Saturday, December 16, 2017

"A Night at the Opera"

It's May 1976. Jeff picks me up in his tiny ticket-me-red Austin Healy Sprite -- a car so small I can just barely shoehorn myself in -- and gives me a lift to the end-of-schoolyear Newspaper Awards Banquet in downtown Boise.
For some reason, it was decided we'd have the semi-formal banquet at The Gamekeeper, a semi-classy restaurant where Jeff works. Jeff, the school newspaper's cartoonist -- who looks something like a self-drawn cartoon of Paul McCartney, all arms and legs and hair -- started out at GK as a dishwasher, then was promoted to try and become an assistant cook. That isn't going so well, judging by his stories from work, most of which revolve around gross and horrifying disasters with food. Did we all just think he was joking? His hilarious stories about the kitchen directly contradict The Gamekeeper's jingle playing on local radio stations. All together now:

The Gamekeeper, dining leisurely.
The Gamekeeper, dining in luxury.
The Gamekeeper, dining
Where you want to be
In delightful company.
Dining elegantly.

Yeah, uh huh. Tell that to the guy who burned beyond recognition 68 chicken breasts in the kitchen's huge cooker. Revealingly, Jeff does not choose chicken for dinner.
As we pull away from my house, Jeff says he has a surprise for the soundtrack on our 10-mile drive into town. It's the latest album by Queen.
I'd heard of Queen. Their "Killer Queen" single from a year earlier hadn't really thrilled me. It was too ... arch, too clever, and the guitar work seemed shrill. Jeff assured me their SHEER HEART ATTACK album was more brilliance, but....
A month or so earlier they'd come out with the six-minute "Bohemian Rhapsody," which I'd first heard while foolishly leaving the radio on while having dinner with my family. Halfway through the falsetto chaos, my mom and dad turned to me and said practically in unison "What IS this shit?" I shrugged. Hey, I didn't know....
But it grew on me, so I was mildly interested in their album, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Besides, Jeff had turned me on in the past to Kansas's LEFTOVERTURE, plus lots of great old Beatles, Elton John and Paul McCartney songs I'd never heard before, so....
The album started with a rumble, then some of that same bouncy, hyperactive guitar that marked these guys. Then it downshifted into mere overactive guitar and a set of vicious lyrics apparently pointed at Queen's former managers ("Death on Two Legs"). Hilarious. I thought maybe these guys had potential.
I was annoyed by their occasional silliness ("Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon," "Seaside Rendezvous," "Good Company"), but the good stuff was impressive. "I'm in Love With My Car" moved well, and seemed a good soundtrack for Jeff's involvement with the Sprite. "You're My Best Friend" sounded like updated Beach Boys. Then came the gorgeous "'39," a space-age folksong, still one of my Queen faves.
When they tried to get heavier, I wasn't impressed. They seemed to be straining to keep it simple and heavy, as on the kinda pathetic "Sweet Lady."
But when Jeff turned the tape over, the real heaviness kicked in: "The Prophet's Song" was stunning -- a misty, foggy tale of prophecy and doom, something like Led Zeppelin crossed with The Moody Blues. And it was a great soundtrack to careening in and out of downtown traffic.
We arrived at the banquet then, but the rest of the album was downhill anyway. The filler "Love of My Life," the silly "Good Company," and a dumb filler guitar-instrumental of "God Save the Queen." After "The Prophet's Song" and "'39," "Bohemian Rhapsody" was almost an anti-climax.
So I bought the album, and it grew on me, and I followed Queen for awhile, more or less. I was impressed with their 3/4's-great "It's Late" (did they always have to get Too Heavy?), amused by "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Bicycle Race," and bought THE GAME later, mostly for its second side ("Rock It/Prime Jive," "Save Me," etc.) and for "Play the Game" and "Need Your Loving Tonight" -- emphatically NOT for "Another One Bites the Dust." I thought their team-up with David Bowie on "Under Pressure" was pretty great.
Then I drifted. Finally in 1991 I heard their INNUENDO, which has some amazing stuff on it, like "The Show Must Go On," "I'm Going Slightly Mad," and "These Are the Days of Our Lives." I thought at the time that it might be their solidest album. And of course that was Freddie Mercury's last hurrah.


2000 Man said...

Man, I don't like Queen. I had A Night at the Opera, and I traded it in. I remember pulling it out and thinking about how much I like Prophet Song when I was a kid. It made me laugh because it was so damned dumb. I laughed at a Moody Blues album, too. I liked some real dreck when I was a kid!

TAD said...

Shit, I still like LOTS of dreck....