By Dave Thompson
Ariel Bender left Mott The Hoople. Mick Taylor was on his way out of The Rolling Stones. Adrian Fisher was sacked by Sparks. And Brian May, if the rumor mill was telling the truth, was about to leave Queen.
The wide-boy foil to Freddie Mercury’s épée, five-foot-something of perma-perm style and glowering good looks, with a guitar sound that could make your heart race, May was attracting a lot of attention and a lot of high praise at the time, all of which was a lot more than could be said for Queen.
Two albums into their career, Queen had already made quite a name for themselves. Their eponymous debut album was a hard-rock tour de force, while the simply titled Queen II follow-up spawned a British hit single, “Seven Seas Of Rhye.” They’d headlined their first British tour that spring and then flown to America, where they criss-crossed the country as Mott’s opening act. But nobody believed they were built to last.
The U.K. music press, in particular, despised them. George Tremlett, author of the first-ever Queen biography, 1976’s “Queen,” reflected on the band’s early years by remarking upon their “total rejection by the critics.” Queen publicist Tony Brainsby remembered being told by one heavyweight rock journalist that “he wasn’t going to write about a load of poofters.”
Another paper even came up with a new category to lump Queen into. It was called “Supermarket Rock,” and producer Roy Thomas Baker, who’d handled both of Queen’s albums so far, effortlessly recalled the frustrations with which the band regarded its status — commercial, musical and financial. The first album was recorded in studio downtime and was hammered for sounding roughshod. The second took advantage of every studio trick available and was hammered for being bombastic.
“People didn’t like the second album at the time, because they thought it was a bit over-the-top,” Baker explained. The thing that nobody seemed to understand was, it was supposed to be. “We designed it to be over the top, and it had every conceivable production idea that was available to us at the time.”
He insisted that many of the production tools and techniques that later became standard in recording studios around the world “wouldn’t have been invented … if we hadn’t made that second album…. Some of the flangers and phasers and things that do things backwards.”
‘Killer Queen’ strikes
But the critics didn’t care about technical innovation. They cared about what was on the vinyl itself, and Queen, in too many people’s eyes, had not delivered. So the brickbats were flying and the insults, as well.
Nobody could be happy trying to operate in that kind of environment, least of all a guitarist of May’s obvious stature and ability. So when Sparks found themselves on the eve of an all-important American tour, one man short of a full band, the brothers Ron and Russell Mael popped round to visit him.
It must have been a tempting offer. “I did like the band,” Brian May reflected. “I loved ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us.’ Anyway, they came ’round, the two brothers, and said, ‘Look, it’s pretty obvious that Queen are washed up; we’d like to offer you a position in our band, if you want it.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t think we’re quite dead yet.’”
A few weeks later, Queen’s latest single, “Killer Queen,” hit #2 on the U.K. chart, earning a silver disc in the process. Sparks’ latest, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth,” on the other hand, peaked at #13.
The album from which “Killer Queen” was taken, Sheer Heart Attack, had been recorded across three months that summer. Still reeling from the backlash that had scarred Queen II and furious that although they knew they had made a magnificent LP, nobody seemed capable of appreciating it, Queen’s intentions for their latest set were simple, to say the least.
“The idea,” explained Roy Thomas Baker, “was to get together and do some songs for a change, real little short songs like ‘Killer Queen’.”
At the same time, however, Sheer Heart Attack might never even have happened. The band’s gig at the London Rainbow on March 31 had been recorded and serious consideration was given to releasing that as Queen’s third album, a live record that would strip away all the studio technology and reveal them for the great live act they were.
The bulk of the set was drawn, of course, from the band’s two studio albums. But the rock ’n’ roll medley with which they habitually closed the show would have made it onto the record for sure, and there might also have been room for “Hangman,” a Mercury/May composition that has never seen the light of day, but which joined another “lost” Queen song, the unpromisingly titled “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” within the select pantheon of songs that remained live favorites even after the hits started rolling.
A live album would have raised Queen’s stock considerably, then. But would it also have had the potential appeal of a new studio set littered with potential hit singles? And would it have proved that Queen were even capable of creating such things?
Probably not, and that, the members decided, was unfair. They had, after all, already proved that they could strip back to bare bones when they wanted to. Buried away on the B-side of “Seven Seas of Rhye” there lurked a splendid slab of blues called “See What A Fool I’ve Been” — unfussed, uncomplicated and unbelievably effective. Nobody remembers just how closely the band paid attention to its example as they were writing and rehearsing what would become their third album, but it was clearly on their minds regardless, as Brian May recalled.
From the outset of Queen’s career, “we knew fairly clearly what our direction was, although it was argued about all the time. We always went for the maximum color and experiment and scope and breadth, and things like ‘See What A Fool I’ve Been’ didn’t really belong in that.
“It was an adaptation of an existing blues standard — you’re going to ask me which one, and I don’t know! I heard it on a TV broadcast; it was one of those things where … I remember hearing how The Beatles heard ‘Apache’ on the radio and wanted to do a version of it, but they weren’t able to remember it properly so they put together an instrumental which became ‘Cry For A Shadow.’
“It was the same sort of thing. I heard this song once on a TV program and remembered about a third of it and put together something which, in my mind, is the same thing. And I don’t know how accurately I did it, because I still haven’t found the original! [Anyway], it was a little bit out of the scope of our main thrust, but it really represented us onstage in the early days, doing bluesy things which were a lot of fun.”
It was time to recapture that fun.
“The whole point of Sheer Heart Attack was purely for the guys to see whether they could write nice, down-to-earth hit songs,” Baker recalled. But still the sessions got off to a rocky start.