Song of the Day, January 30: Stay With Me Tonight by Jeffrey Osborne

osbornestayToday’s song is a funky bit of seduction with a rock twist. When he left his duties as L.T.D. drummer and vocalist to go solo, Jeffrey Osborne found a sympathetic partner in producer George Duke. The jazz keyboardist understood Osborne’s distinctive phrasing and gorgeous voice, finding just the right songs and players to make the most of his talent. The first result, Jeffrey Osborne, was a partnership reminiscent of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson in its chemistry.

For the follow-up, Duke and Osborne followed a successful formula, mixing R&B balladry, funky pop, and urban dance numbers. The title track, written by Raymond Jones, is a classic seduction song, with a slinky lead vocal, electrifying percussion, inviting synths, and a magical Osborne vocal. He simmers and winks, breaking into the direct title line with just the right urgency. Mixing things up just right, Duke brought in Queen guitarist Brian May, whose solo adds a gritty urgency to the proceedings. The result was Osborne’s fourth pop Top 40 hit and went to #4 on the R&B charts.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, May 20: Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen

QueenBohoRhapToday’s song is the defining moment of a classic band. Queen’s A Night At the Opera features great contributions by all the band members. Singer Freddie Mercury began crafting Bohemian Rhapsody early in his career and finally found the right muse while working on Opera. The song is a stunning mix of genres, from a simple piano-and-vocal opening to a hard rock guitar solo to richly layered vocals. With no chorus and a running time of nearly six minutes, the track known as “Fred’s Thing” became a radio staple and a chart champ.

Queen spent over three weeks recording the song, overdubbing so many times that eighth-generations tapes were used in the final mix. The chorale vocal took multiple ten-hour days, blending Mercury, May, and Taylor’s voices into a powerful harmonic blast. By contrast, May’s solo was a single track, laid down once.

Despite concerns that radio wouldn’t touch it, EMI released the song as the album’s first single. It rocketed to the top of the UK chart, spending an amazing nine weeks at #1. It also became Queen’s first US Top Ten, peaking at #9. Re-released after featuring on the Wayne’s World soundtrack in 1992, it did even better, going all the way to #2. (Jump by Kriss Kross kept the band from logging a third US #1.)

Enjoy this magnificent classic track today.

Song of the Day, March 16: Somebody to Love by Queen

QueenSomebodyToday’s song is an homage that spawned a hit. After the massive success of A Night At the Opera, Queen were international superstars. A Day At the Races followed, a sprawling mess of excess and charm. The highlight is built on the multitracking genius of Opera with a very different direction.

Freddie Mercury was a huge fan of Aretha Franklin and decided to explore the gospel roots of her sound. He wrote Somebody to Love, pondering the existence of a supreme being when so many people are left without love. Built over a simple, compelling piano figure, he crafted a gospel choir by multitracking his voice with Roger May’s and Brian Taylor’s. The result is a soaring pop anthem. May turns in a joyous guitar solo, reminding everyone that Queen is a ROCK band, then the gorgeous singing takes over again.

Enjoy this musical delight today.

Song of the Day, January 14: I’m In Love With My Car by Queen

QueenCarToday’s song is a rev-up from Queen’s masterpiece, A Night At the Opera. The album is truly a group effort, and each member of the quartet turns in one of the disc’s standout tracks. I’m In Love With My Car was written and sung by drummer Roger Taylor. It’s one of the hardest rockers on the album, an over-the-top bit of bombast that surges like the engine it celebrates.

A heavy metal love song to an automobile should be ridiculous. Instead, the song works, due in large part to Taylor refusing to camp it up. The serious delivery results in grandeur where there could be goofiness. To be sure, it has its whimsy, but it works as an authentic tribute to the singer’s wheels.

Enjoy this fun rocker today.

Song of the Day, November 23: ’39 by Queen

Queen39On their finest album, each member of Queen had one truly magical moment. A Night At the Opera was the moment when the Queen sound fully emerged, a clever blend of camp, drama, bombast, emotion, and musical diversity. Guitarist Brian May crafted ’39, one of the best songs the group ever recorded.

It’s a mostly acoustic sci-fi ballad about the perils of time dilation. And it works. Really. May’s protagonists go on a journey into space, seeking out new worlds for the human race as their old world slowly dies. Because of the vagaries of near-light-speed travel, they return home younger than their grandchildren to a world farther gone. It could be a hokey conceit or a cosmic mess, but May and company invest it with such humanity that it becomes a gorgeous parable. The minimalist delivery helps. May famously asked John Deacon to play double bass on the song, intending it as a joke. The next day, Deacon hand learned his part on the instrument, one of several delightful touches. Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor provide sparkling harmonies on the chorus, rounding out the sense of a folk fable delivered with passion.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, October 1: Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie

QueenBowiePressureToday’s song is a superstar pairing that works. In 1981 Queen were coming off the massive success of The Game; David Bowie was rejuvenating his career, about to record his smash album Let’s Dance. Bowie had dropped in on the sessions for Queen’s Hot Space, recording some backing vocals that were not working out. The five musicians spent some time just jamming together, and the result was a highlight of both careers.

The loose, improvisational origin of the song is part of its success. Both Bowie and Queen are notorious for their laborious studio work. The scat-style vocals and loose-limbed instrumentation of Under Pressure show off another side to both acts that serves them well. It wound up credited to all five performers, a rare Queen track with writing split all four ways. The song is a perfect balance of performers’ prog/glam history, growing interest in dance music, and solid pop skills. Bowie and Freddie Mercury blend their voices together flawlessly while the rest of Queen provide an urgent, compelling backdrop.

The result was Queen’s second and Bowie’s third UK #1 and a great reintroduction of Bowie to US radio listeners. It remains one of the finest singles in both catalogs.

Enjoy this early 80s gem today.

BONUS VERSION: After Freddie Mercury’s untimely death, Queen held a tribute concert to raise money for AIDS research. Bowie — who had not sung the song live — joined the band for a rousing version of Under Pressure. Stepping in for Mercury was the incomparable Annie Lennox, whose fiery turn finds new energy in the song and clearly inspires the band and Bowie.

Album of the Week, August 23: A Night At the Opera by Queen

QueenOperaQueen ruled the musical world for the better part of a decade, a confident, peerless quartet with a remarkable frontman and seamless musical collaboration, blending heavy metal with camp, prog with music hall, hard rock with clever observations. The band formed when its members were in college. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor were in Smile, a short-lived group admired by a Zanzibar-born singer and pianist named Farrokh Bulsara. He stepped in when thier vocalist departed, encouraging them to push the boundaries of their music and live presence. By the time bassist John Deacon came on board, Smile had become Queen and Bulsara had transformed into Freddie Mercury. After finishing school, the quartet concentrated on their music, mounting increasingly complex live shows and releasing a trio of albums that started with adequate metal and evolved into the unique musical blend that was Queen. Nothing prepared the world for their fourth outing, however, the finest, boldest release in a catalog of strong statements.

Title A Night At the Opera
Act Queen
Label Elektra Release Date November 21, 1975
Producer Roy Thomas Baker and Queen
U.S. Chart  #4 U.K. Chart  #1
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Death On Two Legs (Dedicated to…)
  2. Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon
  3. I’m In Love With My Car
  4. You’re My Best Friend [#16]
  5. ’39
  6. Sweet Lady
  7. Seaside Rendezvous
  8. The Prophet’s Song
  9. Love of My Life
  10. Good Company
  11. Bohemian Rhapsody [#9 / #2]
  12. God Save the Queen

Famously the most expensive rock album ever recorded at the time, the elaborate sessions and production work brought out the best in the band. It also put a strain on them, with May asserting that if A Night At the Opera had not been a hit it would have ended the group. Instead it was an international smash, transforming Queen from stars to megastars overnight.

Mercury teases the listener from the start, opening the album with a delightful little piano figure that makes the subsequent blast of angry guitar jarring and powerful. Death On Two Legs is a brilliant, funny, over-the-top put-down song, aimed at the ex-manager that the band were pleased to be finished with. Mercury’s lyrics were so precise and biting that Brian May has said he had trouble singing his harmonies at first.

Continuing the carnival ride, Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon is a quaint music hall number sung through headphones placed in a bucket to achieve a nostalgic quality. It’s a lovely number, capturing the more whimsical side of the band. Heavy metal roars back into the action with I’m In Love With My Car, one of Roger Taylor’s best writing contributions. It’s flawless bombast, capturing the best camp spirit by taking itself perfectly seriously. John Deacon’s evergreen hit You’re My Best Friend changes things up yet again, a charming love song with a fun Wurlitzer lead.

Somehow Brian May manages to raise the stakes again with ’39. It’s a space rock folk song about the perils of faster-than-light time dilation. And it’s REALLY good. Brimming with sincere humanity, this fantastical theme is one of the most real moments on the disc.

Even Queen couldn’t keep up the energy forever, and the next trio are solid entries that suffer mostly in comparison to the rest of the disc. Sweet Lady is musically solid, featuring some of Taylor’s finest high-speed drumming, but otherwise a pretty tepid metal love song. Seaside Rendezvous is a smart tempo change and a pleasant song, but a bit too much like Sunday Afternoon without as much charm. The Prophet’s Song is the longest track in Queen history, a ponderous beast of a song with some fascinating moments but without the internal cohesion that makes the other epic on the disc a classic.

Mercury’s Love of My Life brings back the power in a quietly moving tribute to romance. It is the band’s most-covered song and was a long-time concert favorite, with the singer often pausing to let the audience take over. English folk legend Norma Waterson chose the song to represent Mercury on her tribute-driven second solo album. Good Company is a smart, funny advice song, another tribute to older musical styles that works well because of the fun sincerity that Mercury gives it.

And then there’s the rhapsody. Bohemian Rhapsody, a song referred to throughout the sessions as “Fred’s Thing” because of the writer’s obsession with its crafting. He assembled all the parts, asking his bandmates to record their contributions without a clear sense of what the final product would sound like. With 180 separate overdubs, this pre-digital construct required so much tape splicing that the final master showed daylight through the tape. It was worth the effort, however, becoming the band’s signature song and a distinctive statement of all the contrasts that their musical consistency made work.

May wraps things up with a bit of God Save the Queen, an homage to the Hendrix rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s another clever moment and a nice coda to a wonderful album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Queen continued to dominate the airwaves and the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, churning out a steady stream of fascinating music. No other album comes close to Opera, as each one usually suffered from a bit too much bombast and a lacked the consistency and cohesion that somehow arose from complexity of their masterpiece. After a couple of synth dance bombs in the 80s, they found their footing again, releasing solid work until Mercury’s untimely death in 1991. Three albums stand out:

  • Sheer Heart Attack (1974), the album where the Queen sound really gelled and arguably an even more consistent disc than Opera;
  • News of the World (1977), a fine mess that captures the best of the band and makes the most of its ambition;
  • The Game (1980), home to their biggest US hits and a slightly uneven set with some stunning pop numbers.

Queen released most of their best songs as singles, so compilations are a great way to cover the basics. The 2004 version of Greatest Hits is just that and a perfect overview of the majesty that was Queen.

Song of the Day, August 14: You’re My Best Friend by Queen

QueenBestFriendToday’s song is Queen’s You’re My Best Friend from their wonderful fourth album, A Night At the Opera. Bassist John Deacon wrote the song for his wife. He was learning to play electric piano and composed the song on a Wurlitzer. Singer Freddie Mercury was famously disdainful of the instrument, proclaiming, “I refuse to play the damn thing!” As a result, Deacon turned in a rare recorded keyboard performance. He has observed,

I started to learn on the electric piano and basically that’s the song that came out, you know, when I was learning to play piano. It was written on that instrument and it sounds best on that. You know, often on the instrument that you wrote the song on.

The distinctive sound of the Wurlitzer is definitely part of the song’s charm. It’s a delightful pop tune celebrating the best aspects of a loving relationship. However Mercury felt about the keyboard line, he turned in a lovely, ebullient vocal. The result was a hit, reaching #7 in the UK and #16 in the US.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

BONUS FACT: The song’s celebration of relationships has resonated on the small screen. Two different modern sitcoms based on the friendships of the characters — Will & Grace and Hot In Cleveland — have used the track to close out their final episodes.

Song of the Day, March 18: Queen by Perfume Genius

PerfumeGeniusQueenToday’s song is Queen by Perfume Genius. After two albums — the fragile Learning and the brilliant, quietly bold Put Your Back N 2 It — Mike Hadreas pulled out all the stops for his third effort. Too Bright is an apt title, as his bold efforts to diversify his smart, minimalist sound sometimes flare a bit strongly, but the many moments that work show his growth and musical power. The highlight is Queen, a clear statement of independence and a proud testament to the enduring strength of the gay community.

Hadreas celebrates and debunks gay stereotypes with equal vigor, emphasizing the complex humanity of every individual and the perils of putting people in boxes. He also provides a clear sense of pride in the rich history of gay culture. The accompanying video is that rare clip that enhances the message, with drag queens, gym bunnies, muscle men, and other stock figures claiming their power. It’s also a musical powerhouse, with eerie synths laid over a strong backbeat. Hadreas is in fine voice, providing one of his strongest vocals while maintaining just enough of the fragility that makes his singing distinctive. It’s a perfect blend, well suited to the tone of the song.

The lyric is also smartly self-referential. Hadreas faced some hypocritical censorship of an advertisement for a clip from his second album. The brief promo showed him in the embrace of another man, both of them scantily clad. YouTube refused to stream the ad, claiming that it was not “Family Safe”; it’s hard to imagine that a similar clip with a straight couple would have received the same treatment. Making the most of that incident, Hadreas boldly proclaims

No family is safe
As I sashay!

Bitter, smart, ironic, and just angry enough, it’s a perfect line for the dynamic Queen to offer as he makes his statement of purpose. Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, June 23: Killer Queen by Queen

KillerQueenToday’s song is Killer Queen, the first internationally successful single by Queen. Formed in 1970 when Freddie Mercury (then still going by his birth surname, Bulsara) joined Brian May and Roger Taylor in Smile. As his musical vision began to drive the band’s direction, John Deacon came on board, forming the quartet that were major hitmakers for over a decade. After two albums that walked a fine line between progressive and hard rock, Queen released Sheer Heart Attack in late 1974. Fully incorporating a sort of operatic pop into the mix, the band found their distinctive sound as Mercury became a more confident frontman. Always a tight unit, they found their groove and broke into the charts.

Written by Mercury, Killer Queen has long been acknowledged by the band as the first truly Queen song, a track that “best summed up our music” according to Brian May. With sophisticated multi-tracking, complex four-part harmonies, barely restrained high camp from Mercury, and searing guitar effects it was unlike anything on the radio at the time and announced that Queen had arrived. It barely missed becoming their first #1, hitting #2 in the UK and it was their first of a dozen US Top 40 hits, peaking at #12.

While Mercury preferred to let his lyrics speak for themselves, he made some nice observations about the song in an NME interview shortly after its release.

with this single you almost expect Noel Coward to sing it. It’s one of those bowler hat, black suspender belt numbers – not that Coward would wear that. (…) It’s about a high-class call girl. I’m trying to say that classy people can be whores as well.

Enjoy this wonderful classic hit today.

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