"I won't be a rock star. I will be a legend," Freddie Mercury once said, The same goes for his entire band, which gave new meaning to the rock anthem. Here, for Mercury's birthday, are 20 essential songs by Queen.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975)
It took three weeks to record and, with 180 separate overdubs, was said at the time to be the most expensive single ever made. Not that anyone would complain. "Bohemian Rhapsody" became a Top 10 in 1975, the year of its original release, and again in 1992 after the song resurfaced on the soundtrack of "Wayne's World." This, despite the fact that record label execs warned Queen that the single wouldn't get radio play because of its nearly six-minute length. "People were all going, 'You're joking, they'll never play it,'" said frontman Freddie Mercury. How wrong they were.
"We Are the Champions"/"We Will Rock You" (1977)
If you want your music to live forever, put out a great sports anthem. Or, better yet, put out two at once. Queen did just that with "We Are the Champions," which celebrates winners everywhere, not just in sports. The record's B-side, the two-minute-long boom/boom/clap"We Will Rock You," is equally anthemic. This one was written by lead guitarist Brian May, whose guitar solo comes in the last 30 seconds.
"Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (1979)
Mercury claimed he wrote this tribute to Elvis Presley in a bathtub in just 10 minutes. "I did it on the guitar, which I can't play for nuts," he said. "And, in a way, it was quite a good thing because I was restricted, knowing only a few chords. It's good discipline because I simply had to write within a small framework ... and because of that restriction I wrote a good song, I think." Fans thought so too: It became Queen's first No. 1 single in the U.S.
"Fat Bottomed Girls" (1978)
Just a great, ridiculous, bluesy rocker, with harmonies that would make the Eagles want to throw in the musical towel, this song is all about ... well, it's explained in the title. And it comes with a stunning and quite silly a cappella intro: "Arrrrrre you gonna take me home tonight? Ohhhh, down beside that red firelight. Arrrrrre you gonna let it all hang out?" Maybe not Nobel Prize material, but a rock and roll classic nonetheless.
"Don't Stop Me Now" (1979)
It only reached No. 86 on the Billboard Hot 100, but "Don't Stop Me Now" is now considered one of Queen's best works. Featuring the band's trademark multi-dubbed harmonies and a scorching Brian May guitar solo, the song races in high gear, with the listener's head bobbing along in triple-time.
"Killer Queen" (1974)
Power pop meets champagne and caviar—this piano-led paean to a call girl was Queen's breakthrough song and their first hit in the U.S.. "People are used to hard rock, energy music from Queen," said Mercury. "Yet with this song you almost expect Noel Coward to sing it. It's one of those bowler hat, black suspender belt numbers."
"Somebody to Love" (1978)
Queen's gospel-tinged follow-up to "Bohemian Rhapsody" was inspired by Mercury's fascination with and admiration for Aretha Franklin. With multi-tracking of the band's three singers (Freddie Mercury, Brian May and Roger Taylor) to replicate the sound of a 100-voice gospel choir, Queen produced a soulful, swinging love song that was, according to Taylor, "the loosest thing we've ever done."
"Who Wants to Live Forever" (1986)
Brian May (who sings the song's first verse) composed this lush ballad for the 1986 film "Highlander" in the backseat of a cab after viewing a rough cut of the movie. With a soaring main vocal by Mercury, "Who Wants to Live Forever" is both epic and extravagant. When Seal performed a live version at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, he told the audience, "The first time I heard this song, it made me cry."
"Under Pressure" (1981)
The groove-based result of a jam session between Queen and David Bowie, "Under Pressure" was cited by Rolling Stone as the best rock and roll duet ever recorded. Said Brian May, "It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us." Interestingly, though both Queen and Bowie kept "Under Pressure" in their set list, they never performed it live together.
"The Show Must Go On" (1992)
Writing this song for Freddie Mercury while he was dying from AIDS-related pneumonia, Brian May worried that the band's lead singer might not physically be able to record it. As May recalled, "I said, 'Fred, I don't know if this is going to be possible to sing.' And he went, 'I'll f---ing do it, darling'—vodka down—and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal."
"I Want to Break Free" (1984)
The video for "I Want to Break Free," featuring the band in drag, was banned from MTV, and that hurt sales in the U.S. Still, it was a smash elsewhere. Infectious '80s pop at its best, the song remained in Queen's live act from then on.
"Tie Your Mother Down" (1977)
This one is an unusually gritty, anti-pomp Queen single from the band's 1976 album "A Day at the Races," built around a scorching guitar riff from the song's writer, Brian May. But while the song really rocks, May suggests that you don't listen too closely to the lyrics. "I'll tell you the truth," he said. "Sometimes you get a little riff and you just put some words to it without even thinking about what they mean. That's the truth, folks."
"Brighton Rock" (1974)
Another tour de force by Brian May, this blistering song of young love came from Queen's 1974 album "Sheer Heart Attack," and it features a legendary solo that places May high among the guitar gods. Wrote one critic: "It's the kind of stuff that makes other guitarists want to shout obscenities while they throw their guitars on the ground and quit."
"You're My Best Friend" (1976)
Written by bassist John Deacon for his wife, this uplifting and up-tempo ballad has become a soundtrack favorite, featured in both TV shows and movies including "Will & Grace," "My Name is Earl," "The King of Queens," "Hot in Cleveland," "The Simpsons," "Shaun of the Dead," "The Secret Life of Pets" and "The Breakup." One of the few Queen songs you can convincingly sing and play with a ukulele.
"Another One Bites the Dust" (1980)
Queen's second No. 1 hit in the U.S., "Another One Bites the Dust" became a dance club favorite with its funky beat and intense vocals. According to Mercury, the song was inspired by Michael Jackson. "Michael was a fan and friend of ours and kept telling me, 'Freddie, you need a song the cats can dance to.' John [Deacon] introduced this riff to us during rehearsal ... We worked it out and once it was ready, played it for Michael. I knew we had a hit as he bobbed his head up and down and said, 'That's it, that's the gravy. Release it and it will top the charts.'"
"Radio Ga Ga" (1984)
Queen drummer Roger Taylor wrote this song as a commentary on MTV's role in taking music beyond the purely aural experience of radio. A crowd sing-along staple at Queen's live performances, "Radio Ga Ga" was also a favorite of Stefani Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga. She took her stage name from the song.
"Stone Cold Crazy" (1974)
Danger! Listening to this blistering cut from the 1974 album "Sheer Heart Attack" may cause atrial fibrillation. Thrash metal before the term was invented, it was the very first song Queen performed live, way back in 1970.
"I Want It All" (1989)
With the song's "I want it all and I want it now" refrain, Queen created yet another hard rock anthem, this time adopted by fans as a rallying cry for social justice. Since its release, "I Want It All" has been used as an anti-apartheid song in South Africa and elsewhere as an LGBT celebratory manifesto. "It was designed for the audience to sing along to," said the song's composer, Brian May. "It was meant to be anthemic."
"Keep Yourself Alive" (1973)
Queen's very first single, it was, according to Billboard, "a blast of galloping guitars, operatic harmonies and taut dynamics ... a surefire fist-pumper." And though "Keep Yourself Alive" failed to chart, in 2008 Rolling Stone ranked the song 31 on its list of the "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time."
One of Queen's few acoustic ventures, "'39" was written by Brian May about a group of space explorers who return to earth to find that 100 years have passed and all their loved ones are now gone. The single came from the band's fourth album, "A Night at the Opera," which took its title from the classic Marx Brothers movie. After it was released, Groucho Marx invited Queen to visit him at his Los Angeles home, where the band serenaded the aging comedy legend with an a cappella version.
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