Classic Music Review: A Night at the Opera by Queen

Wow! This is the first new review I’ve written in sixteen months!

During my absence from the ether, I have had good times (intensive theatre training last summer and plenty of great sex) and bad times (I’ve been seriously underemployed since losing my job last year).

Don’t worry about me—something will turn up sooner or later. Dammit.

Anyway, I’m not the kind of girl to sit on her tushie all day and bemoan the cruel twists of fate and the vicissitudes of capitalism. No sirree, Bob! By the way, who the fuck was Bob? No—I have used the opportunity presented by the lousy economy in La Belle France to develop my intellectual and spiritual capabilities to such an extent that I am now operating on a higher level of consciousness. I have penetrated the secrets of the ages, discerned the underlying truths of existence and achieved a mystical state of inner peace and utter contentment. I can rise above the petty concerns of daily life and perceive the inherent unity of being within the cosmos.

I can now hold in my mind two completely opposing thoughts without tension or anxiety. I perceive the truth in both sides of a question and experience no desire for resolution or compromise. Allow me to demonstrate this amazing skill with A Night at the Opera:

A: A Night at the Opera is a masterpiece of the recording arts, an achievement that rivals Sgt. Pepper.

B: A Night at the Opera is the most overproduced, over-recorded and overblown creation in music history.

A: Freddie Mercury was a brilliant composer and one of the greatest lead singers of all time.

B: Freddie Mercury was a born ham whose vocals were consistently over the top and whose lyrical efforts fell somewhere between unintelligible garbage and syrupy cliché.

A: A Night at the Opera is a delightful cornucopia of diverse musical genres that combine to create a one-of-a-kind listening experience.

B: A Night at the Opera is a bizarre barrage of incompatible sounds from a band focused more on providing thrill-based entertainment than artistic excellence.

A: As a whole, A Night at the Opera is a boffo performance that leaves the listener begging for more.

B: When broken down into its separate components, A Night at the Opera is exposed for what it is: complete fluff made to sound artistically significant though the use of sophisticated recording techniques.

Okay, all that stuff about higher consciousness is total bullshit. The truth is I’ve rarely encountered an album that elicits as many contradictory feelings as A Night at the Opera.

Perceptive readers with photographic memories may remember that Queen was once on my no-fly list of artists I would never, ever review. This aversion was primarily driven by my feelings about two songs: “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You.”

Especially “We Will Rock You.” I hate that fucking song.

I can’t tell you how many times I’d be enjoying the ebbs and flows of San Francisco Giants baseball when the idiot who ran the PA system at Candlestick or PacBell decided to play “We Will Rock You” at maximum volume. All the morons in the stands immediately started clapping their hands and pounding their feet in a chilling display of automaton unity. I found the experience not only annoying, but truly frightening, like I’d slipped back in time and found myself in the middle of a Nuremberg rally. I didn’t hear “We Are the Champions” quite as much, because the Giants only made it to the World Series twice while I lived in the City (losing both times), but I also found that song disturbing and manipulative—a call to all the self-made losers with deservedly low self-esteem to pretend they’re winners for a few measly minutes.

You may have noticed the same psychological dynamic in play at Donald Trump rallies.

So Queen languished in silence on my verboten list until one day I walked over to my parents’ place, let myself in and heard the song “Good Company” playing on the home stereo. I don’t think I’d ever heard it before, and stopped to listen for a while.

My dad walked by on his way to the kitchen, saw me standing there and said, “Hey, Sunshine.”

“Who’s this, Dad?”

“That’s Queen. A Night at the Opera. I hadn’t pulled it out since . . . shit, long before we moved here. It’s not bad.”

“I like this song,” I said, wiggling my butt and tapping my foot to the snappy beat. “I don’t remember ever hearing it. What’s the rest of the album like?”

He laughed and said, “Whatever you want it to be.”

That curious comment piqued my interest, and after listening to A Night at the Opera several times, I think dear old dad was onto something. It’s a record that complements several different moods, so it’s pretty likely that the average listener will find at least one song they like. I also noticed that A Night at the Opera is much more satisfying when listening to it all at once, for despite its incredible diversity, there is a unity in the architecture that derives in part from Queen’s use of complementary keys linking the different tracks, and in part from the energy and commitment you hear in every piece. On the flip side, the pieces by themselves range from brilliant to despicable, from quite beautiful to quite a mess. At the time of its release, A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever recorded, and there were several moments when I was tempted to scream at my speakers, “For fuck’s sake, leave some empty space in there once in a while!” The constant layering, overdubbing and patching does get fatiguing after a while, and the over-engineering leaves some of the tracks sounding contrived and fake, as if parts of A Night at the Opera were recorded by androids on amphetamines.

Let me give you a tip: if you listen to A Night at the Opera as a 20th century example of opera buffa—a form of opera that is a kaleidoscope of comic scenes and ridiculous characters—it makes for a much more satisfying experience. Like the Marx Brothers’ film that is the album’s namesake, opera buffa was designed to be over-the-top, and if there’s one phrase that describes Freddie Mercury and Queen, it’s over-the top.

Unfortunately, that includes “despicably over-the-top,” as we hear in my nominee for the worst opening song of all time, “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To . . .)”. And it all starts so well! We hear a Liberace-like piano passage that melts into the something-wicked-this-way-comes sound of Brian May’s four-note vamp and brace ourselves for what promises to be an exciting ride. Instead, we’re treated to a Freddie Mercury rant about his unpleasant experience with Queen’s ex-manager, a sad display of verbal diarrhea filled with name-calling and mean-spiritedness. Freddie’s vocal drips with overwrought nastiness as he chews up both scenery and soundstage in a wholly embarrassing display of immaturity. The psychology behind the call-and-response line “Do you feel like suicide? (I think you should)” blew me away every time I heard it—was Freddie trying to impress us with his respect for moral boundaries by encouraging his enemy to off himself and take the responsibility off his shoulders? I can’t even begin to diagram those psychological gymnastics. The lyrics completely overshadow some superb performances by the band, especially Roger Taylor’s powerful yet nimble drum work. “Death on Two Legs” is not only awful, but feels out-of-place with the generally playful energy of the rest of the album.

Freddie does much better in the first of three music hall numbers on A Night at the Opera, “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” What you hear on the record is Freddie’s voice miked through headphones to give the vocal that Rudy Vallee-like megaphone sound. It’s a pleasant and microscopically brief diversion that leads us to Roger Taylor’s “I’m in Love with My Car,” a rather plodding rocker about the ancient male obsession with automobiles. Roger can’t sing to save his life, but Brian May’s guitar work is pretty solid, and the background harmonies are first-rate.

“You’re My Best Friend” is a John Deacon composition that bears an eerie resemblance to the theme song for the disgustingly heartwarming American 70’s sitcom, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which goes like this . . .

People let me tell you ’bout my best friend,
He’s a warm-hearted person who’ll love me till the end.
People let me tell you bout my best friend,
He’s a one boy cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy.

And is very similar in syrupy sentiment to . . .

Ooh you’re the best friend that I ever had
I’ve been with you such a long time
You’re my sunshine and I want you to know
That my feelings are true
I really love you
Oh you’re my best friend

Queen missed out on huge royalty opportunity by failing to pitch this sucker for the network bigwigs.

The song is the polar opposite of “Death on Two Legs,” dripping with saccharine instead of venom. It also features that horrible Wurlitzer sound that was the bane of many a recording in the 1970’s. Fortunately for Queen fans who attended their shows, Freddie Mercury refused to play the song on that “tinny and horrible” instrument. Hooray for Freddie! “You’re My Best Friend” is sweet, nice, warm, cuddly and pleasant, and for all those reasons, I hate it with a passion.

Brian May’s “39” is a fine piece of work, a modern folk song with a nice easy flow about a group of space-travelers who departed Earth for a year-long voyage only to run into one of those nasty little time warps and wind up returning a century after their departure. Since I happen to be an aficionado of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it all makes perfect sense to me! Those spatial anomalies can be pretty tricky! I love how Queen incorporated patches of an operatic soprano in the background vocals to reinforce the opera buffa presentation. Responding to an offhand wish expressed by Brian May, John Deacon taught himself how to play one of those monstrous double basses on the track, giving the song a more natural sound than the other tracks on A Night at the Opera.

We finally get to some serious rock marked by heavy guitar, throbbing drums and deeply satisfying bass in “Sweet Lady,” a solid piece of evidence that Freddie Mercury was indeed one hell of a lead singer. This is one track where I wish they had placed Freddie’s voice in a more prominent, less-crowded space in the soundscape à la “Another One Bites the Dust,” because his lead vocal really is a fine piece of work. That said, the background vocals and harmonies are very strong here, and the arrangement blends exceptionally well.

Our second music hall number, “Seaside Rendezvous” is campy, corny and relentlessly charming. After hearing this song, one could argue that Freddie Mercury was born about thirty or forty years too late and would have absolutely thrived in the London Vaudeville scene. The arrangement is marked by superb timing and plenty of boop-de-boop call-and-response insertions that demonstrate a full commitment on Queen’s part to pay suitable tribute to the genre.

Too bad we have to flip over to Side 2 and find ourselves having to slog through the interminable “The Prophet’s Song,” a purely theatrical progressive rock piece with no redeeming value whatsoever except for the curiously pleasant sound of a toy koto. Based on a bad dream about a great flood, Brian May’s story uses many of the fear-inducing clichés uttered by third-rate preachers whose one marketable skill is knowing how to induce fear into the stupid. One critic referred to the language as “Shakespearean,” proving only that music critics can’t tell the difference between great poetry written in iambic pentameter and highfalutin’ nonsense:

He told of death as a bone white haze
Taking the lost and the unloved babe
Late too late all the wretches run
These kings of beasts now counting their days.
From mother’s love is the son estranged
Married his own his precious gain
The earth will shake in two will break
And death all around will be your dowry

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Take your fire-and-brimstone and shove it up your ass. As is true with nearly everything you read in the holy book of your choice, the language in “The Prophet’s Song” is faithfully boring, deliberately ambiguous (that’s why you need faith!) and completely devoid of meaning.

Next we have “Love of My Life,” a favorite of Queen fans the world over. I suppose if you’re into kitsch and embarrassing displays of excessive sentiment, the song might work for you. Freddie emotes and over-emotes to the point that I want to slap him silly. I scoured this piece for a speck of evidence that the whole thing might be a put-on, but unfortunately I came up empty. “Love of My Life” is Barry Manilow-quality stuff, completely weightless . . . but it works in the context of opera buffa, so I’ll give it a pass (double meaning intended).

My favorite song on A Night at the Opera comes next, the subject of the love-at-first-listen experience described at the beginning of this piece. “Good Company” is a hoot, a tightly-performed Dixieland number combining good fun with a very clever set of lyrics. Brian May managed to duplicate the sounds of Dixieland horns through his Red Special guitar, a feat made possible by patient engineering and the fact that the old recordings rarely captured the clarity of the horn section unless Louis Armstrong was in the room.

The story describes what is now a 21st century crisis—the increasing demands of career and the sacrifices one chooses to make in pursuit of success lead to a compartmentalized, truncated life, separating us from the relationships we need to nurture our humanity:

Now marriage is an institution, sure:
My wife and I our needs and nothing more
All my friends by a year
By and by disappear
But we’re safe enough behind our door.

I flourished in my humble trade
My reputation grew
The work devoured my waking hours
But when my time was through
Reward of all my efforts:
My own Limited Company

I love a great pun, and “Limited Company” is a beaut, linking a form of business ownership to the utter loneliness of the workaholic. Appropriately for the musical era, our story ends with one of life’s many lessons:

I hardly noticed Sally as we
Parted company
All through the years in the end it appears
There was never really anyone but me

Now I’m old I puff my pipe
But no one’s there to see
I ponder on the lesson of
My life’s insanity
Take care of those you call your own
And keep good company

“Good Company” is not only a great ass-shimmying song, but the moral of the story really hit home with me as I continue to ponder what the fuck I want to do in life. As inconvenient as it is live within a tight budget and as frustrating as it is not to have any sense of direction regarding how I want to earn the money I need to survive, I don’t ever want to reach the point where “I ponder on the lesson of my life’s insanity” and lose touch with everyone who matters to me.

Call me admirable for my idealism or a fucking idiot on my way to the poorhouse, but there you have it.

This brings us to the reputed pièce de résistance of A Night at the Opera, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The most expensive single ever made on the most expensive album ever made, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was #1 on the UK charts for nine weeks after its release, and for another five weeks after its re-release in 1991. In the USA, the song only made it to #9 and #2 respectively. Whatever measure you use, it is one of the best selling-singles of all time.

Since the best-selling single in history is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” record sales are a poor measure of artistic merit.

I’ve read various analyses of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and have to conclude that most were written by frustrated English majors trying to apply classic literary interpretations to a non-literary work to imbue it with a significance far out of proportion to its context. The most common analyses focus on the nihilism of the lead character and his connection to his mother. The latter theme is drawn from the “confessional” passage and is described by author Sheila Whiteley as “affirmative of the nurturant and life-giving force of the feminine and the need for absolution.”

Translation: women produce babies and kiss boo-boos.

This literary speculation is all very nice, but I doubt Freddie Mercury composed “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a volume of Nietzsche and a copy of Oedipus Rex on his nightstand. Let’s cut to the chase: “Bohemian Rhapsody” is at its heart a theatrical work in the context of opera buffa. The story itself is pure cliché: a young hood does a very naughty thing and runs home to mama because he’s really an insecure nobody who adopted a tough-guy persona but never really came to grips with real life. James Cagney had a mother obsession in White Heat, so it’s not like the gangster-mother connection was anything new. And guess what? Gangsters are by their very nature nihilists! They don’t believe in society’s values—that’s why they’re gangsters!

The point I’m trying to make is that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is supposed to be melodramatic, over-the-top and sentimental, like a bad gangster movie.  It’s entirely possible, as some have intimated, that Freddie Mercury wrote it to help him deal with the sins of his youth or some lifelong struggle with identity, but since he’s currently unavailable for either interviews or psychoanalysis, we should let him rest in peace.

It’s theater, people! Just enjoy the fucking show!

Stripped of all the hoo-hah, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a brilliant musical composition presented in six sections. Both the libretto (we can freely apply that term, given the operatic influence) and Freddie Mercury’s performance are delightfully melodramatic, occasionally schmaltzy and (at times) hysterically funny.

Introduction: This segment is 100% Freddie Mercury in five-part harmony, and is quite lovely. The panning is quite sophisticated and well-executed, reflecting the inner dialogue of the character as he shifts from victim (“I’m just a poor boy”) to false bravado (“easy come, easy go, little high, little low”). The segment fades gracefully into sound of soft piano and bass.

Confessional: Here our hero confesses to his mother, demonstrating he’s not much of a tough guy after all. Like a virgin fuck, he gives it up too early! A real tough guy would have held out for a verse or two, and I believe that’s the point. Our character is undereducated and unsophisticated, and though he tries to present himself to the world as a guy who knows the score, he’s really just a vulnerable, frightened human being. Freddie Mercury’s vocal is simply outstanding, balancing “sweet and forlorn” with bursts of angry self-pity (“But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away“). His closing line, “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” is the classic play for sympathy, and a counter-intuitive hint that he’s going to try to beat the rap in court.

Bridge—Guitar Solo: Brian May steps in with a majestic guitar solo, and given that he only had seventeen seconds to pull this off, it’s absolutely remarkable how complete this tiny passage feels. Bravo!

The Opera: I have to confess something here. Whenever this passage starts to play I . . . well, I get the giggles. Forget your image of a sophisticated, educated, fashionable French-American woman who moves gracefully through the world in perpetually good taste. I get the giggles! And when Freddie Mercury breaks into “Mama mia! Mama mia!” I laugh so hard I cry! Yes! I think the opera passage is the ultimate hoot! From the very start, the words and music fill your head with visual images so effectively that it feels like you’re actually watching the courtroom drama unfold before your eyes. I picture “the little silhouetto of a man” as the classic Scaramouche from commedia del’arte, twirling his waxed mustache and pompously taking his place on the bench or at the counselor’s table. The back-and-forth “we will not let you go/let him go” calls up images of old grey men on the “no” side competing with weeping women with darting handkerchiefs screaming for the poor boy’s release. And then the “mama mia . . . ” Excuse me while I compose myself and get the giggles out of my system . . .

Rock Passage: Okay, it’s time to rock! Queen simply had to kick some ass here to reconnect the composition to the present day, and boy do they ever! Rock is the perfect genre for expressing defiance, and now that our hero has lost his bet on a sympathetic jury, he reverts back to the adolescent who simply can’t understand how the world can be so fucking unfair. The band really lets it rip here and Freddie’s vocal is one of his best pure rock efforts.

Fade: Our hero now finds comfort in the nihilism that led to his entirely predictable demise. What I love most about this passage is Brian May’s counterpoint guitar licks: subtle, supportive and exactly the right thing at the right time.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is by far the best “suite” produced during those years when the form was popular. Unlike most suites, this is a tightly-woven composition with no wasted space (unlike the “suite” on Abbey Road, where Ringo’s drum solo qualifies as the definition par excellence of wasted space). Unfortunately, as good as it is, “Bohemian Rhapsody” did trigger a disastrous consequence: the explosion in music videos. Nothing in music history has damaged appreciation for music as much as the modern music video—but we’ll leave that rant for another day.

It was a long-standing British tradition to end theatrical performances with a rendition of “God Save the Queen” (or King, if the inferior gender happened to be on the throne at the time). Queen appropriately celebrates the ritual with Brian May’s multi-layered rendition of the royal anthem, closing the curtain on a remarkable theatrical performance.

I still haven’t resolved my push-pull feelings about A Night at the Opera. If I had tickets to see a performance at my local theatre, I’d make sure to come late so I wouldn’t have to hear “Death on Two Legs,” and I’d probably powder my nose and grab a cigarette during “The Prophet’s Song” and “Love of My Life.” But at the end of the play, I would stand with the rest of the audience and join in with what I would expect to be a thunderous ovation. On A Night at the Opera, Queen demonstrated the one quality I hold most dear in musicians: full commitment. They had a vision and they made that vision come alive, and while they might have crossed the line into excess and muddle now and then, the end result is still a delightfully satisfying experience.

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hey! Nice to have you back!!! Fun review – just like you were never away. Good luck ( I was where you are in 2013, career-wise). Do something you love and keep writing!

    • Thank you! Just re-establishing some presence for the book, and adding some reviews to the mix to fill holes. I’ve also re-opened the site, so drop over there and say hello. I figure I have about three months before I go insane and start considering returning to the USA . . . but I’m working hard to fix that, as I don’t want to live in any country that is actually considering turning the keys over to Donald Trump.

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