Here’s a lesser-known Queen song. This was the B-side to the band’s legendary You’re My Best Friend, making that one of the best combos ever.
’39 is unusual as guitarist Brian May wrote all the lyrics and sung the lead vocals. One of the few Queen tracks to do that. Because… Freddie Mercury.
It’s a joyous little number. Brief, upbeat, packed with sci-fi concepts, but presented in the fashion of a Led Zeppelin styled folk set. It be good.
Folky Sci-fi in Queen’s ’39
’39 is on Queen’s most critically acclaimed album. That’s 1975’s A Night at the Opera—that one with Bohemian Rhapsody on it.
It’s no surprise it was totally overlooked at the time for the iconic hit.
But this was all May’s work. He’d been working on his thesis in astrophysics before abandoning that to join Queen. The song takes a sci-fi route, not unsimilar to many ’70s prog rock bands.
It’s about a bunch of space explorers. They head off on a mission, told from their point of view, over a year. But then they return home, the effects of Einstein’s theory of relativity mean they’ve arrived back to find all their loved ones dead.
Advanced stuff for a song back in the ’70s. But accessible, as it takes the form of a folk single. Don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics and it’s kind of just another love song.
Just to note, the song is the 39th album track released by Queen. This is mentioned in the excellent Queenpod podcast. The brilliant and rather glorious comedian/singer Sooz Kempner is a co-host on that.
She’s a great singer, too, and does a fantabulous rendition of ’39 on command (as we found out when we asked on one of her Twitch streams in ’21—not ’39).
Anyway, as for ’39 the lyrics loop around the same chorus. They take the form of a clear narrative on this bold space mission.
In the year of ’39, assembled here the volunteers,
In the days when lands were few,
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn,
The sweetest sight ever seen,
And the night followed day,
And the story tellers say,
That the score brave souls inside,
For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas,
Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried.
Don’t you hear my call, though you’re many years away?
Don’t you hear me calling you?
Write your letters in the sand,
For the day I take your hand,
In the land that our grandchildren knew.
However, the mid-section breaks away for a moment. And it shows off drummer Roger Taylor’s dramatic vocal range. That’s his falsetto. Which then leads in to some of Queen’s finest lyrics:
In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue,
The volunteers came home that day,
And they bring good news of a world so newly born,
Though their hearts so heavily weigh,
For the Earth is old and grey, little darling, we’ll away,
But my love, this cannot be,
Oh, so many years have gone though I’m older but a year,
Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me.
To be clear on all the setup for the song:
- Freddie Mercury provided backing vocals.
- May used a 12-string acoustic guitar, with some electric thrown over the top.
- Bassist John Deacon used a double bass.
- Roger Taylor was on tambourine, bass drum, plus those fancy backing vocals.
’39’s vocals close in magnificent fashion, with the final chorus.
It has a fancy technical effect that exemplifies the backing vocals. We like to pretend it’s Freddie Mercury calling across time and space to us all.
And Brian May ends the number with these sentiments.
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand,
For my life,
Notable ’39 Live Performances
We tried to find the reason for this, but Freddie Mercury actually provided lead vocals for the live version of the song.
Again, not sure why. Brian May is a perfectly accomplished singer in his own right.
Not that we’re complaining, but we feel like it’s May’s song.
The band dropped the song out of its live set after 1984. Kind of a shame, but then Queen did kind of have a lot of massive songs to get through in a live set.
Anyway, we thought we’d end on the best live heyday version we think we’ve come across. And it’s the below 1977 version at Earls Court in London.
Just to note, Queen still tours these days with May and Taylor (bassist John Deacon retired in 1997, refusing to continue the band without Mercury).
For the new line-up, Adam Lambert is lead vocalist. During this run, the band have introduced the song back into the set! Our verdict? Proper belting.