For three decades, from the early 70s onwards, Mike Grose worked for the Grose family haulage business in St Austell. Most people who met the unassuming Cornishman (he passed away in 2019) would be surprised to learn that he was once the bass guitarist in Queen.
On the evening of Saturday June 27, 1970 the then 22-year-old Grose, drummer Roger Taylor, guitarist Brian May and vocalist Fred Bulsara played their debut gig as Queen, at Cornwall’s Truro City Hall. “And the first song we played was Stone Cold Crazy,” Grose recalled.
Scroll forward to 2014 and Stone Cold Crazy could be heard in all its manic glory on the Queen Live At The Rainbow ’74 box set. Furthermore, May and Taylor revived what could be called Queen’s first song on their US dates that year.
Stone Cold Crazy might not have been released as a single, but it’s the very essence of 70s Queen: loud, silly, bombastic and fun. Although it didn’t appear on record until Queen’s third album, 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack, it was conceived by the future Freddie Mercury before Queen existed.
In the summer of 1969, Fred Bulsara was struggling through his final term at Ealing Art College and fantasising about becoming a pop star. He already knew Brian May and Roger Taylor through fellow art student Tim Staffell, who sung and played bass in May and Taylor’s trio Smile. Freddie was Smile’s number-one fan and occasional roadie. And he desperately wanted to be their lead singer.
In the meantime he talked his way into another band, despite having never sung on stage before. In August 1969 Bulsara joined the hard rock trio Ibex. Two months later, after seeing Led Zeppelin at London’s Lyceum, he convinced Ibex to change their name to the much heavier-sounding Wreckage. Stone Cold Crazy was supposedly written around this time.
In May 1970 the gods smiled and Bulsara replaced Staffell in Smile. His first suggestion was that they change their name to Queen. Meanwhile, Taylor brought in his friend Mike Grose, who moved from Cornwall to the group’s shared house in Barnes. Grose remembered rehearsing Stone Cold Crazy, among other early Queen songs, in the back garden that summer.
“Stone Cold Crazy was one of Freddie’s frenetic ideas,” May said in 2014. “But the original was much slower.”
The guitarist suggested speeding up the bluesy riff, resulting in something that sounded not unlike Led Zep’s Communication Breakdown. The gig at Truro City Hall was in aid of the Cornish branch of the Red Cross, of which Taylor’s mother, Winifred, was a fundraiser. Winifred had actually booked Smile. But the sparse audience who paid their seven shillings and sixpence (about 40p) were instead confronted by the newly crowned Queen, in matching black velvet trousers, and the future Freddie Mercury strutting and posing as if he was playing Wembley Stadium.
In fact Freddie’s posing was more accomplished than his vocals. “He sounded like a rather powerful bleating sheep,” said Taylor. Yet within days of the gig, Fred Bulsara was telling everyone that he now wished to be known as Freddie Mercury and that Queen were going to conquer the world. Mike Grose, however, wasn’t so sure, and soon moved back to Cornwall and a steady job in haulage.
Bassist John Deacon joined Queen in February 1971, after which the group bagged a deal with EMI. Their debut album, Queen, was released in November 1973, followed by Queen II four months later. But there was no sign of Stone Cold Crazy on either.
During recording sessions for the next album, Sheer Heart Attack, Brian May was hospitalised with a duodenal ulcer. His bandmates carried on without him, and crowded around his bed in King’s College Hospital to play him tapes of work in progress. Stone Cold Crazy, one of the few 70s Queen songs credited to the whole group, eventually showed up on side two of the finished album.
In many ways the song distilled everything that made 70s Queen so great – but in just 2:16 minutes. The attacking riff, manic harmonies and comic-book lyrics were signature moves that Queen would expand on and use to build bigger hits.
Although Brian May has confessed to having “no idea what it’s about”, it’s hard not to wonder whether Stone Cold Crazy was partly about the young Fred Bulsara. There are elements of the art student who told everyone he was going to be a pop star in the song’s cartoonish hero, ‘dreaming I was Al Capone’ and ‘walking down the street, shooting people that I meet with my rubber Tommy water gun.’ For all their noise and braggadocio, Queen didn’t really do death and destruction.
Tellingly, when Metallica’s James Hetfield performed Stone Cold Crazy with May, Taylor, Deacon and Tony Iommi at 1992’s Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, it became ‘my fully loaded Tommy gun’. The same line was present in Metallica’s achingly macho version on 1998’s Garage Days Inc covers album.
May and Taylor, meanwhile, were inspired by the song that announced Queen to the world, albeit via a town hall in Cornwall, after rediscovering it on the Live At The Rainbow ’74 box set. Queen’s 2014/15 setlist included Stone Cold Crazy and other songs that had lain dormant since the mid-70s, all revived by frontman Adam Lambert, whom Brian May credits for having “woken us up again”.
More than four decades since his first appearance, it’s reassuring to know that Fred’s imaginary Al Capone with his rubber Tommy water gun is back roaming the street again.