The Black, White and Grey of Queen II
by Patrick Lemieux
“On Queen II we’ve gone berserk.”
Talking to Sounds magazine for their January 1976 issue, Freddie Mercury was referring to the amount of vocal harmonies on that album compared to the then-current release A Night At The Opera. Brian May would echo that sentiment, saying, “Lots of big ideas were about what we could do in a studio if we were let loose with the proper time in the studios. We saved all that up for Queen II. But a lot of Queen II stuff was written at the time we made the first album.” (1977 BBC Radio One)
Queen’s debut album was recorded between June and November 1972, but getting it released proved difficult. It wasn’t until a deal was made with Trident (the studio, record company and management all under one contract) that the self-titled album finally landed on store shelves July 13, 1973.
“The first album was really just putting down what we did on stage at that time. It was quick into the studios and quick out,” said Brian (1977 BBC Radio One). However, by 1973 the material on Queen was considered by the band to be dated, not their current sound. On stage, the new song “Ogre Battle” was already a part of their repertoire, as were older yet-unused songs like “Stone Cold Crazy” and “See What A Fool I’ve Been.”
“‘Ogre Battle’ was written on guitar, but I’ve given that up,” Freddie told Sounds in 1976. Brian spoke more on the subject, saying, “‘Ogre Battle’ which is a very heavy metal guitar riff. It's strange that he should have done that. But when Freddie used to pick up a guitar he'd have a great frenetic energy. It was kind of like a very nervy animal playing the guitar. He was a very impatient person and was very impatient with his own technique. He didn't have a great technical ability on the guitar but had it in his head. And you could feel this stuff bursting to get out. His right hand would move incredibly fast.” (Guitar World, Oct. 1998)
Queen were eager to return to the studio to get to work on their second album. In the meantime, fans would be treated to one of those songs not from the first album in the summer of 1973, as “See What A Fool I’ve Been” was recorded during their second BBC session at Langham 1 Studio on July 24, 1973.
“See What A Fool I’ve Been” dated back to the pre-Queen band Smile. “I had borrowed the idea for the song from a performance I had seen on TV,” Brian May recounted the song’s history on his website in 2004, “What I remembered was just a chord sequence and a couple of lines - I worked it up into a song [...] and it was a way for me to pursue an idea of using huge dynamics in a bluesy song to make it cut across heavy.” There was one problem, however: he’d only heard the song once and couldn’t quite remember who the artist was. Among the suspects was the famous blues duo Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. It would later become the source of much speculation as to which of their songs was the inspiration for “See What A Fool I’ve Been.” The answer would surface thirty years later.
As for “Stone Cold Crazy,” in 1998, Brian explained, “the truth is we weren't sure it was good enough for the first album and it didn't fit the format of the second album, Queen II.”
In the July 28, 1973, issue of Melody Maker, which features an interview with Freddie Mercury and Brian May, it’s reported that “The group are currently preparing to start recording their next album, which they say will have a theme of ‘good verses evil’.”
“For the second album, we actually demanded and got some real studio time, so we could spend some time doing those things,” Brian May (On The Record, 1982), talking about the big ideas the band had.
In August, Queen returned to Trident Studios, armed with songs they’d been saving for exactly this occasion. They left clues on their first album as to the direction this one would take. The most noticeable clue is the short instrumental version of “Seven Seas Of Rhye” which closes out the album.
“Freddie had half-written the song and we thought it was a nice tail-out to the first album, with the idea of starting the second album with the [finished] song,” said Roger Taylor (BBC Radio One, 1977).
The back sleeve collage on Queen reveals two more clues. “The chess piece and the playing card are, of course, the White Queen and the Black Queen, already in existence in our heads, but to emerge later on Queen II,” Brian revealed on his website in 2009. In 2004, Brian described the inspiration for “White Queen (As It Began).”
“White Queen - back in time again - I wrote this at College, where I led a relatively sheltered life, even though the University on the whole was a pretty rampant pace! I had been reading ‘The White Goddess’ by Robert Graves, which explored the role of the idealised Virgin/Mother/Queen/ figure in art through history, and the name for our group, decided just around that time, fitted in with this perfectly - which was one of the reasons I was convinced to go with the name. The personal side is bound up with a girl (of course!) whom I saw every day at College, and was to me the ultimate goddess. It's incredible in retrospect, but because I held her in such awe, in three years I never had the courage to speak to tell her, or even speak to her. The song found its way on to tape much later, on our second album" (BrianMay.com, March 2004)
Interestingly, when asked about the relationship between the title “White Queen” and the band’s name, Brian revealed that, “The name Queen was suggested (by Freddie) as something that would fit in with this song ... and also with a song which Freddie was writing, at the time, called (The March of the) Black Queen!”
Said Freddie himself, in 1974 when talking to Melody Maker, “Now, ‘March Of The Black Queen,’ that took ages. I had to give it everything, to be self-indulgent.”
It’s here where the first grey area comes into view during these sessions. Famed photographer Mick Rock, who would shoot the equally famous cover photo for Queen II, notes in his book Classic Queen that a Freddie Mercury-penned track titled “Surrender To The City” was worked on during the Queen II sessions. Fan will immediately recognize the phrase as appearing in the finished recording of “The March Of The Black Queen,” so it is not a stretch to guess that there is a direct relationship between these two numbers, the exact nature of which we may never uncover.
More opaque is Rock’s mention in his book of other yet-unidentified tracks, where he specifically cites two more, offering only their titles and the songwriters. They are: “Fly By Night,” said to be written by John Deacon, and “Deep Ridge,” attributed to Brian May. News of these tracks piqued the interest of fans and Queen’s Archivist Greg Brooks addressed the issue by saying, “I'm pretty sure these are only working titles for basic ideas, as that is what used to happen.” Greg goes on to add, “I base this largely upon the fact that back in 1998 I listened to ALL the Queen session recordings and there simply were not any discarded songs or related items with the titles you mention. The most likely scenario is that Deep Ridge, Fly By Night, and the like, were merely basic ideas that would or would not have been progressed/developed further to feature in songs that we all know now as tracks on the earliest albums.” (BrianMay.com, 2009)
Mick does, however, note two other songs from these sessions which very much do exist, appearing on later albums: “Brighton Rock” and “The Prophet’s Song,” both written by Brian May. In a US Radio interview in 1977, Brian does confirm that “Brighton Rock” dates back to the Queen II sessions and specifically says it was not used on Queen II “because it didn’t fit.” “The Prophet’s Song” would appear later on A Night At The Opera. The working titled during the Opera sessions is confirmed by producer Roy Thomas Baker holding the tracking sheets as “People Of The Earth,” as seen in the Classic Albums documentary The Making Of A Night At The Opera.
Things do become clearer as we look at the rest of the songs worked on for Queen II. As noted before, Queen had the song “Ogre Battle” in their live set and with the apparent “good versus evil” theme in mind, it would be the most obvious choice for the album.
“There's a lot of backwards stuff there. We were like boys let loose in a room full of toys. And with the old analog machines, you could easily turn the tape over. What I would do sometimes is say to Roy [Thomas Baker], ‘Just give me that tape backwards on cassette, and I'll go home and learn it backwards.’ I would learn it backwards and play on it the next day. Sometimes the mistakes came out better than the actual things you'd planned. That's one of the things you lose in digital. And you can't do the stuff where you'd lean on the reels and it would go eeeooouuuggghhhh.” Brian May (Guitar World, Oct. 1998)
Mark Blake’s book Is This The Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen notes that Mike Grose, then Queen’s bass player, was present in the summer of 1970 when the group wrote songs that would later appear on Queen’s first album, as well as the writing of “Father To Son.” This would appear consistent with Brian May’s statement that the band held the more complex material for their second album. Of the song and the album’s intro piece “Procession,” Brian says, “Also on Queen II, there is a lot of stuff which I like because that was the beginning of doing guitar orchestrations, which I always wanted to do. [...] “Father To Son,” starts off with an introduction [“Procession”]. After it gets into the song, and a few words are sung, it immediately goes into a six-part orchestral kind of thing.” Brian continues, “That was the fulfilment of an ambition for me, to get started on that road of using the guitar as kind of an orchestral instrument.”
“‘Some Day One Day’ was born of my sadness that a relationship seemingly couldn't be perfect on earth, and I was visualising a place in eternity where things would be different ... the acoustic ‘tickling’ and the overlaid smooth sustained electric guitars were intended to paint a picture of that world. I was still at the point where people were telling me you couldn't overlay my kind of fully overloaded guitar on an acoustic rhythm. But of course, you can.” Brian May (BrianMay.com, March 28, 2004)
Though he’s credited with four of the ten songs on Queen’s first album (with “Doing All Right” co-written with Smile’s Tim Staffell), Brian May did not sing lead on any of the group’s tracks until “Some Day One Day.” And as with Queen’s first album, Roger Taylor sings lead vocals on his own composition, this time on the song “The Loser In The End.”
When Freddie Mercury was asked on BBC Radio One in 1977 about his inspiration and the influence of art on his work, he responded saying, “I don’t take things like paintings too literally. The only time I did do something like that was with a thing called ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ in which I was thoroughly inspired by a painting by Richard Dadd which is in the Tate Gallery. I thought, I did a lot of research on it and it inspired me to write a song about the painting. Depicting what I thought I saw in it.”
Freddie’s last two songwriting contributions took the form of “Nevermore” and “Funny How Love Is.” The group had worked with producer Robin Cable the year before at the time of the Queen album session, on what would become the Larry Lurex tracks “I Can Hear Music” and “Goin’ Back,” so Cable returned to create the same kind of wall-of-sound production for “Funny How Love Is.”
Even as the band was recording their second album, they were watching both their debut album and single receive mixed reviews. That single was “Keep Yourself Alive” and likes its parent album, it did not chart. The oft-repeated story is that one reason for its lack of success was that “it took too long to happen.” It’s unclear who first expressed that sentiment, but it’s close to a 1973 Sounds review which proclaims “it never really gets going.” The band’s reaction was to design their next single to get right to the point. On the 2009 Absolute Greatest bonus Commentaries disc Brian May says of the follow-up single “Seven Seas Of Rhye”: “Its roots go back a long way, because there was a little fragment of it on the first album, the first Queen album. Freddie had this idea in his head, but it wasn’t really developed, so we just put down what we had at the end of that album and then we thought it would be a good basis for the single. And again, it was very collaborative and we all threw things in, throw all the harmonies, all the guitar harmonies, all the bombast, all the smoke bombs...it’s all in ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’.”
When it came time to assemble the tracks as a finished album, a pattern of sorts seemed to emerge. Freddie discussed the process with Sounds magazine in 1976, noting “It just evolved to where there was a batch of songs that could be considered aggressive, or a Black Side, and there was a smoother side.” The idea to start the album with “Seven Seas Of Rhye” was reconsidered, as Roger would tell BBC Radio One, “In fact, we ended the second album with this song and it had changed a little by then and we’d released it as a single because we thought it was fairly strong.”
The planned B-side of this single would be “See What A Fool I’ve Been,” also recorded during the band’s Queen II sessions in August. Says Brian on his website in 2004, “When it came around to doing the label for the song (we used a very rough take of it for an early B-side) I could only put for the composer credit: ‘Traditional - arr. May’ because I didn't know who had done the song which had inspired me.”
Both the album and single would have to wait, however. The band’s first album had only just come out and then the 1973 Oil Crisis hit, which vastly reduced resources for the pressing of new vinyl records and single. The band embarked on a tour, supporting Mott The Hoople for most dates, and in December recorded another BBC session, including “Ogre Battle” in their performance.
1974 would start with a difficult trip to Australia for the Sunbury 74 Festival in late January, which saw Queen insulted by the MC as he announced them to stage. Reports from fans who were there vary, but generally insist the band played fine and the audience wasn’t a vicious as is sometimes reported and that at the end of the day they went down well enough. Regardless, the experience was understandably quite negative for the group and it was a while before Queen returned to Australia.
Back home, an unexpected opportunity arose when David Bowie cancelled his February appearance on the BBC programme Top Of The Pops. Queen were offered his spot and jumped at the chance. The fledgling Queen Fan Club sent out its first newsletter, announcing the forthcoming “Seven Seas Of Rhye” single (with the non-album B-side “See What A Fool I’ve Been”) and the upcoming tours, headlining in March in the UK and supporting Mott The Hoople in the US in April.
On February 20th, Queen recorded their Top Of The Pops appearance, presenting “Seven Seas Of Rhye.” It was broadcast for the first time the next day and on February 23rd, the newly-pressed single was released in the UK and with the help of the TOTP appearance, the single eventually reached No. 10 on the UK charts, giving Queen their first hit. This, in turn, helped Queen II, which was to reach No. 5 on the UK album charts, despite continued mixed reviews by the press. Queen II was released in the UK on March 8, 1974, with the following track listing:
“Father To Son”
“White Queen (As It Began)”
“Some Day One Day”
“Loser In The End”
“The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke”
“The March Of The Black Queen”
“Funny How Love Is”
“Seven Seas Of Rhye”
The timing for these successes was impeccable. As the single and album climbed the charts, Queen toured the UK, including a concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London on March 31st. They followed the UK tour with another BBC session, putting down two new tracks from Queen II, “Nevermore” and “White Queen (As It Began).” An edit of the album recording of “The March Of The Black Queen” was also included for the broadcast.
Queen toured the US with Mott The Hoople in April, with whom they’d become good friends. In May, Queen’s involvement in the tour was cut short as Brian May had developed hepatitis, the result of a dirty needle used for his inoculation before the January Australia trip. As Brian recovered, the band turned its thoughts to the next album.
Queen II had been the breakthrough the group had worked hard to achieve, setting the stage for the next album, Sheer Heart Attack, and an even higher-reaching hit single in “Killer Queen” (which reached No. 2). Recorded in only a month, Queen II was a blue print for the band. Brian May has noted several times over the years that “The March Of The Black Queen” explored composing and recording techniques expanded on later in their hit “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Freddie told Circus magazine in 1977, “I don’t care what journalists say, we achieved our own identity after Queen II,” and in 1981, when asked in a South American interview what his favourite album was, Brian replied,” If I had to chose one, I would choose Queen II. Despite its defects, it includes really good songs. We took chances, maybe the bigger ones that we’ve taken, but we enjoyed recording it. That album meant a big progression for us.”
In 2004, the mystery of “See What A Fool I’ve Been” was at last solved. A fan sat at his computer one evening, thinking about the fact that even in this information age, no one had pieced this puzzle together. From what he’d read over the years, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee were the likely source of the song. Other fans had compared the Queen song to their many available recordings and found nothing specific. This fan decided on a different approach, to look at the lyrics, not to listen to the actual songs, and see if anything in their catalogue fit the music of “See What A Fool I’ve Been.” Searching a website of the lyrics to their song, he came across “That’s How I Feel” and discovered the following:
“You don't believe, don't believe I love you
Look what a fool I've been,
oh, Lord, God knows what a fool I've been”
Hoping this was it, he wrote to Jacky Smith at the Queen Fan Club with his evidence, who then passed it on to Archivist Greg Brooks. Brooks contacted the fan and it was decided to hunt a recording of the song down. Such a recording appeared in a CD collection of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee / Big Bill Broonzy songs called Blues Brothers. The fan ordered the CD and sent a copy to Greg to give to Brian May himself, the only person who could definitely solve this mystery. Brian listened to the track and announced to the world on his website that this had indeed been the song! “That’s How I Feel” by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee was the direct inspiration for “See What A Fool I’ve Been.” And at the risk of sounding immodest, that fan was me.
Queen II has been re-issued along with the rest of Queen’s back catalogue numerous times over the years. The 1991 remaster (by Eddie Schreyer) issued by Hollywood Records in North America featured the B-side version of “See What A Fool I’ve Been” as a bonus track, as well as two new bonus remixes, for “Ogre Battle” (remixed by Nicholas Sansano) and “Seven Seas Of Rhye” (remixed by Freddy Bastone). Most recently the 2011 remaster by Bob Ludwig featured a bonus disc which included both the B-side version and a remixed BBC version of “See What A Fool I’ve Been,” as well as the BBC version of “Nevermore.” From the vaults, the original full backing track of “Seven Seas Of Rhye” was included, offering fans not only the instrumental version of the song, but featuring complete finale performance unheard on the album. The BBC recording of “Ogre Battle” appears in an edited form on both the Queen At The Beeb (UK) and Queen At The BBC (North America). The lengthy guitar intro was removed for these releases because the master tape of that section was reportedly damaged. This “lost intro” does circulate around the internet, recorded by fans from the original 1973 broadcast.
Earlier this year, Queen announced the forthcoming release of their famed 1974 Rainbow concerts, including the March 31st Queen II UK Tour show. You can find out more about more here. The March concert offers fans one of the earliest glimpses of Queen live, back before they had a vast collection of hits under their belt and stadiums like Wembley to fill. It is a show by a band riding its first crest of real fame (the first of many) achieved at last through years hard work and perseverance, all of which culminated on Queen II.
Patrick Lemieux is a Canadian artist and writer. He is co-author (with Adam Unger) of The Queen Chronology book, available at Amazon (http://tinyurl.com/phgjjaw), Barnes&Noble.com (http://tinyurl.com/p62gxvq) and Lulu.com (http://tinyurl.com/lbt9tzl). He has also written articles for Queen Online and the Official International Queen Fan Club. His other books include The Mike Oldfield Chronology and The Barenaked Ladies Chronology. He has published a collection of his artwork titled Play Of Light: The Art of Patrick Lemieux. You can follow him on Twitter @MadTheDJ and visit his blog: http://madthedj.wordpress.com/