A Night At The Opera - Queen

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Year of Release: 1975
Label: EMI/Elektra Records
Genre: Rock/Heavy Metal

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Members (from left to right):
  • Brian May - guitar, vocals
  • John Deacon - bass, organ, vocals
  • Roger Taylor - drums, percussion, Vocals
  • Freddie Mercury - lead vocals, piano


British rock/metal band Queen released “A Night At the Opera” in 1975, an album that both challenged the norms of rock and pop music and propelled the band to super-stardom.


VITAL STATISTICS

The album topped British charts for 9 weeks, peaked at #4 on US Charts and was eventually certified Triple Platinum (three million units sold). The British public voted it the #13 greatest album ever recorded and Rolling Stone Magazine included it on its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list.

The name of the album was taken from the Marx Brothers’ film with the same name, which the band watched at the studio one night during the recording process.

BACKGROUND

Although the band is known to draw from an eclectic mix of musical influences from classical composers to jazz and blues to rock icons like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, “A Night At the Opera” illustrates a new era of art-rock influenced by the first British invasion, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, as well as the psychedelic movement of the late 60s and early 70s. Released less than a decade after the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which established that a band could use studio techniques to transform a rock album into an artistic masterpiece, Queen relied heavily on the technology of the time to construct an album that only a few years earlier would have been inconceivable to produce. “A Night At the Opera” is also in the same creative vein as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” released in 1973.

Queen as a band and “A Night At the Opera” as an album seem to represent the excesses of the time; the band became notorious for its hard-partying ways and the songs themselves are grandiose and elaborate. At the time it was recorded, “A Night At the Opera” was alleged to be the most expensive album ever made (though no specific cost figures are available)

The album is now regarded as the release that launched Queen to rock stardom. It was the first album to truly capture their signature sound featuring rich layers of harmonized vocals and guitars. “A Night At the Opera” also challenged the norms of the pop and rock radio format at the time, as several tracks are more than five minutes long and structurally, many songs lack the traditional "verse-chorus-verse" format that mainstream listeners had become accustomed to.

TECHNICAL DETAILS

The album relied heavily on studio techniques of layering and multi-tracking, which almost guaranteed that the songs could never be reproduced live (at least not accurately). The guitars and vocals are heavily layered creating a full, rich sound. May likened the guitar sound to a “violin-like instrument.”

Vocals on the album sound as though they are performed by a 180-piece chorus, while in reality, the only vocalists featured on the record were Mercury, May and Taylor. Some pieces of the original tape were nearly transparent because all of the overdubbing wore it thin. On many vocal tracks there are more than 100 overdubs, and the studio tape decks at the time only allowed for 24-track recording. In order to create Queen’s trademark sound, the band had to create several 24-track sub-mixes that were then mixed together onto new tape. Some original studio tapes are 8th generation copies because they had to be overdubbed so many times to fit all the vocal parts. This causes the vocals to sound distant and sometimes muffled as though they were recorded with a microphone placed far away from the vocalists in a large concert hall.

Other studio techniques used during mixing and production included flanging, which creates a sweeping outer-space effect on guitars, vocals and drums as well as tape delay and either speeding up or slowing down the tape to create surreal vocal and guitar effects. Another example of innovative techniques used in the studio appear on the track “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon,” on which Mercury sang the vocal part into a traditional microphone, but the audio was played through a set of headphones placed inside a metal bucket before being recorded, creating a hollow megaphone-like effect.

SONGS

Although Mercury and May were the main songwriters, a hallmark of the album is that each band member was allowed at least one composition that wouldn't be touched by any other member of the band in terms of writing or structure. Brian’ May’s “39” was clearly influenced by the growth of space exploration during the previous decade, as the song is about a crew of astronauts who embark on a mission and return to find that 100 years had passed, but they had only aged one year. Taylor's song was "I'm In Love With My Car," which begins with a sampled recording of him revving the engine of his Alpha-Romeo, and John Deacon's song was "You're My Best Friend." Both Taylor and Deacon’s songs became b-sides on the album's two singles. Taylor allegedly demanded that his song be added as the b-side to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which Mercury disagreed with, but Taylor locked himself in a cupboard and refused to come out until Mercury agreed. As a result of “Bohemian Rhapsody's” mega success, Taylor has been entitled to an equal share of the royalties from the single as Mercury, since his song was on the b-side. Though never intended to be a single, “You’re My Best Friend” was Deacon’s first composition to be a top ten hit on the charts, an impressive feat for a b-side. The band also had great respect for each other's artistic vision and believed that lyrics were the property of the author and shouldn't be questioned or altered in any way.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” the band's most popular song to date, shattered the mold in almost every category. At 5:55, it was an epic song, more than twice the length of a traditional single at the time. The band felt that significant editing would affect the song's integrity and took the risk of releasing a nearly six-minute song as the album's first single. The song was a pet project of Mercury's (he wrote all the pieces and did all the instrumental arrangements except for the first guitar solo) and the band recorded the parts as Mercury asked, having no idea what the final product would sound like. The band affectionately called the track "Fred's Thing" until he named it “Bohemian Rhapsody” to reflect the feel and vibe of the song (“Bohemian,” in that it represented a hip, cultured and independent sound, lyrically inspired by philosophical concepts and “Rhapsody” which in music is a single free-flowing piece that integrates different arrangements with highly contrasted moods and tones)

The band never expected the song to generate much popularity in the US because it was too long, had no recognizable chorus and ventured too far astray from the typical rock or pop sound. The lyrics are dark and depressing, reflecting a stream-of-consciousness re-telling of a nightmare involving a man guilty of murder who descends into the depths of hell, similar to the account described in Italian playwright Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. The opera interlude features vocals arranged to sound as though demons were fighting over the soul of the murderer. The band thought European audiences might be intrigued by the idea, but believed American audiences were more conservative and would write the song off as insane. To their surprise, the song became a mega-hit in the US as well as around the world.

CONCLUSION

Queen has truly become an institution in rock music. Elements of their influence can easily be found in the likes of American heavy metal and rock giants Metallica and Guns 'n Roses, to punk groups like Green Day and My Chemical Romance to modern British rock groups such as The Darkness, Radiohead and Muse. Studio techniques used on "A Night at the Opera" were adopted and perfected during the 1970s by bands like Boston, Yes and Steely Dan and continue to be used today, albeit in digital rather than analog form. Freddie Mercury's outlandish and flamboyant presence as a frontman raised certain suspicions about his sexuality (especially given the fact that he named the band "Queen") but Mercury remained secretive about his private life until unexpectedly announcing to the world on November 23rd, 1991 that he had contracted the AIDS virus and was terminally ill. Sadly, he died the next day sending shockwaves through the music world. By the accounts of many who knew him personally, Mercury struggled with both his ethnic and his sexual identity throughout his life. Those who knew him best characterize him as bisexual.

To celebrate his life and his musical accomplishments, the remaining members of Queen organized a tribute concert to Freddie Mercury at Wembley Stadium in London, which took place on April 20th, 1992, and included an all-star lineup.

After a long hiatus, the band has recently resumed touring with longtime friend and famed British singer Paul Rodgers on lead vocals. Rodgers had formerly fronted the British rock groups Free and Bad Company.

MEDIA


'39


Seaside Rendezvous



Bohemian Rhapsody


Test Song