Nothing about Queen added up at this point in their career. They’re a cock rock band fronted by a gay/bi/whatever-he -feels-like front man working away in a genre that pretty much demands rampant heterosexuality. They’re not even really a full-time concern. They’re working in a heavy genre dressed for a glam party but never remotely a glam band despite a few superficial overlaps. For two albums they produced sub-Led Zeppelin rock which, while competent in its own way, never really, you know, went anywhere. There was a derivative nature to a lot of their material and though it’s always been clear that all four members of the band are talented musicians, the first two albums never quite manage to break free of their influences or make perfect use of that fact.
Songs about ogres, marching black queens and wizards feel out of keeping with the band that wrote “We Are The Champions” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. The first two album covers are dark, brooding almost, the first being a spotlight highlighting a tiny someone (Freddie?) on stage and the second being the “four heads” pose eventually made famous by the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video as the members of the band glare at the listener with the distant contempt and indifference of remote gods. There’s precious little suggestion of the camp excess that will define the rest of the band’s career. Even the album titles – simply Queen and Queen II – suggest Led Zeppelin. There’s not much, in other words, to give us clues about the band that is to come and the bits which are there seem to be randomly assembled. 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack changed all that, and in a pretty dramatic and unrepentant fashion.
Out go the dark, mysterious covers and in come a sprawled out band portrait that make it look like they’ve been hit by a stun ray or some particularly effective opiates. Queen’s first three singles were “Keep Yourself Alive” (solid guitar work, unremarkable in any other way), “Liar” (straightforward cock rock), and “Seven Seas Of Rhye”, the only one of the three to have any measure of success and the first single to really make use of the fact Freddie Mercury can actually sing. They’re … fine. Nothing to be ashamed of. But their fourth single was “Killer Queen”. That title may imply it belongs to the same spectrum of songs that produced “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” or “Ogre Battle” but it really, really isn’t – it’s a complete abdication of that approach. This queen isn’t some mystical monarch from on high commanding armies for people who read too much Tolkien. This queen is a big flouncy fashionista who drinks champagne and commands baked goods consumption “just like Marie Antoinette”. This queen, it’s fair to say, is rather closer to home.
Because, of course, this queen is Freddie Mercury. Oh sure, he’s claimed it’s about a high-class call girl, but come on. Even if it’s not literally about Freddie Mercury, absolutely everything about it is steeped in his aesthetic, his complete irreverence for anything approaching decency or normality and the subversive fun that engenders. It’s about a call girl in name only. Mercury wrote it, of course, and it’s absolutely shot through with every part of his sensibilities. Gone are the ponderous Christian analogies of the previous albums. Gone are misty hilltops. Gone is the fealty to a genre that Queen were never – quite – a natural fit for. In its place is the high-camp of Freddie Mercury, the Goddamned Brian May Guitar Sound refined down to its Platonian ideal here, the skill of John Deacon’s extraordinary bass lines, and the deployment of Roger Taylor’s signature drum moves. “Killer Queen” crystallises everything the band were to become at the expense of pretty much everything the band had been. If you want a Rosetta Stone for Queen music, there’s no better choice than “Killer Queen” and it’s tough to claim this as anything other than a triumph for them.
It’s gloriously excessive in every way – massively over-produced in almost every respect and in a way that will become Queen’s default style pretty much from here until Mercury’s death. And yet it never feels cluttered or fussy – there’s those vast choral harmonies all over the song, double bass lines at one point, soaring guitar solos bouncing off each other in the stereo picture, sound effects… It’s beyond absurd yet it’s all kept together by Mercury’s lead vocal, up-front and up in the mix, anchoring all the bombastic idiocy that, in the hands of anyone else, would be an outright disaster. But Freddie Mercury – arguably the most distinctive voice of the 70’s – can hold it all together through sheer force of will and personality. Other people can sing “Killer Queen” but only Freddie Mercury can really perform it. It’s cabaret, it’s theatre, it’s excessive, it’s him.
And it’s put together by a band that sound hungry. This is important for “Killer Queen” because a lot of the tricks “Killer Queen” pulls are going to become default operating procedure for the band but this is the first time we really get to see them all assembled together correctly in one place. So those multi-part harmonies that litter this song will go on to define the tediously inescapable “Bohemian Rhapsody” but that sound – so unique to Queen – gets its first proper airing here. It’s not that Queen had never done harmonies before, but they’d never done them quite like this before. That Goddamned Brian May Guitar Sound is on both of the first albums, but the way it’s used here – especially in the big mid-song solo – is how it’s going to be used from here on out. It’s not just a solo as part of a song, it’s a central tenet of the whole band’s sound. But there’s an enthusiasm to the solo here that belies the repetitive nature of what it will become – this isn’t Brian May turning up to do his party-piece That One Thing Brian May Does From Now Until The End Of Time, this is him turning in some really solid solo work that compliments the song. It’s not “Killer Queen”’s fault that from this point on its pretty much all Brian May ever does, it still shines here.
Freddie’s voice anchors the song but let’s not forget the really rather brilliant piano part he’s responsible for either, providing an excellent underpinning to the whole affair. John Deacon – always the most under-appreciated member of the band – turns in some startlingly great work here. Roger Taylor is a man who knows, if you will excuse the expression, when to turn a trick, hence the great snare and tom fills under “absolutely drive you wild” at the end of the song, supporting but never dominating the complex multi-part harmonies even while remaining distinctive. It’s all so absolutely ludicrous and that’s what makes it so thoroughly entertaining. “Killer Queen” lives up to its name – it’s a killer single.
It came at the right time too. The band’s first two singles hadn’t charted and though “Seven Seas Of Rhye” had reached number ten in the UK charts, and its success persuaded Freddie Mercury to make Queen his actual life rather than a side project, it was a solid performer rather than something remarkable. “Killer Queen” changed all that – it propelled them to Number 2 and really helped them make their mark on the public consciousness. That makes sense – “Seven Seas Of Rhye” is a solid song but it’s hard to claim it feels particularly distinctive in a chart littered with the likes of Paper Lace’s “Billy Don’t Be A Hero”, Slade’s “Everyday” or Wings’s “Jet”. But when “Killer Queen” charted it was alongside David Essex’s “Gonna Make You A Star”, The Bay City Rollers “All Of Me Loves All Of You” and the Rubettes “Juke Box Jive”. Against that kind of background “Killer Queen” really does stand out. It’s a refreshing blast of nonsense in a chart full of sludgy rock, the rapidly-cooling coals of glam and quirky outliers (welcome to the unexpected chart success of the Wombles) and the band reaped the rewards. There used to be a time when Queen were more than a series of tics, check-boxes and endless repetitions, before they became their own cover band, before That Fucking Musical, before dignity and a basic ability to say “no” evaporated, and there’s no better example of that than “Killer Queen”. It may not be their biggest single of the 1970’s – no prizes for guessing what that’s going to be – but there’s a strong argument to suggest it may well be their best.
What Else Happened in 1974?
Abba! Abba happened in 1974! They won Eurovision with the inescapably brilliant “Waterloo”, the start of an eight-year chart run that at the time would leave them second only to The Beatles in terms of sales. Fans of Swanee Whistles (slide whistles for American viewers) will be delighted at the success of novelty hit “The Streak”, though possibly nobody else will be. Sparks give us the impeccable Kimono My House, and Ringo Starr releases his least bad solo album, Goodnight Vienna. Cher files for divorce from Sonny, and after six years Mick Taylor leaves The Rolling Stones. Joni Mitchell releases the landmark Court And Spark, and both King Crimson and The Stooges call it quits. Kiss release their first – and second – album, and the Ramones play their debut CBGB’s gig. David Bowie has his last flirtation with glam and the future with Diamond Dogs and its accompanying stage show. The original line-up of Sly And The Family Stone release their last album, Small Talk, and in heavy metal news, Judas Priest release their first album. Kraftwerk give us their breakthrough, Autobahn, Karl Douglas is “Kung Fu Fighting” (it’s the biggest song of the year), Steve Miller gives us the world’s worst wolf whistle on “The Joker”, and the Bay City Rollers go for tartan overload on “Shang-a-lang”.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
“This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” by Sparks was the most likely alternative for 1974, but I’m not sure how edifying copy-pasting the phrase “It’s fucking great!” five hundred times would really be. The wonderful Suzi Quatro spent quite a few weeks at Number 2 with “Devil Gate Drive” (it struggled to Number 1 for a couple of weeks as well) and deserves to be recognised, even if it’s not our entry this time out. Noted JG favourite Abba technically qualify with “Waterloo”, which spent two weeks at Number 2 before ascending to the top of the charts for the same length of time, and was deeply tempting. And of course there’s “Wombling Merry Christmas”, but it’s not the Wombles at their finest, really. And Blue Suede’s “Hooked On A Feeling” bounced in and out of the U.S. Number 2 spot a frankly insane number of times but not even Guardians Of The Galaxy was enough to make it a viable option.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Kinks – “Lola”
3. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
4. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
5. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
6. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
7. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
8. Queen, “Killer Queen”
9. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
10. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
11. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
12. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
13. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
14. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
15. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”