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“Queen: Under Review 1973-1980″ explores the regal British rockers at their ’70s zenith
Queen: Under Review 1973-1980 — currently streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — is a fascinating look back at the band’s 1970s zenith, a time when they morphed from being an interesting but not too popular heavy rock act, to become perhaps the most reliable, and versatile, hit makers since the Beatles.
Like most of the other Under Review offerings, it’s not necessarily a biographical account. Rather, it’s more a chance to hear some of the old tunes and listen in as various music journalists offer their take on what made Queen special. That the interviewees are all unabashed Queen fans makes it all the more fun.
Queen didn’t start out at the top, that’s for sure. Their first single, “Keep Yourself Alive,” didn’t make a dent in the British charts when it was released in October 1973.
The problem wasn’t the sound, which was loaded with great guitar from Brian May, and a strong vocal from Freddie Mercury, but the timing.
British radio was so dominated at the time by exciting new performers – Elton John, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, and assorted glam bands – as well as sturdy older ones like the Rolling Stones, and various ex-Beatles, with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath holding sway over lovers of hard rock, that Queen simply couldn’t nudge their way in.
The song petered out and never made an appearance on the UK charts. When it was released a few months later in the U.S., it flopped again.
Years later, though, once Queen’s stock had risen, the song became a favorite to perform live; by the early 1980s it would be part of a medley culled from their Flash Gordon soundtrack.
In 2008, Rolling Stone rated “Keep Yourself Alive” 31st on its list of “The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time,” describing it as “…an entire album’s worth of riffs crammed into a single song.”
That’s not a bad way to remember the only Queen single to not chart in the United Kingdom.
Queen would gradually change their attack, and find success.
As Nigel Williamson of Uncut magazine notes in the documentary, the Queen sound needed a boost, not in volume, but in attitude:
“The bigger and more preposterous it became, the better it became, in a way. They came to have a quite profound sense of their own absurdity.”
It turns out that one of their rivals on the charts, David Bowie, played a part in their next step towards success. When Bowie canceled an appearance on the UK’s beloved “Top of the Pops” program, Queen was plucked from obscurity to replace him.
They responded with a performance of “Seven Seas of Rhye,” a bombastic rocker from their second album, Queen II. The performance didn’t turn them into an overnight sensation, but it certainly helped Queen’s cause.
The song had originally been an instrumental on their debut album, but was restructured and given lyrics for their follow-up. On the strength of the TV performance, it landed at #10 on the UK charts.
A certified hit, its melody would appear again on Queen’s next album, Sheer Heart Attack, whistled briefly at the beginning of “Brighton Rock.”
“Killer Queen” was the game changer. With its finger-popping intro, stunning harmonies, Mercury’s increasingly campy delivery, and another nice guitar solo from May, this song about a high-class call girl had all of the elements of classic Queen.
The band’s growing fan base brought “Killer Queen,” to #2 in the U.K. and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song even hit the Top Ten in places like Norway and the Netherlands, establishing Queen as an international act.
By now, the band had moved away from the heavy, “prog” rock sound of their first two albums and allowed Mercury’s influence to shine through. This included dashes of Noel Coward, British music hall, classical flourishes, and whatever else he wanted to throw into the pot. “I’m more Liza Minnelli than Robert Plant,” he said at the time.
This doesn’t mean the band lost it’s hard rock aspirations entirely.
Sheer Heart Attack also includes “Stone Cold Crazy,” a sizzler from May that can be seen as a precursor to speed metal, but the direction of Queen was changing, moving towards what most consider the band’s most magnificent moment: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Of the six minute mini-opera, Mercury says in Under Review: 1973-1980 that it was “part of a phase we were going through at the time”:
“We were writing like crazy. There was so much hunger. There was so much we wanted to bring out. With ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ it was actually three songs I had, so I just put the three together. It had a very big risk factor; the radios didn’t really like it initially because it was too long, and the record company said we couldn’t market the song that way. So after me having virtually put the three songs together, they wanted me to slice it up again.”
The song’s cryptic lyrics have been analyzed to death, but as Mercury famously said, “It’s just a song. Enjoy it!”
The people certainly did. The song was #1 in the UK for nine weeks in 1975, and hit the top spot again when it was re-released in 1991. It remains one of the top selling British singles of all-time, right behind Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind” and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Even in the new era of downloads and streaming music, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is still estimated to be in Britain’s all-time top five.
Queen tried to recreate the “Bohemian Rhapsody” effect with another operatic epic, “Somebody to Love.” The song was a big hit in several markets, but by now the critics had heard enough.
In the burgeoning era of punk rock, Queen seemed too silly, too over-the-top. Though Mercury had his fans, he also turned people off with his flamboyant personality and stage demeanor.
The band had never been a critical darling, and now things were getting worse. Their studio effects and highly expensive sessions were seen as self-indulgent in comparison to the jagged, imperfect sounds coming from the punk clubs in New York and London.
Even Mercury began to wonder if the band had reached the end of their run. (You must watch the documentary if only to hear Mercury describe an encounter he had with the Sex Pistols, where he pretended to not know Sid Vicious’ name and called him “Simon Ferocious.” Whether true or not, it’s very funny.)
This was also a time when Queen’s live performances didn’t quite match their albums — review upon review harped on the band’s difficulties in recreating their densely layered studio sounds.
How did Queen respond? They became more over-the-top, with “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions,” anthems still heard in sports arenas and classic rock outlets today.
If those two chart-toppers weren’t enough, Queen followed up with two more monster hits, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” (allegedly written by Mercury while lounging in a bathtub in Germany) and “Another One Bites the Dust,” the latter written by bassist Roger Deacon, partly cribbed from an old riff by Chic.
Queen’s live problems would be solved, too, for it wasn’t long before sound equipment improved and could meet their demands.
They’d become the chief purveyors of what would be known as “stadium rock,” which was fortunate for them. Something tells us “We Are The Champions” wasn’t written to be performed in a cozy little nightclub.
Along with some vintage clips of the band in concert (and on British television programs) Queen Under Review 1973-1980 includes commentary from broadcaster, journalist and Mercury’s long time friend, Paul Gambaccini; rock author, journalist and Queen expert Malcolm Dome; former Melody Maker features editor Chris Welch, and others.
Guitarist and journalist Simon Bradley is especially useful when explaining May’s distinctive guitar sound. Demonstrating everything from the picking style May used on his infamous Red Special guitar — May didn’t use the standard plastic pick, preferring the tones he achieved with the serrated edge of a coin – to May’s special amplification, Bradley establishes how May produced a sound that was “very regal.”
“He could make it sound like a medieval orchestra, full of crumhorns and serpents, and what have you, which is bizarre for a lairy old rock band, which is it what they were at the time.” (FYI, “lairy” is Brit slang for “aggressive.”)
The documentary is not a total love fest by any means. The commentators pull no punches when discussing uneven albums like Jazz or News of the World, and more than one suggests Queen was strongest when recording singles, and less so when it came to putting together a cohesive album.
As one interviewee says, fans had to put up with Queen’s lesser material in order to hear the greatness that would soon follow.
The documentary comes to a conclusion with Queen at the top of their form in 1980, with “Another One Bites The Dust” riding high, and Freddie sporting an impressive new mustache.
What we come away with after watching Queen Under Review 1973-1980 is that Queen was certainly one of a kind.
After all, they were singles specialists in the era of album rock. They defied categorizing, yet sold somewhere between 150 and 300-million albums. You might even call them an oddity.
“What’s interesting is that I don’t think Queen had a great deal of influence on the rest of the music scene,” said Williamson of Uncut. “I think they’re one of those bands that did what they did and nobody else did it like them. It’s very hard to look at Seventies and Eighties rock and find a school of bands that were made in the image of Queen. What they did was unique, and it’s almost as if people accepted it as unique, therefore, there was no point in even trying to copy it.”