The Second Disc

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Back Tracks: Queen, Part I

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This week’s remaster and reissue of Queen’s first two greatest hits LPs in the U.K. (on new home Island Records) is the start of what promises to be a massive reissue campaign for the band’s 40th anniversary. The band’s first five LPs are slated to be expanded and released in March, with additional batches to follow through 2011.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Queen catalogue has been rolled out on CD. While British audiences got straight CD transfers throughout the late ’80s, Americans got slight expanded versions when the catalogue rights transfered to Disney’s Hollywood Records in the U.S. in 1991. Those versions often featured a bonus remix or two, often newly commissioned for the program. There was also a confusing wave of compilations in the years after lead singer Freddie Mercury died in 1991.

In honor of Queen’s 40th anniversary and with these new reissues fast approaching, these next two installments of Back Tracks will take you through each major Queen LP and compilation released on each side of the Atlantic since 1973. This includes reissues, reconfigurations and even some audiophile editions.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Find out after the jump.

Queen (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1973 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991/Parlophone (U.K.), 1994)

Queen’s debut album set the template from the get-go: polished production from Roy Thomas Baker, Brian May’s tidal wave of guitars, Freddie Mercury’s soulful vocals and the rhythmic strengths of John Deacon and Roger Taylor. It was also their first record to explicitly state “No synthesizers,” making their glistening sound that much more impressive. The key track here is debut single “Keep Yourself Alive,” although there were some tunes that casual Queen fans would not expect to have come from the band. Album cuts like “Great King Rat,” “My Fairy King” and “Jesus” are full of fantastical lyrical imagery and near-psychedelic, polyrhythmic instrumental breaks. (There’s also a teaser of what’s to come in the final track, an instrumental version of “Seven Seas of Rhye.”)

Though much of Hollywood’s reissue campaign for Queen in 1991 focused on new remixes, two of the three bonus tracks were outtakes: “Mad the Swine” and an alternate take of “Keep Yourself Alive.” (The other was a remix of second single “Liar” by John Luongo and Gary Hellman.) The forthcoming Island reissue would do well to include some of the early demo versions recorded at De Lane Lea Studios in London, at least one of which (“The Night Comes Down”) was actually included on the album, so much the band enjoyed those versions.

Queen II (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1974 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991/Parlophone (U.K.), 1994)

Recorded quickly after the completion of the first album, the second Queen LP delved more into the conceptual psych-rock style of Queen with tracks like “Ogre Battle” and “The March of the Black Queen.” It sort of reads like the most ridiculous B-sides by Genesis that never were, but that classic Queen style is still there, and the album was a fan favorite. If nothing else, Queen II contributed two important things to the band’s mythology: the full version of “Seven Seas of Rhye” and the classic album cover, photographed by Mick Rock, that would become a defining visual moment when replicated for the video to “Bohemian Rhapsody” a year later. The bonus tracks on Hollywood’s reissue were remixes of “Ogre Battle” and “Seven Seas” by Nicholas Sansano and Freddy Bastone, respectively.

Sheer Heart Attack (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1974 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991/Parlophone (U.K.), 1993)

For an album that was mostly recorded without Brian May (he fell ill to hepatitis then a stomach ulcer, and recorded his parts after recovering), Sheer Heart Attack rocks. It’s the first taste of the band as a baroque hard rock act (“Killer Queen,” “Stone Cold Crazy,” “In the Lap of the Gods”), and it works well as a teaser for what’s to come for Freddie and company. A remix of “Stone Cold Crazy” by noted heavy metal producer/mixer Michael Wagener was appended to the U.S. reissue; the song was also remixed on some CD singles by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails!

A Night at the Opera (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1975 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991, 2002 and 2005/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (U.S.), 1992/Parlophone (U.K.), 1993)

Though Queen had enjoyed some critical success from both the music press and the public, the sales figures did not often match (Sheer Heart Attack hit No. 2 in the U.K. and went Top 20 in the U.S.). It was time for a gambit, one which was more expensive than any album before at the time. It kept the balls-to-the-wall rock ethos of its predecessor on tracks like “I’m in Love with My Car” and “You’re My Best Friend,” but it increased the more baroque sensibilities from Freddie’s pen.

The centerpiece of A Night at the Opera is undebatable: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a near-six-minute mini-opera packed with tender piano-driven verses, smoldering guitar solos and the hyperactive, multi-vocal bridge (so overdubbed that the master tape lost all coloring). Accompanied by an early music video featuring little more than the band singing to the sky in varying light patterns (not unlike the Queen II sleeve), “Bohemian Rhapsody” stayed atop the U.K. charts for nine straight weeks and became a rock classic. (It again topped the U.K. charts in 1991 when released as a single after Freddie Mercury passed away.) Overall, A Night at the Opera became Queen’s first U.K. No. 1 album and went Top 5 in the U.S., establishing them as one of the world’s premier rock bands.

Thanks to its long-running popularity, A Night at the Opera has enjoyed several reissues over the years. The 1991 release had remixes of “You’re My Best Friend” and “I’m in Love with My Car” by Matt Wallace and Mike Shipley, respectively. The next year saw a gold CD in the U.S. from Mobile Fidelity. A 2002 release was a DVD-Audio version in 5.1 surround sound, while a 30th anniversary repackage in 2005 combined the CD and DVD-A with bonus DVD material, including music videos, old and new live footage (meaning some Queen + Paul Rodgers frivolity) and band commentary.

A Day at the Races (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1976 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991/Parlophone (U.K.), 1993 and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (U.S.), 1993)

Queen’s next LP was a resurrection of the Opera ethos, though this time without production from Roy Thomas Baker (the band self-produced this time). There are some great tunes here, namely the hard-driving “Tie Your Mother Down” and the sweeping “Somebody to Love,” but it doesn’t quite pack the punch of its predecessor, even if it sold almost as well. The reissue on Hollywood Records included more remixes, this time of “Tie Your Mother Down” and “Somebody to Love.” (Island, can we keep these remixes off the new remasters? Compile them separately if you must, but they rarely offer anything that the originals didn’t have.)

Races also became the second Queen LP to receive the gold CD treatment on MFSL.

News of the World (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1977 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991/Parlophone (U.K.), 1993 and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (U.S.), 1993)

Spurred by the muted reaction to Races, Queen sought a more straightforward rock album with News of the World. While this LP doesn’t fire on as many cylinders as, say, Sheer Heart Attack, it has two of Queen’s greatest songs starting off the album: the hypnotically rhythmic “We Will Rock You” and the glorious “We Are the Champions,” both released as a double A-side single and destined to play in sports arenas for eternity. The Hollywood bonus track was a remix of “We Will Rock You” widely considered to be one of the worst of the Queen remixes; it’s ironically labeled as “ruined” by its remixer, noted producer Rick Rubin (who should know better, really).

Jazz (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1978 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991/Parlophone (U.K.), 1994)

For Jazz, Queen temporarily reunited with Roy Thomas Baker in Nice, France (for tax purposes, the band recorded out of their native England). Critics despised the album – Rolling Stone went as far as to accuse Queen of facism – but as with every Queen album, there are some gems to be had, notably the double A-side “Bicycle Race” and “Fat Bottomed Girls” (famously publicized through an all-nude ladies’ bicycle race at the Wimbledon racetrack in London) and the uplifting “Don’t Stop Me Now.” (“Bicycle Race” and “Fat Bottomed Girls” were remixed by Junior Vasquez for the 1991 reissue.)

Live Killers (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1979 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991/Parlophone (U.K.), 1994/2003)

A hastily prepared, extensively overdubbed and muddily mixed live double album, Live Killers was not the ideal first live release for the ever-theatrical Queen, nor was its original CD release (a generic Queen Live set edited from the double album). Most fans weren’t even very happy with the remastering until Parlophone cleaned it up again in 2003. There would be better live sets from Queen on disc in the years to come.

The Game (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1980 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991 and 2003/Parlophone (U.K.), 1994 and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (U.S.), 1994)

A new producer (Reinhold Mack) and the breaking of a longtime band rule (synthesizers were used!) were the first indications that Queen were moving in a poppier direction. Then there were two danceable singles, the CHIC-esque “Another One Bites the Dust” and the rockabilly “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” both American chart-toppers along with the LP itself (the first album to hit No. 1 in the U.S.). There’s nothing wrong with Queen as a dance band – those singles are some of the best of any era – but the album sides end up more like filler. Case in point: a song like “Dragon Attack,” which was remixed as the only bonus track on the original U.S. reissue. (A subsequent reissue on Hollywood was a DVD-A.) This is one of the few albums to have a non-LP B-side, “A Human Body,” which backed “Play the Game” but was not included on any reissues.

Flash Gordon (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1980 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1991/Parlophone (U.K.), 1994)

A mostly instrumental, rather esoteric album that served as the score to the campy 1980 adaptation of the popular sci-fi serial. The most notable track was the single version of “Flash’s Theme,” intercut with those classic Queen vocals and some ridiculous soundbites from the film. (Best one: “Flash, I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”) That theme was remixed for the Hollywood reissue.

Greatest Hits (EMI (U.K.)/Elektra (U.S.), 1981 – reissued Hollywood (U.S.), 1992 and 2004/Parlophone (U.K.), 1994)

Queen’s first greatest hits compilation was a solid 17-track collection of their biggest hits up to that time, but it was years until Americans got to hear it in the same order as England. The Elektra version dropped four tracks (“Now I’m Here,” “Save Me,” “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” and “Seven Seas of Rhye”) and added a brand-new single from their forthcoming album, “Under Pressure,” a duet with David Bowie. When Hollywood got the rights to the Queen catalogue (just as Greatest Hits II was about to hit the market), they instead released a career-spanning set called Classic Queen in 1992 and followed that up with a set called Greatest Hits (featuring the Queen crest, as seen on Greatest Hits II and Classic Queen, but with a red sleeve instead of a blue one). That set featured some of the tracks from the original Greatest Hits LP (including the four not included on the Elektra version) and focused mostly on the ’70s (exceptions were “Body Language” and “I Want to Break Free,” from 1984’s The Works).

The original U.K. line-up of Greatest Hits would be released in the U.S. by 1994 (where it was packed with Greatest Hits II – a further set from 2000 would include Greatest Hits III (1999) as well. Its first standalone release was 2004, where it was given redesigned artwork closer to the original LP and three bonus tracks: “I’m in Love with My Car” from A Night at the Opera and two previously released live cuts. This set is known as the “We Will Rock You” edition.

Part II focuses on Queen at their poppiest, with some live strengths, tributes to a fallen singer and more compilations than one can possibly imagine.

Written by Mike Duquette

January 13, 2011 at 12:20

2 Responses

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  1. Nice article and great blog! The new ‘Greatest Hits’ reissues come in super jewel boxes. This is odd as I was told that they cost triple to make as the standard case and the record companies were giving up on them. Releases initially in super jewel boxes are now appearing in the standard jewel-case (‘The Sound Of The Smiths’, ‘Back To Black’, some of the U2 remasters) which naturally means a slightly reconfigured back cover!

    I haven’t got the reissues yet but have been unable to find out whether the edits on ‘Greatest Hits II’ (which was originally “edited for CD” to make it 75:99) are still there. This was 1991 when CDs weren’t as long as 80 minutes.

    Sorry if this post seems unfocused!

    Andy Walker

    January 23, 2011 at 18:44

  2. Here I am again, catching up with these awesome articles I missed…I will agree that the majority of the remixes brought absolutely nothing to the table. Two of them were at least a little interesting: “Fat Bottomed Girls,” if I recall correctly, added some Freddie ad-libs that had been edited out of the original, and “Somebody to Love” ends with Freddie completing the “Find me, find me” etc phrase with a blues-y “Somebody to love.” Not necessary in the slightest, but interesting if that was the way Freddie, at one point, felt the song was going to end.


    February 25, 2011 at 16:53

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