'Queen': A Review by Rhys Thomas
I was 14 when my Queen addiction began. I went to ‘The Freddie Mercury Tribute’ with my big brother. At the time, I went because I was a George Michael fan and I wanted to see him live. I also went because it was cool. I could show off at school and girls might have found me a bit more interesting. They didn’t. They still don’t. Anyhow, I didn’t need girls or boys because that day I found the new love of my life, my new best friend – Queen. It’s a relationship that is still going strong some sixteen years on. Other bands have come and gone, tried to tempt me away and though I have flirted with them a little, I have never betrayed Queen.
Loving a band that were no more was always a problem. Never would I get to see them live. Never would I get to hear a new album (or so I thought) or have the excitement of watching a groundbreaking new video. The good news was that there were fifteen undiscovered albums out there. Fourteen studio albums, one live album, numerous videos and twenty years of music to catch up on, available right there and then at Our Price in Basildon. I didn’t have to wait two or three years for the next record (as fans would have done at the time) I could listen to them all now if I wanted to. The only drawback was the fact I was a teenager with no money and had to wait for birthdays or Christmas to get the next album on my list.
I can remember the date. February 1993. My older cousin heard that I was Queen fan. He found this amusing. His relationship with Queen hit the rocks back in 1976 when the dreaded Punk movement came along and seduced him away with a gob in the face. He gave me his old copies of Queen, Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack and A Night At The Opera. The problem was, they were on Vinyl. Sadly, I didn’t have a record player. We, like most families, had chucked it in the skip and bought ourselves a Compact Disc machine. So these albums sat un-played in my bedroom. I would simply stare at them, imagining what these songs would sound like. ‘March of the Black Queen,’ ‘Great King Rat,’ and ‘The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke’ – whatever that was. I read every inner sleeve note, every lyric. It was painful. Like having a million quid under your bed but not being able to spend it. And then one day, I took them around to my best friend’s house – he had a record player and I copied them all onto a couple of TDKs.
When I first heard Queen’s debut album, I already knew their legacy and what musical paths they would take in the future and how their career would be tragically cut short by the death of Freddie Mercury. Therefore the surprise of ‘What they would do next?’ was replaced with ‘What did they do before?’ And this was just as, if not more, exciting to discover.
To appreciate this album fully, I think it’s important to understand the arduous slog that the four members of Queen went through to get their first album on acetate.
So, the beginning. For those who don’t know how Queen formed – here it is in quite a big nutshell. For those who do know, stop reading my nonsense and listen to the wonderfully remastered disc instead.
London, 1968. Roger Meadows Taylor was a confident young buck studying dentistry at the London Hospital Medical School. When he wasn’t staring at diagrams of root canals, he liked to play the drums and sing (at the same time, which isn’t easy). One day a friend of Roger’s who was student at Imperial College, London, saw a postcard pinned to the notice board there asking for a ‘Ginger Baker/Mitch Mitchell type drummer.’ Hmm, interesting he thought and he passed this information onto Roger who subsequently called the name on the card. That young man was Brian May.
Brian Harold May was a very tall, shy student who had made his own electric guitar (The Red Special, which he still plays to this day) at the age of 16 out of an old fire place, a knitting needle, some mother of pearl buttons, cardboard, egg boxes, fuzzy felt and some sticky back plastic. He was working on a PhD on Interplanetary Dust at Imperial College. Roger met Brian and vocalist/bass player Tim Staffel, (an Art Student and colleague of Brian’s from a previous band called 1984), they got on, they shared the same music tastes and formed a band called ‘Smile.’ They showed a lot of promise and their first public performance was supporting none other than Pink Floyd at The Imperial College. They subsequently played the Royal Albert Hall – where they were billed above Free and even had a record deal with Mercury. They also had a number one fan who came to most of their shows on the circuit, Tim’s mate from Ealing College of Art, Freddie Bulsara.
Freddie, a satin clad, exotic chap from Zanzibar with a diploma in graphic design, was in his own band called Sour Milk Sea. He would give his friends in Smile advice, offering ideas how they could improve their stage presence, what they could wear, that kind of thing. Roger and Freddie became inseparable friends and the pair even set up a clothes stall in the very fashionable Kensington Market (the Shoreditch of its day) to fund their respective musical careers.
In 1970 Tim Staffel decided to leave Smile and then the band were dropped by Mercury Records. Determined to continue, determined to succeed Roger, Brian and Freddie decided to join forces to form a new band, this time they really would conquer the world, all they needed was a bass player… and a manager...and a recording contract , oh and a name of course.
There were three main contenders for the band’s name. Roger and Brian liked ‘The Grand Dance’ inspired by the 1938 C.S Lewis’ science fiction novel , ‘Out of The Silent Planet’, of which they had both read as children. Roger also plumped for ‘The Rich Kids’ and another name bounded about was ‘Build Your Own Boat!’ Thank Christ they went with Freddie’s suggestion: Queen.
‘At that time the name lent itself to a lot of things…It was very grand, very pompous.’
Freddie Mercury (1977)
Queen (mark one) were officially formed in 1970. Roger Taylor, Brian May, Freddie Bulsara and Barry Mitchell on bass. They toured up and down the country, Universities, pubs and clubs supporting bands like Yes and The Kevin Ayres Whole World Band. Another band supporting Kevin Ayers were Genesis. In fact, Peter Gabriel tried to poach Roger Taylor as his band needed a new drummer. Roger was flattered but declined the offer, keen to keep Queen alive. Gabriel and Co settled for a gorilla who could play the drums instead. The gorilla went on to have a very successful solo career and even starred in a few films and a chocolate advert.
One person who saw Queen live in October 1970 recalls, ‘They were all dressed in black. The lights were very dim too, so all I could really see were four shadowy figures. They didn’t make a lasting impression on me at the time.’ Four months later, Roger and Brian met that very person at a disco in a Teacher Training College, a friend of a friend, his name was John Deacon.
John Richard Deacon was an Electronics student at Chelsea College when he auditioned for Queen. Barry Mitchell had left and Queen had been through several bass players, none of which gelled. John was not only a brilliant bass player and a ‘wizard’ with electronics, he was also very quiet and didn’t try to upstage the rest of the band (which was the most important thing). He got the job. The set up was complete in February 1971 and would last for twenty sensational years, through thick and thin.
Though Queen were now officially formed, they still had no record deal, no manager and no demo tapes. Brian knew someone who was setting up a new studio in Wembley called De Lane Lea and they were looking for bands to test the equipment and show off the facilities to potential clients in return for ‘free demos.’ As a result, the band recorded ‘Keep Yourself Alive,’ , ‘Liar’, ‘Great King Rat’, ‘The Night Comes Down’ and ‘Jesus,’ available on the 2011 Special Deluxe Edition for the first time. Whilst recording the demos, two men saw Queen play. John Anthony and Roy Thomas Baker.
John Anthony a was a well known producer who had worked with Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and Roxy Music. Roy Thomas Baker was an engineer who worked at Trident, a state of the art recording studio in Soho where The Beatles, David Bowie and Elton John had all recorded as it had the first 24 track mixing desk in the Universe. John and Roy were very impressed with Queen so took their demo tape back to Trident to show the boss, Norman Sheffield. However, he would only sign them a) if they were any good live and b) if any other companies were interested in them.
Meanwhile, Brian and Roger took the demos to every single record company going. Genesis’ manager Tony Stratton Smith was keen and offered them a deal at Charisma, but the band thought it was too low. Finally, after some persuasion from Roy Thomas Baker, Barry Sheffield, Norman’s Brother (keep up), went to see Queen live at a hospital dance in Forest Hill, London (a far cry from dwarves with cocaine on their heads and Rock in Rio). Barry loved them and offered Queen a deal there and then but they still needed a record label to distribute their records. Trident were simply Queen’s managers.
No one wanted to know. They were met with comments like “Queen? I ain’t signing no band called Queen! Get outta my office!’ and ‘Sorry, but these guys just ain’t got it! Get outta my office!’ and until EMI said ‘Queen – yeah, we like them.’ But Trident had two other bands they had also signed and demanded that EMI sign all three as part of the deal. ‘No,’ said EMI, ‘We just want Queen.’ ‘You can’t have them,’ said Trident. ‘Then get outta my office!’ Shouted EMI.
Trident set Queen free into the studio to work on their debut album, despite having no deal with a record company. As there was no money to fund the album or pay for studio time, Queen could only record in downtime – i.e. When the studio was not being used by other acts which meant either very late at night, in the early hours of the morning or Sundays.
They would literally get a call at 2 am saying ‘David Bowie’s finished for the night, you can come in.’ And they’d record for a few hours until the cleaners turned up and the next session began. This is why the album took 18 months to record. By the time the album was released in 1973, Queen were already bored of the songs. They had been playing them live since 1970 and they felt that the album sounded tired.
‘Queen’ is a very heavy album. Influenced by The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, it contains some of their hardest rocking songs as well as the most imaginative. Like all Queen albums, no two songs sound the same and there are mixtures of light and shade. Queen can tease you with a lullaby then blow your head off.
The fact that Queen didn’t really fit into any category confused the critics. They weren’t really prog, they weren’t glam, they weren’t heavy metal or blues. Queen weren’t in any existing category simply because they had created their own. They had their own sound. Their own style. Theatrical, imaginative, diverse, melodic and unpredictable. Often you’d get all of these elements in one song. ‘Liar,’ ‘My Fairy King’ and ‘Great King Rat’ , all Freddie Mercury compositions, are amongst the most imaginative songs he ever wrote. ‘My Fairy King’ in particular is so poetic and visual that you can smell fallow deer and taste the rivers flowing of wine so clear. Freddie also took his new surname ‘Mercury’ from the line ‘Mother Mercury, what have you done to me.’ Freddie Bulsara simply wasn’t rock and roll enough.
On the other hand, Brian May provides the gritty rock songs. ‘Keep Yourself Alive,’ ‘Son and Daughter’ and ‘Doin Alright’ the latter is a perfect example of unpredictable Queen. We are lulled into thinking this is a nostalgic almost ‘Going Back’/’In My Life’ type of song when from nowhere May surprises us with a stupendous riff, ramping up the energy only to calm us back down again. The guitar lurks around the song like the shark in ‘Jaws,’ waiting to pounce just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.
‘The Night Comes Down’ is the only song on the album that was recorded for the De Lane Lea sessions. The band felt they couldn’t recapture zest of the original, so put the demo track on the final album. The atmospheric opening sounds like a film score, dramatic and powerful which segues into something totally different, a pretty song with a trippy feel to it.
Roger Taylor’s songs tend to crash into a Queen album out of nowhere like a lorry packed with rock and roll dynamite - as if he has taken the album by the neck and shaken it within an inch of its life. ‘Sheer Heart Attack,’ ‘I’m in Love With My Car’ and ‘Loser in the End’ all follow the trend set by ‘Modern Times Rock and Roll’, his track on this album. It pounds through at such pace there is barely a chance to breathe. One and a half minutes of mayhem.
Then there is ‘Jesus.’ Though the music is fantastic and the solo at the end breathtaking, it’s the weakest song on Queen. It probably would have made more sense had ‘Mad the Swine’ been included, which was also semi-religious and biblical ‘reach out and praise the lord.’ Now, on this 2011 we can hear ‘Mad the Swine’ as bonus track and very good it is too.
‘The Seven Seas Of Rhye’ was a song that Freddie was working on, but hadn’t finished, but the band liked what they had so far decided to close with this snippet and then open their next album with the completed song to give both albums some continuity. That didn’t happen in the end, but that’s a different story and a different album...
The cover of ‘Queen’ is very striking, although it looks like a strange painting, it is a still photo of Freddie, photographed by another camera with coloured plastic stretched over the lens and a bit of dark room magic. The back cover sees a rare glimpse into Queen’s life in the very early Seventies. Shots of them on stage, at Freddie’s flat and getting ready for a fancy dress party (Brian as a Penguin, Roger as the Mad Hatter, Freddie and John either went as themselves or didn’t go altogether). John and Brian’s love of 3D stereo photography is also evident on the rear sleeve which was literally a cut and paste, Blue Peter job, collage by Brian and Freddie. ??This was also the first time we saw the famous Queen crest designed by Freddie. Freddie wanted the band to have a unique symbol and what better than their very own coat of arms, the Q representing Queen and the figures based on the member’s star signs – two lions (Virgo, Roger and Freddie), two fairies (Libra, John) and a crab (Cancer, Brian.)
But there was one thing not quite right about the album. Something was nagging away at Roger and Freddie – what was it? Oh yes. John Deacon’s name. It was just too dull. I know – let’s make it sound more interesting! How? I don’t know? What about calling him JOHN DEACON 2000? Nah, sounds like a robot. Sir John Deacon? Mmm, sounds like a Cavalier. Joan Deacon – let’s say he’s really a woman! Nahh. Then they had the brain wave. ‘Lets swap his name around! Yeah, that’ll help the album sell more copies.’
John being shy, new and the youngest in the group let them go ahead with it and Queen had yet another bass player called Deacon John.
Queen was finally complete in January 1973, but still no record label to press and distribute it. After a session for the BBC’s Sound of The Seventies, EMI were interested again and offered Trident a deal. After some bartering, Queen signed to EMI and their first single ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ was released soon after. Despite some good reviews, the single didn’t chart and Radio One rejected it. However, the album reached No.24 in the charts and eventually went Gold in the UK and USA.
Although not a massive commercial success, (it peaked at No. 24 in the UK) Queen is full of youthful promise, innovation and a glimpse of the sensational music that was to follow as Roger, Brian, Freddie and John harnessed their incredible musical talents. Strangely enough it was far more successful in the USA.
Never mind Brian May, I think I deserve a Ph.D after writing that lot. So, you’ve read about the album, now stop wasting time and listen to it. Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls, Queen, a legend is born…