That’s not the case with most of the latest offerings from the Queen back catalog to commemorate the band’s 40th anniversary.
The first of three waves presents the band’s first five albums — “Queen
,” “Queen II
,” “Sheer Heart Attack
,” “A Night at the Opera
” and “A Day at the Races
” — spanning their 1971 formation to 1976. Each has a bonus EP of rare tracks.
Queen’s place in the British rock pantheon is undeniable. Classic-rock radio proves Freddie Mercury’s vocal prominence, but Queen was a helluva band: The innovative quartet bridged the gap from the blood-and-thunder heavy metal of Black Sabbath and guitar-heavy blues-rock of Led Zeppelin to a unique genre of glam and baroque rock perfected by vocalist/pianist Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor.
If you’ve never heard these recordings and consider yourself a rock ’n’ rock fan, buy them immediately for the full-length LPs to avoid pop-culture embarrassment: The first five classics are required listening.
For those first exposed to these records on vinyl when black lights were high-tech, modern technology and remastering by Bob Ludwig bring newfound clarity to every tool in Queen’s arsenal. Marvel at the clarity of Taylor’s bad-ass drumming (“Liar” on the debut “Queen”) and May’s searing, harmonic ax work on the Red Special, the guitar he built with his father from an 18th-century fireplace mantel.
These early albums showcase the flamboyant Mercury’s imaginative voyages to mythical folklore (“The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke,” inspired by Richard Dadd’s painting, from “Queen II”) and Deacon’s stellar pop songwriting (“You’re My Best Friend” from “A Night at the Opera”).
If you just buy one of these Hollywood Records reissues, a good starting point for novices is “A Night at the Opera.” It was most expensive album ever produced upon its 1975 release and essentially serves as the band’s “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Widely regarded as Queen’s masterpiece, it’s the home of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” While that historic six-minute track shows Queen and Mercury at its bombastic best, its quintessential rock opera is actually outlasted by May’s apocalyptic epic, “The Prophet Song,” clocking in at more than eight minutes.
“A Night at the Opera,” which starts with the acidic kiss-off to a former manager “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to ... ),” also shows a band adept at utilizing studio trickery without relying on synthesizers that date many recordings of that era. Aged like a classic cinematic period piece, the album’s production exhibits an intricate innovation, from the “jollification” of “Seaside Rendezvous,” the tin-bucket vocals producing a megaphone sound in “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” and nifty processing effects that transform May’s guitar into a Dixieland-era band in “Good Company.”
For the hard-core fans, the bonus discs are full of unearthed treasurers. Five very rare tracks recorded at De Lane Lea Studios in Wembley are released for the first time on the “Queen” bonus EP. The songs, which were all re-recorded for the debut album, are from a 12-inch acetate from May’s personal archives. The throwaway “Mad the Swine” track by Mercury is also included.
The “Queen II” bonus EP features the toying, Zeppelin-influenced “See What a Fool I’ve Been” in both non-album, B-side format and a BBC session. A BBC recording of “Nevermore” boasts additional guitars and percussion from the studio track. A live rendition of “White Queen (As It Began)” from the Hammersmith Odeon on Christmas Eve 1975 is simply sublime.
The “Sheer Heart Attack” bonus EP bookends two eras of live Queen, from the scorching 1975 rendition of “Now I’m Here” to a performance of “In the Lap of the Gods … revisited” from the quartet’s last tour in 1986. A pair of rare BBC sessions — “Flick of the Wrist” and “Tenement Funster” — also sees the light of day.
Bonus tracks with from the reissue of “A Night at the Opera” include a long-lost retake of “Keep Yourself Alive” and live renditions of the sci-fi skiffle of “’39” and crowd-favorite “Love of My Life.”
On the bonus disc for “A Day at the Races,” Freddie steals the spotlight with a solo piano performance at Hyde Park in 1976 of “You Take My Breath Away,” a swooning song about love obsession that’s a police report away from a restraining order. The “Top of the Pops” version of “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” recorded is also noteworthy, but pales in comparison to “Somebody to Love” recorded at the 1982 Milton Keynes Bowl show in England.
New mixes of previously released tracks that emphasize different recorded elements are only worth a listen (“Seven Seas of Rhye,” “Bring Back That Leroy Brown,” “Tie Your Mother Down” and several songs from “A Night at the Opera”). Once heard, these novelty remixes are the only throwaways on a remarkable first wave of reissues. —Rob Collins