Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Queen - Queen


Released 1973 on EMI
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 12/12/2011ce

Yeah. QUEEN.

Barely unsung in the commercial sense, I know. And even if their critical standing rarely rose above base point, their faithful hoards of followers more than compensated. Queen were (and are) adored, to obsession, by millions. When ol'Freddie shuffled off this mortal coil twenty years ago, the depth of public grief here in Blighty seemed greater than if Her Majesty herself had keeled over.

For my own part, although I was far from being a fan of the commercial behemoth that Queen became from their fourth album onwards, I retained a discreet, well hidden admiration for them, for two reasons. Firstly, they had an annoying talent for releasing sporadically terrific singles throughout their Mercury-led existence. I make no apologies for loving 'Spread Your Wings', 'Bicycle Race' and 'Don't Stop Me Now' for the staggering pop beauties that they are. Secondly - and this is the real deal - their earliest albums were distinctively loud, proud and heavy as owt, especially the self-titled debut which, given its relative obscurity in the Queen canon, I consider worthy of Unsung inclusion. I hope that I can convince you why.

You know, I'm tired of reading comparisons with Led Zeppelin every time Queen's first album is mentioned, not least because I've never really seen any similarity (and believe me, I love my Zep!). I'm tempted to think that the scribes who pass off 'Queen' as a Zeppelin rip-off were too immersed in their well-worn copies of 'Forever Changes' and 'Raw Power' to have time to lend more than a bored, half-arsed ear to either Zep or Queen, and no doubt the latter's OTT glam rock image of the time ruled them well out of the cool court anyway. As has been the case with so much professional music criticism, some acts are doomed to be dissed before they've even been heard, especially if they aren't seen as being cool. Well, I don't give a toss about cool. I'm proud to admit that 'Queen' - as well as 'Queen II' and 'Sheer Heart Attack' for that matter - sit proudly on my shelves alongside those Love and Stooges classics so rightly beloved of the critical masse.

Look, 'Queen' is one seriously underrated record. It's a ball-grabber from the outset: some phased, low E string axe-wrist abuse snarling in 'Keep Yourself Alive', Queen's first, finest, and lowest-selling 45, so rarely aired on the radio goo goo. That's a bloody shame, because it so magnificently manages to cram hard rock, pop sensitivity, gospel (yeah, gospel), a belting doubled-up solo, a totally misleading stop/start middle section and more key changes than a gym-mistress' locker room into less than four action-packed minutes. What a way to make an entrance. I love it.

'Doing All Right' is a complete contrast - but only temporarily. As soon as the song's tender, piano-accompanied verses are beginning to cloy towards Carpentesque blandness, its corkscrew-haired co-writer blasts out of nowhere with one of the baddest, rawest riffs ever to emerge this side of Sabbath... and man, we're rocking big time now. The ballad returns, but only long enough to explode into the same riff played even louder and harder. Zeppelin sound nowt like this. (Incidentally, I can't help thinking that the lounge-jazz, acoustic rendition of May's riff that precedes the first instance of the heavy section is uncannily prescient of the same effect in Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android' - not in terms of the riff itself, but in the way that riff is prepared and delivered. Just a thought, dedicated to those described that great 45 "...a Bohemian Rhapsody for the nineties".)

'Great King Rat' and 'Liar' are pure prog rock, albeit laced with enough sheer hard rock weight to render any comparisons with ELP, Yes or Genesis completely futile. The former starts off with May extemporising some seriously heavy shit on his modified Georgian fireplace before Roger Taylor thunders in and the track's awesome thundering, galloping riffs take hold. Mercury intones a tasteful lyric referencing whores, syphilis and dirty old men ("Wouldn't you like to know?") before a hyperprog shift-change into a tuneful gospel section ("Now listen, all you people...") and, in turn, a short, Steve Howe-like solo flamenco sequence that devolves into the utterly arresting return to thunderous riffing with May raising merry hell all around. More phaser abuse, this time on the drums, ends a track which truly justifies the overused adjective "epic".

'Liar' is more of the same, and the only time on 'Queen' where I'd begrudgingly accept a Zeppelin comparison, if only because May's riff is similar to Jimmy Page in style, not notes. At that point the comparison ends. Taylor's irresistibly infectious opening drum motif (imitated on many a school desk back in the day) sounds ball-all like anything the great John Bonham ever played. And when did Percy, for all his stature, ever attempt studio-enhanced vocal trickery like that evidenced by Mercury and Taylor here? Above all, the carefully crafted, multi-sectioned aspects of the song are a totally different proposition to the more fundamental dynamics heard on the four fine albums Zeppelin had thrust upon the world by the time 'Queen' was recorded. At this point, Zep were just (seriously good) hard rock, but Queen were hard PROG rock with, as I've already suggested, some serious gospel influence going down, incongruous as that might seem. Believe me, it works - and especially on 'Liar'.

That gospel influence comes to the fore on 'Jesus', a frankly embarrassing early Mercury song that, being comparatively brief, can be safely ignored here. Even shorter, but sweeter, is Roger Taylor's 'Modern Times Rock & Roll', which shares the same fast, pre-punk vibe as Ziggy's 'Hold On To Yourself' and features a stunning lead vocal from the drummer. (I've always held that Taylor was a stronger and more viscerally exciting singer than Mercury. Check out his showcase tracks on all of the early Queen albums to hear what I mean - and note whose voice is prevalent on those high vocal harmonies.)

What else? Well, the exquisite 'My Fairy King', with its preposterously complex vocal arrangement (with not a "gallileo" in sight, I'm pleased to add) and enough contrasting heavy snatches to keep up the thrills factor; May's acoustic 'The Night Comes Down', a song of great subtlety and hidden foreboding, and 'Son and Daughter', a song of great...well, just POWER. In fact, it's the heaviest track on what is already pretty damn heavy record for its era, with a riff that seems half Tony Iommi and half - oh, alright then - Jimmy Page, but with a real gut-wrenching solidity that is uniquely Brian May at his early best. If you dig real hard rock, I defy you not to dig this. The short instrumental snippet of 'Seven Seas Of Rhye' is a somewhat inconsequential coda to an album so otherwise imbibed with excellence that its presence, like that of the preceding 'Jesus', is irrelevant.

There were to be two more Queen albums in this vein before excess and success took their ugly holds. All three deserve a hearing, but 'Queen' remains, by some distance, the greatest to these hackneyed ears. Check out the latest remastering (now on the cooler Island label by the way) and see if you agree with me.

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