Living in the Past: Queen – the early years

Queen are obviously one of the most successful and popular rock bands of all time,and their records are synonymous with practically every music lover (and non- music lovers too for that matter, such was the band’s formidable reach), writes James Llewellyn.

Their records have always been incredibly eclectic and innovative, whilst still maintaining that unique ‘Queen’ sound and ethos.

However, their first three albums are not usually given the attention or critical reaction which they no doubt deserve.

Queen (1973)

Queen’s first album comprised their live set which they had been relentlessly touring around the club and college circuit for the past two years.

Showing their eclectic tendencies from the start, the album is a tour de force of genre’s ranging from hard rock, heavy metal and progressive rock, to gospel.

Considering that the band’s record deal with Trident Studio’s only allowed them to record in the studio’s downtime (usually overnight, and only when other artists weren’t booked in, resulting in a heavily fractured recording schedule), the album sounds extremely cohesive and focussed.

The production is also surprisingly good, establishing the ‘Queen sheen’ which embossed all of their records.

There are countless highlights on this record too. The album’s opener ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ is a real classic, building from a simple Brian May guitar riff to a full blown pop-rock extravaganza in under four minutes. The song also served as the band’s first single, which was criminally ignored, and it is a testament to the song that it stayed in the band’s live set until well into the eighties.

Other highlights include Freddie Mercury’s prog-tinged ‘Mr Fairy King’, and May’s ‘Liar’ and ‘Son and Daughter’, both of which feature riffs as heavy and memorable as anything you would hear on a Black Sabbath record.

There isn’t a bad track on this album, which can’t be said for some of their other more famous heavier tinged records (1977’s ‘News Of The World’ for example).

The album initially gained favourable reviews on its release, but failed to chart in the UK, in part thanks to non-existent record company backing. The record is my personal favourite of Queen’s albums, and is a real lost classic in my eyes.

Queen II (1974)

Queen II is jarring in how different it is to its predecessor, building very much on the foundations laid down on tracks like ‘Great King Rat’ and ‘My Fairy King’.

The album is again pan-genre, but is undoubtedly the proggiest and most grandiose album ever released by the band.

The album takes on two very different personalities between Side One (the ‘White Side’) and Side Two (the ‘Black Side’). This is no doubt due to the fact that May wrote four out of five tracks on the White Side (Taylor the other), and the whole of the Black Side being composed by Mercury.

The White Side is more track based, whilst the Black side is more of a suite which flows from one movement to the next in true prog fashion.

Tagged on the end of the record is the Phil Spectre influenced ‘Funny How Love Is’ and the single ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ which does sound a little out of place in context of the album, but which gave Queen their first chart entry and an appearance on Top of The Pops.

What is striking about this album is the bands virtuosity with their instruments, but which would amount to nothing without the sum of the other parts.

Despite the individual writing credits which would continue until their last two studio albums, the band were a formidable unit, and this is highlighted none more so than on Queen II’s complex but engaging music.

The album gained many negative reviews on its release for its perceived pomposity and what some critics called a ‘backwards step’ after its predecessor, which has unfortunately seen it cast as one of the band’s most overlooked records.

In fact the cover is more famous than the music, the ‘Four Heads’ pose being memorably recreated in the video for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

However, many fans and critics have over time changed their opinion of this album, and it is now regularly cited as an influential album. Having first heard this album on vinyl, I can relate to exactly that sentiment; it takes a while to break down its complicated and sporadic nature, but once you do it quickly becomes one of Queen’s most rewarding and engaging records.

Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

Released a mere seven months after Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack is the most famous album of the three featured here, and is the record which really established the classic Queen sound.

This is also the record which finally launched Queen into the mainstream conscious with tracks like ‘Killer Queen’ (a number two hit in the UK), and ‘Now I’m Here’. Like its predecessor, this album sounds nothing like Queen II, and introduces the format of unique rock- pop which Queen became renowned for.

For me, this is one of Queens’s most accessible yet invigorating albums, and has stood the test of time to still sound vital today.

Beginning with rollicking opener ‘Brighton Rock’, which features an extended May solo which was a variation on a solo he had played live during the previous two years, the album is a non-stop assault of dynamism, quickly lurching from lush ballads such as ‘Lily of the Valley’; heavy-metal with ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ (a song that is credited to all four members because, amazingly, none of them could remember who had written the lyrics!); cod-reggae with ‘Misfire’, and then the album’s epic sing-along closer ‘In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited’.

The album reached Number two in the UK, and saw a breakthrough in Amercia, reaching Number twelve. Whilst Queen obviously went from strength to strength on their million-seller follow up ‘A Night at the Opera’, the band somehow never again sounded as exciting as they do on ‘Sheer Heart Attack’.

Bonus: Queen live at The Rainbow 1974 (2014)

One release which is definitely worth checking out as a companion to the first three Queen Albums is this live recording from 1974.

There are two versions; the standard release comprising a show from their Sheer Heart Attack tour, and the expanded edition also featuring a show from earlier in the year on their Queen II tour. The package also includes a DVD from the shows themselves.

What’s amazing here is how heavy the band sound – more than a match for anything that Metallica have ever put out.

As mentioned before, Queen as a unit were formidable, and this record really highlights just what a good live band Queen really were, even if you discount Mercury’s deserved reputation as the greatest frontman in Rock history.

Considering there was only the four of them (they added a touring Keyboard player later on their career), the sound is anything but lacking, with May perfectly adept at quickly changing from his trademark wailing solos to those big Rhythm power chords.

It’s also interesting to hear how the songs had developed in the live setting from the versions on the albums, and the drums especially benefit in terms of sound quality (unfortunately most records in the seventies made the drums sound like they were recorded in a cardboard box).

A nice addition for anyone who is still discovering Queen’s back catalogue, and an essential purchase for the diehards.