'Queen II': A Review by Rhys Thomas
QUEEN II (1974)
In the Tate Gallery, London, a picture hangs on the wall called ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ painted by Richard Dadd between 1855 - 64. This is a painting so detailed and so intricate that no matter how many times you look at it, you will always see something new. Something you haven’t spotted previously despite the fact that it was always there. Freddie wrote a song based on that painting for their second album but the influence goes a lot further as Queen clearly took Dadd’s artistic approach and applied it to ‘Queen II.’ I have listened to this album hundreds of times, yet to this day, I am still discovering sounds and themes that I have never heard before. Although ‘A Night At The Opera’ is considered ‘the best Queen album’, I’d say that ‘Queen II’ was ‘the greatest.’
‘To me ‘Queen II’ was the sort of emotional music we’d always wanted to play. We were trying to push studio techniques to a new limit for rock groups – it was fulfilling all of our dreams because we didn’t have much of an opportunity for that on the first album.’ Brian May, 1974
‘Queen II’ is the real beginning of Queen, the first time we hear the multi layered overdubs, the harmonies, the variety, the contrasts and the blue print for their greatest success, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ It’s the first album that hit the charts and gave them a top ten hit. It also includes the most complex and imaginative song they ever recorded, ‘March of The Black Queen.’
Sadly, Deacon John was fired from the album and replaced by John Deacon.
‘Queen II’ is the first of a succession of flawless Queen records, followed by ‘Sheer Heart Attack,’ ‘A Night At The Opera’ and ‘A Day At The Races.’ These are Queen’s most inventive albums where they really did break boundaries and push rock music to another level. Quite rightly, ‘Queen II’ is one of the four Queen albums featured in the book ‘1001 Albums you must hear before you die.’ And you should. In fact, I would gladly get on my bike right now (if it hadn’t been nicked last week) and play the whole album to anyone on their deathbed to make sure that they do hear it before they pop their clogs. If anything, it may make their journey into the next world a bit more exciting.
The first album and single had failed to set the world alight and Queen, although excellent live performers, still didn’t have the money to put on the kind of shows they dreamed of. However, in the studio they had free reign to do what they liked. Now able to have their own studio time at Trident, (not stealing hours here and there whilst the likes of Bowie and McCartney had a kip or went to the toilet) Queen had one of the first 24 multi track recorders, ten excellent songs they’d been saving up for this album and the desire to push the studio and themselves as far as they could go on ‘Queen II.’
Queen recorded the album in just over a month in August 1973. Some of the songs on the album, ‘Father To Son,’ ‘Ogre Battle,’ and ‘White Queen’ (the latter written as far back as 1969) and were contenders for the first album, but the band held them back believing the time/budget constraints of their first album wouldn’t allow them to do the songs justice.
Queen rebranded Side One and Two of ‘Queen II,’ Side White and Side Black. The White Side was written by Brian May, with one Roger Taylor song and Side Black was all Freddie’s. Although not a concept album, ‘Queen II’ is closer to progressive rock than any other Queen album with its extended musical structures, abstract lyrics and themes of fantasy, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ meets ‘Lord of the Rings.’ All songs, apart from one, run seamlessly into the next effectively creating one continuous piece of music.
‘Procession,’ is a sombre opening to the album, eerie and ethereal, as if May were taking us back to another time, another world. ‘Father To Son’ is one of many underrated Queen songs and I always found it very emotional. ‘White Queen’, a tale of unrequited love feels like a Tennyson poem set to rock music. Queen’s live rendition of this song was equally impressive as you can hear on this Deluxe Edition, performed live at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975.
‘Someday One Day’ has a more contemporary, dreamy, some would say, ‘trippy’ feel to it. The kind of song you could play on a summer’s night with a few wines. It’s the perfect antidote to the heavier songs on this side and Brian May’s debut as lead vocalist on a Queen album.
Then, as usual, Roger Taylor bursts in with his bluesy rocker ‘Loser in the End.’ After ‘Father to Son’, ‘Loser in the End’ is effectively ‘Mother to Son.’ Roger’s track is a warning to mothers and sons everywhere - sons: don’t take Mothers for granted, Mums, remember that boys will be boys, so give them a break ‘It’s not so long since you were young.’ It’s the song that brings the album back down to earth, back to 1974 at the end of Side White before Side Black takes us to an entirely different world altogether.
‘Ogre Battle’ is thumping blast of what would later be called ‘thrash metal’ which has clearly influenced numerous thrash metal bands. It is possible that ‘Ogre Battle’ is the first example of thrash, or at least an early ancestor. Freddie wrote it on guitar in 1970 and once the battle is over, we run into ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke.’
Freddie, who had studied at The Ealing College of Art, wanted to tell the story of one of his favourite paintings ‘The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke’ by Richard Dadd. During the making of ‘Queen II,’ he would take the rest of the band down to the Tate to look at it for inspiration. Queen were never afraid to write a song about any object or subject, no matter how strange, whether it be a painting, a cat, a bicycle, a car or a radio.
The song itself, like the painting, is brimming with ideas and when I first heard the song, I remember thinking ‘What does this all mean?’ What is a Pedagogue for Christ’s sake? If only the album came with a glossary. Well my friends, yours truly has done his research for you and here is ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ explained.
‘He's a fairy feller (person who cuts down trees, a fairy lumberjack basically)
Ah ah the fairy folk have gathered
Round the new moon's shine
To see the feller crack a nut (a seed in a hard shell, very popular with squirrels)
At night's noon time (12am)
To swing his axe he swears
As he climbs he dares
To deliver the master stroke (a very clever move)’
‘Ploughman Wagoner (man who drives a horse drawn wagon) Will and types
Politician with senatorial pipe
He's a dilly-dally oh (Silly man)
Pedagogue (a strict teacher) squinting wears a frown
And a satyr (a lusty drunken woodland god in the form of a man with a horse’s head and tail – think a randy Mr Tumnus after a few pints) peers under lady's gown
He's a dirty fellow
What a dirty laddie-oh (a lad, with ‘oh’ on the end)
Tatterdemalion (a scruffy bugger in ragged clothes) and the junketer (someone at a party/gathering on a freebee)
There's a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter (an insect that plays a brass instrument)
He's my hero ah ahhhh!
Fairy dandy (a fairy devoted to style, a bit like Gok Wan) tickling the fancy (touching up politely) Of his lady friend
The nymph (a beautiful maiden personifying features of nature such as trees, waters, and mountain) in yellow (can we see the master stroke)
What a quaere (questionable/questioning) fellow (man).
Ah ah ah ah ah ah
Ah ah ah ah ah ah
Soldier (soldier) sailor (man of sea) tinker (man who mends metal utensils like egg whisks) tailor (Ralph Lauren) ploughboy (boy who works a plough)
Waiting to hear the sound
And the arch (deliberately playful and teasing) magician (Paul Daniels) presides
He is the leader.
Oberon and Titania (King and Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) watched by a harridan (strict, bossy, belligerent old woman - Anne Robinson?)
Mab is the queen (Queen of the Fairies in Romeo and Juliet) and there's a good apothecary man (a person who sold and made medicine and drugs)
Come to say hello (Hi)
Fairy dandy tickling the fancy (still touching up politely)
Of his lady friend
The nymph in yellow
What a quaere fellow
The ostler (Man who used to look after horses at inns) stares with hands (bits on the end of the wrists) on his knees (the bone in the middle of the legs)
Come on mister feller
Crack it open if you please.’
There….so much clearer now.
Amongst all the complexity and the grandeur of ‘Queen II’ is this simple little song on piano by Freddie called ‘Nevermore.’ I can’t say much about this other than I think it’s the most beautiful song he ever composed. As a listener you feel almost cheated that there wasn’t another chorus, another verse and a middle eight. The BBC Session included on this new 2011 edition is equally impressive and even contains some more drums.
And then we come to ‘March of The Black Queen.’ In many ways this song was the route of all that happened hereafter. The textured, intricate vocal and guitar harmonies, even the structure, were the precursor to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and later ‘Innuendo.’ There were so many overdubs that the tapes went transparent where the oxide had worn off. It’s still a superbly crafted, unpredictable song and although not based on a painting, the lyrics are just as visual, colourful and striking as anything hanging in the Tate today.
‘March of the Black Queen’ segues into ‘Funny How Love Is…’ It provides a bit of light, a bit of fun and optimism on the album, complete with a Phil Spector style ‘wall of sound.’
It was the final song on ‘Queen II’ that would change Queen’s career forever (for the first time). ‘The Seven Seas of Rhye’ was selected to be the single for the album. Queen and producer Roy Thomas Baker had learnt that ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ took too long to get going (20 seconds before any drums, 36 seconds before vocals). ‘The Seven Seas of Rhye’ was deliberately instant and took only 4 seconds before drum and bass kicked in and twenty seconds before we got to hear some singing. It was also perfect single length, just under three minutes. Oh and if you want an explanation as to what (or where) ‘The Seven Seas of Rhye’ are, there isn’t one. In an interview in 1977 Freddie admitted it was all just fiction. The music and the melody came first, the lyrics came later.
Whilst creating groundbreaking music, the band also had to pay the bills. Brian had been teaching Maths and Science at a South London Comprehensive called Stockwell Manor, Freddie and Roger had their stall on Kensington Market and John was still studying electronics… And then, in early 1974, David Bowie pulled out of ‘Top Of The Pops’ and Queen were chosen to take his place.
They pre-recorded their performance of ‘The Seven Seas of Rhye’ in the tiny BBC Weather Studio and on Thursday February 21st 1974 Queen appeared on Top of the Pops and TV for the first time. The single was rush released and entered the charts at 45 and ended up at No 10. The B Side, a non album track by Brian May called ‘See What A Fool I’ve Been’ features on this Deluxe Edition in two forms, the single cut and the BBC Session from 1974.
The footage of Queen on ‘Top of the Pops’ was wiped by the BBC in the mid-1970’s along with other classic TV serials like ‘Doctor Who,’ ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Not Only But Also.’ The only footage available was a blurry black and white tenth generation pirate copy, but – earlier this year, thanks to the work of Queen archivists, their TV debut has been discovered, along with two further performances of the song on the show.
The album was released in March 1974 and peaked at No 5 in the charts. With its iconic cover photography by rock photographer Mick Rock, Queen had almost made it, but there were problems around the corner. Management issues and ill health all plagued the making of their next album ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, but a hit single from that album would change Queen’s fortunes forever…(again!)