Queen - Biography



By Michael Keefe

 

British rock band Queen was among the most popular and creative rock bands of the 1970s and '80s, scoring hit LPs and singles across the planet and receiving critical praise, particularly for their earlier works. Emerging from the morass of countless hard rock bands in the early '70s, Queen quickly set themselves apart from the pack, thanks in large part to leader Freddie Mercury's dramatic, agile vocals and his penchant for composing songs that mixed unbridled emotion with sly humor. Though Mercury died in 1991, Queen's legacy has been insured by their inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the UK Music Hall of Fame.

 

Queen began as a band called Smile, which guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor formed in 1969, along with bassist Tim Staffell. The latter introduced his bandmates to Farrokh Bulsara, who would later change his name to Freddie Mercury. While Mercury was performing with a band called Wreckage, he suggested that Smile change its name to Queen. Staffell left the band in 1970 to attend school, and Mercury joined Queen as lead singer and pianist. After working with a series of bassists, Queen finally found John Deacon in 1971.

 

The band's first album, simply titled <i>Queen</i> (1973-Elektra), reveals a confident and highly competent hard rock band. On occasion, the group also shows flashes of the highly creative, genre-bending act it would soon become. "Doing All Right" and "Liar" both demonstrate impressive use of dynamics and a flair for the dramatic. "My Fairy King," meanwhile, is perhaps a bit too highly indebted to Led Zeppelin's fantastical folk-metal explorations. Other cuts, such as hard-riffing opener "Keep Yourself Alive" and "Modern Times Rock 'n' Roll" are solid if somewhat standard blues-based hard rock. What's most immediately apparent when listening to <i>Queen</i> is that Freddie Mercury would become one of the premier vocalists of the decade. The album found moderate success on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching #24 in England and a more modest #83 in America.

 

The following spring, the band returned with <i>Queen II</i> (1974-Elektra). True to its name, the album finds Queen in the same mode as on their debut, but they've both refined and opened up their sound, relying less on metal-era crunch and more on the elements that would become hallmarks of the group: rich harmonies and a melodramatic flair. At this point, though, Queen still seemed to take themselves a bit too seriously. The heavily shadowed head shots of the band members on <i>Queen II</i>'s cover, along with the occasional nod to musical ideas loosely cribbed from some notion of Medieval aesthetics, mark the kind of posturing that would later inspire the parodic film <i>This Is Spïnal Tap</i> (1984-Embassy Pictures). Still, the album is a step up in sophistication for the band and also a step away from the trappings of heavy metal. UK fans responded by sending the LP to #5, while, in the US, it reached #49. Queen's popularity had already stretched across the planet by this stage, as their sophomore album made the Top 100 in Norway, Japan, and Australia. On the singles front, the Who-like closing cut, "Seven Seas of Rhye," became the band's first to chart, peaking at #10 in England.

 

In November of that same year, Queen released their third album, <i>Sheer Heart Attack</i> (1974-Elektra). Here, the band break free of previous genre restrictions. Opener "Brighton Rock," a song written earlier, is a hard rocker, but any initial impressions that this is just "Queen III" are erased by track two, the huge hit single "Killer Queen." Piano-driven music hall with a smidgeon of glam rock, the ballad of a high class femme fatale went Top 20 in nine countries around the world, including #2 in the UK and #12 in the US (which are exactly the same benchmarks reached by <i>Sheer Heart Attack</i>, itself). Mid-album second single and May-written rocker, "Now I'm Here," reached #11 in England but missed the charts in the US. The rest of the album mixes the two singles' styles, blending melodramatic, cabaret-inspired ballads with crunching and soaring rock. Though <i>Rolling Stone</i> gave the album a tepid review when it first came out, time has been kind to <i>Sheer Heart Attack</i>, and it's now rightly regarded as the band's first great album.

 

The next year, Queen did one better by recording their masterpiece, <i>A Night at the Opera</i> (1975-Elektra). Titled after the Marx Brothers film of the same name, the album marks Queen's break with easy categorization. It offers everything from the vicious riffing of opening track "Death on Two Legs" to the strummy, cloud-busting soft rock of "You're My Best Friend," and the hot jazz of "Seaside Rendezvous" to the epic, operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody." That latter song became Queen's first UK #1 single, a position it reached in eight other countries, as well. In the US, it hit #9. <i>A Night at the Opera</i> topped the album charts in six nations, including England, and peaked at #4 in the US. Not just a commercial success, critics raved and have continued to do so, placing it on many lists of the all-time best albums.

 

A year later, Queen followed with their fifth full-length, <i>A Day at the Races</i> (1976-Elektra), borrowing another Marx Brothers film title. As on previous LPs, the record opens with a Brian May-penned rocker, the bluesy "Tie Your Mother Down," which became a modestly successful single (UK #31, US #49). More successful on the singles charts was the first song from side two, Mercury's "Somebody to Love" (#2 UK, #13 US). Centered around the singer and his piano, a gospel-like choir of overdubbed Queen members propels the track. The rest of the album doesn't quite live up to the quality of the previous pair of Queen albums. Brian May's vocals on his mellow and jangly "Long Way" are competent, but not compelling. "White Man," though well meaning with its pro-Native American stance, is a bit heavy-handed. The band serve up a few more gems on <i>A Day at the Races</i>, though. Mercury's "The Millionaire Waltz" and "Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy" are both strong, and the John Deacon-penned "You and I" is among the album's highlights. Critical praise for the record was favorable, but far from rapturous. Regardless, the LP reached #1 in England, Holland, and Japan, while peaking at #5 in America.

 

The following October saw the release of another Queen album, <i>News of the World</i> (1977-Elektra). It opens with the band's most iconic pair of songs, "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions." Played countless times on rock radio and in sports venues since, the latter was released as the album's first single, with "We Will Rock You" as its B-side. The single hit #2 in the UK and #4 in the US. Somewhat confusingly, the song "Sheer Heart Attack" appears on <i>News of the World</i>, a few albums removed from the LP of the same name. The timing was right, though, as the track emulates (and perhaps mocks) the newly emergent punk rock sound, while adding a level of polish not found on <i>Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols</i> (1977-Sire). Deacon's dare-to-dream power ballad, "Spread Your Wings," reached only #34 in England and missed the US charts altogether. Another highlight is the sexy and sparely funky "Get Down, Make Love," which was later covered by Nine Inch Nails. Once again, critical praise for a new Queen LP was lukewarm, while music fans around the world vaulted the album into their nation's Top 5s, including #3 in America and #4 in England.

 

By this point, fans expected a new Queen LP toward the end of each year, and the band delivered once more with <i>Jazz</i> (1978-Elektra). The always-eclectic band outdo themselves on their seventh LP, opening with "Mustapha," a rocker with Middle-Eastern motifs and lyrics. This is followed by the booty-celebrating single, "Fat Bottomed Girls," which reached #11 in the UK and #24 in the US. The song is lyrically linked to its B-side, the almost annoying catchy and operatic "Bicycle Race." The piano-driven and Elton John-esque "Don't Stop Me Now" worked well as a single in Queen's homeland, where it hit #9, but not in America, where it stalled at #86. Elsewhere on the album, the band range from skeletal funk ("Fun It") to fast-tempo rock ("Dead on Time"). Original reviews from Robert Christgau and <i>Rolling Stone</i> were poor, but All Music Guide later gave the LP four stars. Queen fans sent <i>Jazz</i> high up the charts, to #6 in the United States and #2 in England.

 

The next year, Queen took a break from the recording studio, instead offering fans the two-LP concert set, <i>Live Killers</i> (1979-Elektra). For the most part, this is a greatest-hits-played-live affair, presenting the group's biggest singles and best-known album tracks. Perhaps most interesting here is song one, a sped-up and riff-heavy version of "We Will Rock You." After 78 minutes of rocking out to Queen's best songs, the group conclude the set with a more conventional reading of the anthemic "We Will Rock You" and its companion piece, "We Are the Champions." The sound throughout is a bit muddled, but the band's live prowess still shines through. Predictably, critics offered faint praise. <i>Live Killers</i> hit #3 on the British charts and a respectable #16 in America.

 

At the beginning of Queen's second decade, they got back to issuing studio albums with <i>The Game</i> (1980-Elektra). The record is lean and highly accessible, with straightforward rockers like May's "Dragon Attack" and Taylor's "Coming Soon," the catchy pop/rock of "Need Your Loving Tonight," and the Elvis Presley-like "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," which could've come out of Sun Studios circa 1955. The album also contains the sinister, bass-grooving "Another One Bites the Dust," which became the band's second US chart-topper and a #7 hit in the UK. <i>The Game</i> reached the #1 spot in seven countries, including America and England. It also received the best reviews for a new Queen album since <i>A Night at the Opera</i>.

 

The next year, Queen's standing would change on a dime. The band signed on to record <i>Flash Gordon</i>, the rock soundtrack to the film of the same name. The movie tanked, and Queen's album was an artistic mess. The band make heavy use of synthesizers, which they'd only just begun dabbling with on their previous album. The results are uneven and often ham-handed. Also, snippets of dialogue from the film interrupt any halfway enjoyable mood the band manage to conjure. Critical reaction to the album was mixed, and fans were relatively restrained, as <i>Flash Gordon</i> peaked at only #10 in the UK and #23 in the US. "Flash," a rearranged version of the record's opening track, peaked at #10 in England and stalled just outside the US Top 40. That same year, Queen teamed with David Bowie for the one-off single "Under Pressure," a wide-open and soaring beauty that hit the Top of the Pops in England and #11 in America. This track was included on the band's <i>Greatest Hits</i> (1981-Elektra), which provides a perfect encapsulation of Queen's finest moments from the first stage of their recording career.

 

The following year, Queen got back to releasing regular studio albums with <i>Hot Space</i> (1982-Elektra). The worst of what the early 1980s represented crept into the band's music on this album, their artistic nadir: bland synth washes, sterile drums, canned guitar sounds, and precious little of the bravado and dynamics that made Queen great. Reviews were mediocre, but the band's backload of good will – plus the tacking on of "Under Pressure" to the album's end – took <i>Hot Space</i> to #4 in the UK, but to only #22 in America.

 

In 1983, the members of Queen took a break from the band, resulting in the first year in their history without a new release. They returned the following year, however, with <i>The Works</i> (1984-Elektra). Airy, synth-pop opener "Radio Ga-Ga" largely follows the template set by <i>Hot Space</i>, but is markedly better and well deserving of its international chart success. The song went Top 10 in 15 countries, hitting #2 in the UK and #16 in America. On second track "Tear It Up," Queen proved they weren't finished with the hard rock that established their career. From there on, the band bounce from one style to another (including honky-tonk, on "Man on the Prowl"), just as they've always done. A marked improvement from its predecessor, <i>The Works</i> received favorable reviews and performed well on the charts worldwide. Though it reached only #23 in the US, it peaked at #2 in England and #1 in three other nations. The LP also produced two more UK Top 10 singles, "I Want to Break Free" and "It's a Hard Life."

 

Queen didn't release a new album in 1985, but they gained plenty of exposure by playing Live Aid, the famine relief rock festival viewed by millions. Also that year, Freddie Mercury issued his solo album, <i>Mr. Bad Guy</i> (1985-Columbia). The record bombed in the US, reaching only #159, but performed far better in the singer's native England, where it hit #6.

 

In June of the following year, Queen released studio album number twelve, <i>A Kind of Magic</i> (1986-Capitol). Opener "One Vision" is a solid Queen rocker, but it's followed up by the bland title track. The Brits sent both songs to the UK Top 5, while the same singles missed the US Top 40. The rest of the tracks range from hard rocker "Gimme the Prize" to pretty good power ballad (and UK #14) "Friends Will Be Friends" to the limp "Pain Is So Close to Pleasure," the instrumental tracks for which sound like they were programmed on a Casio in ten minutes flat. Despite a two-star <i>Rolling Stone</i> review, the album went all the way to #1 in England. The band's stock had clearly fallen in America, however, where <i>A Kind of Magic</i> stalled at #46 on the Billboard 200. Six months later, the group issued their second concert album, <i>Live Magic</i> (1986-EMI). Spanning the group's career, the release contained the essential hits and several newer cuts from the past couple of albums. It made it to #3 in England, but wasn't released in the US for another ten years, probably leading to the album's failure to chart in America.

 

Two full years passed without a new release from Queen, before fans were given <i>The Miracle</i> (1989-Capitol). The album has a little bit of everything Queen has ever done, from the title ballad to hard rocker and UK #3 single "I Want It All." The songwriting simply isn't consistently good, though. Also, the production is the glossiest and least effective since <i>Hot Space</i>. Despite these shortcomings and tepid reviews, <i>The Miracle</i> topped the album charts in seven countries, including the United Kingdom. In America, Queen's popularity rebounded a bit, with the disc peaking at #24.

 

Commercially, Queen were in no need of a comeback, but their 14th studio album, <i>Innuendo</i> (1991-Hollywood), marked an artistic resurgence for the band. The long and brooding title track (a UK #1 hit) immediately lets the listener know that the group are unafraid to probe deeper and darker realms. When the song breaks into Spanish guitar and then "Bohemian Rhapsody"-like choral vocals, it becomes clear that Queen are back on track. This serious tone runs throughout the album, right through the downcast-yet-surging closer, "The Show Must Go On." <i>Innuendo</i> won favorable reviews and did very well on the charts, reaching the top spot in nine countries, including England. In the US, it peaked at #30. The album's darkness is primarily attributable to Freddie Mercury's rapidly declining health and the sadness of his bandmates over the singer's imminent death from HIV/AIDS, which occurred in November of 1991.

 

One month later, Queen's second compilation, <i>Greatest Hits II</i> (1991-Parlophone) hit the shelves in England. The US had to wait a few months longer for the somewhat misleadingly titled <i>Classic Queen</i> (1992-Hollywood), which covers the same ground as its UK counterpart: the hits from "Under Pressure" onward. That same year, a two-disc concert release, <i>Live at Wembley '86</i> (1992-Hollywood), hit the shelves. Covering the band's whole career, the album received mixed reviews. It reached #2 in the UK and #53 in the US. Also in 1992, the presence of "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the film <i>Wayne's World</i> led to the song being re-released as a single. It reached #1 in England and #2 in America.

 

In the months before his death, Freddie Mercury continued to record vocal parts, with the idea that the rest of the band could add instrumentation later on. The fruit of his final labors is Queen's final studio album, <i>Made in Heaven</i> (1995-Hollywood). The title's cheesiness is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the title track, along with "I Was Born to Love You," had already appeared on Mercury's solo album. The other members of Queen simply took Mercury's vocals and added their own instrumental takes. The majority of the vocals on <i>Made in Heaven</i>, though, were recorded in 1991. The album is more uplifting in tone than <i>Innuendo</i>, while retaining that record's return to more rock and far less pop ballad schmaltz. Though not a great album, <i>Made in Heaven</i> is a worthy final studio release from Queen. Fans worldwide gobbled up the record, sending it to #1 in 13 countries, including the UK, where five of the LP's singles also reached the Top 20. As with most Queen albums since <i>The Game</i>, America was less enthused, and <i>Made in Heaven</i> reached only #58.

 

Since then, more Queen compilations and live albums have continued to be issued, but few are of great significance. Even <i>Greatest Hits III</i> (1999-Hollywood) is more of an odds 'n' sods collection than a true gathering of bona fide hits. In 1997, bassist John Deacon retired, leading to the general dissolution of the band.

 

In 2004, when Queen were inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, Brian May and Roger Taylor asked former Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers to contribute vocals for their performance. This collaboration led to a full-fledged tour. The following year, Queen + Paul Rodgers (as this spin-off group is officially known) issued a two-disc live album, <i>Return of the Champions</i> (2005-Hollywood). Covering a wide swath of Queen's greatest songs, the material is performed well, but tends to sound more like a Queen covers band than the real deal. Then again, Rodgers wisely makes no attempt to impersonate Freddie Mercury. Fans appreciated the effort enough to carry <i>Return of the Champions</i> to #12 in the UK and #84 in the US. Three years later, Queen + Paul Rodgers released their first studio album together, <i>The Cosmos Rocks</i> (2008-Hollywood). Though lacking the artistry of a Mercury-led Queen album, the album is a solid rock record. Reviews were mostly poor, but the disc charted as well as most Queen albums had for the past quarter-century, reaching #5 in England and #47 in the United States.

 

Over the last decade, Queen's great contributions to music have been celebrated many times over. Most notably, in 2001, the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, in 2004, into the UK Music Hall of Fame. Their legions of fans have purchased millions of Queen albums over the years, vaulting the band to the top of the charts across the world, time and again.

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