Endless rhapsody

How Queen trumped the punks
By JAMES PARKER  |  August 7, 2007

VIDEO: Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody"

If Queen had not existed, it would by no means have been necessary to invent them. Sweaty old 1973, the year of their debut album (the campily Tolkien-rocking Queen) was also the year of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, Led Zep’s Houses of the Holy, King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, and Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. The teen delirium known as T.Rextasy had just peaked, and Black Sabbath were chewing up stadia worldwide. Gender bending was part of the pop vernacular; vaudeville was in the air; the riff had already been turned inside out. There was no pressing need, in other words, for a new hard-strutting art-prog outfit with folk/pastoral pretensions and an estrogen-laced frontman in a silver catsuit. Yet here they were, garishly inessential and climbing like tarts toward superstardom. Listen to 1973’s “My Fairy King,” to Freddie Mercury’s tittering falsetto: “Dragons fly like sparrows through the air/And baby lambs where Samson dares . . . ” Now listen to it as if were a Ween song. Twice as good, right? The flourishes of minstrelly doo-wop, the wry formal mastery, the preposterous superfluity of invention . . . That was always the thing about Queen — they were a luxury.

Music Video Distributors has just released a two-DVD set containing Queen: Under Review 1973-80 and Queen:Magic Moments. The magic moments — a collection of reminiscences from rather raddled ex-members of the Mercury entourage — you can forget about. Under Review, on the other hand, is quite educational. Did you know, for example, that long-fingered guitar boffin Brian May always used an old English sixpence for a pick? Or that Freddie himself once called Sid Vicious “Simon Ferocious” and then lispingly challenged him to a fight? (Now that’s a contest I would have paid good money to see.) As in the rest of MVD’s now-extensive Under Review series, a collection of rock experts — roxperts, if you will — opine with varying degrees of acuity on the music, between random bits of footage (some live performances, some interviews) and the somber pronouncings of a voiceover. It’s not a format that pushes the boundaries of documentary making, but if you love Queen, you’ll be lapping it up.

Under discussion here is the fiery arc of Queenhood from ’73’s Queen to 1980’s The Game: the glory years. The initial ascent was steep. There were some very fancy moves on ’74’s Sheer Heart Attack — notably “Killer Queen” and the slow-pistoned rush of Brian May’s “She Makes Me,” as narcotically pretty as a Brian Jonestown Massacre song — but it was with A Night at the Opera (1975) that Queen really Queened out. This was their Kid A: an explosive broadening of range from which the band, though much success awaited them, never really recovered. What an album! Mercury, a daredevil of kitsch, tumbles through the styles (show tune, gonad rock, saucy seaside sing-along) while the mad Queen choir shrieks around him and May’s guitar impinges ironically in little stabs and flutters and the occasional dinosaur riff.

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