Long live Queen on BBC

Queen in the '70s. Image courtesy of BBC Photo Library

Queen in the ’70s. Image courtesy of BBC Photo Library

By Gillian G. Gaar

It was February 5, 1973, when Queen first walked into BBC Radio’s Langham 1 studio, right next door to the Beeb’s own Broadcasting House headquarters in Portland Place, London, for their first ever radio appearance. The band hadn’t even released a record yet. But the listener response to the songs they recorded that day ensured they’d be invited back another five times.

The band recorded a total of 24 songs for the BBC from 1973 to 1977. For years, only a paltry eight tracks have been available on the release “At the Beeb” (released as “Queen at the BBC” in the U.S.). A few more songs were included as bonus tracks when the band’s catalog was reissued on CD in 2011. At last, we now have the very welcome, and long overdue release, “On Air 1973-1992” (Hollywood Records), which brings together all 24 songs in a 2-disc edition, along with a deluxe 6-disc edition, which features radio interviews and excerpts from live shows also broadcast over the air.

Queen emerged in 1970 from the ashes of another group, Smile, which featured Brian May on guitar and Roger Taylor on drums. When Freddie Mercury replaced Smile’s lead singer, Tim Staffell, the group was rechristened Queen, a name Mercury described as “very regal, strong, universal, immediate. Certainly I was aware of the gay connotations. But it sounds splendid!” For the next year, the group worked with different bassists, finally finding a good fit with John Deacon, who played his first show with Queen on July 2, 1971 at a college in Surrey, outside of London.

The next two years were a struggle. Queen regularly played shows around England, but made little progress. In late 1971, they were offered free studio time in exchange for helping to test the acoustics in a new studio being built in Wembley, an area of northwest London. The band readily agreed, not least because they wound up with a high quality, five-track demo they could now shop around, songs later released as bonus tracks on the 2011 edition of the band’s self-titled debut album, “Queen.”

But even with a professional demo, Queen still had difficulty attracting interest from a record company. The only offer came from B&C, a subsidiary of Charisma, who offered the band 25,000 pounds and a new van. A friend at Charisma, finding the offer paltry, steered them instead to Norman and Barry Sheffield, who owned Trident Studios in London’s Soho neighborhood. The brothers were in the process of setting up a subsidiary company, Trident Audio Productions, and agreed to work with the group in a managerial capacity. Trident also allowed Queen to record at the studio when it wasn’t booked (meaning sessions were fit in at odd hours of the day and night).

Queen’s “On Air” triple-disc vinyl record release on Hollywood Records.

Queen’s “On Air” triple-disc vinyl record release on Hollywood Records.

It was at this stage, while recording their debut album, that Queen was booked to appear on Radio 1’s “Sounds of the Seventies” program. Bernie Andrews, who produced the session, learned about Queen through Ronnie Beck, who worked for the company handling the band’s publishing. Andrews liked the music, but was put off by the group’s name, telling Beck “You can’t call them Queen! They’re great, but you can’t put a band called Queen in the ‘Radio Times’!” But it was a short-lived reaction: “In a couple of weeks the name was completely accepted,” Andrews says in the liner notes of “On Air.”

The songs Queen recorded at that first session would all appear on their debut album — in fact, they used the same backing tracks, simply overdubbing vocals and the occasional instrument (“a guitar here and there,” as guitarist May put it) during the session. As a result, the songs — “My Fairy King,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Doing All Right,” and “Liar” don’t sound appreciably different from the versions on “Queen.” There are some vocal differences on “Keep Yourself Alive” and especially “Doing All Right,” which dated back to the Smile era; on the album, Mercury sings the lead vocal, but for this BBC appearance, Taylor sang the third verse. The program aired February 15.

By the time the band next appeared on the BBC, it was to support the release of their first album and single. The single, “Keep Yourself Alive,” was released in the U.K. on EMI Records on July 6, with the album “Queen” following on July 13.

The BBC session was held on July 25, 1973. “Keep Yourself Alive” was an obvious choice, and, as during the first session, the backing tracks used on the album were used for both this song and “Liar.” But the group recorded new versions of the session’s other songs. “Son and Daughter” was the B-side of the band’s first single. The BBC version, which has a different extended ending, has a nice raw feel. Of special interest is the bluesy “See What a Fool I’ve Been.” The band never released the song on an album; a later, noticeably different studio version appeared as the B-side of the “Seven Seas of Rhye” single. The session was broadcast on August 13.

“Keep Yourself Alive” didn’t chart in the U.K., and “Queen” received mixed reviews; while Time Out called it “A thrusting, dynamic debut,” the New Musical Express was dismissive, saying the album was “A bucket of stale urine.” It was a critique that foreshadowed the difficulties the band would have with the media. But “Queen” nonetheless reached No. 24, giving the band a base to grow from. The U.S. release came in the fall, with “Queen” released on September 4, and “Keep Yourself Alive” on October 9, on Elektra Records. The album peaked at No. 83; the single failed to chart. A second single, an edited version of “Liar,” was released the following year on February 14; it also failed to chart.

On the deluxe edition of “On Air,” you can trace the next stage in Queen’s development via an eight song excerpt of songs from a gig at the Golders Green Hippodrome in London, broadcast live on September 13, 1973. It was the band’s first ever live broadcast, and the announcer hailed them as “One of the brightest new bands around.” Along with the regal pomp and circumstance, Queen also takes on the King — Elvis, that is, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll — with a fast and furious version of “Jailhouse Rock.”

Queen’s next BBC appearance gave the fans a sneak peak of the band’s upcoming album. Recorded on December 3, 1973, and airing three days later on December 6, the session featured one song that wouldn’t be publicly available until release of “Queen II” in March 1974. “Ogre Battle” would open “Side Black” of the album, the first in an extraordinary five-song suite that mixed fairy tale fantasy and punishing hard rock. It was an elaborate number on record, and the band turns in a creditable performance for their radio session. The remaining songs were all numbers from the band’s debut; Taylor’s short and snappy “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a strutting version of “Great King Rat,” and a powerful “Son and Daughter,” which the BBC indulgently let run on for 7 minutes and 18 seconds.

Queen-On-Air-Cover-ArtQueen would finally start achieving some major success in 1974, with hit singles in both the U.K. and U.S., as well as receiving a rapturous reception on their first tour of Japan. The critics still weren’t kind; in the U.K., Record Mirror called “Queen II” “the dregs of glam-rock.” But the public thought otherwise; the album’s single “Seven Seas of Rhye,” released in the U.K. on February 23, reached No. 10, while “Queen II” released on March 8, reached No. 5 (in the U.S., the album was released on April 9, and reached No. 49; “Seven Seas of Rhye,” released on June 20, didn’t chart). The album’s cover, with the members of the band pictured in shadow, also inspired the visual look for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video.

So the band had a renewed sense of confidence when they came to record their fourth BBC session on April 3, 1974. “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll” is not as frantic as the album version, or, indeed, the version recorded at the previous BBC session (the album version is a brisk 1:48, while the version recorded at this session is 2:53). There’s a delicate version of “Nevermore,” a song the band never performed live, and a lovely performance of “White Queen (As It Began),” that’s also longer than the album version. The show was broadcast on April 15, and also included the studio version of “March of the Black Queen.”

After the session, Queen headed off to their first American tour, opening for Mott the Hoople. But they were forced to pull out when May came down with hepatitis. During sessions for the band’s next album, May was felled by a duodenal ulcer, which sent him to the hospital. When he recovered, work on “Sheer Heart Attack” was well under way. It was a more straight forward rock album, with a lead single that was irresistible: the sparkling “Killer Queen,” released October 11 in the U.K., October 21 in the U.S., and reaching No. 2 and No. 12 in the charts, respectively. “Sheer Heart Attack” was released November 8 in the U.K., November 12, in the U.S., and reached No. 2 and No. 12, respectively.

But oddly enough, when the band recorded their next BBC session October 16, 1974, at the network’s studios in Maida Vale, London, they didn’t record a version of their latest single. And they again used the album backing tracks, overdubbing new vocal and instrumental parts, meaning the songs for the most part don’t sound too different from the album. The band opened with “Now I’m Here,” which was frequently used to open Queen’s live shows during this period (it was also released as a single in the U.K., reaching No. 11). The fast rocker “Stone Cold Crazy” was next, followed by “Flick of the Wrist” (with a different guitar line during the instrumental break compared to the album version), then Taylor taking over on lead vocals “Tenement Funster.” The show aired November 4.

It was the last BBC appearance Queen would make for three years. They didn’t know it, but they were on the verge of a major breakthrough. On October 31, 1975, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released as a single in the U.K. (U.S. release came on December 2). The song was a worldwide smash, as was the subsequent album, “A Night at the Opera,” which became the band’s first album to top the charts in the U.K. (in the U.S., the album reached No. 4). Now there was no need to try and build a following through radio appearances. Queen had become a major act, with their December 24, 1975 show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon broadcast live to a nationwide audience; soon they’d graduate to stadiums, selling out Madison Square Garden.

And it was in 1977 that Queen recorded their final session for the Beeb, on October 28, the same day their latest album, “News of the World” was released in the U.K. (it would reach No. 4; released November 2 in the U.S., reaching No. 3). Jeff Griffin, who produced the session, had run into May and Taylor at a club, and was surprised to find that the band wanted to return to the BBC; “It was very unusual then for any of the big groups to want to come in once they had established themselves,” he says in the “On Air” liner notes.

And it’s certainly the most interesting session on the set, as the songs are all quite different from the album versions. The band opens with an abbreviated “We Will Rock You” (released as the B-side of “We Are the Champions” in the U.K. on October 7, reaching No. 2, and as a double A-side with “Champions” in the U.S. on October 25, reaching No. 4). This is abruptly followed by a short segment of a woman discussing Herman Hesse’s book “Siddhartha,” left over from a previous session at the studio; the band liked the dialogue and edited it in. Then comes an exciting full-band version of “We Will Rock You,” that’s much faster than the version Queen fans know and love. “Spread Your Wings” has a much brighter, fresher feel than the album version, while “It’s Late” has an extended improvisational section that also draws on the song “Get Down, Make Love,” and runs over 6 1/2 minutes. “My Melancholy Blues” features a heartfelt vocal from Mercury, with May adding some electric guitar flourishes. It’s a splendid rendition of the song, and a nice way to say farewell to the Beeb.

The show aired November 14. In the future, Queen’s live gigs would be aired on the radio, and they’d return to the BBC to do interviews, but there would be no more recording sessions. Though not as numerous as the tracks The Beatles recorded for BBC radio, the 24 songs Queen did record show a band finding their own voice and coming into their own. As a result, “On Air” is a must for Queen fans. And if you want the story even more fleshed out, consider springing for 6-CD deluxe edition. 

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