Over the last 30 years, discussions have been going on about "what progressive or symphonic rock is about". Some say it's about keyboards, some say it's about length of songs, others state it's about certain topics (myths and legends). A definition has never been made fortunately, because it wouldn't do any justice to the many styles and cross-overs between styles. Progressive elements have been mixed with elements of metal, jazz, pop and even new age. Sometimes this happened the other way round. Pop or rock bands adapted symphonic elements in their music. This was apparently the case with Queen. This group managed to cross the borders of many musical genres, including both opera and hard-rock in an unprecedented way.
If you have to explain the concept of symphonic rock to anyone completely unfamiliar with Genesis, Pink Floyd or Marillion (yes, these people exist), you have to mention just one song: Bohemian Rhapsody. This almost 6 minutes-long song meant the definite breakthrough of a group called Queen and stayed on top of the UK-charts for a stunning 17 weeks. This record was only to be broken 16 years later by Brian Adams' Everything I Do.... Bohemian Rhapsody, as well as the album where it was taken of, A Night At The Opera, are the subject of this edition of Counting Out Time.
Queen appeared to be more than a one-off hit-group. They had been around since 1971, when bass-player John Deacon joined a group called Smile. This group had been founded by drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May, who soon impressed many with his exclusive guitar-sound. This was the result of his self-made "Red Special", which had been made by May and his dad with the use of fire-place wood and motor-parts.
Freddie Mercury, born as Frederick Bulsara in the colony of Zanzibar and room-mate to Roger Taylor, invented the name of Queen, because "it sounds gracious and majestic, just as our music". Being an art-school student he also designed the famous Queen logo, made up of a big 'Q', combined with the constellations of the four members (fortunately two of them being Lions). This logo appeared for the first time in full colour on the cover of A Night At The Opera, which was named after the famous movie by the Marx Brothers. The second part of the diptych, called A Day At The Races, was released a year later in 1976.
A Night At The Opera was Queen's fourth album. After their self-titled debut, which was barely noticed in the UK, but brought them a hit in Japan with Keep Yourself Alive, an album simple called Queen II was released, which could easily lead to the (wrong) conclusion that Queen was nothing more than a Led Zeppelin rip-off in glam-rock outfit. Anyone who listened to this album, could hear that this was untrue, although the riff-dominated style and multi-vocal use of early Queen could be inspired by the Leds. Sheer Heart Attack broke with this tradition and featured a wider range of sounds and styles, one of them being a more pop-oriented approach, resulting in their first massive hit (no.2 in the UK) Killer Queen. Although laryngitis spoiled a part of the following US-tour at the beginning of 1975, signs were there that a final breakthrough was on the threshold.
The extravaganza of Sheer Heart Attack took a gigantic leap forwards during the recording sessions of A Night At The Opera. Not only Freddie came up with extraordinary ideas, Brian also worked his way through a mini-opera, called The Prophet's Song. The friendly competition between the two helped them to reach an even higher level. So it wasn't just Mercury - the flamboyant frontman - but the full body of the band, including the lesser-known members John Deacon and Roger Taylor, was being creative and everyone had their own part in the creative process. This process was open, even to the extent that both Brian and Roger had a lead-vocal-part on every record until the late 70s. On A Night At The Opera, Brian even sings the lead on two songs, one being the folky '39 and the other a jazzy Good Company, both featuring acoustic guitars and even a banjo! Roger's track was I'm In Love With My Car, which was very apt, because Taylor seemed to be a big Formula 1 fan. This song was chosen as the B-side to Bohemian Rhapsody, the first single, preceding the release of the album.
Bohemian Rhapsody was an absolute surprise to everyone, both in and outside the band, when Mercury played the song on piano in studio for the first time. Especially when he stopped playing, turned around and said: "this is where the opera part comes in". This opera section would take seven days and 180 overdubs to record, a joint effort by Freddie, Brian and Roger. The fun was lost when appeared that EMI refused to release a 6-minute single and demanded an edit to be made. Fortunately a copy of the proposed (long) version had been leaked to a radio-station already, where it was played all weekend. On Monday demand for the song was that big, EMI couldn't prevent releasing the original version anymore. Because of this sudden release, Queen was still on tour, they weren't able to make an appearance on Top Of The Pops, so a video (one of the first ever) was made to promote the song. It featured facial close-ups of the band, including the "four heads images" which was to be strongly associated with everything the group would do in the future and would be parodied very frequently, even by the group themselves (in the video of One Vision, ten years after).
But of course, A Night At The Opera was more than Bo Rhap, as the band called it. The album started of with Death On Two Legs, a guitar-oriented rock-song, but with many twists and turns. The subtitle 'dedicated to...' pointed out that this song had to commemorate the non-amicable split with their first management. Of course, the "and now you can kiss my ass goodbye" lyric lead to trouble on both sides of the ocean.
The contrast to this song couldn't be bigger with Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon. This very short song (1:08 minutes) is a just a happy, silly tune, that parodies English upper-class culture (including French accents!). In just seven sentences it tells the story of an upper-class week, like "bicycling on every Wednesday evening", followed after a little bell to illustrate the silliness of the song.
I'm In Love With My Car follows, which is a straightforward rock-song, written and sung by Roger Taylor, which suits him like a glove. His raspy vocals are very powerful and remind me in a way of Robert Plant.
Again, the next song, You're My Best Friend, is a big contrast. This song is much more a pop-song, written by John Deacon, not unlike Killer Queen. In the slipstream of Bo Rhap, You're My Best Friend reached a respectable top-10 position, which was good enough to keep the attention of the audience. Although this song was completely unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, it featured the same trademark: the recognisable multi-vocal backing-choir.
The group was immediately "accused" (as they felt it) of using synthesisers for the intro of this track, but the band assured that they had never used any synthesisers and even stated this on their album covers (until the album The Game in the late 70s). Every special effect was a result of Brian's self-invented electric gear, which added to the exclusive sound of his "Red Special". Brain May never played any other guitar than this, until the aforementioned The Game. The video for My Best Friend was an obvious play-back, since it featured Brian on a different guitar!
Brian was also the composer of the next two tracks on the album, the folky '39 and the heaviest song of the album, Sweet Lady. Again, these two tracks couldn't contrast more in style and sound. The atmosphere changes over and over again on this record, which makes an interesting but not very accessible album. No family music!
After the heavy, aggressive vocals of Sweet Lady, Seaside Rendezvous shows the other side of Mercury's voice, the melodic and romantic side. This track resembles the upper-class atmosphere of Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon and is really "over the top" if you don't appreciate the humour of it. It also features a weird brass section, which is no-one else than Roger Taylor, playing with his voice again.
Seaside Rendezvous can be considered as a resting point for the listener before The Prophet's Song, which is the longest track of the album (almost 8-and-a-half minutes). It has many twists and turns, including a long a ccapella middle section, featuring many layers of vocals. It's Mercury all over the place. The credits of the album say "Freddie Mercury: vocals, vocals and vocals". Listen to this song and you know why. Personally I tend to think this track is even more interesting than Bohemian Rhapsody, but maybe that's only because the latter one has been played on the radio so often.
After all the extravaganza, another sweet ballad follows. Love Of My Life is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. A true gem (especially the bridge in the middle), although I've learned to love the live versions (with large crowds singing along) even better. Especially after I visited a Brian May gig a couple of years ago, where he asked "to do this one together for Freddie".
Good Company could easily been written in the 30s, because it's a very jazzy, acoustic song. Brian is on vocals, as well as on ukulele, which gives the track its special atmosphere. I regard this song as a sort of interlude, before the finale of the album: the famous Bohemian Rhapsody.
The structure of the song is unusual for a pop-hit (A, B, B, C, D, A), but very effective, since you get the feeling a lot happens in less than 6 minutes. It's a little story about a gypsy, and it includes many nonsense lyrics that everyone on earth seems to know: "Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the fandango" and "Galileo, Galileo Figaro, Magnifico". As weird as it gets, but very effective and unprecedented. Critics hated this completely "over the top" song, but public opinion was raving since this was unlike anything before (and after).
I return to the question: what is progressive or symphonic rock? Some may say Queen doesn't belong in one gallery together with Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, Marillion, etc. Still, I think they are very close to these groups, for several reasons. Not only have the band members mentioned progressive groups as main influences (even John Deacon mentioned Chris Squire), not only has Brian May recorded an album together with Steve Hackett (still to see the light of day), and not only was the only guitarist ever to appear on a Queen record - alongside Brian May - a certain Steve Howe (Spanish guitar-solo in Innuendo), but the real reason is (in my opinion) that Queen always trespassed boundaries and combined melody and complexity, as well as rock and romance.
To me they are the only symphonic blockbuster-group that progressive rock has known. In fact, many of their hit-singles, like Bohemian Rhapsody, Somebody To Love, Who Wants To Live Forever, Innuendo, and Show Must Go On have a lot more to do with progressive rock than many (of the not so many) hits by the "official" progrock-bands, such as Marillion's Kayleigh, Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall and Genesis' Invisible Touch.
A Night At The Opera crosses musical boundaries and combines many musical styles, which makes it a real progressive album.