"Death on Two Legs" can be referred to as Freddie Mercury's hate letter to Queen's first manager, Norman Sheffield, who for some years was reputed to have mistreated the band and abused his role as their manager from 1972 to 1975. Sheffield denied that in his autobiography entitled "Life on Two Legs: Set The Record Straight", published in 2013, and referred to copies of the original 1972 management contracts between Sheffield and Queen, which were included in the book as proof of his defence. Though the song never makes direct reference to him, after listening to a playback of the song at Trident Studios during the time of album release, Sheffield was appalled, and sued the band and the record label for defamation, which resulted in an out-of-court settlement, but also confirmed his connection to the song.
During live performances, Mercury would usually rededicate the song to "a real motherfucker of a gentleman", although this line was censored on the version that appeared on their Live Killers album in 1979. Other than on the live album, he said it was dedicated to a "motherfucker I used to know".
In the Classic Albums documentary about the making of A Night at the Opera, Brian May stated that the band was somewhat taken aback at first by the bitterness of Mercury's lyrics, and described by Mercury as being "so vindictive that he [May] felt bad singing it". After the song came together, it was agreed that the "author should have his way", and the song was recorded as written.
As with "Bohemian Rhapsody", most of the guitar parts on this song were initially played on piano by Mercury, to demonstrate to May how they needed to be played on guitar. "Death on Two Legs" remained on the setlist until, and well into, The Game Tour in 1980, and was then dropped. However, the piano introduction was played during the Hot Space and Works tours.
"Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon" is another song by Mercury. He played piano and performed all of the vocals. The lead vocal was sung in the studio and reproduced through headphones in a tin bucket elsewhere in the studio. A microphone picked up the sound from the bucket, which gives it a hollow "megaphone" sound. The guitar solo is also reported to have been recorded on the vocal track, as there were no more tracks to record on, as explained by producer Roy Thomas Baker during the 'Classic Albums' documentary. The key change going into the guitar solo (Eb to A) is a tritone relationship, making it a jarring, but very effective, transition into the key of E minor for the next track, "I'm in Love with My Car".
"I'm in Love with My Car" is amongst Roger Taylor's most famous songs in the Queen catalogue. The song was initially taken as a joke by May, who thought that Taylor was not serious when he heard a demo recording.
Taylor played the guitars in the original demo, but they were later re-recorded by May on his Red Special. The lead vocals were performed by Taylor on the studio version, and all released live versions. The revving sounds at the conclusion of the song were recorded by Taylor's then current car, an Alfa Romeo. The lyrics were inspired by one of the band's roadies, Johnathan Harris, whose Triumph TR4 was evidently the "love of his life". The song is dedicated to him, the album says: "Dedicated to Johnathan Harris, boy racer to the end".
When it came down to releasing the album's first single, Taylor was so fond of his song that he urged Mercury (author of the first single, "Bohemian Rhapsody") to allow it to be the B-side and reportedly locked himself in a cupboard until Mercury agreed. This decision would later become the cause of much internal friction in the band, in that while it was only the B-side, it generated an equal amount of publishing royalties for Taylor as the main single did for Mercury.
The song was often played live during the 1977–81 period. Taylor sang it from the drums while Mercury played piano and provided backing vocals. It was played in the Queen + Paul Rodgers Tour in 2005 and the Rock the Cosmos Tour in 2008. Taylor would again play the song for his concerts with The Cross and solo tours, where instead of drums he played rhythm guitar.
"You're My Best Friend" was Queen's first single written by John Deacon. He composed while he was learning to play piano. He played the Wurlitzer Electric Piano (which Mercury called a "horrible" instrument in an interview) on the recording and overdubbed the bass later on. The song was written for his wife, Veronica Tetzlaff. The song was a top 10 hit.
"'39" was May's attempt to do "sci-fi skiffle". "'39" relates the tale of a group of space explorers who embark on what is, from their perspective, a year-long voyage. Upon their return, however, they realise that a hundred years have passed, because of the time dilation effect in Einstein's special theory of relativity, and the loved ones they left behind are now all dead or aged.
May sings the song on the album, with backing vocals by Mercury and Taylor. During live performances, Mercury sang the lead vocal. May had asked bassist John Deacon to play double bass as a joke but a couple of days later he found Deacon in the studio with the instrument, and he had already learned to play it.
Since Queen had named their albums A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races after two of the Marx Brothers' most popular films, surviving brother Groucho Marx invited Queen to visit him at his Los Angeles home in March 1977 (five months before he died). The band thanked him, and performed "'39" a cappella.
George Michael performed "'39" at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in April 1992. Michael cited this song as his favourite Queen song, claiming he used to busk it on the London Underground.
Recently, Queen have included the song on the setlists of their recent tours with Adam Lambert and before Adam with Paul Rodgers; for all these tours since 2005 it is sung as it is on the album by May.
"Sweet Lady" is a distortion-driven fast rocker written by May. The song is an unusual rock style in 3/4-meter (which gives way to 4/4 at the bridge). Taylor remembers it as the most difficult drumming part he ever recorded.
The backing track was probably recorded live, as one can hear the snare wires on the snare drum of Taylor's kit vibrating along with Deacon's bass guitar riff.
"Seaside Rendezvous", written by Mercury, is notable for the mock-instrumental bridge section which begins at around 0:51 into the song. The section is performed entirely by Mercury and Taylor using their voices alone. Mercury imitates woodwind instruments including a clarinet and Taylor mostly brass instruments, including tubas and trumpets, and even a kazoo; during this section Taylor hits the highest note on the album, C6. The "tap dance" segment is performed by Mercury and Taylor on the mixing desk with thimbles on their fingers. Mercury plays both grand piano and jangle honky-tonk.
The Prophet's Song was composed by May (working title "People of the Earth"). On the show In the Studio with Redbeard, which spotlighted A Night at the Opera, May explained that he wrote the song after a dream he'd had about a great flood while he was recovering from being ill while recording the Sheer Heart Attack album, and is the source of some of the lyrics. He spent several days putting it together, and it includes a vocal canon sung by Mercury. The vocal, and later instrumental canon was produced by early tape delay devices. It is a heavy and dark number with a strong progressive rock influence and challenging lead vocals. At over eight minutes in length, it's also Queen's longest studio song (not counting the untitled instrumental track on "Made in Heaven").
As detailed by May in a documentary about the album, the speed-up effect that happens in the middle of the guitar solo was achieved by starting a reel-to-reel player with the tape on it, as the original tape player was stopped.
The dream May had was about The Great Flood, and lyrics have references from the Bible and the Noah's Ark account.
"Love of My Life" was written for Mercury's girlfriend at the time, Mary Austin, and is one of his most covered songs (there have been versions by many acts like Extreme featuring May, Scorpions and Elaine Paige). Mercury played piano (including a classical solo) and did all of the vocals with startling multi-tracking precision. May played harp (doing it chord by chord and pasting the takes to form the entire part), Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar (which he'd bought in Japan) and his Red Special.
Brian May eventually arranged the song so it could be played on an acoustic 12 string for live performances.
"Love of My Life" was such a concert favourite that Mercury frequently stopped singing and allowed the audience to take over. It was especially well received during concerts in South America, and the band released the song as a single there. When Queen and Paul Rodgers performed the song (specifically Brian solo) he sang almost none of the words and let the audience sing it all, continuing the tradition.
"Good Company" was written and sung by May, who provides all vocals and plays a "Genuine Aloha" ukulele.
The recording is remarkable for featuring an elaborate recreation of a Dixieland-style jazz band, produced by way of May's Red Special guitar and Deacy Amp. Brian May composed the song on a Banjo ukelele, but recorded the song with a regular ukulele instead.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" was written by Mercury with the first guitar solo composed by May. All piano, bass and drum parts, as well as the vocal arrangements, were thought up by Mercury on a daily basis and written down "in blocks" (using note names instead of sheets) on a phonebook. The other members recorded their respective instruments with no concept of how their tracks would be utilised in the final mix. The famous operatic section was originally intended to be only a short interlude of "Galileos" that connected the ballad and hard rock portions of the song.
During the recording, the song became affectionately known as "Fred's Thing" to the band, and the title only emerged during the final sessions.
Despite being twice as long as the average single in 1975 and garnering mixed critical reviews initially, the song became immensely popular, topping charts worldwide (where it remained for an unprecedented nine weeks in the UK) and is widely regarded as one of the most significant rock songs in history.
After Freddie Mercury's death, the song was rereleased as a double A-side to "These Are The Days Of Our Lives" on 9 December 1991 in the UK and September 5, 1991 in US.
May recorded a cover version of God Save the Queen, the British national anthem, in 1974 before their Sheer Heart Attack tour. He played a guide piano which was edited out later and added several layers of guitars. After the song was completed it was played as an outro at virtually every Queen concert. When recording the track May played a rough version on piano for Roy Thomas Baker. He called his own skills on the piano sub-par at the time. He performed the song live on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen's golden jubilee in 2002.
May has stated that he performed the song on the roof of Buckingham Palace as a homage to Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner".
Guitar layering is one of May's distinctive techniques as a rock guitarist. He has said that the technique was developed whilst looking for a violin sound. For tracks like this, he stated he can use "up to 30" layers, using a small amplifier named the 'Deacy Amp' built by Deacon, and later released commercially like the "Brian May" amplifier by Vox.
"God Save the Queen" is the only song ever recorded by Queen that was not written by any of the band members, but May is credited as its arranger.
At the time of its release, A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever recorded. Upon release, the album was a commercial success, debuting at No. 1 in the UK and topping the charts for four non-consecutive weeks. In the US, it reached No. 4, the band's strongest showing at that time. In 1977 "Bohemian Rhapsody" received two Grammy Award nominations for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus and Best Arrangement for Voices.
In a contemporary review, Kris Nicholson of Rolling Stone Magazine said that, although they share other heavy metal groups' penchant for "manipulating dynamics," Queen are an elite act in the genre and set themselves apart by incorporating "unlikely effects: acoustic piano, harp, acapella vocals, no synthesisers. Coupled with good songs." Melody Maker called the album a "must-have", encouraging listeners to "turn it up loud and enjoy", while the Winnipeg Free Press wrote: "The group's potential is practically limitless, indicating that Queen is destined to finally take its place among the small handful of truly major acts working in rock today." Robert Christgau, writing in The Village Voice, felt that the album "doesn't actually botch any of a half-dozen arty-to-heavy 'eclectic' modes ... and achieves a parodic tone often enough to suggest more than meets the ear." However, he questioned the record's consistency and what "that more is".
In a retrospective review for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine called the album "a self-consciously ridiculous and overblown hard rock masterpiece" and "prog rock with a sense of humour as well as dynamics". Erlewine felt that Queen "never bettered their approach anywhere else". Progressive rock historian Stephen Lambe has disputed that the album itself is progressive rock in his book Citizens of Hope and Glory: The Story of Progressive Rock. He wrote: "While far from progressive rock, it was the band's most grandiose and ambitious album yet, full of great songwriting and prog influences." He said the album was "a neat symbol of the furthest reach of the progressive rock movement". The Dutch Progressive Rock Page concluded that A Night at the Opera "crosses musical boundaries and combines many musical styles, which makes it a real progressive album".
In a 2006 review, Q also felt that they never topped the album, which the magazine said "remains glorious, monumental" as British rock music's "greatest extravagance". Uncut noted "the extent of the band's barmy diversity". Mojo called the album "an imperial extravaganza, a cornucopia", and Queen "a band of hungrily competitive individualists on a big roll of friendship and delight". Pitchfork Media's Dominique Leone said that the band topped their contemporaries on the album without limiting themselves or sparing any effort. According to Rhapsody's Mike McGuirk, A Night at the Opera is often viewed as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. McGuirk felt that the album's combination of heavy metal, recording effects, theatrical sophistication, and British grandeur still make for an engaging listen. The BBC said of the record: "Christmas 1975 was to be forever remembered as Queen’s. And A Night at the Opera remains their finest hour."
(*) designates unordered lists.
The album was first re-released in the US on Hollywood Records on 3 September 1991 with two bonus remixes, as part of a complete re-release of all Queen albums.
On 30 April 2002 the album was again re-released on DVD-Audio with a 5.1-channel mix in Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound. It also includes the original 1975 video of Bohemian Rhapsody.
On 21 November 2005 it was once more re-released by Hollywood Records Catalogue Number 2061-62572-2 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the album and its first single, "Bohemian Rhapsody". This release is accompanied by a DVD-Video disc with the same track listing featuring the original videos, old and new concert footage (including "'39" from the Queen + Paul Rodgers tour and Brian May on the roof of Buckingham Palace playing "God Save the Queen") and audio commentary by all four bandmembers.
On 8 November 2010, record company Universal Music announced a remastered and expanded reissue of the album set for release in May 2011. This as part of a new record deal between Queen and Universal Music, which meant Queen's association with EMI Records would come to an end after almost 40 years. According to Universal Music, all Queen albums were to be remastered and reissued in 2011. By September 2012 the reissue program will actually be complete. Along with this came a 5.1 channel release of the album on Blu-ray Audio.
QueenFreddie Mercury – lead vocals (except where noted below plus "God Save the Queen"), backing vocals, piano (credited as "Bechstein Debauchery" in liner notes), jangle piano and woodwind vocalizations on "Seaside Rendezvous"
Brian May – guitars, ukulele on "Good Company", backing vocals, lead vocals on "'39" and "Good Company", toy koto on "The Prophet's Song", harp on "Love of My Life", orchestral backdrops
Roger Taylor – drums, percussion, lead vocals on "I'm in Love with My Car", brass vocalizations on "Seaside Rendezvous", backing vocals
John Deacon – bass guitar, double bass on "'39", Wurlitzer electric piano on "You're My Best Friend"
Additional personnelMike Stone – executive engineer
Gary Lyons – invaluable additional engineering
John Harris – equipment supervision
David Costa – art direction
Rick Curtin and Brian Palmer – special thanks
John Reid – management