“Is that a woman?”
My ten-year old son is looking over my shoulder as I watch a video of Queen tearing it up onstage.
I smile. “No, that’s Freddie Mercury.”
My kids know Queen—but the stuff on my computer screen is vintage material, and features a feather-haired, moustache-less Mercury gussied up in full androgynous glory.
Easy enough mistake for a kid, judging from Mercury’s angular, blush-anointed cheekbones, and eyeliner. The skinny vocalist’s billowy white costume (designed by Zandra Rhodes) seals the deal, obfuscating clear distinctions between male and female physique.
The cape comes off soon enough, however, and by show’s end Freddie—resplendent in black—is in full-on swagger mode, pumping his hips and thrusting his phallic half-mic stand to the beat, a sweater’s worth of chest hair bristling in full view.
“Where’s his moustache?” inquires my son. “Are they gonna sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody?’”
Hard to believe there was a time when Queen’s most recognized tune didn’t exist, much less a time when said nonexistence didn’t even matter.
Tactfully distilling opera, piano balladry, and electric guitar-fueled fury into one compact, radio-ready single, Mercury got the whole world singing (and banging heads) to his vocal tour de force. The song was a staple at the band’s shows until Mercury’s death in 1991—at which point its usage in memorials, movies, and television rendered it ubiquitous.
Radio, what’s new? FM still has “Rhapsody” on regular rotation, too.
But the A Night at The Opera masterpiece didn’t figure into any of Queen’s three sold-out performances at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1974; Mercury was still a good year away from coming up with it. And it’d be longer until the flashy, multi-octave singer and his British mates—guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and bassist John Deacon—committed “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions,” “Fat-Bottomed Girls,” and a dozen other now-familiar Queen hits to tape.
Amazingly, the band didn’t need “Rhapsody” in its oeuvre to enchant the Rainbow.
Supporting their then-recent LP Sheer Heart Attack at the fabled Finsbury Park venue, Queen threw everything they had into their performances, spilling every ounce of passion and energy onto the stage to the delight of 3,000-plus raving fans. Mercury and company couldn’t have guessed the hits would keep coming, or that their newfound success would only increase exponentially with each new album and tour. Most ‘70s arena bands weren’t that fortunate. Then again, most weren’t as talented as Queen. As hungry upstarts fresh off a tour opening for Mott the Hoople, the twenty-something year-olds wrote the best material they could for their third record and rendered it all onstage with aplomb, letting the pieces fall where they (Brian) may. That was more than enough to make their Rainbow stints memorable—in person…and on camera.
Now, for the first time ever (and just in time to mark its 40th Anniversary), the whole of Queen’s incendiary November ’74 Rainbow gig is available to own on DVD and Blu-Ray. While some of the Bruce Gowers-directed footage turned up as part of the 1992 collector’s package A Box of Tricks, Eagle Rock’s new Queen: Live at The Rainbow ’74 contains the complete show, lovingly restored for optimal color and sound (LPCM sterea 48/16 and DTS 96/24).
There’s a treasure trove of classic Queen here, including over a dozen tracks never before released on any officially sanctioned “live” product. What’s more, the bonus features include another fifteen minutes of video madness taken from the band’s previous Rainbow concert, some nine months earlier (March ’74). And within minutes of cueing the film it becomes abundantly clear why Queen’s easy blend of blues, Broadway, glam, and bad-boy rock and roll became such an influence on nearly every act that followed.
Introductory footage shows the band’s limousine arrival and backstage preparation (to the sound of “Procession”). Emerging from the darkness, the band explosively announces its presence with Sheer Heart Attack dazzler “Now I’m Here” and Queen II goody “Ogre Battle.” Mercury’s voice echoes in the cavernous theatre. May’s overdriven guitar—the original “Red Special” fabricated from an old tabletop and fireplace mantel—grinds and wails. Taylor’s booming drums reverberate over Deacon’s rumbling rhythm.
“The nasty Queenies are back!” greets Mercury. “It really is nice to be back home. It’s been so long, and we’ve missed you all!”
The Queen II parade continues with the elegant “Father to Son” and melancholy (then majestic) “White Queen (As It Began),” and finds Mercury fingering a few intricate passages on piano. “Flick of The Wrist” veers from honkytonk to heavy metal in the course of three minutes, with May channeling Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck in the spotlight at stage left. Queen availed itself a clever, meticulous studio band in later years, overdubbing and mixing dense layers of vocals and instrumentation to achieve the desired results. Here, they’re just a monstrously good rock quartet—a la Led Zeppelin and The Who—pounding out a ballsy, guitar-centric wall of noise that presages Boston and Van Halen, and plants one platform heel firmly into the territory we now know as heavy metal.
“In The Lap of The Gods” is the prefatory piece in a four-part medley tacking mostly new material together with Queen II’s loud, menacing “March of The Black Queen.” Eventually a fan favorite, “Lap” is bombastic, sweeping, and cinematic. “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” sees May plucking out some ragtime blues on piano. Deacon’s hands momentary quit his bass so he can tink-tink a triangle on soon-to-be smash “Killer Queen.”
“We’ve narrowly escaped having a number-one single!” jokes Freddie of the piano-powered Sheer Heart Attack hit.
The salacious “Son and Daughter” (from Queen’s eponymous debut) evolves from fairly standard (if nasty) rock ditty into a power trio jam showcasing the individual and collective skills of May, Deacon, and Taylor. Then May—recovered from a bout of hepatitis—ventures on a guitar solo, raking his strings and depressing his tremolo for maximum feedback. The curly-headed guitar hero also employs an early delay effect, which loops his licks until he’s essentially accompanying himself, bending new notes even as the last ones resound and fade. The break gives Freddie time enough for a wardrobe change, swapping white for black (a la the two sides of Queen II’s vinyl LP, “Side White” and “Side Black”).
The cowbell-clanking “Keep Yourself Alive” likewise skews into jam territory—and then a Roger Taylor drum solo—before doubling back on itself for a reprise. Mercury effortlessly mixes Billy Joel-flavored piano flourishes (“The Entertainer,” “Summer, Highland Falls”) with progressive rock finesse on “Seven Seas of Rhye.”
Instead of decelerating for the latter half, Queen ups the dynamics with “Stone Cold Crazy,” whose relentless, cudgel-heavy riffing made it ripe for Metallica’s cover version years later. “Liar” sandwiches a Deacon bass solo in between bouts of tribal drumming by Taylor and slashing power chords by May. Fog machines belch theatrical smoke as Mercury returns to his piano to revisit “Lap” for another verse / chorus.
The encore features the band’s take on the Coleman / Fields show tune “Big Spender” (from the 1966 musical Sweet Charity), and a sweaty romp through the Taylor-written “Modern Times Rock and Roll.” Mercury’s nod to Elvis Presley (“Jailhouse Rock”) prophesies his lip-curling ’79 tribute to the king (“Crazy Little Thing Called Love”) and brings the spectacle to a dizzying finish. An outro recording of “God Save the Queen” plays as Taylor topples his drums and the band bids their adieus.
The extras contain the “Son and Daughter” / “Modern Times Rock and Roll” segment from the March concert, which is more or less the same as the portion from November (albeit with Deacon and May sporting black). The footage is grainier, the colors a bit washed out—but the sound is impeccable. A message at the end asks anyone with knowledge of the remaining March footage (still missing) to get in touch with band management so that it, too, might be retouched and shared with the world.
Starting next week, Eagle Rock—the world’s premiere distributor of concert and music documentary audio and video (Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Rolling Stones, etc.)—will offer Queen: Live at The Rainbow ’74 in a whopping seven different formats, each more elaborate than the last: The DVD and Blu-Ray include the full November and partial March ’74 shows described above. The standalone CD contains only the November show, but the two-disc version includes both.
The vinyl edition flips the script: The two-album gatefold set includes the complete March gig and partial November gig, while the four-album LP box offers both concerts in full. A deluxe Blu-Ray / CD combo box will be available in North America, while a “Super Deluxe Box” (available everywhere) jams all the above ephemera together—along with souvenir replica tickets, concert program, stage pass sticker, buttons, poster, and 60-page hardback book with reviews and rare photographs.
“Whatever comes of you and me, I’d love to leave my memory with you!” Mercury sings early in the show.
No worries, Freddie. You did.
Available now on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/kktmpuo