After Sheer Heart Attack, we realized we'd established ourselves. We felt that there were no barriers, no restrictions. A Night At The Opera featured every sound from a tuba to a comb. Nothing is out of bounds. Every molecule of Day At The Races - every iota-is us. No session men. We don't try to reproduce that onstage.
For A Night At The Opera, we sort of returned to the Queen II um philosophy. We had our confidence, because we'd had a hit. We had a kind of almost desperation about us too, because we were totally bankrupt at that point. You know, we had made hit records but we hadn't had any of the money back and, if A Night At The Opera hadn't been the huge success it was I think we would have just disappeared under the ocean someplace. So we were making this album knowing that its, its live or die. A bit of competitive edge as well, I think - we wanted it to be our Sgt Pepper, I think, and we each individually wanted to realise our potential as writers and producers and everything.
We shall be starting to record the next album around mid-June, but we won't be able to finish it all in one go, because we have got to go back to America. Well, the trouble is that we spent an awful lot of money on the last American tour and now we've been offered a good deal to go back and tour for about a month in August. We really must do it to replenish our funds. We simply can't afford not to, so the album won't be completed until after we get back.
[who came up with the idea for the vocal harmonies] We always were keen on that kind of thing. That was something which we wanted to do from the beginning. We wanted to be a group that could do the heaviness of hard rock, but also have harmonies swooping around all over the place. We thought there was some real power and emotion in that combination.
[difficultness of the first solo] No, that was pretty much off the cuff, except I think I had plenty of time to think about that one. I remember playing along with it in the studio for a while when other things were being done. I knew what kind of melody I wanted to play.
I think "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a great piece of work and it's really all Freddie's thing. It's Freddie's baby more than anything else and whatever was in his mind at that point was something pretty bizarre. And I feel very proud of it as a piece of work and I was very happy to see it voted as the song of the millennium. We went and received our award for that, which is very nice.
[did you feel it is something special during the recording] It would pretty odd. I mean this is really Freddie's brain child. You know he came in here with most of it formed in his head and he was just trying to get it across to us, which was difficult. And he was going "Da d-da da da", then it stops, you know, and then we go "Why, why's it stop?" (laughs) and he's say, "No, this bit goes in here", you know the acapella bit. "And then there's..." and we'd go "Okay Fred, yeah", you know, and it was all done in bits and it sounded very weird cos there was no vocals on it. It was just bits of backing track, urm, and he had all the vocal parts written out on these little pieces of paper, which came from his Dad's work - all written in A's and B's and C's - not dots, 'cos we don't do dots really (laughs) very well, but in, in the names of the notes. All the chords, every note that everyone was gonna sing. And some of these things were sort of 9-part harmonies, as you can tell, you know, plus we sing it 16 times each, over the 3 of us, so there's a colossal number voices on there by the time you stop, by the time you've finished. Um - and we thought this is either something which is (laughs) gonna be completely incomprehensible, or else it will be the biggest thing ever, I suppose.
Freddie used to come into the studio armed with sheets and sheets of paper with notes scribbled all over them in his own particular fashion. It wasn't standard musical notation, but A's and B's and C's and sharps in blocks - like buses zooming all over his bits of paper. He had the song all worked out when he came in. We played a backing track which left the gaps. And he would go, 'bum bum bum bmm, that's what hap- pens here....' He knew exactly what he was doing all along. It was Freddie's baby. He had It in his head'. We Just helped him bring it to life. We were stretching the limits of technology in those days. Because 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was entirely done on 16 track, we had to do a lot of bouncing as we went along; the tape got very thin. This 'legendary' story, that people think we made up. Is true: we held the tape up to the light one day - we'd been won- dering where all the top end was going- and we discovered was virtually a transparent piece of tape. All the oxide had been rubbed off. It was time to hurriedly make a copy and get on with It.
I think Bismillah is more of, more of an expletive than a character. As far as I know.
Bohemian Rhapsody was, although it is, I think it's a wonderful song and it's quite serious in some ways, its got a tremendous sense of humour about it, especially in the, obviously in the central sort of pastiche section, you know. That sort of mock operatic section. I mean, we thought it was hilarious when we were doing it. In fact, great, you know, quite exciting, and fun and big and quite funny. We did think it was special and it was worth spending literally weeks on recording it.
There were only the three of us singing, um, it was something like 128 voices heard at one point, you know, but we were really pushing the limits of the studios. The massive multi-tracking and layering and the machines weren't really capable, the tape wasn't really capable of taking it. Um, you know cos of the massive overdubbing and recording, bouncing the tracks down, and the tape would go almost, you could almost see through it in places.
I had quite a bit of input to the heavy part, um, although Fred did have a pretty good image of how that should be. He wasn't sure that there should be a solo in there, I think, and I said that I would like to have a verse-type solo which would gradually lead into something else, and so he built that portion of the song in there.
I remember the Beatles had made some film for Rain and for Strawberry Fields - little filmettes, you know, on 16 mil, but no one had used the medium of video really. I mean cos video was quite new, very new, there were no video production companies, for instance, and what we used was actually an outside broadcast unit used usually for Sports, which happened to be owned by our management company and we thought, well if we filmed, if we just made a little film of this using one of their trucks, then we could go on tour and be on Top Of The Pops.
Videos were weren't really around, we just happened to be managed by a company that had an outside broadcast facility, which was mainly sort of leased to ITV for sports coverage. And er.. we sort of had the bright idea of using it to film or video, tape our.. the end of our rehearsal for the Night at the Opera tour. And I suppose that really became apparent after it was on Top of the Pops etc when we were on tour, that it was a really incredible marketing tool a way of getting to people.
With Rhapsody, we've squeezed to our vocal limitations for four octaves and not slowed down the tape!
I'm really pleased about the operatic thing. I wanted to be outrageous with vocals - we're always getting compared with other people, which is very stupid. A lot of people have slammed Bohemian Rhapsody, but if you listen to that single, who can you compare it to? Tell me one group that's done an operatic single. I can't think of anybody. But we didn't do an operatic single because we thought we'd be the only group to do it. It just happened! We just thought that it was a very strong song and so we released it. But there were so many arguments about it. Somebody suggested cutting it because the media reckons we have to have a three-minute single, but there is no point in cutting it - it just doesn't work. We just wanted to release it to say that this is what Queen are about at this stage.
I'm going to shatter some illusions: It was just one of those pieces I wrote for the album: just writing my batch of songs. In its early stages I almost rejected it, but then it grew. We started deciding on a single about halfway through. There were a few contenders - we were thinking of The Prophet's Song at one point - but then Bohemian Rhapsody seemed the one. There was a time when the others wanted to chop it around a bit, but I refused. If it was going to be released, it would be in its entirety. We knew it was very risky, but we had so much confidence in that song - I did anyway. I felt, underneath it all, that if it was successful it would earn a lot of respect. People were all going, “You're joking, they'll never play it, you'll only hear the first few bars and then they'll fade it out.” We had numerous rows. EMI were shocked - “A six-minute single? You must be joking!” The same in America - “Oh, you just got away with it in Britain.”
It was terrible, because Freddie was too shy to say “Ere play this” and I'm also frightened to hear people's new records because if I don't like them then I've got to say so and that tends to make the evening go clunk. So I wasn't looking forward to it even though all of their past records have been fantastic. I had the feeling that maybe this might be the one that is going to be no good as the others have been so amazing. So anyway eventually we took this six minute epic into the studio, plonked it on the machine and I reeled back in amazement. I think my first words were “you'll never get Tony Blackburn to play that, it's too long and weird.” He did eventually though, after it became popular, but I was really knocked out with the single and immediately started to play it on the air. I played it that weekend, twice on the Saturday, and twice on the Sunday, and on Monday I had more calls on the hit line for Bohemian Rhapsody than for any other record throughout the full week. I knew then, that it was going to be a monster, because of the hit line gauge. If something's there, you can be sure that it is well liked. Of course this was the day after Freddie played it to me and everyone was ringing up and asking about a copy but the thing hadn't even been pressed into records by then. It was about three weeks before it hit the shops. I think Bohemian Rhapsody will eventually be guarded as a pop classic. On some of the albums Fred plays some really lovely little bits on the piano on the quiet tracks, and the phrasing is so classical. I think he just might do an album pure and simple classical music next. It will be all of them with perhaps tons of quadruple tracking and that little band will produce a major symphony, a modern symphony. The Beatles were the last people to have combined really big talent and I think Queen have that as well. But the Beatles have already done the big swappo world bit, so Queen don't have to do that now, they can sit down and do something a thousand times better than Abbey Road and it will become the Beethoven of our times.
It was just something that I'd wanted to do for a long while actually. It wasn't something that I'd given much thought to in the previous albums but I just felt that when it came to the fourth album… “Oh well, I'm going to do it.” And it needed a lot of thought. I did a bit of research, y'know, but I still wanted it to be very much a Queen thing. I wasn't trying to say that it was the authentic opera or whatever, I just wanted it to be opera in the rock ‘n' roll sense.
Something like Bohemian Rhapsody didn't just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research, although it was tongue in cheek and it was mock-opera. Why not? I certainly wasn't saying I was an opera fanatic and I knew everything about it.
From my point of view, OK, Bohemian Rhapsody, big hit, but I think a song like Somebody to Love is in my estimation, from the writing aspect, a better song.
It was a big risk, and it worked, because I think with a song like that it was either gonna be a huge success or a, or a terrific flop, and you know it was. It was quite a mammoth task, because it was basically done in three definite sections and just pieced together, and each one required a lot of concentration. The opera section, the middle, was the most taxing I think, ‘cause we just wanted to recreate a sort of huge operatic sort of harmony section, between just the three of us, and that involves a lot of multi-tracking and things, and I think between the three of us we sort of, we recreated a, a sort of 160- to 200-piece choir effect between just the three of us, that's Brian, Roger and myself just singing it. There was like a section of “no, no, no,” and we had to sort of do that in sort of different escalating things and we just sat there going “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” about, I don't know, a hundred and fifty times.
There's a tremendous range of harmonies, and it involves doing it again and again and again and again to make it sound bigger and bigger and bigger. Each little bit though has to be done that many times, and you have to learn all the very different parts.
That was really Freddie's baby from the beginning - he came in and knew exactly what he wanted. The backing track was done with just piano, bass and drums, with a few spaces for other things to go in, like the tic-tic-tic on the hi-hats to keep the time, and Freddie sang a guide vocal at the time, but he had all his harmonies written out, and it was really just a question of doing it. He even knew pretty much what he wanted in the way of guitar, although there's always a bit of freedom to do what I want on the guitar side, and I could do the solo as I wanted really, but it was very much Freddie's thing which was mapped out. It took a week just to do the vocals, and that was efficient working as well - we already had our methods well worked out, where the three of us would sing a line, then double- or maybe triple- track it. There were nine parts to some of those vocal pieces.
After Bohemian Rhapsody, it was like, people were saying, “How are they gonna top this?” I mean if you go sleep at nights thinking about how you're gonna top what you did, that is gonna be your downfall, you know you've just got to say, “OK, it's done!” That's the way I look at it. I mean, music is just a big consumer thing. As far as our music is concerned, people should just listen to it and discard it and - that's what people do - wait for the next one. I don't like harping on, of course they keep coming back, you know Bohemian Rhapsody always comes back, We Are the Champions, all that was, and people have to take note of that, but I mean as far as I'm concerned, all those days are over, that era is over, that type of music is now over, and I don't wish to even think about it or write about it.
It was a very strange song to record in a way because we actually did it in section, it was Freddie's idea, I think. I remember doing one recording session in Rockfield where Freddie was saying, “These are the notes”, and he goes “dum, dum, dum, dum, dum”, and it seemed to have no connexion with anything, but he had all the ideas of what he wanted to go on top.
I remember lots of people telling us not to release Bohemian Rhapsody because it was commercial suicide, because: one, it would never get played on the radio, because it wasn't suitable; and two, it would never get played on the radio, because it was too long, and we stuck to our guns, and we didn't cut it down, and we released it as it was, and luckily it sort of went, the story went the right way, but it could have gone the other way, you know, we could have disappeared.
Someone asked me [if I'd sung that note] the other day. Yes. It's the very high one at the end of the mock operatic section. I can't get there now - I'd need a pair of pliers. We didn't have synthesisers - it was, it was genuinely sung. We used to be able to get higher, but I think as a natural - your voice does get lower as you get older.
What always happened when we went into recording an album was that we all brought in our ideas and kind of plonk to on the table, and from that some would get thrown out, some would get developed, new ones would come in, and gradually there was a feeling of what kind of atmosphere on the album we were aiming for, and I remember I was beavering away on Prophet's Song and the things that I was trying to write, and Freddie was beavering away working out his piano parts. I remember hearing Bohemian Rhapsody at that time, thinking, “Bloody hell! That's pretty unusual!” There were a lot of passages where something would happen and then there'd be silence and a count and then it would still start up again, so there are long gaps in the recording, and we said, “What goes on there, Freddie?” He said “Oh, that's the operatic bit!” And I do remember a moment when Freddie came along and said, “and I'm gonna call it Bohemian Rhapsody!” And you never knew quite whether Freddie was joking or what, but it turned out to be serious. Some of his ideas turned out to be not serious, but that one stuck. We had some discussion about what the solo would be like and whether there should be a solo, and Freddie was always very amenable to what I would like to do, so having gotten used to hearing them playing it for a while, I kind of knew in my head what I would like so I asked for the chord sequence which was the verse chord sequence. Freddie was actually pretty good on the guitar, and the heavy bit is actually all Freddie's idea. This is not my riff, this is Freddie's riff, the famous head-banging riff.
Freddie said, “I've got this thing.” I immediately thought the melody was beautiful - in the verse, “Mama, just killed a man”, it's a very beautiful melody, and that in itself is enough to sell it to me. As we added the central sections it became more and more outlandish and ridiculous but I always liked the core of the song, and the core of the song is essentially the verses. All the elements were in Freddie's mind. He literally had them all lined up like soldiers in his mind, so it really was all there, and all the harmonies - he wrote that in little blocks at the back of a telephone directory.
We'd normally do things anything up to about a dozen times before they would be ready, and there wouldn't be any repairing. Nowadays you could get into the hard disc and start repairing things but in these days the take was the take and, apart from very few little things, nothing could be done to it, so you use the take. You might hear the odd little glitch on the piano or whatever, but it would stay that way, that's the human way it was. We've now listened to a lot of this in the retrospect, and the quality of the backing tracks that Freddie and Roger and John would put down is just stunning. The precision and the feel, the energy. They were all great musicians and it was a great combination. I think Freddie was an exceptional pianist. He didn't actually rate himself very much, but he had such a unique style, that no-one else could quite do. He didn't have the huge chops of the concert pianist but he would learn things in his own way and play them immaculately with incredible attack and precision. It's almost like he had a metronome inside him, very few piano players that I've met have that ability to do that - a lot of them are very technically great, can do wonderful things, but they haven't got that wonderful sense of drama and the precision, I mean, it has to be said, he's almost like a drummer playing piano. And he played [lowering his wrists] at his own style; there was a lot of force there. It's totally like a metronome - he's not playing to a click or anything, that's just the way he plays. We have three different bass tracks: they're all the same part, but it's recorded three different ways - one is direct from the guitar, the DI; one is direct from the amp, I think; and one is out of the speaker into the room, so you get sort of a little bit of ambience on the bass if you want. So the bass sound is a mixture of all three. That was a favourite technique of Roy's, who wanted to get the most out of the bass. He would also play around with the phase switchers to try and get the most out of the three different signals for the bass, which makes a huge difference, again for different colours. Again, you can hear how locked in they are. I mean, John is completely locked in to Freddie's left hand, which is more or less doing the same thing. The sound of the drums changes in the heavy bit. It starts off quite a tight sound for the verses but, when it gets big and becomes live, the drum sound changes to a live drum sound. So that, and the addition of the extra instruments, really makes a huge colour change, and that's partly why the song goes through all these different moods. Partly, it's the way the music's arranged, but partly it's the sounds as well. Ambience, of course, is the room sound, and if you don't have the room sound in there, everything sounds very small. If you put in loads of room, everything sounds very big and, if you're lucky, it doesn't sound echoey - it shouldn't echo, it should just sound big and like you're in the room with it. We had a big thing about ambience, it has to be said, because we were signed to Trident Studios for our first record, and the Trident Studios drum sound was something legendary, and it was very tight. You could hear it on Carly Simon records, everything was so tight and small, very clear for a certain kind of recording, but it was the absolute antithesis of what we wanted and we had this big argument with Roy, I remember, on one of the first days we were in there, and we said, “No, we don't want this kind of sound; we want the big, roomy drum sound.” We didn't really know how to achieve it - we were just boys, but I remember Roy saying, “Oh, it's alright, we can do it with echo later on.” Well, folks, you can't! It has to sound right on the night or else it's never gonna sound right. So we very quickly - precocious boys that we were - forced everybody into recording the drums the way we wanted, which was in the middle of a big studio with mics everywhere, and not too many mics close to the kit. So, mostly, when you hear Roger's kit, it's not like a mic on this, and mic on that, a mic on that, the way it's very often done even these days - it was really down to a few mics strategically placed at certain distances to get the bigness on the kit. There would be mics on the snare, you could add the close stuff in, but mainly it's an ambient drum sound, that's why it sounds so big - it just needed mixing and there it was! This sort of orchestrating with guitars [near the end] was something that I did as an adornment but totally with Freddie's approval and co-operation. I remember wondering how far I could go in terms of sort of orchestrating it, and also how far I could go towards the end of the song ‘cause it's very big in the middle, this song, and it goes very tiny here. I remember thinking, “Maybe that should be just piano, maybe I shouldn't be doing guitar on it,” but Freddie liked just coming down to a little solo guitar. I think the first thing that we overdubbed was normally the guitar, and there would be a lot of different guitars with different sounds on this. There's a lot of colours quite deliberately - I used all different pick-up settings and different amps even to get different sounds, almost like you were building up orchestral sounds using different instruments. The guitar joins in on Verse 2 and it starts off with little harmonics and it goes “shivers up my spine” and we were very into deliberately doing little colours. There's a little “prrring”, which I managed to make by scratching the strings behind the bridge. There's a little echo of that in mix to make it sort of ethereal. I was always keen that the guitar solo should not be just like playing the tune again, because it's kind of lame, it's kind of weak, so this guitar solo, like a lot of them, is kind of a separate tune, it's a little counter-statement. I don't know where [the melody] came from, but I could hear it in my head from the moments when they were practising, and I thought that would be a nice little counterpoint to what's going on. So, it's a Verse structure, but the tune is completely different. There's three little runs [at the end of the rock section] and they all have completely different sounds, so you get these different colours, different textures coming in the whole time. The last run is double-tracked in octaves to get again a different sound and is followed by the sort of big triumphant piano run-up. So [near the end] you have what is kind of, in my mind - my fevered brow, a trumpet section, and for that I have a special little amp, which John Deacon made, and it's just very good at being overblown and making those kind of trumpet noises, pretty much a fanfare kind of thing, and it's a bell effect because they overlap each other and the notes are held so they add up, and it's a very different sound from the rest of the guitars on the track. It almost sounds like a trumpet when you first hear it, I think. Part of building up the whole orchestra sound in the middle was the percussion, obviously, so Roger's played a whole kit for the backing track, but he's now gonna overdub other stuff, so there's an extra snare and there's some timps, very nicely tuned, and Roger actually did go on to play timps quite a lot - we had timps with us on tour and he used to do a whole timp solo at one time, when we were at our most self-indulgent. I can talk, because I used to do about a fifteen-minute guitar solo. There's [a snare-drum] overdub [in the rock section] for emphasis, and there's a big riff on top of that, the guitar riff. The harmonies at the beginning of this song are not all of us, they're just Freddie multi-tracking himself, and of course he's singing to his guide piano, but the guide piano is taken out in the end because all you want is that a cappella [bit]. He's on his own, that's quite beautiful, I think. Some of these lines [in the operatic section] are kind of strange tunes, and that's what happens when you're doing complicated harmonies. That's not an easy line to sing. These things are quite tricky, ‘cause that's not the kind of tune that you would normally sing. It's moving around little semitones at a time, very tricky! Three of us would sing the line once, double it, do the same thing again, and then probably triple it, so you have three tracks of us all singing the same line, and only then do you move on to the next part. So all these would've been [bounced on a separate track], although some of them would've disappeared because other things got written over them, but they would've been bounced. It sounds like a lot of people singing, and part of it is luck because our voices blended very well - as soon as there was three of us singing, it sounded like quite a lot of people, really, because we were lucky that we had different kinds of voices, the three of us - John opted out, John is not a singer. He took care of the low end. The “let him go” is another section of choir, and Roger is on the top, and there was a particular effect, I don't know if it happened by accident or not, but Roger was sort of carrying on longer and we thought that sounded nice, so the choir sings “let him go,” but the top line - which is just Roger, ‘cause he's got the highest voice, he's the one who can make those top notes really cut - sings longer than anybody else. We're using the ranges of our voices because generally Freddie and I can sing quite low and Roger could sing very high. We can all kind of stay in there up to a point, but there's a certain point where Roger could just make those top notes count, so we're using all the range that we've got. Freddie had this amazing razor sharp top end to his vocals, real crystal sound. He's double-tracked [on the rock section]. In the beginning, I remember it was gonna go [lower] but he changed it towards the end, it went [to a tenor c"], which is a lovely little touch, he takes it way up there. It's not perfectly double-tracked: Freddie could've done that if he wanted to, it's just there's a bit of different expression from track to track, very much like John Lennon used to do with The Beatles. The Beatles were our Bible, it has to be said, in a lot of ways, although we were able to take some things further than The Beatles ‘cause we had better technology and we had the benefit of their experience, but The Beatles just did so many things right, and John Lennon double-tracking stuff would normally make it just a little bit different so you could feel the humanity of the two voices, it wasn't just like an automatic double-track. Freddie was able to double-track himself so precisely that it would actually phase: there's another track on this same album, Love of My Life, where he sings in parts; he sang it three or four times, and they are so close it sounds like one voice but just has extra breadth. In this case it's not - it's a rock ‘n' roll thing, just very, very powerful.
‘His bony fingers would whack it out and the backing tracks, if you listen to them now, are immaculate. Freddie and Roger and John are absolutely together - it's totally live, it's totally real, there's a feel there. I wanted to make a little tune [for the solo] that would be a sort of counterpart to the main melody, I didn't wanna just play the melody. I can remember singing it to Freddie, and him going, “Oh yeah, that will be good.” And I think, certainly, my best stuff is born that way - it's much better for me to hear it in my head and then try and play it, than sit down with the guitar and sort of let the fingers do it. The fingers tend to be a little predictable unless they're being led by the brain.
He just said, “Look, I've got this very strange thing, you're gonna have to be very patient when we do it, ‘cause there'll be a lot of gaps and stuff.” As soon as, really, we'd mapped it out, we all sort of understood what was happening, but it was a bit confusing at first. I remember the first time I heard the melody, the main sort of melody, I loved the melody. Freddie was a great person to be in a band with, really, because he was such a great rhythmic piano player, and it sort of made the backing tracks really easy to do. We would sort of knit it together and it sort of swam well. We were sort of getting off on how far could we take this, and how big could we make those harmonies, and make a wall of sound, we were sort of quite interested in seeing how far you could actually go before it became totally ridiculous or the limits of the technology stopped you.
‘The original mix, when we were doing it manually, it was a case of I was controlling the drums, bass, piano, guitars; then, Freddie had control over the vocals - he would be switching vocals on and off and doing it that way. The piano was actually done live by Freddie as we were doing the track, so when you listen to the piano tracks, you can just about hear some of the drums in the background, because it was all done in one room.
We were all huge Beatles fans. I don't know if A Day in the Life was a conscious influence, but I'm sure there are threads there. At the time, I thought of it as being our Stairway to Heaven, because it goes through so many different atmospheres.
A nasty little number which brings out my evil streak. The words came very easy to me.
The words came very easily… Let's say that song has made its mark. I decided that if I wanted to stress something strongly I might as well go the whole hog and not compromise. I had a tough time trying to get the lyrics across… I wanted to make them as coarse as possible. My throat was bleeding, the whole bit. I was changing lyrics every day trying to get it as vicious as possible. When the others first heard it they were in a state of shock. When I was describing it they went “Oh yeah,” and then they saw the words and they were frightened by it. But for me the step had been taken and I was completely engrossed in it, swimming in it. Wow! I was a demon for a few days. The album needed a strong opening and what better way than to have the first words, “You suck my blood like a leech”? Initially it was going to have the intro and then everything stop and the words, “YOU, SUCK, MY” - but that was going too far.
They are both about the same thing. But Flick of the Wristis more generalised. I was aiming it at the music industry as a whole. Death on Two Legs is definitely more personal. It wasn't dedicated to an individual exactly, but I would rather not say precisely who it was pointed at. You know, a lot of people thought Killer Queen was about Jacquie [sic] Kennedy. It wasn't. The critics invented that.
On the first track off A Night at the Opera, I had a gadget which turned out the “kiss my assssssss…” from Death on Two Legs sound to perfection which was a lot of fun. I've got gadgets to do all sorts of things, and quite a lot of things used on Queen records have never been used before as they are prototypes.
The thing with this is moods. When I write songs I get into… It's a very touchy subject, to be honest.
There's a sense of humour to it, but with Freddie, there was a lot of anger there. Musically, it's great too, the riff is great - of course I didn't invent the riff, this is Freddie's riff, cause it was done on piano first, but it works great on guitar. We were a bit taken aback with how vicious Freddie wanted it to be. I remember thinking “ohh…”, but it was what Freddie wanted, you know, and the kind of unwritten law was that the author of the song got his own way.
The album ends with something completely unexpected, a little virtuoso track by Brian.
The whole thing is done by Brian. It's all Brian's guitar, every bit of it, with cymbals and things. I told you we have nobody else coming in. We don't use synthesisers… Brian can get all those sounds with his guitar.
Those little guitar pieces go back a long way. I had heard Hendrix's thing but his approach is very different, really. The way he did those things was to put down a line and then sort of improvise another line around and the whole thing works on the basis of things going in and out of harmony, more or less, by accident. It's very much a free-form multi-tracking thing, whereas my stuff is totally arranged. I make sure that the whole thing is planned and treated like you would give a score to an orchestra to do. It's a complete orchestration. So, it's a different kind of approach really but I enjoy doing those things.
[Vai] said God Save the Queen was an inspiration for [Liberty].
I'm doing a demo here - I'm doing a backing track on piano as a guide for the guitars. There's not gonna be any piano on the finished work but I'm playing a piano so that I'll keep me in tune and keep me in time, and I'm not a piano player so it becomes very sketchy, but it's giving me what I need, which is the framework, and you can hear me kind of sketching in the idea for the end of the song, even though I haven't quite got it right, so that's the first attempt at my sort of excursion and I think Mike says something here. This was recorded to make an outro for the show, and it's on the same tape, interestingly, as Procession, which I think we were still using as an intro tape in those days, or maybe we'd just stopped, so it's recorded sixteen-track, which is unusual as well, not twenty-four, on an old piece of tape, which Procession was obviously on. I think they all thought I was mad anyway. I mean, they're on a Sunday, and I think there's only Mike in there, and I think Roger dropped in later to do his overdubs with the snares and the timps - which are great, actually - and cymbals and stuff. But, basically, I'm in there doing something which people are going, “What? He's doing the National Anthem?” Long before A Night at the Opera, but it fitted in very well, and it made a fitting end, a fitting conclusion to A Night at the Opera when we later got to that point. The producer here, you can see, is ER, which I presume is a joke - we know who that is, don't we? Loads of snares… some nice swishy cymbals and along with these little fireflies here, some nice timps - Roger doing very tasty timp work. So, built up of loads of little pieces and sounds very big in the end but there's actually not that much on the track. Some of the guitars are done with the AC-30s and some with the little Deacy amp which I described in relation with Good Company. Sounds kind of orchestral, which I like, and became very much part of us because I think every show we did after this point we used this as a goodbye moment.
I layered the Vox guitars [on Flash] with double-tracks using the small Deacy amp, I think ... I often have done this when overdubbing multi-guitar parts (for instance in God Save the Queen). It makes the harmonies richer, and somehow they blend more.
[horn lines] That's four different kind of guitars. I was very keen in those days on recreateing that sort of atmosphere. I mainly got the sound with small amplifiers. I used John Deacon's little amplifier and a volume pedal. For the trombone and trumpet sounds. I would record every note individually: Do it and then drop in. Incredibly painstaking! It took ages and ages. I listened to a lot of traditional jazz music when I was young, so I tried to get the phrasing as it would be if it were played by that instrument.
Written by Brian. A George Formby track with saxophones, trombone and clarinet sounds from his guitar. We don't believe in having any session men, we do everything ourselves.
There's a lot of things that seem light, like Good Company, which actually took a great deal of time and care. All those trumpets and clarinets being fashioned from guitar sounds - I took it quite seriously because I wanted to do it right, even though it was a lighthearted thing. We worked too hard for our own health, we got a bit down and depressed.
I think there's a lot of the Beatles' influence in Queen's music, but there's also a lot of classical influence… I have listened to some of their material and heard Mahler's Choral Symphony deep down in there somewhere. That's one of the beauties and joys of music. The tapestry is laid down for you and then once you have mastered your own instrument you put your own thoughts into the music… that's what so annoys me about the critics in the music papers. I don't know how they manage to write the things that they do. They seem to me to be total morons, although I must say that the critics never worry Brian. Nothing worries Brian. Right from the very beginning of it all, money hasn't interested him at all - he has a total involvement in the music itself. That's always been the only thing that has mattered to him, the music. And, of course, this is something that he grew up with as a child. I was never a professional musician; the only times I've ever played in public were in the school band and in the Air Force during the war when I used to take my ukelele down to the pub - that's the same old ukelele, a genuine “George Formby Uke”, that Brian still plays now when he uses a ukelele on stage with Queen. It's full of beer stains inside from the war days, but Brian still insists that it's got the best sound he's ever heard from a ukelele, although he also uses a little Japanese one which he was presented with there when they were touring Japan. It was on that ukelele that he learned to play and sing his first songs, old George Formby music hall numbers like Cleaning Windows, Leaning on the Lamp-Post, and Chinese Laundry Blues - I taught them all to him. Then he started developing techniques of his own which were remarkably like George Formby's… he also used to play the mouth organ and when he joined the school choir, he used to practise like mad for that. He's always had this interest in anything to do with music; he's taught himself to play tin whistles, the Jew's harp, and when he felt they needed a harp-effect on A Night at the Opera, he went out and bought himself a harp and taught himself to play. He's always had this thing about mastering every instrument… for me the most remarkable thing he's done so far with Queen was that track on A Night at the Opera which he wrote himself, Good Company. Everything we did in making that guitar together can be heard on that track on which he plays ukelele and guitar, and by using a twenty-four-track recorder manages to make his guitar sound like trombones, cellos and piccolos - the whole thing is just him. Anyone who can't appreciate an achievement of that kind must be a musical moron… and to him it is all so satisfying, scientifically.
I can remember the trad-jazz boom, and I was very keen on a group called The Tempered [sic] Seven, who indeed were in fact a revival of the 20's arrangements for a jazz band. That's the kind of thing I was going after on this track.
That's four different kind of guitars. I was very keen in those days on recreating that sort of atmosphere. I mainly got the sound with small amplifiers. I used John Deacon's little amplifier and a volume pedal. For the trombone and trumpet sounds. I would record every note individually: Do it and then drop in. Incredibly painstaking! It took ages and ages. I listened to a lot of traditional jazz music when I was young, so I tried to get the phrasing as it would be if it were played by that instrument.
Yes it's all guitar all those instruments. That was a little fetish of mine. I used to listen to traditional jazz quite a lot, in particular, the twenties revival stuff which wasn't actually traditional jazz but more arranged stuff like The Temperance Seven who were recreating something which was popular in the twenties, sort of dance tunes really. I was very impressed by the way those arrangements were done, you know, the nice smooth sound and those lovely changes between chords. Because they were much more rich in chords than most modern songs are. So many chord changes in a short time, loads of intermingling parts. So I wanted to do one of those things and the song just happened to come out while I was plunking away at the ukelele and the song itself was no trouble to write at all, but actually doing the arrangements for the wind section, as it was supposed to be. There's a guitar-trumpet and a guitar-clarinet and a guitar-trombone and a sort of extra thing, I don't really know what it was supposed to be, on the top. I spent a lot of time doing those and to get the effect of the instruments I was doing one note at a time, with a pedal and building them up. So you can imagine how long it took. We experimented with the mics and various little tiny amplifiers to get just the right sound. So I actually made a study of the kind of thing that those instruments could play so it would sound like those and get the authentic flavour. It was a bit of fun but, it was a serious serious bit of work in that a lot of time went into it.
With Good Company, I indulge a fetish of mine - all the things that sound like other instruments, like trumpets and clarinets, were done with guitar. To get the effect of the instruments I was doing one note at a time with the pedal and building them up, so you can imagine how long it took. There was such a wide variety on those albums.
Prophet's Song is a long prog-rock type 70s song with a march-like feel to it, while Good Company has a ragtime/dixieland vibe. Roger is able to emulate all these styles but still be himself.
John actually used [his amp] himself, multi-tracked, on his song Misfire on Sheer Heart Attack, and it features heavily in much of the more intricate arrangements I did for the Queen albums. Let's see... The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke was all triple-tracked and gated by hand using the old push-push buttons in the now defunct Wessex studios [sic]; God Save the Queen, Dreamers Ball, all those trumpet, trombone and clarinet sounds from Good Company... the solo on A Winter's Tale; I love these sounds - no electronic box can make this noise!
The dixieland jazz band was kind of revived when I was a kid, and there was a wonderful group called the Temperance Seven, who played a mixture of dixieland and very arranged pseudo-twenties music, and I learnt a lot of my arrangement from those guys. So when it came to doing the solo part for Good Company, I wanted it to sound like a jazz band and, of course, I wanted the guitar to be the jazz band. It was very work-intensive - every note was done separately to get the actual proper trumpet sounds and trombone sounds, etc., very painstaking, but a lot of fun because it'd never been done before. I don't think I would do it these days, really, unless there was a very good reason. Just love this stuff - it was wonderful to be able to take the time to do this stuff in the studio, which I'd always dreamed of doing, I guess. That's the great thing about Night at the Opera: we had the time, we were given the opportunity to explore all those avenues rather than be rushing in and out.
It's hard to believe that it is guitar, and that somebody actually created that. Am I a Queen fan? Do I sound like a Queen fan? I don't know - I mean, you know, even if I wasn't a fan, you'd have to go, “What is that? How did that happen? Who was responsible for that?“
The song is just a little story about life ... the meaning ought to be self-explanatory when you listen to the words. It's a little work of fiction. No living resemblance....etc etc ... It was a Ukelele ... PS I honestly can't remember which instrument I used now .... for that particular recording. On stage, I used a Ukelele-Banjo, for sure, but not my Dad's original George Formby one ... it was too delicate to go on tour. For the recording, I remember trying a few options .... the old GF Uke (which has a body like a Banjo .... a frame with a Vellum stretched over it) and a couple of “normal” ukeleles from Hawaii ... which have wooden bodies and look like a miniature Spanish guitar ... The two instruments are more or less identical to play …
On some meanings in the song: No... it is only a joke... I like driving fast cars and racing...
I remember my car at the time, because I think we've got the exhaust on the record, and that was a little Alfa Romeo. But I think it was more about people in general, for instance boy racers. In particular we had a sound guy/roadie at the time called Jonathan Harris, who was so in love with his car, and that inspired that. I think he had a TR4, Triumph TR4.
He's a car fanatic, y'know, and it was the sort of song he'd wanted to do for a long while. Jonathan is the sound engineer and he knows us inside out. He's into cars like nobody else. Roger's into cars as well and just felt that he'd dedicate that one to him.
He claims that he wrote it to dedicate it to our sound mixer, who is car enthusiast. I think it's a little bit of Roger and a little bit of that in it. Nice track. He's got a Range Rover and he's just bought himself a Ferrari, which he's very excited about. At the time, he couldn't have had any of those, he had an old Alfa, I think.
Sometimes I wish that would've been a single in its time. Of course, I made just as much money on it. It was the backside of Bohemian Rhapsody, so I probably made more money that way.
They were great to work with, although like most bands there was an element of internal bickering. I always told them that it was too embarrassing for them to have an argument in front of everyone in the studio. So I would always make a room available for them to go to and argue in private. I think most of their arguments were about who had the B-side - that royalty thing. I remember Roger moping about because he really wanted his song, I'm in Love with My Car, on the B-side of Bohemian Rhapsody. He locked himself in the tape closet at Sarm and said he wouldn't come out until they agreed to put it on!
I remember my car at the time, because I think we've got the exhaust on the record, and that was a little Alfa Romeo. But I think it was more about people in general, for instance boy racers. In particular we had a sound guy/roadie at the time called Johnathan Harris, who was in love with his car, and that inspired that. I think he had a TR-4, Triumph TR-4.
He'll tell you it was written about someone else, you know, but we know the truth, don't we Rog? I mean, Roger was always into fast things - fast cars, etc. It's very tuneful, but of course the vocal is the thing - the vocal is the song, and that's a very memorable piece of writing there.
It was slightly different from your average rock song ‘cause it's basically in 6/8 time, which is basically waltz time. It's a great time signature to play in: it rolls, it has a certain unstoppable rolling quality. I made a sort of rough demo of it, and I remember turning around to Brian, “so, what d'you think of that?” He looked at me and said, “you are joking, aren't you?” I said, “no, Brian, I'm deadly serious - it's about a car and somebody who's in love with it.”
A short track, just one minute six seconds. A very perky spicey number, dear. Brian likes that one.
A very typically, typically English ditty. You can snap your fingers to this one.
That's the way the mood takes me. That's just one aspect of me, and I can really change. I love doing the vaudeville side of things. It's quite a sort of test. I love writing things like that and I'm sure I'm going to do more than that. It's quite a challenge.
The things that we did in the lead vocal off of this is that we needed the megaphone effect... We also ran out of tracks so that when we needed to do guitars we also did those on the vocal tracks.
In those days a lot of the effects that we used were natural effects as opposed to digital, which we use today. He was singing in the studio, it was being fed into the console; the console was then sending it out to a pair of headphones which were in a metal can, and then the microphone was in the metal can recording the voice coming out of the can, and that is what went to tape.
I usually hear stuff like that in my head first and then I try to emulate that on the track. I work it out, generally against the piano. But that one wasn't too difficult. It was done very quickly because I knew what I was going to do. I think that part is just double tracked and that's all. It's all fingerboard pickup into the AC-30 for what I call a spoony sound. It sounds a bit like when those old music-hall guys used to play the spoons. Actually something between that and the guy who used to play the saw with a violin bow, which is a great sound!
[learning the harp] Learning would be too strong a word. I did it chord by chord. Actually, it took longer to tune the thing than to play it. It was a nightmare because every time someone opened the door, the temperature would change and the whole thing would go out. I would hate to have to play a harp onstage. I just figured out how it worked - the pedals and everything - and did it bit by bit.
A lovely little ballad. My classical influence comes into it. Brian is going to attempt to use harp, real life-size harp. I'm going to force him to play ‘til his fingers drop off.
I've become more piano orientated anyway. Ogre Battle was written on a guitar but I've given that up. I'm getting into Love of My Life- and Lily of the Valley-type things. I've always listened to that kind of music.
I suppose I do write a lot of sad songs, but that doesn't mean I feel that way myself. I really enjoy writing those songs but, again, there isn't necessarily any connexion between the music and my life. Love of My Life, for instance, I simply made up. There's nothing personal about it. Am I making sense? What I mean is, writing those sad songs makes me happy. To me, they're fun, so it all fits in. I just happen to like that kind of music.
[Brian]'s always had this interest in anything to do with music; he's taught himself to play tin whistles, the Jew's harp, and when he felt they needed a harp-effect on A Night at the Opera, he went out and bought himself a harp and taught himself to play. He's always had this thing about mastering every instrument…
I don't know Freddie very well but I think he's real clever, musically. I think he knows that too and sometimes it seems as if there is an effort to convince other people about it, which I don't think is necessary. Some of the things Freddie has done have been excellent and others not so good. For instance, Love of My Life and You Take My Breath Away are both in the same mould, but I love Love of My Life and You Take My Breath Away brings me to the point of nausea. To repeat the formula is the wrong thing to do. It would have been much better if Freddie had moved on to something else.
A very pretty song by Freddie.
If you asked me to play some of my older songs on the piano, I couldn't. I forget them, I learnt them for the time. I have to go in a day earlier and try to work out all the chords to my own songs. I forget them very quickly. For example, Love Of My Life is adapted on stage for guitar, but it was written on the piano. I've totally forgotten the original and if you asked me to play that now, I couldn't. Sometimes, I have to go back to the music sheet, and I can't read that well either! I don't need it. I leave that to the others. It's not like Mozart is it? We reach more people this way.
I hate this thing about trying to recreate the albums on stage. We sometimes deliberately change. Look at Love of My Life, for instance, on record I play piano on that but on stage is just Brian playing the guitar and me singing it, because it works on stage better that way. We write for the studio: we write a song and we put things on it so it sounds the best for the record. We don't think about how it's gonna sound onstage, because, I mean, that would be limiting the actual song. You've just gotta give the song what it needs, the full quota, just for the studio, because, I mean, people are gonna hear it that way. And then if we think it needs changing for stage adaptation then you just do that, you just changing for stage. I don't think the actual sort of stage presentation should come into it at the recording stage cause that can ruin a song.
A magical song.
Freddie was able to double-track himself so precisely that it would actually phase: there's another track on this same album, Love of My Life, where he sings in parts; he sang it three or four times, and they are so close it sounds like one voice but just has extra breadth.
Mike's hands were on the faders to balance those cascading vocal harmonies in Bohemian Rhapsody now so well-known all around the world. It was he who lovingly assembled and balanced the amazing multitracked voice of Freddie on Love of My Life, perhaps slightly less well-known, but to my mind one of the greatest examples ever of a mutitracked voice on record.
The harp was quite hard - the hard thing was to get it in tune in the first place!!!! But I just set it up to play one chord at a time - luckily in the studio this is a technique which works - but I could never call myself a harp player !!!!
There's some lovely backing harmonies from Freddie on this. Freddie had the ability to sing multi-tracked so accurately that it would actually phase: one take would phase with another because he would sing it so similarly each time. These beautiful backing harmonies. I just remember him doing it in the studio. He had a wonderful touch on the piano, Freddie; really, he didn't think he did - he was very deprecating about his piano playing and, in later years, really didn't do any of it. He played less and less piano on stage because he wanted to run around and deliver to the audience, which he did so magnificently. He didn't have the classical range but he could play what came from inside him like nobody else, with incredible rhythm, incredible passion and feeling.
We thought a harp would work nicely for Love of My Life - and I had a particular plan to blend it with the Japanese toy koto, which was an integral part of The Prophet's Song, the track preceding it on the album. We got the harp in, and figured out how to make it do its thing, in a fairly elementary way. I'd never touched one before! We spent ages tuning it, and then every time somebody opened the door and the cold air came in, it needed tuning all over again. The same happened when I moved one of the pedals. How people fine-adjust these things for concerts I can't imagine. In the end, I did one chord at a time, stopping the tape machine each time for retuning - which actually worked out quite nicely, because we were able to position the arpeggios all across the stereo - as you can hear in that introduction to Love of My Life on the album.
Seaside Rendezvous has a 1920's feel to it and Roger does a tuba and clarinet on it vocally, if you know what I mean. I'm going to make him tap dance too, I'll have to buy him some Ginger Rogers tap shoes.
It was done by mouth, actually, and using the equalisation controls and the console in the studio, really. It was very silly: Freddie and I one afternoon in a studio in East London sitting down and using sort of coal buckets and things and sort of singing into them and doing sort of trombones and speeded-up muted trumpet sounds, and it was all just built up like that, just by mouth. I think Freddie did the sort of clarinet, the woodwind type of stuff, and I did all the brass stuff. It was all completely fake - and the tap dancing was a thimble on the control desk. Not really graphic equalisation, just very sophisticated tone controls, same kind of thing.
One sweaty afternoon I was with Freddie, just the two of us there, I think. We did a lot of those things: we did the tap dancing with thimbles on the fingers on the metal bit on the top of the desk and I did a little brass section and Fred was doing woodwind with his mouth. It was like experimentation - we were sort of laughing at the same time, but I think turned out rather well. It was meant to be cod, and cod it was!
He could tap a broad range of emotions in his psyche and that did include a little nostalgia, but not nostalgia in the corny looking back sense, but culling some of that emotion and bringing it into the dynamic present, and that's obviously what he did with Seaside Rendezvous.
A heavyish ditty in stupendous ¾.
There's an old song called Sweet Lady, which Brian wrote, on A Night at the Opera, and he was saying, “I want it to go like this,” and he wanted it to do three different things at once and that was a bit hard to understand.
Sweet Lady, musically, came from a riff, and I was fascinated with the idea of a heavy riff in ¾ time rather than 4/4. ¾ is the time of the waltz - traditionally, it's a very gentle sort of form, people used to dance to it and whatever. So, the fact that I could find this riff - which was in ¾ - which seemed to have an urgency and heaviness to it was a fascinating thing for me, and I think in your head you kind of refuse to hear it in ¾, which is why it's still powerful, I think. That's my theory, anyway. And, lyrically, as with a lot of my stuff, it's about relationships and what I saw in my own relationships and the relationships of people around me, which I still really feel is the fundamental building material of our lives. I'm not very good at politics on the ground scale, but I'm intrigued by what happens one to one between people, and I think some of those are the strongest forces in our lives. So that's what the song's about. I won't go into details: I like to paint pictures of things which happen, in sort of an abstract form, in all relationships, and I think that's why a lot of times people relate to it, because they see their own relationship in what we're saying.
[playing slide] The only tuning I've used apart from normal is to take the bottom string down to D, which I've used on "The Prophet's Song", "White Man", and "Fat Bottomed Girls".
Brian has an outrageous mammoth epic track, The Prophet's Song, which is one of our heaviest numbers to date. He's got his guitar extravaganza on it. You see, Brian has acquired a new guitar specially built so he can almost make it speak. It will talk on this track.
A number that's written by Brian from the new album, A Night at the Opera. It took ages to record and it's very tricky.
I like to write like that, leave something for a while and let it mature, and then after a while bring it to the surface and give it an airing. The dream I had was a dream concerning revenge, only in the dream I wasn't able to work out what it was revenge for. It was something like a flood that was going to happen as if things had gone too far and this was the only way that things could start afresh, after being washed away. There were a lot of people trying to make contact with each other, to try and make some sign that they were caring about other people. At the time I felt that maybe the trouble was that people weren't making enough contact with each other. At the end of the day, you've got to try not to take it all too seriously or it can become silly. It's no good pouring your heart out and doing what you think is musically worthwhile if in the end it doesn't make sense in a song. Things can happen like that. You can come up with something that is very personal and with a lot of really good ideas in it, and then you still can find that it doesn't hold together as a song. In a way this is probably to a certain extent why The Prophet's Song took such a long time to finish. I had to make sure that every single bit made sense with the rest.
It's written on an old English sort of basis with a lot of the old English type of music in it on one side but then again it's also a very heavy rock song. Some of the sections in it are among some of the heaviest things we have ever done music-wise. It was the finer points of the song that took such a long time. Brian did a lot of work on it before we got into the studio, but even then when we were in the studio there was a tremendous amount of work still left to do. Throwing out different bits and saying which bits stayed and where. But in the end it worked out all right but it took the most time of all songs to finish.
That's a Brian May track really. It's one of the nicest songs on the album. It really took a long while to record that one. A lot of work has gone into that track, and he practically went insane trying to get it together. We do that completely different on stage. It's one of the things that we wanted to do y'know - the same as I wanted to do the operatic side of things in Bohemian Rhapsody. Brian wanted to try a completely different angle on that track. It's something that he had in mind for a long while and I think it's been very successful.
That was the other epic, I suppose, on that album. Again, something which had been around for a long time and sort of nearly went on the previous album. I think, very often, it's good for a song to develop over a long period, because generally the way we work is one person would write and then you throw it at to the band and if you don't record it for a few months after that then it has time to mature a bit and you perhaps catch it at its best point. I think that happened with The Prophet's Song.
The Prophet's Song had been around for quite a long time, and I finished the lyrics off when we were making this album. I don't know exactly what inspired the words, because I don't pretend to have any supernatural vision of any kind - it was really just my feelings, and I had a dream about some of it, which I put into the song, but that's not my usual inspiration for songwriting. I'm not a very prolific writer, and I can never sit down and write a song - there has to be something there, and usually, I get a couple of lines of lyrics and melody together, and then the rest of it is really working very hard, searching the soul, to see what should be in there, but then some of the stuff I've done without taking it too seriously, I've been more pleased with it in the end.
We had the playback but the album wasn't finished yet. I went back into the studio the night after, to work on the vocal piece in the middle of The Prophet's Song. I worked till about five in the morning then collapsed and went back to my little basement flat - and I was woken in the morning by hearing the very same thing I'd been working on, coming out of my upstairs neighbour's radio. It was like a nightmare. Everett had taken the tape away, and I hadn't known! That was a weird experience.
That actually did come from a dream, which is strange to relate and sounds extremely pseudo-rock-star-ish, but I did have this strange dream and wrote the lyrics around that. I was just coming out of a period where I got very ill, when we were making the previous album. I think it was about that time I had that strange vision and the song got written around that, but there was a lot of collaboration, and also I think I was very fussy and pig-headed about it, and we spent ages and ages trying out. They'll all tell you - I'm a horrible sod to work with! I had this fascination for delays, which would make a sort of canon effect, and use it on guitars - like on Brighton Rock - and I wanted to use it on the voice as well. One time we had Freddie just experimenting for hours, seeing what happened when the thing came back and he sang with it, making harmonies and all sorts of progressions, and somehow, in my mind, that all fitted into what the song was trying to say. There was a lot of stuff which got put in there because I couldn't let the thing go. I remember having reams and reams of paper with little bits scribbled on them, and yards and yards of cassette material, and I didn't want to let any of the little ideas go. I don't think I could be like that in these days because it drives you mad. I had this thing that you had to explore every little corner before you could let it go. It was a bit of a nightmare, to be honest!
We had played a continuous chord - me scraping away full blast on the guitars, Roger hitting as any cymbals as he had in his reach, and then we did a mix of the piece on to quarter inch tape. Then we played it backwards, and I varispeeded the machine at the precise moment downwards to a stop, copying on to another tape. Then we turned the result back around and spliced it (literally, with sticky tape) into the master mix. It was a tricky edit - and of course once you had cut the tape in those days it was hard to re-do it! But we crossed our fingers and it worked first time. As I remember it was in Sarm East studios, in the East End, and Gary Lyons was nominated to do the surgery!!! He did good!!!
Prophet's Song is a long prog-rock type 70s song with a march-like feel to it, while Good Company has a ragtime/dixieland vibe. Roger is able to emulate all these styles but still be himself.
Prophet's Song was built around a different tuning - the bottom strings tuned down to a D - and I became fascinated with what you could do with that. It gives the guitar a lot more depth. It wasn't a very common thing to do in those days - I wouldn't go so far as to say I was the first, I probably wasn't - but it was unusual and it gave the guitar a real sort of doomy kind of growl to it. It's different from tuning the whole guitar down a semitone, which a lot of people do - this is actually the bottom string going down a tone, so most of the guitar is still playable in the normal way, in tune with the piano. Because [the fireplace guitar] has a floating tremolo, as soon as you change the tuning of one string, the whole thing goes a little out of tune, so normally I have to have a separate guitar tuned to this. And the end of each riff was different, which is a little kind of obsession that I had. It was a very Queen thing, though: we liked to never repeat ourselves, even in the context of a song - we weren't one of these groups who would say, “oh, that's a nice chorus, we'll pop it in here and in here again.” There would never be that: you would always hear something different every time the chorus came around and it became a little trademark, I suppose, and something which really keeps you on your toes internally as well. You're always looking for new colours, and the new colours sometimes relate to the words - maybe there's a different point to be made in the next chorus because the song has moved on. Songs, to me, are journeys, and if you find yourself repeating a chorus, then maybe there isn't much of a journey to the song. We were very influenced by Japan, I have to say. Even the riff is kind of Japanese-influenced. The words really came from a dream that I had, and it really was a dream. I woke up with all this strange stuff going ‘round in my head about a prophet who had said various things, and it was very vivid in my head - very often, you forget dreams, but this one I didn't, and I could hear some of the melody in there as well. Very often you get little snippets. I don't know where they come from but you get little snippets of some words and a tune at the same time, so this “oh, oh, people of the earth” was there, going ‘round obsessing in my head. I became very interested in delays and the business of canon, and it stuck with me all the years, really, this business of you play something and it will be repeated and maybe repeated again, and what happens when these different delayed signals. It used to be called canon or a fugue, and I discovered that you could do it with what in those days were fairly new tape delays, and I was just fascinated with what they could do, started messing around on the guitar… so the thought came along, “wouldn't it be nice to apply this to vocals as well?” Somewhere there's some demos - I did some demos. I don't know where they are but we did it in the studio and worked it out - certain things worked and certain things didn't - and then chopped up the demos so we had a continuous demo for Freddie, and then Freddie liked it, so we put Freddie in the studio and he did it live with these delays. Everything's experimentation, and we had this enormous sounding backing track, I remember, and everytime I put a solo on, it seemed to make it smaller. You always have this choice: in stereo you only have from here to here to put everything, so you've got a guitar here and a guitar here - rhythm guitars. You put the solo in the middle, but already you're sort of diffusing that the ear is gonna listen to.
He did put a lot of time into it. He hadn't finished it, it was still in bits but we'd sort of cobbled together a tape to people at a preview and, poor Brian, he went to bed at five o'clock in the morning, having not finished the track, it was all in bits stuck all over the ceiling in the control room. He was woken up by Kenny Everett on the radio, who'd stolen the tape that we'd cobbled together, and was playing it on the radio - the unfinished version that Brian was still working on. He woke up, “is this a nightmare?” He was quite pissed off actually.
This is one of my favourite songs of all time, period. It was partly called People of the Earth originally, and then obviously got changed into Prophet's Song. This was done over so many segments and there's various different things. This was, I would say, totally the brainchild of Brian. The song starts with wind noise which, in actual fact, is not wind at all - it's actually an air conditioner with a phaser on the microphone. You can hear with [the canon] that [Mercury] starts off singing in the centre, and then the first delay comes to the left, then a second delay goes to the right, then he could sing and make three-part harmonies out just by harmonising with himself as he comes back ‘round into his headphones. The delay was done by using two stereo Studer machines, then instead of running the tape from one wheel to the other - the way you normally run a tape machine - we actually ran it from one wheel through and then off the machine and then straight to a different machine and then playing back on a different machine, so the tape would actually be running across the room. So, I can't remember how far away they would spread but I'm sure there was a few chairs and lamps and coat hooks hanging around that we sort of hooked it over so we ended up with the right delay.
A lovely little ditty.
That's John's track. I'm very pleased with that, actually. John has really come into his own. Brian May and myself have mostly written all the songs before, and he's been in the background; he's worked very hard, and his song's very good, isn't it? It's nice. It even adds to the versatility: it's nice that four people can write and they're all strong, cause if John or anyone else wrote a song that we thought was weak, it would never be on the album. So he has had to work really hard on it to keep up the standard.
Freddie didn't like the electric piano, so I took it home and, because I'd never played piano before, I started to learn and basically that's the song that came out when I was learning to play piano.
I refused to play the damn thing [electric piano]. It's tiny and horrible and I don't like them. Why play those things when you've got a lovely superb grand piano?
We tried to remix this at some point a few months ago, actually probably a couple of years ago, and, er, I was thinking oh I can separate out all the guitars. ‘Cos it was all multi-track guitars, but I discovered it was all bounced onto one track so that not much could be done about it.
You're My Best Friend is still one of the most played tracks on American radio. John was always a dark horse: he's the guy who doesn't say very much, up to a certain point - he would go nuts sometimes and say a lot - but, generally, he was the quiet guy, and he would come in and we would say, “have you got anything John?” He'd go, “Oh, I've got this, I don't know, you know, don't know if it's any good, but we could try this.” You know, very self-effacing. It was written on a Fender Rhodes [sic]. John played it – John played his song's keyboards - and John, as far as I know, wrote the song about his lovely lady wife. Further than that, you would have to ask John, and I don't think he's probably in the mood to answer at this point.
Normally, I think, any other band that sang that lyric, people would throw things at them, they'd burn their records live on the radio, but what a beautiful song! It's just the conviction of doing a simple pop song, well-crafted.
With all of us we would have the idea pretty much developed. John didn't sing, so generally he would have to talk Freddie through it, but he would have very clear ideas on what he wanted. For instance, when John brought in You're My Best Friend it was pretty well mapped out; he even played the keyboard on that tune.
Very, very memorable song, very popular in our catalogue. It's also interesting because it's not your normal drum sound. I mean, again it's Deacy pulling in a different direction and Roger has a big, fat, natural drum sound and then Deacy then goes in and he EQs it to death and makes it sound very different - it's all very crunched up and compressed and lots of top wound on the EQ buttons, which is a very untypical Queen sound at the time. It was the second hit off the A Night at the Opera album and not insignificant, although obviously everyone remembers Bohemian Rhapsody - this is still a very loved song, I think particularly in the States, actually.
John on electric piano because Freddie really didn't take to the electric piano at all, he considered it a vastly inferior instrument to the grand piano, which it probably is. But it's particularly useful in particular situations and it was written ‘round that. I remember John being very particular about this backing track from the drum situation. It was a nice big, fat drum sound and a sort of reverse round the drums starting on the lowest tuned drums first and ending on the snare, which is sort of the reverse of the way things are normally done - so quite interesting from that drum aspect.
I wasn't opposed to it. You're My Best Friend was poppy and lightweight, but I could see its commercial potential. You can't always tell, though. I was never opposed to AnotherOne Bites the Dust. I just didn't think it would be a hit.
It’s a science fiction story. It’s the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He’s aged a year and they’ve aged 100 years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story.
A little spacey number by Brian; a skiffle style of number which we've never tried before.
People can't believe it, they can't believe it's us. It's something Brian May wanted to do and it's very, very unlike Queen really. I think it's going to the B side for You're My Best Friend. It's something Brian wanted to do and that's nice.
It's a song about a man who goes away and dreams of coming home, and when he comes home, it's not like how he thought it was going to be.
It's a song about a hundred years.
I think it's really interesting doing those acoustic things, don't you think? I think in the future we might really think about introducing it some more. So Brian's gonna have to go and write some, ‘cause I can't.
It's really nice to do some of the acoustic stuff, because I mean, all the heavy rock and roll is gonna come in the end anyway.
That was the skiffle sort of thing. That's quite close to what a lot of the skiffle stuff was like: strum away at great speed and sing and throw a little lick in there someplace. The lyrics of that tune, though, are a long way away from what skiffle was all about.
'39 was different again, kind of a folky thing, close to skiffle, which probably comes from my Lonnie Donegan days. There was such a wide variety on those albums - Fred doing a really quite slushy ballad, then a heavy rock thing, then something else - and we were willing to try everything because we always wanted to expand our range. It's a science fiction story. It's the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He's aged a year and they've aged a hundred years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story. I think I also had in mind a story of Herman Hesse which is called The River [sic], I think, where a man leaves his hometown and travels a lot, then he comes back and observes it from the other side of the river, and sees it in a completely different light because of his experiences. I felt a little like that about my home at the time, having been away and seen this vastly different world of rock music, which was totally different from the way I was brought up. People may not generally admit it, but I think when most people write songs, there's more than one level to them - they'll be about one thing on the surface, but underneath they're probably trying, maybe unconsciously, to say something about their own life, their own experience - and in nearly all my stuff, there's a personal feeling.
'39 was written about a man who leaves the Earth at a speed near that of light. At such speeds, time would appear to go more slowly for the traveller than for those remaining on Earth. This effect is predicted by Einstein's theory of special relativity. If he goes round in a loop to get back again, Einstein's general relativity has to be used and it's beyond my capabilities to calculate it exactly, but the upshot is that, at certain very high speeds, a year could elapse for the traveller, but a hundred years for his relatives on Earth. So he sees his daughter (or Granddaughter?!) on his return and imagines he sees his wife for a moment. That's the concrete level. But on another level it's about emotional journeys, which is harder to explain, and rather sadder.
It's a science fiction song. It's about a man who goes off space travelling, because he goes around the circle very fast, he suffers a special, a general relativistic effect, which means that when he comes back he's been away a hundred years but he's only a year older, so that's what the song's about, sort of love song set in that context, and 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, mostly.
Hand on my heart, that particular song was a song that I used to busk on the underground when I was about 15, so that meant something to me.
The double bass was a natural thing to try for '39 because I had styled the whole thing on a “traditional” Skiffle song format - the skiffle thing was always originally played with acoustic guitar, “tea-chest” bass, and more often than not, a washboard for percussion!!!. We thought drums would be just fine, Roger easily adapted his style, but double bass gave the atmosphere we were looking for. I remember being amazed really, because I remarked to John that it would be nice if he could do the recording on an upright bass, wondering if I was being silly. Well, a couple of days later there he was with the thing, and the incredible thing was - he picked the technique in no time - he could really play it!! as you can hear.
As usual, I heard the basis of the song in my head before I really knew what it was. It sounded like an old skiffle song - or a folk song, the kind of thing which used to be handed down, across the generations, from the past. But this one was to be set in the future, when perhaps they still will sing folk songs… The story came quickly, as did the melody - sometimes it happens best that way - I was lucky in this instance, because I had my little tape recorder handy, and I had put a rough version down in minutes. Now just had to work on the lyrics properly. (Oh, and record the whole thing, after persuading the rest of the Band it might be worth-while being a Skiffle band for a moment!)
Obviously, you have certain of your own babies, if you wrote the song, and you want them to be heard in a wide area. And if you miss that opportunity, it's kind of gone forever. In my case, there's things like Long Away, '39… which could've been a single, and part of me wishes they had been, because they would've been much more in the public consciousness. Songs become hooked into people's lives in a very wonderful way. You know, you hear a song, and it reminds you of a beach somewhere at a particular time with a particular person. Generally, if the song doesn't become a single, it doesn't have that opportunity to become part of life. I remember waking up with the idea, thinking a lot of people do folk songs with acoustic guitars about sailors that went off on a long trip and nobody ever did anything about a spaceship, spacemen who got off, and the whole story seemed to be very appealing to me, the guy going off to search for new lands in a spaceship, but because of the relativistic, general relativity time dilation effects, he goes to speeds near to light speed, so his perception of time is completely different from the people back home. He comes back after what he thinks is a year but to the people back on Earth it's been a hundred years. The middle part is of course the journey and it goes through very strange chords. It's a tour de force for Roger who does this very high ethereal vocal. It's very much like science fiction movies when we were kids - that's kind of the effect I was looking for.
It was meant to be sort of science-fiction-space-folk.
[Long Away and '39] came from my love of skiffle. I started playing the guitar when I was seven years old, but I wasn't playing lead guitar in those days. I was strumming and singing Lonnie Donegan and Everly Brothers' songs. It still feels like a very natural thing for me to do.
Freddie and Roger joined me singing (in three parts) the first section of each chorus of '39. The resolutions of the choruses are just a few of me ! The highest solo line in the middle section is of course Roger.
I wrote this song about 1976 [sic] in the days when I believed it was a good idea for us to reach out into space and spread our seed, now I've seen what a horrible job we've made of this planet, I'm not quite so sure… The general idea is that if you go for a very long journey into space, and you go at speeds close to the speed of light, very, very strange non-Euclidean things happen, you get heavier, and distances appear to be distorted and, most importantly of all, time is different for you than it is for people at home. So, suppose we as astronauts go off in search of new lands, and we travel very close to the speed of light; by the time we get back, we may feel that we are only a year older, but on planet Earth, it may be that a hundred years has passed, and I fell to thinking what would that be like, it would be like a time traveller, because you would come back, and you wouldn't find any of your loved ones, so that's what I'd like you to be thinking when we're singing this song.