When one of the seemingly universally-agreed greatest rock singers of all-time is a member of your band, that vocalist understandably sings lead on the majority of the songs. And that is certainly the case with Queen and the late/great Freddie Mercury (who on September 5th, would have turned 76 years old). But it turned out that two other members were capable singers, as well – guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (bassist John Deacon being the only member who was never bold enough to be solely featured behind the mic).
And while every single Queen hit was sung by Mr. Mercury, there were quite a few album cuts featuring May and Taylor as lead singers that are also standout tunes, as well – although admittedly, not well-known outside of fanatics of the band. As a loyal Queen fan since 1980 (heck, and I'm even the author of the book Long Live Queen: Rock Royalty Discuss Freddie, Brian, John & Roger!) and well-versed in the band's discography/history, I can be trusted as your guide through the five best Queen songs that were not sung by Freddie.
"Some Day One Day" – Queen II (1974)
If you're a rock band and your debut album didn't exactly storm the charts, a "direction re-plot" may be in store for the all-important sophomore effort. Not Queen. On Queen II, the band went completely over the top production-wise – with layered vocals (that sounded like a choir), guitar harmonies, fantasy lyrical subjects ("Ogre Battle"), etc. And the move paid off, as they scored their first-ever UK hit single, "Seven Seas of Rhye."
But the album can also be noted as the first Queen LP to feature a song by Brian May on lead vocals, on the tune "Some Day One Day" (in case you were wondering, Roger Taylor was the first member other than Freddie to sing lead – on the tune "Modern Times Rock n' Roll" off their debut).
One of the more melodic tunes on Queen II, "Some Day One Day" contains what seems to be a lyrical message of "tomorrow's going to be a brighter day" – particularly in the closing lyrics of each verse ("No star can light our way in this cloud of dark and fear, But some day, one day…"; "Today the cloud, it hangs over us and all is grey, But some day, one day…"; and then finally, "So still the cloud it hangs over us and we're alone, But some day one day…we'll come home").
Also of note, Queen II included several tunes that actually reference the band's name – most obviously in the song titles "White Queen (As It Began)" and "The March of the Black Queen," but also within this tune, with the lyric "And you shall be a queen."
"Long Away" – A Day at the Races (1976)
After the grandiose production and compositions featured throughout A Night at the Opera ("Bohemian Rhapsody," "The Prophet's Song," "Seaside Rendezvous," etc.), Queen took a step toward a more straightforward approach on its follow-up, A Day at the Races. The first-ever Queen LP to not have any input whatsoever from Roy Thomas Baker, the group was solely credited as producer.
Like the previous entry on this list, "Long Away" is a melodic rocker, penned and sung by May. And also similar to "Some Day One Day," this tune possesses a positive lyrical message, as evidenced by such lyrics as "Take heart, my friend, we love you though it seems like you're alone; A million lights above you smile down upon your home" and "Hurry, put your troubles in a suitcase come let the new child play."
And as with countless Queen compositions, May assembles his trademark "guitar army" for the solo (creating multi-layered guitar parts that create harmonies), while the backing vocals (provided by May, Mercury, and Taylor) were layered once more in such a manner to create a choir-like effect.
"Drowse" – A Day at the Races (1976)
Throughout their recording career, Queen tackled a variety of styles – metal, pop, dance, rockabilly, ballads, prog, punk, new wave, calypso, blues, etc. But rarely did they ever approach "psychedelic territory." However, they did at least one time – with this overlooked Taylor tune, also off A Day at the Races.
"Drowse" is also one of the few Queen compositions to prominently feature slide guitar (while another tune on the album includes slide, "Tie Your Mother Down," it is solely in the guitar solo section) – which creates a dreamy…yes, drowsy effect throughout. And lyrically, it sounds as if Taylor is taking a look back on his early/pre-Queen days – particularly such lyrics as "It's the sad eyed goodbye yesterday's moments I remember" and "Half of the time we'd broaden our minds more in the pool hall than we did in the school hall."
Tracing Queen's roots, it's not much of a surprise that trippy sonics seeped into their sound at least this one time, as they often listed such '60s rock icons as the Beatles and Cream as prime influences early on. And lastly, one final link between the tune and psychedelia – one of the top stars of late '60s popular music is mentioned just as the song begins to fade out (in the line "Jimi Hendrix, he was good").
"Fight from the Inside" – News of the World (1977)
While “Another One Bites the Dust” is often credited as Queen’s first foray into dance sounds, there were a few instances in the ‘70s when they got surprisingly funky. And the Taylor-penned (and News of the World side one closer) “Fight from the Inside” does contain an unmistakable dance-vibe. But unlike when the band eventually completely embraced dance (in particular, side one of 1982's Hot Space), May’s guitar work balances out the funk with the rock on this particular track.
Penned entirely by Taylor, the drummer also handles lead vocals. Lyrically, the tune appears to be about "be careful what you wish for" from a rock star perspective, as evidenced by such lines as "You're just another picture on a teenage wall" and "You're just another money-spinner tool, you're just another fool."
Also, the drummer was pulling not just double duty on the track, but rather quintuple duty (by supplying lead vocals, backing vocals, drums, bass, and additional guitar work).
And it turns out that Queen was not the only other hard rockin' band experimenting with funk sounds around this time. Case in point, such tunes as "Fame" by David Bowie, "Trampled Underfoot" by Led Zeppelin, "Last Child" by Aerosmith, "Dancing in the Moonlight (It's Caught Me in Its Spotlight)" by Thin Lizzy, and "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)" by Pink Floyd, among others.
"Sail Away Sweet Sister" – The Game (1980)
Out of all the tunes included on this list, the one that had the best shot at becoming a bona fide hit was this power ballad from The Game, sung by Brian. Especially when you think back to the amount of power ballads that stormed the charts during the early ‘80s ("Open Arms" by Journey, "The Best of Times" by Styx, "Keep On Loving You" by REO Speedwagon, etc.), "Sail Away Sweet Sister" would have made sense as a single. Which leads to the obvious question…why wasn't it ever issued as a single?
Supposedly the band – or specifically, Brian – felt uncomfortable issuing a non-Freddie-sung tune as a single by the band (although Freddie does provide a lead vocal cameo in the song's bridge). And the tune follows the now-famous power ballad song structure – soft verses, anthemic choruses, and a searing/emotive guitar solo. As far as the song's lyrical meaning, its complete title offers a clue – "Sail Away Sweet Sister (To the Sister I Never Had)." And in case you were wondering, yes, Brian May was an only child.
Although the song was never performed live by Queen, it has been by May solo in 1998, and even by Guns N' Roses – or more specifically, Axl Rose a capella – in 1992 (including a pro-shot performance from Tokyo, which eventually leads into another a capella snippet of Grand Funk's "Bad Time," before launching into a full-band performance of "Sweet Child o' Mine").
Greg Prato is a longtime AllMusic contributor and author of several books, including Long Live Queen: Rock Royalty Discuss Freddie, Brian, John & Roger.