Friday, February 12, 2010

Queen Song of the Week: '39

One of the really unusual things about Queen is that despite having who many would consider the greatest frontman of all time, they recorded several songs where other band members took over on lead vocals. Throughout the 1970s, RT sang most of the songs that he wrote, but Dr. May sang far less of his compositions (likely because he wrote many more songs than RT did!)

This week, the Queen Song of the Week is '39 from A Night at the Opera, written and sung by Dr. May. '39 was chronologically Queen's 39th song and was released as a B side to You're My Best Friend in 1975.

I will admit I heard this song many times, usually in the background to real life, and never thought twice about it. Then I saw this particular video. Because Dr. May sings this song, Queen has been able to replicate it relatively accurately in concert since it was written. The band would come to the front of the stage, gather around a few microphones and sing together while Dr. May sat and played guitar. This video really caught my attention because it taps into the sad (even haunting) mood of the song by linking together live performances spanning 30 years. That means, performances with Freddie Mercury and more recently performances without him. Really beautifully done. Also take note of RT's ridiculously high notes (I'd say singing but it is really more of a shriek, isn't it?) at both the beginning and the bridge of the song. At the very end of the video, poor RT throw his tambourine into the air, but doesn't catch it, so it hits him in the face. Adorable!

To hear a genuine live version of '39 (unfortunately with no video) sung by Freddie Mercury and including live falsetto by RT, check out this version from the Queen: Live Killers album. I remember once reading an article where RT commented that people thought that his falsetto had been overdubbed in the studio so for one entire tour, he went ahead and sang all the high parts to show that he really could hit all those notes. Unfortunately I can't find the article right now, but the search continues!

Dr. May wrote this song about a man who goes into space to search for a better world. When he returns, he discovers that time has passed for him much more slowly than it did on Earth and now he's approximately the same age as his grandchildren. Twilight Zone buffs (like me) will appreciate this storyline which is rather similiar to one of my favorite episodes. Perhaps that's why I have a particular appreciation of this song.

According to the band, the musical arrangement of this song is a bit of a "sci-fi folk song" (I can't recall if RT or Dr. May said that, but it's from Classic Albums: A Night at the Opera - Part 1 available here or the entire documentary for sale here). Regardless of who said it, the description is absolutely perfect. Dr. May's guitar is the focal instrument with RT playing only the bass drum and tambourine and John Deacon playing minimal bass. This allows additional emphasis on the harmonies which are absolutely stunning, especially in the last two repeats of the chorus.

Despite the song not being released as a single and not being a typical "Queen" song, it is very much a fan favorite at concerts with Dr. May encouraging the crowd to sing along. It's really amazing to watch the videos of live performances where Dr. May stops singing but the crowd continues on without him. What a great atmosphere!

Happy Listening!


  1. I remember this song! Queen was a great, great band. (Still is, I'm sure, but I've heard so little about them since Freddie Mercury died.) It's nice to know they aren't totally forgotten by younger people here in the US. I've been enjoying your posts. My favorite Queen song is Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Closely followed by Killer Queen, Love of My Life.. well, did they did so many great songs.

  2. I agree - too many great songs to name in one post. That's why I've been doing my favorites every week! I'm glad you appreciate the non-fashion stuff of the blog too (I wonder sometimes if people just ignore the Queen stuff!) Thanks for reading!

  3. Granted, there is a bit of controversy about the book, The Real Story of Freddy Mercury, by Mariam Ahundova [English trans.2004]. That being said, I find her comments on "'39" intriguing:

    **To understand ’39, you have to remember what happened in the year 39 A.D. In this year, according to the Acts, the apostle Peter in the city of Yaffa cancelled the rituals and traditions of Old Testament, and, in the short time, the Christian church was assembled, and everyone who believed in Christ was accepted by it. This same time, the clerics, rituals, sacraments appeared, the prayers and order of services were devised. Considering that in the Christian literature the Church is compared to a ship that sails through the oceans of Chaos (the symbol of overcoming the death), and the church buildings are called “God’s ships”, it’s not hard to understand that ’39 is a Christian spiritual anthem praising the Church (its music is reminiscent of a mass). That’s why the people sailing out on the ship are called the Volunteers with a capital V – it’s those who were the nucleus of the first Church, the first Faithfuls. “The lands were few” – the events are taking part in the times when Christianity was almost unknown to everybody, and the Church-Ship is sailing out to conquer new lands. That’s why ship’s sailing out is called “the sweetest sight”. And they’re sailing the “milky seas” – it’s one of Christian symbols of the Heavenly bliss, so those people are the Saved ones.

    The chorus, “Don’t you hear my call?” is directed to the God. “Letters in the sand” is an allegory of speaking with God – human doesn’t see and feel it, as the letter in the sand. And the phrase “Take my head, Lord” is wide-spread in the Western Christian poetry and means the soul’s meeting with God in Heaven (“the land that our grandchildren knew”). ... The Volunteers come back and bring “good news” of a newly born world – the news about the Christianity (English “good news” is translated as “Gospel”). The world saved after Christ’s Resurrection is reborn for a new life, like everyone who believes in Christ. The connection between God and people is reestablished and is held by the Church, the man gets the opportunity of salvation, rebirth and overcoming the death through the Christian faith (in the Orthodox prayers, it’s called “to be reborn in Christ”). That’s the good news brought by the Volunteers in the world. But their hearts are heavy because many people don’t want to take the reborn and saved world, and it’s old and grey for them.

    When the author says, “Your mother’s eyes in your eyes cry to me”, he’s speaking with Christ again. “Your mother’s eyes” is a hint on the human part of Christ’s origin. He was a human, himself – that’s why he can empathize with the people, and from his human eyes, tears are running, lamenting the people’s sufferings. The words “all your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand” don’t need any comments. This great anthem is finished by the words, “For my life still ahead pity me” – Lord, please forgive me for my future (after)life.**

    I myself am not Christian, but I have found it fascinating to appreciate how much theology Brian May and Freddie Mercury were able to sneak into their music. My sense is that by the middle years Roger Taylor and John Deacon were quite aware about what was going on, as "Soul Brother" is quite explicitly credited to all four of them.