In the 20 years from Queen’s formation, in 1971, to Freddie Mercury’s death (from AIDS-related complications) in 1991, the band’s lineup never changed. Their collaborative nature and impressive longevity gave rise to enough classic singles to fill two greatest hits albums. They also made 15 studio albums, which offer a wealth of lesser-known—but equally remarkable—songs.
People who aren’t too familiar with Queen often assume Freddie was their driving force, and while his unique creativity and jaw-dropping stage presence undoubtedly gave the band an extra edge, the band members always saw themselves as equals. All four of them contributed to songwriting and decision making, and each of them have penned beloved hits.
Fittingly, the song-writing talents of all four members are represented here in my personal Perfect 10. For the most part, I ended up choosing lesser-known Queen tracks. This wasn’t intentional, and it just goes to show that beyond their many deservedly popular hits, there is even more to this phenomenal and versatile band than meets the eye.
Track 1: “Innuendo”
Queen have a few songs that I think of as being Bohemian-Rhapsody-like: longer than average, split into distinctive sections, experimental, epic, and brilliant. “Innuendo” is, in my opinion, the best of them all. Like most songs from The Miracle onwards, “Innuendo” is officially credited as being written by Queen—but in reality, it was mostly written by Freddie Mercury. Freddie’s handiwork is evident throughout the song, from its sweeping scope to its inventive structure. It’s a gorgeous and powerful rock song, with a beautifully melodic dark streak running through it.
My interpretation of the song has always been influenced by its extraordinary music video—one of the best ever made, in my opinion. The video starts with model theatres, complete with stages, and curtains that the camera moves through. We end up in a model cinema, with creepy dolls watching a screen. On the screen, an animated version of Queen is performing—each band member painted in a different style.
Almost every scene of the video includes depictions of different art forms, layered on top of other art forms. There are claymation acrobats, books containing animated drawings of musical instruments, and filmed footage of dancers. The video is a celebration of art and creativity in all its forms, and I believe the song is as well. The lyrics to “Innuendo” discuss the search for meaning in a cruel and unjust world.
If there’s a god or any kind of justice under the sky,
If there’s a point, if there’s a reason to live or die,
If there’s an answer to the questions we feel bound to ask,
Show yourself, destroy our fears, release your mask
When we’re looking for meaning—for the answers to the big questions—we often turn to art.
We’ll keep on trying,
Till the end of time
To me, this lyric in the chorus means that we’ll keep on creating art until the end of time, in an attempt to find the meaning we’re all searching for. The song also positions art and creativity (or “innuendo”) as a harmless yet significant way to navigate the pain and joy of our lives.
Through the sorrow, all through the splendor,
Don’t take offence at my innuendo
The members of Queen were clearly passionate about music, entertainment, and its vital importance. “Innuendo” has always inspired me, perhaps more than any other song ever has. There’s a section in the middle where the main tune stops, and a flamenco guitar kicks in. Somehow, this doesn’t seem out of place.
You can be anything you want to be,
Just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be,
Be free with your tempo, be free, be free,
Surrender your ego, be free, be free to yourself
There’s something so encouraging about this part. It’s deceptively simple, but it really makes me believe I can become the person I want to be. It inspires me to take action, and to create art of my own. Then the tune comes back in, straining more and more desperately towards a breaking point, until an immensely satisfying crash around 04:52 brings the song back from the brink. It’s a great adrenaline rush, wrapping up an incredible song.
Track 2: “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke”
I’ve always loved the fact that there is a subset of ‘70s Queen songs—mostly on Queen II, and many written by Freddie Mercury—that are all about fairies and other fantasy creatures. One of the best examples is “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” Freddie wrote the lyrics based on a painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd, and its accompanying poem, Elimination of a Picture & its Subject—called The Feller’s Master Stroke, also by Dadd.
Dadd painted The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke in the mid-1800s, while he was incarcerated in Bedlam Lunatic Asylum, having murdered his father. Dadd was experiencing delusions at the time of the murder, and it’s now believed that he likely suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
Despite the rather macabre real-life backstory, the painting is a light-hearted escape into a fantastic realm. Like the painting, the song depicts a community of fairies who have gathered to see the titular “feller” crack a nut with his axe. The song goes through each individual fairy in the scene and describes what they’re doing. This simple premise leads to a barrage of complex lyrics that you might need a thesaurus to decipher.
Tatterdemalion and a junketer,
There’s a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter—he’s my hero,
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy of his lady friend,
The nymph in yellow,
What a quaere fellow
Meanwhile, the joyful, fast-paced melody seems to whip itself into a frenzy. The charming and whimsical nature of “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” makes it a pleasure to listen to, and the lyrics are delightful. The painting proved to be the perfect inspiration for Freddie’s fanciful imagination and brilliant writing.
Oberon and Titania watched by a harridan,
Mab is the Queen and there’s a good apothecary-man
Here Freddie uses internal, imperfect, and multisyllabic rhymes to link “Titania” with “harridan” and “apothecary-man,” words that most people would never think of using in a song—let alone rhyming them. Interestingly, all three of the particular rhyming techniques that Freddie uses simultaneously here are widely used in hip-hop.
In fact, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” does bring to mind the quickly flowing lyrics and intricate rhythms of hip-hop—if you put aside its musical style and subject matter. Of course, hip-hop was only just beginning to evolve in New York around the time Freddie wrote this song, so it’s highly unlikely that the style could have influenced him. Still, great minds think alike.
Track 3: “Drowse”
“Drowse” is a hidden gem, written and sung by Roger Taylor and tucked away on A Day at the Races. Casual Queen fans might be used to hearing Freddie’s vocals on most of the band’s singles, but many of their albums feature Roger Taylor and Brian May each singing one of their own compositions.
A lot of Roger’s songs are fast and fun, while some are dark and angsty. “Drowse,” on the other hand, slows things down and gets more introspective than most. There are heavier, rocking parts, and the whole thing is very catchy. To me, it’s a song about nostalgia for your childhood and teenage years. It’s about wishing you could go back to a time when you were full of hope and potential, and you thought everything would automatically work out. Instead, you grow up and realize that life is actually very difficult, that success requires a lot of hard work, and that sometimes your dreams won’t come true.
Never wanted to be the boy next door,
Always thought I’d be something more,
But it ain’t easy for a small-town boy,
It ain’t easy at all,
Thinking it right, doing it wrong,
It’s easier from an armchair,
Waves of alternatives wash at my sleepiness,
Have my eggs poached for breakfast, I guess
Roger was supposedly one of those kids who always did well in school without putting in much effort, and who was more interested in rock music than academia. I was exactly the same. When you grow up like that, you can coast through school, success seemingly guaranteed, without ever learning discipline or responsibility. You assume you can be whatever you want when you grow up. When adulthood hits, suddenly you don’t have the willpower to achieve any of the things you wanted. Everything you were promised is out of reach—and it’s all your fault.
Roger paints a picture of missing the little things that become hallmarks of youth—the depth of feeling, the drama, and even the boredom.
Out here on the street,
We’d gather and meet,
And scuff up the sidewalk with endlessly restless feet,
Half of the time,
We’d broaden our minds
More in the pool hall than we did in the school hall
Roger was clearly disciplined enough to become an incredible drummer and songwriter, and to find great success with Queen. Still, I’ve always been able to see my own story reflected in the one that Roger tells in “Drowse.” The experiences that he elucidates are significant, nuanced, and hard to articulate, but he does it spectacularly well.
Track 4: “The Prophet’s Song”
This is another of what I think of as Queen’s Bohemian-Rhapsody-like songs. An eight-minute-plus epic written by Brian May, “The Prophet’s Song” is largely inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark, and it features imagery reminiscent of both religion and fantasy. The lyrics center on a prophet warning of the destruction that will come to the world if humans continue in their selfish ways. While the mythic nature of the song calls to mind a distant time and place, the song certainly still feels relevant in 2020, 45 years after its original release.
From mother’s love is the son estranged,
Married his own, his precious gain,
The Earth will shake, in two will break,
And death all around will be your dow’ry
From climate change to the exploitation of the working class by billionaires, to systemic racism, the idea of our world collapsing due to the selfish actions of a portion of humanity doesn’t feel too far off. The song’s vocals and guitar riffs carry a current of energized anger throughout, while the exquisite notes are endlessly satisfying.
Oh, oh, people of the Earth,
Listen to the warning, the prophet he said,
For soon the cold of night will fall,
Summoned by your own hand
Despite its inherent darkness, the song is ultimately hopeful. Its structure is innovative and enthralling, and there’s an almost otherworldly a cappella section in the middle, with a canon of repeating and overlapping vocals. Then the guitars come crashing back in to take us through to the end.
Track 5: “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited”
Written by Freddie Mercury, “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited” deals with the pressure to play it safe and live up to other people’s expectations. It’s a defiant anthem, and an insistence on taking risks and finding your own path. The music and vocals are big and sweeping. The melody is strong, memorable, and filled with emotion. The song could easily be about a relationship you feel stifled in, but I related to it a lot when I decided to drop out of university—something that my parents weren’t thrilled about back then. I was miserable, disillusioned with academia, and suffering from an anxiety disorder, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
It’s so easy, but I can’t do it,
So risky—but I gotta chance it,
It’s so funny, there’s nothing to laugh about,
My money, that’s all you wanna talk about,
I can see what you want me to be,
But I’m no fool
Years later, I’m still learning to deal with my mental illness and hoping to make a career out of my writing. Honestly, I’m still figuring it all out. This is an emotional song for me, and I certainly don’t have all the answers.
Believe me, life goes on and on and on,
Forgive me, when I ask you where do I belong
Most of the best decisions I’ve made in my life have been the times I’ve taken risks, rather than doing the safe thing that I was supposed to do. My anxiety disorder often makes me avoid risks, which can lead to avoiding living my life at all. Despite what some may think, playing it safe can actually be very unhealthy.
I love this song for reminding me of just how important it is to take a risk sometimes—to try something, even if the question of whether it will work out is left “in the lap of the gods.” Go for the job you really want. Move to a new city. Quit the thing you hate. Ask out the person you like. Poignant, with an absolutely gorgeous sound, “In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited” is a true classic.
Track 6: “Scandal”
Queen’s ‘80s hits, which added a synth-pop edge to their infectious brand of rock music, of course had to be represented in my top 10. I’m not sure how “Scandal” ended up being the only ‘80s song on the list, since I adore Queen’s ‘80s stuff, but there’s a lot to choose from when narrowing down their insane catalogue. “Scandal,” credited to Queen but actually written by Brian May, is a criminally underrated track in their ‘80s canon, and it’s a shame it doesn’t get more attention.
It was released as a single from their 1989 album The Miracle, but it didn’t earn a spot on Greatest Hits II, and you rarely hear it played anywhere. I think it’s ‘80s Queen at their best, catchier and even more entertaining than their more successful offerings from that era. The sound is perfect—fun, electronic pop, mixed with dark, decadent rock. The tune is intoxicating. I can listen to it on repeat and never get sick of it.
Freddie’s voice was always incredible, and he’s probably the greatest singer I’ve ever heard, but there’s a certain indefinable quality to it on Queen’s final three albums (The Miracle, Innuendo, and Made in Heaven) that elevates it even more. At around 4:05 Freddie hits a note that leaves me in awe every time I listen to it, at the end of “inside.”
Today the headlines,
Tomorrow hard times,
And no one ever really knows the truth from the lies,
And in the end the story deeper must hide,
Deeper and deeper and deeper inside
A lot of the songs I’ve picked for this top 10 have particularly interesting lyrics, and while Queen do have plenty of unique and meaningful things to say, they also have plenty of songs about love and heartbreak. There is, of course, nothing wrong with love songs, and Queen do them outstandingly well. Brian wrote “Scandal” about the fact that his divorce and new relationship had become fodder for gossip in the press, as had Freddie’s failing health. While being hounded by the press is a fairly unique problem that most of us probably can’t relate to, gossip and drama in general, as well as the breakup of relationships, are much more universal sources of pain.
So let them know when they stare,
It’s just a private affair,
They’ll have us hung in the air,
And tell me what do they care?
It’s only a life to be twisted
Track 7: “Spread Your Wings”
More than a decade before “Scandal,” “Spread Your Wings” was another underrated Queen single that never made it onto their first Greatest Hits album, despite it being one of their very best songs. From the album News of the World, “Spread Your Wings” is a sweet and charming song, written by John Deacon. It tells the story of Sammy, who is unhappy in his dead-end job, and who plans to leave it all behind to follow his dreams. Though it isn’t made explicitly clear what his dreams are, the first few lines imply that they have something to do with show business, since he’s watching a show over and over.
Sammy was low,
Just watching the show,
Over and over again,
Knew it was time,
He’d made up his mind,
To leave his dead life behind
He’s discouraged by his cruel boss, who insists that he’ll fail, and that he should be more realistic and know his place, but Sammy is determined to take his shot and follow his passion. The chorus gives encouragement to Sammy, and anyone in a similar position:
Spread your wings and fly away,
It’s an uplifting, emotional, and highly relatable song for anyone who’s worked a boring job, lived somewhere where options were limited, and dreamed of moving away to do what they really love. I still adore the song, in spite of the fact that nine years after my own move to pursue my dreams, I ended up choosing to return to my hometown—though I haven’t given up on my dreams of writing. I’ve always particularly related to the boss’s characterization of Sammy as a dreamer who lacks the drive to actually succeed.
His boss said to him, “Now listen boy,
You’re always dreaming,
You got no real ambition, you won’t get very far”
This has always been a fear of mine, and so far it’s largely been true that I’ve spent more time thinking about what I want to do than actually doing it. It’s only in more recent years that I’ve realized the ways in which this stems from mental illness, with problems like anxiety and executive function disorder making it hard to actually achieve the things I want. This is something I’m currently working on in therapy. While it’s an obstacle that should be acknowledged, just like in Sammy’s case, I believe it can be overcome. Overall, this is a truly joyous song. It lifts you up if you’ve ever been underestimated and encourages you to take control over your own life.
Track 8: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is, of course, Freddie Mercury’s masterpiece. While all four members of Queen were talented writers, Freddie had that element of insane genius that pushed him to try things that no one else would, and the insight to know that his risks would pay off. I’m always amused when I hear accounts of Freddie telling people about his plan for a bicycle bell solo in “Bicycle Race,” or for the operatic section in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” His suggestions must have sounded totally ridiculous at first, but it takes a lot of creativity and guts to come up with such inventive ideas.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” was initially deemed way too long to be released as a single, or to ever receive any radio play. Its unusual structure and its odd mix of genres also marked it as being totally different to most popular songs. Somehow though, the transition from heartfelt piano ballad to melodramatic opera to hard rock worked astoundingly well. In 1975, the band gave a copy of the song to DJ Kenny Everett, who played it on his radio show 14 times in one weekend, and public demand for its release skyrocketed. It soared to number one in the charts, proceeded to become one of the most popular songs in the world, and has remained so to this day.
The longevity is impressive. After 45 years, people almost universally still get excited, sing along, and headbang when “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes on—despite all of us having heard it approximately 1 million times by now. While there are other Queen songs—and songs by other artists—that I personally like more, objectively I would have to say that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the best song ever written. What other song in popular music is as groundbreaking, as widely known, or as universally loved? As if that wasn’t enough, it’s also often credited with inventing—or at least popularizing—the music video. The song’s achievements are undeniable, and its influence is legendary.
It’s an immensely satisfying song to listen to. The ballad section is beautiful and compelling. The operatic section is ridiculously fun and original. The rock section is exhilarating, and the headbanging is impossible to resist. The ending to the song is like the ideal comedown from all the craziness, with the quiet “Any way the wind blows” and the soft gong crash always sending chills up my spine, and leaving me in a perfect state of relaxation. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a flawlessly orchestrated roller coaster of physical and emotional sensations, from start to finish. It’s almost more of an experience than a song. And there’s simply no other song in the world that’s more iconic.
Track 9: “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”
Queen have their fair share of funny and tongue-in-cheek songs, from “Delilah,” which seems to be a love song until Delilah starts peeing on the furniture (it’s about Freddie Mercury’s cat), to “I’m in Love with My Car,” which actually is a love song—about Roger Taylor’s car. Perhaps their best humorous offering is “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy,” a song written by Freddie Mercury that’s told from the titular lover boy’s point of view, while subtly parodying the character. The artful absurdity of the lover boy’s act never fails to tickle my funny bone.
I can dim the lights and sing you songs full of sad things,
We can do the tango just for two,
I can serenade and gently play on your heart strings,
Be a Valentino just for you
He’s a player, seducing women by pretending to be romantic and sincere, while the song makes fun of his ridiculous attempts to impress. It’s a great little tune that always makes me want to sing along. It’s addictive, bouncy, and upbeat. The lyrics are witty and playful, gradually shedding more light on the audacity of the character’s attitude. I especially love the last verse.
Dining at the Ritz, we’ll meet at nine precisely,
(One two three four five six seven eight nine o’clock)
I will pay the bill, you taste the wine,
Driving back in style in my saloon will do quite nicely,
Just take me back to yours, that will be fine
(Come on and get it!)
The counting and chiming of the clock is a great touch. The supposed casual politeness of “Just take me back to yours, that will be fine” is hilarious, and Freddie suddenly dropping the fake charm to add “Come on and get it!” never fails to make me laugh.
Track 10: “The Show Must Go On”
My favorite Queen song (and quite possibly my favorite song of all time), “The Show Must Go On” was the last Queen single to be released in Freddie Mercury’s lifetime, just six weeks before his death. From the album Innuendo, it was credited to Queen, but mostly written by Brian May—though he clearly wrote it with the fact that Freddie would be singing it in mind. The lyrics describe a determination to keep performing, to carry on with the show, no matter what difficulties you face.
The show must go on,
The show must go on, yeah,
Inside my heart is breaking,
My makeup may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on
The lyrics might be seen as a metaphor, representing Freddie’s resolve in the face of his illness. They could also be taken more literally. While Freddie was unable to tour for the last few years of his life, he did continue to write and record music. Towards the end of his life, he recorded as many of the vocals for Made in Heaven as possible, wanting to keep singing for as long as he was physically able, and to leave behind as much material as he could. This material was eventually put together by the surviving band members to create Queen’s fantastic final album, which also featured vocals by Brian and Roger. They finished singing any songs that Freddie wasn’t able to before he died.
For someone whose life is music, it hardly matters whether “The Show Must Go On” is literal or metaphorical. Freddie Mercury has inspired countless fans with his rare talent, creativity, and passion for music, as well as with the fortitude he showed in dealing with his illness. His resilience and his commitment to his art are both embodied in the lyrics of “The Show Must Go On.” The idea of staying strong in the face of hardships is relatable to most, but anyone creative can also relate to the idea of art, entertainment, and creativity being central to that process. One section of the song contains some of my favorite lyrics of all time.
My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies,
Fairy tales of yesterday will grow but never die,
I can fly, my friends
It’s beautiful, defiant, and uplifting. It reminds me of who I am, and of the life-affirming power of art and creativity. The music throughout the song is tinged with melancholy, but it’s also brilliantly powerful. The video is outstanding too. On the surface it’s just clips of Queen—their previous videos and appearances—but they’re edited to fit the song so perfectly, and seeing the vast array of Queen’s performances over the years is a wonderful complement to the lyrics.
If you give these songs a listen and like what you hear, I hope you’ll check out more of Queen’s incredible repertoire. On the other hand, if you’re already a huge Queen fan like me, please comment and let me know what your own perfect 10 Queen songs would be. I’m excited to see the variety in people’s opinions, since there are so many gems to choose from.
2 CommentsLeave a Reply
Great piece, Natasha. As someone who has also had issues with anxiety in the past, Queen and Freddie have always been my greatest musical inspirations. Freddie’s “Just go for it” attitude is endlessly influential to me.
Well done Natasha. Jesus talked to me through Queen songs was I was younger, and he still does now. Thanks for sharing how Queen’s songs have been influential to you.