41 Years Ago: Queen Painstakingly Construct a Cult Classic in ‘Queen II’
Many young bands have to scramble to come up with new material for that all-important second album. Queen, on the other hand, were raring to release their sophomore LP well before their label was ready.
Starting out in the unusual position of having a management deal that allowed them access to the state-of-the-art Trident Studios before they’d found label distribution, Queen wrapped the sessions for their self-titled debut months before the album actually had a home — and they were back at Trident a month after Queen finally arrived in stores in July of 1973.
It had to be frustrating for the band members at the time, but as a result, they were able to bring more focus — and, ultimately, a lot more ambition — to bear on the songs that made up Queen II. With a month to play at Trident and a safe bit of distance to consider the reasons why Queen hadn’t torn up the charts quite the way they’d wanted, the group broadened the scope of its sound while sharpening its songwriting hooks.
The end result was an 11-song set, divided into a “White Side” (mostly written by guitarist Brian May) and a “Black Side” (composed by Freddie Mercury) with punchy pop melodies to complement the thickly layered arrangements recorded with co-producers Roy Thomas Baker and Robin Geoffrey Cable.
But if Queen’s sound was evolving in the arena-ready direction that would eventually help make them one of the biggest bands on the planet, their lyrics were still fairly quirky and esoteric, with songs like “Ogre Battle” and “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” adding literary depth and fantasy sparkle to the music’s heavy riffs.
Initially, critics didn’t take too kindly to Queen’s new sound. Although the British press had been mostly kind to the band’s first album, they afforded a cooler reception to Queen II when it was released on March 8, 1974. But just as positive reviews hadn’t done much to help sales the first time around, negative write-ups didn’t hurt when things started to take off for Queen later in 1974. In fact, the only thing that really slowed them down was May’s health: Stricken with hepatitis, he had to bow out 41 shows into the Queen II tour.
But by this point, Queen were off and running, and not even leaving the road so their ailing guitarist could go on the mend was enough to stop the band. They were back in the studio by the summer — and back in stores on Nov. 8, 1974, with Sheer Heart Attack, the first of many smash LPs.
While Queen II didn’t reach the same commercial heights as subsequent efforts, it’s become something of a cult favorite for many fans. “We took so much trouble over that album, possibly too much, but when we finished we felt really proud,” drummer Roger Taylor later said of ‘Queen II.’ “Immediately, it got really bad reviews so I took it home to listen to again and thought ‘Christ, are they right?’ But after hearing it a few weeks later, I still like it. I think it’s great. We’ll stick by it.”
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