Hello, again Queenies I mean McCoven. This is the next installment of my Queen album reviews. If you want to read about Queen's debut album review/discussion, click here. The iconic photo that most people associate with the Bohemian Rhapsody music video was the album cover for their second studio album. The cover photo was inspired by a photo of Marlene Dietrich from her 1932 movie "Shanghai Express." I'm not sure if there is a more fitting (or iconic) depiction of Queen, at least for their 70s "era," than this.
The band had actually begun recording material for their second album before their first album was released. If their debut album was muddy, a bit muffled (the drum sound, anyway), and a little rough around the edges, their second album was the opposite of all of that. Huge, loud, big. You name it. They actually had planned on calling this album "Over The Top," because ... well ... it is a tad! The overdubs, the multi-tracking, the vocal arrangements. It is all over the top, and exquisitely so. This is a much more refined version of Queen than their debut, IMO, and are really beginning to do what they want to do. While their sophomore album wasn't their commercial breakthrough, it did chart well in the U.K. (peaked at #5). They were still basically unknown outside the U.K. (and Japan). However, I personally feel like this is Queen coming into their own: extravagant, pretentious, and preposterous (in waggish Freddie voice).
While there are many Queen fans (it very well could be a majority) that (much) prefer 70s Queen to 80s-and-beyond Queen, I do not have a preference. I love it all. However, one thing that I do miss in the post-70s Queen is drummer Roger Taylor's falsetto. More specifically, his ridiculous screams. It's funny because he has a rough, raspy, raw normal singing voice, but all the high notes Bohemian Rhapsody are him. And his falsetto/screaming is all over the place on Queen II.
Queen II was released on March 8, 1974 (I failed to noted in my first review that I'm using the official U.K. release date for each album).
1. Procession (May)
2. Father To Son (May)
3. White Queen (As It Began) (May)
4. Some Day, One Day (May)
5. The Loser In The End (Taylor)
6. Ogre Battle (Mercury)
7. The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke (Mercury)
8. Nevermore (Mercury)
9. The March Of The Black Queen (Mercury)
10. Funny How Love Is (Mercury)
11. Seven Seas Of Rhye (Mercury)
Producers: Queen, Roy Thomas Baker, and Robin Geoffrey Cable
Okay, I'm going to get this out of the way. In "The March Of The Black Queen" there is the lyric:
"Put them in the cellar with the naughty boys
Little nigger sugar then a rub-a-dub-a baby oil
Black on black on every finger nail and toe"
Yeah, I missed that one for years. I always thought it said, "A little bit of sugar ..." Alex Ava attempts to explain the use of that term here, if you're interested. I've read different explanations. That the term is a very old reference to low quality sugar that came from Africa (from whence Freddie came) and that only wealthy people could afford white sugar. Perhaps that is at play in the song, perhaps there are multiple layers to it. I have no clue. It's easy to see that kind of word used by a band in a song - a band who also would later go on to play in Apartheid South Africa and be excoriated for doing so - and think, "Huh, that's pretty racist." Well, I'm not here to argue that one way or another. I do believe that the decision to play in Apartheid South Africa (Sun City) was a very foolish decision, but a decision driven by money. They were paid an enormous amount, reportedly. Though, you'd be forgiven for looking down on a group of white Brits using a racial slur in a song (seemingly in a flippant manner). I don't believe the band has ever spoken about this lyric. At least, not that I'm aware of. It would be interesting to know the why and what. Anyway, I just wanted to point that out because it's 2019 and I think it's important to at least acknowledge it. We'll revisit this track, but back to the rest of the album ...
So, when it was originally released on vinyl Side 1 was dubbed "The White Side," which were the songs being written by Brian May (and one by Roger), while Side 2 was "The Black Side," all songs written by Freddie Mercury. The band was very much into the black/white thing at this time, in dress and lyrics. While I know the band took their music seriously, they did not take themselves too seriously (something that may seem impossible to separate, especially if you're a music critic). Having said that, it's easy to see why one would think these guys are trying to pass off glam rock as high art, and trying really hard. I mean maybe they were trying really (too) hard, but their look and sound certainly paid off. Freddie even made fun of the way he looked in an interview in the 80s where he said, " ... I think if I still had long hair and black fingernails and was wearing those things (ballet outfits!) now, I would look ridiculous. I looked ridiculous then, but it worked! ... A lot of my costumes are totally embarrassing to look back on now, but I took them so seriously at the time. But I always had an element of humour too."
Anyway, the album begins with "Procession." Talk about a grand entrance for a band. It's a short instrumental track that I think introduces us to what Queen truly is. The song leads directly into the second track "Father To Son" which is my favorite track on the album. This is one of the heaviest Queen tracks. In particular, May's playing his guitar as if he's revving a huge chain saw between 2:37 - 3:13. It's just so loud and I love it. This brilliant heavy metal track ends and leads into the next track, "White Queen (As It Began)." The track-to-track lead-ins were prevalent on Queen's first four albums, but then stopped altogether after that. "White Queen, " unlike the previous track which blasts off right away, has a sort of quiet, sullen introduction. Apparently, Brian wrote/recorded a version of this song in 1968, and it is thought a home demo remains unreleased. As with their debut album, I feel like there are tracks on Queen II that, if you slowed them down and took out the bombastic guitar/drums, you'd have some rather pretty -if not depressing- ballads (of course, you could probably say that for a lot of hard rock/heavy metal tracks). "White Queen" is another hard rocker, which has a yearning for a (lost) love. Befitting a group called "Queen" as well as a track with "Queen" in the title, this song has quite the regal feel to it (which is perhaps a bit too on the nose).
"Some Day, One Day" does not have a lead-in from "White Queen," but it might as well have had one. The opening lyric is "You never heard my song before, the music was too loud ..." A downbeat love song, with a medieval fantasy feel to it "A misty castle waits for you and you shall be a queen." Okay, we get it guys! IIRC, Brian wrote this song about a girl in his high school biology class. The next track "The Loser In The End" (looking at you, bgunn. Not because I think you're a loser, but because you've referenced this song before and am trying to force you to comment on it). The sole non-Brian/Freddie contribution, this one is from Roger. One theme I see in Roger's songs are childhood/adolescence, and the associated problems people face (sheer boredom, leaving home, wanting to get out). This one is about our poor moms, though I'm not sure mom would appreciate this lament as it is rather window-shattering. I love this track. Roger, Brian, and John have a great back-and-forth thrashing about that is loud and almost groovy. The band were big Hendrix fans (well, Freddie, Roger, and Brian anyway), and I can definitely hear his influence on this one. In fact, I can picture/hear a Hendrix solo along with Brian's actual solo, at times on this one.
Well, on to Side Black; Freddie's side. His songs on this side form a medley, as each song blends into the next. The band is keeping the volume at 11 (these goh to eelevuhn), but get a little more ... fanciful. This side opens with "Ogre Battle." The introduction is actually the end of the track played in reverse (so clever!). The track is raucous and frenetic. If you hadn't guessed already, this song is about ogres. Ogres battling each other. In fact, you know where the ogres "battle fight"? It's at the "ogre site," obviously. This is when you hear Roger's - I mean, the ogre's, blood-curdling screams during the actual ogre battle. At some point, they move to Two-Way Mirror Mountain, which I guess is different from the ogre site? I don't really get it because the lyrics say, "The ogre men are still inside the two way mirror mountain ..." Okay, you didn't mention that before, you just said, "Come tonight. Come to the ogre site ..." Personally, I don't really appreciate Freddie inviting the listener to a fucking ogre battle, but then warns us that if the ogres see you watching them "battle fight," you're liable to get trampled on. Yeah, obviously. That's why I wouldn't go in the first place (and neither should you). Okay, sorry about that. Up next is "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke." This track was inspired by the painting The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and who also murdered his father (whom he thought the devil). Dadd was also known to be "obsessed with miniscule detail." Subsequently, Freddie's lyrics are too! Apparently, Freddie would drag the band to the Tate Museum to look at the painting. Personally, I like the song better than the painting. I wished I would have thought to see the painting the last time I was in London, but just seeing pictures of it online stresses me out. It's too busy. Anyway, I think this is one of Freddie's best songs, especially lyrically. This is another frenetic Freddie track with layers upon layers of vocals.
"Nevermore" is a piano-driven ballad with no percussion or lead/rhythm guitar that makes me think of a sorrowful Freddie walking through a garden of dead flowers. The sequencing here is funny and is such a drastic change of pace sandwiched between "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" and ... "The March Of The Black Queen." Often described as a precursor to Bohemian Rhapsody, both in complexity and length. "The March ..." certainly follows a pattern of "3 Acts," but I don't think Queen's songs/albums are related in a linear fashion, at least not as concepts or the obvious "oh, of course this lead to that." That is, I don't think that BoRhap is a direct descendant of "The March..." I think of it as a progression of experimentation, the end products of which are related in that they came from the same artist/band, but are disparate in that the artist/band -Queen specifically- had such wide-ranging musical influences, life experiences, and personalities. I don't know, maybe that makes no sense at all. But I do know (at least I think) that Queen didn't make concept albums. Nor did they have obvious threads running through their songs. At least, I don't believe they ever went on record as saying they've done/they did so. Or, maybe it's just that I get annoyed when I hear/read people (usually fellow artists or music critics) say, "Oh, on this album or this track/group of tracks, Queen is doing this thing now." As if they are in on some secret that Queen was trying to keep. I don't think they were doing that, I just think they were a group of guys with incredibly eclectic tastes and massive ambitions. Sorry about that ... I do really love this song. It takes the listener on such a ride, and is much more "fun" than BoRhap, which I think is quite depressing. The 4th verse is brooding and sort of comes out of nowhere. To me, this is the kind of song a music critic would listen to and just shake their head, wondering, "Why the hell is all this necessary?" Well, to you straw-man music critic, in the words Steve Buscemi at the Mad Tea Party "What's wrong? Can't you handle a merry, whimsical madness?!
The next track is "Funny How Love Is." This one has that Phil Spector "Wall Of Sound" aspect to it. I've also seen this song (can't remember where at the moment) described as Beach Boys-ish. Both descriptions makes sense given the fact that Freddie, Brian, and Roger, along with engineer Robin Geoffrey Cable, recorded and released a version of "I Can Hear Music" under the pseudonym Larry Lurex in 1972. Like "Nevermore" it's an interesting fit between the sandwich of "The March .." and "Seven Seas Of Rhye." If could sit down and talk with Queen, one of the questions I would ask them is how they decided on song sequencing, because I really like a lot of what they did. While on this record, it's clear why they sequenced them the way they did, but just in general, it's something that fascinates me.
As mentioned in the "Queen" album review, it's time to discuss "Seven Seas ..." What was merely a short, instrumental track on their debut, is now a full-fledged and powerful Queen song. It is the only single from the album and landed at #10 in the U.K. charts (but failed to chart anywhere else in the world). Easier to say with hindsight, but I'm not sure there was another single from this album. The band was quite lucky to have their only single chart as well as it did (if only in one territory). "Seven Seas ..." was a fixture at live shows, even well into the 80s and was included on their Greatest Hits album. My favorite part of the song as at the end. As the music begins to fade, you hear the band sing a verse from "I Do Like To be Beside the Seaside," which is a British music hall song from the early 1900s. You'll hear a tiny bit of this "sea shanty" at the beginning of their 3rd album, and while I said earlier that I don't really think there are any threads/themes that purposely connect their albums, it's fair to say that they did build on certain elements from album to album. Music hall/vaudeville/ragtime being one those elements. As you'll see, though, these particular elements were just barely introduced at the beginning of their career, then fully explored, and then never to be heard of again from the band!
There is a song that was not included on the original release, but was released on the 1991 re-issue of the album. "See What A Fool I've Been" is a raw, hard rock blues track. There is also a version from their BBC session that was released on the compilation "Queen On Air." The lyrics differ from the re-issue version and references a "train to Georgia." Hmm, how very American of you, Queen! This track is a clear rip off of "The Way I Feel" by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (1958 London Sessions), both musically and lyrically. It's frustrating that the band did not credit Terry/McGhee, and I'm surprised no copyright infringement case was ever brought against Queen. Not that it's any skin off my nose, and I think Brian May acknowledged that this song "inspired" him to write "See What A Fool ...," but dear god, really? Perhaps that's why it remained unreleased for so long. Or, perhaps it's an example (likely one of countless others) of (relatively unknown) black artists having their music ripped off with no compensation/proper crediting/apology from white artists. Sorry to get champagney, but I felt the need to mention that.
When I first bought this album, I hated it after listening to it. I think that was because it was my first exposure to early Queen, as I was introduced to them by "News Of The World" and "Greatest Hits," which seemed worlds apart from their first two albums. I went from hating it, to appreciating, to absolutely loving it. It's in my top-5 Queen albums. It's such a departure sonically, lyrically, in recording techniques, and in imagery (even though they're still talking of fairies and castles) from their debut, IMO. It's harder, louder, and crisper/tighter than their debut. Lyrically, the band is all over the place, and they are really exploring layering vocals/guitars. Their debut was basically forgotten about by consumers, largely dismissed by the music press (Led Zeppelin 2.0), and even "forgotten" by the band (as they had started recording Queen II tracks before their debut was even released). It charted at #24 in the U.K., but not until 1976 on it's 2nd chart re-entry when their popularity was exploding. Queen II is the band truly arriving on the scene: pompous, bombastic, and dandy. They would not be denied their place among the universe's royalty.
Rating (0 to 10): 9