For a generation of fans who grew up listening to ‘Radio Gaga’ and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’, it is easy to forget just how much of a hard rock band they were, particularly on their first three records. Drummer Roger Taylor, reflecting in 2014, claimed that they “were like Led Zeppelin with harmonies”, as ‘Sheer Heart Attack” shows. In parts as energetic as The Who, in others musically dexterous as Cream, at other times as seductive as Kiss, ‘Sheer Heart Attack” is a fantastic visage of seventies glam metal.
Much of this visage is down to Brian May’s stellar playing, whether it is the choppy chords on ‘Stone Cold Crazy’, the psychedelic riff heard in ‘Flick Of The Wrist’ or, best of all, the long, blistering solos of album opener ‘Brighton Rock’, May’s playing would never sound as good as this again on a future Queen record. This is made all the more remarkable when you consider how many recording sessions May missed, his absence the fault of a bad case of hepatitis, an illness he contracted while touring North America with Mott The Hoople in 1974, a band he paid tribute to on ‘Now I’m Here’.
In his absence, the other three soldiered on as much as they could with producer Roy Thomas Baker in Trident Studios, Freddie Mercury providing many of the songs which made the album’s final cut. A chameleon writer, Mercury threw himself from genre to genre with gusto, from esoteric pop ‘Killer Queen’ to skiffle influenced ‘Bring back that Leroy Brown’ to anthem closer ‘In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited’ (so-called, due to the similar title of another track). Best of all, Mercury wrote the plaintive ‘Lily Of The Valley’ a sombre ballad, its mood only equalled by May’s succulent ‘She Makes Me (Stormtrooper In Stilletoes)’ and funereal ‘Dear Friends’, three light respites from the riff driven energy of the other songs.
Drummer Roger Taylor also contributed ‘Tenement Funster’, a fifties rock ode sung by Taylor giving his best Rod Stewart impersonation. A classic tune of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, it proved to be Taylor’s first truly great song. Taylor also wrote the record’s title track, although fans would have to wait a further three albums before they heard the song, due to its incompleteness in 1974.
Bassist John Deacon, having abstained from previous records, finally recorded one of his own compositions. True, ‘Misfire’ is not en par with the songs of May, Mercury and Taylor, but it proved to have enough musical potential to show that Deacon was far from the band’s Ringo Starr; by their next record, ‘A Night At The Opera’ (1975), Deacon proved himself very much a song-writing equal to the other three.
But as a musician, Deacon truly excels on the record. If May’s guitar playing was the album’s best attribute, Deacon’s thrills were an added incentive. From the jazz frills on ‘In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited’ to the aggressive power playing on ‘Flick Of the Wrist’, Deacon was a very versatile player, a fit match to Taylor’s sparse playing, together a rhythm section capable of equalling Bruce/Baker, Jones/Bonham or Redding/Mitchell.
Queen would record albums of better songs and more cohesion. But there is something special about ‘Sheer Heart Attack’. Dense and exciting, varied and accessible, the band never sounded as good a unit as they did on this record ever again.