Excerpted from Chapter Four, “Strange Vibrato” of Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Queen, by Mark Blake. Copyright © 2011 Mark Blake. Reprinted with permission of Da Capo Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
‘When I joined Queen I had sod all to do.’
—Mike Grose, Queen bass guitarist
for three months
‘I thought they were going nowhere.’
—- Barry Mitchell, Queen bass guitarist
for six months
‘Can’t complain, nice house, great family and a fancy car
... but it would have been nice.’
—Doug Bogie, Queen bass guitarist for two gigs
‘When I first joined Queen, the other three argued like mad and I just kept out of it.’
—John Deacon, Queen bass guitarist
since February 1971
In 1970, Woodstock the movie opened in cinemas but not every budding rock musician was a fan. ‘When I saw that film it was a shock to realise how little I related to it,’ admitted Brian May. ‘Queen weren’t the sort of band that would get stoned, go on and shuffle around. In a way, we were a reaction against it.’ To some in their social circle, Bulsara, Brian May and Roger Taylor had always been an obvious combination of musicians. ‘I can remember walking down Ealing Broadway in 1968 with those three and thinking, ‘That’s it, that’s the band,” ’ says Chris Smith.
Initially, though, Smile’s drummer and guitarist were wary of their new recruit. ‘I remember thinking, “Good on showmanship, but not sure about the singing,” ’ admitted May. ‘Fred had a strange vibrato,’ chuckled Roger Taylor, ‘which some people found rather distressing.’ Just as it had been with Ibex and Wreckage, it was Fred’s persistence that ultimately won the day: ‘Freddie was there, saying, “I’ll sing and I’d do that,”’ said Brian, ‘and we gradually went… “OK.” ’
Tim Staffell’s exit had also left Smile without a bass player. They recruited Roger Taylor’s friend Mike Grose, who had been the co-owner of PJ’s, the Truro music venue where Smile and The Reaction had been regulars. PJ’s was facing closure, but Grose was a bass guitarist with the added bonus of owning a Volkswagen van and a Marshall amp. Better still, Grose had played briefly as a guitarist in The Reaction and previously understudied for Tim Staffell at a Smile gig at PJ’s, after a row between the bassist and Roger Taylor.
Grose moved up to London and into a billet at Ferry Road. May hustled his Imperial College professors into signing the forms needed to let the band rehearse in one of the lecture theatres. Taylor had promised his mother that Smile would play a Red Cross fundraiser at Truro City Hall on 27 June. Neglecting to tell anyone that this was a very different ‘Smile’, May, Taylor, Bulsara and Grose managed to muddle their way through an uneven set in front of around 200 people in the 800-capacity hall, for which they were paid £50.
The origins of the Queen name, are, much like Freddie’s sawn-off mic stand, steeped in all kinds of myth and hearsay. ‘The name was mine,’ maintains John ‘Tupp’ Taylor. ‘I used to call Fred “the old queen” and I used to say to him that if he was ever in another band after Wreckage he should call it Queen, and he used to say, “Oh, do you think so?” ’ However, Mike Grose remembers sitting in the garden at Ferry Road when Freddie first pitched the name. Ken Testi remembers being told of the new band’s name in a telephone call from Kensington Market. ‘It made perfect sense to hear that he was with Brian and Roger. It should have been that way all along. I told him it was great news, and then he told me the name: Queen. I said, “You’ll never get away with that, Fred.” But he was like, “No, it’s wonderful, dear, people will love it.” ’
Other contenders for the group’s name included Build Your Own Boat, The Rich Kids and The Grand Dance (the last of these taken from C.S. Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy Out of the Silent Planet). But they were no competition. ‘The concept of Queen is to be regal and majestic,’ Freddie later told Melody Maker. ‘We want to be dandy. We want to shock and be outrageous.’
‘The name was Freddie’s idea,’ said Roger Taylor in 1974. ‘It was just a reflection of the social world we were in at the time, when he and I were working together on Kensington Market. In those days there was a pretty eccentric crowd there, and a lot of them were gay and a lot of them pretended to be, and it just seemed to fit in. I didn’t like the name originally and neither did Brian, but we got used to it. We thought that once we’d got established the music would then become the identity more than the name…’
Queen wouldn’t be the only name-change that spring. ‘Freddie had written this song called “My Fairy King”,’ said Brian May. ‘And there’s a line in it that says, “Oh Mother Mercury what have you done to me?” And it was after that that he said, “I am going to become Mercury as the mother in this song is my mother.” We were like, “Are you mad?” ’
Though no official documentation has ever surfaced at the Deed Poll Office, from now on Fred Bulsara’s passport would read Frederick Mercury. The transformation from gauche immigrant schoolboy to extrovert butterfly was complete. ‘Changing his name was part of him assuming this different skin,’ said May. ‘The young Bulsara was still there but for the public he was going to be this god.’
Before long, though, Mike Grose had grown weary of the struggle. May, Taylor and Mercury had been students since the mid-sixties, and were used to living in diminished circumstances. The 22-year-old Grose liked earning a living and found what he called ‘the empty days’ at Ferry Road depressing: Freddie was an art student used to doing nothing; Brian and Roger still had months left to go on their courses. But Grose was used to working a day job and playing gigs in the evening. That summer, in the garden at Barnes, he had watched as his three bandmates teased out ideas for songs that would eventually find their way on to the first Queen album. Queen had written the whole of what would become their debut, and the song ‘Father To Son’ (from what became Queen II). Grose thought the band had potential but wasn’t prepared to wait. He quit after a few months, returned to Cornwall, played briefly in a group called No Joke with, bizarrely, Tim Staffell, before forming his own haulage company and dropping out of the music scene.
Mike Grose’s replacement would be found after a chance meeting in Cornwall. Barry Mitchell had grown up in Harrow, West London. By 1965, he was bass guitar in a soul covers band called Conviction, also featuring a young Alan Parsons on guitar. Parsons would go on to engineer Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and front his own ensemble, The Alan Parsons Project. Conviction changed their name to Earth in 1967, made one unreleased album and secured a residency at the Coffin Club on London’s Gerard Street.
By August 1970, Mitchell was considering giving up music altogether. His most recent group, Black (featuring a black South African Hendrix lookalike) had stalled, and he was working a day job in Soper’s department store in Harrow. ‘I had a good friend called Roger Crossley who worked there with me,’ says Mitchell now. ‘The two of us used to hang out at the art college looking for pretty girls. Roger Crossley went to Cornwall in the summer and he met Roger Taylor. They got talking and Roger Taylor said he was looking for a bass player… So my mate gave me his phone number.’
Mitchell made the call, caught the tube to Kensington and auditioned for Queen at Imperial College. His first thought was how blessed the group were to have access to free rehearsal space and storage; the twin holy grails for any struggling band. ‘We had a couple of plays,’ remembers Barry. ‘We ran through some Hendrix and [Willie Dixon’s] “Do Me Right”, and that was it, I was in.’