By Dave Thompson
‘Sheer Heart Attack’ comes together
Collectors and archivists have registered a handful of surviving outtakes, but little of it sets the pulse racing — instrumental versions of “Tenement Funster,” “Flick Of The Wrist” and “In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited,” and an early take of “Brighton Rock.” But the band also recorded a “new” version of the musical-hall standard “Oh, I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside.”
Queen II closed with that jolly refrain echoing across the close of “Seven Seas Of Rhye.” For a time, Sheer Heart Attack was scheduled to open with the same old-time singalong. Ultimately, however, it was canned, to be replaced by an equally evocative swirl of organ music, redolent of the days when no trip to the English shore could be deemed complete without catching the organist playing at the end of the pier. The link between that and the album-opening “Brighton Rock” may have been relevant only to listeners who knew that Brighton is one of Britain’s best-loved beach resorts, but it was an entertaining overture regardless.
Two other tracks were canned. The first, a rousing guitar-led rendition of “God Save The Queen,” was recorded as a tribute to the band’s live audience, which had taken to singing the British National Anthem to welcome the group onstage. The performance made it into the group’s live repertoire, but the recording itself would be shelved for another year, until it was chosen to close Queen’s fourth LP, A Night At The Opera.
It would be even longer before the second outtake, the album’s own title track, surfaced. “Sheer Heart Attack” was simply a rough demo that its composer Roger Taylor was still working on as the album was wrapped up. He explained, “We came up with the title for the Sheer Heart Attack album, and it was a song that I had an idea for, but I hadn’t actually finished the song yet. By the time I had finished the song, we were two albums later, so it just struggled out on the News of The World album.”
No matter. What the band did end up with as they pieced together the album was more than enough to satisfy their musical curiosity. The brevity of a few of the songs, and a deliberate policy of keeping everything as simple as they could saw Sheer Heart Attack wind up packing no less than 13 songs — six on side one, seven on side two.
They weren’t all epics. Recorded by Mercury and May alone, “Dear Friends” clocked in at just 1:47. “Misfire” lasted for just 42 seconds longer, which means both songs are over almost before you can decide whether or not you like them. But “Lily Of The Valley” is deathless despite running out at just 1:45, which proves that great music can never be quantified by its running time. It’s what runs through it that matters the most.
Besides, judicious cross-fading of some tracks and eliminating the silence between others then glued the album together with a remarkable sense of continuity, creating what amounted to a tapestry effect from so many disparate elements. Certainly, anybody listening to Sheer Heart Attack on their computer cannot fail to be mortified by the unscheduled break that separates “Tenement Funster” from “Flick Of The Wrist” on Side 1, and that’s only the most egregious of the interruptions.
With the album complete, Queen’s first public duty (with a still-weakened May back in the ranks) was at the Café Royal in London on Sept. 5, where Jeanette Charles, a renowned impersonator of the real Queen, presented them with a silver disc to mark 250,000 copies sold of Queen II. A little over a month later, with “Killer Queen” now chart bound, Oct. 16, 1974, saw Queen head down to the BBC studios to record a session for DJ Bob Harris’ radio show. It was their fifth visit to the Beeb’s facilities and their third for Harris (the remaining two sessions were for broadcast on John Peel’s show), and, of course, the new album was the only thing on their mind.
Queen’s first BBC session was recorded at the Langham 1 Studio on Feb. 5, 1973 (for broadcast 10 days later) — two months before the group signed with EMI — and featured four of the tracks that were later to surface on their debut album: “My Fairy King, “Doing Alright,” “Liar” and “Keep Yourself Alive.” The latter pair would then be reprised during their second session five months later, on July 25, alongside “Son And Daughter” and, perhaps surprisingly, the then-unreleased slow blues “See What A Fool I’ve Been.”
December 1973 and April 1974 saw Queen return to Langham for two further sessions, highlighting Queen II with stunning versions of “Ogre Battle,” “Great King Rat,” “Son and Daughter” and “Modern Times Rock ’n’ Roll”; and “White Queen,” “Nevermore” and, again, “Modern Times Rock ’n’ Roll,” respectively, and May smilingly recalled the breakneck nature of the session. The band had just eight tracks and little more than half a day to get their performance recorded, mixed and delivered. It is intriguing, then, to consider how a band like Queen, relentless perfectionists as they were, contrived to knock out four remarkably accurate facsimiles of their original records in the same amount of time, and on the same equipment, as it took the most basic punk band to get down four of theirs.
“It’s a strange thing,” May reflected. “You work for hours and hours in the studio for days and weeks to put down the structure of a song, but once you have it it’s not too difficult to recreate it. It’s doing it the first time which is the hard thing. So generally we recreated things quite quickly for a couple of tracks, because time was so short, then we’d sort of stretch out a bit on the others.”
Almost gleefully, he reiterated, “You certainly couldn’t spend all day in the Beeb because there just wasn’t the time.” He will not be drawn on the relative merits of the performances, however. “I think they were fun at the time, and it’s nice to look at them again. They do have a roughness and a freshness which is enjoyable.”
This time, “Tenement Funster,” “Flick Of The Wrist,” “Now I’m Here” and “Stone Cold Crazy” roared out of the radio, although Queen were not, perhaps, in the mood for so much work this time. In fact, this latest session demanded nothing more strenuous from the band than to watch as Mercury recorded new vocals onto the existing album backing tracks! But still there is a spontaneous air to the four that renders them compulsive listening, and the session certainly set the stage for the main attraction.
A break with the past
Sheer Heart Attack was released by EMI in the U.K. and Elektra in the United States Nov. 1, 1974, while “Killer Queen” was still rising up the chart and the band themselves were just beginning their latest U.K. tour.
After the earlier worries, the tour opened on schedule on Oct. 30 in Manchester, moved onto Hanley and was now in Liverpool; from there, a further 15 shows would transport them up and down the island, with a 16th gig being added when the closing London headliner on Nov. 19 sold out within two days.
The group’s first trip to Europe since a brief visit around the time of Queen 1 would follow in late November; and their first headlining tours of America and Japan would then carry them through until the following summer, at which point they’d be heading back into the studio to record their fourth album — a record that, a few months previous, many observers doubted they would even be called upon to make. Now, there were no question marks at all hanging over Queen’s future.
“‘Killer Queen’ was the turning point,” Brian May reflected. “It was the song that best summed up our kind of music, and a big hit, and we desperately needed it as a mark of something successful happening for us.”
“Seven Seas of Rhye” had scratched the Top Ten, and both Queen and Queen II charted in its wake. But Queen was not an inexpensive band to maintain, either on the road or in the studio, and when May describes them as “penniless, just like any other struggling rock’n’roll band,” he was not exaggerating too much. Maybe they weren’t, as he once complained, “all sitting around London in bedsits like the rest,” but home for May at the time was a basement flat, Mercury had a two-room apartment in Earl’s Court, and even with three chart albums to the band’s credit, management was not loosening the purse strings.
It took the success of “Killer Queen” to permit the band (and, coincidentally, producer Roy Thomas Baker) to finally break with the Trident management team that had discovered them and nurtured their career to date, and seek new representation with John Reid, at that time masterminding Elton John’s career. And that, in turn, freed Queen to conceive the vast theatrical extravaganzas that would hallmark both their live show and their albums for the remainder of their career.
Not that they were doing too badly at this point. Filmed across both nights at the London Rainbow, a 30-minute movie, “Queen At The Rainbow,” would tour the U.K. cinema circuit early in the new year (it was subsequently included in the 1992 Box Of Trix collection) and, harshly edited though it is, it still reminds us just how dramatic a Queen concert could be at this time.
Taking the stage amid a sea of dry ice, with the monster lighting rig already pulsing, and a tape of the last album’s opening “Procession” blaring, the band opened with “Now I’m Here,” a solitary spotlight playing on Mercury, before the full stage lit up as the band crashed in. The set was perfectly paced and exquisitely staged. With Mercury resplendent in a Zandra Rhodes-designed silk cape, he flew across the stage like a flamboyant Batman. His bandmates, too, looked fabulous, basking in the vibrant light show, rising out of the swirling fog, the epitome of a strain of glam rock that bore comparison with no other contestant.
So many highlights, so many moments of majestic magic. Later Queen concerts would be more extravagant than this one, later shows would be packed with more hits, and later albums would prove more popular than Sheer Heart Attack — like “Killer Queen,” it reached #2 in the U.K., then repeated the symmetry when both single and LP reached #12 in the United States.
But for the hour or so that Queen was on the stage that fall, 1974, and for the 40-odd minutes that it took to listen to Sheer Heart Attack, it was difficult to conceive of any group that could have matched them. Or who would have even dared try. And they were only going to grow bigger and better.