto, is quite the achievement.

For me, there’s a special charm to music that invites you to join in. It’s why I dug In the lap of the gods…revisited, so hard. It’s what pop music is for, and why it’s so special. It needs to get you to dance or sing or play or something, to qualify as pop.

This silly little ditty, and especially the ludicrous vocal play of the solo, beg you to sing and accompany and play. The gleefulness the whole piece is approached with is irresistible. It’s stupidity begs you to act stupidly, and lifts you up for joining in.

It’s a little wonder.

And underlying the stupidity is a remarkably inventive and strange little song. The arrangement never rests, or takes a break, it doesn’t do anything the easy way, it pours into a hundred different spaces, and does it all with so much verve that you don’t notice, and just think it’s a stupid little old fashioned song about the seaside.

Which it is.

And that’s bloody wonderful.

I realise this is a bit of a muso thing to say, but I will say that I feel a bit sorry for people who only have this song on CD (or spotify). I can’t imagine how jarring it must feel to bump straight from this song into the next. But as a side closer, this is perfection. Rounding out a ridiculously varied side with the most out there blast yet.

And even outside all the mouthtrumpet, Freddie has all of the blast there is to have.

I often suspect Freddie was a pretty selfish song writer, giving himself the most absurd little delights. The way he rollicks through this shows clearly that it is something he built to get all his silliest voices and falsettos and tics and tricks out. He revels in every little detail.

You say you’d have to tell your daddy if you can

I’ll be your Valentino –

We’ll ride upon an omnibus and then the casino –

Get a new facial – start a sensation

(It pleases me that the lyric sheet doesn’t include him squeezing in the ‘al’ to blag the rhyme on that last one)

The only thing missing, really, is Brian, who plays no guitar and takes no part in this track (a rarity, even on other guitarless tracks).

Everyone else is here though, bouncing off each other in the vocal part, and just generally mucking about.

It’s the sort of track that makes me wish I was there, in the studio, watching them pull all the stops out for a silly bit of music hall.

Just so that Freddie can end the side with a request for a kiss.

Such a flirt.

 

 

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.

The Prophet’s Song

ProphetsSong

Brian May dreamt of floods, and woke up with snatches of words and melodies caught in his mind.

Eventually, he got them to the studio, and laid out a masterpiece.

The Prophet’s Song.

The sheer amount of work that has gone into this piece is incredible, and immediately audible. I can’t imagine someone hearing the whole of this piece and not being agog. The vocal delay canon section remains the only time Emma has actively said she liked something by Queen.

The vocal canon is not all it has to offer, it is a fascinating, spine tingling thing, and if I had to pick one piece to get onto the greatest hits, just to get it in front of people, it would be this one.

It’s one of the reasons I count Queen as a foundation of my passion for music. This song was the first time I really considered the notion of a music studio. I think up until here I always assumed that when a song was recorded, the band got into a room, and played it. Simple.

Prophet’s Song made me realise that it simply wasn’t possible, and that these pieces I was falling so hard for, were these intense and elaborate constructs. My lifelong fascination with engineered musical artifice began there, at that moment. It was no longer just about the stage, but about the way people built these monstrosities.

It’s even more fascinating than that though, as on watching a documentary about the song, I’ve just established that the whole realisation was predicated on a mistake.

I always assumed Freddie was multi-tracking (as throughout Bohemian Rhaposdy), but actually, it’s the same tape delay trick from Brian’s guitar solo in Brighton Rock. That whole midsection is effectively recorded live: Freddie is singing over his own tape delays, played back into his headphones so he can harmonise with himself right there in the studio.

It’s still a clever studio trick, but not the one I understood it to be. (And of course, elements later on, where Freddie is harmonising with himself with just one delay track, he is still multi-tracking).

So that’s one part. The huge craft and talent and ability and beauty that is a wonderful performer singing to himself in a fascinating bit of technical marvel.

But it’s not the home of the magic here. The wizardry is fascinating, but wizards aren’t magic.

Queen are.

Everything about this song is heavy with meaning and power. The specific performance and arrangement, ever changing, but looping around itself perfectly, just creates this huge swaddling of noise.

It’s in the inexplicable range of feeling, but something about this song brings tears to my eyes. It has a loneliness and power, that feels like it’s one of the easiest time to relate to the doom laden hysterical fantasy of the thing. I’m not usually one for prophets, but the way this song harmonises and represents its themes is utterly gripping.

Normally when Queen are at this level of bombast and towering fantasy, it’s Freddie at the helm, but finding Brian bringing his A game to this is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Anthems aside, this side of this record is bookended by immense operatic dramas. The Prophet’s Song and Bohemian Rhapsody, one for Brian, one for Freddie. Both have these huge religious overtones, to the point of likely blasphemy. Both are searing acts of drama. Both intensely technical achievements. Both far too long to be released as singles (although we know how that ended up).

Both are utterly marvellous.

But honestly, it’s The Prophet’s Song that warms my heart the most. Makes me shiver. Makes me put the record on in the first place.

And to some extent, it’s The Prophet’s Song that has me writing this at all. I’d never think Exploded Queen was worth the effort if it wasn’t for pieces of music like this. Lodged deep in my heart, or right in my brainstem, just a permanent part of my being.

I remember staying in a scout hut, overnight, after some kind of woggle-infused hiking trip. My childhood memory is sketchy, but in principle I was about nine years old

I don’t know why I had the record with me, one can only assume it had become a big enough part of my life already that I couldn’t bear to spend a night away from home without it. This does sound like me.

I remember recruiting half of the people (the other half thought I was an idiot) in the building to lug out an old hi-fi, speakers and record player, to try and get the record playing with speakers on opposite sides of the hall, to maximise the stereo effects.

I have no idea what any of those people thought of me. But there I was. That was how I did. Me and Will, running wires through community buildings for some temporary fleeting glimpse of perfect rock. (Later on we took drugs for mostly the same reasons).

That memory is fragmented and weird (I think it was the first time I realised I could never really sleep in strange places, and have a tendency to hallucinate if left without sleep or distraction for too long…so what I can remember was weird as hell, and probably not helped by Brian’s apocalyptic dream floods), but it seems important.

Because even then, the music seemed like a vital part of my existence. Worth working for. Worth pissing people off for.

I don’t think I was a fashionable kid. Looking back, I think I may have been weird.

But god, I loved Queen.

And when I hear this, I still do. With all that enthusiasm and passion still intact.

The song demands you find a space for it. It still stands up to being blasted at full volume in a darkened room. It still fascinates me.

I could listen to looped delay Freddie for an eternity. And sure, it would drive me to a very real madness. But I feel like it would be still feel like being at home. I’d still be in love.

I find it very hard to explain just why this track gets me so hard. There’s very little reason to it, it’s music, it works on other levels to reason.

While I have an eschatological bent, I’m not actually that in to prophetic doomsaying. The technical achievement is wonderful, but these studio marvels are littered through the back catalogue (and the rest of my music collection).

It’s at the other level. The simple joining of harmony and tone. The odd chord changes, and thick walls of pounding guitar.

Brian reckons that the final flourish on every riff is different. He says a defining feature of Queen’s music is that it rarely repeats. Even where you have a chorus, something will be different the second time around, because the song is a journey, and as you move through it you should change.

I think The Prophet’s Song is one of the places where you’ll realise that. See just how varied Queen while be, even when repeating motifs are making a piece cyclic enough to be gripping. Elsewhere you don’t notice. Maybe that makes this too intentionally clever. The artifice on show. For me though, it’s just polished enough to show the structures at work, and that’s a delight all itself.

As we pull out of the vocal canon, the guitar slams in, rotating around the stereo soundfield, and the whole track pours back in, vocals replaced by raw and screaming guitars. Another tape trick allows the whole guitar part to be sped up from stasis into itself, giving, a feel of the whole piece winding up yet again. Bigger, fiercer, more of everything.

That central riff pulls back, and Freddie starts raging again.

It’s huge.

But it’s not long before we close again, another guitar effect looping us into a kind of temporary frozen underworld, before returning us to the wind and koto of the intro, and an acoustic guitar that will slowly shift into the theme of the next track.

It’s blissful, really. That ending. Finishing off a track about the apocalypse with a gentler revelation, pulling back the screen, and setting the stage for a delicate passion.

It’s actually incredibly tight and concise, for the kind of operatic prog rock it clearly rubs shoulders with. No moment is overdeveloped, and while it is overblown, it doesn’t revel in it for long enough to become bloated. It’s precisely stabbing from the off, and unfurls in drums and rage so easily, almost gently.

It’s just perfect metal theatre.

With Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen left the stage for the vocal solo, and used a pre-record. It was such a studio beast that it just couldn’t be done live, so they didn’t try. That’s totally fair.

But right now, I’m being blown away by live versions of the canon from The Prophet’s Song, where Freddie goes full experimental noise artist. This was one of those pieces that so perfectly blends Freddie’s vocal extravagance, breadth and immensity with Brian’s concretely blissful arrangement and orchestration.

As much as those perfect pop songs are delights, and central parts of the Queen story, remembering just how raw and experimental and wild they were is necessary. Here it’s rock rather than pop, but you can feel both sides pulling against each other. Two forms of savage and wild identity, tamed by weird technology and a desire to tell a story with sound.

The Prophet’s Song is a story about a world falling apart, and people not knowing who to listen to. Some raging against the inevitability, some beckoning it on.

It resonates.

And sonically, it is resonance, it wraps that story in trickery that encodes that story into every sound and melody. Freddie’s voice speaks of desperation, and being haunted by versions of himself.

At its core, The Prophet’s Song is a biblical drama written on drop D guitar, with a fierce passion, and a bare truth.

It’s not one I’ll play at most parties, but I definitely want to be at the party that would receive it properly.

It’s a perfect knot of noise and theme and storytelling and technique.

It is impossible to underestimate.

It’s pretty good.

It’s part of my psyche.

I’m a fan.

 

 

 

 

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.

Love of my life

Love-02

Blending perfectly with the end of the last, we come to one of the gentlest, loveliest numbers in Queen’s entire catalogue.

It’s a love song, but again, it’s for a friend.

Freddie’s deep love for his life partner Mary Austin is huge and transparent here.

I’m not going to delve into the nature of their relationship, apart from that it was life long, and marked by these beautiful words: ‘We believe in each other, that’s enough for me.’

Love of my life.

It’s strange isn’t it, how songs about pain end up being some of the most romantic ones. On first reading, the lyric reads as pretty entitled, someone is hurt, and wants someone back, and there’s no measure of what’s gone wrong.

There’s a lovely bit of understanding in the middle eight, and honestly, I don’t feel like it reads rationally anyway. The words are a vessel for some other sentiment, some expression of the need and support that wrap around the idea of love and friendship and being there.

When I grow older

I will be there at your side to remind you

how I still love – still love you

The arrangement turns to guitar live, and apparently by 1985 Freddie had forgotten how to do the piano part. Brian now always does it solo (passing most of the work to the audience) and dedicates it to Freddie.

I’ll be honest with you, it’s powerful enough that even when watching a covers band, I’ve been moved to tears by this song live. It’s got a lot of wallop, emotionally. Particularly looking back, and remembering.

It’s a good way to remember people. Fondly, with gut wrenching harmonies.

Back in the studio, those final parts of guitar in The Prophet’s Song, when Brian first states the theme of this one, are like an unfurling, and unwrapping. As it’s joined by piano, and flurries of harp, it’s just enormous. But in a softer way than usual. The delicacy of the voice, piano and guitar left alone. No percussion to distract, just perfect tones, wrapping around you.

The harmonies are all the thickening you need, pulling the vocal forward, and adding weight to Freddie’s surprisingly restrained lead line.

Then Freddie and Brian duel a little for a sequence of piano and guitar solos, pushing against each other in a surprisingly aggressive flurry of emotion. Again, the sparseness gives them room for all the expression they could ever need.

I don’t know why I’m trying to get so descriptive about it. It feels churlish. What we have here is a gripping, heartfelt and delicately overpowering love song. It’s convoluted structure belies a simple emotion, a really honest and dedicated longing.

It’s a sentiment so clearly expressed that it wraps Freddie around you.

And that’s what brings the tears. It’s not the clever harmonising, the unusually formal guitar solo, the rubato piano.

It’s Freddie. You can hear it everywhere. In every note, and every word. Freddie’s heart, there for the taking.

Because you don’t know what it means to me –

Maybe you need to fall in love with Freddie to understand Queen. I can’t imagine anyone feeling a passion for them and being able to resist him. To not be fascinated by his beautiful expressiveness, joy, theatricality and compassion.

And I’m not entirely sure how you could listen to this without having a little bit of your heart taken by him.

Back – hurry back

Please bring it back home to me

Apparently I grew up in love with someone who died when I was young, who I could never have met.

I guess it was good training for all those closer to hand that I’ve loved and lost. Knowing that, as here, the important thing to remember was that the love didn’t end because the person did.

I still love you – still love you.

Love of my life.

Love of my life.

We’ll still be beside each other forever. Me, Freddie, and everyone we’ve loved.

Held in this song. With singing hearts.

 

 


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.

Good Company

GoodCompany

Brian May gets his second vocal of the album, and it’s time for him to indulge his own particular nostalgias.

The ukulele banjo is out, and he sounds like Paul McCartney, singing a song about work-life balance.

Good Company.

Because it wouldn’t be Queen without incongruity, and this side would’ve actually had a relatively consistent tone without it.

Honestly, it’s a perfect little bit of fireside warmth. Precisely produced to grant it the atmosphere it calls for, bouncing on the knee of an archetypal father, learning life lessons. Joyfully feeding on the mistakes of our elders (and proceeding to ignore them).

It’s a lovely sing-a-long, and I adore the way that for most of the song, Brian’s guitar acts as  the vocal harmonies. It’s an incredible little treat of production and arrangement.

But, but, none of that is the real treasure here.

Once again, it’s all about learning the extent Brian will go to for a particular sensation.

So.

That final finale. After the song’s over. Are you paying attention to it? The whole song drops into immaculate dixieland jazz.

And it’s all Brian, all on guitar. A perfect brass band, with this strangely hypnotic electrical quality.

Apparently he recorded the whole thing one note at a time, as it was the only way to get the effects to work properly, and give him the chance to build a guitar trombone (and the rest of the horn section).

So not just a perfect arrangement, but a ridiculous and ludicrous amount of technical effort.

Critically, not particularly strong evidence of a good work-life balance.

But I love it. This whole album is clearly a band at their peak, attempting to put heart and soul and all the time imaginable into a deep, rich and intensely experimental work. To the extent where what could easily be dismissed as one of three novelty tracks has a short section of it that will have required actual days of studio time, if not more. A beast of a thing, composed of tiny chunks and, effectively, hand-crafted samples, just to get a jazz band on the end of the banjo track.

It’s outrageous.

All my friends by a year

By and by disappeared

But we’re safe enough behind our door

All this gleeful dixieland is just to drive home the punchline of a lonely little domestic tragedy.

If there is a connection for this side of the record, it is this loneliness and loss. It’s a tragic opera we’re playing in, even when it’s bouncing on the banjo-uke knee.

And for all of the sadness, it’s still the simplest message possible.

Remember your friends, stay with them, love them, love your lovers too, and keep them as friends forever.

Again, we’ve got some solid themes running through the record.

I do think that Queen is a band about friendship.

It’s not relevant here, but one thing I’ve learnt, is that one of the distinctive things about Queen’s vocal harmonies is that all three of the singers (John doesn’t really take part) generally sing all the parts.

So while Roger is best at the top range, Brian is best and the bottom, and Freddie can belt out anything, they all do everything. So the high bits have all of them, the low bits have all of them. It gives them this thick, complementary togetherness.

And togetherness is where we’re at, what we’re selling.

The reason people love Queen, for the most part, isn’t the technical depth, but that it’s so damn fun to sing. Not just good to sing, but good to sing with your friends.

We’ll get to that in the next track, I suspect, but I just wanted to note it now.

Queen is about friendship.

Fuck yeah.

 

 
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.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian

Well.

Bohemian Rhapsody.

For most, it’s the quintessential Queen song. If you ask someone to sing some Queen, they’ll probably start with the word ‘Mamma’.

Probably the most satisfying song to sing drunkenly with friends, and probably the most complicated song that a given group of people will actually know all the words to.

It is, frankly, a legend of a song. One of the biggest selling singles ever, routinely voted to the top of mindless ‘best rock’ or ‘best number one’ or ‘best best thing’. I seem to remember it was officially the ‘Music of the Millennium’ ultimate track. Though it’s worth noting that I got quite grumpy about the fact that it appeared to define an incredibly short millennium, not actually including any tracks recorded before 1960.

You know it already. You didn’t need to click that link. You had it in your head from the instant I said the title.

Despite the title not even appearing in it.

The song is a suite of different structures, an a capella intro, piano ballad, operetta, hard rock, then the coda, just to help you unwind. It’s a beast of a thing. Nearly six minutes long, with next to no repetition (hence the rhapsody). There is nothing even resembling a chorus. There is no single moment that defines its hook.

I lied earlier, when I said you’d all start with ‘Mamma’, because there’s a hundred routes into this song, from the opening words, to the desperate laments, to the guitar solo, to the duelling questions of the opera, to just going straight into the head-banging.

Each of these moments is as irresistibly catchy as each other.

And while everyone can sing along, I have routinely seen people get caught in a chain of Mamma’s forgetting just how long the ballad is, and either leaping ahead early (this is only really fixed by having someone hum the guitar solo to transition to the opera, but only me and my brother ever seem willing to commit that far).

Open your eyes

Look up to the skies and see

It’s this immense thing, so bloated and strange that the band had to battle to get it released, actually smuggling a copy to Kenny Everett to get it radio play. Kenny was explicitly and directly told not to play it. Kenny winked back, and proceeded to ‘accidentally’ play snippets for a couple of weeks. People started begging him to play more, and he eventually relented and played the whole thing.

14 times in two days, he played it in full.

A Kenny inspired similar treatment on American radio apparently coincided, and once people started begging record stores for copies, EMI relented, and allowed its release.

Of course, it then sold a fortune.

It’s elaborate enough to have also been the most expensive single ever produced at the time. 180 overdubs went into the opera section (bearing in mind this is using 24 tracks, so that’s a lot of bouncing down). Reports of tape worn thin, and having to cut sections together for ‘just one more Galileo’ abound.

Three weeks of recording, for just under six minutes of music.

And it eventually becomes this legendary beast, knocking on your door, begging you to sing along.

And you do.

And you do.

It’s a distraught, anguished song, though. Loneliness, unreality, regret, nihilism, rage and oppression. A central violence, a deep regret, and something approaching a descent into hell, or religious trial.

The narrative is there, a Faustian pact, regret, punishment and execution or suicide. It’s all mythical enough to be about anyone’s struggle, but no matter how you paint it, it’s an odd call for a pop hit.

Reading people’s theories, I’m drawn to the people who see it as about coming out, and identity. When you kill the image you’ve presented to the world, and face the fear and judgement that brings. Which makes the final wind blow more reassuring. Unless the final tam tam is a death knell.

Pop music, whoop whoop!

I find I don’t really need to know the intention, I’m just entranced by the words, the motion, the breadth.

Because it is immense. A truly beastly journey across music and voice.

It’s also pure Freddie. Composing the whole and arranging all the parts and instructing May in exactly how to do it. Apparently most Queen tracks came together in the studio, and while the official writer had the final say, there was collaboration throughout, but here, this was Freddie’s baby, a grand vision.

When he first played it to the bands producer, he simply played from his piano, and ended suddenly, with ‘and then we have the operatic section.’ They went for lunch instead of trying to demo it.

It’s not, actually, my favourite. Quite far from it. It is a wonderful piece of drama, and I can rarely resist it, but something always makes me pull away.

I think I just don’t want to share. For all that I’m trying to enthusiastically drag people into Queen, I enjoy the dark weird secrets of the band. The strange out of the way stops, the weird forays into stranger lands. And while this is, technically, very much one of those, it’s also…well…it’s everybody’s.

Which is, of course, the secret of why it’s so special.

This is a song that unites people. That can be the defining moment of a feature film as easily as it can be the defining moment of a wedding or a road trip.

I remember awkwardly, me as part of a gang of youths, sitting on floor of a packed commuter train, having gone to an in-store gig in London. We hammered through this at the top of our voices. Probably infused with illicit whisky bottles smuggled from parent’s drink cabinets. We got told off by a grumpy commuter (probably fairly), and as we watched him sit back down, I saw my Dad, lean out from his seat on the train, and give me a little wave. He was on his way back from work. I think a little bit of me died inside. (Though secretly, I think Dad approved.)

But frankly, I blame commuter life for stopping those people from singing along. Anything bleak enough to prevent that is, frankly, heartbreaking and inhumane. (But also, I suspect the cringe I feel when remembering that moment is why I find it hard to fully commit to it now).

The thing is, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t need a piece written about it. It stands as a monument that is all its own. For Rolling Stone, it’s either the most overproduced novelty song ever made, or just the pinnacle of 70s rock. It’s hard to tell which, but it doesn’t matter.

Nothing really matters

Bohemian Rhapsody is the weirdest and most successful singles of all time. That it is both simultaneously, is a great testament to the band, and to Freddie.

Without this song, Queen would never been the monoliths that they are. In both senses, it marked them out as completely unique, able to take a prog suite to the top of the charts and make it stick, and a huge towering pillar of rock.

Because it is.

Anyway the wind blows…

 

 

 

 

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.

God save the Queen

GodSaveTheQueen

At least we can revel in the naughtiness of it, right?

God save the Queen.

I genuinely struggle to write it, let alone listen to it. But it is definitely worth noting that there is certainly a tongue firmly in cheek.

This recording was played at the end of every gig from the Sheer Heart Attack tour onwards, you see, it was how the band took their bows. And of course, we have iconic pictures of Freddie in robe and crown.

So, the Queen they’re talking about probably isn’t the one the song’s written for, right?

But seriously, it’s a vile song, celebrating a nation of imperialism and conquest, by calling on a deity to smite the enemies of the state. It sounds relatively peaceful to begin with (nobody really wants the old lady to die, do they?), but quickly descends into the violence it represents.

Quoting the second verse of the official version:

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall:
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix:
God save us all.

Apparently knavish used to be ‘popish’ too.

I mean, I quite like the line ‘confound their politics’, but it’s still literally describing a policy of disrupting the democratic process of foreign nations.

Only asking a god to do the dirty work.

So yeah. It makes me uneasy. The line between patriotism and nationalism is a pretty fine one, and I find it hard to have even the faintest note of pride in a country with a history of so much cruelty, violence and appropriation.

I guess it’s the problem with making any song represent a historico-political entity, it’s a horrible thing to do to a melody, capture it’s essence for marking a violent identity.

So at least Queen puncture it some. Placing their trademark squadrons of guitars into the bombast (and by god, is it a level of bombast appropriate for the band), and then using it to laud themselves.

Though of course, Brian has played it for the Queen, so there’s at least some intent there.

National anthems are pretty vile things, is all, so an odd choice for re-purposing as a  denouement

But sonically, it does that beautifully. Full theatre pomp for bowing out to adulation (and it is adulatory), and then May builds a beautiful little wind down into the end.

That final segment, away from the actual anthem, is by far my favourite bit, a lovely unfurling and settling, pulling a melancholy tone from that seething mass of power. The sound of May’s guitars cooling down.

It is a perfect curtain call for the band. A self congratulatory appropriation (there’s that word again), with a full twinge of irony. They are a Queen I’m more interested in, at least.

But I don’t think it fully reclaims it, and so I am left uncomfortable.

Seeing a tribute band at a queer geek convention end with this, and have the Freddie impersonator wrap himself in a Union flag made me feel genuinely sick. The homage to the parody loses its bite and becomes even more wrapped up in it’s unpleasant trappings as a result.

Admittedly, that might just be because covering Queen live is virtually impossible, and you’re inevitably left with a shadow of a thing, in the uncanny valley of familiar enough to sing along, but so utterly distant from the actual thing.

I can’t be doing with it, I’m afraid. It’s a well put together arrangement, but my politics get in the way. I know it’s ironic, as tongue in cheek as the dances on the seaside or through the louvre, but the melody grates, putting me in mind of atrocities and excuses.

Sonically, it wraps up the album well, and were it not the song it is, I’d think it a fitting coda. But it is what it is.

God save us all.

 

 

 

 

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.