Is it possible to have too much Queen?
Well, depending upon on your feelings about them, maybe it is. But still you need to be an especially humorless grouch not to find something to… love? Admire? Begrudgingly acknowledge?… about Live at the Rainbow 1974.
Available in a multiplicity of formats, ranging from a fairly unadorned CD through to a bells and whistles packed box set, the set is devoted to two shows the band payed in London in 1974; the first in March, with their first hit single fresh on the chart and their second album just off the blocks; the second at year’s end, with superstardom assured and Sheer Heart Attack on its way up the Top Ten.
So everything was as new, fresh and exciting for the band as it was for the rapidly expanding fan club, and it shows. Without ever approaching the glorious heights of exaggeration and camp that so distinguish the band’s later years and persona, still Queen in 1974 are sleek, slick and sly, mannered and magnificent, and conscious enough of their burgeoning image that not an ad-lib slips from Freddie Mercury’s lips that he probably hadn’t spent an evening rehearsing. And that includes the “nasty Queenies” introduction that he bestows upon his band at the outset of the second show.
Musically, the two shows capture Queen in their most bludgeoning metallic phase; it is easy to forget, as we recall the gorgeous butterfly that they eventually became, just what a lumpen chrysalis they emerged from – the March show in particular is riffolo heaven, with the likes of “Father and Son,” “Son and Daughter,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Modern Times Rock’n’Roll,” “Liar”… oh you know the drill… a constant roar of headbanging hooks, only occasionally leavened by the artier efforts that raised Queen above the pack: “Ogre Batte” an “Fairy Feller” from the then-new album, “Great King Rat” from its predecessor, and the lumbering beauty of the blues “See What A Fool I’ve Been.”
Guitar and drum solos remind us what audiences of the era expect and, while we thankfully note that both pass by a lot faster than most acts of the age (Roger Taylor showboats for precisely 27 seconds), we can rest assured that they will grow fatter. Indeed, by the time the band passed through town again, both solos had doubled in length, and despite the wide-open experimentation of the new album, the show was… if anything… even heavier. Particularly once it passes the halfway mark, noted by a knockabout “Leroy Brown,” and the finishing line comes into sight.
The November show is available, too, on DVD and blu-ray, a full length (at last) recounting of footage that has done the bootleg rounds for many years now, and has made the occasional official appearance too. It’s a fabulous experience, a reminder of just how great Queen looked (and how oddly Brian May dressed back then), and shaking the room in 5.1, it makes an utter mockery of all those other period live recordings that blame the tech of the time for any aural shortcomings. In fact, the only disappointment is that the oft-recalled and much-vaunted visual side of the band… flashbombs, lasers, dry ice, and all… really doesn’t look as impressive on the screen as it did in the flesh. Because if any band knew how to light themselves, it was Queen.
Bonus material on the blu-ray comprises further footage, taken this time from the March show, and the difference between that show and this is worth noting only in as much as you can see what they wanted to be in March… and in November, they’d become it. A lesson that is also taught by the hardback book that accompanies the box set, a photo heavy drift through an astonishing year which comes replete with other ephemera too – a couple of concert tickets,a backstage pass, a folder of bumpf from the promoter, a copy of the original program…. and all bundled together in a delightfully heavyweight box.
So, which to buy?
The haste with which the box set seems to have vanished from the stores would suggest that you should have made that decision a couple of weeks ago… you snooze, you lose. There’s a vinyl package too, which serves up all the audio at what feels like a quite extraordinary price (and we don’t mean that in a complimentary sense); a double CD that wraps up just the music, and the blue-ray. And sundry further permutations involving T-shirts, apparently.
All have their high points – availability notwithstanding, the only serious complaint with the box set is the industry-wide habit of doubling up on the video content, a DVD and a blu-ray, and then counting them as two separate discs. Technically they are. But when you’re buying (as in this case) a four disc box, is it too much to ask to receive four discs worth of unique content? Otherwise call it three discs and pretend the blu-ray’s a bonus. Or something.
Anyway, the two CD set and either one of the video packages will give you all the music content you require – everything else is admittedly alluring window dressing. Whatever you choose, however, there are few more alluring prospects for an upcoming evening than wiring up the music player as loud and wide as it will possibly go, and absorbing your senses in the magnificence of Queen. Circa 1974, certainly one of the best bands of the age, and serpentine as you could ever want them to be.
Keep yourself alive!