In 1971, Brian May and Roger Taylor had a band called Smile. There was a young man named Farrokh Bulsara, a Parsi born in Zanzibar and living in England who was a big fan of Smile and urged them to broaden their stage show and recording techniques. Bulsara, who would later change his name to Freddie Mercury, joined the band as a lead singer and pianist. With May on guitars and Taylor on drums, the quartet was completed with John Deacon on bass and this foursome became Queen. Their sound was built on hard rock hooks, progressive layered harmonies both in guitar and vocals, lyrics that ranged from the fantastical to the tongue-in-cheek satirical, and the flamboyant stage presence of Freddie Mercury. They were truly original and yet seemed to be an organic result of the rise of glam, stadium rock, and shock rock that emerged around that time.
You can find a lot of influences peeking into Queen's music. Mercury showed touches of Elvis tempered by the harmonic styles of the Beatles. Within the guitar work of Brian May, you can catch elements of Jimmy Page as well as Pink Floyd and even Black Sabbath. At the same time, Freddie Mercury's vocal and stage stylings were completely unique and May's guitar work, fueled by a home-built guitar he designed with his father that was specially designed to feed back with ease, was absolutely original. Queen was truly a band that built on many influences and made a completely original stew out of the mix.
Main Creative Force
All four of the main members of the band wrote which means it can be very difficult to nail down one creative force. Without question, onstage every eye in an arena would be on Mercury, but the signature sound of Queen was clearly a mix of Mercury's vocals and the harmonies supporting them equally supported by May's incredible guitar work. Queen was a force in itself and even Freddie Mercury would not have been Queen without the other three.
Most Likely To Be A Mainstream Rocker
I will say this without a hint of doubt. All four of them could have contributed brilliantly to any band, anywhere, in any time. They were showmen and musicians of the highest order and I say that without really even being a big fan. They were just that good.
First Hint of Prog Brilliance
You knew you had something special from the very first eponymous album, 'Queen'. 'Queen II' offered more of the same, but you could hear them getting better and 'Keep Yourself Alive' introduced a lot of American listeners to Queen's unique vocals along with May's amazing guitar work. The band came into their own with 'Sheer Heart Attack' in 1974. American audiences finally got a good listen as 'Killer Queen' broke into heavy US radio airplay and climbed the charts. For those bold enough to buy the album, 'Stone Cold Crazy' was enough to convince listeners that Brian May might just be one of the best guitarists in the world.
The 1975 blockbuster, 'A Night At The Opera' was the smash that propelled Queen to superstar status. The album produced two major hits. The first was 'You're My Best Friend' which was the first by John Deacon. The song made the most of the groups tight harmony vocals and was a great radio play with a 2:50 time - perfect for the 3-minute airplay hit. But the showstopper that made Queen an AOR giant and cemented their place in the Prog-O-Pedia was the 6-minute 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. The song, an elaborate tale that danced across musical styles and showcased Mercury's theatrical voice, has become a classic rock landmark that rivals 'Free Bird', 'Stairway to Heavan', and 'Layla'. Thanks to 'Wayne's World' there will forever be visuals to with the lush orchestration of that epic piece.
Influenced By Them
Almost every hard rock, metal, or prog band that has emerged since the 70s has claimed to have been influenced by Queen. It is hard not to be. They were such a distinctive musical force between the vocal harmonies, Mercury's dramatic style, and May's unique guitar that anyone growing up in the 70s and 80s had to have heard them and could not help but be influenced. Queen is one band that is hard to copy. Even if you can find a vocalist capable of channeling Mercury (and that would be extremely difficult to do) it is even harder to find a guitarist that can play like May. But their influence can be heard in a lot of bands in the decades since.
Freddie Mercury died from complications due to AIDS in 1991. When I was in radio back in the early 80s, it was a well accepted 'fact' that Mercury was gay. I mean, the band was called Queen, right? We were never sure about the rest of the guys but it didn't take a lot of insight to see it in Freddie. And no one in radio really cared because the band was just that good. As powerful as they were on records, they were ten times that on stage and the 1985 Live Aid concert is probably where most people got a glimpse of Queen's power in a live show for the first time. Sadly, they would only be together as a force for a few more years. After Mercury's death, Taylor and May have toured with Paul Rogers who is a vocalist capable of doing justice to Queen's music but he is the first to admit that he is not Freddie Mercury.
I was delighted to see May and Taylor again at the closing ceremonies for the London Olympic games in 2012. While pop star Jessie J was a poor substitute for Freddie on 'We Will Rock You' to see Dr. Brian May (PhD in Astrophysics, boys and girls) jamming the living crap out of that song on his home-build 'Red Special' definitely gave me a few goosebumps.
My Personal Take
I liked Queen from the first time I heard them. My first roommate at Ottawa University had two artists that made up 90% of his record collection - Elton John and Queen. I think I heard 'A Night At The Opera' about 10,000 times freshman year and I admit I did get tired of it. But to this day, on the short lists of artists who cannot be duplicated, Queen stands tall. There will never be another vocalist/front man quite like Freddie Mercury and there will never be another guitarist quite like Brian May.