'Sheer Heart Attack': A Review by Rhys Thomas
SHEER HEART ATTACK (1974)
In early 1974, Queen had their first hit with ‘The Seven Seas of Rhye,’ ‘ Queen II’ was No.5 in the UK chart and the band were supporting Mott The Hoople on tour in North America. Everything was going swimmingly. John Deacon finally gave up on his MSc in Electronics, Roger and Freddie packed up their clothes stall at Kensington Market for good and Brian quit teaching believing that Queen’s future was going to be a successful one.
The band were due to record their third album and headline their first American tour, however, this was not to be as Brian collapsed after a show in New York on May 12th 1974. He had contracted hepatitis from a dirty needle whilst having inoculations. Queen returned to England in turmoil. The tour with Hoople was cut short, their own tour of America cancelled and their guitarist ordered to bed for six weeks, told that he ‘may never recover completely.’ Fortunately, he did.
Despite the tribulations, ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ was a major breakthrough for Queen and became another classic. They all agreed that they had dished up a little too much for people to swallow on Queen II so they ditched the progressive themes, the fantasy and decided to make an album that wasn’t so over the top. As a result, ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ is far more accessible and years later Roger Taylor claimed that it was his personal favourite Queen record.
Brian was still ill when the band began work on their new album at Rockfield Studios in Wales. He would be frequently sick and his stomach was causing him a lot of pain until it was discovered that he had a duodenal ulcer and needed urgent attention. For almost three months Queen had to carry on recording the album without him, leaving gaps for guitars and harmonies.
Brian May more than made up for his absence with the opening track he penned called ‘Brighton Rock’ which contains a dazzling three minute harmonious guitar solo zooming from left to right speakers like tennis ball plus some fantastic percussion from Roger.
Apart from the title and the setting, it has no connection with the Graham Green novel. Freddie sings the parts of both Jimmy and Jenny, the young lovers who meet at the seaside. ‘Oh rock of ages do not crumble love is breathing still.’ The rock certainly hasn’t crumbled, 37 years on, the song is still sounds fantastic. If you listen very closely to the opening you can hear someone whistling ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside’, which was the last song sung at the end of ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ on Queen II, giving both albums a sense of continuity.
Now we all know and love ‘Killer Queen.’ Written by Freddie it’s the tale of a high class call girl, ‘I’m trying to say that classy people can be whores as well’, said Freddie in 1974. Queen were on the whole, considered a heavy rock band, ‘Killer Queen’ showed another side to their capabilities and their sensibilities which had more of a mainstream appeal.
“People are used to hard rock, energy music from Queen, yet with this single, you almost expect Noel Coward to sing it. It’s one of those bowler hat, black suspender numbers – not that Noel Coward would wear that.” Freddie Mercury, 1974.
According to May, the original backing vocals were more abrasive, which he disliked so they all went back into the studio again to give them a sweeter touch and the guitar solo in ‘Killer Queen’ is the one which he would most like to be remembered for.
‘Killer Queen’ was released as a single whilst the band were working on the rest of the album and reached No. 2 in the UK and No 12 in the USA, their first hit across the Atlantic. Sadly another classic performance on Top of the Pops and rave reviews couldn’t knock cheeky cockney David Essex off the top slot and give them their first number one.
‘Tenement Funster’ is another excellent song by Roger Taylor. As usual it contains themes of youth and rebellion and is perhaps semi-biographical. Roger’s hair was a disgrace, he liked cars and up until recently he and Freddie had been sharing a flat, maybe their rock and roll 45s enraged the neighbours next door.
Although it can be interpreted in many ways, ‘Flick of the Wrist’ is Freddie’s first pop at Queen’s then manager, Norman Sheffield. Tensions were mounting at the time of recording between the band and Trident. Queen were only getting paid sixty pounds per week (that’s £334.20 in today’s money, split four ways) despite the fact they were selling out concerts and had a hit single across the world. ‘It’s a rip off’, ‘baby you’ve been had’ , ‘sacrifice your leisure days, let me squeeze you til you’ve dried’ When Queen finally parted company with Trident the following year, Freddie would write an even more explicit and vicious ‘sequel’ dedicated to his old manager called ‘Death On Two Legs.’ ‘Flick of the Wrist’ was picked as the Double A side to ‘Killer Queen.’ Queen performed both songs exclusively for a BBC Session in 1974, included on this Deluxe Edition.
‘Lily of the Valley,’ also written by Freddie, takes us back to Rhye and worlds he created on ‘Queen’ and ‘Queen II’ for the very last time. As the King of Rhye loses his throne, never ending war spreads across the land, this is the closing chapter of the story and farewell Mercury’s fantasy influenced lyrics.
Side one closes with ‘Now I’m Here’ which was recorded in the last weeks of the album – written by Brian May whilst in hospital. It reflects upon the experiences of Queen’s American tour supporting Mott The Hoople. ‘It blew me away – I was bowled over by the amazing aura which surrounds rock music in America.’ The song was their third top twenty hit, peaking at No. 12 in the UK with ‘Lily of the Valley’ on the ‘B’ side.
‘In The Lap Of The Gods’ opens what was then Side Two with Queen throwing everything they had in their power at the listening ear - operatic grand harmonies, screams, rolling timpani plus piano and guitar arpeggios which then change direction and settles into a dreamy, love song sung with Freddie’s distorted vocals and Roger Taylor’s famously feminine screams. In an interview in 1977, Mercury described the song as Cecil B DeMille meets Walt Disney and stated that the song was the prelude to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with its changes of tempo and different styles.
‘Stone Cold Crazy’ was originally a song that Freddie performed in his band Wreckage in the late Sixties, but the rest of the Queen took it over, reshaped it and all share writing credits for the first time. The result is quite phenomenal, two minutes of frenetic, unstoppable rock, that simply doesn’t let you up for air. Queen’s heaviest rock song of all. It was also a Grammy Award winning hit for Metallica in 1992 as the Double A Side of ‘Enter Sandman.’ Naturally their version included a few ‘F words’ and it wasn’t until I saw James Hetfield’s appearance at ‘The Freddie Mercury Tribute’ with Queen that it dawned on me what ‘playing on my slide trombone on a rainy afternoon’ actually meant and it’s not a pretty sight, especially the thought of that hairy monster Hetfield playing on his!
‘Dear Friends’, written by Brian, is the perfect antidote to its manic predecessor. This is a moving, yet uplifting sort of lullaby which deals with the death of a loved one. ‘She Makes Me (Storm trooper in Stilettos), another Brian composition features an altogether more paranoid, nightmarish vision of America at its climax, unlike the raucous ‘Now I’m Here.’ The subtitle was Roger’s suggestion. May’s songs on this album are up and down, much like his spirits whilst sitting in hospital not knowing what his future may hold with hepatitis and a stomach ulcer.
‘Sheer Heart Attack’ is the album where John Deacon finally wrote a song by himself. Hoorey! ‘Misfire.’ Actively encouraged by the rest of the band to write more as early as Queen II, John came up with this simple little song and played most of the guitars on the track. John was always more of a Motown kind of guy which reflected in his own compositions. ‘Misfire’ is a catchy first attempt at a pop song. As time went on and John’s writing skills improved, he would go on to compose some of Queen’s biggest hits – ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ ‘You’re My Best Friend’ and ‘I Want To Break Free’ – but it all started here with ‘Misfire.’
‘Bring Back That Leroy Brown’ is Freddie’s homage to vaudeville with a bit of ragtime thrown in, complete with double bass, jangle piano and ukulele.
‘In The Lap Of The God’s Revisited’ is Queen’s first anthem and again influenced by Freddie’s love of musicals. It’s the last song of the show, the one that gets you off your seat, waving your hands in time.
‘In the Lap of the Gods’ is sung from the perspective of a failure, ‘It’s so easy, but I can’t do it.’ It’s an uncertain anthem. By contrast, Freddie’s subsequent showstopper, ‘We Are The Champions’ is triumphant. Yet without the lessons they learnt on ‘Sheer Heart Attack,’ (the change of direction, the maturity of their writing and the chart success) Queen might not have become Champions at all, just another band who had a few hits in the early 1970’s then disappeared into the ether or rock and roll.
Queen were still bubbling under. They had one more crack at the whip to make it really big. The next album would be make or break.
‘Sheer Heart Attack’ was released on 8th November 1974 and reached Number 2 in the UK Charts and features more classic artwork. The striking picture on the cover was taken by Mick Rock who happily rubbed the band in Vaseline then drenched them with water to get the sweaty look. It also looks as if they’d got through gallons of fake tan – did fake tan exist in 1974?
(Oh and incidentally, the song “Sheer Heart Attack’ doesn’t actually appear on this album. It was recorded, but felt incomplete so the song went, but the name stayed. It finally appeared on NEWS OF THE WORLD in 1977. )