Music

Not Fade Away: Queen’s Debut Turns 40

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on the Queen‘s self-titled debut, which turns 40 this week. 

This week, as Queen’s debut hits the big 4-0, the group will be re-releasing the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Recorded April 20, 1992 at Wembley Stadium, it featured a number of superstar artists joining the surviving members of Queen — guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon — for a set of the band’s classics. None of which, for some reason, come from their excellent debut album. So why are we mentioning it?

Well, here’s a list of some of the unbelievable guests who paid their respects: Axl Rose, Liza Minnelli, Metallica’s James Hetfield, George Michael, Robert Plant, Seal, Roger Daltrey, Annie Lennox, David Bowie, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, Elton John, even Elizabeth Taylor. Any metal tribute that would feature Hetfield, Iommi and Axl would have to be dedicated to one of the genre’s most prestigious artists. Any classic rock artist would give up his or her first guitar and amp to have Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey and Elton and Bowie singing their songs. And what theatre icon wouldn’t blush at the idea of a tribute that featured both Liz and Liza? From metal to operatic pop, funk to stadium rockers, Queen did it all, and were able to touch the widest array of people than almost any other band in history. And it all started on Queen, released in 1973. The seeds were all there.

Queen was a band of four incredible musicians, all of whom would write hit singles over the years. But it was Freddie Mercury who drew your attention. The album’s cover made that loud and clear: Mercury, on stage, in the spotlight he loved so much, clutching his signature microphone half-stand, looking larger than life.

Queen opens with the band’s debut single, “Keep Yourself Alive.” It announces a singular singer in Mercury, a guy with a flair for the dramatic, who could be on Broadway or in a opera house, but chose to sing rock and roll on his terms. And why not? He was backed by an as singular band, led by May’s orchestral guitar playing. Three of the four guys could sing: 15 years earlier, May, Mercury and Taylor could have been a bubble-gum a cappella group. You could hear all of this on “Keep Yourself Alive.” The song was a precursor to other straight-ahead guitar anthems, including “Hammer To Fall” and “Tie Your Mother Down.” Speaking of their hard-rocking tracks, it’s a shame “Great King Rat” hasn’t gotten more radio spins over the years: a proto-metal song with immaculately arranged vocals, when you listen to it, you can imagine the Foo Fighters or Florence + The Machine covering it, perhaps together.

You know how “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds like a few different songs within one song? Queen did it first here, notably on “Doing All Right,” which veered from soft rock to metal within minutes. There are also lots of dramatic mood swings in “My Fairy King,” which leads off with an Ian Gillan-esque scream. It’s as if Freddie listened to Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” and decided to have a go.

“Liar” is sort of a progressive hard rock song… until four minutes and fourteen seconds into it, when Freddie announces “Listen!” and decides to sing gospel. That took audacity — something he fortunately had an abundance of. Heavy rock and gospel, two genres which rarely rubbed elbows, then or now, would meet towards the end of side two on “Jesus.” “The Night Comes Down,” meanwhile, saw the band getting a bit psychedelic; they would shed most of their Hendrixian influences soon after this album.

Perhaps the most underrated song on the album is “Son And Daughter,” which owes a nice sized debt to Black Sabbath. Metallica won their first GRAMMY for their cover of “Stone Cold Crazy,” but if they wanted to cover another Queen song, this would be a good choice. With a sludgy metal sound, it’s a rarely heard side of the band.  But the most prescient song on the album was the sole one written and sung by drummer Taylor, “Modern Times Rock ‘N’ Roll,” where he sang, ” ’58, that was great, but it’s over now and that’s all/Somethin’ harder’s coming up, gonna really knock a hole in the wall/Gonna hit ya, grab you hard, make you feel ten feet tall.” As mentioned above, there’s only one singer, and one band, that inspired a tribute that included Axl and Liza.

Roger was right — sing along with these songs, and you do feel ten feet tall. But if you’re ten feet tall, remember that Freddie is eleven.

Brian Ives, Radio.com 

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