Like so many significant stories in the world of post-'60s rock, this one begins with the Beatles.
More specifically, it begins with the 1968 double-album released simply as "The Beatles," but known as "The White Album." Across the span of two vinyl discs, the Fab Four delved into nearly every musical style imaginable, from the old-school rock 'n' roll of "Back in the USSR" to the proto-heavy metal squall of "Helter Skelter;" the folksy country stroll of "Rocky Raccoon" to the trippy psychedelia of "Dear Prudence;" and from the pure music hall charm of "Martha My Dear" to the avant-garde soul of "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"
Already the most successful band in the world, the Beatles employed that fame as a license to split into four separate bands with four separate songwriters, and further, to fully indulge every whim of personal taste. In the process, the band created -- wittingly or otherwise -- what would come to be known as progressive rock.
Though it was forged in the fiery furnace of David Bowie's gender-bending glam-rock, British quartet Queen built its career on -- and employed as bedrock for its musical philosophy -- the sprawling "White Album."
It would add to the multi-idiomatic melange the Beatles presented with their masterpiece, bringing in an estimable amount of camp, show-tune grandiosity, the Sturm und Drang of opera, and ultimately, the anthemic qualities of arena-sized "big rock." Along the way, the group would sell in excess of 150 million albums worldwide, making it one of the most successful bands in history.
Indelibly ambitious, deeply musical and fearlessly flamboyant, Queen meant many things to many people.
Singer, pianist, songwriter and one-of-a-kind frontman Freddie Mercury possessed an operatic tenor and an uncanny ability to carry off hard rock histrionics, white man's soul, and fey Tin Pan Alley pop craftsmanship with equal aplomb and readily apparent conviction.
In Brian May, Queen boasted a genuine guitar hero, a musician whose larger-than-life solos and keen ear for orchestrated guitar harmonies gave the band much of its regal air and musical street-cred.
Drummer Roger Taylor sang like Rod Stewart and played like Led Zeppelin's John Bonham. Bassist John Deacon was the quiet one, but his melodic lines and deep, guttural thump anchored the group, and he would prove to be perhaps the most pop-savvy of the Queen composers.
All four of them could write, all four of them were virtuosos, and most significantly, all four of them could sing. The ability to move with ease between musical styles became a Queen trademark, but it was the massive, neo-operatic layering of the band's harmony vocals that made it wholly unique within the rock landscape of the '70s. This recipe informed all of the band's hits, whether the song in question be the iconic mini-opera "Bohemian Rhapsody," the arena-sized (English) football chant heroics of "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions," or the shameless disco-funk appropriation "Another One Bites the Dust."
When, in 1991, Freddie Mercury succumbed to a lengthy battle with AIDS-related illnesses at the age of 45, Queen died along with him. The eccentric Mercury was not just another singer, and thus, was not replaceable. The surving members called it a day, after releasing one posthumous Mercury-based album, 1995's "Made in Heaven." That seemed to be that.
May, Taylor and Deacon kept a low profile, while the band's enduring influence became readily apparent in the work of a new generation of bands, and its catalog continued to sell to a generation of listeners not even born when Queen scored most of its biggest hits.
In 2004, however, May and Taylor -- Deacon was firm in his commitment to retirement -- played a one-off gig at an English industry awards show with former Free/Bad Company/the Firm singer Paul Rodgers. The magic, it seemed, had not wholly abandoned them. Soon enough, the trio -- with the help of a few backing musicians -- had rehearsed a program of Queen songs, peppered with a few of the various hits Rodgers had accrued over the years. (Between his efforts with the various bands he fronted, Rodgers has accrued nearly 150 million worldwide album sales himself.)
"Paul is not really replacing Freddie, because no man can," Taylor said to The Buffalo News prior to a Queen Paul Rodgers Buffalo tour stop in 2006. "He is completely his own man, and he brings a sound, style and approach that is wholly his own to the table. That's why we can feel good about carrying on -- it doesn't at all feel like we've replaced Freddie. It's more like we've formed a new band to play this repertoire of music that, I must say, still retains an awful lot of power."
At the time of the Buffalo concert, Taylor was noncommittal about writing and recording plans for this new band. "We're committed to this tour, but we have no plans beyond that," the drummer said.
Now, however, the first album of new Queen material to be released sans the towering vocals and considerable songwriting acumen of Mercury is poised to hit the streets. Concurrently, the influence of Queen's large-screen, grandiose vision of rock music is more pervasive than ever. It's both interesting and ironic that Queen, the very band so many among the first generation of British punk rockers claimed to be rebelling against as bloated and irrelevant, has in fact had a broader influence than most of those angry young neo-anarchists. "God save the Queen," indeed.