If I only had two words to describe A Night At The Opera, they would be “pleasant surprises.” Again and again, this album catches you off guard in the most delightful way. It starts from the first few moments — a gentle, cascading piano arpeggio more at home in a Chopin etude than a rock and roll album. But after about fifteen seconds, weird synth noises start to fly at the fringes, and then a deep, menacing figure takes over, with even deeper harmonics in the background, guitars echo through the mix, the whole thing crescendos into a screech…
And suddenly it’s just piano again, this time more purposeful, accompanied quickly by a guitar, and then the drums kick in to open the curtain on a vicious rocking takedown of a song, “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)”. By the time the rock starts, we’ve had one surprise piled upon another, and the song itself is a bit unexpected, far more angry and vindictive than a typical Queen tune.
But then! Just when we’ve settled in for an arena rock album, here comes “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon”, which is pure vaudeville, or music hall if you’re a Brit. Tinkly, jaunty piano plays behind Freddie Mercury’s vocal, in broad comedy character mode and played back through headphones in a tin bucket, to give it the hollow sound of early 20th century recordings.
That’s immediately followed by a song that is neither written nor sung by Mercury, Roger Taylor’s passionate love song… to his car. I know this because the song is called “I’m In Love With My Car.” But just in case you start to think that Queen is only capable of negative or sideways emotional displays, John Deacon’s “You’re My Best Friend” proves that they can write one of the best, most loving relationship songs of the decade.
And so it goes, just one joyous surprise after another. They don’t all work perfectly, but most of them score awfully high, and in any case it’s impossible not to admire the sheer chutzpah of the thing. Queen seems to be out to expand the concept of rock until it can take in almost everything. They can combine science fiction and acoustic folk, as they do in “’39”. They can prog out with the best of them, as on the eight-minute-plus “Prophet’s Song.” Hell, they can even rock “God Save The Queen” with layers and layers of guitars, in winking tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the British monarchy, and maybe even themselves?
Appropriately enough for an album titled after a Marx Brothers movie, one of the most fun aspects of A Night At The Opera is its sense of humor, which itself often takes the form of startling left turns. For instance, in another music hall-ish number, “Good Company”, the first verse follows a strong meter and hits rhymes based on the title: “me”, “knee”, “company”. The second verse seems to be following that same pattern until…
Soon I grew and happy too
My very good friends and me
Would play all day with Sally J
The girl from number four
And very soon I begged her
Won’t you keep me company?
Number four? I laughed out loud the first time I heard it — Brian May suckered me into thinking I would hear a “three”, and then pointed that fact out by giving me the next one in line.
Then, of course, there’s the goofy magnificence of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” What starts out as a gorgeously harmonized musing, along the lines of The Beatles’ “Because”, resolves unexpectedly into a murder ballad. That’s startling enough, but then things get deeply, deeply weird, in the most flabbergasting and hilarious way. The famous operatic section of that song strings together meaningful-sounding nonsense, sung with incredible gusto, so much passion that it somehow transitions seamlessly into a fiery hard rock crescendo of explosive guitars and steely vocals.
Mike Myers has done more to demonstrate the comedy and grandeur of this song than I ever could here, so I’ll just point out that the secret sauce of this song and its album is the genuine emotion behind all the zany hijinks. Just as with Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf, what makes Queen’s music more than a momentary laugh is that it taps into real feelings of rage, betrayal, affection, awe… a whole panoply of deep emotions. See, that’s the other part of a night at the opera. Just to one side of the Marx Brothers hilarity, there’s the grand exaggeration of human drama spilling over the edges of its container.
Not that everything has to be grand. Probably my favorite tune this time around was “Seaside Rendezvous”, a perfect meld between the music hall style and the signature Queen sound of layered vocals. You can practically see the straw boater on Mercury’s head as he struts and taps his way through the song, but even better is knowing that the “tap dancing” sound was made with thimbles on the mixing desk, and that the entire “instrumental” bridge was performed vocally by Mercury and Taylor. Silly touches like a revving engine and a ringing bell complement ragtime piano and insouciant lyrics.
The whole thing is jaunty and fun, and once again shows Queen demonstrating that rock music is large enough to contain multitudes. As I listened to A Night At The Opera, I kept thinking of the Beatles’ White Album. That collection too brought together wildly diverse expressions, and had its own music hall influences, on songs like “Honey Pie” and “Martha My Dear.” But where the White Album was a portrait of a band in dissolution, A Night At The Opera shows us a group at the height of its powers, embracing its diversity rather than letting it push them apart. That is radical acceptance, and at least here, it results in great art.
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