Classic Compilation: Queen – Greatest Hits I & II

When it comes to compilations, there is one mega-selling release that overshadows even ABBA Gold and The Beatles Red and Blue Albums for the sheer amount of units shifted. Queen’s Greatest Hits is as much a definitive statement as any of their studio albums, and is the single biggest selling album of all time here in the UK. Covering the majority of their singles from 1972 through to 1981, it came in a variety of track sequences depending on which country you lived in, but these days the UK version is seen as the definitive version, and contonues to sell in eye-watering amounts every year.

So what is the secret to Queen’s compilation success? With an alarming disegard for chronology, Greatest Hits concentrates on listenability and replay value, ebbing and flowing like a studio album, but instead of filler delivering one hit after another in typical Queen style.

Ah yes, typical Queen style. A style which turned off as many rock fans as it charmed. For all their arena rock posturing, Queen were at heart a phenomenal pop band, and after a slightly shaky start, rapidly developed a unique grasp of what made for a great single. In John Deacon and Roger Taylor they had a solid rhythm section backing up the idosyncratic guitar god moves of Brian May, and the greatest rock frontman in the history of the microphone, resulting in a band that were by turns, hard rocking, ambitious, shamelessly commercial, channelling a sort of high camp that their contemporaries could only stare agog at. Okay, so they weren’t a ‘serious’ rock act like Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd. In one sense they were better, because they had the pop nouse, and while some would opine that they never said anything personal in their songs, what they managed to do was unite arenas full of rock fans the world over with hit after hit.

That’s what Queen’s Greatest Hits delivers, hit after hit. From “Killer Queen”, to the immortal “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the double punch of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”, via “Don’t Stop Me Now” (a song which history has slowly revealed to be perhaps the definitive Queen single), and on to the knowing sillines of “Fat Bottomed Girls”, the irresistable pop of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, and even the truly bonkers “Flash”, surely the most effective example of a hit single acting as a trailer for an even sillier film. Every track here is a consumate example of how to deliver brilliantly accessible rock music to the masses.

It’s not all the hits though. “Tie Your Mother Down”, while it didn’t chart as highly as the other great singles here, certainly deserved to, and the fact that it wasn’t included on Queen’s Greatest Hits means it is something of an over-looked classic in their oevure, particularly by those for whom the Greatest Hits collections are enough. The other missing single is “Spread Your Wings”, one of Queen’s more subtle numbers (and therefore something of an oxymoron), and something of a ‘deep cut’, despite it being issued as a single.

Queen’s Greatest Hits is the ultimate example of a compilation being as definitive an artistic statement as a studio album. It delivers on every level except restraint, which in the first half of Queen’s career was pretty much what they set out to do. Job done, end of story.

…Or it would have been if Queen hadn’t morphed from arena rock band to stadium pop-rockers at the start of the 80s.

1980’s The Game had put the pop cat among the rock pigeons, seeing them mid-way through a transition from theatrical rockers to something that the denim-clad hordes were a bit confused about. Freddie Mercury had cut his hair! There were dance beats! And synthesisers! And that bonkers Flash Gordon soundtrack! Blimey!

It’s fair to say that Queen’s 80s albums are a bit of a mixed bag. While their 70s long players had all been unmistakably rock albums, albeit rock albums that managed to strike an ever-shifting balance of playfulness and ambition, their abums after The Game were considerably more hit and miss, with the likes of Hot Space sounding a bit confused as they flirted with dance beats and funk, and The Works trying a little too hard to re-establish their hard rock credentials. They also sounded a whole lot more like they were aiming as much at the pop market as the rock market too.

While Queen’s original Greatest Hits album captured them in their 70s pomp, Greatest Hits II covers a decade where Queen suffered something of an identity crisis, while simultaeneously becoming the most effective stadium rock act on the planet. Even more so than Greatest Hits I, Greatest Hits II demonstrates one of Queen’s all too often overlooked strengths, in that, regardless of how variable each individual album might have been, they were always able to find a cracking single amongst even the worst dregs of an album. For example, while few would argue that 1989’s The Miracle was one of Queen’s best albums, in that album’s title track, “I Want It All” and “Breakthru”, you have a trilogy of top-draw pop-rock singles. That was the beauty of Queen in the 80s, if you listen two Greatest Hits II, you’d never know that their best days were behind them, because they were still churning out fantastic hit singles that most rock bands would happily give their rhythm sections away for. Not that Queen should have got rid of Roger Taylor and John Deacon in the 80s. Indeed, between the two of them they wrote many of the band’s biggest hits of the decade, making Queen unique in that each member of the band were more than capable of penning a pop-rock classic.

Released mere weeks before King Fred’s sad death, Greatest Hits II also manages to celebrate the resurrection of Queen to their status of chart-toppers by way of their hit single and album Innuendo. While the single tried its best to be a brisk update of “Bohemain Rhapsody” for the 90s, the album was one of the band’s most involved and multi-faceted for years.

Of course, with Mercury’s passing, it would “Bohemian Rhapsody” itself that would become the Bohemain Rhapsody of the 90s, as the music industry seemingly stopped in its tracks to mourn the passing of one of rock and roll’s true originals. In one sense Greatest Hits II couldn’t have been timed any better, though some may throw accusations of cynicism releasing a compilation when the band’s inner circle must have known that Mercury’s life was near an end. Then again if it had been released after he had passed away, wouldn’t that have been even more cynical?

Whatever the case, Greatest Hits II is definitive proof that, even when suffering from a horrifically debilitating medical condition, Freddie Mercury never lost his vocal prowess. He was, and always will be, rock music’s greatest showman, and both of the Greatest Hits collections are monuments to his charisma and talent.

Okay, so you may wonder why I have effectively ‘cheated’ and included two greatest hits sets for one act in this A to Z of classic compilations. The things is, the original Greatest Hits, while it is an undispauted classic compilation on its own, doesn’t give you the whole story until you pair it with Greatest Hits II, which covers a period where Queen genuinely struggled to consistently release satisfying albums, but were still consistently releasing genuinely brilliant singles. And yes, the two compilations were packaged together in a single collection, which if you’re looking for a Queen compilation, is still the set to go for if you can find it.

One set which is easy to find is the triple disc collection of Greatest Hits I, II & III (or the horribly named ‘Platinum Collection’), the final disc of which is a collection which highlights just how much Queen’s legacy had already been dragged through the mud by 1999. Sure Greatest Hits I and II are classics, but Greatest Hits III is an abomination. It’s a cynical barrel-scraping exercise of the lowest order, compiling solo tracks, collaborations with vocalists who were simply not fit to fill Freddie Mercury’s ballet shoes, and long forgotten corners of soundtracks.

Tragically it’s only got worse since then. While John Deacon quietly retired with dignity largely intact in the late 90s, Brian May and Roger Taylor continue to drag the rotting corpse of Queen around the globe to this day, sometimes collaborating with greats (Paul Rodgers) and the distinctly not greats (Five. Adam Lambert. Sodding Robbie Williams ferchrisake!) to little success, plugging their jukebox musical juggernaut, selling their back-catalogue to the highest bidder, and allowing their much loved music to be used in all manner of annoying adverts, and generally squeezing every penny possible out of their previous glories.

It’s all pretty tragic.

Better to remember them this way instead…

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