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WITH DEREK SHULMAN, DEE SNIDER, AND RICHIE UNTERBERGER
The path to Queen's monumental first album was traveled swiftly and with flair. A brief review of the facts is in order.
In 1968, with their eyes on promising futures, Brian May had completed an honors-level Bachelor of Science in Physics, and Roger Taylor had switched from dentistry to biology, also completing a BSc.
Meanwhile, Farrokh "Freddie Mercury" Bulsara's pathway to rock 'n' roll royalty was a bit more colorful. Born in present-day Tanzania, Freddie spent much of his childhood in India before the family returned to Africa. Eventually, however, the family fled the Zanzibar Revolution to Britain, where Freddie obtained an art and graphic design diploma and set about making a go of it in music, singing with the likes of Wreckage and the unfortunately named Sour Milk Tea.
Around the same time, Brian, Roger, and a bassist/vocalist named Tim Staffell saw some promise as Smile, recording a couple of demos before Staffell was off to join folkies Humpy Bong. Freddie convinced Brian and Roger not to give up, and the three convened as Queen, with Bulsara (soon to become Freddie Mercury) inspired by a line from the band's soon-to-be-classic "My Fairy King." After running through several bassists, the band played their first gig on July 18, 1970, before John Deacon (with a degree in electronics) auditioned for the band at a lecture room at Imperial College. He entered the Queen fold in February 1971, cementing the band's classic lineup, which played their first show on July 2, 1971.
While on the path to their remarkable first album, Queen served as somewhat of a test band for London's De Lane Lea Studios, an arrangement that benefited them in the form of an uncommonly professional demo session. Signing on with Norman Sheffield and his brother Barry, who ran Trident Studios, boosted the band's reputation as studio specialists and essentially provided free hours of otherwise expensive studio time. Although the band had to toil during off-hours, the arrangement resulted in the Queen record, issued on Trident-associated EMI in summer 1973 after months of shopping it.
Labels that passed missed out on what is considered one of the great debut records of all time. At the ballad end of the spectrum, "Doing All Right" had roots in Smile, and a '60s psychedelic, folk, and even blues vibe was apparent. But "The Night Comes Down" proved Queen's ability to write rich and unusual melodies and turn on a dime into prog and nascent heavy metal. What's more, demonstrating the strength of the De Lane Lea sessions, the band opted for that earlier version of this classic for the final record.
But more than anything, Queen is an album of flash, thespian, prog metal before the term "heavy metal" was even in play. Throughout, Queen touched upon various tropes, tendencies, and tempos of early metal, applying a sense of gravitas consistent with the band members' and the regal air of their band name.
But the rich banquet of dishes the band brought to their first feast would shortly prove too varied for a society in love with fast food, and Queen would be passed over, as, indeed, would the band's even fussier follow-up.
But years on, "Liar" and "Keep Yourself Alive," nowhere near hits in their day, would become, arguably, two of the top dozen most beloved chestnuts of the band's extensive oeuvre, go-to classic-rock radio staples whenever a bracing blast of Brian May is needed to wake up those stuck in rush hour traffic.
Despite its monumental significance, Queen has so far only been certified gold in both the US and UK, demonstrating the almighty importance of a hit single to the success of an album. Still, the band's debut lives on in the hearts and minds of Queen fans who revel in the record's exploration of plush dynamics, from classical and folk flights of fancy to the most crushing of power-chorded heavy metal.
In its sense of purpose, Queen is representative of any act's first record — a canvas on which the paint is applied feverishly and thickly. As the band evolved, they learned where to let in more light; but as a first statement, Queen remains a bold demonstration of density, almost unparalleled among debut records.
POPOFF: To kick things off, take me back to 1973. This band Queen shows up. What kind of impression did they make?
SNIDER: Well, okay, here's a day-one Queen fan story for you [laughs]. I majored in communications and was on college break and got a job wiring computers. Back then it wasn't some sort of brilliant thing; you actually wrapped copper wire around coils in a pattern and you would sit there listening to the radio all day, passing boring time, because I'm gonna be a rock star and I don't know what I'm doing in college anyway. I dropped out shortly after.
And on the radio — Jonathan Schwartz, WNEW — each Friday they'd do "Things from England." And this song comes on, and it's "Liar." I can't identify the band. I'm a Zeppelin fan, I'm a Yes fan. I had a very pure clean voice and those were the inspirations, until I burned it out singing Alice Cooper songs. And I'm just sitting there — I literally stopped working — going, "This is incredible, who's this band?! Who is singing? Is this Jon Anderson, Robert Plant?"
And when it's over Jonathan Schwartz goes, "Things from England, that's a new band called Queen." That's when I start becoming a Queen freak. As a huge Sabbath fan, I loved it. This was one of the things that people didn't realize for years — in the earliest interviews, Brian May talked about being a Black Sabbath fan, and the album connected with me because they ripped off so much from Sabbath, especially on something like "Son and Daughter."
I was a classically trained counter tenor as well as a rock singer, so my respect for tenor voices, and pure tenor voices like Freddie's, with that clarity and that purity on top of that heavy music was just amazing. Like I say, when I joined Twisted Sister, I got in the band because I did a perfect Robert Plant impersonation, which was gold in the bar days. But after six months of singing in bars, I burned my voice out and I got a career. I got this husky voice and could no longer sing that stuff, but I could still appreciate it.
Which brings us to seeing them live. This is May '74, so Queen II had just come out. They are opening for Mott the Hoople, and I'm a big Mott the Hoople fan. Mott was doing five nights at the Uris Theatre on Broadway. And nobody knew Queen. I knew Queen. And I remember sitting in the balcony, Queen comes out, dressed all in white with their choir robe tops, and you know, Freddie with the chain mail glovelet on his hand and the half mic stand, long hair, buckteeth you can see from the back of the room, no moustache. And they open with "Procession," the intro music to "Father to Son."
I am losing my mind. I'm the only person in the theater screaming. I mean, the only person. I am on my feet from song one and I am just losing it. I'm wearing platform shoes, with this big brown afro. I'm skinny as a toothpick. I hadn't discovered bodybuilding. I'm just this rail-thin, glittered-out monstrosity in the balcony. The only thing worse than nobody reacting when you go to a show is one person reacting. It's like, if you get no tip, it's like, well, maybe they forgot. But if they put a penny on the table, there's no way they forgot, they're saying "Fuck you."
So, I'm just screaming so loud, my friends are begging me to please stop. It's embarrassing. Brian May looks up at one point to see what the commotion is. He looks right at me, one tall moustachioed afro, parted in the middle, pencil-thin lunatic Queen freak in the balcony screaming with every song. It was incredible. And I'll tell you, if you ever hear any of those early Queen tapes of some of those early concerts — and they are out there, these great radio bootlegs — their vocals were on, they were on, it was just amazing. And nobody appreciated it at that point.
POPOFF: Love it. Derek, you were introduced to Queen in a completely different way.
SHULMAN: Yes, our band, Gentle Giant, were in the same studio at the very same time when we were doing our first record, with Tony Visconti. And we were taking three-hour turns, and I'm not sure who was producing Queen at the time. This might have been their first demo session. Roy Baker was maybe the engineer, I'm not sure. But he was our tape op at that time, so we would see them coming in and out, in Wardour Street, and we kind of got friendly with them. But funny enough, in all the years that followed, we never played with Queen, as a group.
POPOFF: What were your first impressions? Did it look like they had something special?
SHULMAN: Actually, yes. They were very different from what we had, of course. But there was something about them that intrigued us. They were fairly ... I hate to use the word, intelligent [laughs], but they had sort of an education that was slightly above the regular, rather than "We're gonna rock 'n' roll and take drugs et cetera." They seemed a little more articulate, quite smart, and they were adept and appeared to know where they were going. And obviously they did, because, as we all know, they became massive.
POPOFF: Did you consider them part of the prog or glam scene?
SHULMAN: That's the interesting part about this band. They were kind of prog, but they were also very pop, and of course with Freddie, they had an incredible front man. So, they crossed all sorts of borders. The glam scene was happening, the Bowie thing. At the very same time we were recording our first record, Tony was producing The Man Who Sold the World. But Queen were able to transcend glam, prog, rock — they took in everything. They were very different in the way they presented themselves. They made simple songs sound — how can I put this? — very complicated, and complicated songs sound simple.
POPOFF: Richie, for you, where does the Queen album fit within the tenor of the times?
UNTERDERGER: It's a strange record because there are a lot of collisions of influences. For starters, Queen seem to be lumped in somewhat with glam, in the United States, anyway. There were rough similarities to some of the other groups that were getting attention in the US, like David Bowie and T. Rex, or even some of the more singles-oriented bands like Sweet and really obscure ones to Americans like Hello and Mud.
But clearly there was more sophistication — not more than Bowie, but more than the average glam act. There are elements of real hard rock and there's also classical music influence, which is maybe secondhand as filtered through art rock. But like later Queen albums, there is some sense that from track to track you're getting almost a different band. There are also elements that can be traced to the late 1960s, with the really dense vocal harmonies, similar to Abbey Road but given, like, this helium sheen.
At the hard rock end, some of the guitars are crunching, but some have a real sustained, soaring sound. There were comparisons to Led Zeppelin when Queen were circulating their De Lane Lea tape to companies. Like, "We don't want another Led Zeppelin." Sure, there's a bit of that heavy metal crunch and a histrionic quality to the lead vocals, but I never thought, "Oh, this is another one of those groups trying to sound like Zeppelin."
POPOFF: What else do you know about this ramp-up period to getting the debut record on the shelves?
UNTERDERGER: Like a lot of early '70s groups, they had roots in 1960s British rock and had been in some bands. Where they really started to get something together was getting this demo session in late 1971 at De Lane Lea, where Jimi Hendrix had recorded. They were very fortunate to get studio time at a very good studio. It wasn't Abbey Road or Olympic, but it was pretty good, and they got a bunch of time to work out a very professional recording.
When they came out of the studio, they almost had an album-quality, or half an album-quality release. Most of their peers or managers or agents were shopping around demo tapes that were relatively crude, not exactly homemade but maybe a live-in-the-studio tape that was recorded in a cheap facility. And they had more of a state-of-the-art tape that they could shop around, even though they didn't own a tape player where they could play the tape themselves, which is kind of a funny trivia note.
But the record companies could almost hear the album as it would sound in its finished product. The demo tracks, which are now available as bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, don't sound that different from the final recordings. The guy who signed them for the States, Jac Holzman of Elektra Records, said it was like a diamond landing on his desk. It seemed that refined. He was probably used to getting pitched, even by high-powered managers, demos that sounded kind of unfinished or like they needed more time to write better songs. That really helped them get a deal in the United States with Elektra.
POPOFF: The final product turned out that much better because they essentially signed with a studio, or with the co-owners of a studio.
UNTERDERGER: Yes, and the situation at Trident was such-and-such doesn't need the studio now, come on over. It was like being on pins and needles: "Whenever the studio's available, we gotta get in there and do what we can." But it would've been unaffordable to have a comparable facility otherwise. Also, since you brought up that Trident deal, it was beneficial to them, I think, in the long run, to not sign directly with a label. Other bands have done that, like the Stones in the early years, who were signed to Andrew Loog Oldham. That could make them a little more particular about the record deal that they wanted, because they had the backing of somebody already.
POPOFF: At the heart of this band is this guitarist who, on this record, has a sort of violent, choppy sound, yet it's not exactly heavy metal. How would you articulate who Brian is as a guitarist?
SHULMAN: You're right, Brian's style is very unusual. He's not a whammy bar, power chord kind of guy, and he's not a guitar hero sort of person, playing a million miles an hour on top of an E or B or writing these three-chord riffs, and he's not poppy. He picks at his notes superbly well and very differently. It was progressive because it wasn't the norm.
SNIDER: One aspect is that you have Brian May coming in as a Tony Iommi freak. People don't realize just how significant that is, and I've communicated with Brian but have yet to sit down with him and discuss this, but it's even in his vibrato. Tony Iommi has a weird vibrato because of his plastic fingertips. Brian May's vibrato is imitating Tony Iommi. He's a Sabbath fan. I remember, he stopped saying it after early interviews. And then one day, lo and behold, who's on stage at Wembley Stadium for the Freddie Mercury tribute concert? Tony Iommi playing rhythm guitar with Queen.
POPOFF: When the full Queen album became available, Dee, what did you think of it?
SNIDER: Well, like I said, it had the influences of so many bands that I loved. And I was a choir geek, and not only did you have this pure, brilliant, almost operatic voice, but he was a rocker, Freddie. There was a range and a sweetness plus the harmonies, but he could really lay into it too when he wanted to be aggressive, all of which you get in that [sings] "I want you to be a woman."
And then being a day-one Black Sabbath fan — I was in a Sabbath cover band in high school — hearing that influence mixed with the melodic ... Brian was bringing it, and being a Zeppelin fan, Roger Meddows-Taylor was very Bonham-esque in his drumming, and on top of everything else, he was beautiful with that incredibly high voice. I was also fan of glitter rock and they were somewhat connected to that as well.
As for the songs, well, "Liar" and "Keep Yourself Alive" are fresh, original, powerful, and they make a left turn where others would make a right. When you think you know where they're going to go, they go someplace else. I was just more drawn to heaviness early on, tracks like "Good King Rat" and "Son and Daughter," which were just metal songs. That really had broad appeal to me. And "Jesus" certainly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Queen"
Copyright © 2018 Martin Popoff.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
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Table of Contents
DISCOGRAPHIC NOTES, 7,
1. QUEEN, 8,
2. II, 24,
3. SHEER HEART ATTACK, 36,
4. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, 52,
5. A DAY AT THE RACES, 68,
6. NEWS OF THE WORLD, 86,
7. JAZZ, 100,
8. THE GAME, 114,
9. FLASH GORDON, 128,
10. HOT SPACE, 136,
11. THE WORKS, 150,
12. A KIND OF MAGIC, 164,
13. THE MIRACLE, 176,
14. INNUENDO, 188,
15. MADE IN HEAVEN, 198,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, 212,
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS, 212,
AUTHOR BIBLIOGRAPHY, 216,
IMAGE CREDITS, 219,