The album launched Queen to mainstream popularity both in the UK and internationally: the first single, “Killer Queen” reached #2 in the British charts and provided them with their first top 20 hit in the US, peaking at #12 on the Billboard singles chart. Sheer Heart Attack was also the first Queen album to hit the US top 20, peaking at #12 in 1975. Digressing from the progressive themes featured on their first two albums, this album featured more conventional rock tracks and marked a step towards the classic Queen sound. In recent years, it has been listed by multiple publications as one of the band’s best works.
Brian May wrote “Brighton Rock” in 1973 before the completion of Queen II (variations of the solo were often played live as part of Son And Daughter), but time restrictions meant that the song was not ready for inclusion on an album until Sheer Heart Attack. The title is something of a pun: Brighton rock is a long, cylindrical sugar candy traditional to that seaside resort. The term was also iconic in UK pop culture as the title of a dark Graham Greene thriller/noir novel later adapted into a successful film starring Richard Attenborough as a teenage sociopath.
“Killer Queen” was written by Mercury and was the band’s first international hit. It is one of the few songs by him for which he wrote the lyrics first. The band initially recorded tracks for the song without May, because he was recovering in hospital from a duodenal ulcer, leaving spaces for him to fill when he was able to. Mercury played a jangle piano as well as a grand piano.
“Tenement Funster” is Taylor’s song on the album, and he also performed lead vocals. The backing track consisted of his drums, Mercury’s piano, John Deacon’s bass and May’s Red Special guitar. It’s a typical Taylor track about youth and rebellion. In addition to showcasing the out-of-phase tone capabilities of the Red Special, it also includes echo effects with May’s guitar, like in “Brighton Rock”. The last couple of guitar notes overlap into “Flick of the Wrist”. The original working titles for the song were “Teen Dreams” and “Young and Crazy”.
“Flick of the Wrist” was the double A-side of “Killer Queen” but it was much less promoted and therefore not as popular outside the Queen fan base. The song includes Mercury singing octave vocals. When May returned to work having recovered from his hepatitis, he had not heard the song before he recorded his guitar and backing vocals. It is a heavy track with quite dark lyrics and an aggressive tone, something that may seem unusual for later Queen songs, but in the early days (especially on Queen II) Mercury and May would often write grim songs, such as “Great King Rat” and “Son and Daughter”. At about 1:14 – 1:16, the line “Baby you’ve been had” can be heard. This line is also the opening to the next song on the album, “Lily of the Valley”, making a three-song overlap (“Tenement Funster” into “Flick of the Wrist”, and ‘Flick of the Wrist” into “Lily of the Valley”).
“Lily of the Valley” features Mercury playing the piano and providing all of the vocals. The song has a reference to “Seven Seas of Rhye” in the line “messenger from Seven Seas has flown to tell the King of Rhye he’s lost his throne”.
The song, together with “Tenement Funster” and “Flick of the Wrist”, was covered by Dream Theater on the bonus disc of their album Black Clouds & Silver Linings.
“Now I’m Here” is the band’s second single from the album. Written by May while at the hospital, recalling touring with Mott the Hoople, it was recorded during the last week of the sessions, with him playing piano. The song relies a lot on delay machines, foreshadowing “The Prophet’s Song”. The song opens with a lone guitar riff, and is followed by choir-like vocal harmonies and overdubbed guitar parts and ends with Mercury screaming “Go Little Queenie” in a fade out. A reference to Chuck Berry’s song Little Queenie
“In the Lap of the Gods” is, according to Mercury himself, the direct prelude to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the A Night at the Opera album in general. It is built in three parts: the introduction, which contains fast piano arpeggios, very high-toned falsettos by Taylor plus vocals harmonies, the second part which is a slow love song, featuring slowed-down vocals by Mercury, and the third part, based on vocals harmonies singing “leave it in the lap of the gods”, with more falsettos by Taylor. Those high notes were thought to be made using synthesisers, and to prove they were not, Taylor would reproduce them in live performance every night. Throughout the entire song, wind effects can be heard.
“Stone Cold Crazy” was allegedly written by Mercury while in Wreckage, one of his pre-Queen bands. Queen played it live as early as 1972, but the song underwent many changes musically and lyrically before a studio version was recorded in 1974. As a result no band member was able to remember who had written the lyrics when the album was released, hence they shared writing credit. The lyrics themselves deal with gangsters, making a reference to Al Capone. It was the first song credited to all four members of Queen. This track is known for its fast tempos and heavy distortion, thus being a precursor to speed metal. Music magazine Q described “Stone Cold Crazy” as “thrash metal before the term was invented”. The song was played live at almost every Queen concert between 1974-78.
The song was covered by heavy metal band Metallica in 1990.
“Dear Friends” was May’s song featuring him on the piano and backing vocals, and Mercury providing lead vocals.
Def Leppard covered this song (sung by bassist Rick Savage) for a Wal Mart bonus EP for their cover album, Yeah!.
“Misfire” was Deacon’s first composition. He played most of the guitars including the solo, and Mercury sang all the vocals.
“Bring Back That Leroy Brown” was written by Mercury and features him on most of the vocals (with production techniques using tape speed to make it sound really low in the harmonies) as well as grand piano and jangle piano. May played ukulele-banjo and Deacon did a line with a double bass. The song’s title alludes to the then-recent hit “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” by American singer-songwriter Jim Croce (little known in Queen’s native UK) who had died in a plane crash the previous year. The song was played live in a different arrangement that shortened the song and was, except for the very end and one other line, purely instrumental. May’s ukelele-banjo would be brought onstage especially for this song.
“She Makes Me” was written and sung by May with Deacon playing acoustic guitars. Its finale features what May referred to as “New York nightmare sounds,” which include NYC police vehicle sirens and deep-breathing sounds which accompany the closing bars.
With its powerful chorus and stadium rock-esque sound, “In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited” could perhaps be considered the forerunner to “We Are the Champions”. It bears few similarities to In The Lap Of The Gods.
Allmusic awarded the album 4.5/5 stars, writing, “the theatricality is now wielded on everyday affairs, which ironically makes them sound larger than life. And this sense of scale, combined with the heavy guitars, pop hooks, and theatrical style, marks the true unveiling of Queen, making Sheer Heart Attack as the moment where they truly came into their own”. Mojo awarded the album 4/5 stars, noting that it was “often overlooked in favour of A Night at the Opera,” and calling it “equally stellar”. Q awarded the album 5/5 stars, calling it “indispensable” and “one of the great pop/rock admixtures of the ’70s”. Pitchfork awarded the album a 9/10, writing, “Sheer Heart Attack not only improves on every aspect of their sound suggested by the first two records, but delivers some of the finest music of their career… This is the band at the height of its powers.” The BBC wrote, “they stretched contemporary production methods to their very limit with multi-layered vocals and guitars and Freddie’s vaudevillian streak finally emerged… this was the album that finally saw Queen find their true voice”.
|1.||“Brighton Rock”||Brian May||5:08|
|2.||“Killer Queen”||Freddie Mercury||3:01|
|3.||“Tenement Funster”||Roger Taylor||2:48|
|4.||“Flick of the Wrist”||Mercury||3:19|
|5.||“Lily of the Valley”||Mercury||1:43|
|6.||“Now I’m Here”||May||4:10|
|1.||“In the Lap of the Gods”||Mercury||3:20|
|2.||“Stone Cold Crazy”||Mercury, May, Taylor, John Deacon||2:12|
|5.||“Bring Back That Leroy Brown”||Mercury||2:13|
|6.||“She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos)”||May||4:08|
|7.||“In the Lap of the Gods… Revisited”||Mercury||3:42|