[Review] Queen: A Night at the Opera (1975)

The royal flush of rock and roll albums, revealed card by card with unconfined joy.

Kronomyth 4.0: Highest Marx.

The story of King Midas is beloved by children because it presupposes that anything is possible and everything has consequences. I mention this because A Night at the Opera is Midas touched. The band’s last album, Sheer Heart Attack, tried unsuccessfully to blend rock, music hall, prog and four songwriters into a cohesive whole. Queen turns everything it touches into gold on Opera, with the consequence that everything before and after seemed a bit cruder by comparison.

The last time I felt this way about an album was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, and that’s not accidental. I believe that Queen had The Beatles in mind when they began cultivating four unique musical personalities in the band and gleefully moved between music hall and rock & roll, all while pushing production values to the maximum. Compare “With a Little from My Friends” to “You’re My Best Friend,” or “When I’m Sixty-Four” to “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.”

Beginning with Death on Two Legs, one of the nastiest songs ever written, Queen’s Opera is breathtaking. The first track is a deliberate slap in the face, followed immediately by the carefree “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” (a deliberate throwback to the Kinks and Herman’s Hermits) and the auto-erotic overdrive rock of Roger Taylor’s I’m in Love with My Car. The album’s pacing is deliberate; Queen is laying out a royal flush, card by card, and relishing the reveal. John Deacon is up next and delivers a perfect pop song (sung by Freddie) with “You’re My Best Friend.” Brian May finally appears and proves worth the wait with what may be greatest science-fiction folk song ever written, ’39. And just when you’re about to say that May should whip out that acoustic guitar more often, he blows you away with a biting electric guitar riff on Sweet Lady. Side one washes up on the delightful shores of Seaside Rendezvous and some of the mouth trumpeting this side of “You’re Sixteen.” You’ll be convinced this is the most glorious side of plastic ever pressed. That is, until you flip the record over.

The Prophet’s Song answers for all time the nagging question of whether Queen was really a progressive rock band. (The answer is a resounding “yes” from the heavens.) In fact, I’d rank this among the greatest prog songs, ever. The multitracked vocals are just mindbending, making “Now I’m Here” look positively amateurish. It’s hard to believe that Love of My Life came from the same mind and mouth as “Death on Two Legs,” so different are the two. Good Company is May’s teatime romp, and its breezy performance leaves you completely unprepared for what is, surely, one of the greatest songs ever recorded, Bohemian Rhapsody. The operatic vocals and subject matter are larger than life; if any music could be called heroic, surely it was here. What could possibly follow but a triumphant curtain call? God Save the Queen indeed.

Rolling Stone ranked this #231 on its list of all-time greatest albums, which merely serves to point out the folly of such lists. When this record is playing, it is the only album that matters. It is the pure embodiment of rock & roll (and pop) perfection, Sgt. Pepper risen to full captaincy, an heroic adventure that grows more amazing with each retelling. Perhaps Groucho said it best: “And now, on with the opera. Let joy be unconfined.”

Original elpee version

A1. Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…) (Freddie Mercury) (3:43)
A2. Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon (Freddie Mercury) (1:08)
A3. I’m in Love with My Car (Roger Taylor) (3:05)
A4. You’re My Best Friend (John Deacon) (2:50)
A5. ’39 (Brian May) (3:25)
A6. Sweet Lady (Brian May) (4:01)
A7. Seaside Rendezvous (Freddie Mercury) (2:13)
B1. The Prophet’s Song (Brian May) (8:17)
B2. Love of My Life (Freddie Mercury) (3:38)
B3. Good Company (Brian May) (3:26)
B4. Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury) (5:55)
B5. God Save the Queen (traditional arr. Brian May) (1:11)

CD reissue bonus tracks
13. I’m in Love with My Car (1991 remix)
14. You’re My Best Friend (1991 remix)

The Players

John Deacon (electric bass, double bass, electric piano on A4), Brian May (guitars and orchestral backdrops, toy koto, harp, genuine aloha ukulele (made in Japan), guitar jazz band, operatic vocals, vocals on A5/B2), Freddie Mercury (vocals, vocals, Bechstein Debauchery and more vocals, vocal orchestration of woodwind, operatic vocals), Roger Taylor (percussion, operatic vocals, vocal on A3, vocal orchestration of brass on A6). Produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Queen; executive engineer: Mike Stone, invaluable additional engineering by Gary Lyons.

The Pictures

Art direction by David Costa.

The Plastic

Released on elpee and cassette on December 2, 1975 in the UK (EMI, EMTC103), the US (Elektra, 7E/TC5-1053), France (EMI, 2C 068 97176), Germany (EMI, 1C 072 97176), the Netherlands (EMI, 5C 062 97176) and in 1976 in Yugoslavia (Jugoton, LSEMI73033) with embossed gatefold cover. Reached #1 on the UK charts and #4 on the US charts (RIAA-certified 3x platinum record).

  1. Re-released on remastered elpee in 1980 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, MFSL-1-067).
  2. Re-issued on elpee in the US (Elektra, 7E-1053) with gatefold cover [red/black label].
  3. Re-released on remastered compact disc in June 1988 in Europe (EMI, 789492).
  4. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc on September 3, 1991 in the US (Hollywood, HR-61065) with 2 bonus tracks.
  5. Re-issued on remastered compact disc in 1992 in the US (Mobile Fidelity, UDCD-568).
  6. Re-issued on remastered compact disc in 2004 in Japan (EMI, TOCP-67344).

3 thoughts on “[Review] Queen: A Night at the Opera (1975)

  1. Yes, indeed, this is Queen’s peak — if it’s not the only album that matters, it’s certainly the only Queen album that matters to me. If I say that to my own shame, so be it, and let me add to that shame by admitting it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I realized what a hilarious record this is. If I tend to criticize others (politicians, the news media) for being tone-deaf, it’s only because I know what tone-deafness is by having missed all the laughs in Opera for so long.

    1. Hey Dave, glad to see you’re still around. 🙂 I must have missed the humor myself, since I never found it laugh-out funny, although “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” always puts a smile on my face. Maybe because they named it after one of the funniest Marx Brothers films, which is a hard act to follow.

      1. After posting my comment, I started wondering about the humor myself. But I think there’s at least a little validity to it. Some of the fun is obvious (“Seaside Rendezvous,” “Good Company,” “Lazing…”) but some of the harder songs I used to read as dead serious. “Death on Two Legs,” “I’m In Love With My Car” — how does anyone see them as serious songs? But back then I hated KISS because I thought they were being serious, too. For as much time as I spent watching sitcoms as a kid, you’d think I would have known better. But I assumed rockers were not to be trifled with. Tone deaf!

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