From Queen’s A Night At The Opera.
On a trip to Florida a few years ago, I was introduced to this song. I couldn’t have told you it was by Queen because all I knew of Queen was “We Will Rock You” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” neither of which I would have given you two cents. “’39” didn’t sound at all like what I “knew” Queen sounded like.
I immediately liked the guitar work at the beginning. Didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics because I rarely do.
When the song was over, the beautiful woman who’d introduced me to the song asked me if I had any idea what it was about.
“Nope. Don’t listen to the lyrics,” I replied.
“Space travel. Einstein’s theory of relativity.” She went to explain that the lead singer and author of the song, Brian May, has a doctorate in astrophysics. He wanted to write a song about it.
“’39” was (Brian) May’s attempt to do “sci-fi skiffle”. “’39” relates the tale of a group of space explorers who embark on what is, from their perspective, a year-long voyage. Upon their return, however, they realise that a hundred years have passed, because of the time dilation effect in Einstein’s special theory of relativity, and the loved ones they left behind are now all dead. Because the “year of ’39” resembles 1939, some have speculated that this is actually a song about the beginning of the Second World War but this is not the case.
Since Queen had named their albums A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races after two of the Marx Brothers’ most popular films, surviving brother Groucho Marx invited Queen to visit him at his Los Angeles home in March 1977 (five months before he died). The band thanked him, and performed “’39” a cappella.
About that whole “not listening to lyrics” thing. My dad was a musician. Could pick up any string instrument and even if he’d never seen it before he’d be playing it within a few minutes. Man never went past the 9th grade in formal education, but was the Alabama State Fiddle Champion at one time.
Because he was interested in the structure of music he tried to pass that along to me. I never picked up on any of it because I have the musical talent of a farm tractor. But because he forced me to listen to chord changes, I experience music a little differently than most people. My favorite parts of songs tend to be single notes. I’m sure a musician could tell me that I have a favorite chord change based on those favorites, but, hell, I know what I like.
In “’39” right at the 1:03 mark, after Brian May sings, “ . . . the score brave souls inside,” there’s a half second background of violin. Most people won’t even hear / notice it, but it gives me goosebumps nearly every time I hear the song.
Extra bonus: “’39” made me give Queen a second listen. I still don’t care for most of their work, but I can appreciate their musical diversity. I’ll also sit through “We Are The Champions,” now. Then again, it’s the “catchiest rock pop song of all time,” I’m just (as usual) late to the party.