The Forgotten History of a Queen Track
by Patrick Lemieux
It was October of 1974.
Queen had just finished recording their third studio album, Sheer Heart Attack. The lead-off single, “Killer Queen,” had reached #2 in the UK singles charts. Its AA-side, “Flick Of The Wrist,” would go virtually unnoticed, but that would not stop the single from becoming the big breakthrough the band had been looking for to follow the success of their previous hit “Seven Seas Of Rhye,” off Queen II.
Getting to this point had not been easy. Their debut album, Queen, met with limited attention, as did their first single, “Keep Yourself Alive,” which failed to chart in 1973. “Seven Seas Of Rhye” was a hit at #10 in the UK, but the parent album received mixed reviews by music critics in the early days of 1974. Queen were undaunted and pressed on with a tour promoting Queen II, venturing for the first time to North America to support Mott The Hoople in the spring. Their involvement was cut short when guitarist Brian May developed Hepatitis, nearly lost his arm and had to be hospitalized, all after a dirty needle was used to give him an inoculation for the band’s trip to Australia, administered back in January. Brian recovered and joined the band in the studio to finish Sheer Heart Attack through the summer and early fall of that year.
October also saw the band record its fifth BBC session at Maida Vale 4 Studios in London, where they augmented and added to the earlier studio recordings of four tracks from the album (“Now I’m Here,” “Stone Cold Crazy,” “Flick Of The Wrist” and “Tenement Funster”). However, another tour was looming, scheduled to start at the end of the month and looking to stretch well into the following year. The album itself was already mixed, mastered and sent to get pressed. Everything was ready for Sheer Heart Attack and its tour to carry the band to what they hoped would be that final push needed to establish them as a musical force to be reckoned with.
Yet, Brian had one last ingredient in mind. It was something he’d been toying with for a while. On the cool Saturday of October 27th, Brian had booked some studio time with engineer Mike Stone. He had an idea to record an arrangement of Britain’s national anthem, “God Save The Queen,” to use as a closing piece for the concerts in the upcoming tour. It was regal enough, and Queen were just ballsy enough, for it to work. With drummer Roger Taylor’s overdubs, the track was completed that day and taken on the road for the first concert of the tour three days later, on October 30th.
The tour lasted until May 1st of 1975. It was a success and Queen even filmed their appearance at the Rainbow Theatre, London, in November of 1974, following Sheer Heart Attack’s release. January had seen a second UK hit from the album in “Now I’m Here.” Elektra Records in the US were working to carry the band’s success further with another US single release in the summer. Roger Taylor, in the May 24th, 1975, issue of Record Mirror, mentioned that “In America, they’re going to put “Keep Yourself Alive” out again.” The band went into the studio in June and re-recorded “Keep Yourself Alive.” This recording was shelved and Elektra instead re-issued their earlier 1973 edit of the original Queen album version. In preparation for the single’s release, an interesting thing occurred, a curiosity mostly overlooked in Queen biographies and discographies.
The single’s A-side was “Keep Yourself Alive,” despite Elektra not using Queen’s 1975 re-recording (which later became known as the “Long Lost Re-take”). Its B-side would contain something altogether new for fans: the 1974 recording of “God Save The Queen,” recorded the previous October for the Sheer Heart Attack Tour. It should also be noted that for this 7” single, Elektra also included the complete, uncut, non-segued version of “Lily Of The Valley,” off Sheer Heart Attack. Two B-side tracks on one 7” and one of the tracks was effectively a new release, exclusive to the US market. “God Save The Queen,” upon the release of the “Keep Yourself Alive” single in North America, was, for all intents and purposes, a non-album track at that point. The recording had more to do with the Sheer Heart Attack album, by way of the reason it was recorded at all (to close out each concert on that tour), than how Queen fans tend to remember it.
Elektra Records released the re-issued “Keep Yourself Alive” 7” single in the US in July of 1975, but it failed again to have any real chart success. Between August and November of 1975, Queen recorded their fourth album, A Night At The Opera. The band went all out on this album, an all or nothing bid to try everything they could think of in terms of studio production. “Bohemian Rhapsody” would turn out to be the piece de resistance of A Night At The Opera. It was the album’s lead-off single, garnering the band their first #1 UK hit, released October 31st of 1975, before the album itself was fully completed. When it came to the eventual track listing for the album, “Rhapsody” found itself closing Side Two. Everything on the album built up to the epic hit track at the end. None of the songs recorded for the album, as good or great as they were, seemed convincing enough to following Freddie Mercury’s masterpiece.
Except that there was a track recorded a year before, little over a minute long and entirely instrumental.
“God Save The Queen” would reprise its role as a true closer not just for concerts but for this album. It was the only logical choice the band had and the recording made in October of 1974 had yet to appear on an album. Since July, it had been a rare non-album track, Queen’s second at the time, following “See What A Fool I’ve Been,” the B-side to “Seven Seas Of Rhye.” If Queen had not thought to use it, or had recorded an equally fitting track to end A Night At The Opera, this recording of “God Save The Queen” might have remained among the list of non-album tracks in Queen’s catalogue, becoming a collectable on par with “A Human Body” and “Soul Brother,” to name a few. Instead, Queen re-mixed the October, 1974, recording. The original single version starts with the track at full volume, where the mix on Opera fades in, shaving off a few seconds. This means that the single version is still collectable for those fans interested in tracks which differ from the known album versions. So, like the unique version of “Lily Of The Valley,” “God Save The Queen” as it appears on the 1975 “Keep Yourself Alive” single is still sought after. It represents the original form of the recording and encapsulates a five month period where it was effectively a new, non-album Queen track.
Because it closes A Night At The Opera so perfectly, because the original single was fairly rare (and still is), and because Brian May himself only recently enlightened Queen fandom about why he made the recording in the first place, it’s easy to overlook the original context of their version of “God Save The Queen,” and to assume it was a part of Opera all along.
Perhaps it’s overstating the importance of 1 minute and 14 seconds of music among the hundreds of hours Queen recorded, but “God Save The Queen” stands as a look into the organic nature of the band’s recording and album-crafting process. It’s a journey made by the track over the course of a year, whereby it eventually found a home on what could be argued is Queen’s definitive album.
And it still closes Queen concerts well into the 21st Century. Not bad for a track recorded in a day back in October of 1974.
About our contributor:
How I discovered Queen: It was no single event, as I knew a handful of their songs already when Classic Queen was released in 1992. I bought that cassette and loved every second of it, so that was the day I truly got into Queen’s music.
Favourite Album: Queen II
Favourite Song: A Kind Of Magic – The lead-off track to Classic Queen and the first video of theirs I saw after really getting into the band.
Favourite Single: The 1975 US re-issue “Keep Yourself Alive” 7” single, because of the story behind it.