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Retro Rewind: Queen’s “A Night at the Opera”

Queen is one of my favorite bands ever, and many of their songs remain iconic to this day. Turn on a radio, and you might hear “We Are The Champions”, “Another One Bites The Dust” or the marvelous, though overplayed, tune “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Today, in addition to my regular reviews, I’ll be starting off a summer-long “Retro Rewind” series by revisiting popular albums from the 20th century and talking about their tracklists, how they were made, and what critics thought of them recently as well as when they were originally released. Lastly, I’ll be giving my thoughts on the album.

I don’t believe there’s a better way to start off this series than looking at one of Queen’s most famous albums, 1975’s “A Night At the Opera!”

The band

Queen is one of the world’s best-selling musical artists, selling between 170 million and 300 million albums. The band was founded in 1970 after singer Freddie Mercury joined guitarist Brian May and drummer Taylor in the band Smile.

The next year, they recruited bassist John Deacon and released their self-titled debut album in 1973. Together, they recorded a total of 15 albums.

The last of these was “Made In Heaven,” which was released in 1995. Mercury passed away in 1991 and Deacon left the band in 1997. May and Taylor currently perform with vocalist Adam Lambert.

Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and all four members became members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. They were presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. A feature film based around the band, titled “Bohemian Rhapsody,” was released the same year.

The tracklist

The album opens with “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…),” with a piano introduction leading into a hard rock tune that can be interpreted as a hatred-filled response to Queen’s first manager, Norman Sheffield.

Next comes “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” a shorter piano-driven track written by Mercury. “I’m In Love With My Car” is a creation of Roger Taylor, who sang lead vocals on the track. John Deacon wrote “You’re My Best Friend,” a mellower tune that features a Wurlitzer electric piano.

Following that is “‘39,” a sci-fi acoustic song with vocals from Brian May. Musician George Michael considers this to be his favorite Queen song. “Sweet Lady” features distorted guitar and is a contribution from May.

“Seaside Rendezvous” features an amusing instrumental section performed a capella by Taylor and Mercury. “The Prophets’ Song” was created after a dream that Brian May had, which features an amazing array of vocals and hard rock instrumentals.

“Love of My Life” is an incredibly sweet ballad written by Mercury, while “Good Company” is a lovely Dixieland-style song with vocals by May, while “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an epic that you can’t help singing along to no matter how many times you hear it.

Finally, “God Save The Queen” is an impressive rock cover of the British national anthem, a perfect way to close out the album.

The production

“A Night at the Opera” was reportedly the most expensive album ever recorded at that point, with a cost of approximately 40,000 pounds (roughly equivalent to 338,000 pounds in 2020, or $409.156). The vocals and instrumentals were recorded at seven studios in the United Kingdom over the course of four months.

Production on the album required plenty of multitracking to create its vocal harmonies (such as those found on “Bohemian Rhapsody”), and the band utilized 24-track tape to achieve this. Previously, they had used 16-track tape to record their albums (including 1974’s “Sheer Heart Attack”).

The album is a unique offering in Queen’s catalog in that it features many instruments not normally found in their music. Mercury plays a jangle piano on “Seaside Rendezvous” and he and Taylor play thimbles on a mixing desk to create the tap dancing segment.

Deacon adds a double bass to “‘39” (which May had originally asked him to play as a joke), while the guitarist plays the harp in “Love of My Life” and a toy koto on “The Prophet’s Song.”

“It has a couple of the heaviest things we’ve ever done and probably some of the lightest things as well,” mentioned May in an interview with the British music magazine Sounds. “It’s probably closer to Sheer Heart Attack than the others in that it does dart around and create lots of different moods, but we worked on it in the same way we worked on Queen II. A lot of it is very intense and very … layered.”

What critics thought about the album

At the time of its release, “A Night at the Opera” received mixed reviews. The Winnipeg Times wrote that “the group’s potential is practically limitless, indicating that Queen is destined to finally take its place among the small handful of truly major acts working in rock today.”

Ray Fox-Cumming, who wrote for the British music publications Record Mirror and Disc, described his first listen as “an amazing rush of music with one track running helter-skelter into the next … The orchestral effects, all done by voices, are dazzling but come and go too quickly to appreciate on a solo listening.”

More recent reviews have been quite positive. Writing for PopMatters, AJ Ramirez states “Amazingly, while the transitions between genres would conceivably throw listeners for a loop, none are jarring. Instead, Queen succeeds because it pulls from all the best tricks in the library of showbiz history to deliver laughs, heartache, grandeur, and spectacle to its audience at precisely the right moments.”

He later mentions that “it’s the realization of such a unique sonic vision that pushes [the album] into the realm of true excellence … A Night at the Opera stands as a breathtaking, involving creation, and unequivocally Queen’s finest album.”

Rolling Stone ranks “A Night at the Opera” at #231 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. The magazine Q places the album at #17 on its list of the 50 Best British Albums Ever, while a poll by the U.K.’s Channel 4 ranks it at #13 in a list of the 100 greatest albums.

What I think about the album

The musical diversity throughout “A Night at the Opera” is stunning. As Ramirez mentioned, the way Queen transitions between these different styles is effortless. Some parts of the record might come off as weird, but I think that weirdness helps the album tremendously.

The multiple epics on the album coupled with shorter, jazzier songs like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” and “Good Company” make the record extraordinary, and I feel that this is an album deserving of a listen by anyone who is into Queen or rock and roll in general.

Maxwell Patton

Wright Life Reporter