With the pier-front echoing finale of ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’ barely four months old, Queen embarked on recording what would become Sheer Heart Attack. Having laughed off any thoughts of the so-called difficult second album syndrome, the band were moving towards the very top of their game.
Whereas some bands have found their third album an even greater challenge, Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack would herald their arrival as a major musical force. ‘Killer Queen’, the album’s outstanding single, was an instant classic that soared to No.2 in the UK chart and No.12 on the Billboard chart in America – the band’s first foray into the US Top 20. The album would go platinum and was proof that this was a band that was even greater than the sum of their considerable parts.
Freddie Mercury was a force of nature and Brian May an emergent guitar hero, yet Queen were evidently a great band, a fabulous quartet. The progressive and metal aspects of their sound were superseded by the whole effect: one where drama and outrageous – ambitious – arrangements sat next to gorgeous melodies, carefully wrought balladry and impeccable musicianship. Queen understood that while rock music need not be symphonic, it would still benefit from light and dark passages, dramatic heights and reflective interludes. To that extent Queen, more than many bands, appreciated the value of proper track sequencing – the kind that creates inbuilt tension and a sense of completeness.
Sheer Heart Attack was prefaced by the band’s grandest tour to date, and the album title spoke of what was in store: rock and roll dazzlement (writ large). Queen’s autumn tour of the UK opened in Manchester on 30 October 1974 and on the day of Sheer Heart Attack coming out the band was in Glasgow playing the Apollo Theatre. As the tour continued expectant fans had their hopes confirmed – this was a “killer-album”. ‘Killer Queen’ was already at No.5 on the UK chart and by the time of their first of two nights at London’s Rainbow Theatre on 19 November, it had risen to No.2. No wonder Queen were so elated when they walked off-stage at the Rainbow.
Four days later Sheer Heart Attack made the lower reaches of the Top 20 on the UK album chart, before climbing to No.2 in December. By mid-December, the album entered the US chart at No.153 and thereafter steadily rose up the bestseller list until it peaked at No.12, thirty-seven places higher than Queen II. The band had well and truly arrived, helped in the process by a US tour that began in early February 1975 and ended two months later in Seattle, Washington. Next stop, Japan.
Recorded between July and September 1974 at four different studios, there were considerable challenges during the making of Sheer Heart Attack. Mid-way through Queen’s first North American Tour, one that started in April 1974 (as a support band for Mott The Hoople), Brian May fell ill with hepatitis. He had been infected with an unclean needle during a vaccination before Queen’s Australian tour in January 1974, which resulted in the Spring tour of America being cut short.
When May recovered, the work continued in the studio before he fell ill again, this time with a duodenal ulcer. Brian’s health meant that all gigs were cancelled following their return from America and before the UK tour in autumn 1974 got underway. The other three members of Queen overcame the issues of May’s absence during recording by leaving spaces in the songs for his solos. When he felt well enough, May returned and completed the tracks, adding his guitar solos and backing vocals.
Queen once again worked with Roy Thomas Baker and were now big enough to move from studio to studio. The trusted Trident Studio was still their chief haunt, but they also worked at George Martin’s Central London AIR, as well as Rockfield in rural Wales and Wessex Sound in London’s leafy Highbury.
And what did we hear on Sheer Heart Attack? A rejuvenated, rehabilitated Brian May, the guitarist on top of his game and Mercury picking up the demands of frontman with such flamboyant insouciance that audiences were captivated when much of the new material was unleashed on stage, just prior to the album’s release.
For this album, Queen absolutely nailed it, creating in the process a multi-layered sound-scape, dense in harmony, melody and mystery. They carefully mixed all the ingredients together, along with Baker, and simply soared. What some had previously viewed as precocious was now audacious – risks were taken and pulled off with aplomb.
Despite Brian’s unfortunate illness, once the band hit Rockfield to start work they were enthused and energised. The opening track, ‘Brighton Rock’, is a masterpiece with a lengthy, speaker phasing solo from May (the song’s composer), and a vibrant Mercury vocal that brings to life the characters (Jimmy and Jenny) who fall in love on holiday. The song begins with a whistled refrain from “I do like to be beside the seaside” – from R(h)ye to Brighton.
‘Killer Queen’ then grabs you by the neck; written by Mercury, recorded at Trident, and featuring Freddie on jangle piano, the lyric is redolent of an updated Noel Coward. It’s the tale of a high-class hooker, described by Freddie, as “one of those bowler hat, black suspender belt numbers.”
May recognised the significance of the album’s lead single – “‘Killer Queen’ was the turning point. It was the song that best summed up our kind of music, and a big hit, and we desperately needed it as a mark of something successful happening for us… I was always very happy with this song. The whole record was made in a very craftsman-like manner. I still enjoy listening to it because there’s a lot to listen to, but it never gets cluttered. There’s always space for all the little ideas to come through. And of course, I like the solo, with that three-part section, where each part has its own voice. What can I say? It’s vintage Queen.”
Roger Taylor’s ‘Tenement Funster’ is one of his rock and roll rebellion numbers, complete with echo guitars, a delightful bass line from John Deacon, and more Mercury piano.
‘Flick Of The Wrist’ was released as the double A-side with ‘Killer Queen’. Such was the strength of the latter that ‘Flick’ never achieved the same popularity. ‘Flick Of The Wrist’ is a darkly sinister tale from Mercury that sits within a three-track segue leading into ‘Lily Of The Valley’, a deeply personal Freddie moment regarding his life and major decisions that lay ahead. It also includes a reference to the previous album in the line, “Messenger from Seven Seas has flown to tell the King of Rhye he’s lost his throne”.
Freddie described ‘In The Lap Of The Gods’ as a prelude to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a song very much in the style of the next album, A Night At The Opera. It’s a composition in three-parts that features Roger’s spectacular falsetto that quickly became a crowd pleaser on tour; Taylor proved those that had suggested that it was a synth, rather than a real voice, wrong on a nightly basis.
The Neo-thrash of ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ is credited to the entire band, though it dates back to Mercury’s time in the band Wreckage from the late 1960s. It’s a rough and tough dash into the underworld that’s full of distortion and speed riffing that’s like punk on steroids. The song would go on to have an enormous impact on American rock music and Metallica covered it as the B-side to their ‘Enter Sandman’ single.
The far more delicate ‘Dear Friends’ (May’s song) and John Deacon’s ‘Misfire’, provide room for reflection before Freddie’s ‘Bring Back That Leroy Brown’ (Jim Croce had a No.1 US hit the previous year with ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’) that introduced fans to the sight of May playing the ukulele-banjo on stage. Equally experimental is Brian’s ‘She Makes Me (Stormtrooper In Stilettos)’, a New York City soundscape that is evidently thrilled to have soaked up the atmosphere of a menacing Manhattan night.
Finally, the chorus-heavy ‘In The Lap Of The Gods…Revisited’ is intuitively big and bold with a prescient aura that indicates Queen will soon be as at home in a stadium as in a theatre or club. This was a natural set closer on tour since it leaves one drained, yet satisfied.
Sheer Heart Attack was so much larger than life, in that it would take months to fully appreciate its complexities, but once inside the cranium, the excellence of their studio technique and the sense of the band’s liberation make it one of Queen’s most loved works.
Freddie Mercury knew how important this album was to be for the band, saying at the time, “The album is very varied, we took it to extreme I suppose, but we are very interested in studio techniques and wanted to use what was available. We learned a lot about technique while we were making the first two albums. Of course, there has been some criticism, and the constructive criticism has been very good for us.” It’s hard to believe now, but misconceptions remained according to Freddie – “We’ve been called a supermarket hype. But if you see us up on a stage, that’s what we’re all about. We are basically a rock band.”
Sheer Heart Attack proved that Queen was far from just any old rock band. This album took the band to a whole new level, helping to propel them from a support band on a US tour to a headliner. After their tour of Japan ended on 1 May 1975 there was no more touring until November 1975. Queen spent the summer recording A Night At The Opera…and that would prove to be something quite extraordinary.