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[The Epics] Queen: Queen II

By Jayaprakash Satyamurthy | May 10, 2006

Queen: Queen II

“This is it, the dregs of glam rock. Weak and over-produced, if this band are our brightest hope for the future, then we are committing rock and roll suicide.” — Record Mirror

“Queen is a remarkably talented band who have chosen their models unwisely. On ‘Side Black’, they venture into a lyrically muddled fairy-tale world with none of Genesis’s wit or sophistication. They’ve also appropriated the most irritating elements of Yes’s style — histrionic vocals, abrupt and pointless compositional complexity, and a dearth of melody. ‘Side White’ is quite an improvement, containing many of the same muddled tendencies, but with the saving grace of timely and well-chosen power chords and some rather pretty tunes. But the album remains a floundering and sadly unoriginal affair.�? — Ken Barnes, Rolling Stone, 6/20/74.

“Wimpoid royaloid heavyoid android void.�? — Robert Christgau, Christgau’s Record Guide, 1981.

There was a time when Queen could have been anything they wanted to — heavy metal, hard rock, progressive or even makers of quaint, novelty-value Edwardian/Victorian style ditties. And indeed, they proceeded to be all these things over the course of their first half-dozen or so albums, before heading off into another set of directions altogether.

Their second album, simply titled ‘Queen II’ sums up this sense of infinite possibilities. It moves on from the more straitlaced hard rock of their debut, adding all manner of pomp and circumstance to what is still a great rock album at heart.

Things get to a suitably grandiloquent start with the instrumental intro, “Procession�?. It proceeds majestically, in a fanfare of fuzz courtesy the Red Special Orchestra, and climaxes with the beginning of the first proper song on the album — May’s “Father To Son�?. The song is epic in sweep (‘Kings will be crowned, and the word goes around, from father to sun…’) and endearingly vague as to what it’s all about (‘Take this letter that I give you, take it sonny, hold it high, you won’t understand a word that’s in it, but you’ll write it before you die…’). There’s a fine solo midway through, with Brian May in full Sabbath mode. More dramatic things happen. It’s a great song, for all that it doesn’t seem to mean anything, and Freddie Mercury gets to display a truly thespian vocal range, from bombastic strutting to wistful crooning and everything else in between.

Next comes a far gentler epic, again penned by May — “White Queen�?. It moves from an almost ethereal, acoustic dominated sound to a sudden, strange slow-motion distortion explosion that subsides back into a recurrence of the opening verses in an oddly unresolved fashion. It’s hard to tell whether this was just the product of an emerging composer’s birth pangs, or a stroke of wayward genius (there’s even a harpsichord on this one!), but it provides the perfect set-up for “Some Day One Day�?. This one sees May singing as well, over an acoustic guitar — over which he of course provides a sort of aurora borealis-like arrangement of multiple layers of fuzz. It’s a very pretty song, but things have been getting a little too gentle for a while. It’s time to bring back the melodrama!

Drummer Roger Taylor comes to the fore at this point, with the mid-paced rocker, “The Loser In The End�?, which both wrote and sang. He’s got a good rock voice, with a nice clean feel and a good falsetto, but a convincing raucous edge as well — you know, like Paul McCartney. It seems to have little to do with the rest of the album thematically, in that it appears to have a discernible theme, but it gives May and bassist John Deacon a chance to emulate their heroes in bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who. John D even has a bit of that Entwistle ‘typewriter’ bass thing going on here! (Incidentally, Deacon also plays most of the acoustic guitars on this album).

On the original LP, all these songs were designated as the ‘White Side’. What follows is the ‘Black Side’. If the White Side was dominated by May’s more introspective touch, the Black Side is Freddie Mercury’s Theatre Of Flamboyance! “Ogre Battle�? bursts onto the speakers with a suitable combative metallic crunch, and Mercury’s wonderfully OTT vocals flying high over everything else, like a bomber escorting a crack squad of storm troopers. This is the first of a sequence of songs with strange, opaque and playful fantasy themes that earned Queen a fair share of critical scorn. Well, it’s fun, fast-paced, varied and incredibly rocking, so who cares!

Without pausing to breathe (although there is time for a quick keyboard motif from Mercury), the band launches into “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke�?, an interestingly titled song that presumably derives inspiration from this similarly chaotic and grandiose painting.

And what lyrics:

Tatterdemalion and the junketer,
There’s a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter.
He’s my hero, ah,
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy
Of his lady friend.

If you look closely, all these characters may be seen in the painting. The music, needless to say is similarly crowded, colourful and cool.

And then, so small and sweet and sad that you might almost miss it, comes “Nevermore�?, a truly touching little ballad with Mercury and Taylor vamping it up on vocals while May backs them up on piano.

The bombast factor is quickly restored, though, with “The March Of The Black Queen�?. It’s getting hard to describe these epics — they certainly aren’t all the same, but they’re of a type (and a very good type it is too) — long, dramatic, varied, with everything from Zeppelinesque thud to proggy sweep, with a leavening of operatic vocal harmonies and a sprinkling of wistful piano-backed posturing. They do it all, all the time! This song is probably a prototype for “Bohemian Rhapsody�?. Lyrically — well, I think it’s some sort of veiled ode to S&M (‘Put them in the cellar with the naughty boys, a little nigger sugar then a rub-a-dub-a baby oil’). Naughty chap, that Freddie!

The next song, “Funny How Love Is�? feels minor in comparison, but is actually a pretty good song with lots of crazy vocal tricks and a nice, fast yet not heavy feel. It feels like a moment to catch your breath and chill before the album ender, however.

And finally, we’re at “The Seven Seas Of Rhye�?. What are those seas? Where is Rhye? What exactly is the role Mercury is playing in these bragging, powertripping lyrics? We may never know. It’s a short little song, packed with instrumental flourishes, grand gestures and heroic poses. And it breaks down into a drunken chorus of ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’. It was also Queen’s first hit song.

And then it’s all over.

So there we are. Is it a great album? Possibly. Is it the best album Queen ever made? Probably not — that honour may rest with one of at least four other albums in the Queen canon. In addition, it’s clear that the band’s skill and vision, while already impressive, are still developing here. But is it an epic album? Yes! For all the variety on display here, it’s an amazingly unified and cohesive slab of music. Each individual track seems to play an essential part in a larger scheme of things, and considering that many of these songs are themselves pretty massive, the effect is quite simply: EPIC! It’s saved from tedium by that eclectic touch, and the sly humour that runs through Mercury’s contributions.

Or maybe it really is a “Wimpoid royaloid heavyoid android void�?. Don’t take my word for it — take a listen for yourself.

Comments

2 Comments. Post Yours Here.
  1. July 4, 2006, 5:25 pm MICKYBOY

    excellent article, a bit long though!

  2. November 10, 2006, 8:00 pm B

    Jayaprakash: brilliant touch.

    Seven seas of Rhye… I’ve pondered that question for hour after wasted hour… torched libraries, googled, gurgled, everything… I thought you’d know the answer.

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