A Mystery In The Wreckage
By Patrick Lemieux
This is the curious story of a song.
It’s a piece about which we simultaneously know a good deal and very little. For example, few people around today know how it sounded or even what all the words were, yet we know what the song became in the end.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The days before Freddie Bulsara, Brian May and Roger Taylor formed Queen in 1970 are not as murky as they once were, but there are still some mysteries hidden between the scraps of set lists, the recollections of bandmates and the few recordings which survive from that era.
In August of 1969, Freddie Bulsara joined the band Ibex. A handwritten set list sold at auction reveals the names of songs the band played at their concerts. It’s a fascinating fragment of the band, showing both the blues-rock covers that influenced them and naming four original songs the band had in their repertoire. They are “Vagabond Outcast,” “F.E.W.A” (which stands for Feelings Ended, Worn Away), “Priestess,” and “Lover.” All of these songs are worthy of attention, marking the earliest known and identifiable compositions Freddie Mercury was involved in. An article titled Queen Before Queen, by Andy Davis (appearing in Record Collector magazine, March 1996), notes that Freddie did his writing in the band with Mike Bersin, who played guitar and sang. Of these original works, “Vagabond Outcast” can even be heard on the September 9th, 1969, recording of Ibex at the Sink Club in Liverpool. We know, too, that “Priestess” would later change its name to “Cancer On My Mind.”
What of the song “Lover,” though?
It is with this song that the story of another, more familiar song will be examined.
In October of 1969, Ibex changed its name to Wreckage. On the 31st of October that year, the band played at Ealing College of Art in London. Two of the songs they played were “Lover” and a more recent piece called “Green,” penned by Freddie Bulsara. The boxed set titled Freddie Mercury – The Solo Collection contains a rehearsal demo of “Green” from the only known surviving recording by the band. The recording was taken from a tape that actually contains three versions of the song as the band worked out different parts of it. The released version omits a part that reveals much about the songwriting process Freddie went through when looked at in larger context.
Here are some of the lyrics from “Green”:
There’s a place I have been
And a place I have seen today;
The deepest, darkest dungeons
That [...this verse is rather hard to make out...]
Well, I’ve said all my prayers,
I see a shadow lurking there,
It’s trying to lead me to the wall
Ooh, that I’m looking for...
Never living, never living anymore, o-aah
Couldn’t live without you...
[At this point the released, boxed set version can be heard]
There’s a sudden change in me,
I’m another person inside of me;
Tomorrow, I’m going to see
The last of the blue skies above me...
There are more lyrics, but this is the relevant portion, which becomes evident in the next stage of Freddie Bulsara’s fledgling career as a singer, songwriter and star.
Wreckage would disband in November of 1969, leaving Freddie in search of a group. In February, he would answer an ad that appeared in Melody Maker, for a band seeking a vocalist. The band was Sour Milk Sea and Freddie’s audition got him the job. Chris “Dummett” Chesney recalls in the Davis article that Freddie brought to the band some of his own songs, such as “F.E.W.A,” “Blag-A-Blues” and “Lover.”
Another compelling piece of history surfaces here, as journalist Anthony Wood does a short, but detailed feature on the band for the Oxford Mail in March 1970. Sour Milk Sea included the lyrics to “Lover” at the end of the article:
“You never had it so good. The yoghurt pushers are here. There’s a place 1 have been and a face I have seen today. I have said all my prayers, never answered, never cared at all. But there’s a sudden change in me. I’m another person inside of me. Tomorrow I am going to see the last of the blue skies above me, Lover calling, I hear your voice, solar systems that surround you all your life, they remind me that you’re really from another source of light. Lover, take me to your leader. I give you body and soul. Come to understand. I grow my life in the palm of your hand”
When compared to the previous lyrics of “Green,” is easy to spot some identical verses. There are also lines each song has which don’t appear in the other. In Wreckage, “Lover” and “Green” were distinct songs, played at different points during the same Ealing College concert, for example. During the few months of his stay with Sour Milk Sea, it appears Freddie was reworking the lyrics of “Lover” by combining them with “Green.” It’s unfortunate that no recordings or written lyrics to “Lover” from the Ibex/Wreckage days are known to exist, as a comparison would shed much light on Freddie Bulsara’s work on the song.
Sour Milk Sea broke up in April of 1970. In the well-known, often told recounting, Freddie Bulsara knew Brian May, Roger Taylor and Tim Staffell of the band Smile. Staffell’s departure from Smile in the Spring of 1970 allowed Queen to form out of the ashes, as the three combined their efforts in a new band. Queen wrote new material and brought in older works from earlier projects, like “See What A Fool I’ve Been,” “Doing All Right,” Freddie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Medley” and “Lover.”
The one glimpse we have into the Sour Milk Sea version of “Lover” shows us no lyrics shared with any of the known Queen recordings of “Liar.” The repeats of Lover in the lyrics suggest any connection may be musical or in the lyric structure. Barry Mitchell, Queen’s second bass player, joined the band in August of 1970 and in addressing the album version of “Liar” and how it was played when he was in the band is quoted: "Liar sounds much the same as when I played it" (QueenLive.ca).
Looking back at the handwritten Ibex set list, “Lover” had a run time of three minutes. Other songs on the list ran longer, like the Led Zeppelin cover “Communication Breakdown” running a staggering ten minutes (Zeppelin’s original album version clocks in at two and a half minutes). Ibex’s “Lover” had a lot of room to grow, it would seem. The Davis article provides some more clues:
Geoff Higgins [Ibex’s roadie] remembers at least one decent Bulsara-Bersin tune: “They did a great song called ‘Lover’. The lyrics used to go, ‘Lover, you never believe me’, and Fred later turned it into 'Liar, you never believe me'.”
John Deacon eventually joined the band 1971 and by December, Queen were in De Lane Lea Studios to test the new equipment and record their first demos. “Liar” was a finished song now and it would appear in Queen’s live set and on their debut album.
And yet, “Lover” remains a missing link. We have a glimpse in “Green,” a rehearsal tape with a stripped-down arrangement. And we have the descriptions from those who were there as “Green” merged with “Lover,” but on the “Lover” side, how recognizable was it to “Liar”? Geoff Higgins offers this memory:
“It was almost the same tune. But not quite. In fact it was similar to ‘Communication Breakdown,’ they used to rip off Led Zeppelin a lot.”(Record Collector, March 1996)
Ultimately, we’re left to wonder. Our imaginations can fill in the blanks, perhaps, taking a bit “Green,” “Liar” and, on Geoff’s advice, a bit of Zeppelin.
If anything can be said for certain, it’s that Freddie probably would not have minded this dash of mystery in his music, either.
Thanks: Andy Davis, Bob W., Adam Unger, Mr. Scully, and Anthony Wood