RIFF GENERATING GENIUS TURNS 62 TOMORROW
Queen is one of those rock bands so rippled into what we consider that genre at this point that it seems too small a thing to call them "influential." From strict radio fare to the more outré mélange of Howlin Rain, of Montreal and My Morning Jacket, there's Queen smiling out at us, all art spangled and power chord sweet. They are hard rock and tearful weepers, brainy concept makers and silly song slingers – an incongruous, unapologetically massive swirl of elements that didn't exist before them but surely survives in myriad permutations today.
This Sunday, July 19, is guitarist Brian May's 62nd birthday and we couldn't let the weekend pass without raising a glass to him. The Caucasian afro-ed picker is muscle and grace, so tough yet so tender and right up there with the greatest riff architects in history. Without May there'd be no Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani or many others – or at least they'd play with a certain significant part of their vocabulary stripped out. Since Queen's self-titled 1973 debut, May has been nudging the genre in potent directions and we hope he gets the full measure of whatever birthday wish he makes this year when he blows out the candle.
We start this week with a crushing piece of so-wrong-it's-right perfection from the boys. Just wait for May's six-string blast that haymakers us 30 seconds in. And in hindsight, it's not too tough to figure out which way the pendulum swung with ol' Freddie, right?
While countless plays at sporting events and over film montages has stolen some of this classic's thunder, presented here when the song was still fresh in 1981 at a famous Montreux performance it shows itself the pub-ready sing-along great that it is, emerging with saloon piano and a nigh irresistible lyric belted out by one of the finest frontmen ever.
Now this is some nasty guitar! The lead-off track from Queen's debut has propulsive force in this 1977 live take at the legendary Earl's Court.
One of the neat tricks Queen pulled off was remaining relevant through several decades. While this version lacks David Bowie's original vocal it does show Freddie's crowd mastery before the band drops into a tight, kinda wistful rendition of the mega-hit.
"Can anybody find me somebody to love?" It's a simple enough sentiment, and Queen excelled at tapping a wildly populist vein and this bit of miniature opera stands as perhaps their crowning jewel in a long line of fantastic love songs. This romp from 1982 at the Milton Keynes Bowl is appropriately, uh, enlarged for your pleasure.
Anyone who doubts Queen's influence on metal and contemporary marvels like The Mars Volta need only peep this scorching 1977 performance of one of the band's early best.
1976's A Day At The Races - and companion precursor 1975's A Night At The Opera - was where all the elements of Queen fully coalesced. The switchback rush of moods and styles is apparent from Races' opening pair, presented here in sterling live form.
All those post-gig hours spent in European discos paid off as 1980 rolled around and Queen discovered their funky side. Quite the outfit on Freddie on this one.
There's an air of life-clinging energy to this 1989 single packed with compact, tasty playing from May and an impassioned Mercury lead vocal surely powered by his then-recent HIV diagnosis. In ways, this tune seems like Queen's smackdown of the hair metal acts that invaded the 1980s, where they show how easily they could toss off something akin to but quite superior to anything Poison, Slaughter, et al. had to offer.
For all their pomp, they could be quite goofy, as witness by this loopy number (and matching video) from 1978's Jazz chock full of pop culture references.
We wrap up this week's installment with a pair of the band's finest from A Night at the Opera. First, "something a bit heavier" and then a number that contains all the group's charms, ambition and immense talent in one multifaceted marvel (offered below in both live and original, iconic video form). Thanks so much for the killer music, Mr. May.
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