Queen - Queen Remasters 1971-1976
So, the first fruits of Queen’s move from EMI/Parlophone to Island have arrived. Their first change of label in their career has resulted in a planned re-issue of their entire back catalogue, starting with their first five albums, charting the period from Queen in 1973 to A Day At The Races in 1976, and with it their rise from obscurity to ubiquity, and all with "No Synthesisers".
This isn’t, however, the first time that they’ve been re-issued and remastered. That honour fell to Hollywood Records in the US, who re-released the albums in 1991 and included a number of bonus tracks which are not revisited here, with the exception of the increasingly inappropriately named “long-lost” retake of 'Keep Yourself Alive'. These weren’t held in high regard by fans, and the majority of the bonus tracks were remixes made at the time.
The 2011 releases are also a little controversial, with the special edition versions of each album adding only a handful of bonus tracks; fans suspect that there’s much more unreleased material in the vaults, especially demo tracks and live recordings of unreleased tracks from this period. There really isn’t any sense that these are definitive versions of the albums in terms of opening the Queen archives up to the fans, particularly when viewed in the light of some of the material that has been unearthed for the current exhibition or what has been previously been privately traded by fans and bootleggers. In fact, they feel like a bare minimum – when you look at the sterling archival work done, on, say Suede’s upcoming remaster series, it’s almost embarrassing to see a band like Queen not competing at the same level.
Some of the inclusions seem a little idiosyncratic, too – particularly tracks culled from the previously released Milton Keynes and Wembley live sets. Adding to the frustration, the iTunes versions include video content not available on the physical discs (predominantly unreleased live material), so for completists a double-dip is necessary to obtain all the new material here. In terms of the packaging of the physical editions, the booklets are only subtly different from the originals, adding a handful of archive photos and there’s no additional text to put any of the bonus tracks, photos or the album itself into context.
Enough dwelling on what we don’t have – let’s look at what we do. This time, the remastering is in the hands of Bob Ludwig. All the albums bear the legend “This 2011 version has been meticulously re-created using the finest modern analogue and digital technology from the original first-generation master mixes” – while they’re not exactly a revelation, they certainly sound clearer and punchier but the differences are subtle. The individual instruments sound clearer, particularly the drums and the bass.
For a debut album, Queen was a strong calling card. Covering rock, metal and folk, they were already providing big choruses in the shape of 'Keep Yourself Alive', and Brian May’s guitar chops were making themselves felt, while the laid back 'Doing All Right' showed there was more to them than straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. It’s telling that Queen II only had one single taken from it – 'Seven Seas Of Rhye'. In fact, it’s most significant contribution to their story for the layman is likely the Mick Rock photo on the cover, familiar to anyone who has ever seen the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' video. On the album they continued to lay the foundations for their career – more overdubs, more ambition. 'March Of The Black Queen' was a sign of the epic compositions to come with its multiple sections and light and shade.
Sheer Heart Attack, released in the same year as Queen II is by far the superior album. If you’ve forgotten how much they liked stereo, the swirling guitar of 'Brighton Rock' will soon remind you. It’s a heavier, more guitar based affair in general, and listening to the albums consecutively, it’s easy to see how tracks like 'In The Lap Of The Gods' foreshadowed what was to come the following year on A Night At The Opera, while the sing-a-long chorus of 'In The Lap Of The Gods Revisited' hints at the sing-a-long stadium anthems to come. That’s before we come to the singles – 'Killer Queen', 'Now I’m Here' and 'Stone Cold Crazy'. It’s no surprise that this was their first taste of mainstream success.
While familiarity has bred some contempt, imagine a time when 'Bohemian Rhapsody' wasn’t ubiquitous. Even for the seventies, and even for Queen it was an audacious piece of music, and even without it, their fourth album, A Night At The Opera still stands up. From the vitriolic hate letter to their former manager, 'Death On Two Legs' to the faintly ridiculous Roger Taylor fronted 'I’m In Love With My Car', and Brian May’s folky '’39', this is Queen creatively firing on all cylinders. All their influences are here – heavy rock, prog, folk and opera. Still indispensible.
Coming just a year after /i]A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races[/i] feels like a continuation of that, with a softer overall sound than their earlier work. The highlight is the album’s huge single, 'Somebody To Love' – again perhaps devalued by familiarity, but its five minutes of gospel inspired perfection. Not that rock’s neglected, 'Tie Your Mother Down' is a balls-to-the-wall hard rock single of the highest order. It’s not all good news though – 'Good Old Fashioned Boy' edges just a little too far into pastiche.
The bonus tracks, then. The most interesting set by far is with Queen. Representing the first non-bootlegged release of the 5-track demo tape recorded at De Lane Lea in 1971. Pedants will note that the version of 'The Night Comes Down' included on album proper was from these sessions in any case, but the version presented on the bonus disc is an alternate take. Alongside this is 'Mad The Swine', which, while recorded at the time, only surfaced on the 'Headlong' single towards the end of their career. The versions aren’t radically different from the recorded versions (Freddie’s vocals are less strident on the chorus of 'Keep Yourself Alive', for example) but still worthwhile and long sought after curios.
Queen II’s bonus tracks are a mixed bag – three unreleased live tracks are interesting enough, two culled from the BBC Sessions (one of which is a version of the B-Side 'See What A Fool I’ve Been', which is also included here) and another from Hammersmith. For a great album, Sheer Heart Attack has disappointing bonus cuts, with only the two BBC session tracks being of interest, the rest consisting of a previously released live track and a backing track.
A Day At The Races gives us little other than a backing track for 'Tie Your Mother Down', and a couple of live tracks, of which an epic 8 minute version of 'Somebody To Love' is the pick, in part for the almost Cartman-esque falsetto background vocals. There’s also a “HD” mix of 'Teo Toriate', whatever that may mean. A Night At The Opera brings the excellent “Long Lost” re-take of 'Keep Yourself Alive', a punchy version with an extended drum solo which breathes new life into an old favourite. The Earl’s Court version of ’39 sounds great too. The rest, though – largely baffling. A minute of acapella from the operatic section of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'? The isolated backing track for 'You’re My Best Friend'? Anyone? The live version of 'Love Of My Life' is the previously released Live Killers version.
Alongside the main remasters, there’s also a compilation, Deep Cuts. Designed for those familiar with the singles, it compiles a selection of remastered album tracks from the period. It’s a strange beast – there’s nothing wrong with the selection, but it’s hard to see who it’s aimed at. If you’ve never heard a Queen album track you could do worse, but I’d personally take a chance on Sheer Heart Attack.
Bottom line? For the newcomer, the single disc versions will suffice, and they sound great. For the hardcore fan, there’s an irritating choice – take the iTunes versions and get video footage which is arguably more interesting than the audio bonus tracks, or take the CD versions and get better audio quality, but miss out on content.
So what’s the verdict on this first tranche of remasters? They may sound great, but still represent a missed opportunity, and leave this reviewer hoping for so much more from Queen’s years on this particular Island - more complete releases of the BBC sessions and archive live shows now we know how good they can sound, and for more context to go alongside the music. What’s a HD Mix? Why instrumentals for these tracks in particular – and chiefly, why isn’t there more?
Completists and collectors should note that according to Recordstore, a box set "Queen 40" is due to arrive in April containing the first 5 albums and a box to hold the rest of the reissues, and may wish to hold off purchasing until then.