Vinyl Confessions: Mighty Mercury’s Underrated Magic

Freddie Mercury performing in New Haven, CT, 1977
Freddie Mercury performing in New Haven, CT, 1977

The late, phenomenal – great isn’t strong enough a word – Freddie Mercury would have turned 70 this past Labor Day. Even though it’s been almost 25 years since his death, the Queen frontman’s popularity is stronger than ever. It wasn’t enough to dedicate a statue in his honor. Now his West London childhood home has been designated a historical landmark. Plus, his majesty recently had an asteroid named after him as a birthday tribute.

It’s all fit for a king. And Mercury is rock royalty, given that Queen is one of the few bands in the world to produce songs everybody knows. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the typical go-to, followed by the sporting “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust” are on their heels. Commercials blast “You’re My Best Friend.” Stefani Germanotta dubbed herself “Lady Gaga” after one of the band’s songs (try to guess which one).

Through it all — from the band’s humble beginnings as Smile, to their dramatic 1973 debut album, to stadium superstardom, to Live Aid, to tragedy, to posthumous studio and live recordings — Mercury reigned supreme over popular music as his operatic voice enthralled the globe and all but toppled buildings.

Because of this, we know the tracks on Queen’s greatest hits albums almost verbatim. However, if you’ve worshiped the band since childhood, like me, you know there are other tracks penned, sung, or both by Mercury for the Queen arsenal that prove just as mighty as the others. They just never quite made the band’s setlists. No disrespect intended to Freddie’s solo output either, especially given how terrific Mr. Bad Guy and Barcelona are, but here are ten overlooked Queen gems that showcase Mercury’s vocal and lyrical dynamism:

1. “The March of the Black Queen” – Queen II (1974)

Think of this as “Bohemian Rhapsody” before “Bohemian Rhapsody” was even a thought. This rock meets fairytale behemoth by Mercury has him playing coy and dominant all at once. You have to admire a male frontman who can sing “I’m lord of all darkness, I’m queen of the night” with utter abandon. But the highlight of this tune lasts from 2:28 through 3:05. If Freddie’s ferocious piano, bells and banshee-like wails could be stored in every alarm clock in the world, we’d all be getting up and moving about a lot faster in the mornings.

2. “Brighton Rock” – Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

Representing a twee frolic in a carnivalesque atmosphere, Mercury’s vocals mostly hover in falsetto territory, then work their way down towards a powerful god-like setting. This can be considered one of Mercury’s “pastiche” songs; it sounds like it’s culled from the works of Degas and Seurat (just like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” from the band’s A Night at the Opera album). Guitarist Brian May knew Mercury would make his lyrics come alive splendidly, so he responded with perhaps one of the greatest Queen guitar solos ever recorded.

3. “The Prophet’s Song” – A Night at the Opera (1975)

While “Bohemian Rhapsody” stands out as the masterpiece of the band’s breakthrough album, the group didn’t shy away from including another opus of the same quality and scope on the album. “The Prophet’s Song” is altogether biblical and mystical, as Mercury climbs vocal registers and classic Queen multi-layered harmonies throughout the track. A repetitive section highlights studio wizardry, culminating in a haunting lyric: “Listen to the wise man!” Best do what Mercury says here.

4. “The Millionaire Waltz” – A Day at the Races (1976)

Freddie loved to rock. He also loved to dabble in more refined arts – ballets and waltzes included (we’ve all seen his leotard and leather jacket phase of the late-1970s). Determined to rival Strauss, Mercury parlays his “good old fashioned lover boy” persona into 19th century frivolity. That is, until May’s guitar and Roger Taylor’s drums enter the fold and Mercury unleashes his yearning lyric “Come back to me!” From its one-two-three chord structure, to its rocking middle, to May’s staccato electric guitar waltz melodies, this is one of the very few Queen songs that sounds like it’d fit right in with the canon of Gilbert and Sullivan.

5. “Sheer Heart Attack” – News of the World (1977)

Queen’s lone attempt at snotty punk rock, which is a breath of fresh air given the total excess that would dominate their next album, Jazz. Plus, this track contains a Roger Taylor lyric that is 100 percent pure Freddie: “Hey, hey, hey, hey, it was the DNA. Hey, hey, hey, hey, that made me this way.” Well put.

6. “Dragon Attack” – The Game (1980)

There are eight songs on this album that tend to be overshadowed, as they didn’t blow up like “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” which all but assured the band’s immortality. Still, the band wasn’t afraid (at least initially) to make dance music. As an album track, “Dragon Attack” is cool, but it shines brightest during the “Queen Rocks Montreal” concert film, where Mercury glides across the stage with serpentine qualities. He even tweaks some lyrics to deliver them in the first person: “Don’t take no prisoners, Gonna give you the business.” Mercury had been doing that for almost a decade before the song was released.

7. “Keep Passing the Open Windows” – The Works (1984)

Coined from a phrase in John Irving’s novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, this is one of Freddie’s more optimistic tracks, and a terrific return to form in terms of his piano playing. While it wouldn’t reach the magnitude of a “Hammer to Fall” or “I Want to Break Free,” the song is a true embodiment of what would become Freddie’s overall creed, “Lover of life, singer of songs.”

8. “Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme)” – A Kind of Magic (1986)

Brian May has gone on record saying Mercury hated this song. Sure, it’s a bit hokey considering it’s sung from the point of view from an immortal villain trying to exterminate another immortal so he can be the reigning immortal. Still, when Freddie sings “I am the one, the only one, I am the god of Kingdom Come,” you tend to think he’s right.

9. “Scandal” – The Miracle (1989)

By this point, Freddie was sick, and dodging tabloid reporters threatening to expose his battle with AIDS. Instead of hiding, he chose to take them on through song. Mercury unleashes some of his greatest vocal fury on “Scandal.” Hearing the line, “No one really knows the truth from the lies, and in the end the story deeper must hide” is heartbreaking. But you gain strength knowing that instead of lamenting, Freddie is fighting back like a true champion.

10. “Made in Heaven” – Made in Heaven (1995)

Queen’s first (but hopefully not the last) album to feature Freddie’s vocals posthumously, Made in Heaven, collectively, is a touching tribute to Freddie’s legacy and his reflections about life and love. On the album’s title track, you can hear that his voice is a bit more subdued. But considering he sounds fully at peace to face his own mortality, Freddie sings with as much gusto as he can muster. While “The Show Must Go On” from Innuendo can be considered his farewell track; “Made in Heaven” should be considered his “I’ll be OK” track.

-Ira Kantor

 

Dig the column? Reach out to Ira via email at ikantor84@gmail.com or on Twitter at @ira_kantor

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