Some music has a purity of energy, a clear tonal quality that can pluck images from your mind, or pluck the heartstrings, or remind you of youthful fantasies. This music gives flight to your imagination, and you feel like maybe anything can be possible after all.
I grew up with Queen in the house. My folks had the albums “A Night at the Opera” and “News of the World,” so we were blessed to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “You’re My Best Friend,” “Love of My Life,” “’39,” “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions,” “Spread Your Wings” and “It’s Late” on a regular basis.
Despite all of that, It wasn’t until the early 1990s that I started to dig into the band’s albums and develop my fandom.
With my love of the “Highlander” TV show and the first movie, the “A Kind of Magic” CD also ended up in my collection.
When I got into college, I started picking up other Queen albums as I came across them. Albums like “A Day at the Races” and “Jazz” made it into my CD collection, as did “Sheer Heart Attack” and “The Game.”
The albums that grabbed my attention the most during my initial college immersion were the group’s first two, “Queen” and “Queen II.” These were so much more dark and rich and tied to fantasy, mythology and even religion than I would have expected from this band considering my previous exposures.
These two albums, as well as highlights from “Sheer Heart Attack” and “News of the World,” form the bulk of Queen’s latest compilation, “On Air.” The standard two-CD (or 3-LP) release features sessions recorded at BBC studios in 1973 and 1974, with a handful of 1977 performances to wrap things up.
“On Air” kicks off with “My Fairy King,” with its searing guitar lines (courtesy of Brian May), falsetto vocal breaks (from the great Roger Taylor) and tender Freddie Mercury vocals, giving way to incredible overlapping group performances, punched in group vocals and bombastic passages.
It is, in a word, transcendent.
It is worth keeping in mind that “On Air” is a compilation of performances, this isn’t a singular live show or a studio compilation. So you’ll get a couple songs repeated (including the incredible “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Liar,” “Son and Daughter” and “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll”). And you’ll get a side-by-side comparison of “We Will Rock You” in a rendition that mirrors the studio version followed by a “fast” version that resembles the arrangements the band would follow in live performances, with a more band-oriented sound.
What stands out to my ears is the sheer quality of each live performance. Keeping in mind that these sessions were recorded in 1973, 1974 and 1977, the sound is remarkably deep, vibrant and alive.
Many British bands have revisited their BBC tapes and issued recordings, including Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Kinks and Pink Floyd. With all these bands, it is fascinating to hear how they performed live (or, at the very least, with less overdubbing and studio magic), and the attention to style and quality they brought to these performances.
With Queen, the pomp and ceremony, the attention to detail, the overblown magnificence of their style … All of this still comes through. But it’s also appealing to hear the band tackle these songs and hear how they all worked together. Hearing “Great King Rat” is like stripping off a couple (but only a couple) of studio layers so you can hear where voices drop in and out, and how the band would construct the songs. It’s magic.
By the time of the 1977 songs, Queen had established itself as a powerful, commercial and artistic rock force. They were still quite popular, and one would think there wasn’t much left to prove.
But listen to Freddie’s vocals on “Spread Your Wings,” the passion invested in the lyric. Listen to the dynamics in the band performance on “It’s Late,” one of my favorite Queen rockers. The last track of the standard edition is “My Melancholy Blues,” and you can feel the band swinging and swaying in this campy-but-still-emotionally-affecting tune.
What a band Queen was. Mercury, May, Taylor and bass player John Deacon were such a tight unit, able to rock and whisper, locked in together to really kick butt.
This is music that makes you grateful for your ears, music that defines pleasure, music that makes you want to lounge and then jump about. This is the music that lets you know that you are alive.
Pick up “On Air” and get on with living. You’ll find this an excellent soundtrack for doing just that.