Rock CD Review: Queen, “Live at the Rainbow ‘74” — Before They Were Massive
The newly released Live at the Rainbow ’74 set proves that Queen had been slaying audiences since the beginning of their career.
By Adam Ellsworth
Queen are widely regarded as one of the greatest live acts of all time. Even those who scoff at the group’s over-the-top music concede that Queen were masters of the stage and that the band’s frontman Freddie Mercury had the ability to hold any crowd in the palm of his hand. This reputation is based primarily on the quartet’s ’80s performances, which were held in arenas and stadiums all over the world. The band’s triumphs at London’s Wembley Stadium, both at Live Aid in 1985 and at their own run of shows in 1986, were the apex of this period.
But as the newly released Live at the Rainbow ’74 set proves, Queen had been slaying audiences since the beginning of their career. Disc One is taken from a March 31, 1974 gig at the end of the Queen II tour, while Disc Two comes from a pair of performances held on November 19 and 20, 1974 as part of the promotion for the band’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack. All three shows took place at the Rainbow Theatre in the Finsbury Park section of London, which at the time was the premiere rock club in the city. A headlining gig at the venue meant that a band had made it.
Just a few years earlier, before Queen had “made it,” or had any hope of playing the club, the group’s guitarist Brian May witnessed a show by David Bowie at the Rainbow during Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase. “I thought, ‘He’s done it, he’s made his mark and we’re still struggling to get a record out,’” May recalled.
Queen of course did get their debut record, Queen, out and quickly followed it with Queen II and the UK top 10 single “Seven Seas of Rhye.” It was with the sophomore album and hit single that they made their mark, and got the chance to headline the Rainbow for the first time, a show finally given official release by Disc One of the new set.
Listeners who only know the group through their plethora of “Greatest Hits” compilations won’t recognize the four-piece onstage in March 1974. Queen were a heavy rock band in those days, capable of taking an audience’s collective head off. The March performance naturally drew from the group’s first two albums with selections ranging from “Ogre Battle” (ridiculous lyrics but it cooks) to “Son and Daughter” (a gut punch of a song), to “Great King Rat” (Mercury to audience: “How would you like to know about a dirty old man I know?”) all played at high volume and with a hint of menace. The show wasn’t just ear-splitting rock though. Even at this early stage in their development Queen were capable of curveballs and the set also features a very rare performance of the wonderfully bizarre “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” as well as a set closing, blues-rock run-through of the early b-side “See What A Fool I’ve Been.”
(Aside 1: The setlist for this gig provided by Greg Brooks (currently the official Queen Archivist) in his 1995 book Queen Live: A Concert Documentary is significantly different from what is presented on Disc One. The most likely reason for this is that the nearly 20- year-old book is wrong. That’s no put down. When Queen Live was written it was far harder to obtain and confirm details like what songs were played on a specific night in March 1974. Any information he had would have come from unreliable bootlegs and the half-memories of people who (claimed) they were there. That said, I can’t help but consider the possibility that Queen and their Disney backers (i.e. Hollywood Records) are lying to us, and what’s presented on these discs is really a compilation of parts of different shows from that general time period all thrown together and stamped “Rainbow.” I doubt this, but I at least have to consider it based on Brooks’s book. As for a few of the differences themselves, Brooks doesn’t include “Fairy Feller” on his list, but he writes the band played “Doing All Right.” He also claims the band performed “Hangman,” a song that often appeared in Queen performances during this period and beyond, but that has never received an official release in either live or studio form. If the band did play it at the Rainbow, and it isn’t included here, I’m going to be pissed. Finally, Brooks writes that the power blew out during “Liar.” There’s no evidence of that on Disc One, but it is well known that in their early years Queen often proved too powerful for the venues they played and did often fritz out the power. Video evidence of this is provided by the Blu-ray/DVD release These Are the Days of Our Lives.)
Strong as Disc One is, the November performances captured on Disc Two are the true treat here and offer a brilliant snapshot of the pre-“Bohemian Rhapsody” version of the band. Less than nine months separate Discs One and Two, but those months were some of the most important in Queen’s career. April brought them to America for the first time as the opening act for glam rock heroes Mott the Hopple. Unfortunately, the tour had to be cut short when May collapsed after a show as a result of hepatitis. With their guitarist recovering in the hospital, the rest of the band began work on their third, and arguably greatest, album, Sheer Heart Attack, which mixed the hard rock the group was then known for with songs that showed off a true pop sensibility. Exhibit A: the masterfully cut gem of a single “Killer Queen.”
“The nasty Queenies are back! What do you think of that!?” Mercury announces on Disc Two following the show opening “Now I’m Here,” the first of many Sheer Heart Attack songs to be introduced to the set. Interestingly, despite the variety of sounds on that album, these November concerts still focus on the band’s hard rock side. “Killer Queen” was at number two in the UK charts at the time (a fact May jokes about when he tells the audience: “We narrowly escaped having a number one single this week.”), but the tune only gets a quick minute-long airing and is buried in-between songs as part of a medley. Compare that with the raucous (and full-length) performances of “Stone Cold Crazy,” “Liar,” and “Keep Yourself Alive.” It’s as if the band (or at least the members of the band not named “Freddie”) weren’t quite sure about this Noël Coward-turn and felt more comfortable sticking to ringing guitars and pounding drums.
Nonetheless, Queen always had range and even these November shows feature the gentler “In the Lap of the Gods” and “White Queen (As It Began)” along with a burlesque cover of “Big Spender” and a rollicking take of “Jailhouse Rock.” It should be noted that the latter (which is also available on Disc One as part of the March show) doesn’t come off nearly as well as the band’s 1979 Elvis tribute/pastiche, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
(Aside 2: Throughout their career, Queen would perform “old” rock and roll numbers in concert. These covers were always fine, though rarely great. The exception is the band’s version of “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” available on Live at Wembley ’86, which never stops being brilliant.)
The performances that make up Disc Two are also visually available on Blu-ray and DVD (or you can purchase a deluxe box set that includes the CDs, Blu-ray, DVD, a coffee-table sized booklet, and some replica concert schwag), and it’s clear from watching them that Mercury is not yet the frontman who will own Live Aid in 11 years, yet he’s also not as far off as you might think. His between song banter with the audience is fun (while showing off his black studded glove: “Do you like my claws? They’re real diamonds. It’s a present from the Devil himself.”) and his onstage moves are theatrical without being ridiculous. Even in these early years, Mercury proves he’s a natural performer, although that hardly seems like news.
(Aside 3: Regarding “…and his onstage moves are theatrical without being ridiculous.” In truth, everything Mercury and Queen ever did was ridiculous. But ridiculous in a good way, which is an important distinction.)
Approximately 12 months after Queen’s final notes at the Rainbow, their ballad/opera/metal mashup “Bohemian Rhapsody” would be at the top of the UK charts, marking the beginning of their reign as one of the biggest bands in Britain. By the dawn of the new decade, they’d be the biggest band in the world. But before all that, Queen were just a hard rock group with a flair for the dramatic. Live at the Rainbow ’74 provides a superb glimpse of the quartet before they were massive, and before they played all their concerts in arenas and stadiums.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.