Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Queen II (1974)

Queen, like Led Zeppelin, is another band that has become synonymous with my past, and the impact of Queen crept up on me after not really knowing what to make of them at first listen. I suspect that’s the case for a lot of rock fans. I remember that my first exposure came out of picking up the Elektra Records American edition of “Greatest Hits (1981)” around early 1983, while still living in Rohnert Park. I had heard “We Will Rock You” and “Another One Bites The Dust,” which was ubiquitously on the radio at the time. Following “Dust,” I heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the first time, sandwiched between “Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and I didn’t really know what to make of this cod-opera, or other tracks like “Somebody To Love,” nor “Fat-Bottomed Girls.” I just found it fascinating that a band could embody all forms of music, and at such extremes. I kept picking up vinyl editions of the mid–period records, and I remember all too well that Queen became extremely unfashionable in the States by the mid-eighties, to such a degree I assumed most of my high school friends weren’t into them.

Of course, with their catalogue out of print in the states, I couldn’t pick up the CDs until I found the UK CD imports around 1989 or 1990. It was at this point I discovered Queen II. Being familiar with their mid-seventies period, the guitars and vocals were familiar territory, but I was astonished by the rich details to be found on Queen II. It is an album that is hard to digest at first listen because there is so much going on. Most hard core Queen fans will cite Sheer Heart Attack as an all time favorite, and rightly so, but I do feel an argument could be made for a tie between these albums. I have read a great number of accounts of musicians from 70s punk bands that closely listened to Queen, and harbored a lot of respect for them. This factor might surprise some, while it could be easier to digest the idea of Metal and Thrash Metal players that cite Brian May as an influence, than to think that Steve Jones could be influenced by Queen. Yet one simple explanation could be a certain DIY – Do It Yourself spirit that embodied the band, as well as the OutrĂ© gay connotation.

So, what do I mean by the term DYI in relation to Queen? Simply that Queen II was a revelation through the means of which certain tonal colors were suggested by May’s guitar, or Freddie’s, Brian’s, and Roger’s vocals. The fact that they could mimic the feeling of a horn section, string quartet, or various choirs while remaining self-contained. Notwithstanding their willingness to not depend on managers or promoters, controlling their publishing, owning the rights to their recordings, and skirting around the music press to find their own following.

Historically, in the 50s with Buddy Holly opening up his songwriting palate with using strings, or the bulk of the bands by the mid 60s using outside musicians and orchestras to texture their recordings, the medium of guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards didn’t suffice for the songwriter and listener. The Beatles and the Stones had taken the use of outside orchestral musicians to the next level, while retaining the musical edge, so much so that the vast majority of bands would imitate them through the late 60s and the start of the 70s. While the use of a Synthesizer, upon its advent, was one alternative, such technology was crude and limited in emotion. Queen found ways to create new tonal colors that still felt fairly organic. They proved an idea that a self-contained unit could be all that was needed. The critics, when they complained about the band being self-indulgent, completely missed the point; there was a means to an end.

Queen’s origin could be traced to the late 60s, when Brian May and drummer Roger Meadows Taylor fronted a power trio with bassist and vocalist Tim Staffell called Smile. Staffell introduced May to his college flatmate Fred Bulsara in 1969. Staffell has commented: “Freddie was the most reasonable, decent, accepting guy, but when he saw Smile in action, it turned out that he had many flamboyant ideas on how we should look, act, and play – and no qualms about telling us in detail.” Freddie was already in the midst of playing or having played in several bands at this early stage, Wreckage, Ibex, and Sour Milk Sea. Tim Staffell would throw in the towel by 1970 and disband Smile, commenting in 2005, “I was not happy with our more contrived rhythms. We did a version of ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ [in a fractured rhythm] a bit like Vanilla Fudge. It didn’t swing.” In spite of the fact that Smile had managed to record a single for Mercury records, “Earth,” as well an early version of “Doin’ All Right” that would appear on the Queen album. May and Bulsara bonded on their mutual love for Jimi Hendrix, and Freddie and Roger discovering they shared a entrepreneurial streak, rented a Kensington Market stall, which they would continue until the band began to break. When Smile disbanded, as Brian had observed, “Roger and I gave up completely, and that was when Freddie became the driving force. He told us we could do it.”

Freddie suggested the name Queen, changed his name from Bulsara to Mercury, and they began getting gigs, going through three bass players before finding John Deacon in 1971. The band managed in autumn of 1971 an arrangement for free studio time at De Lane Studios. Outside Producer John Anthony and Trident Productions staffer Roy Thomas Baker dropped by the studio, heard some tracks, and set the band up with their bosses Norman and Barry Sheffield, who signed exclusive contracts with Queen in November of 1972 with Trident. But getting the band a major label deal wasn’t as easy as the music press would have you believe. Brian May saw David Bowie at the Rainbow during this period, and he felt his band had missed their moment: “I thought he’s done it. He’s made his mark, and we’re still struggling. It was incredibly frustrating.”

To digress, something should be said about the comparisons between Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson and May. While the use of guitar harmonies was nothing new, and while Ronson had a similar warm tone, and employed the use of guitar harmonies, especially on Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” (1970), May took the use of multi-tracked guitar harmonization to a sophisticated level with three and four part harmonies, counterpoint, call and response, and stacked harmony techniques, at best described as falling dominoes--notes that overlap. Of course, we should also note the fact that May custom built his Red Special guitar as a teen. While commonplace today for guitarists, it was unheard of at the time. His choice of amps added to the distinct sound, his use of the Vox AC-30 amp delivered a rounder and warm tone, and furthermore the added use of the Deaky Amp, a transistor amp with a modified treble booster, would give an extra bite to his harmonies, as well as a horn-like quality. As a result, May’s sound was warmer and less grating to the listener.

Jack Nelson, who had been working with the Sheffields and Trident Productions to land Queen a recording contract recalled: “It took me over a year to get Queen a deal, and everybody turned them down, I mean everyone. I won’t name names as some of those people turned out to be my best friends and I don’t want to tarnish their reputations! But they know who they are, every one of them.” During the down period, Producer Robin Cable was experimenting with an old Beach Boy’s song, “I Can Hear Music,” in which Freddie sang lead, and Brian contributed a guitar break. The track eventually was released under the name Larry Lurex. It went nowhere, but became highly sought after once Queen broke. The band developed their vocal harmonies during this period, which Brian described thus: “Freddie has this sharp, crystal, incisive tone. Roger is husky and raw and I have a sort of roundness. Put them together and it sounds…big.” Queen signed with EMI in April 1973, and their first album was released in July.

While fans tend to rave about Queen, I tend to find it a little bit uneven. It sounds like a band full of promise that hasn’t been fully realized yet. While there’s no doubt that the first half of the album features some great tracks – “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Doin’ All Right,” “Great King Rat,” “My Fairy King,” “Liar,” and “The Night Comes Down,” the album sort of falls apart with sub par material with the final grouping. Roger’s “Modern Times Rock N’ Roll,” while a prototype for the fast tempos of Punk and speed metal, is merely a commendable first-time song writing effort. Brian’s “Son and Daughter” feels too self consciously like a Black Sabbath nod. Freddie’s “Jesus” is probably one of the weakest songs in the Queen catalogue; it is too generically imitative of other songs that were following the ‘Jesus rock’ bandwagon of the early seventies. Ironically, the unreleased track, “Mad The Swine”, touches on similar territory and is move inventive and imaginative take on the Christian theme. The closing instrumental, “Seven Seas of Rhye” is really nothing more than a musical vignette. The album at the time hardly got much notice, and the band faced accusations of hype in the pages of Creem and NME.

Yet surprisingly, EMI and Trident decided to put the band back into the studio by August to record the follow-up. Some examples of the band’s dilemma could been seen, while Queen were asked to open for Mott The Hoople in October 1973 to great reaction. Their first tour of Australia in January 1974 was a disaster, when the band insisted on bringing their own lighting rig. Local Australian bands and promoters resented losing work, and refused to co-operate. A DJ hosting the open-air festival in Sunbury actually talked the audience out of Queen’s encore. In spite of this, Queen was about to release their second album and a real benchmark in establishing many aspects of their sound. Ian Hunter, whose band Mott The Hoople toured with Queen in 1974 observed:

“Freddie attracted characters. He was probably a little needy but he always gave the appearance of sheer confidence, and the band needed that. Fred, though, couldn’t understand why Queen weren’t huge immediately. When Queen toured with us in America, I remember Fred marching up and down, saying ‘Why don’t these silly bastards get it?’ America wasn’t like England, you had to tour there a few times.” 

The band presented themselves almost from the outset as a stadium or Arena band, even when they were playing theatres, and almost through sheer force of will became a Stadium band in a short space of time, and this self-belief was bound to create misunderstanding. While Led Zeppelin used the idiom of American blues as a template to reinvent and move that idiom forward, by contrast, Queen were using the idiom of Classical European to move rock forward while offering many of the same theatrical elements used by many prior bands. The Queen album had hinted at this, but Queen II made it more explicit.

Roy Thomas Baker had recalled about the making of the album:

“We decided Queen II was the kitchen-sink album. They were coming up with millions of ideas, the White and Black side, the magic aspect – Freddie took me to Tate to see the Richard Dadd painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke which one of the songs was based on...Freddie told me, ‘Anything you want to try, throw it in.’” 

Brain May had further acknowledged: “We went to town, We said, ‘Right, we’re going to paint our pictures now. We got the overdriven guitars, we built textures.’ Queen II was the emotional music we always wanted to play. It fulfilled all of our dreams.” The album did demonstrate an astonishing and sophisticated range for the theatrical rock record. Side one, the white side, featured songs written by May and Taylor, and side two, the black side, featured songs exclusively penned by Mercury. But bear in mind that the writing collaboration might have over-lapped. While Mercury had argued that ‘whoever wrote the lyrics had effectively written the song,’ May and Taylor probably had a hand in developing and refining some of Mercury’s tracks.

This startling musical development could be heard in the first track, “Procession,” a layered guitar piece that demonstrated May’s sound classical composing skill, with guitars that approximated horns, flugelhorns, and strings, aided by the clever use of a volume pedal, and driven by a propulsive heart beat tempo. A descending keyboard line segues into the heavy anthem “Father to Son,” whose bombast in the opening chords announced a fuller sound, featured some astonishing lead guitar work by May in the middle breakdown, followed by a great loud to quiet contrast with Freddie’s vocal and piano. A clever sliding harmony eases into “White Queen (As It Began).”

This is probably one of the most self-conscious tracks that seems to imitate the feel of Zeppelin’s "Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You," yet redeems through Brian’s strong classically influenced composing choices, again demonstrating some wonderful quiet to loud dynamics. The next two tracks are probably the weakest on the album. Brian’s "Some Day One Day" begins with a lot of promise, but ends up feeling like half a song, saved through clever productions textures. Roger’s “The Loser In The End,” a plea for parental understanding, shows Roger’s promise as a writer, and is redeemed again by its clever production. Following in the tradition of the drum opening of “Liar” from the first album, the track opens with an impressive drum pattern. It’s possible that Roger contributed some guitar on the track, as he is an adept multi-instrumentalist in his own right with guitar, bass, and keyboards on future tracks. The nasal guitar featured on the center stereo field might have been Roger. Of course, Roger would soon go on offer to such great tracks like “Tenement Funster, I’m In Love With My Car,” and “Sheer Heart Attack” and he would eventually pen such eighties hits as “Radio Ga Ga,” and “A Kind of Magic”.

Freddie’s “Ogre Battle” opens the black side. White noise pulls the listener into the inventive use of backwards rhythm tracks that surge into some spry guitar, bass, and drum work by the band. The track is a precursor to riff-based speed metal, and something not out of place in early Metallica. A fast click tempo and harpsichord riff segues into one of the most fascinating tracks, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” Mercury in a mid seventies interview made an interesting observation:

“The whole band is very particular. We don’t go in for half measures and I’m very hard with myself. There’re no compromises. If I thought a song wasn’t quite right, I’d discard it. I’m very intricate and delicate. You can see that in my paintings. I love painters like Richard Dadd, Mucha and Dali, and I love Arthur Rackman.” 

The inspiration behind the Richard Dadd painting is revealing. For anyone who had bought into the late seventies image that Mercury had cultivated for himself, as a flamboyant and shallow figure, his interests demonstrated a far more intelligent person, and in spite of Mercury’s insistence in future interviews, that his songs were frivolous, fun and had no meaning, this off-handedness seemed like a disarming mechanism. The one thing that remained true was a tongue-in-check humor that seemed intended to keep things in perspective. Mercury always understood the importance of mystique, and how critics could cultivate, in musicians, a kind of self-importance and unhealthy deification. The Dadd painting itself is rather fascinating to explore. Mercury himself was an adept sketch artist in his own right.

The image has been altered to highlight the details of this work.

A Mercury sketch of another icon, under his non-de-plume Ponce.

The track smoothly transitions into the lovely piano ballad, “Nevermore” which is demonstrated in this BBC session:

In a lot of respects, “March of the Black Queen” is the most fascinating and slightly problematic of the tracks. “March” acts as the precursor to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and shares several structural similarities. Both are long, episodic, with great emotional shifts; both feature ensemble characters that comment on the main character. Both tracks seem to be frivolous, but in fact may be more profound than assumed. The opening line seems to be directed at a person, which could be a lover, or perhaps it could be a more veiled comment. The second verse after the first chorus has always been a little problematic:

Put them in the cellar with the naughty boys / A little nigger sugar then a rub-a-dub-a baby oil
Black on, black off every finger nail and toe / We’ve only begun – begun
Make this, make that, keep making all that noise / March of the black queen
Now I’ve got a belly full / You can be my sugar-baby, You can be my honey-chile, yes

The word ‘Nigger’ is problematic, but it could be referring to ‘black sugar.’ The lines are probably in character of the Queen, a tyrant who controls Nubian slaves. Freddie might have seen himself in the role as the Queen. The ‘black on every finger nail and toe’ might have been directed at early fans who were already imitating the visual style of the band. I’m not really convinced there was a racist intent. Randy Newman would often write ‘in character’ and would be largely misunderstood when he was commenting on bigotry.

During the more reflective verse is an interesting set of lines:

Everything you do bears a will and a why and a wherefore / A little bit of love and joy
In each and every soul lies a man and very soon / He’ll deceive and discover
But even til the end of his life / he’ll bring a little love.

The queen continues to be boastful while her subjects plead. Then follows these lines

Walking true to style / She’s vulgar, ‘buse and vile
Fie-fo the Black Queen tattoos all her pies / She boils and she bakes,
and she never dots her “I’s”

This could be a reference to the wicked witch of Hansel and Gretel as a device to reveal the character. The song could be a jumble of references; in part it could be a veiled comment on manager Norman Sheffield who would soon plague the band with royalty problems. Perhaps even at this early stage, Mercury has already growing mistrustful of their management. There was already evidence that band wasn’t happy with the poor promotion of their first album. Another theory is that this song, along with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” was an elaborate ruse in lyric to deal with Freddie’s budding bisexuality / homosexuality, and that Freddie’s relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin was doomed to fail. The Zoroastrian faith seems to frown on homosexual behavior, yet is indifferent about the issue. Freddie’s parents were devout Zoroastrians and he probably was careful around discussing his private life with them. Such conflicting emotions might have played themselves out in his songs.

The interplay between Brain’s lead and Freddie’s piano often felt symbiotic. One classic move could be found with Brian’s dueling wah guitars (2:09-2:44), and then some very sympathetic interplay between the piano and guitar that harkens to the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (5:30-6:04). The piano and guitar often complimented themselves very well on numerous Queen tracks throughout their career. This shifts to the euphoric final section that segues into the next track. Is this last verse in character with the Black Queen? Or a catharsis to escape reality?

Forget your singalongs and your lullabies / Surrender to the city of the fireflies
Dance with the devil in beat with the band / To hell with all of you hand-in-hand
But now it’s time to be gone – forever

This surges into the most overt Phil Spector influenced track, “Funny How Love Is,” with its dense sea of delay, and modulating keys, even featuring castanets by Roy Thomas Baker. Then we close with the album’s perennial single “Seven Seas of Rhye,” a track that plays with the mythological / magic aspect. Mercury, already having donned the name of the Greek deity, played the role of a boastful God. One of the criticisms behind “Keep Yourself Alive” was that the guitar intro took long. An octave piano riff is met with a guitar fanfare and we surge into the track which runs a concise 2:50 and fades out with the English music hall song, “I do like to be beside the seaside,” originally written in 1907. The origin of Rhye is interesting as it is referenced in a number of Mercury songs, “My Fairy King” and “Lily Of The Valley.” Mercury claimed Rhye was a fantasy world he created as a child, and would invent tales he’d tell to his sister when they were young.

Something should be said about Mick Rock’s cover, the image ended up being as iconic as Robert Freeman’s Beatles shoot for With The Beatles.

Mick has commented that Bowie’s co-producer Ken Scott, had set up a meeting with the band: “I’d not heard of this band Ken was talking about but he said they had heard of me through my pictures of Bowie and Lou Reed. It would have been rude of me not to check them out. They were garrulous, so very sure of themselves, like a swarm of bees around me. They played me Queen II, and from then on I knew they were something special.” Rock has described designing the cover in January 1974. “I had this picture of Marlene Dietrich on the Shanghai Express movie set. It was fabulous and it was the first time I’d ever been inspired by another photo. Freddie got it immediately and jumped at the chance of playing Marlene.”

The story of the album isn’t complete without citing the ‘B’ side – “See What A Fool I’ve Been.” There was a more straight read of this blues number during a BBC radio session from 1973. The studio track from 1974 seems to be more of a campy piss take on the British blues that was prevalent in the 60s, and Mercury almost seems to be channeling Tim Curry in his read. Rocky Horror had already debuted in the UK at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Hypothetically, Mercury and the band might have already been aware of the show when this was cut. The “B” side is indeed unique as the band usually eschewed the blues genre, and even when the band dabbled in this direction, they would cleverly play around with the structure.

Nineteen seventy-four would be a highly productive year for the band. In-between a tour, the band would record and release their third album, Sheer Heart Attack by the end of the year. Amazing when you consider the medical setbacks that faced Brian May in mid ‘74. That album was the harbinger for two precedents; the “Killer Queen” single would begin a streak of hits for the band, and John Deacon would begin to contribute songs, which would lead to each member contributing hit singles for the band, another rare feat on par with The Beatles.

While Queen, like many progressive bands, would continue to craft cohesive albums, they excelled as a great singles band, with a mastery of the 3-minute single format, a skill that isn’t as easy to acquire, as it requires real restraint. Often musicians will create a favorite section and will want to repeat it. The fact was, Queen was willing to shift extreme gears in the space of a song, always keep it interesting, and show real discipline on their part. The impact of Queen’s music and their influence can still be felt when you consider the following bands: Def Leppard, Anthrax, Ben Folds Five, Kurt Cobain, The Darkness, Extreme, The Killers, My Chemical Romance, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Muse, Radiohead, Mika, Yngwie Malmsteen, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Franz Ferdinand. That’s quite a range of bands to cite Queen as an influence.

Queen simply opened doors; they showed what was possible, that you didn’t have to adhere to one stylistic format and yet retain a continuity with the vocal and guitar sound. Of course, they would go on to write a staggering number of great songs that got released as singles, and the slow burn influence of Queen might have been on par with The Beatles, yet it just wasn’t readily apparent until one stepped back to see that collective impact.

Queen II was the template for what was to follow; their like might not be seen again.

Producers: Roy Thomas Baker and Queen, Robin Geoffrey Cable
Arrangers and Composers: Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor
Engineer: Mike Stone
Cover: Mick Rock and Queen

Side One: (White Side)
Father To Son
White Queen (As It Began)
Some Day One Day
Loser In The End

Side Two: (Black Side)
Ogre Battle
The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
The March Of The Black Queen
Funny How Love Is
Seven Seas Of Rhye

You can download this album on iTunes, or order it from Barnes and Nobel
The Bulk of the information comes from articles by Phil Sutclife, Martin Aston, Mark Blake, Jacky Gunn & Jim Jenkins. Thanks to Christopher Knowles. Special thanks to XScribe for editorial assistance.

Next Up: Ivan Rosenberg Interview
Next Up: David Bowie – Hunky Dory (1971)

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