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.
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.
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.
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.