“I first drew [the group’s logo] in 1968, I think. It wasn’t until the PC came along in about 1990 that I was able to get the curves smooth and the straight lines straight. I’ve always been rather fond of it, personally. Some people sometimes compare it to the Stones lips logo. There’s a similarity, true. Mine was first!” - Tim Staffell
The band was called Smile, and the forthcoming Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody will tell part of their story. So too will it offer audiences a reunion of sorts for the band, in the form of a song that has wended its unassuming way through the real-life tale.
Formed in October of 1968 by Tim Staffell (lead vocals and bass guitar), Brian May (lead guitar and vocals) and Roger Taylor (drums and vocals), the group of young college students who called themselves Smile were one of many bands working the club circuit in and around London at the time. Armed with a hard-hitting sound (they were once cheekily referred to as “the loudest group in the western world” after appearing at the Royal Albert Hall), they supported Hendrix and bands like Yes.
“The standout gigs were the Albert Hall and Imperial College,” says Tim, “especially when we supported Jimi Hendrix and he asked me in the corridor, ‘Which way's the stage, man?’”
Thinking back to those days, now fifty years past, Tim reflects on some of the numbers from the band’s repertoire, a mix of original songs and covers from the period, like “See What A Fool I've Been,” “I don't think we treated it in quite the same way as Queen did later,” he recalls of Smile’s original version. “I vaguely remember the Tommy James classic 'Mony Mony', too.”
He goes on to say of their song “Doin' Alright,” “I should think -like “Step On Me”- that Brian developed the chord structure, and I developed the lyrics. Although I may have contributed details to some musical sections, and Brian may well have helped refine the lyrics.”
Staffell left Smile in March of 1970, leaving the door open for Freddie Bulsara to form a new group with Brian May and Roger Taylor: Queen. After several bassists filled the role, February of 1971 saw John Deacon step in, solidifying the classic line-up. Tim’s departure came after Smile had already recorded and released a single for Mercury Records, “Earth,” written by Staffell, paired with “Step On Me” as the B-side, co-written by Tim and Brian. Plans had been underway for a Smile album, and in addition to “Earth” and “Step On Me,” the band had recorded a version of “April Lady” (a song presented to them by the record company) and their songs “Blag,” “Polar Bear” and “Doin’ Alright.”
“As far as I remember on the subject of the Smile album, I think we might have intended to do a studio recording of Tim Hardin's ‘If I Were A Carpenter,’ which was a favourite with live audiences,” Tim says, “Maybe we would have attempted ‘Silver Salmon’ as well. [The album] was interrupted, I think, by my departure.”
After parting with Brian and Roger, Tim went on to join the band Humpy Bong and recorded on their only single “Don’t You Be Too Long,” and the B-side “We’re Alright Till Then.” After that, he joined Morgan Fisher’s prog-rock band Morgan, who recorded two albums: Nova Solis (which included a new version of “Earth”) and Brown Out (later retitled The Sleeper Wakes).
Staffell wasn’t the only former member of Smile to revisit their earlier songs for their new group. In the summer of 1972, Queen could be found working on their debut album. Freddie Bulsara changed his name to Freddie Mercury and one of the tracks they put down on tape was “Doin’ Alright,” now re-christened “Doing All Right.”
“I've always rather cynically thought,” Tim muses, “that the reason they put it on their first album was a matter of expediency. They didn't have enough new material. Freddie knew the song, so they included it. Lucky for me that they did! Queen's version was, as you know, a good deal sweeter than Smile's, and demonstrated to me something that I've always held to be true, that Freddie had a purer voice than mine, and was able to sing delicately. It’s something I've always envied.”
The following year, 1973, Queen included “Doing All Right” in their first BBC session. That recording saw several releases over the decades before the 2016 Queen set On Air hit the shelves, which included all six of their BBC sessions. Following the release of their debut album in 1973, the song moved in and out of Queen’s live set, notably appearing in their concerts in 1975 and 1977. The original Smile recording surfaced for the first time on the 1982 Japanese-only LP Gettin’ Smile, which featured all six of the band’s 1969 tracks. The original Smile tapes were remastered for the 1997 Dutch CD release Ghost Of A Smile.
Even with a few studio recordings and live appearances, by the late ‘70s, Queen had a stable of hits and new albums to promote live. “Doing All Right” remained something of deep cut amongst fans and collectors, well loved, but not quite well known outside of that sphere.
Tim Staffell left the music business in the mid-‘70s to pursue a career in model making. He famously worked on the original Thomas the Tank Engine series Thomas & Friends and unknowingly sculpted the alien model for his former bandmate Roger Taylor’s first solo album in 1981, Fun In Space, having been contracted the work by Allister Bowtell’s company.
Then on December 22, 1992, thirteen months after the tragic passing of Freddie Mercury, fans were treated to a special event in the form of a Smile reunion of Tim Staffell, Brian May and Roger Taylor, during the Queen Fan Club Christmas Party concert, where Taylor’s band The Cross were the headliners. They once more rocked a live audience with two of their standards, “Earth” and the cover “If I Were A Carpenter.”
Tim, however, had not let “Doin’ Alright” stray far from his view. Come to the turn of the millennium, he was collecting songs he’d written over the span of his career and set about recording them. “I have continued to write, all along, of course,” he notes.
The resulting album, aMIGO, was released in 2003 and included new recordings of “Earth” (with guests Brian May and Morgan Fisher, harkening back to the two earlier versions) and “Doin’ Alright,” which also featured Brian, the song’s original co-writer.
“I have been influenced by a variety of musical styles over the years,” Staffell says, talking about the new arrangement of “Doin’ Alright” he used for aMIGO. “And I like to think I am a fan of the best of most genres. It seemed to me that the kind of treatment that suited the song was a sort of country feel. I've always been a big fan of the Dixie Chicks, and I may have had them in mind when arranging the song.”
In 2010, the first reports appeared from the Queen camp about plans for a film about the life of Freddie Mercury, eventually titled Bohemian Rhapsody and set for release later this year. No such story would be complete without addressing the break-up of Smile and the formation of Queen. The film’s trailer touches on this scene, showing a young Freddie at the stage door, after Smile’s last show, pitching himself to Brian and Roger in the wake of Tim’s departure. For the Smile scene, it was decided the band would be depicted playing “Doin’ Alright,” the song that best bridges the transition between the two groups.
“I had no idea that it contained a segment dealing with Smile,” says Staffell, “The first I knew of it was when Brian e-mailed me to say they were interested in recreating the rawness of the early sound for that section. He invited me to sing the vocal and dub the bass guitar as I had all those years ago. It was a hybrid effort, Brian, Roger, and I all contributed. We didn't reconvene the band. The elements were played at different times and composited in the studio afterwards. The original Smile recording was on 2" analogue tape in the days when recording technology was comparatively crude compared to now. The challenge was to use modern techniques to create the sound and flavour of 1969, but with the higher fidelity of 2018. I think the guys did a pretty good job.”
To the delight of fans, Tim made the first announcement of his involvement with the film on his official Facebook page three months after that May 8th session took place, stating, “I was recently at Abbey Road Studios with Brian to overdub my vocal part for the scenes in the forthcoming Bohemian Rhapsody movie, where a young me sings ‘Doin’ Alright’ live at a Smile gig. While I was there I also recorded vocal and bass parts for ‘Doin’ Alright’ on the official soundtrack.”
The new 2018 version of “Doing All Right” will feature on the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack album, marking the first release of newly recorded Smile material in almost fifty years.
As fans gear up for the movie, Tim himself is still hard at work. “I have a new album ‘Two Late’ released to download and streaming on October 22nd,” he notes, “In many ways, writing and recording it was a very constructive experience, particularly because all of the material is new. And it renewed my confidence in my ability to compose. I imagine that it's more coherent in terms of styles, since aMIGO featured songs from across a forty-year period, and there is a lot of variety.
“And in the new year, I'll be starting work on my third studio album,” Tim goes on to say, “I have a mind to spread the net wider in terms of instrumentation. Maybe use fiddles, accordion, perhaps some African drums. At this stage in my life, the renewed opportunity to create more of my own music is very welcome.
“Exciting Times! I'm still playing live, doing some session work, some solo gigs and band concerts here and there. In fact, I'm busier than I've ever been.”
The film Bohemian Rhapsody will be in theatres November 2nd, 2018.
The film’s soundtrack album is out October 19th, 2018.
Tim’s new album Two Late is out digitally on October 22nd, 2018.
Patrick Lemieux is a co-author of The Queen Chronology. The newly updated 2nd Edition is available now from online retailers and bookstores.