Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Over and Under Special Edition: The Best & Worst of Queen

One of the factors in sculpting the diversity of Queen’s sound was that all four members were capable, distinctive songwriters. And while Freddie Mercury and Brian May tackled the bulk of those duties, John Deacon and Roger Taylor certainly contributed some excellent tunes, some of which were hits – even if they shouldn’t have been (written). They all shared common elements, but also carried telling characteristics as to who penned what, as Freddie was often the more theatrical, Brian the more technical, John the more plain spoken sentimental and Roger just straight up brass balls rock n roll. Sometimes these traits made a great song classic, and other times they just hampered a tune to death.

Here’s the best and the worst and the underrated from all involved:


Best – Ok, part of me wants to say, “the entire Black side of Queen II,” and be done with it. For all intents and purposes, I’d be absolutely correct. But this is one song here, so, without a doubt, it has to be Bohemian Rhapsody. I don’t care how many times you’ve heard it or how many more times you will, this song is amazing…for 1975, for 2015, whatever, just to have that all in your head and manage to get it out is a feat in and of itself. The fact that so many people in the world GOT IT and continue to GET IT…well, even if we don’t get it, we love it. If you don’t start rockin’ Wayne n Garth style after the operatic interlude, you’re dead, and if you don’t shed a tiny tear when Freddie laments “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all,” you’re also dead. Basically, everyone alive should like this song.

Worst – I think this one is just a personal dislike for me and not really a bad song, but I can’t stand Liar on the debut. It’s just so forced, so lesser than what Freddie was capable of, that it’s almost intolerable. And in its defense, that’s what a lot of Queen’s first album is; they had a developed sound without fully finding a voice, and an attitude without truly knowing which outlet to funnel it through. There are some extreme and underrated winners on that album, but there are enough “Oh please” moments to drop it out of the top 5 of their albums, and Liar is the trump card.

Underrated – Seriously, here is where I could honestly say, “the entire Black side of Queen II,” 'cos it's just SO overlooked, but again, focusing on just the single song, I’ll refer to my previous paragraph and offer up My Fairy King, which is certainly one of those “extreme and underrated winners.” It starts off with a bit of a hustle and flow, acts like it’s gonna take off and then drops down to a barely whisper before changing gears yet again and morphing into one of the most moving build ups in rock n roll and a running piano bit that seriously brings me chills. In addition, this is an early showcase of what these boys could do vocally, winding in and out and overlapping each other with crescendos and cadences enough to prove that Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of nowhere.


Best – Hear me out. Yes, there are LOADS of KILLER Brian May tunes, from Now I’m Here to Dreamer’s Ball and so much in between and everywhere else. But listen, my boy wrote a song that you can play and sing the entire thing by just stomping and clapping. And EVERYONE knows it. Yes, even my mom. We Will Rock You is THE (i.e. TEH) quintessential arena anthem, an in-your-face to anyone and everyone who isn’t worth your time, but you’re gonna thumb off to them anyway. And with that raw, crazy solo at the end, this really isn’t a pop song or even a rock song, it’s an experimental rant, an Avant-garde diatribe, and you’ve been bouncing it off the bleachers since you were in knee pants.

Worst – Ok, I’m gonna be sort of a jerk here, and yeah, I get what it’s all about, but Teo Torriatte is a bit of a snoozer. I guess Brian’s got worse songs out there (I’m looking at you, Tear It Up, you too, Dancer), but this one just tries way, way too hard. It’s a nice song, got a good melody, and the adoring shout out to their Japanese fans is awesome, but coming at the end of two albums worth of big chorus epics, I don’t know if it’s just the final straw on the proverbial camel, or if I’m missing something or if this song really isn’t all that. And ok, yeah, really, it is all that, I mean it’s excellently performed, but at the end of the day it’s too textbook, too sterile, too just there. But hey, it still beats over half of News of the World.

Underrated – This is a bit of a goofy choice, but I’m gonna say She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos). After a mostly blistering (in all the ways Queen can) side two of Sheer Heart Attack, this sweet, low key “stomper” really takes things to another level, even blissful, with nice layers of Beatles-reminiscent vocals and a persistent if unobtrusive melody taking things quite literally up and out into the ether. Of course they couldn’t let it end with quite such reverie, and a nice revival of In the Lap of the Gods shakes the needle off the groove.


Best – Again, sometimes you have to go for the obvious and You’re My Best Friend is John’s without question. Never has a sweeter song been written to, for or about anyone (and lucky is the gal to whom it nods), and yet it still maintains elements of apprehension and longing due to the absolute vulnerability displayed. And though these are John’s words and melody, it’s Freddie who brings them to life, gives them feeling and makes what could have been cheesy scribbling to a high school crush on the back of a notebook one of the greatest songs ever written, not just to love, but absolute companionship.

Worst – In a previous post I lauded John as the quiet but reliable weapon in the Queen songwriting arsenal, and you can go here for those thoughts. But even as I wrote that article, I realized he delivered some clunkers, and I Want to Break Free just might be the worst. Honestly, the video for this song is one of my earliest memories of Queen and I thought they were a joke band. Of course now I get the joke, but the song still doesn’t do much for me. As I’ve lamented before in these pages, far too often production will kill a good tune, and through the 80s tell-all gloss I can hear what this song would have been like on say News of the World…but it would have still only been an enjoyable but unessential ode to pent up frustration – which is essentially what it is in present form.

Underrated – To again mention the previously written post, one of the “hidden gems” on an album that delivers track after track of big, boisterous and fantastic songs (yes, I’m talking about Jazz), In Only Seven Days takes the cocksure audacity and quirky elegance of the album’s first half and turns it over on its ear with a delightful, straightforward and simply beautiful ditty about finding (and losing) love while on vacation. As a gawky kid turned awkward adult, it’s more than easy to slip into the role of the protagonist and be overwhelmed by the unforeseen, unprecedented circumstances of having the casual apple of your eye think you’re quite a peach yourself – and then lose it all to the inevitability of circumstances. I like to think he got her email address before they had to go home…or maybe he can look her up on Facebook.


Best – My lost buddy Tim, who really got me into Queen, was never much of a fan of Roger’s efforts. Initially that tainted my view as well, but over the years I’ve come to really enjoy his basic, bad boy bravado approach to rock n roll with songs like Tenement Funster and Sheer Heart Attack. But for me, his greatest songwriting offering is I’m in Love with My Car, a flat out love song to his current speedster, full of clever innuendos and boosted by a bombastic backing track of big guitars and grand choral arrangements, that is, when broken down, quite a beautiful song. It’s cocky and it’s unapologetic and it’s absolutely one of Queen’s greatest moments.

Worst – Look kids, Radio Ga Ga is complete twaddle. I guess Roger was trying to keep up with the current sounds of the New Wave, and he succeeded in delivering a radio hit, but bombed in creating a memorable or worthwhile song. This isn’t even cheese, it’s just sterile synth and certainly Queen’s weakest single.

Underrated – I love Drowse because it’s the exact opposite of your typical Roger tune. As the title would suggest, it’s a subdued, hazy rollick, and those phased out, dreamy slide guitars really bring the magic. To me it feels like an indie rock song that could have been written and recorded anytime in the past 15 or 20 years, instead of over 35 years ago, and I think, like the majority of their work in the 70s, that’s a testament to the timelessness and longevity of Queen at their most forward thinking best.

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