England’s Queen, a tongue-in-cheek name if I ever heard one, already had three albums under their belt before they decided to let it all go with the first of two albums named after Marx Brothers movies. A Night at the Opera cemented the band into super-stardom thanks to its campy, over the top nature, the magnificent guitar noodling of Brian May, and the operatic showmanship of the legendary Freddie Mercury. The album was the first to hit the top of the UK album charts, while also the first to crack the top five in the US. Of course, now, after Wayne’s World, the death of the charismatic Mercury, and a Mountain Dew commercial, A Night at the Opera is most infamous for housing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the six-minute dramatic opus that is now the band’s signature song, even more recognizable than “We are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You,” at least outside of sports stadiums.
The album starts off with vitriol in “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…),” a song for a former manager. The song employs intricate layered Mercury vocals and the trademark harmonies, which, though always beautiful, still act as anger in this track. “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” is pure vaudeville rock, if there is such a thing. “I’m In Love With My Car,” a song written and sung by Roger Taylor, can at times sound like a precursor to another Roger’s works, that being Waters’ work on The Wall. The album’s second single follows, “You’re My Best Friend,” penned by bassist John Deacon. Now a classic rock staple, the song can be considered somewhat schmaltzy, but at least sincere. Regardless, or because, of its simplicity, singalongs are almost a necessity. It also acts as a balance to the other songs on the album, being much more bombastic in nature.
Brian May gives his songwriting a go on “39,” about British soldiers going off to war and missing their loves and families, possibly never to return again. May’s penchant for sad story songs would continue with “Sail Away Sweet Sister” from the album, The Game. Another vaudeville/ twenties era / barbershop song comes in the form of Mercury’s “Seaside Rendezvous.” Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help hearing “Doin’ the Pigeon” throughout this song. Eventually we get to one of the two epic masterpieces on the album. Mercury may have written “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but it was Brian May who wrote “The Prophet’s Song,” similar in style to the former, especially at three-and-a-half minutes into the song when Mercury employs the studio to enhance his vocal acrobatics and layering of harmonies, making for one of the most enjoyable headphone experiences in music, vocals bouncing from ear to ear like an aural game of Pong. “The Prophet’s Song” even somewhat outdoes “Bohemian Rhapsody” to a certain degree, certainly more rock in style, but clocking in at over eight minutes of epic songcraft.
“Love of My Life” is a classic Mercury ballad, full of grief and longing. May returns with his ukulele led “Good Company,” another old-timey toe tapper. Two iconic songs end the album, the closer being the band’s rendition of “God Save the Queen,” now often played in place of the original when appropriate, the equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” on our shores. The penultimate song is the previously mentioned “Bohemian Rhapsody.” If you haven’t heard this song, you’re either deaf, been in a twenty-year coma, or have a shack / heavily armed fortress in the woods and are waiting for the “rapture.” I imagine that if I played the song for the last person, they might think it upon them. The song is literally a six-minute opera in itself about a boy who commits a murder and must pay for his actions. The second part of the song (where Wayne, Garth & co. go crazy) is extremely Faustian, where the poor boy is pleading for his life, but as Mercury sings, “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.” No matter how overplayed the song gets, and it seems like it does every few years, it is still enjoyable, and one of the most original songs ever to appear in popular music. The conceit of a pop song opera might not have been entirely new, but Queen makes it sound as if no one had ever done it before, and no one could ever do it again. Though no one really has, Queen’s legacy is just starting to be felt with bombastic operatic piano bands becoming all the radio rage.