Queen has been in the spotlight of late. This is mainly the afterglow of the unexpected success of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic. More recently the band had a big showing at the Academy Awards. One of my favorite scenes in the Bohemian Rhapsody movie is the brief appearance of the pre-Queen band Smile. The band, which featured Brian May, Roger Taylor and Tim Staffell, has played an important part in the history of Queen. Smile created an early blueprint of what Queen would build to become. Smile existed for a brief two years, from 1968 to 1970. That time was not wasted. Smile spent the time working on a style that would establish some of the hallmarks of the Queen sound. The music of Smile was primarily commercial, guitar lead rock music with big vocal choruses. The influence of bands like The Beatles and Cream is readily apparent. If you have never heard the songs recorded by Smile do yourself a favor and track them down online.
Queen’s self titled debut album, released in 1973, showcases a young and ambitious band. In many respects Queen picked up from where Smile left off. The debut album features rock music that is varied, adventurous, artful and at times heavy. The band’s influences are quite apparent, most notably The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. This youthful quartet used those influences as a springboard to leap into their own unique sound. The album’s two most successful songs are Brian May’s Keep Yourself Alive and Freddie Mercury’s My Fairy King. These two songs display different facets of the band’s sound that remained throughout their career. Keep Yourself Alive features the more straight forward, guitar driven side of the band. My Fairy King is a piano led, classically inspired, quasi-operatic art rock track. My Fairy King is clearly the most ambitious offering on the album. The song is the second of Freddie Mercury’s art rock one-two punch. My Fairy King is set up by Great King Rat. Both songs display the band’s artsy/progressive side. Both are fantastic, early examples of the Queen’s ambitious leaning. For my money My Fairy King is the superior of the two. Having said that, My Fair King is made all the better by the set up of Great King Rat.
My Fairy King opens with an early example of Brian May’s guitar orchestrations. May’s overdubbed and harmonized guitar notes give way to the band, led by a fast paced piano riff. The music soon leads into an embryonic form of Queen’s trademark operatic vocal attack. All of this occurs within the song’s first thirty five seconds. The band then drops out, briefly leaving only Freddie on piano and falsetto vocals. John Deacon’s nimble bass soon returns, followed by some melodic guitar from Brian May. The band builds the drama, slowly adding more and more layers of vocals. The first verse gives way to the first chorus as the song continues to build. At the start of the second verse Roger Taylor re-enters on drums and Freddie drops the falsetto. At the 2:18 mark the dynamics drop and Freddie returns to the falsetto. The rest of the band drops out as Freddie sings over a classically inspired piano riff. At 2:59 Brian May’s glorious guitar orchestrations begin again. The guitars introduce a brief, full band, instrumental that concludes the song. In the hands of a progression rock band this section would have extended far longer. The section may be brief, but it is an early example of the band creating and capturing musical magic early on. Queen obviously was not a progressive rock band. They possessed the musical chops to have gone in that direction had they desired to do so. My Fairy King is one of the band’s most overt flirtations with progressive rock.
Every aspect of My Fairy King displays a highly talented and ambitious band finding their way. Freddie Mercury utilizes a convincing falsetto throughout portions of the song, however he had not yet found his vocal sweet spot. The band’s patented multi-layered and highly arranged vocal approach is effective here. They were still two albums away from perfecting the grandiose, awe inspiring vocals that the band became known for. Brian May has the opportunity to exhibit his unique guitar play throughout the song. However he had yet to truly capture his unique guitar tones on tape. His highly intricate and harmonized guitar orchestrations were still in the early stages here. The distinctive snap of Roger Taylor’s snare drum is absent from the song. His drums are uncharacteristically low in the mix. Overall Freddie Mercury on piano and John Deacon on bass have the best showcase throughout the song. Deacon adeptly showcases his exceptional skill on the bass. Freddie’s exceptional talents on the piano are hinted at throughout. The pristine production values of the latter albums was yet to be achieved. The debut album is clearly the band’s least polished album. Due to the erratic recording schedule afforded the band at the time no one could have expected perfection. The band did the best that they could with the time that they were given.
My Fairy King is a fantastic example of a young band finding their way. Queen’s flair for the dramatic and their keen sense of dynamics were in place right from the beginning. Overall the band knew what they wanted to do, but finding the way took a few albums. One could view My Fairy King as a bridge to the band’s gloriously over the top follow-up album Queen 2 (1974). Of all of the songs on Queen’s debut album, My Fairy King offers the clearest look at the musical direction the band was moving towards. With each of their early albums the band improved as songwriters and arrangers. More importantly the production values improved to help them achieve their bombastic, wondrously over the top sound. It is immediately clear that Queen desired to produce music that was beyond the norm. Finding the right sounds, technical approach and musical uniqueness was a process that took a little time. Once the band found their sweet spot there was no looking back.