Graded on a Curve: Queen,
Sheer Heart Attack

Celebrating Brian May on his 75th birthday.Ed.

It’s a shame, when you think about it. All the great albums I never heard growing up because (1) I could rarely afford the cost of an LP, and (2) there was no great or even half-decent FM radio station within listening range of the one half-horse town (the other half of the horse was owned by nearby Harney, and they got the front end) I called home.

Take Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack. Never heard it. Never heard of Queen period until “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I should have liked but didn’t because I thought it was too camp. Too camp! This from a guy who spent the better part of his adolescence idolizing Elton John. But that’s the way I roll. I didn’t like the pitch of Freddie Mercury’s voice, or the band’s lush and ubiquitous vocal harmonies, and as for the songs, they were too structurally baroque for my primitivist tastes. In hindsight, I was a little punk in the making. My attitude was keep it simple, which was why I never liked progressive rock, period, until I started to get high and listened to my fair share of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

And if I didn’t like Queen much to begin with, I really disliked them after they put out those bookend hits, “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You.” To me they sounded like pseudo-fascistic declarations of supremacy, and I thought then and still think now their Übermensch shtick would have gone over like gangbusters at the Nuremburg Rallies. The line “no time for losers” offends me as much as any line in rock history, which is why I never listened to 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack even after I knew it existed. I thought of Queen as a bunch of snotty high-pitched twats whose songs were too complicated for their own good, and wrote them off as bad rubbish.

But there is a time and a place for everything, and now is the time to give Queen their chance at rocking my world. And guess what, they have. Sheer Heart Attack isn’t the perfect LP, but it includes a slew of cool songs I like, even if some of their affectations continue to irk me. Bottom line: Any band with a guitarist as good as Brian May, and that can come up with a line as good as “Give me a good guitar/And you can say my hair’s a disgrace” is okay with me.

Queen was formed in 1970 by one Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara, aka Freddie Mercury, who heard a band called Smile and liked them so much he weaseled his way into being their lead singer. Other Smile members included May and drummer Roger Taylor, and following the recruitment of bassist John Deacon, the re-named Queen was ready to take on the world. The band’s 1973 eponymous debut (which included the great “Keep Yourself Alive”) and 1974 follow-up Queen II (which features the utterly inexplicable from any standpoint “Ogre Battle” as well as the wonderful “Funny How Love Is”) won them a following, but it wasn’t until Sheer Heart Attack’s “Killer Queen” hit the charts and 1975’s A Night at the Opera took over the world that they became superstars. As Opera illustrates, they’d been honing their complex sound and giving into their most overextravagant impulses, including quirky and abrupt shifts in tempo and melody, baroque vocal harmonies, and multi-sectioned songs (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) that were little nights at the opera in and of themselves.

But Sheer Heart Attack, while it suffers from many of the quirks cited above, wins out on the strength of its melodies, Brian May’s guitar genius, and the sense you get that the band—as “Bohemian Rhapsody” made obvious—never took itself as bloody seriously as I suspected it did. In fact they’re one of the funnier bands I’ve ever heard, although it’s hard to know when they intend to be funny and when it’s their own overweening musical excesses that inspire mirth.

Opener “Brighton Rock” takes us into territory Graham Greene never could have imagined, with its high-pitched vocals, great bass, and incredible guitar work by May, whose solo (with its use of one main guitar and one echoed guitar) is phenomenal. The vocals don’t do much for me, but the melody is cool, the song moves along at an apocalyptic speed, and the damn song sticks with you the way the candy it was named after sticks to your teeth. As for “Killer Queen,” I like its piano opening and lyrics, as well as Mercury’s faux upper crust vocals, and while I’m not crazy about the echo on May’s guitar or the Supertramp-school vocal arrangements, I still very much like it, in part because it’s so insanely catchy and reminds me, and probably only me, of something Sparks might have put out.

“Tenement Funster” is one of my LP highlights, in part because I infinitely prefer Roger Taylor’s vocals to Mercury’s, and partly because it’s a hard rocker without excess frills and fancy tempo shifts and boasts a brilliant guitar solo by May. Finally, it boasts some great lyrics along the lines of “My new purple shoes, bin’ amazin’ the people next door/And my rock ‘n roll 45’s, bin’ enragin’ the folks on the lower floor.” “Tenement Funster” segues into “Flick of the Wrist,” which I only sorta like because while it rocks, it also features too many vocal hijinks and zigzagging shifts in tempo and direction for my tastes. That said May once again comes through with a sizzling guitar solo accompanied by some great drumming by Roger Taylor, and had I been the producer I’d have stripped the song down to its underwear and turned it into a hell-for-leather rock’n’roll tune, but for some reason I wasn’t invited to the recording sessions. Perhaps my invite got lost in the mail.

“Flick of the Wrist” segues into “Lily of the Valley,” a wimpified ballad featuring just Mercury on piano and vocals. Its best feature is that it’s short. It’s followed by the Beatlesesque “Now I’m Here,” on which the complex vocals actually work. As does the segue into hard rock, and for once Mercury’s vocals strike me as great. Unfortunately the song insists upon switching directions every minute or so, and at one point reminds me of Mott the Hoople, which is apt given the fact that the lyrics include the lines, “Down in the city/Just Hoople and me.” But overall I like “Now I’m Here” despite its flaws, because at its best it’s maximum rock’n’roll, from its almost self-parodic twitches to the way it goes out with the band repeating Chuck Berry’s “Go, go, go, little queenie.”

“In the Lap of the Gods” is a musical monstrosity and a subpar precursor to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (That it was an early stab at writing a baroque and multi-sectioned pocket opera was admitted by Mercury himself.) Queen throws everything into this one but the kitchen sink: you get Pink Floyd-esque female vocals (produced, somehow, by Taylor) at the beginning, followed by lots of portentous musical hokum and Mercury singing in an almost unrecognizable lower register. And on it goes, failing because it’s not amusing, lacks the theatrical flourishes of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and doesn’t tell an interesting story or boast any great melodies, although May’s guitar and Mercury’s piano are slight consolations for this overly complex abomination. Fortunately follow-up “Stone Cold Crazy” is a fast-paced hard rocker featuring some feral guitar by May and lots of speed singing by Mercury. And best of all it’s all of a piece; from its feedback-heavy opening to its close there isn’t a single significant shift in musical direction, and even its lush vocal harmonies work. And Mercury’s vocals, which I usually find at least mildly annoying, don’t bother me one bit. Metallica covered “Stone Cold Crazy” in 1993, and it’s obvious why; as Q magazine noted, the song was “thrash metal before it was invented.”

“Dear Friends” is a short and simple song, with Taylor (who wrote it) on piano and Mercury handling lead vocals. I can’t say I don’t like it, but I’ll be perfectly happy to never hear it again. “Misfire,” on the other hand, is excellent, and features a cool up-tempo melody and Deacon, rather than May, playing most of the guitars. The opening is sweet, Deacon’s guitar work is on point if not as spectacular as May’s, and I’ll definitely listen to this one again. Unfortunately Queen follows “Misfire” with the English music hall sound of “Bring Back That Leroy Brown.” This one includes Mercury on vocals and grand and tack pianos—the latter being a piano with a tinny or more percussive sound, as a result of tacks or nails being placed on the hammers at the point where the hammers hit the strings—and May on ukulele-banjo, and is not a rock song, not even by eccentric Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band standards. It’s a novelty tune that isn’t novel enough to read to the end, and while it might have worked had Bonzo Dog Band’s Vivian Stanshall written some of his ingenious lyrics for it, such was not the case. In short, “Leroy Brown” sounds about as home on Sheer Heart Attack as “The Immigrant Song” would on a James Taylor LP.

“She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos)” sounds like the title of a Bonzo Dog Band song, and opens with some great acoustic guitars and drum work, followed by some spacy vocals by May, who wrote the song. It sorta marches along, as beautiful as a foot to quote Blue Oyster Cult, and I mean that as a compliment. The song has a wonderful melody, and May’s vocals are spot on, and it ends with the accompaniment of New York City police sirens and heavy breathing. I have no idea what it means, but I do know that it’s my favorite song on the LP and somehow lives up to its great title. “In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited” is much better (and completely different) than the tune it revisits, being a simple number that moves linearly along with the band sounding like they’re chanting the name of their favorite English football team before exploding, literally. True, it sounds like an early take on the simple but bombastic loathsomeness that is “We Are the Champions,” but it’s the lyrics of “Champions” that offend me, not its simple (especially by Queen standards) construction.

I have read rave reviews of the LP that confirm me in my belief that most critics are out to sell product, not evaluate its merits. How one gives Sheer Heart Attack a 5-star review in the face of the grandiose clunker “In the Lap of the Gods,” the jarringly out-of-place “Bring Back That Leroy Brown,” and such nonentities as “Lily of the Valley” and “Dear Friends” is beyond me. And I’m not so sure about “Flick of the Wrist” either, although it’s growing on me. That said, I’m totally enamored of “Tenement Funster,” “Brighton Rock,” and “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos),” and have to admit I only cheated myself by refusing to listen to Queen for all these years.

I still think their songs are overly baroque, and that they depended too much on virtuosity and vocal harmonies, and listening to them is an object lesson in why punk simply had to happen. Someone had to save the world from the gross musical excesses of bands like Queen, and Johnny Rotten fit the bill. That said, I’ll bet you The Sex Pistols could have made hay out of “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos)” and “Stone Cold Crazy” had they wanted. But they didn’t want. More’s the pity.


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