The first side of Queen’s hugely successful and perennially popular 1975 album, which I reviewed last week, is in itself quite a stunning collection of assorted treasures.
But those tracks were also paving the way for even more incredible delights on the flip side, for which there is a great deal to talk about. So much so, in fact, that I’ve had to split my reviews for the second side into 2 parts.
In this post, therefore, I’m going to take a close look at the next 3 tracks, then I’ll conclude the album in Part 3. The first track in this post is their longest song and one of their most complex, while the second is their most popular sing-along acoustic number that’s spawned a ton of live performances and covers, and the third is a delightful Dixieland tune. So I hope you enjoy!
The tracks covered in this post are as follows. Click their names to jump to the reviews:
You can see all the videos I mention in this post and many more on my Queen & Covers playlists. So do feel free to check them out (along with my other Queen playlists) and see which versions of each song you like best!
Written by Brian May
This epic masterpiece, originally called People Of The Earth, is Queen’s longest song at 8:21 (not counting the untitled instrumental on the Made In Heaven album of course). And it’s so absorbing, with glorious instrumentation, powerful harmonies, and interesting lyrics that reference the Book of Genesis, without any need for the listener to be religious to enjoy it. So you don’t notice the time slip by with all of that going on.
Like its shorter cousin Bohemian Rhapsody later in the album, this too has multiple sections, including a beautiful calm intro (in which Brian plays a toy koto), a transition after the verses to an impressive section of multi-layered vocals (that lasts 2½ minutes), a fantastic guitar section (that lasts for 1 minute), and finally after all of that intensity we have a relaxing outro (that dovetails into the next track). There’s such a massive scale to the whole thing.
So clearly it wasn’t just Freddie who could write long and intricate songs that sound stunning. Brian was more than capable too, as this proves, and he spent a lot of time and effort on it. The inspiration came to him in a dream about a prophet and The Great Flood, and the desperation of people trying to make contact with one another to show that they care. This was while he was coming out of his period of illness during the band’s work on the Sheer Heart Attack album.
It all sounds magnificent, but the a cappella canon section in the middle is a key highlight, using timed delays to repeat the vocals and create multi-part harmonies. Brian was already well versed in using the technique with his guitar, so naturally he wanted to try it for the voice as well. He had loads of ideas written down, and he and Freddie experimented heavily to see what would work best. Freddie then recorded the vocals live, with a tape reel running from one machine to another, so that he could hear the delayed vocals in his headphones and harmonise with himself correctly. Nowadays such feedback could be supplied by computer of course, but back then they had to be more creative.
So if you listen to the song with headphones (advisable for all of their tracks, but essential for this one), you can hear the 3 parts very clearly. Freddie’s primary vocal starts in the centre, before echoing on the left and then the right, and they all overlap very cleverly. When it then switches from Freddie to group harmonies, there are just 2 sets of vocals, bouncing between the left and right channels. And as the music kicks back in, the canon effect is briefly added to that too, creating an effective segue into the excellent guitar section (which itself is unique, as Brian tunes his guitar slightly differently to normal, with the bottom string taken down to a D).
It all creates a very powerful effect indeed. The harmonies that result are really striking, and it gives the illusion that the voices are all around you. And if you believe in any sort of god-like higher power, that would certainly make sense.
All in all, this song is awesome, to the point that it’s strongly argued by some fans to be better than Bohemian Rhapsody, and their reasoning is perfectly understandable. I perhaps wouldn’t go quite that far myself, but they do feel pretty equal to me, as they both have strong merits and important differences, so it is hard to rank one above the other.
The Making Of A Night At The Opera documentary contains a fascinating and detailed discussion about the song, involving Brian and Roger and their producer Roy Thomas Baker, as well as footage of Freddie singing the vocal canon live on stage and the band relaxing in a Japanese garden (as the song’s intro has a Japanese influence).
The commentary for the track on the 30th Anniversary DVD, meanwhile, features all of the band members talking very highly about producer Roy Thomas Baker, describing how they ensured they had proper control over every aspect of their work, giving an insight into their different vocal styles and how they developed their harmonies, explaining why they added a statement to their albums that they don’t use synthesisers, and finally a very brief note from Brian about writing the actual song, which mirrors what he says in the documentary. So the track itself barely gets a mention, but the commentary on the whole is still interesting.
- The music video on the 30th Anniversary DVD has footage of a harp and toy koto being played, black and white photos, colour footage of the band on stage with effects added, and even visual snippets from the Bohemian Rhapsody video.
- The DVD Audio version is slightly longer, but only because there’s an extra 10 seconds of wind noise at the start, which isn’t significant.
- It’s possible to hear a mix with just bass, drums and lead vocals, that someone has extracted from the surround sound version of the track. The entire canon section is omitted, as you can already hear it in the original version, but it’s brilliant to hear the rest of Freddie’s vocals more clearly.
Queen did perform the track in concert, but it doesn’t feature on any of their live albums. However, there are a few videos online that I’ve included in my album playlist. One of the better quality videos is from Earl’s Court, London on 6 June. This skips the opening verses and instead focuses mainly on Freddie’s vocal gymnastics. If you thought the canon section with all the echoes sounded crazy on the studio album, Freddie’s live improvisations here takes it to another level entirely, he’s out of this world in every sense of the phrase. If you were to hear the audio out of context from about 1½ minutes in, you could be forgiven for thinking the aliens had invaded, such are the phasing and reverb effects that are added. But the harmonies that Freddie creates with himself throughout are incredible. And the fact that it’s all live is extraordinary, especially for that time period.
It takes a lot of guts, rehearsals and concentration to even attempt to cover this, especially in front of an audience. Yet it’s been done more often than you might expect, and I’ve included many versions on my covers playlist, including .
Most notably, Marc Martel pulls it off superbly with Queen Extravaganza, as evidenced by a professionally filmed concert from Montreux. I don’t think his voice is in quite the same league as Freddie’s – nobody’s is – but there’s no denying his admirable vocal talents either. And the band performed the entire Night At The Opera album during these concerts, which is all the more impressive.
Brian May attended the final show of their 2015 tour in Gloucester, and remarked on his blog that “I was happy to be in the audience – it was well worth the trip. I don’t think I’ll ever hear The Prophet’s Song played to that degree of excellence again. Great musicianship, great dedication to detail, and nice presentation all round.” Justifiably high praise indeed!
Swiss band Cellar Darling also nailed it with a great cover in a heavier rock style. It was released as a single in 2018, and was also included as a bonus track on the Digibook reissue of their debut album, This Is The Sound. They stay faithful to the original while adding their own touches to it, including their female lead vocalist Anna Murphy, the use of a hurdy gurdy, more intense guitars and nice little changes to the a cappella section. They’ve also regularly performed it in full on stage.
There are also great recordings by other artists including Oniric, a heavier rock version by In Siren, a choral version byTous Les Oiseaux d’Europe for their album Ornithology, and a very cool 16-bit Mega Drive style cover by Fioocca17, as just a few examples of very many. If you like the latter, then you can find a variety of 8 and 16-bit versions of many Queen tracks on my full 8-bit & 16-bit playlist.
Written by Freddie Mercury
The closing notes of The Prophet’s song segue into his divine ballad about breaking up with a loved one. And it never fails to move me, it’s just so poetically heartfelt and beautifully sung. It’s also very simple in structure. It’s primarily just Freddie singing at the piano with occasional backing harmonies from the other band members. But Brian May also chips in on the harp (mixing multiple takes of chords for the glissando effects), a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar and his Red Special, while John provides bass and Roger adds just a tiny bit of percussion, all of which are delightful extra layers that complement Freddie perfectly.
In the chapter for this song in the Making Of A Night At The Opera documentary, DJ Bob Harris makes the valid point that “When you hear any other vocalist trying to sing a Queen song, it’s not until you hear them trying that you realise what an incredible vocalist Freddie was, what a range he had, what great expression he had.” This song, and indeed this whole album, is certainly a perfect illustration of that. Brian also praises Freddie’s backing harmonies in the same chapter, which producer Roy Thomas Baker then plays an extract from, isolated from the rest of the song, which is lovely to hear. Brian also notes how Freddie was very deprecating about his piano playing despite being very good at it.
This is the only Queen song to feature an orchestral harp, so it was something that Brian had to learn specifically for it. Freddie told the New Musical Express in September 1975 that “Brian is going to attempt to use a harp, a real life-size harp. I’m going to force him to play till his fingers drop off”.
And some years later, in 1982, Brian told On The Record that “Learning would be too strong a word. I did it chord by chord. Actually, it took longer to tune the thing than to play it. It was a nightmare because every time someone opened the door, the temperature would change and the whole thing would go out. I would hate to have to play a harp on stage. I just figured out how it worked – the pedals and everything – and did it bit by bit.”
Brian also gave a nice brief insight into the melody for this song in his Star Licks tutorial, where he plays part of the tune on the electric guitar for a change. Much more recently he performed a full solo instrumental during the 2020 lockdown, which I’ll come to a bit later.
Freddie always maintained that the song had no personal meaning and was just a ballad he’d made up. In an archive interview featured in the album documentary, he notes how all of his songs are about emotions and feelings, and that he’s just a true romantic.
Their manager John Reid, however, has previously claimed that Freddie told him it was written for David Minns, an American record executive with whom Freddie had an affair in the mid-1970s. Freddie was in a long-term relationship with Mary Austin at the time, and the song is connected with her in the Making Of documentary. It’s also linked to her twice in the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, in a scene where Freddie is playing the song on the piano before kissing Paul Prenter (where he says he wrote the song for Mary), and in the moving scene where he and Mary break up after he reveals his sexuality to her (as he did in real life the year after the album’s release). However, when introducing the song at a 2008 concert in Glasgow, Brian states that he doesn’t know who Freddie wrote it for.
So it’s not entirely certain whether Freddie wrote it for anyone in particular, though the connection with Mary does make a lot of sense. The song could easily be written from her perspective as well as his. But we’ll never know for sure.
In any case, it doesn’t really matter how it came about. It’s an amazing song at the end of the day, and we can all relate closely to it in one way or another. Its appearance in the movie also led to a resurgence in its popularity, with people flocking to streaming services to hear the song in full, so I’m glad it’s been reintroduced to a new audience.
The music video on the 30th Anniversary DVD combines the album track with visuals from many different live shows. The commentary for the track doesn’t discuss the song at all, but it’s still interesting. It features the band talking about the excitement of adapting songs for the stage, especially as it became apparent that the audience were keen to sing along, and so the band wanted to tap into that to involve everybody. They also talk about the chemistry within the band that enabled them to continue recording and touring together, and which protected them from any criticism in the outside world.
Freddie’s voice is divine in this song, as emphasised beautifully in an A Cappella vocal track put together by a Youtuber. It’s wonderful to hear him on his own here, and the backing vocals are also included when appropriate. A little bit of guitar and harp is also retained to keep the flow of the song when Freddie isn’t singing. Another fan has also created a Bass & Vocal Mix as a nice alternative, so you can hear John’s part more clearly as well.
Live Queen Performances
While the studio version was based around piano and guitar plus a few other instruments, the song became a much simpler acoustic duet on stage, with Freddie singing while Brian played an Ovation 12-string guitar (for which he’s lowered the key by a third when rearranging the song in this form).
It became hugely popular with their audiences, who joined in with it so well that Freddie would allow and encourage them to sing some lines themselves. Because of that, their live versions of this track still often give me goosebumps, because hearing a huge crowd of people singing it, in addition to Freddie’s amazing voice, feels really special and emotional.
I’ve included many videos of their wonderful live performances on my album playlist, but a few notable examples include:
- Festhalle, Frankfurt on 2 February 1979 – The audience are joining in much more this time. This version was first released on Live Killers, but also came out as a single in 1981 in recognition of the song’s popularity. This was particularly true in South America, who were so passionate about the track that it hit Number 1 in Argentina and Brazil, and remained in the Argentinian charts for a whole year (yet it only reached #63 in the UK). The single, which was later included as a bonus track on the 2011 reissue of A Night At The Opera, is over a minute shorter than the Live Killers track, because it omits some chatter at the start and end, but it still contains the whole song. This live version is also used for the music video on Greatest Video Hits 1, where it accompanies imagery of Brian and Freddie at concerts in Tokyo and Paris.
- Estadio Do Morumbi, São Paulo, Brazil on 20 March 1981 – This audio recording was released on the deluxe edition of the On Air collection of BBC sessions and live shows, while the only video to be officially released was an edited version from an old Rare Live VHS.
- Montreal Forum, Canada 0n 24/25 November 1981 – You can hear Brian & Roger’s commentary for this performance on the Blu-ray release. The song clearly wasn’t as big here, as the audience aren’t as loud as some other concerts. As a result, Freddie remarks “Oh, you don’t know it, huh?” after the first verse, and he doesn’t leave gaps for the crowd to sing on their own. You can hear him even more clearly in the a cappella mix that a fan has extracted from the surround sound audio.
- Milton Keynes Bowl on 5 June 1982 – The video for this was included on the 2011 reissue of the studio album. In the full show there is a little bit of chat and improvisation from Brian first, before he introduces the song by dedicating it “to all those people who are not like us and sitting here and having a good time, listening to music, but, no matter where they come from, people who have given up their lives for what they believe.” It’s a lovely little moment. The “song of peace” most likely refers to Las Palabras De Amor, of which he plays a fleeting snippet in his little bit of improv, while the overall dedication probably relates to the Falklands War, which was coming to an end at that point. Freddie had reportedly said that “It’s our young men killing their young men. There’s no glory in being blown to bits.”
- Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on 19 January 1985 – This version in particular, most recently released on the Bohemian Rhapsody movie soundtrack, is a shining example of how music can unite people regardless of any language barriers, and a clear demonstration of Queen’s power over their audiences. With Freddie as their conductor, the enthusiastic Rio crowd are in the palm of his hand as they sing the entire first verse and most of the second verse themselves, all perfectly word for word, and they chant for Brian as he plays the instrumental section.
- Wembley Stadium, London on Friday 11 & Saturday 12 July 1986 – The crowd are very keen to sing along in both shows, the rain not dampening their spirits in the slightest on the first night, and Freddie tells them “I still love you” during both performances. An extract from the Saturday performance is combined with a brand new acoustic performance by Brian in an extra feature on the Making Of A Night At The Opera DVD, a rare chance to hear Brian sing the opening and closing sections without a crowd behind him.
Live Brian May Performances
Since Freddie’s death, Brian has performed the song as a solo at countless concerts, taking on the vocals as well as playing the guitar, and again encouraging the audience to sing some of it themselves. Brian traditionally dedicates the song to Freddie, but there have been exceptions.
Brian May first performed the song during his solo tour in the early 90s. The best quality example of this is from the Brixton Academy, London on 15 June 1993. It’s trimmed out of that video clip, but on the live album Brian introduces it by saying “Sometimes I wonder whether I should sing this song or not. The reason being that I can’t sing it as well as its creator.” Cue a huge cheer and a round of applause. He doesn’t have to mention the name of the song or its composer, or play a single note, and the crowd instantly knows what he means.
It is also true that Brian’s voice isn’t as good as Freddie’s, but he still sings it wonderfully, even hitting an impressive high note after the audience sing “I still love you”. And the audience do a lot of the heavy lifting anyway, they’re incredible in this performance (and indeed pretty much everywhere that Brian performs it for that matter).
During Queen’s tours with Paul Rodgers, this continued to be a duet between Brian and the audience, sometimes with light synthesiser chords added in the background during the 2008 tour.The most notable example is from Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield on 9 May 2005 as Freddie’s mother, Jer Bulsara, was in the audience, so Brian dedicated the song to her. She sadly passed away on 13 November 2016, aged 94, and we have an awful lot to thank her for.
When Brian toured with Kerry Ellis, he would start the song as a solo with some audience participation, and then Kerry would join him partway through. During the 2011 Anthems Tour Kerry only appeared near the end, but it became a proper duet during the 2012-13 Born Free tour when she would enter from the second verse onwards, with reduced audience involvement. In that latter tour synthesiser chords were again added as a very subtle background layer. It always sounded very nice in any case, because Kerry has a really beautiful voice, and her renditions with Brian are a lovely alternative to all the other live versions out there. A performance from Stravinski Hall, Montreux on 19 July 2013 was released on The Candlelight Concerts.
During Queen’s tours with Adam Lambert, Brian again performs the song on his own with the audience’s help. However, Freddie is projected on to the big screen behind him, in footage from Wembley on 12 July 1986, to sing the final part of the song. In recent years Brian has also actively encouraged people to turn on the flashlights on their phones, resulting in a gorgeous galaxy of torches in the venue as the song is performed. A performance from the O2 Arena, London on 2 July 2018 is available on the Live Around The World compilation released in October 2020, and you can see my review of that album for more details.
Collaborations & Cover Versions
Extreme teamed up with Brian May to produce a wonderful version, sung really well by Gary Cherone. And the guitar playing is also very nice, especially in the second half where it’s very different to the original yet still perfect for the track. It was released on their single Song For Love, but isn’t readily available online unfortunately.
The band (without Brian) also performed the song live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium on 20 April 1992, with the audience joining in of course, and at the end they segued neatly into their own hit More Than Words. Sadly those two songs have been excluded from all video & DVD releases of the concert to date. However, those releases do still include their very entertaining 11-song medley of other Queen hits.
Extreme’s appearance at the gig earned them many new fans, with Brian introducing them as “real friends and, possibly more than any other group on this planet, the people that understand exactly what Queen have been about all these years, and what Freddie was about all these years.”
Much more recently, on his Instagram page during the first lockdown of 2020, Brian performed a full instrumental on his Red Special from home, which Kerry Ellis then sang along with beautifully from her own abode. But Brian was keen for anyone to sing or play along, and a huge number of people did, in a wide variety of ways, and I’ve included as many as I can on my covers playlist.
Aside from Brian’s lockdown jams, there are a cornucopia of versions by other artists online, again in a variety of styles, which are also on my Covers playlist. Just a few of the endless examples include:
- A gorgeous instrumental by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Royal Choral Society, which PiotreQ has combined with Queen’s vocals for a nice mashup).
- A cover by Elaine Paige with orchestral backing for her Queen album.
- Live versions by The Scorpions and Celine Dion.
- A recording by Marc Martel on his tribute album Thunderbolt & Lightning, plus a one-take piano version he posted online and several live performances.
- A version by Laci Kaye Booth on American in 2019, with coaching from Adam Lambert (and there are have been loads of covers on TV talent shows).
- A slow and beautiful piano instrumental by French pianist Thierry Lang on the album Guide Me Home. It’s one of 4 Queen-related bonus tracks they recorded, which were used in the documentary Freddie Mercury – An Untold Story.
- Part of the track has also been sung in a commercial for Carlsberg beer, and the original version was used in an advert for the Seal Rehabilitation & Research Centre (SRRC) in the Netherlands.
Written by Brian May
As well as writing this song, Brian also sings the lead vocal, plays a Genuine Aloha banjo ukulele, and cleverly recreates a Dixieland jazz band sound using guitars. The instrumentation is really impressive, catchy and fun. And the lyrics offer sage advice for keeping the right people around you, as the character in the song looks back at his life with a mixture of fondness and sadness. Unusually, Freddie has no involvement on this track at all, although it’s safe to say he more than makes up for it with the next one!
The music video on the 30th Anniversary DVD is a montage of old black and white footage that fits well with the lyrics, including a few shots of George Formby, and near the end some fleeting glimpses of Queen as well.
In the interesting chapter for this song in the Making Of A Night At The Opera documentary, Brian plays a genuine George Formby banjo ukulele, explaining how it helped him to learn the guitar when he was young. He also discusses the jazz band influence for the song, particularly the arrangements by The Temperance Seven, and explains how he achieved the Dixieland sound, before playing the final solo in isolation at the mixing desk, which is fascinating to hear.
Similarly, in the song commentary on the 30th Anniversary DVD, Brian discusses the George Formby ukulele and recreating the jazz sound. He and Freddie also discus the fact that every member of the band wrote their own songs in different styles, and why it was important for them to try different things to expand their audience, while also remaining faithful to their early fans. Brian also addresses one of the misconceptions that the press and others had about the band, failing to appreciate their sense of humour and self-parody.
Talking to On The Record in 1982, Brian also explained how he achieved the horn sounds:
“That’s four different kind of guitars. I was very keen in those days on recreating that sort of atmosphere. I mainly got the sound with small amplifiers. I used John Deacon’s little amplifier and a volume pedal. For the trombone and trumpet sounds. I would record every note individually: Do it and then drop in. Incredibly painstaking! It took ages and ages. I listened to a lot of traditional jazz music when I was young, so I tried to get the phrasing as it would be if it were played by that instrument.”
And in 1983 he told BBC Radio One:
“That was a little fetish of mine. I used to listen to Traditional Jazz quite a lot, in particular, the twenties revival stuff which wasn’t actually Traditional Jazz but more arranged stuff like The Temperance Seven who were recreating something which was popular in the twenties, sort of dance tunes really. I was very impressed by the way those arrangements were done, you know, the nice smooth sound and those lovely changes between chords. Because they were much more rich in chords than most modern songs are. So many chord changes in a short time, lots of intermingling parts.
So I wanted to do one of those things and the song just happened to come out while I was plunking away a the ukulele and the song itself was no trouble to write at all. But actually doing the arrangements for the wind section, as it was supposed to be, there’s a guitar trumpet and a guitar clarinet and a guitar trombone and a sort of extra thing, I don’t really know what it was supposed to be on the top. I spent a lot of time doing those and to get the effect of the instruments I was doing one note at a time, with a pedal and building them up.
So you can imagine how long it took. We experimented with the mikes and various little tiny amplifiers to get just the right sound. So I actually made a study of the kind of thing that those instruments could play so it would sound like those and get the authentic flavour. It was a bit of fun but, it was a serious bit of work in that a lot of time went into it.”
- A fan has extracted a Bass, Drum & Vocal Mix, which is really cool as you get to hear Brian’s vocal much more clearly. It’s also worth focusing on John’s bassline too, as there are some nice little touches in there.
- Queen never performed the song live, sadly. But Brian did get out his ukulele to play it at a show in Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal on 16 November 2012, during the Born Free tour with Kerry Ellis (although she doesn’t feature in this case). There’s also another video from an alternate angle, which has lower audio quality but includes more of Brian’s chat at the start. It’s a great performance that takes an amusing twist when he forgets how to play the instrumental section in the middle, giving it a couple of attempts before throwing in the towel and moving on to the rest of the song. And the audience take it in good spirits, it’s all just a bit of fun.
There are a relatively small number of versions by other artists on my covers playlist, including a wonderful performance at a Queen Symfonicznie concert Poland, a nice rendition by Marc Martel while playing the ukulele during a live stream, and an entertaining instrumental piano arrangements by Otmar Binder.
As you can see, those songs are all very different, with their own special qualities that make them each wonderful and powerful pieces of music in their own right. So I hope you enjoyed those very close looks at them.
You can 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 other videos I should check out and consider adding to these lists (or any of my Queen playlists), do let me know.
Next time I’ll be going through the final 2 tracks on the album, the first of which is particularly famous of course. I’ll see you then!