AT THE BBC
Queen’s BBC sessions have long been the subject of intense speculation among collectors: which tracks are hidden in the Beeb’s archives, and when -- if ever -- will they be released?
It's been eleven years since two of Queen's BBC sessions were released on CD. Four sessions remain in the vaults, but will they ever see the light of day?
Official Queen archivist Greg Brooks finds out.
Between February 1974 and October 1977, Queen recorded six radio sessions for the BBC. The first and third were issued in 1989 on Band Of Joy’s “Queen At The Beeb” LP, but the remaining four sessions have never been released. Inevitably, they have become some of the most talked-about items in the Queen archive. So, what precisely do the remaining 16 recordings comprise, and are they worthy of release? .
The short answer is yes. The lion's share of the unissued material (featuring tracks from "Queen II", "Sheer Heart Attack" and "News Of The World") is significantly different to the familiar versions. It is vibrant and powerful, full of energy, and finds Queen during an inspiring, up-and-coming period.
Although a sequel to "Queen At The Beeb" did look likely to appear for a while back in 1990/91, it was shelved - not least due to the untimely death of Freddie Mercury in November 1991. The BBC material is likely to make its official debut on the forthcoming "Queen Rarities" set - a package currently under development, but which as yet has no definite form of structure.
Following the lavish, comprehensive Freddie Mercury solo box set last year, a similar venture is now underway to gather together Queen rarities and outtakes. A definitive rarities package will only ever be feasible if the content of the band's audio archives is fully known, and now that this issue is being properly addressed (I have been examining the archives since 1998), the BBC AWOLs may at last have a home on which to make their long overdue debut.
By way of re-acquaintance, let's take a trip back a quarter of a century, to those bygone days of black nailpolish, platform heels and Zandra Rhodes capes, to what is for many fans the most exciting period in Queen's history: the early 70s.
Regardless of the fact that the first and third sessions were released as an eight-track album back in December 1989, it is logical to revisit each session in turn.
February 5, 1973
Langham 1 Studio, London
My Fairy King / Keep Yourself Alive / Doin' Alright / Liar
Queen had been playing the live circuit for barely two years by early 1973 (roughly 40 shows) yet, as is clearly evident from this early session, they were quickly becoming an accomplished live act. Though booked for just one session, the response from Radio 1 listeners was such that the band were invited back a further five times. While Queen had signed a publishing deal with Trident, they had not yet secured a record deal, and so this session offered them an ideal opportunity to showcase themselves nationally.
Bernie Andrews produced the session, accompanied by engineer John Etchells (who later engineered the "Live Killers" album). For the most part, the material committed to tape is similar to that which surfaced on Queen's debut album, issued by EMI on July 13th, 1973.
Freddie's timeless "My Fairy King" has an uncomplicated, less polished feel about it, and is generally less fussy than the familiar album cut. The lead and backing vocals are much clearer and Freddie's subtle piano parts are also more defined. An ethereal lead vocal makes the song a memorable recital of this underrated composition.
"Keep Yourself Alive" (which became the band's first single, on July 6th) and the pre-Queen Staffell/May Smile refugee, "Doin' Alright", are reproduced almost note-for-note to the album versions (though the latter features Roger Taylor singing lead vocal on the last verse), and "Liar" contains vocal ad-libs not present on the long-player version.
For much-needed clarification on precisely how this and the other sessions were recorded, I asked Brian May for an explanation. "Essentially the BBC recordings were short cuts," he reveals. "We started off with backing tracks, which were already in progress for the album, and over-dubbed the vocals - a guitar here and there, and other things. So what you are hearing is a mixture of stuff recorded at Trident Studios, and stuff recorded very hurriedly in the BBC studios. Time and facilities were tight, which dictated that we record the sessions in that way. Typically, we would do one or two tracks live, but adopt this compromise for the others."
Queen's inaugural BBC session was broadcast on Radio 1, ten days after recording, on John Peel's evening show as part of the Sounds Of The Seventies series.
July 25, 1973
Langham 1 Studio, London
See What A Fool I've Been / Liar / Son And Daughter / Keep Yourself Alive
As with their first session, Queen recorded songs with which they are most comfortable - material featuring in their live set of the day. This time the session was produced by Jeff Griffin and engineered by Chris Lycett and John Etchells. The tracks were transmitted on August 13th on the Alan Black show.
Curiously, the band recorded further versions of "Liar" and "Keep Yourself Alive", as they did in February (which mirror the album versions closely, save for the odd Freddie ad-lib and an additional guitar part) plus a fresh, word-perfect rendering of "Son And Daughter" (minus the 'shovel shit' line, so as not to offend BBC listeners, and including Roger's "Steel yourself, this is valid" interjection). This take features a significant departure from the familiar version two-thirds of the way through, making this an attractive off-kilter alternative.
Sadly, Brian's sublime "The Night Comes Down" and Freddie's starkly contrasting "Jesus" were both overlooked, and were, as it turned out, the only tracks on the debut album not represented in BBC sessions (the lyrics to "Seven Seas Of Rhye" had yet to be written at this point, and were only finished in time for "Queen II").
Although "See What A Fool I've Been" was not included on the album, and only appeared as flipside to "Seven Seas of Rhye" (Queen's first charting single), like all three other tracks, it did feature in the live set of the time and so was a logical choice for this session. This session version features Freddie's 'proper', more sober vocal delivery, in contrast to the tongue-in-cheek alternative which featured as the B-side to "Seven Seas".
"See What A Fool" is something of an enigma - according to Smile vocalist Tim Staffell, the song was an old blues number he first heard on a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee album. Brian came up with a new arrangement, based on the piece, rather than a completely original song.
Brian says: "This song has remained a mystery to me over the years, too. It is based on an old blues number. When I tried to find out the original writer at the time, and again a few years later, I drew a blank. My recollection is that I heard it on a TV show performed, I think, by Muddy Waters. For the Queen session, I just remembered what I could and made up the rest, especially most of the words."
December 3, 1973
Langham 1 Studio, London
Ogre Battle / Great King Rat / Modern Times Rock'n'Roll / Son And Daughter
For this session, Bernie Andrews was the producer and Mike Franks and Nick Griffiths were the engineers. Like all the sessions (except the last one), it was broadcast as part of the Radio 1 series, Sounds Of The Seventies, three days after the recording date on John Peel's programme.
While "Great King Rat" and Roger's "Modern Times Rock'n'Roll" shadow the familiar recordings, the latter's rather startling "It's not that I'm bright, just happy-go-lucky" line in the mid-section (not present on the mother album cut, and inspired by Mott The Hoople's Ariel Bender - Queen supported the Hoople on their November 1973 tour) adds a novelty appeal to an intriguing, youthful vocal. According to Brian, Bender used this expression regularly during this period.
Meanwhile, the drama of a further take of Brian's "Son And Daughter" (a song 20 years ahead of its time) and Freddie's "Ogre Battle" tale from "Queen II", are retained in impressive fashion. The original BBC recording contains a lengthy intro section not featured on the 1989 Band Of Joy CD version. Evidently it was not possible to include the so-called 'Forgotten Intro' due to the original BBC recording having been damaged.
This session is as per the second half of the 1989 "Queen At The Beeb" CD - a must-have purchase if early Queen is your favourite era.
April 3, 1974
Langham 1 Studio, London
Modern Times Rock'n'Roll / March Of The Black Queen / Nevermore / White Queen
Precisely four months after their last visit, the band returned once more to Langham 1 to record their fourth and final session at this venue for the BBC. The session was transmitted on the Bob Harris show on April 15th.
While the session prior to this saw the band record a version of "Modern Times Rock'n'Roll" virtually identical to the LP cut, the pace was significantly slower, demonstrating that this time, they had decided not to rely upon the existing debut LP backing track. The majestic "White Queen" emerges as the definite stand-out piece from this session, featuring some sublimely subtle piano and guitar extras from Freddie and Brian respectively.
"Nevermore" is delivered with all the dignity and grace of the album cut, but with the dryer feel to Freddie's vocal. Lovely cymbal subtleties from Roger shine out from this recording, not least because there are no backing vocals or harmonies to mask them - until the very last section at least, at which point the song takes on startling embellishments. Backing vocals, drums, bass and lead guitar move in to bring the proceedings to a halt with real style - a truly uplifting recital.
"March Of The Black Queen", as you might expect, is the other showpiece track from this session. Penned by Freddie, the version found on the album encompasses everything within the extensive Queen repertoire, and then some. Although Freddie deviates little from the familiar lyrics, he offers the odd ad-lib by way of extra interest. In essence, this recording of "Black Queen" sounds more like a remix of the original version, rather than a new session take.
October 16, 1974
Maida Vale Studio 4, London
Stone Cold Crazy / Now I'm Here / Flick Of The Wrist / Tenement Funster
In a change of location, Queen booked into Maida Vale Studios to record their penultimate BBC session. As the previous month had seen the conclusion of the recording sessions for "Sheer Heart Attack" album, the band revisited four tracks from that work.
While the manic "Stone Cold Crazy" is only marginally different to the album version, Roger's vocal on "Tenement Funster" is more aggressive; though Freddie's delivery of "Now I'm Here" is less dynamic. The last-named's drum and bass guitar parts remain faithful to the standard version for the most part, though new guitar parts from Brian (which would later crop up in live shows) inject a welcomed element.
"Tenement Funster" here, though musically identical to the "SHA" cut, is further evidence, if any were needed that Roger's voice sounds harsher than usual, perhaps hinting at the throat problems which were to dog him throughout the 70s and 80s. The session was broadcast on November 4th, 1974, again on the Bob Harris show.
October 28, 1977
Maida Vale Studio 4, London
Spread Your Wings / It's Late / My Melancholy Blues / We Will Rock You
After a break of some three years, Queen returned to Maida to record their final session for the BBC. This time four tracks from the recently completed "News Of The World" LP were reworked. The album received its UK release also on this day on October 28th, 1977 - the BBC airing provided additional publicity.
The session was produced by Jeff Griffin and engineered by Mike Robinson, and was broadcast two weeks later, on November 14th. The recordings provide an enthralling listening experience: John Deacon's "Spread Your Wings" is bursting with energy with Freddie obviously revelling in singing this expansive song. This recording is very similar to the "Live Killers" version of two years later.
An unusual aspect of Session 6 is the inclusion of a narrative passage which precedes "We Will Rock You". Immediately after an explosion, and just prior to the opening chords, a female voice cuts in briefly with an extract of a reading from Siddartha, by Herman Hesse. How did this come about? At that time, only master tapes survived from BBC sessions, while the actual tapes used to compose them were recorded over later.
When Queen assembled in the control room for a playback, they discovered remnants of a Radio 4 programme on their tape. The band incorporated a segment of this unusual material into their own work. The broadcast version began in "News Of The World" fashion, then breaks for the Siddartha interlude.
"It's Late" contains a unique improvised section absent from the album version. There are many similarities with "Get Down Make Love" (from the same album) which is largely due to a custom-made tape delay machine which the band took with them into the studio. Since no commercially available device existed to supply the desired length of delay, the band had to come up with their own.
"My Melancholy Blues", from this session, is just stunning. Brian accompanies Freddie on guitar, which does not occur on the LP cut, and the result is superior to the album mix - and that's saying something!
PRECIOUS AND RARE
For the last word on Queen's BBC material, we turn to the small number of rarities which emerged between 1989 and 1995.
Due to its parochial title, "Queen At The Beeb" was retitled "Queen At The BBC" for release in North America. To add to the collectability factor, Hollywood Records also repackaged the disc for the US version and, it seems, remixed it. Play the two discs back-to-back and the differences in stereo output are proof enough that the two discs are not identical.
Unlikely as it seems, in November 1996 three tracks from the BBC sessions appeared on a single; "My Fairy King", "Doin' Alright" and "Liar" (all from Session 1) featured on the "Let Me Live" second CD single (Parlophone CDQUEEN 25).
Lastly, Hollywood Records' strictly-limited "At The BBC" 12" prop motional picture discs are extremely thin on the ground, and therefore well worth the search.
Producers Jeff Griffin and Bernie Andrews recall Queen's legendary 1970s BBC sessions.
As far as I remember, the first person who really brought Queen to our attention was a guy called Ronnie Beck, a plugger and promotions man at music publishers Feldman Music. Feldman were tied up at that time with the studios where Queen were recording.
Queen were booked in between 7.30 and 11.00 in the evening. In those days, the only time that we had was a three-and-a-half hour session in the evening - to record all the material. In fact, earlier that afternoon, before Queen came in, between 2.30 and 6 pm I had done a session with a band called Ducks Deluxe (pub-rockers signed to RCA - 70s Ed).
The first session with Queen went very well. They seemed to be a great bunch of guys to work with; very talented, very good players. They got down to the job quickly and we recorded four tracks. I remember thinking that they were really, really good, and very professional.
Of the two engineers, one was a guy called Chris Lycett and the other was called John Etchells. This is interesting because John left the BBC in about 1977/78 and went on to run Superbear Studios in the south of France. I know that Queen recorded one of their albums there ("Jazz", 1978), and also, as a result of that, John worked with them on some live stuff ("Live Killers", 1979).
The next time I worked with Queen was just a couple of months later, because my other main programme at that time was In Concert, which I started for Radio 1 right back at the beginning of 1970. The pilot programme for that had been with Led Zeppelin, in 1969. I called it In Concert, but it was then called John Peel's In Concert - or as he used to call it, The Sunday Repeated On Wednesday Show. By 1973, John was no longer compering it, and I used Bob Harris and later on, Pete Drumond and Mike Harding.
On 13th September 1973, up a Golders Green Hippodrome, we recorded Queen's first live-ish concert session, compered by Alan Black. They didn't do the whole hour, I had Peter Skellen as the support. I must admit now, that it seems a bit of a bizarre combination. Queen were good on that. Freddie showed some signs of nervousness - not altogether surprising because I don't think at that stage they had done a great deal of live work. I stand to be corrected on that. My main memory was that he tended to over-pitch rather a bit, which is sign of getting a bit over excited - especially when you put a bit of power into your voice. That's obviously something that improved no end with more live work.
I next worked with Queen on the Christmas Eve concert of 1975. By that time I had started to do Christmas Eve simulcasts for BBC2 with my colleague Mike Appleton, who was also producing the Whistle Test. That show went marvellously well.
By that time the band were well in form, and there was no problem with Freddie's voice or pitch, or anything else. As well as being broadcast live as a simulcast on Christmas Eve 1975 on Radio 1 and BBC2 TV, I put part of it out in sound only on Radio 1 on 28th February 1976.
I didn't work with Queen again until 1977, and that was in quite bizarre circumstances. I met Brian and Roger in a club somewhere and Brian said, "We'd like to come in and do a session again at Radio 1." I nearly fell off my stool, because they were so big by this time, and it was very unusual then for any of the big groups to want to come in once they'd established themselves. When I spoke to producer John Walters about it the following day, I said "Look, I can't think that you'd want this" - this was in the middle of the punk thing, remember - "but Queen have said that they'd love to do a session for Peely". Surprisingly, Peely was quite up for it. I think he was so chuffed that Queen were prepared to do it at that stage at their career and it would be such a contrast to anything else they would be doing, that we said OK.
So on 28th October 1977, they came in and did a session, from 2.30 in the afternoon right through until 2 o'clock the following morning. I should point out that we were still only recording on 8-track machines at that time, and I did make it very clear to Brian. When he came in I said, "I don't want this to get out of hand because given 8 tracks, 16 tracks or 32 tracks, or probably 48 tracks, you'd probably use every bloody one to overdub your guitars, and that's not what this is about. I know we've got a bit more time and slightly more sophisticated equipment than we used to have, but we still have to be disciplined about this because we want to get the four tracks done and out and mixed by the end of session." He said "Yeah, OK, no problem. I'd like to do a few overdubs, but nothing out of hand". And that's what we stuck to.
"My Melancholy Blues", as far as I remember, was actually mostly Freddie and the piano, with some guitar from Brian. And then there was "We Will Rock You". Now that was fun, particularly fun for me and my engineer Mark Robinson, because the band said, "Look, we need as many voices on this as possible, so we want you two to come in and sing in the studio". Mike and I were a bit reluctant at first, not that we minded singing - I sing in a choir and Mike sings old Irish songs - but it's not quite the same as going in a studio. "No, we just need you on the chorus," they said.
It was a great session, and certainly the two Johns were very pleased with it when they heard it and when it went out. I think it caused quite a bit of a stir at the time because people were a bit surprised that it would be going out on the John Peel Show among all the other things.
I first heard of Queen through a guy called Ronnie Beck - a very well-respected promotion guy who I had known for a long time. I arranged to see him and he said, "I want to play you a tape". We went into this room in Aeolian Hall and he got this reel-to-reel out. He said "Well, what do you think of this?" and I said "They're bloody great, I love it. What are they called?", and he said "They're called Queen", and I just fell about laughing. I said "You can't call them Queen!" I said "They're great, but you can't put a band called bloody Queen in the Radio Times!" He said "Well, that's what they're called." So, anyway I booked them and they went down in the Radio Times as Queen. It was funny, in a couple of weeks the name was completely accepted.
Queen were just one of dozens of groups that I was working with in the early 70s, but I can remember the first session and being introduced to them, and thinking that they were obviously bloody good. After about an hour at Langham 1 studio, I went in to discuss some things, mainly with Freddie, about what numbers they were going to do, and I noticed that he was really picky about everything, and that everything had to be really as he wanted it. He was very particular and fussy.
Quite often in those days, going into the BBC like that would have been quite frowned upon in a band. A lot of producers would have thought, "We tell you what it's like, we don't want your opinion". The fact that Freddie was really particular and expected to work to high standards, was something I really respected him for.
Freddie was always a bit volatile, but he was an artiste. I got on with him OK. Even if he was a bit moody it didn't worry me because I expected artists like that to be a little bit temperamental. He was never any bother. I never had any problem working with him at all. Queen were great to work with.
Yes, there were a few clashes among the band, but you'd expect it. Any band that didn't have internal clashes were normally, quite frankly, a bunch of wankers.
|Queen At The Beeb Discography|
Band Of Joy
QUEEN AT THE BEEB (UK, also cassette, 12/89, No.67) ....................................................................
Band of Joy
QUEEN AT THE BEEB (UK, 12/89) .....................
QUEEN AT THE BEEB (Japan, 1994) ...................
QUEEN AT THE BEEB (USA, 3/95) ......................
Hollywood HOLSPRO 62005
Hollywood HOHR 62005-2
| QUEEN AT THE BEEB (12",
picture disc, 2/95) ..
QUEEN AT THE BEEB (CD, 2/95) .......................
With thanks to Brian May and Jim Beach. Illustrations from the private collections of Barbara Byng and Greg Brooks. Many thanks to Jeff Friffina nd Bernie Andrews for photographs; also thanks to Jonas Crabtree at the Radio Times for research and permission to reproduce original RT pages.