B.M. – Brian May.
R.T. – Roger Taylor.
J.D. – John Deacon.
F.M. – Freddie Mercury.
U.M. – Unknown Man.
U.M2. – Unknown Man 2.
01. DEATH ON TWO LEGS (DEDEICATED TO…).
R.T.: A Night At The Opera was a very big album in England and everywhere, really. It consolidated what we'd done in America . We'd just started, really, with the third album. It was the sort of clincher, in a way, in the early stage of our career.
B.M.: It was life or death and definitely sink or swim. If that album hadn't done what it did, that would have been the end of the band.
R.T.: It's easier to gamble when you've nothing to lose. I would say we wanted to do the harmonic things - but better, hopefully, vocally - that Yes were doing, but combine that with the wonderful, brutal, heavy influence of what Led Zeppelin were doing. That was when we started. We changed as we went along. But I would say that we wanted to combine those two genres. We'd just started the song Bohemian Rhapsody, which had the mock-operetta in the middle, and by sheer coincidence we sat down that night very late, maybe two in the morning, and watched a video - videos were just invented then - of the Marx Brothers' A Night At The Opera. Freddie and I turned round to each other and said, "Cor, that's a good title." We'd just been doing this mock operetta and we said it to everybody else and everybody went, "Yeah."
F.M.: A Night At The Opera was a good title for that album, I feel, because it had operatic content. We felt we had to come up with a title that means something. It was a spontaneous decision and there were a lot of parallels. The Marx Brothers took a lot of care in their work. Roger's got a few books on it and he looked it up and it's quite fascinating.
B.M.: What happened with A Night At The Opera was that we suddenly realised what kind of paintbrushes we had in our hands. "Suddenly" isn't the right word. It was a gradual realisation. Even on Queen II you can hear a lot of the beginnings of those baroque expeditions. If you listen to My Fairy King on Queen II, there's a lot of Bohemian Rhapsody starting to take shape from Freddie and all of us. We loved the studio. We found it an endless, limitless canvas. We were in a very wonderful time. All these new bits of equipment were coming in. The Beatles had only just got into multitracking by hooking up machines to run together. We had access to the first 16 tracks, the first 24 tracks. We had great tools in our hands and were just ready to go for it. As soon as you've got the toy in your hand and know how to use it, then you just let your imagination run riot. We were in a great place and loved it. We had a great time.
02. LAZING ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON.
B.M.: We always had this thing about the song coming first. The song would come in.
We'd say, "That doesn't need to be forced into a standard rock-and-roll mode. "We should do what the song demands." We'd bring in lots of instruments and play around and sometimes the textures got very mixed up and it was very us, I suppose. We felt very free because we had an audience who understood us and didn't want us to make the same kind of sound every time.
R.T.: I suppose that was our idea of making it not just typical rock and roll. In our own minds, we were always doing it with a slight tongue in cheek. It was always not completely serious but just interesting, we thought, more interesting to slide those references in, in a humorous way to us. I suppose that wasn't an obvious thing to other people listening. Just, for us, it made it one step away from your average hard rock album.
03. I’M IN LOVE WITH MY CAR.
R.T.: The guy who used to mix our sound, our out-front sound, and our very dedicated lifelong roadie - he'd stuck with us through the hard times - was a guy called John Harris, and he didn't have a girlfriend, he didn't like to eat much. He wasn't interested in stamps or drinking or any of the normal interests of life, really, but he would wash his car a lot. He was very interested and fond of his car. I like cars myself and I can relate to that. I certainly never said, "I'm gonna sing this song. I wrote it so I want to sing it." I'm In Love With My Car suited my voice much better than Freddie's voice. There are certainly other examples where he could sing the pants off most people. He could certainly sing a lot of my songs a damn sight better than I ever could. He didn't have problems with his ego, actually. He was so different to the general perception of him. He wasn't about to say, "I'm the singer. I'm gonna sing it." If it turned out that he said, "I really don't think this suits me. It suits you better," that's the way it would happen, and it's as simple as that.
B.M.: Roger is exceedingly bright. Roger is intellectually extremely bright. You cannot keep up with Roger unless you have your wits about you and don't sleep. He's sharp, he's bright, he's witty and he's in touch with the world, which is different from us. He reads the papers. He reads even the music press. He's aware of trends and stuff, he's aware of fashion, of clothes, of who's hot at the time, all that kind of stuff, and he's into being a rock-and-roll star. Roger's dream is to be the rock-and-roll star, to live it and breathe it, and he does. Freddie's mind is kind of somewhere else cos he's into his creation and into the worlds which he spins in his mind. But Roger is 100 per cent connected to the world.
He has this knack of sounding big in himself. He's a complete canvas on which to put guitar and bass. Very few drummers have that. I still find that. You look for that in a drummer. He's completely self-sufficient in himself. He has this broadness and the cymbals fit in a certain place. I can't even explain it. I don't understand drummers.
04. YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND.
J.D.: When we make an album, we always do the backing tracks first, usually in the first two weeks. We spend a lot of time doing all the backing tracks. That takes a lot of time. Then we spend two months doing the overdubs. By the end of an album, we forget how much time we spent doing the backing tracks and when we did them. But we do rehearse a lot before we go in so the backing tracks are very tight and we know exactly the parts we're playing. All four of us pay a great deal of attention to the production side. We all have specific ideas of how we want things to sound. When Freddie's doing certain vocal things, he knows the sound he wants. Brian and myself are getting a little more interested in the technical side of things. How to work a desk and that sort of thing. I wouldn't mind doing that later on when we get more time to do that sort of thing. When we first started, before we were doing the first album, we had time on our hands then because we were very small. We were just doing the odd gig, trying to get record companies interested. Since we started then, we haven't had any time, bar the odd week or two's holiday, for the last four years. So we are very busy.
U.M.: We do write individually. We go our separate ways when a tour's over. And then we get together and play each other the new songs. And then what happens is a very huge sifting process where we find out what songs...
R.T..: "No way am I gonna play that," or things like that.
U.M.: We look at it as far as the individual songs are concerned, and also how the songs will sound with each other, so we look at it in terms of an album as opposed to just individual songs.
R.T.: We have tried in the past to provide a lot of variety on each album.
R.T.: We never record singles as singles. Basically, we record a load of material for an album and we just come to a choice of single off that. So it's just a reflection of one of our styles, I suppose, or a number of our styles... as to what tracks come out as the singles, which are invariably the better-known tracks, cos a single is heard more overall than an album track. But they're certainly not pre-thought-of as being "Let's record something lighter for a single," because we never know what the single's gonna be.
B.M.: It's about a man who goes off... I'm not sure if it's obvious or not. He goes off time-travelling... He goes off space travelling. Because he goes round in a circle very fast he suffers a general relativistic effect so that when he comes back he's been away 100 years but he's only a year older. That's what this song was about. A love song set in that context (laugh). It came out for some reason like a skiffle song. It came out very quickly. I remember just strumming a guitar and the words came. It's a science-fiction song. You always feel the person singing it sings it in a different way from what you would, but you can't do nothing about it. Freddie sings much better than I do, but in some cases I would feel the original meaning of the song doesn't get across. When I became aware of this, I'd try and design the song so it had a wider meaning, knowing it would change when it's done in front of an audience.
We were all desperately scribbling away at the time. We each had a very high output separately and there was a big struggle to find out which things would go on the album. It was a time of great release for us because we'd just almost had to give up hope because we'd got into such terrible management problems and were broke. We were on the verge of disappearing because we were so much in debt and in trouble with all this contractual stuff with the management company. We couldn't even get to our record company because the contracts had us sealed off. So it was life or death. We went to John Reid, who was Elton's manager at the time. John Reid says, "I'll fix your troubles for you. "Go and make the best album anyone's ever heard." So it was life or death, make or break, and the Night At The Opera thing, somehow we just entered with such joy with all those ingredients that we had and went for it. And I think, yes, it is a pillar of a breakthrough into the world at large. We had this insane belief in ourselves, really. From the beginning, we had this confidence that we had something so special that it would get through in the end. I think in the early days it was really hard to hold on to that. I think the whole album was something very special and there were so many explorations in different directions and a lot of heart as well. Sometimes Queen have been perceived by the media as cold and calculating, but you can see, if you look at it carefully in the albums, a lot of vulnerability and a lot of risk. Some of the stuff is very naked. It's us really exposing our feelings and emotions in quite a direct way.
06. SWEET LADY.
B.M.: The guitar sound was in my head before I actually got it, and I was just lucky to get it. I had all sorts of different amplifiers. I had the guitar which I'd made with my dad. It was a very individual instrument. It took us about two years to make, and all out of bits and pieces. I plugged into all different amplifiers and I never could quite get what I needed. One day I walked into Top Gear in Wardour Street , where we are sitting now, and there were some AC30s. I plugged into an AC30 with a little treble booster and suddenly the sound was there, it just sang to me. It had this strength and singing quality. And that was it.
R.T.: The first time I heard Brian play ever, I was particularly impressed with the touch and tone which had a musicality I hadn't heard before. Touch is part of the tone, a sort of vibrato thing. It's a very musical, very melodic style of playing Brian has, I think.
B.M.: It's funny, my recollection is the same of Roger, seeing him tune up his snare. I'd never seen anybody tune a drum. The drummers I knew played it the way it came from the shop.
R.T.: Randomly hit it.
B.M.: Roger was doing these very musical rolls on the snare and I remember thinking I hadn't heard that kind of thing before. It's strange we both had the same memories of that.
I think as a band we're very aware of sound. You can make wonderful records and build in all sorts of arrangements, but if it doesn't sound nice, nobody wants to listen to it. It's something which isn't talked about very much these days, sound quality. It's vital.
J.D.: It's... I'd say the harmonies and Brian's guitar work are the main strong features. They're the things that have made us distinctive from any other group. They're probably the most important things you could actually identify. Roger has a very good drum sound. He takes a lot of care over it and gets a good drum sound. Obviously Roger and myself have our own way of playing and character, but it's not as distinctively different as the harmonies or the guitar parts.
B.M.: The production techniques that were being pushed at us were towards perfection. "Play it again, boys. Make sure you get the tempos right. After 60 times, it'll be perfect." We reacted very much against that. I would insist that they roll the tape the first time I try and do a solo because that's probably the best they ever get. I might want to change a couple of bits, but I'll do it another 50 times and it won't have that feeling I had at first. So I guess we were always precocious boys and we always had our own ideas of production.
F.M.: It's very difficult to trust in people. Especially for the kind of people we are. We're very highly strung and meticulous and fussy and we're very careful and selective on the kind of people who work with us and become part of the Queen unit.
07. SEASIDE RENDEZOUS.
F.M.: When you say vaudeville, to me vaudeville are songs like Seaside Rendezvous... the one Brian did, the George Formby... God, what's it called? The George Formby ukulele number on A Night At The Opera. I've forgotten the name. Oh, dear. Anyway... God, what's it called? A Night At The Opera. I'll think about it. Those ones and Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon, that, I feel, is vaudeville.
B.M.: There was a revival group called The Temperance Seven in the '60s which kind of brought all that to light again. I listened to a lot of this and the arrangements on some songs were great. There would be clarinet and trumpet and trombone. The traditional jazz-type line-up. And a couple of other things thrown in, like a sax or whatever. The arrangements are so complex and the chord sequences so gluey and warm that I think a lot of that got into our music somehow. Once we got into arranging, we would do that. We didn't want to do the normal three-chord stuff that rock groups were doing.
B.M.: I can spot Freddie's voice on a transistor radio five miles away. He refined his art all the way through those first four albums and I remember him doing double-tracking. He's double-tracking himself so accurately that it's phasing. He's learned this minute control of his voice. It is a wonderful instrument. You can tell that he has that certain crystal edge to his voice that nobody else has.
08. THE PROPHET’S SONG.
R.T.: Roy half-produced the first album and then he went on to become our full producer. I think A Night At The Opera was the last one and we co-produced it with him.
U.M.: It was through Trident. In the early days, the first album, they stuck us with John Anthony, who we didn't really get on with, so we gave him the elbow after one album. We did the second album with Roy and Robin Cable.
R.T.: Trident was quite a Mecca for producers at the time. I remember Bowie 's most successful stuff was done with Ken Scott there.
B.M.: We always did a lot of our own production and we always pushed Roy.
And Roy was very much changing as an animal during that time. He started off... I can say what I like about Roy cos he's a very close friend. I know he would say the same about me. He started off really as an engineer who was breaking into production. He was a state-of-the-art engineer from Trident Studios who knew every technical trick, so he was just the kind of guy we wanted to get hold of in the early days. At first he did everything himself. His fingers were on all the faders except when ours were, because we were always pushing up things ourselves in the mixes. He was doing all the EQs, all the technical stuff. By the time we got to A Night At The Opera, it had changed and he didn't want to do the technical stuff any more. He was much more of a producer. He had evolved.
U.M.: We learned from him and he learned from us and it was, like, we pitched him ideas.
So it became... it was a Queen/Roy Baker type thing. So why not? He's taught us a few things and we've taught him...
J.D.: All of us try to learn what the studio does. It helps to get the sounds and the ideas and to do what you want. We've all taken interest in what it is possible to do in a studio technically. If a musician doesn't understand that, it limits the ideas they can put down on tape.
B.M.: We always thought that was essential, not only in the production but in every detail...
R.T.: We learned through hard experience.
B.M.: Down to the print on the record cover and the way it's cut on the album, right down to the way the tours are set up. Everything, we try to keep control of.
R.T.: There's so much money involved these days. It's almost sordid to talk about the amounts of money, but they are involved and people are very clever and nothing corrupts like large sums of money. And so you do have to be very careful.
U.M.: From the very beginning, as far as the musical press are concerned, they like to put up-and-coming bands into a particular bag for what they think, and I think we rebelled and wanted to do what we thought was right and not go along with what they were saying. Since the very early stages, there's always been a sort of fracas...
R.T.: It started from day one, with the release of our first album. Plus the fact that before our first actual release, we were virtually totally unheard of, and then suddenly we were not famous, but heard of at least, and they like to think they've got one up on you and like to think they've predicted something. All of a sudden there we were, and we were playing to quite a lot of people, and it took people rather by surprise, I think.
B.M.: The vocal thing, the harmonies were part of the original dream that we had, I think - the original vision. I remember, as Smile, we were down in the caves in Cornwall practising our harmonies and glorying in the sound we could make by putting harmonies together. It was always part of this vision we had, if we could create a sound in the studio and live where you had this incredibly brilliant, bright, broad block of harmonies and underneath you still had the heaviness. The Beatles had achieved the harmonies but there wasn't really the dirt underneath that we wanted. I don't know if "dirt" is the right word. The power. The raw power. But no one had quite got it the way we saw it.
R.T.: Harmonies can be dangerous. They can get you into a rather middle-of-the-road type feel. We tried to avoid that and be fairly extreme with the harmonies and not make them too cosy and too bland and smooth. We're lucky with the combination of voices. The three of us who do most of the singing have very different voices, but they do tend to blend quite well because of the differences. I've got a lot of edge in my voice and quite a lot of roughness and can go high. Brian has a good, soft, round voice. And Freddie has a very powerful voice with a good range at both ends. I'm not so good in the low range, but he's very good and he's also good in the high range.
R.T.: On the first album we ever made, Brian did a lot of stuff on guitar featuring specific harmony guitars, which was a fairly new thing at the time. And a lot of the reviews in England ... I can quote one, Chris Welch in the Melody Maker - a paper never known for its accuracy, in fact, famous for its inaccuracy, I might add - said, "Great use of synthesisers here," and of course it was all guitar, and that got up our noses quite a lot. So we made a point... Synthesisers at the time were monophonic. You couldn't play chords on them. We tried fiddling about with a big ARP in the studio once and all we could get was something you could make with your own body. A noise you could make better...
B.M.: And a toilet roll (laugh).
R.T.: With more organic overtones to it.
We were a bit put off by the early synthesisers and decided that we would actually say from then on - I think we said it for the next four albums or so - that we had no synthesisers on those albums. It became a bit of a little thing.
U.M.: It was basically just informative, just information on the album cos people thought, "Guitars don't sound like that. It must be a synthesiser." We were just telling the people who bought our records that this was not a synthesizer and that Brian could re-create these kinds of sounds through his wonderful guitar.
B.M.: I couldn't let the thing go. I remember having reams of paper with scribbles on them and yards and yards of cassette material and I didn't want to let any of the ideas go. I don't think I could be like that in these days cos it drives you mad, but I had this feeling that you had to explore every little corner before you could let it go. It was a bit of a nightmare, to be honest (laugh).
09. LOVE OF MY LIFE.
B.M.: We were very excited. It was just like we'd hit our dream. We'd found out that we could tour, we could make albums that excited people and it was all coming together. The two worked together brilliantly at that time. Everything we did on the album, we were half-thinking about the tour, and vice versa. We'd do things on tour which would work and we thought, "That's on the next album." We were very free in our approach and really drinking in what the audience were doing because that was a big development at that time. I remember at that time that we would tour places and people would be singing along with us, which was a great feeling. You get very emotional. We thought, "There's a whole well there which needs to be tapped." People come to a concert because they want to drink in what they see but they also want to participate. They have a lot to give out.
F.M.: There were times where I'd love to do shows where they were just screaming and you could just play anything. Now I would prefer them to listen to what we're playing, but still have a damn good time.
B.M.: There was a chemistry with the band. We discovered that we did work off each other very well and the band had come to its first period of real maturity, having done... We had done some touring and we discovered that we fitted into it very well. The band had a life of its own which was indisputable and you hardly stopped to think what it was. You just knew it was there and felt right. We were very critical of each other. There was this democratic balance. So when people started hurling abuse at us from the media, it didn't really hurt that much because we'd probably said much worse to each other. We had great strength as a band. I always think it must be hard to be a solo performer starting off because you don't have that great cohesion and a wall against the outside world. We had that.
R.T.: With Queen, we wanted to do everything right, get as little as possible wrong, drawing on all our experience. We did try to avoid the real basic slogging and we tried to go in a few steps up the ladder. It seems to have worked quite well.
F.M.: It's a survival test. We could all just go away and say we've had enough and live happily ever after, but that's not why we're in it. We're in it to make music. I think, "What else could I do? This is the thing that interests me most." You don't know what it means to write a song that people actually appreciate. It's a wonderful feeling.
10. GOOD COMPANY.
B.M.: That was the first instrument I ever played. My father had a George Formby ukulele.
George Formby was the originator of that style of playing, which is rhythmic and slightly melodic at the same time because he plays across the top and bottom strings to make little melodies. I'm really a pretty poor imitator of that style, but I got interested in it...
R.T.: Makes you sick, doesn't he?
B.M.: This was a little fetish of mine. I loved all that traditional jazz stuff and one of my big treats was to go to New Orleans and hear the real stuff. I was trying to be a jazz band and it took me a long time. Because I'd grown up listening to trumpets and trombones and clarinets, I kind of knew the stuff that they would play, so it wasn't just getting their sound with the guitar, it was trying to get into the minds of the people who'd have been in this jazz band. So here's a guitar jazz band.
F.M.: The fact that we do different things is to try and make sure we get a different audience as well. We don't want to discard our early fans because they're always with us, I hope. But you always get that. Some people like... When you come up with an album, you won't get everybody liking everything. The trademark of Queen, which I like - it's just a coincidence - is that their four writers write very different material and so it pleases maybe a wider span than most other groups.
B.M.: With each of us, we'd say, "Trust me, I have this amount worked out. Go along with it." We'd be going, "OK." There was a separate beginning to each song and then there was some collaboration - like the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody, the solo and everything, we fiddled around with. But then it would go back to its creator in the beginning and it would still be that person's song. If that person felt the collaborative stuff wasn't quite right, he would kick it out. I think that's why at the time it made sense to have it credited to separate people. One person would always be responsible for all the lyrics of that song, almost without exception.
B.M.: I think, if you're talking about misconceptions, for people who don't understand what was going on with Queen, what they probably haven't twigged is the humour element. We were always on the edge of awareness and self-parody and I think the people who haven't twigged it, mainly members of the press, have missed that element, the fact that we're laughing at ourselves more than anyone could ever laugh at us. That, I think, is the major misconception. It's something you don't have to say to the fans because they're there with it and they feel that humanity. They feel that insecurity in us, if you like.
11. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.
F.M.: When I was writing Bohemian Rhapsody I had a song called We Are The Champions but I didn't feel it fitted at the time. And I just kept it aside and I think about two or three years later I pulled it out of the bag again. There you are. You can never tell.
B.M.: Nobody wanted Bohemian Rhapsody as a single. Everyone said no one would play it because it was too long.
R.T.: Nobody except us wanted it.
U.M.: This is not to say that we're always right.
R.T.: We're not.
U.M.: The choice of a single is very difficult. There's no sure-fire hit. There's no such thing. With Bohemian Rhapsody, it was a big risk and it worked. With a song like that, it was either going to be a huge success or a terrific flop. You know, it was...
U.M2.: It's been no bed of roses.
U.M2. & R.T.: No pleasure cruise.
B.M.: We were very full of ourselves, I suppose, hardly stopping to think about what the plan was. We were just pushing on and it all seemed very clear.
R.T.: There was no plan, really. It was just what happened as it happened. Freddie came in one day, he had it written completely down on the backs of telephone books. He had every harmony written and I think he had the entire thing mapped out mentally. He knew exactly how he wanted it to sound. That is one song, really, that... It belonged to him. Half the time, we didn't really quite know the totality of what it was gonna be when we were playing it. So... that was amazing. There are enormous harmonies in there and he had most of it in his head beforehand.
B.M.: Freddie came in a lot of the time with little notes written out. He would write the names of all the notes in patterns if he had the harmonies that he'd worked out on a piano. And he had a structure. He was very into preparation in those days. It changed later on - he was more instinctive later on - but in those days he had everything in his head and on pieces of paper. I was in the control room while they did the backing track for Bohemian Rhapsody. It would normally be either guitar, bass and drums or piano, bass and drums. Rhapsody was piano, bass and drums. I was sitting in the control room with Roy and they're doing... All these little gaps. It was hard for us to figure out what on earth he had in mind. "This is the operatic bit. This is this bit. This is the big rock bit." Gradually it took shape.
U.M.: It was quite a mammoth task because it was basically done in three definite sections and just pieced together. Each one required great concentration. The opera section in the middle was the most taxing, I think, cos we wanted to re-create a huge operatic harmony section between just the three of us, and that involves a lot of multitracking and things. I think, between the three of us, we re-created a 160-to-200-piece choir effect between the three of us, Brian, Roger and myself.
R.T.: There's a great range of harmonies. It involves doing it again and again to make it sound bigger and bigger. Each little bit has to be done that many times. You have to learn all the very different parts. Some were... How many parts...
U.M.: There was a section of "No, no, no". Different escalating things, and we just sat there going, "No, no, no" about 150 times, going out of our minds.
R.T.: The tape went transparent. Genuinely.
U.M.: Those were the days of 16-track studios, I think.
U.M.: You have now 24 and 32-track.
But as we did so many overdubs on 16-track, we just kept piling it on and on. That's why the tape went transparent. It just couldn't take any more.
R.T..: It had gone over the heads so many times in overdubbing, the oxide had worn off.
R.T.: It was a lot of work and it was really tedious, some of it, but it was nice after three hours' singing. You could just listen to a little section and that would be nice. Is it getting bigger? No, it's not. We'd better stop there, then.
B.M.: It was a big step for us because no one was really doing that kind of thing.
R.T.: Although it's a wonderful song and it's quite serious in some ways, it's got a tremendous sense of humour about it, especially in the central pastiche section - that mock-operatic section. We thought it was hilarious. Great, quite exciting and fun and big, but funny.
U.M.: Somebody said this was like Cecil B De Mille meets Walt Disney, which is more to the point than, say, the Beach Boys.
R.T.: I think we knew it was special. You don't anticipate it would be as popular as it turned out to be, but we did think it was special and it was worth spending literally weeks on recording it. So we had an inkling that there was something special there.
12. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN (TRAD. ARR. MAY).
F.M.: We were outrageous and innovative in the days of Bohemian Rhapsody and that's why it worked. For us to start pandering to people's tastes and saying that this is what they want would be such a backlash in terms of, "My God, that's what we did before "and that's how we made it and that's how we gonna stay." And so we're gonna do things against the grain, against people's ideas, and if they like it, they like it. But we're not afraid of the fact that we're doing things... We don't jump on bandwagons, or "This is modern" or whatever, "let's do it." We do it with the Queen stamp on everything.