They received the Outstanding Contribution to British Music Award from the British Phonographic Industry in 1990, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
Early days (1968–1974)
In 1968, guitarist Brian May, a student at London’s Imperial College, and bassist Tim Staffell decided to form a band. May placed an advertisement on the college notice board for a “Mitch Mitchell/Ginger Baker type” drummer; Roger Taylor, a young dental student, auditioned and got the job. The group called themselves Smile.
While attending Ealing Art College, Tim Staffell became friends with Farrokh Bulsara, a fellow student who had assumed the English name of Freddie. Bulsara felt that he and the band had the same tastes and soon became a keen fan of Smile.
In late 1970, after Staffell left to join the band Humpy Bong, the remaining Smile members, encouraged by Bulsara, changed their name to “Queen” and continued working together. When asked about the name, Bulsara explained, “I thought up the name Queen.
It’s just a name, but it’s very regal obviously, and it sounds splendid. It’s a strong name, very universal and immediate. It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations. I was certainly aware of gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it.”
The band had a number of bass players during this period who did not fit with the band’s chemistry. It was not until February 1971 that they settled on John Deacon and began to rehearse for their first album.
They recorded four of their own songs, “Liar”, “Keep Yourself Alive”, “The Night Comes Down” and “Jesus”, for a demo tape; no record companies were interested. It was also around this time Freddie changed his surname to “Mercury”, inspired by the line “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me” in the song “My Fairy King”.
On 2 July 1971, Queen played their first show in the classic line-up of Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor at a Surrey college outside London.
Having attended art college, Mercury also designed Queen’s logo, called the Queen crest, shortly before the release of the band’s first album. The logo combines the zodiac signs of all four members: two lions for Leo (Deacon and Taylor), a crab for Cancer (May), and two fairies for Virgo (Mercury).
The lions embrace a stylised letter Q, the crab rests atop the letter with flames rising directly above it, and the fairies are each sheltering below a lion. There is also a crown inside the Q and the whole logo is over-shadowed by an enormous phoenix.
The whole symbol bears a passing resemblance to the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, particularly with the lion supporters. The original logo, as found on the reverse-side of the first album cover, was a simple line drawing but more intricate colour versions were used on later sleeves.
In 1972 Queen entered discussions with Trident Studios after being spotted at De La Lane Studios by John Antony and after discussions were offered a management deal by Norman Sheffield under Neptune Productions, a subsidiary of Trident to manage the band and enable them to use the facilities at Trident to record new material whilst the management search for a record label to sign Queen.
This suited both parties at the time as Trident were expanding into management and Queen under the deal were able to make use of the hi-tech recording facilities shared by bands at the time such as the Beatles and Elton John to produce new material. However Trident found it difficult to find a label for a band bearing a name with such connotation during the early 1970s.
In July 1973, Queen finally under a Trident/EMI deal released their eponymous debut album, an effort influenced by the heavy metal and progressive rock of the day.
The album was received well by critics; Gordon Fletcher of Rolling Stone said “their debut album is superb” and Chicago’s Daily Herald called it an “above average debut”.
It drew little mainstream attention, and the lead single “Keep Yourself Alive”, a Brian May composition, sold poorly. Retrospectively, “Keep Yourself Alive” is cited as the highlight of the album, and in 2008 Rolling Stone ranked it 31st in the “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”, describing it as “an entire album’s worth of riffs crammed into a single song”. The album was certified gold in the UK and the US.
The group’s second LP, Queen II, was released in 1974, and features rock photographer Mick Rock’s iconic image of the band on the cover. This image would be used as the basis for the 1975 “Bohemian Rhapsody” music video production. The album reached number five on the British album chart and became the first Queen album to chart in the UK.
The Freddie Mercury-written lead single “Seven Seas of Rhye” reached number ten in the UK, giving the band their first hit. The album is the first real testament to the band’s distinctive layered sound and features long complex instrumental passages, fantasy-themed lyrics, and musical virtuosity.