How the band’s debut laid the groundwork for their legacy
The day Queen’s members had been longing for had finally arrived; their debut album was released.
And yet they were already feeling that it might be past its sell-by date. Queen, as guitarist Brian May earnestly expressed to UK music weekly Melody Maker, “were into glam-rock before groups like The Sweet and Bowie and we’re worried now, because we might have come too late.”
Not to worry, Bri. Queen, celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, proved to be the cornerstone in Queen’s mighty empire, laying the foundation for the juggernaut brand that’s still going strong today. And the signs of what was to come were all present on that first, somewhat tentative, album.
Queen had come together in 1970, when Smile, May and drummer Roger Taylor’s previous band, had fallen apart. Waiting in the wings was one Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara, who suggested the three combine forces, neatly installing himself as lead singer (and pianist), rechristening himself as Freddie Mercury in the process. They played their first show on June 27 in Taylor’s former stomping grounds of Truro, Cornwall; after going through a string of other musicians, John Deacon became the permanent bassist in July 1971.
After that, things moved fairly quickly (though never fast enough, in the band’s view). In 1972, they formed an alliance with Norman and Barry Sheffield of Trident Studios, who set up separate production companies to handle the band’s recording, management and publishing interests (all to end up in a lawsuit eventually, but that lay in the future). In addition to now having another entity overseeing their business, the arrangement also gave the fledgling band access to one of best-known studios in London.
Being a low priority act, Queen was recorded during the studio’s off hours, which generally meant the middle of the night (passing David Bowie on the stairs, who was producing Lou Reed’s Transformer at the studio). Bit by bit, the album came together over six months, from April to October. Their penchant for control came to the fore immediately, as they butted heads with producer Roy Thomas Baker over precisely how they wanted their music to sound (John Anthony had previously been co-producing, until illness forced him to drop out). Just prior to the sessions, the band had recorded demos at De Lane Lea Studios, and they preferred the more “live” sound they’d achieved there; never satisfied with the re-recording of “The Night Comes Down” at Trident, it’s the De Lane Lea demo that appears on Queen.
After the album was completed, it was another frustrating nine months until a record contract could be secured and the album released. You can detect the impatience in the liner note description: “Representing at last something of what Queen music has been over the last three years.” You can also hear it in the urgency of the opening track, May’s “Keep Yourself Alive,” the buoyant guitar line underpinning a number that veers between optimism and hesitancy, a fear that however many “million miles” one travels you’ll “still be where I started/Same as when I started.”
VIDEO: Queen “Keep Yourself Alive”
May and Mercury were the primary songwriters on this outing, writing nine of the album’s ten songs between them, while Taylor dips his toes into the waters with his tongue in cheek celebration of all things raaawwwk on “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which clocks in at a concise one minute and forty-eight seconds. May’s songs tend to be the more introspective. “Doing All Right,” which dated from the Smile era (giving co-writer Tim Staffell, Smile’s singer and bassist, a steady stream of royalties ever since), introduces two elements which would come to define Queen: rich harmonies (courtesy of Mercury, May, and Taylor) and sudden changes in musical style, as when the dreamy tunes jumps into a hard rock overdrive just past the two minute mark. The harmonies in particular would become the kind of trademark that made a Queen song instantly identifiable.
“The Night Comes Down” is a pensive song about a soul sinking into depression, with an unsettling ending, as the niggling guitar gradually rises in intensity, like the kind of incessant negative thoughts you can’t keep from swirling around your head. “Son and Daughter” is a roiling stomper with an “Under My Thumb” theme that’s salvaged by Mercury’s robust vocal.
VIDEO: Queen “Liar”
Taylor’s song aside, Mercury is the lead singer throughout. He’s already a powerful vocalist who brings weight to May’s numbers, and really breaks free on his own songs. Perhaps most surprising aspect of his songs, given that he was raised in the Zoroastrian religion, are the number of biblical references that pepper his lyrics. “I have sinned dear father,” he sings in the opening of “Liar,” Queen’s first great rock song, which emphasizes the band’s flair for the theatrical; a six minute-plus workout that features May’s strongest guitar work on the album, continual shifts in mood and tone, and the dramatic outburst of “Liar!” throughout.
Next to that, “Jesus” is pretty one-dimensional. One of the strangest songs Queen ever did, it’s a straight-forward depiction of the Lord and his dispensing of miracles, set to a moderate rock tempo (some might call it lumbering), until the band’s let off their leashes and runs free during the instrumental break. He has a lot more fun on his fanciful songs, the ones with dandyish titles like “Great King Rat” and “My Fairy King.” The former romps along with glee, seemingly an ostensible put down but really a celebration of the “dirty old man” of the title, ending in a cavalcade of drums. The latter is a kind of fantasia that anticipates the more fantastical elements of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” set in a fantasy realm of “horses born with eagle wings” and such like, imagery drawn from Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” and Mercury proving he could pound his piano as percussively as Taylor thrashed his drums. His final contribution, “The Seven Seas of Rhye,” is presented here as a teaser for the next album, an instrumental running less than a minute and a half, that would fully fleshed out on Queen II.
The liner notes carried the additional notation, “…and nobody played synthesizer,” to emphasize the fact that even the most exotic sounds on the album came from a guitar and not a keyboard. But on its release, the album prompted a mixed response. People had a hard time pinning down exactly what kind of a band Queen was, as their mash up of hard rock, prog, the frenzied power pop of “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the theatrical sweep of “Great King Rat” and “My Fairy King” drew comparisons to everyone from Led Zeppelin to The Sweet to Yes.
What nobody (aside from the hardcore fans, who were already much in evidence) grasped was that the band wasn’t “like,” anybody else, they were their own entity — Queen. Their debut album was the first step on a journey that would take them to dizzying heights, meaning that, in retrospect, Queen now has a decided innocence about it. It’s something May recognized as early as 1976, after the band had finally broken through and were at last top of the pops, telling the UK music weekly Melody Maker, “It had the youth and freshness which was never regained, because you’re only young once.”
Queen laid the foundation for what was to come, the sound of a band eager to find out what the future had in store for them.