"Now I’m here…"
If 1974 had been an extraordinary year for Queen, with hit records and a triumphant UK tour concluding at the Rainbow in November, then 1975 was to be the year in which the band came of age. Queen went, in the space of 12 months, from being an up-and-coming UK rock band to a worldwide phenomenon. By the end of 1975 the group had a number one UK album, an iconic single in the middle of a record-breaking stay at the top of the charts, a landmark music video and massive success in other parts of the world. The band had undertaken a sell-out UK tour to critical acclaim – and all this was crowned by a legendary concert at Hammersmith Odeon on Christmas Eve 1975, which was broadcast live on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test. Queen had arrived with typical style and panache. 40 years later, the band is regarded as one of the greatest rock acts ever. This is the story of one of the most important years of Queen’s career.
The Story So Far...
"Now I’m there…"
As 1975 dawned, the portents were good for Queen – it looked like it could be a landmark year. But would the band build on its triumphs of the previous year and become transformed into something truly special and unique in Rock hierarchy?
A year earlier, at the start of 1974, Queen were a relatively new band with a growing reputation for its live performances. In spite of being voted Band of the Year in Disc and Music Echo, chart success was proving elusive. The first Queen single, Keep Yourself Alive, (released on 6th July 1973) hadn’t charted, despite being played on BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test as the soundtrack to a piece of animation. But things changed rapidly when they were offered the opportunity, at short notice, to appear on the UK’s top TV pop show, BBC’s Top of the Pops, in February 1974. The band performed a track from the forthcoming album Queen II. It was Seven Seas of Rhye, which was then rush released a couple of days later as a single. The much-prized Radio One airtime followed, and the song made it to the UK charts, eventually peaking at number 10. The album soon followed in March and Queen II made it to number 5 in the UK charts.
An incredibly successful first three months of the year were crowned by the legendary concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre on 31st March 1974 which proved that (unlike some hit groups at the time) the members of Queen really could play their instruments! It also demonstrated that in Freddie Mercury the band had an incredible front man – a singer and showman extraordinaire who strutted around the stage with incredible style and presence. For many of the audience it was the first time they had seen Queen live, with their immaculate musical performances, elaborate stage sets and stylish, but flamboyant, outfits; and they loved it!
As the group left for its US tour supporting Mott the Hoople, a very successful band at the time in both the UK and US, Queen seemed to have broken through in the UK and be on its way to international success. The tour started in Denver on 16th April 1974 with the band optimistic about the future, but less than a month later there was a major setback. Brian May collapsed with hepatitis and was seriously ill. The band had to cancel their appearances on the rest of the tour and return home.
While Brian slowly recovered, Freddie, Roger and John started work on the next album – to be called Sheer Heart Attack – and went into Trident Studios to start recording in July. Meanwhile Brian’s recovery had been halted when he was rushed to hospital with a duodenal ulcer. But the other band members carried on working, and when Brian finally was well enough to return to the studio, the band came back together creatively with more strength than ever.
In fact, nothing could stop Queen’s momentum.
Their next single, Killer Queen, was released on 11th October 1974. Its infectious tune coupled with intriguing lyrics (mentioning such diverse topics as Moët and Chandon and Marie Antoinette) four-part harmonies and superb guitar solo from Brian May propelled it straight into the charts. It reached number one in all the music papers’ charts – except in the BBC chart, where it “only” reached number two, being held off the top spot by David Essex’s Gonna Make You a Star.
Killer Queen proved a turning point for Queen – maybe not the unanimous number one they desired, but a considerable chart success. And there were consolations for not quite reaching the top of the official UK singles charts: Killer Queen also gave the band their first US hit, peaking at number 12 in the Billboard charts. It was a great tonic for the band after the trials and tribulations of the summer, and boded well for both the forthcoming tour and the release of the new album.
Queen went back on the road with the first gig at The Palace Theatre, Manchester, on 30th October 1974. They were met with rapturous acclaim wherever they went. The set contained many songs from their third album, Sheer Heart Attack, which was released on 8th November. Its mix of hard rock and melody seemed to epitomise the group’s sound at the time, and is still many fans’ favourite album. Sheer Heart Attack charted straight away and like Killer Queen also reached number two – this time being denied the top spot by Elton John’s Greatest Hits, which was to prove ironic in the light of future events.
Queen were riding high, and the group’s triumphant return to London’s Rainbow Theatre on 19th November proved just how far they had come in the less than eight months since they last played there. The band now had two hit singles and two hit albums under its belt, as well as a sell-out tour, and those lucky enough to witness that sensational second Rainbow concert saw a group with everything going for them. For Queen at the end of 1974 the sky was the limit….
Queen appeared to be on top of the world in the opening days of 1975 but behind the scenes all was not well: for some time the group had been unhappy with Trident, their management company, and disillusioned with the performance of their managers, the Sheffield brothers. For most of 1974 the members of the band had been paid wages of just £20 a week, and even the rise to the princely sum of £60 at the end of the year after the success of Sheer Heart Attack was hardly sufficient. They had been told no more money was available because of costs they had incurred including making the album (very expensive as Queen never did anything by halves). The situation was affecting them badly, both financially and emotionally, and something had to be done. John needed money to buy a house for himself and girlfriend Veronica, who he was about to marry; while typically Freddie wanted a piano and Roger hoped to buy a car. All their requests were turned down. It was the final straw. They approached young show business lawyer Jim Beach, who entered into lengthy negotiations to extricate them from a deal that they felt was threatening their career.
Fortunately Queen had other things to think about: after John’s wedding in January the group was scheduled to head off to New York to rehearse for a US tour due to start at the Agora Theatre in Columbus, Ohio on 5th February. The band was really looking forward to it – they were eagerly anticipating playing the new album for their US fans and experimenting with new technology to make the show even bigger and better. What’s more the US tour was a sell-out, and extra dates had already been added. In fact there were days when Queen were scheduled to perform two concerts in one day. They had always worked hard but this was pushing them to the limit and something had to give…
Meanwhile another single from Sheer Heart Attack was released in the UK the day before John’s wedding: Now I’m Here was one of the most spectacular and popular numbers the band performed on the live show. It charted, but didn’t emulate the success of Killer Queen, peaking at number 11.
Queen got a great reception on the opening days of the tour, but then the problems started. Illness struck the band again, but this time it was Freddie who was stricken. Three weeks into the tour he started to have throat problems, finally going to see a specialist who told him he might have nodes in his throat – a diagnosis all singers dread. Further tests were suggested and he was told to rest his voice for three months. The following night he went on stage in Washington to make his usual energetic and vocally taxing performance! Further tests showed the problem wasn’t nodes, but some gigs were cancelled and others re-scheduled so that Freddie could take regular periods of rest before continuing on the road. In a call later in the tour he told Disc and Music Echo journalist Rosie Horide : “Philadelphia was great. That was where my specialist came to see me and he nearly had a sheer heart attack when he saw the way I sing!”
Reviews from the tour were almost unanimously favourable and, when the tour ended at the Paramount North West Theatre in Seattle on 6th April, the band headed for a well-earned rest in Hawaii. The next stop in their bid for world domination was Japan, and another leg of the tour.
Queen’s music had already proved hugely popular in Japan, but even the fact that both Killer Queen and Sheer Heart Attack were riding high at the top of their respective Japanese charts did not prepare the group for the reception they got when they flew into Tokyo Airport on 17th April 1975. In a scene reminiscent of famous Beatles’ airport scenes, over 1200 fans were there to greet them, shouting and screaming and waving both banners and records. The group were stunned. As Brian May said at the time, “It was amazing…we couldn’t take it all in, it was like another world – but we loved it”.
The tour opened at the famous Budokan Martial Arts Hall the next day. It held 10,000 people but was a complete sell-out and sumo wrestlers had been employed to control over-exuberant fans. Queen’s set was greeted with rapturous applause, and so enthusiastic were the fans that Freddie, consummate showman as ever, had to stop the show and calm the audience down. The band then completed its performance without any mishaps. To their great amusement they were then ferried away from the concert in an armoured vehicle!
The band were truly touched by their welcome, and the tour proved to be the start of Queen’s special relationship with Japan that continues to this day. Freddie developed a love of all things Japanese, and started several collections, ranging from dolls and kimonos to Japanese art. Queen loved the country and its people and the feeling was mutual. After for a further 11 days Queen returned to Tokyo and the Budokan for the final date, and paid a very special tribute to the fans by coming back on stage for the encore wearing kimonos. The crowd went wild…
Returning to the UK brought Queen back down to earth with a bang. Negotiations with Trident were proving acrimonious and seemed to be stalled. Jim Beach was doing his best, but no agreement had been reached as yet. Needless to say, the relationship between Trident and Queen was not an easy one.
On the bright side, in May Queen won all four top categories in Disc’s annual poll, being named best live group, international group, and also as having the best single (Killer Queen) and album (Sheer Heart Attack.) The trophies were a little unusual - large soft toys based on a dinosaur called Fresco le Raye which appeared in the magazine’s regular cartoon. They were a little different from the normal statuette, but nonetheless appreciated.
Later in the same month Freddie received a more conventional award – a highly coveted Ivor Novello award from the Songwriters’ Guild of Great Britain for Killer Queen. He was delighted and proud to be given such a prestigious award – his first. That month there was also another important event in Freddie’s life: he was asked to appear on Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett’s show. He and the eccentric and zany Everett struck up an immediate friendship – a relationship which was to prove very significant for Freddie and the band later in the year.
Queen had started working on songs for their next album, but the management problems were still hanging over them like a dark cloud, to the extent that rumours started to circulate that the group were about to split up. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but around this time Brian had an interesting offer – Sparks was a popular US band, having had a big hit with This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us. The group consisted of two brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, who approached Brian to join them. They were of the opinion that “Queen is obviously all washed up”. Needless to say, Brian didn’t agree. He was flattered but gracefully declined their offer.
Jim Beach finally closed the severance agreement with Trident in late August. They were free.
Their next task was to find a new manager. As they were all massive Led Zeppelin fans their first option was that band’s manager Peter Grant, but it would have required them to sign to Swan Song – Led Zeppelin’s production and record company. Queen preferred to be with a major record company so the deal never went through. The band then approached John Reid, Elton John’s manager. They knew Elton was a fan of theirs, and Reid readily agreed to manage them.
Sadly the US tour had to be cancelled for the time being, as the venues had been booked by the previous management, but Queen still had the States firmly in their sights. Keep Yourself Alive had been re-released in the US and was doing well. The US tour would be re-scheduled, but meanwhile they had other things to think about.
Queen had at last broken free from Trident – and the relief was enormous. The dark cloud had lifted and now they could concentrate on their forthcoming US tour and the next album.
A Night At The Opera
It may have been a phenomenal worldwide hit, but Bohemian Rhapsody was just one track on Queen’s fourth album, eventually to be entitled A Night at the Opera. The album emphasised not only the incredible diversity of song-writing talent in the band, but also its wide range of vocal and musical talent. It was a masterpiece - a tour de force which the band later referred to as their equivalent of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Queen started recording the album in August, and the lion’s share was laid down at Rockfield Studios in Wales, again under the guidance of producer Roy Thomas Baker, and with the help of another stalwart, sound engineer Mike Stone. It was Baker who inadvertently provided the title for the album, at quite a late stage in the proceedings, when he showed the band some Marx Brothers films one evening, including A Night at the Opera. They immediately agreed that this would be a great title for the album, especially given its occasional operatic moments!
The album took four months to record, with the members of Queen often working separately but simultaneously on tracks and only getting together at the end of the day to share their work with the others. There were still final touches to be added (such as the mixing of Brian’s majestic epic, The Prophet’s Song) when the unfinished album was previewed to the press at Roundhouse Studios in London, in November. Some guests were confused at being greeted by a sign, which said, “Welcome to A Night at the Opera”! When the final track, Queen’s version of the National Anthem, was played Freddie made the audience stand until it was over. For many years afterwards this became an integral part of Queen’s stage show.
Brian’s masterpiece was finally finished in time for inclusion on the album – but not without some dramas. The day of the Roundhouse preview he had been up most of the night trying to finish The Prophet’s Song, and finally gone to bed in the early hours with it still unfinished. Meanwhile a preliminary version had been, in Roger’s words, “cobbled together” to play to the press. Brian awoke to hear that version being played on the radio. He thought for a moment he was still dreaming until he discovered Kenny Everett had appropriated the temporary version and was playing it on Capital Radio!
Originally entitled People of the Earth, Brian’s The Prophet’s Song was different in many ways from other Queen songs. He later revealed that the lyrics were based on a dream he had about a prophet, and that unusually he not only remembered them, but also strands of the melody. He gave the track its strange eerie sound in a number of ways: he had tuned the bottom string of his guitar down a tone to a D, which gave it “an unusual and doomy growl”. When he later performed the song on stage he had to have a separate guitar, permanently tuned this way, ready to use.
Once it came to recording the vocals Brian worked with producer Roy Thomas Baker to put together a demo track for Freddie. It reflected Brian’s interest in tape delays and the classic canon format in which a chorus is repeated over and over again, with the refrain starting in a different place each time. Freddie then came back with his own suggestions, and the haunting vocals were born. Brian added to the song’s unique sound by having each chorus end slightly differently. He says “We liked never to repeat ourselves, it became our trademark. We like each song to be journey. If they are all the same, what is the point?”
The Prophet’s Song was an epic production remarkable for its unusual theme and construction, including a revolutionary section in which Freddie sang with two echoes of himself, in a similar way to the technique developed for guitar by Brian in Brighton Rock.
Another attracted attention for a very different reason.
Freddie’s song, Death on Two Legs, was to prove controversial; it was widely believed to have been written about their previous manager Norman Sheffield, although unsurprisingly the group never confirmed this. Lines such as “Put your money where your mouth is, Mr. Know All” and “Now you can kiss my a** goodbye” allegedly referred to Sheffield and his acrimonious parting with the band, and EMI agreed to pay him a sum of money to stop him suing them for libel. Queen refused to pay anything.
John and Roger were now contributing more to the writing on Queen albums, and adding variety to the repertoire. Roger Taylor’s I’m in Love with My Car (which had been the B side of the Bohemian Rhapsody single) reflected not only his own love of automobiles but featured the perceived accoutrements of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
John Deacon’s beautiful and lyrical ballad You’re My Best Friend soon became a firm favourite with the fans, and was released as the follow-up single to Bohemian Rhapsody in June 1976, peaking at number seven in the UK charts. Freddie contributed another emotional ballad, Love of my Life, to the album. It was inspired by his long relationship with Mary Austin, who did indeed remain his friend until the end of his life.
The remaining five tracks of the twelve on the album were written by Freddie (Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon and Seaside Rendezvous) and Brian (’39, Sweet Lady and Good Company). The album cover was simple but stylish, a coloured version of Freddie’s original crest design against a plain white background. The gatefold sleeve featured the album tracks’ lyrics and photos from the previous tour, as well as the band’s first ever coloured inner sleeve. A Night at the Opera was released in late November – at the time it was the most expensive album ever made. But it soon proved to be worth every penny, heading straight to the top of the UK charts and staying there over Christmas while Bohemian Rhapsody hogged the top of the singles charts.
A Night at the Opera was also a worldwide hit, reaching number four in the US Billboard charts, and number one in Australia, New Zealand and The Netherlands, while also charting in many other territories. To this day many believe it to be Queen’s finest album.
The Night at the Opera Tour
It had been a tough year, but there was to be no rest for Queen. They finished rehearsing at Elstree Studios on 10th November, recorded the Bohemian Rhapsody video there on the same day and then got straight on a bus for Liverpool. With Queen, supported by Mr Big, The Night at the Opera tour opened at Liverpool Empire on 14th November, to a sell-out audience and an ecstatic reception.
The members of Queen were never ones to rest on their laurels – the next thing always had to be bigger and better than the previous one. This was true of tours too: the intricate and spectacular stage set comprised more lights, pyrotechnics and special effects than ever. There was even a massive gong, which Roger struck in an affectionate parody of the Rank Organisation’s signature gong at the start of their movies.
Queen’s stage costumes weren’t exactly subtle either. Freddie’s were predictably striking and stylish, black or white, often flowing or winged, and decorated with everything from diamonds to chains. He even wore black nail varnish. On the third night of the tour, in Coventry, he went on stage in a kimono in tribute to his Japanese fans. The English fans were delighted.
Meanwhile Brian’s costumes, while not so flamboyant, were just as impressive – usually skintight silk or satin trousers with flowing embroidered tops, John and Roger wore similar garb. Together the band made a stunning impression against the backdrop of lights and effects.
The tour was a triumph – ecstatic responses from audiences, rave reviews and even the perfectionists known as Queen were pretty pleased. But better was yet to come… Having played five sell-out nights at London’s Hammersmith Odeon from 29th November to 3rd December, Queen continued their triumphant procession around the country, returning to Hammersmith Odeon for a very special gig on Christmas Eve.
For the first time ever BBC’s flagship TV music show Old Grey Whistle Test filmed a rock concert and broadcast it live, while it aired simultaneously in stereo on Radio One. This meant that not only were the 3,500 fans lucky enough to get tickets able to see a remarkable concert, but that many hundreds of thousands more were able to celebrate Christmas by experiencing a landmark in rock music.
Needless to say Queen rose to the challenge with a high-octane performance that almost blew the roof off the famous venue. Freddie pranced and prowled around the stage, manipulating the audience with ease as his extraordinary voice interpreted the songs. Brian strutted and posed as his pure and incredible guitar playing filled the hall. John laid down a rhythmic foundation for the songs, while Roger, the other part of the band’s “engine room”, played an extraordinary set on drums and other percussion, providing another focal point at the back of the stage.
There were many striking moments during the concert, such as when Freddie seemed to be in two places at once during Now I’m Here (with the help of the band’s personal manager, the late Pete Brown, who was a similar build and imitated him), and when Roger employed his trademark trick of putting lager on his drums for effect.
It was a triumphant night, and as the last notes of the encores finally died away Queen realised that they really had arrived at the top of the UK rock hierarchy. As 1975 drew to a close the next stop was the rest of the world, and as they left for their US tour on 20th January 1976 Queen could only reflect on an amazing year. Now that they had hit albums and singles under their belt, as well as sell-out tours, and new management with which they were happy, the sky was the limit.
'A Night At The Odeon' is available now on CD, DVD, Blu-ray, Vinyl and Super Deluxe Boxset @ www.queenonlinestore.com