MERCURY RISES AGAIN, OR FREDDIE'S STILL DEAD, VOL. 4REPACKAGE TRACES QUEEN'S FIRST STEP ON THE ROAD TO OVERINDULGENCE

Feast your eyes on these humble liner notes: "THIS is an event. Not merely the release of more 'product,' but a major milestone in the annals of Rock." What could it be? A recording of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley singing together? A Sgt. Pepper outtake? Dylan's Royal Albert Hall concert? Actual film footage of the time Jerry Lee Lewis set fire to his piano and told Chuck Berry to "follow that, nigger"? Nope.

"What you hold here are eight songs recorded in 1973 by Queen, one of the great names of postwar international music." Okay. Everybody, back to your seats.

Some might argue that Queen was more a major millstone in the annals of rock, if only for inadvertently influencing some of the worst "postwar international music" imaginable: Styx, Angel, Boston, Kansas, Foreigner, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman. And as for the release of Queen at the BBC being an "event," this collection of 22-year-old BBC performances has been readily available as a British import since 1989. Unlike the recent Beatles Live at the Beeb, which captured the embryonic Fab Four's sound in the raw, very little of Queen's BBC set is revelatory or, indeed, live.

The band's first performance on BBC Radio utilized the identical backing tracks found on Queen's eponymous debut album, albeit with different vocals. And while the four songs Queen performed on its second broadcast were recorded specifically for BBC transmission, they were "sweetened" with a cavalcade of vocal overdubs. That's cheating! (This musical sleight of hand would continue later on in the quartet's career whenever it performed "Bohemian Rhapsody" live. The boys would dart offstage midway through the number, leaving fans to grumble in a darkened sports arena while a ballroom light spun around and a tape screamed, "Galileo! Galileo!")

Queen's singular greatest achievement wasn't its live shows. Nor was it Freddie Mercury's uncanny Zsa Zsa Gabor impersonation; extravagances in the recording studio are what made the group the stuff of legend. One thing is certain: Queen never made a truly boring album because it exhibited more sins of excess than Sodom and Gomorrah combined. Among the band's stock-in-trade specialties: kitchen-sink overproduction, hammy operatic shenanigans, pinch-nosed vaudeville crooning, bad recital piano playing and, of course, Brian May's homemade guitar, which sounded like the horn on a Model T Ford half the time. All this served to make Queen the feyest heavy-metal group that ever pranced across the Earth.

Sure, the Sweet wore more eye makeup, Bowie was more androgynous and Ray Davies had the limpest wrist in all of rock. But only Freddie Mercury and company had the balls to graft the daintiness of Gilbert and Sullivan's "They Call Me Buttercup" onto recycled Hendrix and Zeppelin riffs.

Queen at the BBC offers the earliest proof that the buck-toothed Mr. Mercury was off his fruity rocker in the grandiose "My Fairy King." It starts off harmlessly enough, with backward-swirling guitars and drummer Roger Taylor's high-pitched, eerie squeals. But once Mercury begins spinning his tale of "horses born with eagle wings" and "rivers made of wine so clear," you feel as if you're listening to that "I am the good Prince Lancelot, I like to sing and dance a lot" operetta from I Love Lucy. Only there's no croaking Fred Mertz to puncture the pomposity of Mercury's admission, "Someone has drained the color from my wings/Broken my fairy suckled wings." Queen had balls, all right. More balls than a Christmas tree.

Queen actually considered calling its second album Over the Top before settling on Queen II, which is unfortunate since it had more in common with the ridiculous Sylvester Stallone film of the same name than the Roman numeral two. The Zeppelin and Hendrix riff-offs subsided somewhat, but those regal and operatic overtones continued to rage on like an undetected cancer. A concept album of sorts, Queen II neatly divided into a "Side White" and "Side Black," odd, as the album was pressed on black vinyl. "Side White" concentrated on Brian May's kinder and gentler compositions, while "Side Black" was the longest uninterrupted stretch of Freddie Mercury poisoning in the band's catalogue.

But far from being Queen's foray into R&B (there'd be plenty of time for such embarrassments as "Soul Brother" later on in its career), "Side Black" was awash with gongs, glockenspiels, harpsichords, triangles, castanets and the most gobbledygook, Lewis Carroll-inspired lyrics since "I Am the Walrus."

At least John Lennon had enough of a track record to make you believe "yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye" actually meant something. The songs on Queen II didn't even add up to a decent chess match, since its White Queen and Black Queen never meet, stuck on their respective sides of music as they were. Amazingly, what took Queen an entire album to convey, Yes' 1970 hit "Your Move" covered in just two and a half minutes. This marks the only time in its overblown career that Yes actually beat out another group in the brevity sweepstakes.

If there's one Queen album everyone remembers fondly, especially the faction of fans enamored of the group's heavier side, it's Sheer Heart Attack. Besides giving Queen its first U.S. hit with "Killer Queen," the album contained "Now I'm Here," "Brighton Rock" and "Stone Cold Crazy," bone-crunching crowd-pleasers that remained in the band's live act until Queen ceased performing in 1986. Fans of May's "Brighton Rock" guitar solo can hear an early working version of it on the BBC album, as part of an extended version of "Sons and Daughters," a sort of Glen or Glenda? blues number.

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