(Pictured: Freddie Mercury and Brian May, on stage the same week I bought A Night at the Opera.)
I have written previously about my 1976 daybook, which I crammed with trivia, sports scores, and little notes about the ongoing life of 16-year-old me. The entry for March 12, 1976, shows that I bought the album A Night at the Opera by Queen on that day. I did most of my record-buying at shopping-mall stores in Madison, but since March 12 was a Friday, I suspect I picked it up somewhere in my hometown.
I was, like many others who bought the album that spring, inspired to lay my money down by “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In mid-March 1976, it was nearly six weeks away from reaching its peak of #9 on the Hot 100, but it had already hit #1 in cities across the country. In Chicago, WLS didn’t chart it until the end of February, but for the week of March 27, it went from #20 to #5, and to #1 the week after that, the first of five weeks at #1.
I listened to A Night at the Opera constantly for a year or two before putting it on a shelf and pretty much leaving it there. But I listened to it again not long ago, and I may listen to it more often in the future, because while it’s as familiar as the weather, it’s also mighty good. Listen to it here (and watch, because there’s some vintage video) while I rank the tracks.
12. “God Save the Queen.” It was inevitable that they would record this at some point, but it’s a throwaway.
11. “Sweet Lady.” I am trying to listen with two sets of ears: the ones I have now, and the ones that absorbed this album multiple times a week in 1976. I think I like “Sweet Lady” more now than I did then, but I like other songs better, so it ranks down here.
10. “Death on Two Legs.” I always wonder what my parents thought when they heard me blasting some guy singing “insane, should be put inside, you’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.”
9. “I’m in Love With My Car.” I got my driver’s license while “Bohemian Rhapsody” was high on the charts, and I liked this song more then than I do now.
8. “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” I was tempted to rank this and “Seaside Rendezvous” together, campy vaudeville-style tunes that they are, but I didn’t, for reasons I’ll explain below.
7. “Love of My Life.” This is pretty campy too—those harp flourishes take it over the top—although I suspect that Freddie Mercury is completely sincere in his delivery of it.
6. “The Prophet’s Song.” When I was playing the album in 1976, I would frequently skip this, the first cut on side 2. I like it much better now; the stacked choruses, voices multiplying voices, are every bit as impressive as the similar choral effect on “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
5. “Good Company.” Inspired by traditional jazz of the 1920s, this song is responsible for teaching me the verb to dandle: “Take good care of what you’ve got, my father said to me / As he puffed his pipe and Baby B he dandled on his knee.” If you always heard it as “dangled,” I get it. I’d probably have thought the same thing if the lyrics weren’t printed on the album jacket.
4. “Seaside Rendezvous.” I was re-listening to this album in the car, and “Seaside Rendezvous” was the last song I heard before I got out. I sang it to myself, over and over, for the next couple of hours. Like “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” it hasn’t got much to do with rock ‘n’ roll, but there may not be anything more purely pleasurable in the whole Queen catalog.
3. “You’re My Best Friend.” I think I have said in the past that this is the best thing on A Night at the Opera. I’m inclined to think that only when I’m not listening to the rest of A Night at the Opera at the same time.
1. (tie) “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “’39.” I am unable to resolve the conflict between 1976 me and 2020 me. I liked “’39” back in the day, but I adore it now, for its gorgeous wall of sound and the sad story of time travelers whose trip has unexpected consequences. As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as much as I thirsted to hear it over and over back then, I really don’t need to hear it again now. But when I do, I’m impressed as much by its sheer audacity as I am by the production itself.