May learnt how to discover the magic hidden in the
stars - both those to be found in the night sky and those in the music
business. A professor in Radio astronomy and a maestro of the guitar, the
former surely served to better understand what he accomplished by means of the
latter – namely, to convert Freddie Mercury into a supernova. The mysteries of physics are also to be found in
May's technically perfect finger work on the fret board of his beloved 'Red
Special'. The 40th anniversary of A Night at the Opera brings back the memory of the band's
charismatic singer and his sad and tragic demise. 40 years later, this star
shines once again, lighting up the band that wouldn't have existed without him.
Queen's visit to the opera coincided with one of rock's most prolific years: 1975. This was a year which witnessed an implosion of the heavy metal, glam and psychedelic rock bands and an end to all their decadent excesses. Punk's explosion onto the scene the following year was to be their coup de grâce. Queen, however, were riding on the crest of a wave thanks to Bohemian Rhapsody and managed to survive the storm.
Truth be told, Queen were as much a via for transgression and irreverence as Johnny Rotten and company were. Mercury's ambiguous sexuality, with his 'macho' posturing, exuberant and mocking flamboyance that were forever present in all their songs and in all the band's photos, scandalised the cleaned-minded puritans and even many music critics, who, feeling that Freddie was going too far, once again put their foot in it with their Olympic disdain. They might have turned their backs on him, but it was to do no good. As we all know, Mercury's image and music was (and still is) a renowned success, as were practically all the songs that the British band recorded. The pundits were quick to do an about turn and sing his praises.
On this 40th anniversary, titbits have to be shared regarding the ins and outs of the record's gestation: according to Tim Rice, Mercury's lyricist during his 'Barcelona' period, the first verses of Bohemian Rhapsody, "Mama, just killed a man. Put a gun against his head. Pulled my trigger, now he's dead" were an implicit recognition of his homosexuality. This is actually nothing new, as Lesley-Ann Jones had said as much in her biography of the singer.
Queen were much more than just a poser and his backing group and in that same song, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor accompanied Mercury's thundering vocals with measured and sublime music. Especially the guitarist, with an ability to make it sound as if a thousand 'Mays' were screaming out the same notes at exactly the same time. This was an epic work in which they shut themselves in the studio for weeks singing the same lines over and over again, taking months in fact before Rhapsody was finally completed. Rather like fellow musicians such as Tony Iommi, also obsessed with getting it spot on. A night at… became famous precisely for being the most expensive record to have ever been recorded.
A visit to the opera demands formal dress and Queen rose to the occasion, changing their clothes for each libretto, sometimes commanding a great concert hall, others ruling the roost of a steamy cabaret bar. Classic tradition dominating progressive rock, a cross between Puccini and Led Zeppelin that earned itself an undisputable place in the soundtrack of the 20th century.