21st January 2019

Queen in the Welsh Marches - Fan Feature by Nathan Hodges

I’m a young Queen fan born in this century, but I already seem to know quite a lot about the group. I’ve been a fan for more than half of my life and in this time, I’ve learned that the group has important connections to where I live…

They recorded at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, just an hour’s drive from where I live. But even more fascinating for me is that they finished writing and rehearsing their fourth album A Night At The Opera just a three-minute drive from where I live in Herefordshire. I can almost see the setting where Freddie Mercury worked on the complex structure of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Roger Taylor described that the importance of this album was either make or break for the group. Brian May now describes the album as “our Sgt Pepper’s” (referring to The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band which is described by critics as the most important and best album by The Beatles). 

Queen’s recording history at Rockfield totals no more than a few weeks in two different periods, one in 1974 and the other in 1975 but in those sessions, songs they part-recorded at Rockfield include the hits “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Killer Queen” and “You’re My Best Friend”. 

Queen first went to Rockfield early in the production of their third album Sheer Heart Attack in July 1974 once again with Roy Thomas Baker and Mike Stone manning the desk though minus Brian to begin with as he was in hospital suffering from hepatitis which he got on the group’s first tour of America in May 1974. As a result, the group left gaps on songs for Brian to add when he recovered. When he eventually joined the group in Rockfield, they managed to record at least the backing tracks for “Happy Little F**k” (the working title for “Brighton Rock”), “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Killer Queen”, “You’re Young And Crazy” (the working title “Tenement Funster”), “Flick Of The Wrist”, “Banana Blues” (the working title of “Misfire”) and “In The Lap Of The Gods Part 2” (the working title of “In The Lap Of The Gods…Revisited”). However, these sessions weren’t going well because Brian was still ill and spent a lot of time in bed and when he wasn’t, he was in the studio but kept having to leave to vomit.

Brian remembers hearing “Killer Queen” for the first time; “The first time I heard Freddie playing that song, I was lying in my room in Rockfield, feeling very sick. […] I remember just lying there, hearing Freddie play this really great song and feeling sad, because I thought, ‘I can’t get out of bed to participate in this. Maybe the group will have to go on without me’.”

Unbeknownst to him until August, he had a duodenal ulcer which first developed in his teens which following an operation left him having to stay in bed under doctors’ orders.

Brian remembers his time in the hospital and completing the first single “Killer Queen”; “No one could figure out what was wrong with me. But then I did go into the hospital and I got fixed up, thank God. And when I came out again, we were able to finish “Killer Queen”. They left me some space for me, and I did the solo. I had strong feelings about one of the harmony bits in the chorus, so we had another go at that too”. 

In hospital, he wrote songs including “Now I’m Here” a song about Queen’s first American tour with Herefordshire rock band Mott The Hoople. However, his compositions wouldn’t be completed at Rockfield but at studios in London (including SARM West Studios in Notting Hill). Queen won’t return to Rockfield until the following year.

Meanwhile, despite Sheer Heart Attack and “Killer Queen” reaching the top ten in many charts around the world, Queen wasn’t being paid any royalties. This was because the contract they signed with Trident Studios meant that they produced albums for a production company, who would then sell the album to a record company. Brian described this as “probably the worst thing we ever did”. (Freddie later wrote “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)” about the group’s money problems with Trident.) The band with assistance from their lawyer Jim Beach managed to negotiate their way out of the deal with the Sheffield brothers but a cost of £100,000 and 1% of royalties on their next six albums. Queen found a new manager, John Reid, Elton John’s manager at the time. He told the group he will take charge of the business side of things and advised them to cancel another American tour for August and September and instead “go into the studio and make the best record you can make”. And that’s what the band did.

In the summer of 1975, Queen undertook writing and rehearsal sessions for what would be their fourth album A Night At The Opera at Ridge Farm Studios in Surrey before traveling to the Welsh Marches to do the same things at a country house. The country house in question is Penrhos Court just outside the small market town of Kington in Herefordshire. Tiffany Murray was just a six-year-old girl living at the country house at the time Queen were there and once told The Guardian that her family was struggling to make ends meet and were renting out their house to make money. She remembers the advertisement her mum put in The Times: “Country house available. Rehearsal space for bands. No heavy rock.” 

Tiffany also told them that she was in the garden and recalls seeing a truck and a limousine arrive on the drive and hairy men coming to her house to make noise. These hairy men are Queen. According to her, the band had set up their gear in the main hall as the band chose that room because of the acoustics in the room. She remembers roadies running around with amps and cables before waking up one morning to a crash of drums and a stab of guitar. She went into the hall and sat halfway up the 20ft staircase. She remembers the band stopping and staring at her with Freddie smiling. Her mum walked into the room asking the group where she was and acted apologetic when they said she was in the room. Brian shook his head and said “she’s not hurting. Leave her”. Every day the group were in there performing, Tiffany kept watching and listening to the group. They often performed loud rock ‘n’ roll and with the whine of guitar this close, her ears would ring on her pillow.

Her mum said that Freddie was always the first one up and was playing the piano and singing. This girl sneaked into the room once and upon sensing her in the room, Freddie stopped and asked her what she thought about what he was playing (which was “Bohemian Rhapsody” though unnamed at the time). She replied, “it’s fantastic”. And he then said, “it’s a bit long” and continued playing. Her mum described Freddie as being lovely but shy who didn’t mind the cats in the room. Her mum also cooked for Queen and all the other bands which would come and go at the house. 

I still find it incredible and completely fascinating that Queen spent a couple of weeks living and working about a mile from where I live in the same landscape of North Herefordshire.

Halfway through August Queen drove once again to Rockfield Studios in Monmouth to record new material. At Rockfield they made backing tracks for most of the album including “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “You’re My Best Friend” and “’39”. Freddie hadn’t named “Bohemian Rhapsody” until halfway during recording so the band and Roy Thomas Baker refer to the song as “Fred’s Thing”.

Kingsley Ward is a founder and the runner of Rockfield Studios recalls Queen there; “They spent their free time playing Frisbee in the main yard outside the studio.” He also said, “Freddie also used to play the old upright piano we kept in what was then the horse tack and feed room”. Later Roger would set up his drums in the same room, with yards of cable fed across the yard back into the studio.

Roy Thomas Baker talked about recording “Bohemian Rhapsody” at Rockfield in Jeff Collins’ Rock Legends At Rockfield book in 2007; "I remember Freddie playing me Bohemian Rhapsody for the first time on his piano at his place in London. Then later at Rockfield, with the basics mapped out, he focused on pinning down what was right. He played me the beginning part and said, 'Right, now this is where the opera section comes in' and he'd leave a gap and I'd have to imagine this dramatic opera style segment. And it just kept changing all the time at Rockfield. It took three weeks to record on a 16-track tape machine and we used 180 overdubs, which was very, very unusual for back then."

The basic backing track for “Bohemian Rhapsody” was made at Rockfield with Roger remembering “Freddie conducting”. The ballad section after the a cappella intro was straightforward enough with just piano, bass, guitars, and drums. Once this was completed, Roy left a thirty-second gap on the reel for later use on what was already being called “the opera section”. The group then recorded the heavy rock section with Brian playing Freddie’s written riff in E-flat; a difficult key for any guitarist. May admitted that “we were all a bit mystified about how he was going to link these pieces”. 

The process of recording “Bohemian Rhapsody” was made more complicated because they could only use twenty-four analog tracks. Also, they had to record the backing vocals before the lead vocals. “That wasn’t a regular way of doing things” confessed Roy. “But we wouldn’t have had enough tracks left for the rich backing vocals if we hadn’t gone down this route.” Roger said “Freddie started adding more and more ’Galileos’” which added to the struggles of recording the song. 

“Every time Freddie added another ‘Galileo’ I would add another piece of tape to the reel” explained Roy. After numerous playbacks of the song, it sounded as if the song was gradually fading away. The extracting process of recording one vocal harmony at a time had required, in the parlance of studio engineers, ‘bouncing’ each harmony on to another track, and so on. Brian said that “the original tape had actually worn thin. People think it’s this legendary story, but you can hold the tape up to the light and see through it. Every time the tape went through the heads, more of the oxide worn off.” The tape was hurriedly transferred, but as Brian recalled, “Every time Freddie another ‘Galileo’ we lost something.”

The sessions at Rockfield involved long days and after one of these, the group watched the Marx Brothers film A Night At The Opera on an early video cassette recorder. They had numerous ideas, but they decided that the Marx Brothers title was the perfect fit due to the album they were recording especially due to the operatic section of “Bohemian Rhapsody” which they had been working on at the time.

Queen never recorded again at Rockfield which is understandable as it’s some distance from London where most of their friends and families live. But at the time, Rockfield and Penrhos offered Queen tranquillity in their professional lives with the termination of their contact with Trident and a second US Tour being canceled. It seems like the band may have forgotten their time at Penrhos because I’ve never heard the group mention it in an interview. Despite its small role, the country house still has an important role in the development of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and A Night At The Opera. However, Queen have remembered Rockfield Studios and still mention it in interviews today. It wasn’t until February 2004 when Queen (specifically Brian and Roger) returned to Rockfield for a BBC documentary about “Bohemian Rhapsody” called “The Story Of Bohemian Rhapsody”. They were filmed browsing and reminiscing their past at the studios. And in 2018, the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic has a mini-feature of Queen recording at the famous studios so the legacy of Queen at Rockfield continues to this day.