Queen were never a band that was scared of stretching the possibilities of what hard rock music could be, and they were certainly never a band who doubted their own ability, not even for a second. So after they had already pushed the boundaries of rock music on their previous album Sheer Heart Attack with songs like Killer Queen and their Tenement Funster medley, they were ready to redefine rock music on their brilliant 1975 follow up A Night at the Opera.
On A Night at the Opera, each of the individual personalities and interests of the four band members shine through and come together to make a vibrant, energetic, overblown and vastly differentiated brand of music which incorporates aspects of progressive pop and rock, music hall, heavy metal and, as the title would suggest, opera. It was this combination of many genres that led to A Night at the Opera being the most well-received and respected of all of Queen’s albums, as well as the most influential piece of work they ever put together.
For all the experimental and innovative rock on the album, it begins with a more traditional rock song and one of Queen’s best. Death on Two Legs is Freddie Mercury’s scathing hate letter directed at Queen’s first manager, Norman Sheffield, who was in charge of the band’s affairs from ’72 to ’75 who was reputed to have mistreated the band during his tenure. After the song fades in with Mercury’s piano, Brian May’s crunching guitar playing couples well with Mercury’s biting and passionate vocal performance in which he rages a tirade towards their former manager for an array of unethical actions, and obviously there’s a killer guitar solo.
The song that succeeds the short but excellent piano-led Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon is often cited as the weak point of the album. Roger Taylor’s I’m in Love with My Car is by no means an awful song, but the lyrics are fairly cringe-worthy at times, and the song certainly lacks the melodic instincts that are found in nearly each of the other songs on the album. There isn’t a great chorus to this song and there certainly isn’t a discernible hook, and the backing vocals don’t really add anything to the song, which is a surprise seeing as this is typical a strong area of their music and something that sets them apart from many other hard rock bands. However, while this song is by no means Queen at their best, it certainly doesn’t take anything away from the brilliance of the other tracks on the album.
After John Deacon’s gentle and romantic pop gem You’re My Best Friend, on which the aforementioned backing vocals are sublime, comes the high point of the album, Brian May’s extraordinary acoustic ballad ’39. To the backing of brilliantly melodic acoustic guitar playing, May, whose vocal performance is very strong, tells the tale of space explorers who go off on a year’s trip to try and find new life on new planets. In a heartbreaking twist of fate, they realise that when they return from their year away, on their home planet exactly 100 years have passed and everyone they knew is gone. The tragic tale of loss is by far the saddest moment on the album, and coupled with the outstanding performance on the song, it stands out as the best song on the album, and possibly the best song Queen ever made.
Following another brilliant hard-rocking song Sweet Lady, which is very similar in style and quality to the album opener, comes a song that veers far from traditional rock music and is instead heavily influenced by the music hall of the early 20th century. Seaside Rendezvous is maybe the campest Freddie Mercury ever went on a song, and that is some mean feat to achieve. This upbeat, honky-tonk song is incredible fun and in the bridge sees Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor use no traditional rock instruments to create their sound but instead use tubas, trumpets and kazoos. This heavy departure from the typical sound of 70’s music really should have no place on an album that is described as hard rock, yet with the undeniable charm and humour that is portrayed in this song, it fits in perfectly. A testament to Queen’s innovative nature and their brilliant ability to change the rules of what fits the musical classification of ‘rock’.
The 8-minute progressive rock epic The Prophet’s Song kicks off the second side and it features lyrics about The Great Flood and makes reference to the Book of Genesis and Noah’s Ark as a prophet tries to warn humankind of an oncoming flood but is instead ignored and perceived as a madman. The ridiculous vocal bridge is the centrepiece of this song and it again shows Queen’s phenomenal ability to use their vocal melodies as a driving force in a song rather than having to rely on instrumentation. This is another reason why they are one of the standout bands of the 1970’s as they had 3 members who had incredible vocal range and were able to use these skills to bring a new aspect to heavy rock.
Love of My Life is Freddie Mercury’s piano-ballad on the album and the simple yet beautiful melody and performance makes it one of the more poignant moments on the album. Dedicated to Mary Austen, a woman who Freddie had a long relationship with in the 1970’s, it has a simple message of someone who has gone through a breakup and just wants the other person to come back. It is in the simplicity of this song where the brilliance lies as Freddie is allowed to have the stage and let his classically influenced piano and opera style vocals take over and provide the listeners with a deeply moving song. The fairly poor Good Company follows this song in a rather unfitting and unsuccessful fashion and it is the poorest song on the album in my opinion, and after this comes a song that is almost too famous for its own good.
There isn’t really much more that can be said about Bohemian Rhapsody that hasn’t been said before. Many consider it wildly over rated, many consider it fair that it is often described as one of the best songs ever. All I’ll say is that, while it is a good, maybe even great song, I wouldn’t rank it as one of my favourite Queen songs. The best part of the song is undoubtedly the opening sequence where it is just Freddie and the piano as he sings the moving tale of being a man who has committed murder and will now pay for his crimes. If the song had remained like this for the duration then it would be, in my opinion, superior to how it eventually turned out.
The part of the song I have criticism for is the operatics in the middle part of the song, which is often viewed as being the highpoint of the track. Maybe it is due the fact I have heard it so many times but I find this part of the song quite annoying, repetitive and unnecessary. It doesn’t really show anything different from the vocal bridge on The Prophet’s Song earlier in the album, and yet it is regarded as a musical revolution while The Prophet’s Song is hardly mentioned. Musically and melodically, this part of the song is actually very strong, but I feel that the vocals and lyrics in this section fail to add much to the song as a whole, and tend to get grate on you once you’ve heard the song a certain number of times.
The final part of the song sees Queen return to a hard rock onslaught and one which is one of their best, before Freddie returns to the slow piano that started the song and performs the iconic ending. Bohemian Rhapsody is obviously a very innovative song, and a very good one, but due to a number of factors such as overplaying and possibly overrating by the masses (which granted are not the fault of the band, so maybe my views are a bit unfair on them, but still) it isn’t one of my top 3 songs on A Night at the Opera.
Queen’s A Night at the Opera redefined what a rock album could be. The overblown production and performances, the combination of many musical genres (many of which had not been used in mainstream rock before), and the general ridiculousness of the songs changed the way people looked at rock music. In an era where incredibly serious progressive rock and hard rock acts dominated the album charts, Queen bucked the trend and showed that you could make innovative and meaningful rock music while still having fun and not taking yourself too seriously. A truly remarkable album by Freddie and the boys and one that stands tall to this day as a masterpiece of classic rock.