Bob Lefsetz: Welcome To My World - "A Night At The Opera"
We were not prepared for it.
I bought the initial album, with the pinkish purple cover, based on a review in "Rolling Stone." You could tell by the enthusiasm and the description that this was something you wanted to check out. And from the very first note it was enrapturing. That's the power of "Keep Yourself Alive."
Right, now it seems obvious. But it was anything but in '73. I never heard "Keep Yourself Alive" on the radio, it was kind of like Yes with the first three albums, they were for fans only.
And then came "Queen II." Also with no synths. Oh, how amazing is Brian May. And it wasn't quite as good as the debut, but it got even less traction, it was like it didn't even come out, and I figured Queen was another one of those bands I knew by heart who were destined to disappear. And then came "Sheer Heart Attack." "Killer Queen" was all over the radio, like the band always belonged there. And at this late date, you can see that "Killer Queen" foreshadowed what was coming, but those who bought the album heard cuts like "Stone Cold Crazy," which also got airplay, which were closer to what had come before as opposed to what was in the pipeline. Queen was another hard rocking band with impeccable chops, very British, very interesting, but they were still making music tied to their roots. And then came "A Night At The Opera."
At this late date the album is overshadowed by the enduring success of "Bohemian Rhapsody," but the breakthroughs were on the first side, with "You're My Best Friend" and "'39."
It was not like today. In the midseventies you could like singer-songwriters as well as hard rock. A true music fan had broad tastes. So when you were expecting bombast and heard "You're My Best Friend" a smile crossed your face...how'd they come up with this combination of west coast and UK? Soft with harmonies was positively SoCal, but previously Queen had been more about assault than subtlety...but the band was not afraid to experiment, saw no need to repeat itself, "You're My Best Friend"...sounds like the joy of said, that one person you can count on, but it's not only the vocal and the harmonies but the pure instrumental sound, it was an aural concoction that accelerated to its conclusion and begged to be played again when this was difficult, when we lived in the vinyl era and the needle segued into the next cut.
Which was even quieter, something more similar to the Band than anything Queen had done previously, the aforementioned "'39." Unlike today's in-your-face music, "'39" was reflective, a whole story, with a jaunty chorus... It'd be like Angus Young suddenly cut an English folk song!
But those two cuts were just the most obvious. Before them on the first side was..."I'm In Love With My Car." Which was typically Queen heavy, but in a newfangled way. It was slow where everything previously had been fast. Not sung by Freddie Mercury, but drummer Roger Taylor, who wrote it!
"I'm in love with my car, got a feel for my automobile"
We all felt it, but we never heard it put so emphatically, not by the Beach Boys or Jan & Dean. This was an English sensibility, with all the joy of pride in your machine. With harmonies to boot!
And what was dramatic was that none of these three songs sounded remotely alike. Once upon a time a band could be more than one thing, and the audience rewarded them for it.
Then there's the baroque "Love Of My Life" on side two. You've got to understand, Queen was a heavy band! But now they were quiet and meaningful, and to listen to this alone in your bedroom on headphones brought in to question your masculinity not a whit. Boys are romantic, and Freddie Mercury gave us permission to be.
The only track on the album that sounded close to what came before was the opener, "Death On Two Legs." It was like the band jettisoned a few stages and rocketed into hyperspace, years before "Star Wars" was released.
And when we initially heard "Bohemian Rhapsody" we didn't think all time rock classic but innovative ear-pleasing cut.
And there wasn't a single other band doing anything like this in the marketplace. Nobody was Queen-like.
And the audience could have rejected "A Night At The Opera."
But no, when something is this good, people can't help but embrace it, the way all the musos acknowledged how great a guitar player Eddie Van Halen was when they heard his band's debut.
And if they had no base the album still would have succeeded. But with some airplay from "Sheer Heart Attack" and relentless quality touring, making diehard fans on the road, the audience was primed for what they didn't expect, with "A Night At The Opera" Queen became superstars overnight.