Keep Yourself Alive, 1973
First track on their demo, first track on their first album, first single. Brian May wrote it in 1971 but it’s no fledgling songwriter’s piece. It’s a final thesis by four bright students.
There’s a long-build intro, with Queen shimmering, then slamming into view around May’s opening guitar figures—palm-muted choppy rhythms that he plays on his low E string. Two verses, in which Mercury, with a hard, syncopated phrasing, sounds as if he’s cut every single line in a different take then spliced them together to make a short film of his voice. Each line hits like an opening one, each trumps the last. Queen debuts soon-to-be trademark sounds—“choir of lords” harmonies in the refrain; harmonized “guitar choir” (seven tracks in all) for a solo break (see below):
They keep performing tricks—an eight-bar tom-happy drum solo; a break where May and Taylor make asides, like servants in an Elizabethan play. “I just think I’m two steps nearer to my grave!” May groans. In defiance, he runs up the scale with a 13-note staircase climb (Deacon joins him, octaves below). “Keep Yourself Alive” ends with a run of refrains, a key change for each repetition (D, F, back to D, out to B). Two of these modulations step down rather than make the usual “gear-shift” upward. Somehow this is all over before the four-minute mark.
Being crammed with ideas, feeling as if it’s moving backwards and forwards at once (the phasing in the mix, applied to seemingly everything in the studio, furthers this sensation), fits the sated verse lyric. But the refrain says to stay lean, do what you can to survive, move in increments: you don’t have to be a star (yet). Mercury sings these lines but doesn’t believe them. In his rush of words “million” pops up again and again; he yells come on! like a drill sergeant. Survival is wholly inadequate for him.
God Save the Queen, 1975.
A Night at the Opera playback party at Roundhouse Studios in London. “As the album ends, the beautifully-toned guitar of Brian May, who is apparently too exhausted to attend, renders the national anthem. Everybody stays seated and Mercury gets angry. ‘Stand up, you c—-!,’ he screams. ‘Thank goodness that’s over,’ he remarks afterwards in the relative tranquillity of the car. ‘Some of those people really bore me.'” (Melody Maker, 22 November 1975.)
Dragon Attack, 1980
Cut in Munich, “Dragon Attack” is a band tossing together a song in the costly studio they’ve booked for months. They’ll even use it for band meetings. They come in tipsy after a long night, jam for a half-hour, get a track out of it. The lyric is snappy consonant crap, with nods to their producer (“it’s gotta be Mack!”) and favorite Munich disco (“take me back to the Shack”).
In the mix, Reinhold Mack forms them into lines of assault. Midway through there’s a breakdown: Taylor does a parade-ground snare solo; Deacon unhooks his bass riff, doing a fluid snaking around his frets; May sounds as if he’s burning holes through the track. It’s not transformative music, not soulful, it (likely) has no connection to your life, it’s not “meaningful,” it offers nothing but access to power, but it’s a power that moves.
Taylor was once gunning his Ferrari at 145 mph up an Alpine road when the cooling system conked out and the engine caught fire. He barely put out the blaze in time; his clothes were scorched. “Another minute and that would have been it. I would have been vaporized completely,” he told Rolling Stone. “Dragon Attack” is something like that.
The Invisible Man, 1989
A third-tier single, “The Invisible Man,” at various points, introduces each member of the band, as if by wrestling announcer: Freddie Mercury! (invisible man speaks) John DEA-con! (bass spars against sequencer) Brian May!!Brian May!! (anti-aircraft barrage solo) Rogerrrrrr Taylorrr! (modest two-bar fill). Queen, in the waning years of their life together, are still delighted about being Queen.