A very good song.
For the record, as far as I remember, I played piano on: Doin' All Right, Father to Son, Now I'm Here, Dear Friends, Teo Toriatte, All Dead All Dead. Notably NOT on Sail Away Sweet Sister - I got Freddie to learn it and play it with Roger and John for the backing track - I wanted his marvellous rhythm and percussive feel on piano - but yes on Save Me, Las Palabras de Amor, Flash and The Hero (plus organ on the Wedding). But from here on in we began using synthesisers and there were many excursions from us all into keyboard territory… The only pure piece of piano from this era from me is Forever - which was a doodle done live in the studio which I rescued for a bonus track later on.
There was an upright piano in the lounge, and they would sit together and sing along. I remember the band writing songs but not really practicing there as such. Songwriting involved sitting around knocking ideas about, trying out different tunes and words. That's how I got the piece of paper with the original lyrics to Doing Alright on it. I wrote in my diary Roger and Brian had been running through it, and Tim had also been scribbling some of the words.
This is a number about a dirty old man. This is a number from our first album, Queen I.
There is some very cool - and very quick - drumming on this track, and some really interesting beats.
That's from the first album. We've forgotten that.
[processing the rhythm strums] That was real tape phasing. This was in the days when you took the tape off the synch head, put it though a couple of other tape delays, and then brought it back with the play head. There is no processing whatsover on the solo in that tune, as far as I remember. I used John Deacons's small amplifier and the Vox AC-30 to do those little three-part chorus thing behind, as well as the fingerboard pickup on the guitar. There is a bit more tape phasing on the end of that track.
In the early days there was a lot… well, the first album was a way of getting things out of our system. There were so many ideas we wanted to do. At that time we were a working band and we'd done a lot of stage shows, we just wanted to put down the kind of songs that people associated with our live shows, so Keep Yourself Alive was a very good way of telling people what Queen was about in those days.
It'd been around for quite a while as well. Keep Yourself Alive had a sort of hard-rock backing with harmony overlay which we'd always wanted to do - we felt nobody'd done that before. It had recognisable guitar harmonies…
The first recording of it ever was in De Lane Lea when we did it ourselves and I've still got that recording and I think it's very good and has something which the single never had. But they pressurised us very strongly to redo all the tracks and we redid Keep Yourself Alive with Roy and it was pretty awful, actually. I thought it was terrible and I was very unhappy about it and I thought the De Lane Lea one was better and I eventually managed to persuade Roy that it was better as well. So, we went back in and did it again in a way that was a bit more true to the original. But there is no way that you can ever really repeat something. I have this great belief that the magic of the moment can never be recaptured and, although we ended up with something that was technically in the playing and perhaps even in the recording a bit better than the De Lane Lea thing. I still think that the De Lane Lea one had that certain sort of magic, so I was never really happy. As it turned out no one else was ever really happy either and we kept remixing it. We thought that it's the mix that's wrong, we kept remixing and there must have been, at least, seven or eight different mixes by different groups of people. Eventually we went in and did a mix with Mike Stone, our engineer, and that's the one that we were in the end happiest with. That's the one we put out. But, to my mind Keep Yourself Alive was never really satisfactory. Never had that magic that it should have had.
I often get asked how I came to layer all those guitar parts on the Keep Yourself Alive solo. The answer is that, like Pinocchio's nose, it just grew and grew and grew. Here's the full story: Before Queen had a record contract, we did a demo of Keep Yourself Alive (in fact, it's still my favourite version of the song). This was the first time I had an opportunity to play a three-part harmony solo, so I did it with relish. I employed my favourite pickup combination (the one I use about 85 per cent of the time) - the bridge pickup in conjunction with the centre one, in phase - to get that rich, saturated distortion. And even though the solo was largely instinctive (not written out beforehand), it worked out well. The solo sounded so good that I thought I'd simply play it again when we got to do the final, real version of the song. Well, you know how when you try to reproduce something, it's never quite the same? That's exactly what happened when it was time to do our first album. I was agonizing throughout the recording, constantly thinking I wasn't getting the solo right. I was never quite satisfied with it. And then I realized that the solo should have something different in it, by definition of the song being a newer version. That led me to think that maybe I should take the original solo even a stage further and start adding more harmonies, but with a twist. On a lark, I slowed the tape down to half speed, and proceeded to layer more parts - little snatches - throughout the solo (and elsewhere in the song). When those parts were played back at normal speed, they added a top-end sparkle and provided a nice counterpoint to the main three-part solo. There's nothing quite like analogue tape manipulation. The beauty of that old analogue recording gear was that you could do so much with it. Besides slowing the tape down, you could turn the tape over (which was also something we did a lot) and do backwards guitar parts. You could lean on the tape machine and get a “wowing” sound - a specific type or phasing. Of course, with the digital stuff that's out now (which I have been using for a while), you can't do that - you have to specifically dial in the effect you want. It's fast, clean and efficient, but I miss the flexibility and the “you never know what to expect” quality that analog gear provided.
[to have overlapping lines] was an idea I had for Keep Yourself Alive .... to creat [sic] a bit of extra urgency - though maybe I was compensating for the fact that I often write songs that are impossible to sing !! There is actually no room to take a breath when you sing this song ! I remember resisting the thought (from someone close to us) that the successive lines of vocal should be ping-ponging across the stereo .... that would have ruined it for me .... all these lines had to come up in the centre like a stream of bullets. Everything ELSE pinged-ponged around them !!! That's what I wanted.
It's amazing what memories come back to you, like the moment when Freddie and I sat down with Mike Stone and got the mix of Keep Yourself Alive right. I think Roger and I should write a book before our brains completely fry!
l wasn't very sure that I was a songwriter, you know, I just sort of had this idea. Strangely enough, the lyrics of Keep Yourself Alive are meant to be a comment, they're meant to be slightly ironical. But I learnt very early on through this song that it's very difficult to be ironical in a song ‘cause people take it at face value. And, basically, people always did think that Keep Yourself Alive was just a jolly song about how great it is to be alive, but it's actually more about asking the question “is there more to life than this?” in a sense.
I think of Keep Yourself Alive as the first proper Queen song. Unfortunately, apart from a few places like Japan, it didn't get much airplay. We were told, “It takes too long to happen, boys. It's more than half a minute before you get to the first vocal.” So when we made the second album, we thought, “Right, we'll show them…”
A number that's done a lot for us.
That's done us proud, especially in England. It's been a very, very strong live track. And I think it sounds good. It's opened up a lot of new areas.
That was something which came together in bits and pieces and we used to play it on stage. Gradually, it got expanded and more things crept in and things got thrown out, and it was one of those songs which just gradually took shape. That is the form which the song had arrived at when we made the first album. If we hadn't made that album at that time songs like Liar would've just gone on changing and evolving and probably past their peak.
Freddie has become more interested in the piano, and writing more and more piano-based songs. Some old songs like Liar were written on guitar and are heavier.
Liar is probably the first song we ever played together.
Freddie was the driving force for getting us back together [after Smile]. He told us we could do it, and said he didn't want to play useless gigs where no-one listened, and that we would have to rehearse and get a stage act together. He was very keen for it to be an actual act, and we started again, taking a couple of songs from Smile and a couple of songs from groups he'd been in, like a band called Wreckage from which we stole bits than went into Liar and a couple of other songs, and we set about it in a serious manner.
Brian did apologise magnanimously to me for nicking a riff of mine which ended up in the Queen song Liar.
This is written by Roger, and I think it was done in about ten minutes flat in the studio at the time. It was done very much in a hurry, as everything was in those days.
Modern Times… was a bit of a thrash... I always thought Tenement Funster, which I wrote for Sheer Heart Attack, was better.
Quite a lot of the songs on that first album were songs that we had had for a long while, and songs that we just used to play together, songs like Keep Yourself Alive, Liar, Great King Rat, and other numbers. They're songs that we just used to play, and we just went in and recorded them. And there were one or two numbers on that first album which were more sort of that first sort of sign of getting interested in doing things in the studio. My Fairy King was a number Freddie wrote… which we only wrote, when we were in the studio and it was built up in the studio. Whereas, you know, as I said, there's other numbers where essentially live songs, basically just the track and then just a few backing vocals and guitar solos over the top and that was it. We always find quite an interest on the recording side because of what we have on our records. There's a lot of stuff on our records, you know. Especially when you get the headphones on, you can actually, you know, I suppose our thing is fairly modern in a way, because we do use the studio a lot. I suppose it sounds more modern in a way because of all the various multi-tracking we do. That wasn't done five years ago because the facilities weren't around. When we recorded our first album, 16-track machines were the thing, and we just used the facilities that they could do, whereas a few years previous it was only 8-tracks and 4-tracks and people were very limited to what they could do. It was more like playing music live, they would go in and they would play the music as they performed it onstage, and that would be it. But now working in the studio is an art in itself, because you can come up with sounds that you could never reproduce onstage.
I think that was the first step in that direction, the first time we'd really seen Freddie working at his full capacity. He's virtually a self-taught pianist, and he was making vast strides at the time, although we didn't have a piano on stage at that point, because it would have been impossible to fix up, and we didn't want an organ sound. So in the studio was the first chance Freddie had to do his piano things, and we actually got that sound of the piano and guitar working for the first time, which was very exciting. And My Fairy King was the first of those sort of epics where there were loads of voice overdubs and harmonies and a quite complicated structure, which Freddie got into, and that led to The March of the Black Queen on the second album, which is very much in that idiom, and then Bohemian Rhapsody later on.
Freddie had a song called My Fairy King very early on, this is the second album [sic].
I don't remember any songs that we worked on not making it. I do remember a song that was not ready for performance by the time I left, My Fairy King.
Fairy King was just the germ of an idea of Freddie's. Back then I had no idea that Freddie played any instrument.
I had an idea of what I wanted to do with the number, I had the basic tune worked out, but by the time we were ready to come out with the first album the song just hadn't come to fruition. So then we thought we might end the album with the instrumental and pick it up again at the beginning of Queen II. But there again, the concept just didn't work. It made no sense in the context of the album to have Seven Seas of Rhye at the beginning.
I think Freddie had half-written the song and we thought it was a nice tail out to the first album, with the idea of starting the second album with the finished song. We'd lead in nicely. In fact, we ended the second album with this song and it had changed a little by then and we'd released it as a single because we thought it was fairly strong.
Its roots go back a long way because there's a little fragment of it on the very first album, the first Queen album, Freddie had this idea in his head but it wasn't really developed so we just put down what we had at the end of that album.
[The intro] is an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar playing mostly in unison with the guitar. It is the first track the band really created in the studio.
I liked Dave Dilloway's acoustic, because I could make it “buzz” nicely. It appeared on Jealousy and The Night Comes Down sounding a lot like a sitar.
I don't think many people have figured out that I do this “pre-bending” thing ... and I'm not aware of anyone doing it ... with the possible exception of Jeff Beck ... but he tends to achieve the same kind of thing but mainly with the whammy bar ... his Where Were You? must be the most incredibly piece of electric guitar recorded, ever. But as for me ... well, I also have to tell you I don't always get it right. It depends on a lot of things. As with any playing, but especially string bending, if you can't hear clearly what you are doing, you are sunk. So good monitoring is a vital requirement. We are fortunate in having a superb Monitor engineer, but of course there are still times when the acoustics of a hall or arena conspire to blur things, enough to make judgement of bends difficult. Secondly, it depends on knowing your instrument very well ... mine has been with me so long, that it is almost a part of me. I always use the same strings, and the guitar always gives me what I ask of it. So the “memory”, of how far a given bend will need to go to produce a bent note of a certain pitch, is at least partly in the muscles of the fingers. Its [sic] also, I think, updated by the few bends which you have just played, with “bio-feedback” allowing you to correct the pitch as you go along. But in the end, I think it has to be quite largely instinct. On a good day, everything is sweet and it's impossible to go wrong. On a bad day when you're not hearing stuff well, I find you can come off feeling that almost nothing was quite right!!! SO, like most things, you prepare, you plan, you think, you do everything to give yourself the best chance, but in the end, it's “In the Lap of the Gods” - and it helps to realise this .... “admitting powerlessness” is a powerful technique at the very least, and can become a whole way of life. I subscribe to that belief - and try to act on it when I can. By the way, thinking about it, my “pre-bends” go back a long way .... there are some (mutitracked!) on The Night Comes Down on the first Queen album ... and White Queen on Queen II ... and they are an essential part of the solo in Killer Queen. But Last Horizon has the hardest ones to pull off live!!
Dave [Dilloway] is sadly long gone now, but I have his acoustic guitar thanks to his kindness - the one I used on “The Night Comes Down” and “Jealousy” among others.