It’s a rare thing for a band to enjoy a fresh start after 40 years, but for Queen the start of their fifth decade has seen them move record labels and take the opportunity to go right back to the beginning, with the re-issue of their first five albums. Just how their legacy has been managed since the passing of Freddie Mercury is open to question, but at least this series sees them concentrate on their history rather than struggling forward in a depressingly shoddy fashion, claiming the band’s name back from the musicals, the half arsed live shows and the car commercials. The digital remastering is crystal clear, making these records sound as fresh as if they were recorded yesterday. For once, this is the real Queen.
For a band who exhibited such flair at their peak, they took a few attempts to get going. Even so, their 1973 debut album Queen still stands up well. It’s clearly a record of the early ’70s but one that proved they could match the likes of Led Zepplin in the hard rock department at the same time as exploring other avenues. The sound of work in progress, although that was halted somewhat by the following year’s Queen II, which saw them get caught up in an odd mixture of fantasy lyrics and hard rock. A backwards step, but the last one they would take for the next four years.
These days a band would probably struggle to get a third shot at commercial success, but Queen were to return with yet another album in 1974 and finally focus their sound. Sheer Heart Attack was in many ways the true start of their story, combining the apparently disparate elements that they would make their own. ‘Killer Queen’ was their first great single but there is plenty here to match it – from the hard rock of ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ to the swing influenced ‘Bring Back That Leroy Brown’, dreamy ‘She Makes Me’ and epic ‘In The Lap Of The Gods…Revisited’. If you’re looking for an early Queen album to discover then this is the one.
What happened next was as surprising as it was career changing. A Night At The Opera appeared again just a year later, so expensive to make that anything less than major commercial success would have finished the band. With the album going straight in the UK charts at number one and rising to number four in the US, such an outcome was never likely. A Night At The Opera took the template of Sheer Heart Attack and expanded on every element. It was louder, camper, funnier, more adventurous and more rounded. The overplayed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is naturally the most obvious moment but it’s far from the best. ‘Prophet’s Song’ is, as hard it may to believe, a more ambitious variation on the same idea, leading into the elegant simplicity of ‘Love Of My Life’. Throw in the likes of ‘39’, Roger Taylor’s ‘I’m In Love With My Car’ and ‘Sweet Lady’ and the album’s appearance on all those best of all times lists is well deserved.
Following this was always going to be difficult and it’s not surprising that A Day At The Races (once more released within 12 months) was seen as something of a letdown. Making it an obvious companion piece to its predecessor may have not been the wisest of moves, but in hindsight the record makes it three great albums in a row. The slightly less over the top approach suited the band, and it’s tracks such as ‘Drowse’, ‘Far Away’ and ‘You And I’ that mark the record out. Plus in ‘Somebody To Love’ you have another genuine Queen classic.
In four short years then, here was an act that released five albums that saw them develop from just another rock band to one of the biggest names in the world. The audio polishing aside, these releases offer nothing new (apart from a hugely pointless bonus EP with A Night At The Opera) but they do remind us that they managed to match a commercial and creative growth, a combination that would prove difficult to maintain. There was one more great release (the rough and ready News Of The World, perhaps their best) before they began to slowly go off the boil. For now, though, that is not our concern. During the moments in time captured here, Queen were untouchable.