One of the most scathing personal attacks recorded in song, Death On Two Legs was the opening track on Queen’s fourth, extravagant, eclectic masterpiece, A Night At The Opera, released in 1975 – at the time the most expensive album ever made. In his biography Norman Sheffield, Queen’s original manager (and owner of the world renowned Trident studios) to whom the song was dedicated, vehemently denied mismanaging Queen and sued the band for defamation at the time of release, reaching an out of court settlement.
Included below is a lyric video and two live renditions that show off Mercury’s adept piano playing, vocal prowess and mastery of performance. Brian May’s guitar, known as the Red Special, made with his father out of an old fireplace mantel and an oak table, cuts into the vitriol with his unique tone – his habit of using an old British sixpence instead of a pick contributes to his sound. You’ll notice too that in the live footage attention is played to John Deacon on the bass and Roger Taylor on the drums, probably because Freddie Mercury was happy to share the limelight, despite stealing it by merely walking onto the stage – his flamboyance equalled only by his talent.
Produced by Roy Thomas Baker, A Night At The Opera debuted at No.1 in the UK and made it to No.4 in the US, hitting the top ten almost everywhere else. The album was named after a Marx Brothers film from 1935. Most famously, legendary track Bohemian Rhapsody, written by Freddie Mercury, became one of the most iconic songs ever recorded by a Rock band. It gained a new lease of life with the hilarious and loving tribute in the film Wayne’s World (1992). Sales to date are around seven million – downloads are unknown, Spotify plays stand at 311,377,855.
Mercury’s generosity shows its face again on the track listing for the album despite his own skillful writing, singing and musicianship, he seems to be at ease with the politics of everyone in the band contributing to the writing. Still, he was probably grateful that there were other writers in the band, taking the pressure off him. The album contains three songs written by Brian May – The Prophet’s Song sung by Mercury, 39 sung by May and Good Company sung by May with no contribution by Mercury at all. You’re My Best Friend, written by bassist John Deacon was sung by Mercury and was another hit. Drummer Roger Taylor wrote and sang I’m In Love With My Car.
There was allegedly some friction created by Taylor insisting that his song should be the B-side to Bohemian Rhapsody. In those days, A and B-side royalties were shared equally between the writers. Later, the rule changed to benefit the writer of ‘the hit’, the idea of sharing equally between A-side and B-side credits deemed unfair – the B-side clinging like a parasite to the A-side, contributing nothing to the single’s success. A harsh summary perhaps because no-one really knows if a single will be successful till it actually is and in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody it was highly unlikely with a song that was 5.57 in length – but then there was the Mercury’s faith in an unedited version and the groundbreaking video. The doubters were soon silenced and Roger Taylor’s insistence earned him another car or two to love.
Last but not least, I saw Queen live on the 1st November 1975 at the Liverpool Empire on the Sheer Heart Attack tour, one of the most dynamic and memorable concerts of my life.