"For a long time it was my favourite Queen album. It got overtaken by Made In Heaven, which I think is, strangely enough, perhaps the deepest Queen album, because we did it after Freddie had gone, but I’ve always loved that record. In a sense it was the biggest jump we ever made creatively.”
It says something about Brian May that he seizes the phone so enthusiastically to begin talking about Queen II, a record he made more than half a lifetime ago.
For fans of Queen, a band trapped in the imagination as somehow ageless, their music a constant, their image maintained in perpetuity by their videos, their concert films, and by Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s difficult to conceive of them becoming old. But even despite the electrified, eternally youthful glow of the baby-boomer generation, May and his bandmate Roger Taylor are mortal men, now in their eighth decades.
There is a distance now between them and the story that they have agreed to tell, and much has happened in between. When they speak about themselves during the making of Queen II, it’s with an amused detachment, almost as if they were discussing the antics of their teenage grandchildren.
The details of any rabble-rousing misbehaviour have been lost to time, and probably discretion too. The act of hedonism that remains in the memory is the creative binge that allowed them to put down on tape the sounds that they had been carrying around in their heads since the concept of Queen became to them. All of their excess came out on the record; it was that, rather than sex, drugs and rock’n’roll madness, that consumed them and drove them forwards.
In its bombastically glorious sound, its sonic grandeur, its sometimes hilarious excesses, Queen II is the record that pointed the way to the band that they would become. From a cover shot in homage to Marlene Dietrich, to its themed sides of ‘White’ and ‘Black’, unfettered ambition runs through it. Decades later, it retains a gobsmacking appeal. It really is quite something.
“I don’t think the album sounds like anyone else,” says Roger Taylor, sitting in a shaded corner of his studio on a bright winter’s day in deepest Surrey. “We weren’t really at that point like anyone else… we gained a mental identity, a group identity and we were just doing what we did.”
Casually but expensively dressed, softly spoken and instinctively well mannered, it would be easy enough to mistake the drummer for the successful dental surgeon that in a more conventional life he would have become. Instead he has been Queen’s most conventional rock star: an androgynous beauty in his youth, it was Taylor who loved sports cars and dated models; who brought his rasping rock’n’roll voice to the many layers that would characterise Queen’s sound; who will say even now, after the decades of hit singles and chart success, that he considers Queen to be “an albums band”.
“I remember Queen II clearly because it was such a formative period,” he begins. “Things were just starting to crystallise. The first album was made very much in spare studio time. Queen II was more of a piece, rather than just being songs thrown on to an album, which is what the first one was. We were really starting to push the boundaries of the studio in terms of overdubbing, and what we could do vocally, which we were really just tinkering with before that. We really realised that we had a lot of vocal power, and things we could do with vocals. There was a lot of very complex stuff on there.”
The early 1970s are a distant place now, another country, and 1974 was particularly colourless and grim: the year of two general elections, the three-day week, a state of emergency in Northern Ireland, the Birmingham pub bombings. Germany existed as two halves, East and West. Leonid Brezhnev led the USSR. Richard Nixon resigned as US President after Watergate. Lord Lucan vanished. The man in the street had never seen a computer, the majority of British households still had black-and-white televisions.
In that grey world with few distractions, rock’n’roll exerted its pull. Bon Scott joined AC/DC, Neil Peart became Rush’s drummer, Yes sold out Madison Square Garden, Genesis released The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Deep Purple put out Burn and Stormbringer, Kiss and Bad Company unleashed their debut albums; punk was still two years away.
Queen didn’t quite fit in anywhere. Music for them was not an escape from the dead end of the streets. Roger Taylor had qualified as a dentist, Brian May was a physics graduate, bassist John Deacon read electronics, and Zanzibar-born Freddie ‘Mercury’ Bulsara was a former art and graphic design student.
From the start they had a grand artistic vision that came from art and poetry. They had something in common with the public schoolboys playing prog rock, they shared an aesthetic with the arty, New York side of glam, they wanted to write hit singles. Yet they still stood slightly apart: they were headstrong, self-confident, self-contained, perhaps not that easy to love. Taylor and May had met first, and played together, in the band Smile.
There, as Taylor puts it, Mercury became “not our hanger-on, that’s unfair…” He searches for the right description. “Our friend. He was our friend. And then Freddie and I became very close.”
Taylor and Mercury bonded over clothes, May and Mercury over a love of Jimi Hendrix. The Freddie Mercury of 1973 was still the “emergent butterfly” of his own description, and his personality bore contrasting sides of deep shyness disguised with an equally innate flamboyance.
He had a deep need for his own reinvention, and said that he wished his life to that point had begun at age 21 in Feltham. He could play almost any song by ear at the piano, had been calling male and female alike darling since the age of 12, and he was creating a persona that somehow exaggerated his sexuality and theatricality while allowing him to keep it private until almost the very end of his life.
It was Mercury who coined the band’s eventual name. “I’ve got it in a diary entry,” Taylor recalls. “‘I’ve decided the best name for the band is Queen…’ Up until then we were going to call it Build Your Own Boat.”
The name ‘Queen’ bore the Mercury hallmark – it could be interpreted in different ways, both regal and provocative. When they came to make their debut album, they were living in various flats and bedsits. May was doing some part-time teaching, Taylor and Mercury ran a clothes stall in Kensington Market. They recorded in cheap studio down-time when no one else was there, and so the album had been a piecemeal affair, unable to live up to the vision of the band that was evolving. The NME called it “a bucket of stale urine”.
Queen sat uneasily between David Bowie and Roxy Music on one hand, and Led Zeppelin and their ilk on the other (Roxy Music’s drummer called them “contrived”; the untouchable Zeppelin didn’t call them anything at all). Without the grandeur that Queen’s music needed, all their posing and preening, the eyeliner and the painted nails and the platform boots made them look like wannabes, followers, and they were very far from that.
What they did possess was a rock-solid self-confidence that enabled them to catch the bus to the studio in their stage gear, and to hire their own publicist, Tony Brainsby (it was he who ensured that just before they began Queen II, they appeared in the pages of Mirabelle magazine, May giving his likes as “cats, Herman Hesse and prawn cocktails”, Mercury confessing that his ambition was “to appear on The Liza Minelli Show”).
They were also caught up in an unconventional and complex recording contact. The band had originally been signed by Norman and Barry Sheffield, two brothers who owned Trident Studios in the heart of London’s Soho, the use of which was the bait in the deal.
Queen had a separate publishing contract with a company that was taken over by EMI, and it edged them closer to a deal there. By the time they came to start Queen II, EMI had bought them out of the Trident contract, and yet the band retained an unusual autonomy. They fought hard for proper studio time, and refused the input of EMI’s A&R department.
“We were far too strong-willed ever to be told what to do,” Taylor admits.
The first record had allowed them to forge a working partnership with Trident’s in-house producer Roy Thomas Baker and his engineer Mike Stone. Crucially, Baker had begun his career at Decca, where he learned how to record classical music. When May began multi-tracking his guitars, and the band produced vast and complicated vocal arrangements, he knew exactly how to get it on tape.
“We wanted it to be big and grand,” says Taylor. “It sounds tremendously unfashionable now, but yeah, that’s what we wanted.”
In August 1973, Queen made their way down Wardour Street to St Anne’s Court and Trident’s tiny studios. They were in possession of a month’s worth of daylight-hours recording time, and they were determined to make an album that matched their high opinion of their own talents (just before they began, Taylor told Record Mirror that the record would be alright “if we can keep our egos under control”). They were familiar with Trident from their first record, and the experience hadn’t been wholly positive.
“I wasn’t happy with my drum sound ,” says Taylor of Queen I. “Trident was famous for this very dead drum sound which was very in vogue at the time. All of Elton’s records had it. Bowie’s records too had that very dead, dry drum sound. I wanted something much liver. With the second record it was starting to get where I wanted it to be.”
Taylor’s concerns with the minutia of sound were typical. The vision was grand, but it wasn’t broad-brush; attention to detail would become the central feature. Although a month seems like a very little time period to make a record lavished with such care, to Queen it was a much greater opportunity than any they had been afforded to date.
One of the drummer’s first memories is of May building Procession, the instrumental section that opens the record (although he briefly forgets what it’s called). “He was in this corner just going over and over it…”
Although the sessions were supposed to be daytime ones, Taylor recalls several all-nighters too. Nothing was left to chance. One of Mercury’s first acts was to strong-arm Roy Thomas Baker down to the Tate Museum to see Richard Dadd’s painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which had inspired the singer to write an appropriately airy song of the same name.
“Really it was like uncorking the bottle,” recalls May. “We’d made the first album using lots of studio downtime, and it was a real mess, basically. Finally we were in there and had full use of everything and we had the chance to use everything as we wanted. We had a little more clout, finally. We went in very interactively with Roy. So it was like being a painter but for the first time having the full palette to work with.”
“It was very early days, of course, and John wasn’t writing, or at least he wasn’t showing us what he was writing,” May says. “Roger was in the very early stages. He was in a space all of his own, so his track [The Loser In the End] in a sense is in a slightly different space on the album. Freddie and I were interacting quite a bit. We had a lot of discussions about the fantasies we’d had about what we could do as far as constructing an album.
"The whole idea of the Black and the White sides, the references to queens in various forms, all that stuff had been in our heads for quite a long time. It really was amazing to go in there and bring it to life with all of that overdubbing. We were charging down the road of voices and orchestrating and all of that was a dream come true. It had been in our heads for so long, and finally we were able to make it happen."
The songs that May and Mercury had written were fantastical, romantic, otherworldly, designed in their themes and melodies to be recorded in a particular way.
The influences were many and varied: The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke came from Dadd’s painting (“If you look at it, it’s so complex, with many layers, which is what Freddie was trying to turn into sound,” says May); White Queen (As It Began) from a Graves poem that May projected onto a girl he’d known at college; Procession, Father To Son, The March Of The Black Queen and Ogre Battle were more of the same, huge tunes that demanded excess.
Baker had his instructions from Mercury: “Anything you want to try, throw it in.”
“I suppose we came from an unusual place. I always thought we were very lucky in what we were exposed to as kids,” May says of the ideas that thrum through the songs. “In those days there wasn’t really a rock world, we were exposed to everything that was around. There weren’t many TV channels, there weren’t many radio stations. You got drenched in everything and had a very broad introduction to life and art.
"What we expressed was something quite personal, but it was fed by the art that we’d been exposed to. A massive spectrum of stuff, Mantovani to the Thunder And Lightning polka to Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to music hall to traditional jazz, it was really incredibly wide.”
One of Taylor’s abiding memories is of the hours that they invested in every moment of sound. “We must have worked our arses off,” he says. “We did work very hard because of the massive amounts of vocals. And we used things like harpsichords and piano with tacks in the hammers. I used a strange military snare drum. It is an experimental record. We used backwards tape for the first time. Brian used some backwards tape, I think.
"It’s quite hard to do. And he was an absolute perfectionist with his multi-track guitar. He’s also a very good harmonies person, and you need to be almost a mathematician. It’s never what you think it will be, and it’s not simple. He was very much a perfectionist, and I did used to marvel, and sometimes become exasperated, by how long he took to do something.”
The 16-track technology was precarious and Queen were pushing towards its limits. “We would construct different parts of the overall picture and then bounce them down onto the stereo,” says May. “And you couldn’t really save the pre-bounced situation. We weren’t at the point of having slaves [copies of the master recording] at that time. We’d bounce something down, a lot of those vocal parts, and you could never go back and re-balance, you had to stick with what you got on the stereo. ‘Hair-raising’ is the word.”
In the midst of it was Baker, whose own quirks were beginning to tell. He loved excess as much as the band did, and described what he was doing with them as “kitchen-sink over-production”. He saw the humour inherent in it. Yet Taylor recalls an element of complexity for its own sake.
“It’s difficult with Roy,” he says. “He did have a great knowledge of the studio, and he’d worked on the Marc Bolan stuff, which sounded great. He was good fun, he was a bon viveur, which sat very well with us. But he could be quite unforgiving. Sometimes we’d do countless takes for little reason that I could see. It was Roy pretending to be a perfectionist.”
They were finished in a month. Which, given the complexity of Queen II, proves their rapacious appetite for work. Brian May can recall the moments in which he realised that they had something.
“There’s a place somewhere in the middle of Father To Son – I think it’s the beginning of the second verse – when suddenly the whole of the army of guitars kicks in. And that, to me… I remember hearing that back – and I’m not even sure how many guitars are on there, probably double figures – and for the first time, I heard that guitar orchestra coming back at me, and it was what I’d dreamed of since I’d heard Jeff Beck doing Hi Ho Silver Lining. That’s what I wanted, in my head.
"There’s a moment in Black Queen when something similar happens with the voices. They’re all being punched in, and it’s just these cascading guitars. It’s like Mantovani – I don’t know if anyone knows who Mantovani is any more, but that kind of bell cascade effect was in the minds of both Freddie and I.
"I did it with guitars, and Freddie and Mike Stone did it with voices, actually punching them in from the desk. Suddenly you realise there are what seems like thousands of voices coming at you from all sides.”
“We wanted to make it big,” agrees Taylor. “We wanted to test the studio to show ourselves how far we could go. There are a couple of tracks – Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which isn’t the greatest mix, but technically and vocally it’s incredibly complex with these massed ranks of harmonies overlapping one another. It was a complex piece of music.
"The album really came from three years of being forged by hard work of rehearsal, playing together, working together. We all had our various influences, many of which are the same, and with our four personalities that’s what came out. Freddie was fairly dominant in his writing at that point. He was the one writing the very complicated stuff. It’s just the way his brain worked. He was on fire, really.”
The finished record has a structure that wasn’t apparent while it was being made. As principal writers, May and Mercury had produced, in the old money, a side of music each, although they weren’t separated as such until the final tracklisting was compiled after recording was finished. What’s striking is how much they shared: White Queen (As It Began) and The March Of The Black Queen share a romance that was encoded deep in their baroque structures, and both May, on Father To Son, and Mercury with Nevermore were almost, in Taylor’s description, “soppy”.
Although the music was grand and many of the lyrics gothic and fantastical, there was a deeply sentimental streak running through Queen that would continue throughout their career, from A Night At The Opera’s grand ballad Love Of My Life to their 1991 swansong Those Were The Days Of Our Lives.
Almost everything on Queen II threw out threads that connected Queen to their own future, even as they prepared to leave some of the excesses behind. In the massed choirs of vocals on Father To Son and The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke lay the seeds of Bohemian Rhapsody. The overwhelming heaviness of Ogre Battle and The March Of The Black Queen predate Brighton Rock, Sheer Heart Attack, We Will Rock You and Death On Two Legs (perhaps the only Queen album that approaches Queen II in terms of out and out heavy rock is 1979’s in-concert tour de force Live Killers).
Queen II also marked Queen out as a band who could write hit singles. Their first attempt, Keep Yourself Alive, had flopped the previous year. This time there would be no mistake. Tucked away at the end of the album, Seven Seas Of Rhye was a pocket epic that referenced both Greek mythology and British seaside humour. Crucially, the band wrote it specifically to be a hit.
“Everything including the kitchen sink got thrown at that,” says May. “‘Pressure’ isn’t the right term, it was more: we would like to have our single played on the radio, so let’s not give them any excuse not to.”
Released in February 1974, a fortnight ahead of its parent album, Seven Seas Of Rhye peaked at No.10 in the UK chart – the first in an astonishing run of 46 Top 40 singles. This desire to have everything planned to the finest detail, to not leave anything to chance, was ingrained deep into Queen II.
“We were trying to squeeze a whole world into two grooves of vinyl,” says May. “It is unusual, and we made it unusual. We made a U-turn afterwards, and the Sheer Heart Attack album [recorded just a few months later and also released in 1974] is very linear, it’s really not very textured at all. Sheer Heart Attack has a constantly moving focus that is very clear, whereas Queen II has an immensity you can drench yourself in.”
Queen II was about more than the sum of its parts. There was a wider aesthetic imagination at work in its use of White and Black for the individual sides, and the recurring themes of queens and, as Taylor calls it “faery – with a ‘e’.
“It was meant to be a lifestyle, almost,” he says. “We liked the idea. We put the sort of… most of the complicated stuff on the Black, or the dark side, and most of the lighter stuff on the White. It was a sort of concept in a way, but a very vague one.
"People would paint their nails white on one hand and black on the other. It was great to see the shock on airline staff’s faces when they saw a guy had his nails painted. And the fact we wore outrageously, some would say, effeminate clothes. And we had the sleeve black and the inside sleeve white, and so on. That’s what we wore on stage, only black and white. It was a nice contrast and the most effective with lights. We didn’t wear jeans on stage. Ever.”
Housed in sleeve with a Mick Rock photograph – a single, top-lit image recreated from a photo of Mercury’s heroine Marlene Dietrich – that would later form the basis for the Bohemian Rhapsody video, Queen II was released on March 8, 1974. Reviews were mixed, much to the band’s chagrin. Damning with faint praise, Rolling Stone applauded ‘Side White’ as “rather pretty”, while Record Mirror called it “the dregs of glam rock”. More bemusingly, Creem called it “wimpoid” and Melody Maker said it had “no depth of sound”.
“They did affect us,” says Taylor. “We became immune after a while, because we just thought, fuck you, we’re indestructible. But they did affect us. And we worked very hard to produce an interesting, very intricate, undeniably quite advanced record. I can’t remember what they said, but yeah, it pissed us off, really. You weren’t allowed to be outwardly ambitious in those days. Which is stupid. A very English thing, a culture of envy. It’s a very strange take the English have. And there was an element of comedy in it, really.”
“I think we had a shared sense of humour that was very precious, looking back on it,” says May. “We had a way of dealing with the world. Because you find yourself under a lot of attack, and the sense of humour very often did tide us through. Strangely enough, I felt along the way that it was Freddie’s sense of humour that was underestimated. I don’t think they realised how much he was willing take the piss out of himself.
"He had a great ability to view himself in a light way – ‘It’s just fish-and-chip paper, darling.’ He was the first person to put himself down, rather smartly, as he was regarded as being rather pompous initially. That was a complete misunderstanding. He was very much aware of the persona he was creating."
Queen managed to distill the dense mass of ideas down into songs that were playable live. They trialled stripped-back versions of The March Of the Black Queen, Ogre Battle, Father To Son and Seven Seas Of Rhye in a warm-up show at Golders Green Hippodrome which was recorded by the BBC, before going out on tour with Mott The Hoople, marking the first time that EMI had ever stumped up a buy-on fee for one of their acts – anywhere between £3,000 and £10,000 depending on who you ask.
Despite Mott’s initial amusement at seeing Queen turn up for a rehearsal in full stage clobber, the bands gelled well both on stage, where Queen’s heavy, gothic rock offered a nice contrast to Mott’s good-time glam, and off. The bands travelled on a coach together. Mott’s pianist Morgan Fisher (who would later tour with Queen as a keyboard player) remembers them as “obsessed with their work and needing bringing out of themselves”.
“Touring was very different then,” Taylor says. “The hotels were shit in this country. All you had was the Trust House Forte. And you might get a sandwich from the night porter. We learned a bit off Mott. When we got to America the Holiday Inns seemed so luxurious. We weren’t a screamers band, but we used to throw open backstage to anyone who wants to come and have a drink – there would be hundreds of people. It was fun.
“We nicked a lot of ideas about staging from Mott too. Very simple ideas now, but about the dynamics. Ian [Hunter] was very good at that, and Mott were a good time rock’n’roll band. We’d give ’em a run for their money. We only did about half an hour, and Liar was probably eight minutes… we’d just do a few more powerful songs and go off – hopefully get an encore. I think Ian wasn’t sure whether to allow it.”
They didn’t always get one. Taylor remembers responses being mixed, “one night good and then maybe one not so good”. In part that was due to the collision between the band’s deliberate and challenging androgyny and the rougher crowds of the era. The leotards and nail polish were bearable in a support act, the high-camp version of Shirley Bassey’s Hey Big Spender that they insisted on playing perhaps less so.
Sometimes it was too much, even for a natural show-off like Mercury. In Liverpool, he fretted over what to say to the audience. He settled on “Nice one, Kevin”, a football reference he’d found in the Liverpool Echo, which brought a pleasing eruption of supportive laughter.
At Birmingham Town Hall, Mercury was told to “Fucking get off, ya cunt…” by a heckler before he’d even opened his mouth, and he was later hit by a hot dog thrown from the stalls. Yet the tour’s final shows, at Hammersmith Odeon, were two of their finest and best-received. Brian’s mother and father were in the audience for the second, and were bemused to find themselves signing autographs. Queen ended the run of shows convinced that the next time they toured the UK it would be as the headline act.
There followed a bemusing trip to Australia, where the band were badly mis-booked for a festival in Melbourne. The Sunbury Rock Festival bill was mostly the heads-down Aussie pub rockers of the day – Buster Brown, Daddy Cool, Madder Lake – who brought their own followings along. Queen insisted on their own lighting rig, raising local hackles, and then got into a row with Madder Lake over their spot on the bill.
“Do you want these pommie bastards, or do you want an Aussie rock band?” the announcer asked the crowd. Queen were said to have been booed off stage, although this remains disputed. There were certainly catcalls when Mercury announced that the next time Queen came to Australia they would be “the biggest band in the world”.
Taylor recalls little about the show, but remembers the two Mercedes that they travelled around in, much to the disgust of the locals. “Freddie loved it, of course. It was tremendous fun.”
It was all short-lived. By July they were back in the studio making the Sheer Heart Attack album. It came out in November 1974, at which point they had already begun recording A Night At The Opera. The sound of both records had its genesis in Queen II.
More than four decades later, Queen have achieved a kind of mainstream ubiquity that their near-contemporaries have not. No Led Zeppelin musical ever ran in the West End; the videos for Genesis’s hit singles aren’t voted the nation’s favourites; there has been no invitation for Pete Townshend to play the National Anthem on the roof of Buckingham Palace.
Queen have not been together in their original form since Freddie Mercury’s death 23 years ago, and the four became two in 1997 when John Deacon retired from the music business and withdrew from public life. They’ve performed with George Michael, Adam Lambert, Axl Rose and Paul Rodgers as their singers, maintaining throughout a sense of heritage and continuity and occasion that has eluded other bands that have lost key members.
The awareness of their name and music penetrates deep into the wider culture in a way that the other rock giants of the 1970s don’t. Your granny knows who Queen are. In fact the Queen knows who Queen are. May and Taylor have curated a living legacy that has eluded almost every other band of their era. They stand apart from rock music and yet they are woven deep into its history.
Of all of their records, it is Queen II that many fans and musicians point to as a defining moment not only for Queen, but also for how heavy rock music could sound. Axl Rose, Billy Corgan and Steve Vai have each claimed the album as an influence, and such is its depth, it’s possible to hear elements of it in their diverse work – Corgan called it “an album that changed my life”, Rose said it “opened my mind”, Steve Vai said hearing it was “a pivotal moment”.
“I can remember discussing with Roy Baker one afternoon in the studio and him saying: 'What happens if this is a flop?' recalls Taylor. “And I said: ‘It’s not going to be a flop’. And he said: ‘But what if it is?’ I said: ‘Well, Roy, I don’t think that’s a very good way of thinking about it…’ We had a lot of faith in ourselves, I don’t why. Really, it was much more about musical integrity. That’s what we were seeking.
"We didn’t particularly want all the trappings. We were just thinking about what we wanted to achieve. That is something I think has changed a lot. People now want instant gratification, to be showered with Bentleys and have a house in Hollywood or Saint George’s Hill. That wasn’t what we were after.”
What they were after – that grand and classical sound that would separate them musically – has persisted in other, different ways.
“It hasn’t gone away.” Brian May says. “We did have a desire, and still do, for creating something extraordinary. Creating unique moments, that can’t be repeated, on record, in life, that’s what excites us. We pursue those with great vigour. It might look excessive, but it’s like the mountain climber, the thrill of exploring new territories.”
Taylor concurs. “A lot of it was Freddie. He had this tremendous drive. He’d always say: ‘Don’t worry, dears, talent will out.’ And I suppose it has."
The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 195, in April 2014.