Queen II is the second studio album by British rock group Queen, released on 8 March 1974. It was recorded at Trident Studios, London in August 1973 with co-producers Roy Thomas Baker and Robin Cable, and engineered by Mike Stone.
The two sides of the original LP were labelled "Side White" and "Side Black" (instead of the conventional sides "1" and "2"), with corresponding photos of the band dressed in white or in black on either side of the record's label face. It is also a concept album, with the white side having songs with a more emotional theme and the black side almost entirely about fantasy, often with quite dark themes. Mick Rock's album cover photograph was frequently re-used by the band throughout its career, most notably in the music videos for the songs "Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975), and "One Vision" (1985).
Released to an initially mixed critical reception, Queen II remains one of the band's lesser-known albums. Nonetheless, the album has retained a cult following since its release, has garnered praise from musicians such as Axl Rose, Steve Vai and Billy Corgan, and is significant in being the first album to contain elements of the band's signature sound of multi layered overdubs, vocal harmonies, and varied musical styles.
Background and recording
After their debut album Queen was recorded and mixed by the end of November 1972, Queen set about touring and promoting it. Management problems forced the album to be released on the independent Trident label, but only after eight months had gone by since completion. During that time, Queen were writing new material and anxious to record it. Several new songs were written immediately after the first album, and some dated from even earlier. "See What A Fool I've Been" was left over from the Smile days. "Ogre Battle" was written during the debut album sessions, as was "Father To Son", but the band decided to wait on recording them until they had more freedom in the studio.
August 1973 found the band back in Trident Studios, now allowed to book proper hours there, with an album under their belts. For what is generally considered a complex album (with layered vocals, harmonies and instruments), it took a very short time — only one month — to record Queen II. A full version of "Seven Seas of Rhye" was laid down, recorded with the specific intention of being the album's leading single. After the commercial failure of "Keep Yourself Alive", which was taken from the first album, Queen decided it needed a single that did not take "too long to happen" (without a lengthy guitar intro). So, Queen and Baker made sure that "Rhye" began in a way which would grab people. Mythology and art were passions of Mercury's, and Richard Dadd's painting "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" (which currently hangs in the Tate Gallery) sparked his creativity. This scene from Dadd's imagination was inspired by characters from fairy myths, which in the painting are gathered around the Feller of Trees to watch him crack a walnut for Queen Mab's new carriage.
Rock photographer Mick Rock was employed to do the photography for the album's artwork. This single picture of Queen, used on the Queen II album cover, would become one of the band's most iconic images, revisited and brought to life for the "Bohemian Rhapsody" promotional film. Robin Cable, with whom Mercury had worked during the "I Can Hear Music" session, was recruited to reproduce the Spector production sound for "Funny How Love Is".
The "White" side is very diverse: four of the five numbers were composed by Brian May, where one is instrumental, one is sung by Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor (with May at the piano), the next is sung by Mercury, and the last by May. The closing track of The "White" Side is Taylor's only composition in the album, which he also sings. John Deacon played acoustic guitar as well as bass on most of the album, except the songs "White Queen" and "Some Day One Day", which were performed by May—partly on an inexpensive Hairfred guitar that he had owned since his childhood.
Lead vocalist Freddie Mercury composed the entire "Black" side, contributing virtuosic piano and harpsichord pieces and a wide range of distinctive vocal performances.
The Queen II album cover features a photograph taken by Mick Rock of, according to VH1, "Queen standing in diamond formation, heads tilted back like Easter Island statues" against a black background. The band had hired Rock because they wanted to, in Rock's words, "graft some of [the trademark] decadent 'glam' sensibility" of his work with artists such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Subsequently, the brief the photographer received from Queen was to have a black and white theme for the Queen II artwork. According to Rock, the group were looking to grab people's attention with the cover, especially since their first album had failed to do so; "They realised that if you could catch people's eyes you could get them interested in music." Describing it as a "sort of a knockoff of an old Marlene Dietrich shot", the photographer took inspiration for the cover from a still of the actress from the 1932 film Shanghai Express. "And of course no one was ever more 'glam' than the divine Ms Dietrich", Rock quipped.
Although the band almost rejected the photograph because they felt it too pretentious, Rock convinced them otherwise; "It made them look like much bigger a deal than they were at the time, but it was a true reflection of their music." The image was reused by Queen for the promotional video of their 1975 single "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "One Vision" (1986).
Release and reception
After the album's completion in the end of August 1973, Queen added "Ogre Battle", "Procession" and "Father to Son" to their live setlists immediately and toured extensively. Once again, however, Trident delayed the record since Queen's first album had only just been released in the UK and had yet to be issued in the USA. Numerous other problems beset the album's release, as well. Its completion coincided with the 1973 oil crisis and consequently, government-enforced measures for energy conservation delayed its manufacture by several months. Once the long-overdue first pressing arrived in record shops, the band noticed a spelling error on the sleeve, and had to complain persistently to correct it.
Queen II received a mixed critical reaction from the contemporary music press. Disc wrote, "The material, performance, recording and even artwork standards are very high." NME opined that the record showcased "all their power and drive, their writing talents, and every quality that makes them unique," while Sounds wrote, "Simply titled Queen II, this album captures them in their finest hours." Rolling Stone awarded the album two-and-a-half stars out of five. While the magazine had little enthusiasm for "Side Black", they applauded "Side White", writing that it featured the "saving grace of timely and well-chosen power chords and some rather pretty tunes."
Melody Maker had little praise for the record, writing, "It's reputed Queen have enjoyed some success in the States, it's currently in the balance whether they'll really break through here. If they do, then I'll have to eat my hat or something. Maybe Queen try too hard, there's no depth of sound or feeling." Record Mirror were also unamused, writing, "This is it, the dregs of glam rock. Weak and over-produced, if this band are our brightest hope for the future, then we are committing rock and roll suicide." Robert Christgau, writing in Creem magazine, derisively referred to it as "wimpoid royaloid heavyoid android void."
Queen II entered UK stores on 8 March 1974. The album enjoyed chart success in the UK, peaking at number 5. It peaked at number 49 in the US, improving on their debut album Queen, which peaked at number 83. The only single taken from Queen II, "Seven Seas of Rhye" (released in February 1974) peaked at number 10 on the UK Singles Chart, giving the band their first chart hit.
As 1974 drew to a close, public reaction to Queen II had been enthusiastic. The album was also ranked by Disc as the 5th best of the year. While the album remains one of the band's lesser-known works, it has since retained a cult following and has in recent years been cited by a number of music publications, fellow artists and fans as one of Queen's finest works. In 1987, the Post-Tribune ranked Queen II 9th in an article covering "albums that should be in everyone's record collection, but aren't." In the 1994 edition of The Guinness All Time Top 1000 Albums, Queen II was voted number 202 in the all-time greatest rock and pop albums. In 2003, Q magazine included Queen II in a list of fifty little-known albums recommended by the magazine to supplement their "The 50 Best British Albums Ever" poll. In 2005, Kerrang! readers voted Queen II the 72nd greatest British rock album ever. In 2006, the album was featured in Classic Rock and Metal Hammer's "The 200 Greatest Albums of the 70s," being listed alongside Sheer Heart Attack as one of the 20 greatest albums of 1974. In 2008, IGN Music named Queen II as one of their "10 Classic Glam Rock Albums", writing, "Queen gave glam a bigger, more anthemic sound with this glittery opus. Combined with Freddie Mercury's underrated keyboard work, Brian May's ringing leads and pristine riffs created a backdrop for songs that were by turns ferocious and elegant." In 2010, Mojo ranked Queen II as the 60th greatest album ever released on the Elektra Records label. Along with the Queen albums Sheer Heart Attack and A Night at the Opera, Queen II is featured in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, where it is described as "a distinctly dark album" which "displayed their diversity," and contrasted with their later "expansive, stadium-pleasing anthems."
Allmusic awarded the record 4/5 stars, and said, "Queen is coiled, tense, and vicious here, delivering on their inherent sense of drama, and that gives Queen II real power as music, as well as a true cohesion... Queen II is one of the favorites of their hardcore fans." Pitchfork awarded the album 7.8/10, writing, "Dizzying, overstuffed, and unflinching, Queen II is a die-hard fan favorite, and arguably the band's most underrated record." In 2009, The Quietus published an article highlighting Queen's "lesser-known brilliance" to coincide with the release of that year's Absolute Greatest compilation, describing Queen II as "an absolute scorcher of an album" which features two of the band's best tracks: "Ogre Battle" and "Father to Son".
Endorsements from younger recording artists have introduced the album to a new generation of fans. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, Guns N' Roses lead singer Axl Rose said of the record, "With Queen, I have my favorite: Queen II. Whenever their newest record would come out and have all these other kinds of music on it, at first I'd only like this song or that song. But after a period of time listening to it, it would open my mind up to so many different styles. I really appreciate them for that. That's something I've always wanted to be able to achieve". Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan spoke to Melody Maker in August 1993 about "the records which changed his life," stating, "I worked at this record store where we had lots of old records, and I found Queen II, probably their least popular album. It's so over the top, so many vocal and guitar track overdubs – total Queen overload. I loved it. I loved the cool, weird, ambiguous songs about Freddie’s sexuality and the way it shifts from heavy to beautiful ballads."
All songs on the White Side (side one) written by Brian May except "The Loser in the End" by Roger Taylor. All songs on the Black Side (side two) written by Freddie Mercury.
White side (Side one)
01 – Procession (Instrumental)
02 – Father to son
03 – White queen (As it began)
04 – Some day one day
05 – The loser in the end
Black side (Side two)
01 – Ogre battle
02 – The fairy feller’s master-stroke
03 – Nevermore
04 – The march pf the black queen
05 – Funny how love is
06 – Seven seas of rhye
"Procession" is a short instrumental piece (a funeral march) performed by Brian May on multi-tracked guitar. He recorded it by playing overlapping parts on the Red Special through John Deacon's custom-made amplifier (the Deacy Amp). Roger Taylor also contributes to this instrumental, using only a bass pedal.
Father to Son
"Father to Son" was written by May and features heavy metal sections as well as a quiet piano part, which May played. Like the preceding number, "Father to Son" has parts with May on multi-tracked guitar, played through the Deacy Amp. It is written in the father's perspective when talking or thinking about his son. Queen added "Father to Son" to their live setlists immediately and toured extensively, but the song was dropped from the setlists in 1975.
White Queen (As It Began)
Written by May, this song features contrasting acoustic and heavy metal sections. May explained that he conceived the idea for the song while reading The White Goddess by Robert Graves. The song also had personal significance for May; he drew inspiration from a fellow student whom he revered and thought represented the idea of the "perfect woman". In a later interview he said, "I remember being totally in love with this girl from biology, and I never ever talked to her...I [was] dead to ask out this girl, and she became a lifelong friend, it's very strange...". White Queen was played live between 1974 and 1977. The live version features Mercury on piano in the middle section and guitar solo.
Some Day One Day
This is the first song sung entirely by May on lead vocals. It features May on acoustic guitar and electric guitar and the last guitar solo (during the fade-out) features three solo guitars. This kind of complex guitar arrangement is typical of May; however, usually the guitars are harmonious, but in this case, all of the guitars play different parts.
The Loser in the End
"The Loser in the End" was Roger Taylor's sole contribution on the album both as a songwriter and lead vocalist. The original handwritten lyrics of the song almost went to the shredder in 2004, and now is the oldest example of handwritten lyrics in the Queen archive.
Mercury wrote "Ogre Battle" on guitar (as confirmed by May in several interviews) in 1972. The band did not want to record it for their first album, but rather waited until they could have more studio freedom to do it properly.
The ogre-like screams in the middle are Mercury's, and the high harmonies at the end of the chorus hook are sung by Taylor. As the title suggests, it tells the story of a battle between ogres, and features a May guitar solo and sound effects to simulate the sound of a battle. The beginning of the song is the end of the song in reverse including the final gong, which when played backwards at the start of the song, creates the building wave sound.
The song is one of Queen's heaviest works. The guitar riff along with Taylor's drumming give it a very "thrash" sound. It was a longtime live favourite, although in this case, it was played slower than in the studio. The song was last played on the 1977 News Of The World North America Tour and was played at every concert up until that tour.
A different version of "Ogre Battle" exists, recorded in December 1973 for the BBC Radio 1 "Sound of the 70s" programme. This version starts right away with its riff (without any long intro), does not have any effects that the version on "Queen II" has and sounds much less polished. The BBC version of "Ogre Battle" did originally have a long intro featuring a grand guitar build up; it was not used for this release, allegedly because the original tape was damaged.
The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke
Mercury was inspired to write "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" after seeing Richard Dadd's painting The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke. For the intricately arranged studio recording, Mercury played harpsichord as well as piano, and Roy Thomas Baker played the castanets. Taylor called this song Queen's "biggest stereo experiment", referring to the intricate use of panning in the mix.
The song, like most of the songs on the album, features medieval fantasy-based lyrics, and makes direct reference to the painting's characters as detailed in Dadd's poem, such as Queen Mab, Waggoner Will, the Tatterdemalion, and others. Apparently whenever Queen had spare time, Mercury would drag them to the London's Tate Gallery, where the painting was, and still is today.
The complex arrangements are based around a backing track of piano, bass guitar and drums, but also included harpsichord, multiple vocal overdubs and overdubbed guitar parts. The lyrics follow the claustrophobic atmosphere of the painting, and each of the scenes are described. The use of the word "quaere" in the lyrics (in the repeated line "What a quaere fellow") has no reference to Mercury's sexuality, according to Taylor. This song was only played a few times live during their Queen II tour.
The previous track ends with a three-part vocal harmony from May, Mercury and Taylor which flows into Mercury playing the piano on this track. All the vocal parts were performed by Mercury, who added some contemporary piano "ring" effects as well. These effects were widely suspected to be synthesisers; however, they were created by someone plucking the piano strings while Mercury played the notes. Nevermore is quite a short ballad about the feelings after a heartbreak.
The March of the Black Queen
Mercury composed this song on piano in 1973, and the song is one of the two Queen songs (the other being Bohemian Rhapsody) containing polyrhythm/polymeter (two different time signatures simultaneously 8/8 and 12/8) and a simpler polyrhythm around the end uptempo section, which is very rare for popular music. The lead vocals cover two and a half octaves (G2 - C5).
The full piece was too complicated to be performed live by the band; however, the uptempo section containing the lines "My life is in your hands, I'll foe and I'll fie..." etc. was sometimes included in a live medley, with vocals by Mercury and Taylor, during the 1970s.
The song segues into the next track, "Funny How Love Is". This song ends with an ascending note progression, which climaxes in the first second of the following track.
Funny How Love Is
"Funny How Love Is" was created in the studio. Mercury wrote it and played the piano while Robin Cable produced. It was produced using the "wall of sound" technique. The song was never performed live, largely due to the demanding high-register vocals from Mercury throughout the song.
Seven Seas of Rhye
"Seven Seas of Rhye" had been half-written at the time of recording for Queen's first album, so a short clip of it was included there. However, when Queen finished the song, it ended up being much different from what they'd first envisioned. It was the band's first hit single, peaking at number 10 in the UK charts.
The song, like many of the songs on the album, and on Queen and Sheer Heart Attack, is about a fantasy world named Rhye. The song became a live favourite throughout Queen's existence. It features a distinctive arpeggiated piano introduction – on the Queen II recording, the arpeggios are played with both the right and left hands, an octave apart, whereas on the Queen recording, and most live performances, Mercury played the simpler one-handed version of these arpeggios. The theme also appears at the end of "It's a Beautiful Day (reprise)" on the album Made In Heaven. This version ends with a cross fade, instruments blending into a "singsong"-style rendition of "I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside".
The seven seas of Rhye are also mentioned in another Queen song, "Lily of the Valley" from Sheer Heart Attack; in the lyric "Messenger from Seven Seas has flown/To tell the king of Rhye he's lost his throne".
Freddie Mercury – lead and backing vocals, piano, harpsichord, string piano on "Nevermore"
Brian May – electric and acoustic guitars, bells on "The March of the Black Queen", lead vocals on "Some Day One Day", backing vocals, piano and organ on "Father to Son"
Roger Taylor – drums, gong, marimba, backing vocals, additional vocals on one line of "The March of the Black Queen", lead vocals on "The Loser in the End"
John Deacon – bass guitar, acoustic guitars
Roy Thomas Baker – castanets on "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke", stylophone on "Seven Seas of Rhye".
Robin Cable – piano effects (with Mercury) on "Nevermore"
All songs produced by Queen and Roy Thomas Baker excluding:
"Nevermore" and "Funny How Love Is" – Robin Cable and Queen
"The March of the Black Queen" – Baker, Cable and Queen