Early days (1968–1973)
In 1968, guitarist Brian May,a student at London’s Imperial College and bassist Tim Staffell decided to form a band. May placed an advertisement on the college notice board for a “Mitch Mitchell/Ginger Baker type” drummer; Roger Taylor, a young dental student, auditioned and got the job. The group called themselves Smile.
Smile signed to Mercury Records in 1970 and had their first session in a recording studio in Trident Studios that year. Tim Staffell was attending Ealing Art College with Farrokh Bulsara, later known as Freddie Mercury, and introduced him to the band. Bulsara soon became a keen fan. After Staffell left in 1970 to join the band Humpy Bong, the remaining Smile members, encouraged by Bulsara, changed their name to “Queen” and continued working together. Bulsara, who joined the group as vocalist, explained, “I thought up the name Queen. It’s just a name, but it’s very regal obviously, and it sounds splendid, It’s a strong name, very universal and immediate. It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations. I was certainly aware of gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it.” The band had a number of bass players during this period who did not fit with the band’s chemistry. It was not until February 1971 that they settled on John Deacon and began to rehearse for their first album.
In 1973, after a series of delays, Queen released their eponymous debut album, an effort influenced by the heavy metal and progressive rock of the day. The album was received well by critics; Gordon Fletcher of Rolling Stone said “their debut album is superb”, and Chicago’s Daily Herald called it an “above average debut”. However, it drew little mainstream attention and the lead single “Keep Yourself Alive”, a Brian May composition, sold poorly. Greg Prato of Allmusic later called Queen “one of the most underrated hard rock debuts of all time.”
The group’s second LP Queen II was released in 1974. The album reached number five on the British album charts, and the Freddie Mercury-written lead single “Seven Seas of Rhye,” reached number ten in the UK, giving the band their first hit. The album is their heaviest and darkest release, featuring long complex instrumental passages, fantasy-themed lyrics and musical virtuosity. The band toured as support to Mott the Hoople in the UK and US during this period, and they began to gain notice for their energetic and engaging stage shows. However, like its predecessor, sales of Queen II in the US were low.
Breakthrough era (1974–1979)
Brian May was absent when the band started work on their third album, Sheer Heart Attack, released in 1974. The album reached number two in the United Kingdom, sold well throughout Europe, and went gold in the United States. It gave the band their first real taste of commercial success. The album experimented with a variety of musical genres, including British Music Hall (“Killer Queen”), heavy metal (“Flick of the Wrist”,
“Brighton Rock”, “Tenement Funster”, “Now I’m Here”, and “Stone Cold Crazy”), ballads (“Lily Of The Valley” and “Dear Friends”), ragtime (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown”) and Caribbean (“Misfire”). At this point Queen started to move away from the progressive tendencies of their first two releases into a more radio-friendly, song-oriented style. Sheer Heart Attack introduced new sound and melody patterns that would be refined on their next album A Night at the Opera.
The single “Killer Queen” reached number two on the British charts, and became their first US hit, reaching number twelve in the Billboard American Top 40. It combines camp, vaudeville, British music hall with May’s guitar virtuosity. The album’s second single, “Now I’m Here”, a more traditional hard rock composition, was a number eleven hit in Britain.
In 1975, the band left for a world tour with each member in Zandra Rhodes-created costumes and banks of lights and effects. They toured the US, headlining for the first time, and played in Canada for the first time in April. At the same time, the band’s manager Jim Beach successfully negotiated the band out of their Trident contract. Of the options they considered, was an offer from Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant. Grant wanted them to sign with Led Zeppelin’s own production company, Swan Song Records. The band found the contract unacceptable and instead, contacted Elton John’s manager, John Reid, who accepted the position. In April 1975 the band toured Japan for the first time.
Later that year the band recorded and released A Night at the Opera. At the time, it was the most expensive album ever produced. Like its predecessor, the album features diverse musical styles and experimentation with stereo sound. In “The Prophet’s Song”, an eight-minute epic, the middle section is a canon, with simple phrases layered to create a full-choral sound. The album was very successful in Britain, and went triple platinum in the United States. In 2003, it was ranked number 230 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
The album also featured the hit single “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which was number one in the UK for nine weeks, and is Britain’s third-best-selling single of all time; it also reached number nine in the United States (a 1992 re-release reached number two). Bohemian Rhapsody has been voted, several times, the greatest song of all time. The band decided to make a video to go with the single; the result is generally considered to have been one of the first “true” music videos ever produced. Although other bands (including The Beatles) had made short promotional films or videos of songs prior to this, generally those were made for specific showings or programs (such as the Beatles’ videos for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”, which were specifically made to be aired on the Smothers Brothers’ television show). “Bohemian Rhapsody” was the first musical video offered free of charge, to any program, network or station which would air it. The second single from the album, “You’re My Best Friend”, which is the second song ever composed by John Deacon, and his first single, peaked at sixteen in the United States and went on to become a worldwide Top Ten hit.
By 1976, Queen were back in the studio, where they recorded A Day at the Races, what may be mistaken simply as a companion album to A Night at the Opera. It again borrowed the name of a Marx Brothers’ movie, and its cover was similar to that of A Night at the Opera, a variation on the same Queen Crest. Musically, the album was by both fans’ and critics’ standards a strong effort, and reached number one on the British charts. The major hit on the album was “Somebody to Love”, a gospel-inspired song in which Mercury, May, and Taylor multi-tracked their voices to make a 100-voice gospel choir. The song went to number two in the United Kingdom, and number thirteen on the U.S. singles chart. The album also featured one of the band’s heaviest songs, Brian May’s “Tie Your Mother Down”, which became a staple of their live shows.
Also in 1976, Queen played one of their most famous gigs, a 1976 free concert in Hyde Park, London. It set an attendance record, with 150,000 people confirmed in the audience.
News of the World was released a year later. It contained many songs tailor-made for live performance, including “We Will Rock You” and the rock ballad “We Are the Champions”, both of which reached number four in the United States and became enduring international sports anthems. Roger Taylor released his first solo effort in 1977 in the form of a single: the A-side was a cover of a song by The Parliaments “I Wanna Testify”, and the B-side was a song by Taylor called “Turn On The TV”.
In 1978 the band released Jazz, including the hit singles “Fat Bottomed Girls” and “Bicycle Race” which were also released as a double-A-side single. This album was “the target of a bizarre marketing campaign, in which sixty-five naked women were perched atop bicycles rented from Halford’s Cycles and sent racing
around Wimbledon Stadium.” The word “jazz” was not used in a strict sense, and the album was noted by critics for its collection of different styles, jazz not being one of them. Rolling Stone Magazine criticised it for being “dull”, saying “Queen hasn’t the imagination to play jazz – Queen hasn’t the imagination, for that matter, to play rock & roll.” Important tracks of the album include “Dead on Time”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Let Me Entertain You”, and “Mustapha”, in which Arabesque music is combined with heavy rock guitar. The band’s first live album, Live Killers, was released in 1979; it went platinum twice in the United States. They also released the very successful single “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, a rockabilly song done in the style of Elvis Presley. The song made the top 10 in many countries, and was the band’s first number one single in the United States.
New sound and synthesisers (1980–1984)
Queen began the 1980s with The Game. It featured the singles “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust”, both of which reached number one in the United States. The album stayed number one for four weeks in the United States, and sold over four million copies. It was also the only album to ever top the Billboard rock, dance, and R&B charts simultaneously. The album also marked the first appearance of a synthesiser on a Queen album. Heretofore, their albums featured a distinctive “No Synthesisers were used on this Album” sleevenote. The note is widely assumed to reflect an anti-synth, pro-“hard”-rock stance by the band, but was later revealed by producer Roy Thomas Baker to be an attempt to clarify that those albums’ multi-layered solos were created with guitars, not synths, as record company executives kept assuming at the time.
1980 also saw the release of the soundtrack Queen had recorded for Flash Gordon.
In 1981, Queen became the first major rock band to play in Latin American stadiums. Queen played to a total audience of 479,000 people on their South American tour, including five shows in Argentina and two in Brazil where they played to an audience of more than 130,000 people in the first night and more than 120,000 people the following night at São Paulo (Morumbi Stadium). In October of the same year, Queen performed for more than 150,000 fans on October 9 at Monterrey (Estadio Universitario) and 17 and 18 at Puebla (Estadio Zaragoza), Mexico.
Also in 1981, Queen worked with David Bowie on the single “Under Pressure”. The first-time collaboration with another artist was spontaneous, as Bowie happened to drop by the studio while Queen were recording. The band were immediately pleased with the results, but Bowie did not play the song live for several years. Upon its release, the song was extremely successful, reaching number one in Britain. The bass line was later used for Vanilla Ice’s 1990 hit “Ice Ice Baby”.
Later that year, Queen released their first compilation album, entitled Greatest Hits, which showcased the group’s highlights from 1974-1981. It was highly successful, and as of 2007, it is the United Kingdom’s best selling album. Taylor became the first member of the band to release his own solo album in 1981, entitled Fun In Space.
In 1982 the band released the funk album Hot Space. The band stopped touring North America after their Hot Space Tour, as their success there had waned, although they would perform on American television for the only time during the eighth season premiere of Saturday Night Live. Queen left Elektra Records, their label in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, and signed onto EMI/Capitol Records.
After working steadily for over ten years, Queen decided that they would not perform any live shows in 1983. During this time, they recorded a new album, and several members of the band explored side projects and solo work. May released a mini-album entitled Star Fleet Project, on which he collaborated with Eddie Van Halen. A computer musician composer in Canada, Kevin Chamberlain, helped with vocals and background music for Mercury’s solo project, which was later cancelled due to creative differences.
In 1984, Queen released the album The Works, which included the successful singles “Radio Ga Ga” and “I Want to Break Free”. Despite these hit singles, the album failed to do well in the United States. “Radio Ga Ga” was the band’s last original American Top Forty hit until 1989’s “I Want It All”.
Queen embarked that year on a set of dates during their The Works Tour in Bophuthatswana, South Africa at the arena at Sun City. Upon returning to England, they were the subject of outrage, having played there during the height of apartheid and in violation of worldwide divestment efforts. The band responded to the critics by stating that they were playing music for fans in that country, and they also stressed that the concerts were played before integrated audiences.
Live Aid and later years (1985–1990)
On 12 January 1985, the band headlined two nights of the first Rock in Rio festival at Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). They were the main act on the 11 and 18 January lineups. On each night, they played in front of over 300,000 people. A selection of highlights of both performances was released on VHS on May with the title Queen Live in Rio.
At Live Aid, held at Wembley on 13 July 1985, Queen performed some of their greatest hits in what has been considered their best performance to date. The band, now revitalised by the response to Live Aid and the ensuing increase in record sales, ended 1985 by releasing the single “One Vision”. The song was used in the film Iron Eagle. Also, a limited-edition boxed set containing all Queen albums to date was released under the title of “The Complete Works”. The package included previously unreleased material, most notably Queen’s non-album single of Christmas 1984, titled Thank God it’s Christmas.
In early 1986, Queen recorded the album A Kind of Magic, containing several songs written for the Russell Mulcahy film Highlander. The album was very successful, producing a string of hits, including the title track, “A Kind of Magic.” This contains the key lyrics, “There can be only one.” (The phrase is a reference to the movie’s plot.) Also charting from the album were “Friends Will Be Friends,” “Who Wants To Live Forever?,” and the de facto theme from Highlander, “Princes Of The Universe.”
Later that year, Queen went on a sold-out tour (the band’s largest) in support of A Kind of Magic. The Magic Tour’s highlight was at Wembley Stadium in London and resulted in the live double album, Queen Live At Wembley Stadium, released on CD and as a live concert film. They could not book Wembley for a third night because it was already booked, but they did play at Knebworth Park. The show sold out within two hours and over 120,000 fans packed the park for what proved to be Queen’s final live performance with Mercury. More than 1 million people saw Queen on the tour – 400,000 in the United Kingdom alone, a record at the time.
After working on various solo projects during 1988 (including Mercury’s collaboration with Montserrat Caballé, Barcelona) the band released The Miracle in 1989. The album continued the direction of A Kind of Magic, using a pop-rock sound mixed with a few heavy numbers. It spawned the European hits “I Want It All,” “Breakthru,” “The Invisible Man,” “Scandal,” and “The Miracle.”
The Miracle also began a change in direction of Queen’s songwriting philosophy. Since the band’s beginning, nearly all songs had been written by and credited to a single member, with other members adding minimally. With The Miracle, however, the band’s songwriting became more collaborative, and they vowed to credit the final product only to Queen as a group.
The final albums and Mercury’s death (1991–1997)
|“||There was all that time when we knew Freddie was on the way out, we kept our heads down.||”|
After fans noticed Mercury’s gaunt appearance during 1988, rumours began to spread that Mercury was suffering from AIDS. For reasons that are still not confirmed, Mercury flatly denied them at the time, insisting he was merely “exhausted” and too busy to provide interviews. However, the band decided to continue making albums free of internal conflict and differences, starting with The Miracle and continuing with Innuendo, which was recorded during 1990 but not released until the beginning of 1991 as Mercury’s health was a major factor in the delay.
Despite his deteriorating health, Mercury continued to contribute. The band released their second greatest hits compilation, Greatest Hits II, in October 1991.
On 23 November 1991, in a prepared statement made on his deathbed, Mercury confirmed that he had AIDS. Within twelve hours of that statement, he died of bronchial pneumonia, which was brought on by AIDS. His funeral service was private, held in accordance with the Zoroastrian religious faith of his family.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” was re-released as a single shortly after Mercury’s death, with “These Are the Days of Our Lives” as the double A-side. The single went to number 1 for the second time in the UK. Initial proceeds from the single – approximately £1,000,000 – were donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Queen’s popularity increased once again in the United States after “Bohemian Rhapsody” was featured in the comedy film Wayne’s World, helping the song reach number two for five weeks in the United States charts in 1992. The song was made into a Wayne’s World music video, with which the band and management were delighted.
On 20 April 1992, The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert was held at London’s Wembley Stadium. Performers included Def Leppard, Lisa Stansfield, Elton John, David Bowie, Robert Plant, Tony Iommi, Annie Lennox, Guns N’ Roses, Extreme, Roger Daltrey, George Michael, Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson, Zucchero, Metallica, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Spinal Tap, along with the three remaining members of Queen, performed many of Queen’s major hits. It was a successful concert that was televised to over 1 billion viewers worldwide. The concert is listed in The Guinness Book of Records as “The largest rock star benefit concert”. It raised over £20,000,000 for AIDS charities.
The band also terminated their Capitol Records contract and signed a deal with Hollywood Records as their new U.S label.
Queen never actually disbanded, although their last album of original material, titled Made in Heaven, was released in 1995, four years after Mercury’s death. It was constructed from Mercury’s final recording sessions in 1991, plus material left over from their previous studio albums. In addition, re-worked material from Mercury’s solo album Mr. Bad Guy and a track originally featured on the first album of Taylor’s side-project
The Cross were included. May and Taylor have often been involved in projects related to raising money for AIDS research. John Deacon’s last involvement with the band was in 1997, when the band recorded the track “No-One but You (Only the Good Die Young)”. It was the last song recorded by Queen, and it was released as a bonus track on the Queen Rocks compilation album later that year. Due to demand from Queen fans, the song was later released as a single reaching #13 in the UK chart.
“Queen + …” projects (1998–2003)
Several Queen related projects were developed in the following years, a few of them mere remixes with no artistic involvement from the band. In 1999, a Greatest Hits III album was released. This album featured, among others, “Queen + Wyclef Jean” on a rap version of “Another One Bites the Dust”; a live version of “Somebody to Love” by George Michael; and a live version of “The Show Must Go On”, performed live in 1997 with Elton John.
Brian May and Roger Taylor performed together as on several occasions (award ceremonies, charity concerts, and the like), sharing vocals with various guest singers. They also recorded several covers of Queen’s hits with guest vocalists, including “We Will Rock You” (with Five and later, Britney Spears, Beyoncé Knowles, John Farnham and Pink) and “We Are the Champions” (with Robbie Williams).
In 2003, four new songs were recorded by May and Taylor for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 campaign against AIDS. The studio versions of Invincible Hope, 46664 – The Call, and Amandla (which included Anastacia and Dave Stewart) have not yet been released on album.
Also, in 2002, Brian May and Roger Taylor collaborated with Ben Elton to make a musical based on their greatest hits, called We Will Rock You. It will run until March 2010 in the Dominion Theatre, London and spawned many overseas versions.
Queen + Paul Rodgers (2004–2009)
At the end of 2004, May and Taylor announced that they would reunite and return to touring in 2005, with Paul Rodgers (founder and former lead singer of Free and Bad Company). Brian May’s website also stated that Rodgers would be ‘featured with’ Queen as Queen + Paul Rodgers, not replacing the late Freddie Mercury. The retired John Deacon would not be participating.
On 15 August 2006, Brian May confirmed through his website and fan club that Queen + Paul Rodgers would begin producing their first studio album beginning in October, to be recorded at a “secret location”. The album, titled The Cosmos Rocks, was released in Europe on 12 September 2008 and in the United States on 28 October 2008.
Queen and Paul Rodgers officially split up without animosity on 12 May, 2009. Rodgers does not rule out the possibility of working together again.