It was thoroughly inspired by a painting by Richard Dadd which is in the Tate Gallery. I thought, I did a lot of research on it and it inspired me to write a song about the painting, depicting what I thought I saw in it. It was just because I'd come through art college and I basically like the artist and I like the painting, so I thought I'd like to write a song about it.
That's one of our first major experiments in stereo, I think.
I have a great affection for that second album, which never really became a world-beater because it was not perhaps as accessible as Bohemian Rhapsody. But if you listen to things like The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke or Father to Son, all the elements that people loved in Bohemian Rhapsody were there.
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!
You can really hear Freddie flexing his muscles [on the second album], with his singing, with his piano playing... in every way, really. And, yes, particularly in The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke. With that and Nevermore there are really strong hints of Bohemian Rhapsody.
With stuff like The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, Freddie was really coming into his own. With this album he had this crazy plan for this vast number of vocal counterpoints - a six-part harmony there, another six-part harmony overlapping. He didn't seem remotely bothered by the fact that there were only four of us to sing all these parts. We were working with a 16-track set-up, so we were constantly thinking about how many tracks we could bounce down without losing quality. It was a massive amount of work. We really were consciously trying to break the boundaries of what people thought they could do in the recording studio. That song was totally Freddie's thing, full of Olde English vocabulary - tatterdemalion, satyrs, pedagogues, ostlers and junketers. Some really astonishing stuff. Quaere is an odd word. I think it was used for purely artistic reasons in that song. But Freddie was seeking flamboyance in everything at that point. He was quite hetero at that time, but he was really becoming interested in transcending everything and that included sex. But, no, I don't think that lyric was about whether he was a puff. I would say it was about using language that went with that painting and being as flamboyant as possible.
[Having 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. I don't remember discussing this with reference to The Fairy Fellers Masterstroke but I think Freddie had a similar thought in mind. This song, based on the Richard Dadd painting, had to have some quite mad elements.... I always loved that track.
Everybody gets so mixed up with all the other sides: the flash, the sexual ambiguity, the showmanship, the voice. It doesn't frustrate me, because I'm just pleased he's remembered. But it's when you delve deeper that you really get his musicality. Actually, at the bottom of it all was just a genius songwriter. We're re-releasing all the Queen albums at the moment, so we're being forced to listen hard to the remastering. And it's just staggering. His words got better quickly. There were some very overt lyrics. Don't Stop Me Now is a good example. He was having a good time, and that was very much a cri de coeur. Some lyrics we wrote together like I'm Going Slightly Mad, which was funny. We had fun coming up with daft things, all those ridiculous phrases. I'd say it was Freddie's actual musicality which was the cleverest thing of all, the notes, and his harmonic structure was quite brilliant. When he wrote The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, on the second album, he was crossing sections of six-part harmonies, and I thought: “Bloody hell, that is tricky stuff.” Then there's The March of the Black Queen, which is almost like prog-rock, and so outrageously complicated that I can't even remember the arrangement myself. When you write songs that complex, you have to work hard at it, and it did invoke a lot of head-scratching. But then he'd come up with Killer Queen or, later on, lots of simple things like Crazy Little Thing. He had it on all sides. Freddie evolved. I always called him “the man who invented himself.” I think the talent was innate, but he dug deep inside himself and forced it out. His determination was quite something.
If you look at [the painting], it's so complex, with many layers, which is what Freddie was trying to turn into sound.
We wanted to test the studio to show ourselves how far we could go. There are a couple of tracks - Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, which isn't the greatest mix, but technically and vocally it's incredibly complex with these massed ranks of harmonies overlapping one another. It was a complex piece of music. The album really came from three years of being forged by hard work of rehearsals, playing together, working together. We all had our various influences, many of which are the same, and with our four personalities that's what came out. Freddie was fairly dominant in his writing at that point. He was the one writing the very complicated stuff. It's just the way his brain worked. He was on fire, really.
We knew what we wanted, it was just a question of getting it. On the second single, Seven Seas Of Rhye, everything deliberately happens in the first 10 seconds – guitars, harmonies, vocals – and it worked. Radio picked up on it. But we went into the rest of Queen II thinking we should throw the kitchen sink at it. We were trying to push everything to its limit, like Freddie's song, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, which could only have been a studio creation.