God save Queen. I mean it, man. When the prog-metal glam vaudeville act recorded the album News of the World next door to the Sex Pistols, who were recording the punk classic Never Mind the Bollocks … Here are the Sex Pistols, their drummer gave us a “Sheer Heart Attack.” He blew the balls off the amps for an aural attack downstroked from a stack of guitars set at 11. Brian May was the band’s guitarist, and a regal hard rock master plucking strings with a six-pence. Freddie Mercury was the singer with the operatic range. But Roger Taylor, a beatkeeper who sang the band’s highest parts, came up with a classic shredder riff you “Gotta Fight from the Inside” for a song he played all the instruments on.
Metal journalist Martin Popoff’s book Queen: Album by Album, part of a series of musical breakdowns he puts out through Voyageur Press, and everyone who comments for it, loves the band Queen. From Dee Snider to Paul McCartney, through David Ellefson of Megadeth and Nina Noir of the San Francisco Bay all-girl Queen tribute band The Killer Queens, the band is treated lovingly and reverently. Even the songs they don’t particularly like, they love. But none so much as Popoff, who starts the book humbly admitting Queen is “absolutely the greatest band to ever walk this earth.”
The 19 Queen experts he assembled to rip through the band’s 15 studio albums tend to agree. One says you don’t listen to Queen albums waiting for the next song, like you do with Jethro Tull, which irked me. But hey, Tull were only Queen for a day. There’s a small part of me, and probably a lot of people reading this, who would like to hear what Mr. Robot‘s Rami Malek, who plays Mercury in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, might like to say about mixing his voice in with Freddy’s. Popoff does include Patrick Myers, who played the lead in the Broadway musical Killer Queen.
Queen was formed in 1970. They’d been playing in London clubs after Mercury culled May and Taylor from the band Smile. After nearly 50 years and the untimely death of Freddie Mercury of AIDS in November 1991, the surviving members can fill arenas with celebrity frontmen like Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers. The experts, musicians, and record label execs get into the individual songs, the feel of the studio, what else was going on in the music world as music was being recorded and released. They get into which of Queen’s songs they prefer Adam Lambert not sing.
Insiders include Queen producer Reinhold Mack. Popoff keeps the conversations lively. McCartney’s comments are as personal as they are musical. He first discovered Queen through a family member who loved the band, prompting the Beatle’s bassist to give them a serious listen. He contrasts his own bass playing against John Deacon’s, who he lauds for not getting in the way, while at the same time applauding the songs where the bottom drives the band. He remembers meeting Brian May, a brother in arms against cruelty to animals, at the Diamond Jubilee Concert thrown by the other Queen, god save her. May told Eric Clapton he was the reason he picked up a guitar, and McCartney how there would be no Queen, the band not the one rattling her jewelry, without The Beatles. Paul reacted much the same as George Harrison did after meeting Homer Simpson of the vocal group the B-Sharps: what a nice fella, where did he say the brownies were?
The book moves through Queen’s discography in chronological order, starting with their debut album which came out on July 13, 1973 on EMI and Elektra Records. Recorded at Trident Studios and De Lane Lea Music Centre in London, Queen was produced by Roy Thomas Baker, John Anthony and the band. Popoff starts off each chapter with his own breakdowns of the albums’ merits, what he loved about them and why everyone else should.
Warning, you will want to read Album by Album next to a handy audio delivery system. And probably headphones, as they discuss some tiny detail you might have missed or a guitar harmony, or just to check out a voice that isn’t Freddy’s. Each member of Queen sang and wrote hits. The hits get just as much coverage as the deeper album cuts, for the most part, as do the albums. A Night at The Opera, arguably the band’s best-known album because it had their biggest hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” on it, gets the same space as Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space, best known for their collaboration with David Bowie on the sole hit of the album, “Under Pressure.”
Queen: Album by Album includes the soundtrack for the 1980 film Flash Gordon. The film was considered a bomb but the album is a cult favorite for many Queen fans. It only had two songs on it that were fully vocalized, but we learn many hipsters think it’s their best album. Following the classic Queen period, the experts and observers judge the band against themselves. Sometimes they “defend the indefensible.” Although they allow certain disappointments to come through, such as dipping too many times into the disco well. They conclude the band’s last creative period was somewhat formulaic, giving listeners what they wanted while keeping pace with recording technology. But damn if the band didn’t achieve both.
The book is liberally illustrated with rare performance and offstage photos, old playbills, and official shot. The experts talk about the album covers, how important they are to each collection of songs, from the majestic black and white coupling of A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera, through the rockabilly winks of The Game and the play-it-safe cover of The Works.
Bohemian Rhapsody is the highest grossing music biopic of all time at the moment, giving rise to a lot of new fans and casual listeners. Queen: Album by Album is a great introduction to the band. Popoff, who has reviewed more than 7,000 albums and written books like Rush: The Illustrated History, Metallica: The Complete Illustrated History, The Art of Metal and The Big Book of Hair Metal, gets his say and gets out of the way. Grab the albums, listen while you read.
Queen: Album by Album is available at Amazon.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.