Keep Yourself Alive
Composer: Brian May
Keys: A Mixolydian major, F Mixolydian major, (C#-major), D-major, F-major, (E Mixolydian major), B-major,
Intro | Verse | Verse'| Chorus | Break 1 (including solo1) |
| Verse | Verse'| Chorus | Break 2 (drum solo, solo2)|
| Chorus | Break 3 (dialogue, solo3) |
| Chorus | Chorus | Chorus | Chorus | Outro |
In spite its pol-position in the Queen canon, this song is not the first song Brian had written as he already had some experience in songwriting and arranging by this time with his earlier bands. You can recognize that this is not a typical rookie composition. The song is "pure" rock although we have much more keys and harmonies than the standard heavy metal of those years. On the other hand, we see mostly the usual I IV V chords being used. The choruses feature the only minor harmony (vi). In terms of chords, the trickiest part of the song is the middle of the verses with borrowed chords from the distant key of C#-(or G#) major. This kind of harmonic gambit was not usual in the early era of heavy metal. In fact this harmonic card-trick and the comparatively large number of keys never really became a trademark of Brian May even though we can find further examples of this. This "variety" can be explained as an indirect result of the many different sections.
The verses are in F Mixolydian Major, the Choruses are in D-Major. The intro and Break 1 are in Mixolydian A-Major (Intro, Break 1). The latter two are enharmonic equvalents sharing the same set of notes. The framework of Break 2 is the same as the one of the Chorus shifted up to F-major. The same key-shift (D-major to F-major) appears in the "Four Choruses" section. B-major (which, however, shares a similar tone set with F Mixolydian major) appears only in the end of the song. The key of E-Mixolydian major in Break 3 is not established properly.
The song has catchy melodies "supported" by many a repetition: with four verses and seven choruses this song is one of the most repetitive Queen songs (among the radio-pop it's just moderately repetitive, though). No wonder this number was the natural choice for a first (and only) single off the album.
The intro is instrumental and comparatively long. The concept is that the instruments enter one after another, resulting in a gradually thickening sound. Some preceding examples of this concept: "Tequila" (The Champs), "Day Tripper" (Beatles), "Smoke On The Water" (Deep Purple). The song starts with Brian picking palm muted chopped tremolo rhythms (an F note) on guitar mixed to left. The 1/16th notes build up groups of uneven length (1,3,5,...) with 1/16 long gaps between them. That's become a trademark of modern heavy metal.
This one note figure works as the declaration of root, but when Brian shifts from F up to A (second guitar joins in) in the fourth measure is like a declaration of "let's play the song better in A instead of F". The opening F subtly foreshadows the verses in F Major.
Following the emphases (and the gaps) of the rhythm guitar, you can pick up the uneven beats. Our ear vacillates between intrepreting emphased beats as being the first or the third one in the measures. Brian May seems to have wanted to trick the listener as he placed the reference points sometimes on the first and sometimes on the third beat. According to this transcription the very first played note is a second beat. Let's count the measures from here.
The guitar slides up to A by the first beat of the fourth measure. On the third beat of this measure enters the second guitar track. Soon this guitar starts playing the catchy riff from the first beat of the sixth measure. Guitar 1 keeps strumming the A note as a pedal bass and uses extra emphasis backing up the riffs played by the other guitar. The two measure riff is repeated six times in a row. The key is A-major Mixolydian, which is clearer if you check the pitch-content of Break 1 that is harmonically closely related to this part of the intro. Drumstick noise enters at the third beat of the seventh measure. Another guitar track (mixed in the middle) enters, backing the above-mentioned two. It appears first before the fourth riff. One measure later bass and more drums also enter on downbeat. The last riff ends differently.
| ... C5 D5 | G C7 | F | - |
A: bIII IV | bVII ...
F:| V/V/V| V/V V | I | - |
The F-Major key is established by a four piece chain of fifths.
There are two pairs of verses in the song. The second ones of the pairs end differently in order to lead the melody smoothly to the chorus. The verses start with an upbeat and are eight measures long each. The rhythm of the lead melody is syncopated. The phrases sometimes overlap each other and create the feeling of a dialogue. The mode is mixolydian, as the melody keeps using the flat-7th degree (Eb) instead of the natural 7th (E).
chords |F(7) |Bb F | F7 /A | Bb F |
guitar |F1 |F1 | F1 | Bb F |
F:|I |IV | I | IV I |
| C | C#(7) | G# | C |
F :| V | bVI | bIII | V |
This is a very short section with only four measures. The harmony is in D-major. Vocal harmonies can be heard only in this section.
|D |D A |D F#7 Bm G | A D |
|I |I V |I V/vi vi IV| V I |
In the third measure we can hear a kind of counter-point relation between the guitar, the bass, and the lead vocal:
lead guitar :|A Bb B D |
bass :|D Db B G |
lead melody :|Gb E D Gb|
rhythm gtr chords :|D5 F#5 B5 G5|
The combination of I > V-of-vi > vi is a standard cadence that can be found in many songs (e.g. the bridge of "Love Me Tender" by Elvis Presley).
Before tho Outro we have a chain of four choruses that shift the keys to D, F, D, B-Major respectively. Besides this, these choruses are more or less identical. Extra element is a guitar choir in the top range, similar to the one that can be heard during the second guitar solo, but this time it is three-parted. In "Brighton Rock" (1974) there's a guitar choir of similar concept and tone. Another addition is the solo guitar. Two of the key-shifts are step down (three half steps). In pop songs this is unusual (e.g. "Our House" by the Madness) as they usually shift keys upward. Queen examples: "Pain Is So Close To Pleasure", "Breakthru".
This first break is instrumental, fourteen and a half measures long (2 + 2*2 + 4 + 1.5 + 1 + 2). The key is D-major except in the last two measures. As in the intro, a static A is played continuously by the guitar. It keeps playing during almost the entire Break 1. The use of pedal-bass is long-time Brian May trademark ("Flash", "One Vision" intro). In the third measure enters the second guitar and plays two Riffs. Then, in the seventh measure, comes the first guitar solo (form: AABC + Riff). It looks like Brian arranged a two- (three- towards its end) parted guitar harmony for only one guitar with double and triple stops. Similar concept was used in the guitar solo of the live version of "You're My Best Friend". The other guitar still plays the A on bottom. The solo ends with the Riff variation that closed the intro, and its last measure is a halved one. So, the D chord enters on the first beat of the next 4/4 measure and is sustained until next measure where an F chord closes the Break 1 (sustained through the last two measures). The difference from the intro's ending is that this time there are no leading chords before the F chord.
This part starts with a drum solo followed by a guitar solo. Similar solo-block can be found in "Dragon Attack" (1980, drums, bass, guitar). Both the solos are eight measures long. Behind the guitar solo we find the same harmonic pattern as in the Chorus played twice and transposed to F-major. In the first measure we can find a D-chord, a short cyclic guitar-figure, and then the upbeat of the solo itself. It starts as a three-part harmony. The harmonic relation between the guitar parts is sometimes close and sometimes not. The latter approach is early trademark Brian (see also "Mad The Swine" and "See What A Fool I've Been"). During the second half of the guitar solo we can hear a two-part guitar choir mixed in the middle. The very last note of Break 2 is an A in order to shift the key down to D-major again for the next Chorus.
It is eight measures long. The first two measures contain a sustained E5 chord. Next four measures start with a guitar riff that resembles the "big" Riff. This riff orients us to interpret E as the tonic. Then comes a pentatonic vocal dialogue between Roger and Brian. The last two measures contain a mini guitar solo that is a three-part harmonized, 13-graded ascending scale. The top part is the leader, and the bass doubles it two octaves below. It starts its way up using the E-major scale, but towards the end it goes mostly with chromatic steps. The final notes in harmony produce an A chord, a good leader chord to the upcoming chorus.
Guitar 1 plays a static F-note similarly to the song's beginning. Guitar 2 plays F5 chords with the even beats being lightly stressed. Fade-out is applied.
About the demo-version
The architecture is almost the same; only some details are different. The intro is shorter. The melody variations of the Verse are almost the same as in the album version. In Break 1 there is pentatonic guitar solo instead of the harmonic solo1. In Break 2 the three-part guitar solo is more or less different. In Break 3 there is more guitar behind the dialogue. The version I've heard is mixed down by the end of the last chorus (the one in B-major), omitting the Outro. These Trident demos in 1971 show Brian's first available attempts to arrange three-part guitar harmonies. With pre-Queen band called Smile, in the song "Earth", Brian already experimented with two-track guitar solo, but in that one only the first few notes were in harmony.