By Dave Thompson
At the height of the band’s American visit, following a week of shows at the Uris Theatre on Broadway, New York, May was stricken by hepatitis, causing the band to cancel their last few appearances.
At first, everybody assumed he was merely suffering from food poisoning. “[But] then he went yellow,” Mercury shuddered. “The doctor freaked, and we all had jabs.”
With May on the road to recovery, July 15, 1974, saw the band begin rehearsing at Rockfield Studios in Wales, before moving on to Trident Studios in London a week later to begin recording. But May was still under the weather when the album sessions began, a slave to the studio bathroom, and on Aug. 2, he was rushed back to hospital, suffering now from a duodenal ulcer. The group would continue recording, with May adding his contributions as, and when, he was fit to return to battle. But an American tour scheduled for September had to be scrapped, and it could only be hoped that he’d be recovered in time for a U.K. outing in October.
There was no shortage of material for the new album, with all four band members contributing to the album’s running order. Indeed, the entire band put their names to “Stone Cold Crazy,” a driving rocker that opened the door for any number of subsequent Queen-shaped blitzkriegs, from “Tie Your Mother Down” on, and which dated back to the very birth of the band. According to Mercury, it was “the first song Queen ever performed onstage.”
Bassist John Deacon delivered the short-but-sweet “Misfire,” while drummer Roger Taylor arrived bearing “Tenement Funster,” a smart piece of pop nostalgia that bled sweetly into the wave of similar thoughts that was then sweeping the British pop scene. Rock ’n’ roll revivalists Showaddywaddy, the quasi-doo-wopping Rubettes, and the fearlessly retro Mud were all at, or approaching, the peak of their powers in 1974, and while “Tenement Funster” was certainly more considered than any of those bands’ efforts, still its evocation of “new purple shoes … rock ’n’ roll 45s … an open car” and a club called Smokies was almost painstakingly perfect for the time.
May turned up with “Brighton Rock,” titled, of course, for the Grahame Greene novel, but only after it span through a plethora of working titles: “Happy Little Day,” “Happy Little F**k” and “Skiffle Rock” were all, allegedly, applied to the song before it took a nomenclatural tour around the English coast, with such puns as “Blackpool Rock,” “Bognor Ballad,” “Southend Sea Scout” and “Herne Bay.”
More seriously, the song was based upon a guitar improvisation that May originally developed during Queen’s tour with Mott The Hoople, itself the kind of sonic extravaganza that his admirers had been waiting for him to unleash for two years. Of course, any attempt at guitar virtuosity in those days immediately opened the door for a host of Hendrix comparisons to come flowing through, but May shrugged them off. “I’d got away from listening to Hendrix quite a bit by that time, and I’d like to think that that was more sort of developing my style really. Particularly the solo bit in the middle.”
May also wrote “Now I’m Here,” reminiscing on the band’s experiences in America … “down in the city just Hoople ’n’ me …” and celebrating the excitement with which Queen’s performance was greeted each night: “your matches still light up the sky, and many a tear lives on in my eye.” The brief “Dear Friends” and the menacing “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper In Stilettoes)” rounded out the guitarist’s contributions to the set.
But it was Mercury who provided the songs that would ensure the new album’s immortality: the seething “Flick Of The Wrist,” with its snarling assault on the businessmen who were already sticking their forks into Queen’s hide — the following year’s “Death On Three legs” would state those same emotions even more ferociously, but “Flick” was pointed enough to begin with.
“Lily of the Valley” followed, a sweet ballad that would not have been out of place on Queen II, lyrically if not bombastically, while “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” stepped back into nostalgic waters for a slice of 1930s style vaudeville, complete with ukulele. May reflected, “[The song] had this kind of vaudeville atmosphere, and I just thought the ukulele would go nicely on it, and we worked beside it so it could be done. And I managed to fiddle a little ukulele solo.”
The singer was also responsible for “Killer Queen,” a self-referential jewel that perhaps epitomized just how different this new record was to be. Graduating from a jaunty piano and drum-led demo, “Killer Queen” “[was] about a high-class call girl,” Mercury explained. “I’m trying to say that classy people can be whores, too.”
But the judicious use of the band’s own name in the title, and the mood of divine decadence that permeated the lyrics gave it a deliciously personal feel as well: “gunpowder, gelatin, dynamite with a laser beam, guaranteed to blow your mind” — had any band ever nailed its own appeal with such pinpoint accuracy?
“I wrote [it] in one night,” Mercury said at the time. “I’m not being conceited or anything, but it just fell into place. Certain songs do. I scribbled down the words in the dark one Saturday night, and the next morning I got them all together and I worked all day Sunday, and that was it. I’d got it. It gelled. It was great.”
“Killer Queen” wasn’t originally written as a potential single. “It’s just one of the tracks I wrote for the album, to be honest. I just wrote a batch of songs … and when I finished writing it, and when we recorded it, we found it was a very, very strong single. It really was. At that time it was very, very unlike Queen. They all said: ‘Awwwwwww.’ It was another risk that we took, you know.”
Producer Baker explained that one of the band’s goals was to cut back as far as possible on the special effects. “We still used some production techniques like the idea of phasing or flanging the track of ‘Killer Queen.’ [But] if it had been done a year earlier on Queen II, [it] would probably have been phased from beginning to end. [Instead] we just used it on the words ‘laser beam,’ and that was the only part it was used on.” The result, while still sounding as grand as Queen ever had, was also as uncluttered as it could be. The effect was astounding.
But the album’s highpoint, and possibly the most telling indication of where Queen’s musical future lay was another Mercury composition, “In The Lap Of The Gods.” “I was beginning to learn a lot on Sheer Heart Attack,” he explained, “[and] we were doing a lot of things which … [were] to be used on future albums. Working out the harmonies and song structure [for ‘In The Lap Of The Gods’] did help on, say, something like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’”
Written and recorded in two very distinct parts, “In The Lap Of The Gods” would open Side 2 of the original vinyl as another gentle ballad. It came before “In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited” closed it with a soaring, stirring anthem, a massed singalong, and a heartstopping explosion, so loud that the speakers almost literally disintegrate as the noise grows louder.
The sound certainly shatters, and more than one listener would return their copy of the album to the store, convinced they’d been sold a faulty copy. But May was adamant that “it was totally intentional. The explosion’s meant to break up. We said, ‘The explosion will be too big for the studio, so tape saturation will be a part of the sound.’” And it was.
“Somebody said this sounds like Cecil B. De Mille meets Walt Disney or something,” Mercury laughed at the time. “More to the point than The Beach Boys!”
Other songs were laid down, but, in keeping with what May described as standard Queen policy throughout their career, few of them survived and fewer still have since seen the light of day.
“We were very critical of what we were doing the whole time, and a huge censorial process was constantly going on. We chucked away loads of stuff — some of it with good reason, because you find you’re going up a blind alley so you just stop and throw it away. But other times, it maybe wasn’t the right time for a particular idea, in which case it might be revisited or it might not. And a lot of the time we were in the studio just messing around, and on a good day we’d find good things and get into a groove just spontaneously. So there’s a lot of stuff that was heaved onto the shelves.”