This is the big one, the album that launched Queen into the stratosphere. The previous release, Sheer Heart Attack, was already a joyous collection of majestic variety that sounded like perfection to many, and its predecessor Queen II was also (and still is) held in very high regard. And yet the band still felt they were learning and developing, and they were keen to push things further still for their next album.
They were also having a fresh start, having moved to EMI Records and recruited new manager John Reid (who also managed Elton John), after ending their contract with Trident Studios under a dark cloud. Queen hadn’t been getting paid fairly for the success of their previous work, due to the contract they’d signed up to, and that contract was very expensive to get out of. So they were broke, which placed considerable pressure on them. It was now all or nothing. Their next release had to be a big success, otherwise that would be it, Queen would be no more.
But they were up for the challenge, and determined to show the world what they were capable of. They had also been told by their new manager to make the best album they’ve ever done, with complete freedom to do whatever they wanted. So they made the most of the opportunity.
They incorporated everything they’d learned and played around with up to that point (clear influences can be heard on their earlier albums, e.g. songs on Queen II like My Fairy King), and took full advantage of the studio technology available to them (using 7 studios altogether). They had carefully written lyrics and distinctive melodies (with all 4 band members writing at least one track each), a range of simple to complicated song structures, multi-tracked harmonies (now working with 24-track tapes instead of 16), a myriad of musical styles and instruments (using what felt best for each song rather than sticking to a particular genre), and big production values. It was the most expensive album ever made at the time. And they named the album after a Marx Brothers film, even becoming good friends with Groucho Marx as a result.
Their incredible efforts gave us their first and most successful number 1 single, plus the first chart hit to be written by their bass player, and many other beautiful songs. It held the number 1 spot on 4 of its first 7 weeks in the chart (held off on the other 3 occasions by Perry Como’s 40 Greatest Hits, a very different record entirely!). It stayed in the top 40 for 34 weeks (including 12 weeks in the top 10 & 16 in the top 20), and as recently as last year it was still poking its head into the lower end of the Top 100 every so often, which it will continue to do now and again in the future, each time a new generation is introduced to the band in some way. Inevitably the most famous track on this album is the one that regularly draws people to it time and time again.
Just as importantly, it also gave them the worldwide success they needed, when it peaked at number 4 in the USA. It was their first album to reach the top 10 there. Over the next 5 years, they had 4 more albums in the American top 10, 3 of them in the top 5.
To date the album has sold well over 6 million copies worldwide, is still hugely popular on streaming and download services, has been frequently named Queen’s best album (an opinion I wholeheartedly agree with), and was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2018, among its countless accolades and achievements. Queen needed a successful album and, while they were extremely confident with what they produced, I don’t think even they envisaged just what a phenomenon it would become.
So it’s almost as if nothing really needs to be written about it. Any praise I lavish upon it is going to be a drop in the ocean compared to what it’s already received. But I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s an amazing record that is well worth taking a in-depth look at. And such is the level of detail we can go into here that I’ve divided my review of this album into 3 parts.
I own a few products in relation to the album, aspects of which I’ll be referring to throughout these posts:
- 2005 CD & DVD – 30th Anniversary Set – The DVD contains the original promo videos for Bohemian Rhapsody and You’re My Best Friend, and new videos for the other songs (which include footage from many of Queen’s concerts). All tracks are mixed in 5.1 surround sound (improved over the previous DVD-Audio release). And there are audio commentaries for every song, featuring extracts from old interviews with the band members, and relatively new discussions from Brian and Roger – not always specifically about the song in question, but always on topics closely related to it.
- 2006 DVD – The Making Of A Night At The Opera – This is a really absorbing documentary from the Classic Albums series featuring new interviews with Brian and Roger, an in-depth look at each of the tracks, and input from many other people. There are also more interviews and performances among the extra features, including the above clip about the album’s name.
- 2011 – iTunes Reissue – This includes 5 bonus tracks, 3 bonus videos and a photo gallery. Most of the extra tracks will be mentioned at appropriate points during this post – except the retake version of Keep Yourself Alive, which I’ve already talked about in my review of Queen’s debut album.
So I hope you enjoy exploring the tracks with me, including the music videos, alternate versions, live performances, covers and so on. There’s plenty to get through!
See also: Ultimate Queen / Queen Vault / Wikipedia / UDiscover
In this post I’m going to look at all of the tracks on Side 1, as follows. Click their names to jump to the reviews:
- Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)
- Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon
- I’m In Love With My Car
- You’re My Best Friend
- Sweet Lady
- Seaside Rendezvous
See Part 2 & Part 3 for the other tracks.
You can see all the videos I mention in this post and more on my Queen & Covers playlists. So feel free to check them out (along with my other Queen playlists) and see which versions of each song you like best!
1. Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)
Written by Freddie Mercury
See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Song Facts / Lyric Video
This track, occasionally called Psycho Legs during its development, is a harsh song to open the album with. It’s essentially a big rant by Freddie at the way he felt the band were treated by their former manager Norman Sheffield at Trident Studios. The song doesn’t name him, but his defamation case against the band (which resulted in an out of court settlement) brought it into the public domain, so he drew attention to it himself.
Norman has always denied the accusations made against him, and in 2013 published a book called Life On Two Legs putting across his side of the story. I haven’t read it personally, but it does appear to have favourable reviews from Queen fans and others, and includes copies of the original contracts between Queen and Trident Studios. So I will endeavour to give it a read one day (one of many Queen related books I need to get around to at some point!).
In any case, it’s a great song. The vicious nature of the lyrics, sung with raw anger by Freddie, came as a surprise to the other band members initially, and are likely to for anyone hearing the track for the first time. But they are very well written, a really concise and poetic way of expressing deep hatred without mincing one’s words. The backing harmonies provided by the group are strong and wonderful too. And musically it’s amazing, including the exquisite piano intro and the powerful guitar sections. Everyone puts a lot of energy into it.
All in all it’s an explosive opener to the album that lets off steam about the past, clearing the slate in order to focus on the future.
- Vocals – You can really feel the impassioned anger from Freddie here, it’s an amazing performance and great to hear the lyrics so clearly on their own. It’s also interesting to hear how the lines overlap, the moments where he harmonises with himself, and the additional backing vocals from the rest of the band. Towards the end the whole band are singing together very powerfully, and the closing “feel good” line has a panning effect that you’ll probably only notice if you use headphones (which I always highly recommend for Queen songs to get the full experience).
- Piano – It’s beautiful to hear this on its own. It’s a wonderfully composed piece of music in itself, with a lot of variety beyond the basic rhythm that drives it throughout, much of which is easily overlooked when hearing the finished track. The band’s archivist Greg Brooks told Record Collector in June 2002 that “Freddie tried endless times to put down the piano track before finally getting it right. He swore, apologised, tried, gave the piano frustrated thrashings, and finally nailed it.”
- Guitar – There are 2 parts to the multitracks for this, the main guitar line and a backing track with a few additional guitar moments plus reversed cymbal effects. And they’re both amazing to listen to, on their own and combined, including the amazing build-up during the intro, strong chords that reflect the fury in the lyrics, cool solos and so on. In the documentary, Brian talks about the main guitar riff, explaining that Freddie had written it and demonstrated it on the piano (as he did with all the guitar riffs he composed for Brian to copy).
- Drums – This is a very strong performance by Roger, there’s lots going on here to keep things interesting.
- Bass – During the intro it sounds like John is playing a double bass, which sets a suitably ominous tone given the nature of the song, almost a bit Jaws-like in nature. And after that he has a very enjoyable bass guitar part, sometimes matching Brian’s main riff or occasionally the vocal melody, and at other times offering a great counterpoint to the main tune. So again there’s plenty to enjoy.
- Instrumental – Taking out Freddie’s vocals really allows you to focus on the composition of the music itself and, like many tracks on this album (and others), it’s impressive to hear how all the pieces slot together like a jigsaw.
Alternative Piano Extract
An alternative piano intro can be found on the 30th Anniversary DVD. Nobody seems to know exactly where it’s from, so we can only assume it’s a demo or an early take. You won’t hear it when you first load the disc, as the initial version of the Main Menu plays the start of the regular album track. However, if you start the videos playing and then return to the menu, or just go to the Song Selection screen and back to the Main Menu again, you should get the alternative menu (which adds a Resume option at the bottom). And this menu plays the other version of the track. It’s just piano, without the main melody or guitar coming in where it normally would. So it’s a nice little extra.
The only officially released live version – and a great one it is too – is on the Live Killers album, from Palacio De Deportef in Barcelona on 20th February 1979. It bleeps out the offensive part of Freddie’s description – “This is about a real motherfucker of a gentleman.” – before you get the cool intro with Freddie’s lovely piano playing, accompanied by interesting sound effects, leading into a brilliant performance of the song itself. And there’s a neat segue into Killer Queen at the end, as the song was often part of a medley.
The music video for the song on the 30th Anniversary DVD combines the album track audio with nicely edited visuals from various live performances.
There are also loads of cover versions that I’ve included on my playlist, including a pretty good remix by PiotreQ, a recording by The Protomen on their live album Present: A Night Of Queen, a live performance by Queen Extravaganza with Marc Martel, and an a cappella rendition by Rock4 (who have covered the entire album using only their voices)
2. Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon
Written by Freddie Mercury
See also: Ultimate Queen / Song Facts / Lyric Video
Small and perfectly formed, at 1:07 this delightful ditty is Queen’s shortest song from their studio albums (not counting the instrumentals on the Flash soundtrack or the first unlisted track on Made In Heaven, none of which are really songs). It’s also another example of the band’s ability to do huge contrasts in style and tone from one track to the next, as it’s very light and cheerful compared to the previous song.
There’s a lot going on in this vaudeville style track too, making every second count, with lots of little touches including the jaunty piano intro, the megaphone effect added to the vocals (recorded via headphones in a tin bucket), the nice little harmonies, the various activities mentioned in the lyrics, the bicycle bell and the harmonised guitar solo at the end (which was recorded on the vocal track as they had no other tracks available). The documentary documentary features a breakdown of the vocals and guitar, explaining how they were created and playing them in isolation, which is really interesting.
The music video on the 30th Anniversary DVD is a wonderful selection of photos from the time of the album, including many from Japan during their 1975 tour.
There aren’t any alternate versions, but a Hollywood Records promo cassette of the album had to be withdrawn due to a remastering error. Near the end, after the line “I’m bound to be proposing on a Saturday night”, the backing vocal “There he goes again” was incorrectly omitted. Other than that it’s identical to the album version.
No live performances have been released officially, but there is a recording of the band performing the song in Boston in 1976. They’re not quite note perfect, with Freddie and Brian making occasional mistakes, but it’s still fun.
A scene at Freddie’s home in the Bohemian Rhapsody movie includes a couple of lines as he improvises at the piano.
And there are quite a few interpretations by other artists on my covers playlist, including a performance by Queen Extravaganza, a breakdown of the closing guitar solo by Dani Marcos gives an interesting breakdown of the closing guitar solo, and a great stop-motion Lego video by Krikonn.
3. I’m In Love With My Car
Written by Roger Taylor
See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Song Facts / Lyric Video
Roger’s only contribution to the album is a fantastic rock song, on which he sings the entire lead vocals and plays some of the guitar backing, in addition to his usual percussion. It all sounds great, and you can easily imagine driving along with it blaring out. Like the opening song on the album, there’s a deep, raw passion that comes across, and some of the lyrics can feel like metaphors – leading John to ask “What exactly are you doing with that car?” in an amusing scene from the Bohemian Rhapsody movie!
The song also surprises you at the end with a bit of guitar and engine noise, just when you think it’s faded out. That additional ending is omitted from the single version, which adds engine noise at the beginning instead. And talking of alternate mixes, the 1991 Hollywood Records Remix by Mike Shipley isn’t much different to the original either – just a few vocals added in the intro, a bit of extra percussion and a small change to the outro, so nothing major.
The song was issued as the B-side to Bohemian Rhapsody, apparently because Roger demanded it, and it’s claimed that he locked himself in a cupboard until Freddie agreed. This irked the other members of the group, as it meant Roger got the same share of the publishing royalties as Freddie when the single became hugely successful, while the others missed out. That kind of disparity was avoided on later albums by crediting songs to the entire band rather than the individual writers, to ensure everyone got an equal share of the proceeds.
As recalled in the documentary, the song was inspired by the band’s sound mixer and roadie John Harris, who was very fond of his Triumph TR4 car. But Roger is a big fan of cars too, and the exhaust sounds from his Alfa Romeo were included on the track. So Roger dedicated the song to John and all boy racers out there in general. In the documentary he also points out that the song is in 6/8 waltz time, which is quite unusual but gives it a great rolling rhythm, and plays a short section on acoustic guitar, which sounds really nice.
The DVD for the documentary also includes an interesting extra called Half A Sonic Volcano, in which Brian praises the immense power of Roger on percussion and John on bass together, and how Roger’s drumming is instantly recognisable, while Roger gives a great insight into his percussion style with a demonstration on his kit.
A special Guitar & Vocal Mix was included as a bonus on the 2011 reissue of the album. It’s a very cool stripped back version of the song that gives it a different feel without the percussion, and it’s great to be able to focus on these particular elements more clearly. This mix also extends the guitar section at the end, instead of it fading out, which is a nice treat.
The full multitracks allow you to break down the song even further:
- Vocals – When most of the focus is on Freddie, it’s easy to forget how well Roger can sing. But his performance here is stunning, he puts so much power into it. There’s some nice harmonies in here as well.
- Guitar – There might not be a really distinctive, catchy riff with this song (although it is still recognisable). But it’s still a solid track, with some nice solos. The guitar is split between a dedicated Guitar track and the Effects & Extras track, in order to separate the solos from the backing harmonies, making it all the more interesting. The Effects track also contains the engine noises of course.
- Piano – You could be forgiven for not noticing the piano in this song, as it only comes in briefly at the beginning, middle and end for a few bars each time. It’s nothing exciting, but it adds a little bit of extra drive to the track.
- Drums – Made up of 3 tracks, this emphasises the 6/8 time signature that gives the song its unique feel and rhythm. It’s a nice steady beat throughout, with some lovely fills here and there.
- Bass – Slow and steady, John’s bassline gives a lovely foundation to the track with its own counter-melody that you might not notice when hearing the full version.
- Instrumental – As ever, putting it all together without the vocals produces a nice instrumental in and of itself. It’s not complex like some of their other tracks, but it does the job very nicely indeed.
A couple of different montage videos have been put together to go with this song. The video for Queen Rocks has visuals of car races and Queen performing the song on stage in South American in 1981. The audio is the full album version (including the guitar and engine noise at the end), with the additional engine noise from the single version at the start. The 30th Anniversary DVD video consists of footage from various live shows with the standard album version of the track.
Unsurprisingly the song has also been featured in a car commercial, thanks to Jaguar. And it was used in a great scene from the series Good Omens, one of many Queen tracks included in the show.
Roger also sang the track with great energy live on stage, one of the opportunities for Freddie’s voice to have a well-deserved rest (though Freddie does play the piano and would sometimes sing along with the chorus or add an “Ohhh yeah!”). The song was always shortened to a couple of minutes as part of a medley.
There are several examples on my album playlist, but with the original Queen line-up the best one to have been officially released is from Montreal Forum, Canada on 24/25 November 1981. You can hear Roger’s voice even more clearly in a semi a cappella mix that Chief Mouse has posted, by extracting just the central surround sound channel from the DVD release, along with all the other songs from the show. You can also hear Brian & Roger’s commentary from the Blu-ray release of the concert.
Roger also performed the track live with his band The Cross in London in 1987, Amsterdam on 29 May 1990 & The Astoria, London on 7 December 1990 (with guest Brian May). It’s strange to see Roger playing guitar rather than drums in a couple of those clips.
This also appears to be the earliest track from Queen’s studio catalogue that was performed during the band’s collaboration with Paul Rodgers many years later – and even then Paul isn’t involved. At these shows Roger would delight the crowd with an awesome drum solo lasting anywhere from 3 to 8 minutes, before launching into the song, which this time was performed in full and with backing singers providing the harmonies.
Again there are plenty of examples on my playlist, including:
- Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield on 9 May 2005 – Drum Solo & Song. Roger promises not to bore the crowd with a long solo here, but given his incredible performance I don’t think they’d mind. Indeed, the crowd even join in towards the end, clapping along quite happily. Brian May also gives Roger some support on the guitar for a couple of brief moments, but the bulk of it is just Roger being his awesome self.
- Freedom Square, Kharkov, Ukraine on 12 September 2008 – Drum Solo & Song. The solo here is especially entertaining, as he starts by tapping away on an electric double bass, recreating a couple of Queen’s most famous bass riffs in the process, before focusing on the drum kit properly.
Likewise, Roger has also performed the song at Queen’s gigs with Adam Lambert (without Adam involved), of which there are various examples on my album playlist. And he’s continued to do drum solos at those concerts, which have now become drum battles with his son Rufus Taylor or with Tyler Warren from Queen Extravaganza.
There are quite a few cover versions on my covers playlist, including an instrumental remix by PiotreQ (created from the multitracks), a growling heavy metal version by The Dogs Divine on their album Size Of The Fight, an acoustic cover by Marc Martel during a live stream in June this year, and a video that takes the Vine clip of the girl saying I’m In My Mum’s Car, and edits it into the original song.
4. You’re My Best Friend
Written by John Deacon
See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Song Facts / Lyric Video
John’s only song on this album, and just his second in the Queen catalogue to this point, is a gorgeous pop ballad dedicated to his wife, Veronica Tetzlaff, whom he married on the 18th January 1975, the year of the album’s release. So it’s easy to see why the subject was strong in his mind. It’s a song we can all relate to and appreciate when thinking about the people we love most, as it expresses wonderful sentiments.
John wrote it on an electric piano, which he played on the record in addition to bass guitar. In the album documentary Brian states that it was a Fender Rhodes Piano, but other places say that it was a Wurlitzer Electric Piano. Either way, he had decided to learn the instrument himself, as Freddie wasn’t keen on it (“I refused to play the damn thing. It’s tinny and horrible and I don’t like them. Why play those things when you’ve got a lovely superb grand piano? No, I think, basically what [John] is trying to say is it was the desired effect.”). And it does work really well for this track. You can hear John and Freddie talking about it in the commentary for the song on Greatest Video Hits 1.
The vocal harmonies are beautiful too, and the album documentary isolates the backing vocals for you to hear on their own, as well as discussing the vocal qualities of the different band members, which is really interesting.
This track was also released as a single, making it the first one to have been written by John. It peaked at a very respectable number 7 in the UK and #16 in the US, and has continued to be popular ever since. In 2012 it was named by music licensing company PPL has the 10th most played Queen song on TV and radio. As noted in the documentary, it was a friendlier, simpler and more accessible song for radio listeners to get into, compared to some of Queen’s previous work, and it is very relatable.
Ultimately, it’s really impressive that the quietest member of the band had such big success with only his second song for the group, and it’s great that Freddie, Brian & Roger encouraged him to contribute for that to happen. It is a great shame that he no longer performs with Brian and Roger, and in the documentary Roger expresses sadness but understanding that John has long since retired from the music business to lead a quiet life. You can tell that Brian and Roger really miss him (as do us fans), but they keep in contact and run business decisions past him, and he approves of what they’re doing these days.
As well as the documentary and commentaries mentioned above, there are also nice extracts from an archive interview with John in the commentary for this song on the 30th Anniversary DVD, while Brian and Roger have a nice reflective discussion about the track in the commentary on Absolute Greatest Hits, including some chat about how Roger’s drum sound differed for this song. So you can hear something slightly different in every commentary you check out.
A remix by Matt Wallace was created for the 1991 Hollywood Records re-release of the album, but it’s not majorly different to the original. Slight changes in volume and a bit of unnecessary extra percussion, but that’s it.
The 2011 reissue of the album includes a special Backing Track Mix, that allows you to hear the composition of the track without Freddie’s lead vocal. So you can hear the backing harmonies on their own (which isn’t possible with the multitracks below), and you might hear one or two other little things that you might not have paid attention to before. There’s a tiny bit of studio chat at the start and end as well, which isn’t very interesting but it’s still nice to hear it. You can also sing along with the instrumental mix courtesy of their Karaoke Hits video.
The full multitrack stems also allow you to hear the various components individually:
- Electric Piano – It’s not a complicated tune, but it is a nice melody and gives the track its iconic sound, and John plays it very well. There are some nice chime effects dotted throughout this track as well, from a celeste or similar instrument.
- Vocals – As ever, Freddie sings this with heartfelt meaning. The lead and backing vocals aren’t separated, but it is great to hear how they all mix together here. Perhaps the most notable element that stands out from this is Freddie’s “live… live… live…” refrain that accompanies the start of the guitar solo towards the end, as it fades into the background while Brian is foremost in the final mix.
- Guitar – Brian doesn’t have anything to do for the first 75 seconds of this track, and then after that he still has occasional gaps. But when he does play he has a great sound, and you can hear all sorts of little things here that you don’t notice so much in the full song.
- Drums – Roger plays a simple, catchy beat here. Nothing fancy, as the track doesn’t need it, but it’s solid with some nice little fills here and there. And Roger gave a nice little insight into the percussion for this track on Instagram during lockdown.
- Bass – John plays a very cool counter-melody on this track, which you’ve more than likely never noticed in the full song. Every so often he’ll join the main tune for a bit, and then he’ll go off into his own thing again. It’s really nice and shows just what a skilled player and composer he is.
The promotional video for this single was filmed at Elstree Studios in London in April 1976. This is stated in the booklet for Greatest Video Hits 1 (as well as various other places), but in the commentary on that same DVD, Roger recalls it as Ridge Farm in Surrey. In that commentary you also get to hear John talking briefly about creating the song, and Freddie’s thoughts on the electric piano as noted above.
It’s a beautifully simple and intimate video, as befits the song, showing the band performing in a large ballroom surrounded by over 1,000 candles on a very hot summer’s day! John Deacon plays a grand piano here, rather than the electric piano used on the track.
During live performances Freddie would play a grand piano for this song rather than an electric one, and John would of course play the bass.
As with the first track on this album (Death On Two Legs, the polar opposite to this song), the only officially released live version of You’re My Best Friend is from Palacio De Deportef in Barcelona on 20th February 1979, on the Live Killers album. It’s a very nice version too.
A few decades later, during the final show of the first Queen + Adam Lambert tour at Hammersmith Apollo, London on 14 July 2012, there was a very special surprise during Brian’s solo section when he performed the first part of the song in honour of John. Naturally the crowd were over the moon and sung their hearts out to it, along with the more traditional Love Of My Life and ’39 that followed. It’s a very special moment indeed, as Brian says he’s never done it before, and it doesn’t appear to have been performed since then either, which is a real shame. And during the previous nights he had played acoustic versions of The Show Must Go On and Somebody To Love.
The original track has been used in lots of TV programmes and films (many of which are listed on Wikipedia), but there have been some interesting covers on TV & radio shows in particular:
- The Once performed a beautiful acoustic version for the South Korean series It’s Okay, That’s Love, available on the Pop OST soundtrack album. Youtuber Gavin Taylor has posted a wedding dance that mixes this with Queen’s version very effectively.
- The cast of Glee performed a cover in Season 5 that’s quite faithful to the original, with the full version on the soundtrack album.
- Homer & Cletus did a parody of the song in The Simpsons earlier this year (Season 31, Episode 18 – The Incredible Lightness of Being a Baby).
- On the radio, Mamas Gun had fun performing the song for Ant & Dec live on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2.
There are tons of other versions on my covers playlist, including a beautiful version by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (and another with the Royal Choral Society), a live performance by The Show Must Go On in 2011, featuring TV composer Bear McCreary (who has worked on The Walking Dead, Outlander, etc), and a big band version by Cathy Fleck on her album Every Second Counts. The songs lends itself very well to acoustic performances too.
Written by Brian May
See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Song Facts / Lyric Video
This song combines two of my loves – Queen music and science fiction – as it tells the story of a group of 20 astronauts who spend a year of their lives exploring the universe and finding distant lands, only to return to Earth to find that 100 years have passed (due to the time dilation effect), meaning that their loved ones have aged or passed away. One particular explorer has left behind his wife, but comes back to discover his now elderly daughter, who inherited his wife’s eyes. It’s a moving little story told as a wonderfully catchy skiffle style folk song.
It’s also the 39th song in Queen’s studio catalogue (the first 3 albums had 10, 11 & 13 tracks respectively, and on this album it’s track 5). And what’s more, the planet Mercury is 0.39 astronomical units from the Sun. It could be coincidence, but given that Brian is the astrophysicist in the group chances are he would have known that. In any case, those numbers are very satisfying!
Brian also took some inspiration from a novel called Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, in which a man returns from travelling and sees his hometown in a different light, as a result of everything he’s seen on his journey. Likewise it holds a personal resonance for Brian himself, who says that “I felt a little like that about my home at the time, having been away and seen this vastly different world of rock music which was totally different from the way I was brought up.” And that sounds very understandable given the incredible experiences that rock stars get to have. It may even have some parallels with my own move to London from Devon, as I’ve been happily exploring this city over the past few years, and when I have gone back to my old home I do find that some people’s lives have changed without me having known about it.
As well as playing acoustic guitar, Brian also sings the lead vocal here, which is relatively rare for a Queen song. But he does it really nicely, accompanied by more beautiful backing harmonies, with Roger in particular hitting some stunning high notes. And John plays the double bass – which apparently Brian suggested to him as a joke, only to come to the studio a couple of days later to find that John had brought one in and had learnt how to play it. It does had a really nice feel to the track, so it’s worth it. You can hear John much more clearly in this bass, drum & vocal mix, extracted by a Youtuber from the surround sound mix, and the lack of guitar gives the song quite a different feel, in a very interesting way.
The song sounds lovely in its instrumental form too, this being a relatively rare case where, in the absence of original multitracks, an attempt by a fan to remove the lead vocals using software has been very successful.
The music video on the 30th Anniversary DVD features visuals of Brian performing the song on stage, backed by the other members of the group, interspersed with footage of astronauts in space.
There are also a couple of lovely videos of Brian performing the song by himself on acoustic guitar:
- A bonus feature on the DVD for the Making Of A Night At The Opera.
- A rendition in Tenerife in March 2022, to mark his 3900th Instagram post. He’s invited people to join in with him so, as with previous performances he posted during the pandemic, it’s likely that several videos will emerge of other singers and musicians performing with him.
There are lots of other live performances included on my album playlist, but I’ll mention a few key examples here.
The song quickly became a popular singalong as part of an acoustic set during Queen’s concerts, and has been a constant part of Brian’s repertoire ever since. Audiences always love to join in with it, and Brian often reminds people of the story it tells before he starts the performance.
During Queen’s gigs, Freddie sang the lead vocal instead of Brian – which seems a little unfair given that Roger got to sing his song, but Freddie still does a nice job of it of course. And Roger continues to hit those impressive high notes for the harmonies. For a few decades the only officially released version was on Live Killers, from Festhalle, Frankfurt on 2 February 1979. However, the 2011 reissue of the studio album included a bonus live performance of the song from Earl’s Court, London on 7 June 1977, including a nice little moment of improvisation from Brian before he gets into the song properly.
After Freddie’s death, George Michael did a lovely rendition of the song at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert on 20 April 1992, explaining that the song was special to him because he used to perform it when busking on the London Underground. The following year, during Brian May’s solo tour, a slow a cappella version of the chorus was sung by Brian and his wonderful backing singers as an intro to Let Your Heart Rule Your Head, as can be heard at the Brixton Academy, London on 15 June 1993.
The following decade, ’39 became the second song from Queen’s catalogue (after I’m In Love With My Car) to be included in their shows with Paul Rodgers, but again without Paul’s involvement. In these shows, Brian performed the lead vocal (as he would in all concerts in the years ahead), with the audience happily joining in, and he would always replace the final “Pity me” line with “God bless all of you”.
During the 2005 tour it was performed solely by Brian and the audience, as can be heard from Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield on 9 May 2005. But it then grew a few years later, as illustrated at Freedom Square, Kharkov, Ukraine on 12 September 2008 (not 2009 as the video title says), where Roger adds bass drum and tambourine for the first verse, the audience do the chorus themselves, and then the other members of the backing band join Brian and Roger for the rest of the song.
Likewise, Brian still performs the song during Queen’s tours with Adam Lambert, without Adam taking part. Over the years, Brian has either performed the song on his own, or with Roger, or with the backing band. He also likes to replace the final “Pity me” line with a namecheck for the location he’s performing in, to the audience’s delight.
In addition, Brian has performed the song during his tours with the wonderful Kerry Ellis, with him still singing the lead while Kerry backs him on the choruses. Sometimes a tambourine is added by their supporting musician too. And again, as with the Adam Lambert shows, Brian finishes by name-checking the current town or city. A notable example is from Stravinksi Hall, Montreux, Switzerland on 19 July 2013, released on The Candlelight Concerts. In his little bit of chat before the song, Brian jokes that they were going to play Smoke On The Water – shame they didn’t, I bet it would have been great!
- Queen performed the song for Groucho Marx at his home in March 1977, after he invited them over in return for naming the album after his film. Obviously there isn’t footage of this, sadly.
- Brian & Roger joined The Foo Fighters at the O2 Arena in 2007 to perform a great version of the song. There’s a closer angle here, although it cuts out Dave Grohl’s full introduction of their guests.
- Very appropriately given the space theme, Brian has performed the song at the Starmus Festival – firstly in Tenerfite in 2016 with Rick Wakeman, and then a beautiful orchestral version in Zurich in 2019 that he’s never performed anywhere else. You can also check out his speech from the 2011 festival as well.
A huge number of artists have covered this song, so there are lots of examples on my covers playlist, including Jeff Scott Soto at a Queen convention in North Wales, tribute band Queen Extravaganza, and a beautiful piano instrumental by Frankie Simon. The song was also filmed for the Bohemian Rhapsody movie but never included.
6. Sweet Lady
Written by Brian May
See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Lyric Video
This is a great rock song, if slightly unusual in nature due to its 3/4 waltz time signature, with brief switches to the more standard 4/4 midway through to shake things up. The style works very well though, and it is a cool track, with great work from everyone in the group, and there’s a nice jamming session for the final minute or so as well. You can also hear slightly different mixes online, extracted from the surround sound mix – either guitar, drums and backing vocals, or lead vocals, bass & drums, which give a nice alternative look at the song and allow you to focus on various elements more clearly.
In an extra feature on the Making Of A Night At The Opera DVD, Brian explains: “Because 3/4 is the time of the waltz, and traditionally it’s a very gentle sort of form. People used to dance to it and whatever. So the fact that I could find this riff that was in 3/4, which seemed to have an urgency and heaviness to it, was a fascinating thing for me. And I think, in your head, you kind of refuse to hear it in 3/4, which is why it’s still powerful I think. That’s my theory anyway.” He then goes on to play the guitar riff, and explains how the track lyrically is about relationships, like many of his songs, from his personal experience and observed experiences of others. A full live performance is then presented (more on this below).
That’s all contained in the bonus material, making it a deleted scene from the main film. In the actual documentary itself, the relevant chapter for this track is very short and doesn’t discuss the track at all. Roger simply points out how hard Brian worked on the album and how great it is to perform with him, then there’s an extract from a live performance. So it’s a pity Brian’s interview was kept separate, it didn’t deserve to be cut out. Likewise, the commentary for this song on the 30th Anniversary DVD makes no reference to the song either, instead being a discussion of Brian’s guitar sound and other related chatter from all the band members, which is still quite interesting anyway.
A lot of people also pick up on the unusual lyric “You call me sweet like I’m some kind of cheese!”, joking that Freddie sounds a bit confused by it himself as he sings it differently from all the other lines. It’s even referenced in the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, when Roger retaliates to the criticism of his song, I’m In Love With My Car. Little details like that in the film are what make it so much fun!
Although Queen performed the song in concert during the 1970s, decent recordings of it are very rare, and no live performance has ever appeared on an album.
In 2006, however, the full song from Hyde Park, London on 18 September 1976 was included on the DVD for The Making Of A Night At The Opera, as part of the bonus feature containing Brian’s interview mentioned above. To date this is still the only official release of a live version, making it one to treasure because it’s brilliant. Freddie doesn’t risk the highest notes but still gives a powerful performance, and Brian’s fantastic on the guitar as always.
To my knowledge, that track is the only official video ever to be released from the Hyde Park concert, and only one other track from the show has had a proper audio release (You Take My Breath Away, from A Day At The Races). Naturally bootleg copies of the whole show are online, though not in great quality. We can only hope for a proper release of the concert one day, it is highly sought after.
The music video for this song on the 30th Anniversary DVD uses visuals from the Hyde Park Concert, and another at Earls Court, synced to the album audio.
There are examples of a few other live versions on my album playlist.
There have been a few covers made of his song, which are included on my covers playlist, including a performance by Queen Extravaganza with Marc Martel, and a cover by Tom Helm & Co that tags on the end of Brighton Rock instead of a fade out, which works quite well.
7. Seaside Rendezvous
Written by Freddie Mercury
See also: Ultimate Queen / Wikipedia / Song Facts / Lyric Video
This is another jolly, catchy, vaudeville, ragtime style track with plenty going on. The lyrics are fun, with phrases like “be my Clementine” and “jollification”, and a few words in French), and Freddie plays both a grand piano and a jangle piano. Roger and John also provide percussion and bass of course, but Brian doesn’t feature on the track at all, which is very unusual for him.
Most notable, however, is the jazzy bridge section in the middle, in which Freddie and Roger perform all the instruments using their voices – Freddie as the woodwinds (including a clarinet), Roger impersonating brass instruments (including tubas and trumpets) as well as a kazoo, and both of them doing a tap dance using thimbles on their fingers on the mixing desk. Roger briefly talks about it in the Making Of A Night At The Opera documentary, and it’s also the part of the whole album in which he hits the highest note (C6). You can also hear a bass, drum and vocals mix extracted from the surround mix, which is very interesting as it highlights little things you might not have heard before.
The music video on the 30th Anniversary DVD (also included as a bonus on the 2011 iTunes reissue) is a fun selection of old black and white footage of people enjoying themselves on the beach. The accompanying DVD commentary is amusing for the fact that Freddie, in his attempt to describe the vaudeville style tracks they’ve done, spends an unsuccessful 30 seconds trying to remember the name of Brian’s song on the album (Good Company). It then switches to a separate interview in which Brian discusses the influence of The Temperance Seven on reviving this particular style of music, and then heaps rightful praise on Freddie’s vocal skills.
Queen never performed the song live in concert, sadly.
This song has spawned an endless array of covers, and I’ve included loads of them on my covers playlist.
In particular, there are a myriad of a cappella versions, no doubt inspired by Freddie & Roger’s impressive vocal bridge in the original, and the simple fact that it’s a lovely song to sing. For example, there’s a wonderful arrangement by Paul Hart that goes down very well with audiences, because it’s fun and remains faithful to the original without taking itself seriously. It became widely known when it was recorded by The King’s Singers on their Good Vibrations album, in the same studio that Queen did Bohemian Rhapsody in fact, and they’ve performed it live on many occasions. There are also many great choral versions based on that arrangement.
Beyond those, there are alternative but still enjoyable vocal arrangements include those by The Binghamton Crosbys on their album Crosbys 101 (who have also performed it live many times), Rock4 on their Night At The Opera cover album, and other artists.
There are also countless covers in other styles, including Marc Martel singing it live with Queen Extravaganza and The Black Jacket Symphony, a version with classical backing by The Jakarta Concert Orchestra with soloist Heny Janawati and dancers, and a romantic swing arrangement by Landau on his album Obra Interditada, just to name a few.
And that’s it for the first side of the album, which is an incredible collection of songs in itself, every one a winner. Check out my Queen & Covers playlists to explore the official videos, live performances, rarities, and other versions of the songs. I’ll update them in the future as I become aware of new videos. If there are others I should check out and consider adding to these lists (or to any of my Queen playlists), do let me know.
There are only 5 tracks to go, but they include Queen’s longest song, their most popular acoustic track at their concerts, and their biggest hit of all time. So I’m going to explore them in Part 2 & Part 3, do be sure to check them out!
7 thoughts on “Queen Album Review – A Night At The Opera – Part 1”
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Thanks Amanda! 🙂
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