Flashback Friday: Queen’s ‘A Night At The Opera’

I can’t quite describe the feeling I had when I heard the opening track of Queen‘s 1975 album, A Night At The Opera, Death On Two Legs (Dedicated to…). I was 14, and just discovering music properly. I was heavily into your typical indie bands and had a strong love for The Shins, so hearing this song was like a lightning rod at struck me. I had never heard anything like this – or at least properly, as I had actually heard it many times thanks to my Dad. I had never resisted his taste, but I was also a child and REALLY in love with Destiny’s Child for most of that period (and my entire life), so it never struck me until this moment.

Everything changed for me then. I couldn’t comprehend how dramatic it was. I knew the name Freddie Mercury, of course I did, but I was dumbfounded. I had no idea what to expect from track 2, but it certainly wasn’t Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon. Just like that, the lightning rod hit me again. “What is going on?” I asked myself, genuinely confused about what I was hearing compared to what I had just heard. A song full of detest and disgust – Mercury couldn’t hide his despise of whoever it was he was singing about even if he wanted to – followed by an elegant song about literally “lazing on a Sunday afternoon”. Here, Freddie is singing about being an “ordinary guy”, a guy that certainly wouldn’t be spitting the lyrics of the previous track.

The lightning rods continued to hit me with every new song. I was totally and completely enthralled. I had never heard music like this before, never heard these theatricalities or anything as unpredictable as this album. Roger Taylor‘s voice on I’m In Love With My Car, a song so sensual and captivating yet so brief, mixed with Brian May‘s incomparable guitar skills. The classic pop of You’re My Best Friend, written by bassist John Deacon which I instantly recognised because I’m pretty sure it was once on a cereal ad. The almost country hoedown singalong of May’s ’39, the quintessential rock jam (but so much more) of Sweet Lady; I was beside myself and I was only half way through the album. Queen continued to blindside me with each track, even when I thought there is nothing else they could possibly fit in.

Seaside Rendezvous, with Freddie’s operatic voice soaring with confidence and style over a jangly ragtime piano and almost comical kazoo solo. It was like the comedy break in a theatre show… or an opera… Suddenly it fit. These weren’t so much songs as they were acts, of the opera – the one I was spending the night at. Each new song brought with it a new backdrop, new characters, new lines – it was a spectacular production using my ears as my eyes. The 8 and a half minute almost sci fi narrative extravaganza of The Prophet’s Song, with it’s searing guitar from May still giving me goosebumps to this day and huge vocal performance by Freddie that is truly something to be marvelled at, without even taking into account the incredible story telling of the lyrics was even more electrifying to listen to than any of it’s predecessors. Until of course, Bohemian Rhapsody. Thank the gods that are Queen for the break that is Love of My Life and Good Company, separating two incredibly dramatic, over-the-top, powerful and totally awe-inspiring songs that would have had me on my knees fearing for my life if I was listening to this in the 70’s.

Even though I was 14, I could proudly recite any scene from Wayne’s World on demand with my sister, and so I was already well versed in the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody. We had re-enacted that scene so many times I’m pretty sure my parents worried about permanent whiplash we may have given ourselves. Nevertheless, re-hearing that song in this context was hearing it like I never had it before. The pure in-your-face dramatics Freddie and his friends were doing was hypnotising, however, it all now made sense in a completely new and brilliant way. The shimmering, glittery end with just Freddie and the piano keys after the all-out storm heard just seconds before had a new meaning, and a new found place in my life. And then, of course, they ended with God Save The Queen because I guess it wasn’t QUITE enough yet.

Although incredibly important in a personal regard, it wasn’t long after this first listen that my infatuation with Queen began to turn into a full blown obsession. It struck me how ambitious this record was, and even what some considered foolish. At a time where punk was taking over, and Sid Vicious ruled (Freddie famously calling him “Simon Ferocious” when they happened to be in the same building and Sid had a few words to say to him), Queen wanted to bring ballet to the masses. They had only been together for 5 years, but the creative forces between the four were unbeatable. It’s no surprise that this was the most expensive album ever to make, and marked the turning point for the band. Death on Two Legs is actually a formidable ode to their former manager, who was screwing the band royally (pun intended) in regards to payment. They got rid of him, and made this. Holy shit.

Listening to A Night At The Opera was like discovering oxygen. It totally opened my eyes, and exposed me to the incredible world of Queen, Freddie Mercury and beyond. I have never quite had that feeling again from when I first heard Death on Two Legs, but whenever I play this album, I get pretty close.