In April, record club Vinyl Me Please announced that it would be restoring some previously out-of-print titles to the catalogue to celebrate 100 releases in the club's Essentials series. (See the list of all ten titles here.) We've given a spin to the re-presses of Queen's A Night at the Opera and Al Green's Call Me.
For Queen, too much was never enough. That attitude is perhaps best embodied by the band's fourth album, 1975's A Night at the Opera. While the title was derived from the Marx Brothers' film of forty years earlier, the LP was no laughing matter. It was reportedly the most expensive album ever recorded as the foursome of Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon teamed with producer Roy Thomas Baker to realize their wildest musical visions. Unabashedly grandiose, undeniably bombastic, and deliciously bold, A Night at the Opera remains Queen's masterwork. Building on the aggressive rock sound of Sheer Heart Attack, it's since been claimed by fans of pop, hard rock, prog, and metal as belonging to those genres - and that's not to mention its nods to Dixieland jazz, folk, music hall, musical theatre, and yes, opera. It's now one of the titles recently brought back into the catalogue by Vinyl Me Please as reissued in 2018 as Essentials E071 from the original, first-generation stereo tapes and recut at Abbey Road Studios. A Night at the Opera has been pressed on 180-gram multi-colored "galaxy" vinyl.
In addition to Mercury, May, and Taylor's trademark, multi-tracked vocal harmonies, Queen broadened their scope with such instruments as tack and grand pianos, Wurlitzer organ, timpani, gong, acoustic guitars, harp, and koto, a Japanese stringed instrument in the zither family. (The LP's credits succinctly noted, "No synthesizers!") In the case of "Seaside Rendezvous," real instruments weren't necessary at all; Mercury and Taylor used their voices to imitate brass and woodwinds. The breezy little tune complete with tap dance section was just one of Mercury's music hall pastiches, along with "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon" in which his croon was manipulated to sound as if it was coming out of a megaphone, Rudy Vallee-style. Freddie delivered one of his most classically inspired pieces with the ballad "Love of My Life." May turned in the sci-fi-themed folk-skiffle sing-along "'39" and the George Formby-meets-Dixieland "Good Company," one of the few Queen tracks to feature no involvement from Freddie Mercury.
A Night at the Opera isn't without its edgy moments, though. Mercury's snarling "Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to...)" minced no words as it took a former manager to task; said manager - despite never being named in the song - responded by filing a defamation suit against the band. The rest of the album was less controversial if no less potent. May's "Sweet Lady" is a burst of hard rock, albeit in three-quarter (or waltz) time. Taylor's blistering "I'm in Love with My Car" isn't as silly as the title sounds. Deacon wrote the blissful pop ode "You're My Best Friend," anchoring its light swing with both his bass and an electric piano. His first composition to be selected for single release, it reached the top ten in the U.K. and top twenty stateside.
On any album not including "Bohemian Rhapsody," May's ambitious prog-rock opus "The Prophet's Song" would surely have been the highlight. Clocking in at almost eight-and-a-half minutes long, it lyrically conjures a mystical atmosphere with Biblical references; musically, it allows Mercury's ever-powerful, malleable voice to shine on a fiendishly tricky canon.
But, alas, "Bohemian Rhapsody" does feature on A Night at the Opera, and threatens to overshadow everything else. It's no mistake that Mercury's epic, melodic multi-part suite occupies the climactic "eleven o'clock number" position on the album, followed only by the brief instrumental take on "God Save the Queen." In just six minutes, it's quintessential Queen: dramatic, over-the-top ridiculous (and deadly serious in its ridiculousness), and incredibly, dazzlingly musical with one sheet of sound atop the next. "Bohemian Rhapsody" remained at the peak of the U.K. Singles Chart for nine weeks, topped various international charts, and went Top 10 in the U.S.; in 1992, it would chart all over again as a result of its appearance in the comedy Wayne's World. A Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, "Bohemian Rhapsody" was crowned the world's most-streamed song in 2018, with over 1.6 billion streams. But even as they build to that one crowning achievement, the other tracks on A Night at the Opera represent the band working in tandem at peak form and stretching the perceptions of what a "hard rock" band could accomplish.
The packaging of the original 1975 LP has been recreated by Vinyl Me Please including a heavyweight, tip-on gatefold jacket with foil features; the inner sleeve featuring five photographs; and the custom labels. All of the lyrics can be found in the gatefold. Topping off the package is a print by artist Megan Bowker with imagery derived from the album. (The print is housed along with the LP and its OBI-style strip in a clear bag.) The mastering is quiet and ready for cranking, although our copy experienced occasional clicks. This does not seem to be the case with all copies of this new pressing. A Night at the Opera remains "Good Company," indeed. Play it loud!
VMP has also returned to print a cornerstone of southern soul artistry: Al Green's Call Me. The 1973 Hi Records release was the soul man's sixth album and fourth in two years as well as his fifth straight collaboration with producer Willie Mitchell and the Hi Rhythm Section. It became Green's third of six consecutive LPs to top the Billboard R&B survey.
Green and Mitchell didn't tamper with their formula for success, but the inspired material and the sublime, confident vocal delivery make Call Me one of his finest and most consistent long-players from start to finish. The title track (one of the LP's three singles to place within the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100) written by Green, Mitchell, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. echoes Green's massive 1971 hit "Let's Stay Together." Prominent drums anchor the lean rhythm track while strings alternately provide comfort and tension; the background trio Rhodes-Chalmers-Rhodes offer subtle vocal flourishes in support. Green harmonizes with himself, fitting for the singer who could effortlessly shift from a sweet falsetto to an earthy rasp. It's a masterful production, all the more so for its deceptive simplicity and emotional directness.
Like "Call Me," "You Ought to Be with Me" emanated from the Green/Mitchell/Jackson triumvirate and was issued on 45 RPM before the album was released. Both songs, too, had more than a bit musically in common with "Let's Get Together." The Green sound was still potent, though. "You Ought to Be with Me" topped the R&B chart and reached No. 3 Pop, a worthy successor to the major crossover likes of "Let's Stay Together" and "I'm Still in Love with You" (and almost-as-successful "Look What You Done for Me"). The horn section is at their most insinuating on "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," the third top ten single on Call Me. The groove is dark and funky on the song penned by Green and guitarist Teenie Hodges.
The album tracks are no less choice. The mellow, ethereal "Have You Been Making Out OK" epitomizes the singer's ability to wring feeling out of a lyric without so much as raising his voice from a near-whisper; even on an imploring statement of social conscience such as "Stand Up," he never overplays his cool hand. The lead vocal on "Your Love Is Like the Morning Sun" is delicate and airy, supported by the glistening strings and cooing backgrounds.
Notably, two country-and-western standards were reinvented on Call Me: Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away." In Green's smooth reinventions, he underscores the natural relationship between country and soul, with both genres at their finest communicating stories that come straight from the heart. The melodies fit the Hi Rhythm Section like a glove; a listener unfamiliar with the originals could believe these classics came from Green's own pen. "Funny How Time Slips Away" very nearly becomes a duet between Green and Green in another showcase of his bravura voice(s). Country and soul also frequently share a devotion to a higher power, and the devout singer made sure to include a spiritually-themed composition on each of his secular LPs. His own "Jesus Is Waiting" makes for a stirring finale to Call Me, with his "duet for one" vocals bouncing from speaker to speaker in stereo. The secular and the religious aspects of Al Green continued to be a push/pull in his personal life, and within just a few years of this album's release, he would devote himself to the music of the church. 2003's I Can't Stop proved to be his first fully secular recording since the seventies.
The intimacy, romance, and swagger of Call Me (first reissued by VMP in 2019 as Classics C024) are captured with vibrancy on VMP's new issue. It's been pressed at QRP on 180-gram black vinyl and beautifully mastered by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound in an all-analog chain with lacquers cut from the original master tapes by Smith. The tip-on jacket replicates the original pressing, and a separate book includes liner notes by Memphis music historian Robert Gordon, author of Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. Southern soul doesn't get much more smoldering than this.
Visit Vinyl Me Please today for more information on the VMP 100 initiative!
Bruce Padgett says
Joe, is the Queen LP you reviewed the one with the “Multicolor Galaxy” vinyl, as described on the VMP website? And I wonder whether said coloring might account for the pops and clicks you heard? There’s been some debate about whether colored vinyl might be inherently more prone to noise.
Joe Marchese says
Yes, it was the galaxy vinyl. I've not generally noticed a problem with colored vinyl, but I'd certainly be curious to hear any other readers' thoughts. Thanks, Bruce!
Queen Tribute says
A Night at the Opera was one of the most expensive albums (at the time of it's recording). I still think A Day at the Races is just 'as good'. Perhaps Queen, if they were around now, might have issued it as a 2 disc boxed set.