1975 was when the band Queen officially began their reign. A fab year for sure.
A Night at Odeon – Hammersmith 1975, Queen, Virgin EMI.
By Adam Ellsworth
Commercially speaking, Queen entered 1975 on a high. The group’s third album, Sheer Heart Attack, had been released in November 1974 and reached number two in the UK charts and number 12 in the US. That same year, the band placed the singles “Seven Seas of Rhye” and “Killer Queen” in the British top 10, and on two separate ’74 tours they headlined the Rainbow Theatre in London, a sure sign in those days that an English group had arrived.
But despite this success, the band was broke. And pissed.
“After three albums people thought we were driving around in Rolls-Royces,” guitarist Brian May told Q in 1991. “Actually we were deeply in debt and our accountants explained that the management contract was set up so that most of the money would never get through to us. That’s when we started to feel very resentful.”
The contract May was referring to covered more than just “management.” In 1972, Queen signed a recording/producing/management/song publishing deal with Trident Audio Productions. On the upside, the agreement meant the band got to use Trident Studios, which was easily the best recording facility in England, if not the world, at the time (it’s where the Beatles recorded “Hey Jude” in 1968 and David Bowie cut The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1971/72). On the other hand, the contract meant Trident controlled all aspects of the group’s career, and every dollar the company invested in Queen had to be recouped before anything trickled down to May, singer Freddie Mercury, drummer Roger Taylor, and bassist John Deacon.
“It affected Freddie deeply,” May said in an interview for the 2011 documentary Queen: Days of Our Lives, “and Freddie got to the point where he said, ‘Look I am not delivering anymore music. I can’t.’”
It was at this point that the band decided they had to extricate themselves from the Trident contract and find new management. In August 1975 they succeeded in this and turned to Elton John’s manager John Reid to sort out their career.
“You go away and make the best record you can make,” Reid told the band. “I’ll take care of the business.” The results of this directive were the single “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the album A Night at the Opera.
All the stories about the Mercury-penned “Bohemian Rhapsody” are true (and if they’re not, let’s pretend they are anyway), from the tape being so loaded with parts that it became transparent, to Freddie bounding into the studio and making pronouncements like, “I’ve added a few more ‘Galileos’ dears.” Though the band’s UK record label EMI initially refused to release the nearly six-minute ballad/opera/metal mash-up as a single, once Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett got a copy of the recording and proceeded to play it 14 times over the course of a weekend, the company had no choice. Listeners went wild for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the song would go on to spend nine weeks atop the British charts.
A Night at the Opera itself could never be as over the top as its feature song, but it comes close. Like Sheer Heart Attack before it, it contains heavy rock (“Death on Two Legs,” “Sweet Lady,” “The Prophet’s Song”), beautiful balladry (“Love of My Life”), and bizarre music hall (“Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” “Seaside Rendezvous,” “Good Company”). It also boasts Roger Taylor’s and John Deacon’s best songs to date with “I’m in Love with My Car” and “You’re My Best Friend,” respectively, and Brian May’s best vocal to date, with his sci-fi acoustic strummer “’39.” And in case the band’s name didn’t tip you off to how royal they really were, A Night at the Opera closes with May’s guitar arrangement of the UK national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” Too much? By late 1975, the newly liberated Queen didn’t acknowledge such a concept existed.
With “Bohemian Rhapsody” still in the early days of its assault on the British singles charts and A Night at the Opera in the can, Queen began a new tour on November 14, 1975, at the Empire in Liverpool (A Night at the Opera would be released a week later). Over the course of a month, the band performed across England, Scotland, and Wales, before ending the trek at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on Christmas Eve, a concert now receiving release as A Night at the Odeon.
Like last year’s Live at the Rainbow ’74, A Night at the Odeon can be purchased in audio, video, or box set versions. The box set is a thing of beauty and includes a CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray of the concert, a hardbound book, a “Bohemian Rhapsody” 40th anniversary 12-inch vinyl single (the B-side is a version of “Now I’m Here” recorded during the Odeon sound check), a replica tour poster, itinerary, ticket, backstage pass, and program, buttons, and 40th anniversary “Bohemian Rhapsody” balloons. Granted, only someone with a serious Queen addiction actually needs all of this stuff, but man is it fun to unpack.
The show itself was an unusual and shortened one, primarily due to the fact that it was broadcast live on the long-running BBC2 television show The Old Grey Whistle Test. While Queen had begun featuring A Night at the Opera rockers “Sweet Lady” and “The Prophet’s Song” during the earlier dates of the tour, both were missing from the Christmas Eve show. Presumably, the group decided to stick to more seasoned numbers for their live television audience and, as a result, nearly every tune featured on A Night at the Odeon also appears on the Live at the Rainbow ’74 track list.
The major exception to this is “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which the group couldn’t have skipped even if they wanted to. This is not to suggest Queen had any idea how they should perform their greatest studio creation in concert. In later years, the band would omit the song’s intro, start with the ballad section, stick around for May’s guitar solo, leave the stage for all those “Galileos” (which would be pumped over the PA), return for the head-banging section, and then close things out with Mercury at the piano singing that nothing really mattered to him. Less than two months after its release, however, Queen decided that their best bet was to present the song as part of an early-set medley.
“Now then,” Mercury said to the audience after three songs had been performed, “we’re gonna do a nice tasty little medley for you, just like the one we did the other day, yes. And we’re gonna start off with a little segment from a number called “Bohemian Rhapsody.’”
The Odeon crowd met Mercury’s announcement with its biggest roar of the concert and then Freddie began fingering the song’s now legendary piano notes and singing how he’d just killed a man. After May’s guitar solo, and right where the opera section comes in on the recorded version, the group quickly switched to their second biggest hit to date, “Killer Queen.” A portion of “The March of the Black Queen” followed, before the band returned to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” skipping past the hard rock segment and going straight to the song’s close. An instrumental snippet of “Bring Back that Leroy Brown” brought the medley to its completion.
Even with the heavy bit of the song not being performed, “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds amazingly fresh on A Night at the Odeon, no doubt because it was still new at the time. Before A Night at the Odeon, the earliest (officially released) live version of the tune was recorded in 1979, by which point it was already a set-in-stone standard of the Queen set. Here, the group is clearly trying different things out. In the second verse especially, with May’s guitar dominating, the tune seems even bigger than it does on record, which should be impossible for a song as inherently grand as “Bohemian Rhapsody” but there it is. Whatever stops were left in on the studio version were pulled out completely at the Odeon.
Though “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the only new song performed on Christmas Eve ’75, the “old” songs, including the show opener “Now I’m Here,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” and “Ogre Battle,” carried a noticeable extra swagger. That’s the biggest difference between the band heard on A Night at the Odeon and the one heard on Live at the Rainbow ’74. At the Rainbow, Queen knew they were good, and with reason, but they still hadn’t quite reached the promised land. At the Odeon, with “Bohemian Rhapsody” ruling the nation and the freedom that came from being unshackled from Trident, the band had nothing holding them back and you can hear it in their performance.
“Merry Christmas and thanks for a fab year,” Roger Taylor said to the crowd at the beginning of the first encore, which featured covers of “Big Spender” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Once the BBC cameras switched off, a second encore of “Seven Seas of Rhye,” which the band forgot to play during the main set, and “See What A Fool I’ve Been” followed (as these weren’t filmed, the second encore is available only on audio editions of A Night at the Odeon). As always, “God Save the Queen” closed the concert, with the audience heartily singing along.
By the start of the New Year, Queen would be firmly established as one of the biggest bands in England, a distinction they would hold for the next decade. 1975 was when they officially began their reign. A fab year for sure.
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 an 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.