Queen At The BBC
This piece was originally written for Queenonline – the official Queen website, circa 2003, as part of an official FAQ project. When the site was revamped, the FAQ was taken down, and elements of it were incorporated into fansite Queenpedia. This piece also exists there to this day.
Before they had even released their debut album, Queen were well known to listeners of BBC Radio One’s late night line-up due to their session work for the station. Their sessions for the BBC still sound fresh to this day, and provide stark alternate versions to the more polished album cuts.
A short low budget piece made on video in just four hours to get Queen out of a neccessary appearance on the BBC’s flagship music show, Top Of The Pops, is credited with the birth of the modern day music video. And the links with the Corporation have continued throughout the band’s highly successful career.
Here, we look back at Queen’s work for and with the BBC.
The Recorded Debut
Queen’s first encounter with the BBC came in February of 1973. With their debut album already recorded but no record company attached to it, the band and their management Trident were desperate to win over the already interested EMI, who were on the lookout for new and promising acts.
Trident arranged for Queen to record a ‘session’ for the BBC Radio One programme Sounds Of The Seventies, and given free range to chose whichever four tracks they wanted to record, the band entered the BBC Studios in Maida Vale, London on 5th February with producer Bernie Andrews to record ‘Keep Yourself Alive‘, ‘My Fairy King‘, ‘Doing All Right‘ and ‘ Liar‘.
The session was broadcast ten days later, and was an important factor in EMI’s decision to sign the band the following month. The public response to the show was so great that the band were asked back later in the year by John Peel, long term champion of up-and-coming, ‘underdog’ artists.
Before this second session, Radio One interestingly rejected the ‘Keep Yourself Alive‘ single on no fewer than five occasions, even though the song had already been heard in Queen’s first performance for the station, and it had found an outlet on BBC Television by this time, thanks to a white label copy of the band’s epononymous debut being sent to the BBC and finding it’s way into the possession of Mike Appleton, producer of The Old Grey Whistle Test. Appleton loved the album, but had no idea who it was by or who to contact about it. Nevertheless, he chose to include the song on his show.
On 24th July 1973, ‘Keep Yourself Alive‘ did indeed feature on The Old Grey Whistle Test, together with a piece of stock footage animation from the BBC archives. Needless to say, Trident were soon in touch with the programme’s makers to inform them all about Queen.
The band’s second session took place the following day, with the band recording new versions of ‘Keep Yourself Alive‘ and ‘ Liar‘, together with ‘Son And Daughter‘ and a new song they had been working on called ‘See What A Fool I’ve Been‘, which eventually ended up as the non-album b-side to ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye‘, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek by that point.
Following this, the band’s next encounter with ‘Auntie Beeb’ was a specially arranged concert at the Golders Green Hippodrome in London, on 13th September 1973. This provided the band with the opportunity to preview songs from the album they were recording at the time, ‘Queen II‘. Of the six songs that the BBC transmitted as part of their In Concert series that October, three of them would eventually feature on the Queen’s second album. As well as ‘Son And Daughter‘ and ‘ Liar‘ from the first album, and once again ‘See What A Fool I’ve Been‘, the other songs included in the broadcast were ‘Ogre Battle‘, ‘Father To Son‘ and ‘Procession‘, though the latter was unusual in it’s inclusion. As opposed to performing the song live, Queen chose to play the finished studio version over the venue’s PA System as they arrived on stage, an innovative idea at the time, and one which Queen would continue to imploy throughout their live career.
Towards the end of their first UK tour (supporting Mott The Hoople in November and December, 1973), Queen returned to the BBC for another radio ‘session’, again with producer Bernie Andrews at the helm. The tracks recorded were all from the first album – ‘Son And Daughter‘, ‘Modern Times Rock’n’Roll‘ and ‘Great King Rat‘, with one exception – a new song called ‘Ogre Battle‘, which here was preceeded by a lengthy intro which sadly no longer exists in complete form.
Hitting The Mainstream
But it was the next recording for the BBC that would become Queen’s first big break. When David Bowie was forced to drop out of an appearance on Top Of The Pops to promote his ‘Rebel Rebel’ single, the show’s producer Robin Nash suddenly found himself with less than twenty four hours to find a replacement. This was Tuesday, 19th February 1974, and the show was to be recorded the following day for a Thursday transmission. Nash telephoned Ronnie Fowler, head of promotion at EMI, who was currently obsessing over the white label copy of Queen’s next single in his possession. Fowler rushed the record to Nash, who liked what he heard, and the band were quickly contacted to see if they could appear.
Naturally they said yes, but there was a problem. At the time, artists very rarely performed live, instead miming to a backing track. But this backing track was never the actual single. And so Queen had to somehow record a new version of the song to mime along to in just a few short hours. Borrowing studio time from Pete Townshend, the band recorded the track that night, and the following morning took it with them to the BBC’s Ramport Studios to record their appearance. Less than forty-eight hours after they had agreed to appear on the show, Queen watched their debut performance on Top Of The Pops in the window of an electrical shop, as millions of people nationwide were introduced to this innovative new group. EMI rush released the single by that Saturday, and the band’s first UK single to ever chart reached number ten within weeks. Sadly, this footage, and that of the follow-up performance the following week, was destroyed as part of the BBC’s massive internal shakeup in the mid seventies, but has thankfully since been recovered!
Queen were well aware of the importance Top Of The Pops had played in launching their career into the mainstream, and were back on the show within the year to promote the first single from third album ‘ Sheer Heart Attack‘, a double A-side of ‘Killer Queen‘ and ‘Flick Of The Wrist‘. Radio stations only seemed to pick up on the former though, which was also the track Queen chose to perform on the show. This performance is now readily available on the ‘Greatest Video Hits 1‘ DVD, and is still repeated quite frequently by the BBC.
A few days later, Queen recorded their penultimate radio session for the BBC, this time at Maida Vale Studios in London. As the Sheer Heart Attack‘ album was being prepared for release, the band felt it wise to record four tracks from their new long player, and chose ‘Stone Cold Crazy‘, ‘Now I’m Here‘, ‘Flick Of The Wrist‘ and ‘Tenement Funster‘. This somewhat harsher recording than the more familiar album cuts was broadcast on the Bob Harris Show in the first week of November 1974.
Within months, Queen returned once again to the Top Of The Pops studios, performing their next hit single, ‘Now I’m Here‘ in January of 1975, though like ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye‘ before it this footage no longer exists. The band came to avoid performing for Top Of The Pops, as they loathed the process of recording the show. Roger: “I hate used to hate Top Of The Pops. For one it was a crap show, with lots of crap acts on it miming badly and two, it was a really long boring day and it used to take all of your iron will not to get completely pissed!”
History In The Making
The band’s next encounter with the BBC and the famed Top Of The Pops would be a monumental success, throwing their career into overdrive and in time be sighted as the moment at which the modern day music video was born. In November of 1975, Queen were to begin a long UK tour, and perhaps to their delight would be unable to perform their latest single on Top Of The Pops. Knowing the difficulties they would have getting the song on the show at all if they did not, due to it’s incredible length (six minutes was almost unheard of for a single unless you were The Beatles and could get away with a seven minute opus like ‘Hey Jude’).
As others artists in the 1960s had made short films to be shown on Top Of The Pops, Queen decided to make a video for the song and submit it to the programme. The result, filmed on a shoestring budget and in just a few short hours was broadcast on Top Of The Pops for the first time on 20th November 1975, causing a storm of interest around the band and the song, which was soon catapulted to number one and stayed there for a then record nine weeks. Indeed, the song was there for so long that an alternate edit of the video was made to give the programme some variety!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Queen and the BBC arranged a one-off ‘thank you’ gig at the Hammersmith Odean in London. The concert on Christmas Eve 1975 was broadcast simultaneously on BBC2 (as part of The Old Grey Whistle Test strand) and on BBC Radio One. It was a great success for all concerned, and bootlegged tapes of the concert are still popular amongst fans to this day.
Queen had by now conquered much of the globe, and were usually to be found on tour in various territories whenever a new single beckoned in their homeland. And so, from 1976 onwards, most of Queen’s singles would be accompanied by a promotional video which could be screened across the globe, and the vast majority of these were featured on Top Of The Pops. In some cases, the show would be granted the ‘world premiere’ of a video from Queen, and these would usually prove to be very popular, as well-prepared Queen fans waited for the videos with bated breath.
Their November 1976 single ‘Somebody To Love‘ was unusual, however, in that the promotional video was not available for the song’s first airing on Top Of The Pops, and so the show’s then-resident dance troupe, Pans People, performed a specially choreographed dance to the song instead. Depending on their viewpoint on Pans People, fans are divided as to if they should be thankful that this footage has remained hidden in the BBC Archives for more than a quarter of a century!
Although the band as a whole would only ever return to BBC Television to perform once more for Top Of The Pops, they would, on occasion, make the odd guest appearance on other shows. Promoting their sixth album, ‘A Day At The Races‘ in December of 1976, Brian guested on The Old Grey Whistle Test as an interviewee rather than a performer (unlike many of their contemparies Queen never performed a ‘session’ for the tv show), and John turned up on Saturday morning kids show Multi Coloured Swap Shop a few days later. December saw the band end the year the way they had begun it – at the top of the UK Albums charts, and so the BBC repeated the Hammersmith Odeon concert as part of their Christmas celebrations.
A Return To Auntie Beeb
1977 was another year of collaborations with the BBC. Firstly the release of Queen’s First EP in June led to an appearance on Top Of The Pops for the first time in over two years, miming to a specially recorded version of Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy. October saw the release of Queen’s ninth single, Freddie’s anthemic ‘We Are The Champions‘, and whilst the accompanying video was broadcast across the world and has been released on both home video and dvd, Top Of The Pops were also treated to another version of the piece, which although not broadcast was kept in the BBC vaults and premiered on the popular Top Of The Pops 2 compilation show in the summer of 2003.
The accompanying album, ‘News Of The World‘ was released on October 28th 1977 – and this was also the day in which Queen returned to Maida Vale Studios in London to record their sixth and final session for BBC Radio. It was unusual for a band of Queen’s then stature to want to record sessions for the BBC, as they were primarilly used as a promotional tool for up-and-coming (and as in Queen’s case back in February of 1973 – unsigned) artists.
Produced by Jeff Griffin and broadcast on November 14th 1977, the band ripped through roaring renditions of four of the highlights from the new album – ‘Spread Your Wings‘: an energetic reworking closer in style to the later live renditions than the familiar album cut; ‘It’s Late‘: heavier than the album version and containing an improvised section reminiscient of fellow ‘News Of The World‘ track ‘Get Down, Make Love‘; ‘My Melancholy Blues‘: Freddie’s haunting ballad with a Red Special guitar part absent from the album version; and ‘We Will Rock You‘: a two part rendition consisting of the familiar stomp-clap version and a fully fledged rocked up ‘fast’ reworking that would later open Queen concerts the world over.
This session is also interesting for the inclusion of a spoken word passage from a Radio Four reading of Herman Hesse’s work Siddhartha. This was discovered by the band purely by accident – the tape their sessions was being recorded onto had previously contained this reading, and the band decided to include a snippet in between the two versions of ‘We Will Rock You‘ they were recording.
In Their Own Words
Queen rounded off 1977 with a specially recorded two part interview for BBC Radio One. Broadcast on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day and produced by Paul Williams, the band talked casually through their career up to that point with interviewer Tom Browne. The discussion was interspersed with various songs from their first six albums, and music by other artists that the band specifically requested.
‘Modern Times Rock’n’Roll‘, ‘Keep Yourself Alive‘, ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye‘, ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke‘, ‘The March Of The Black Queen‘, ‘Killer Queen‘, ‘Bring Back That Leroy Brown‘, ‘In The Lap Of The Gods‘, ‘Now I’m Here‘, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘, ‘I’m In Love With My Car‘, ‘You’re My Best Friend‘, ‘Good Company‘, ‘Somebody To Love‘, ‘Teo Torriatte‘, ‘Tie Your Mother Down‘, ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy‘, ‘ Sheer Heart Attack‘, ‘Spread Your Wings‘, ‘We Will Rock You‘ and ‘We Are The Champions‘ were all given airtime during the two hours, as was Roger’s debut solo single from that summer, ‘I Wanna Testify‘. John and Freddie selected soulful tracks by Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, while Brian and Roger took the more traditional approach and went for rock in the form of Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and The Who.
Jazz and beyond
The Christmas 77 interview was to be the last real collaboration with the BBC for some time. Much of 1978 was spent touring the world and in tax-exile, though Brian did make a guest appearance once again on The Old Grey Whistle Test in October. The next few years passed by in similar fashion, with only a handful of guest appearances – the band as a whole on BBC1’s Tonight in December 1979, Freddie helping out his old friend Kenny Everett on his BBC sketch show in February of 1980 (Everett’s popular punk rocker spoof Sid Snot was jumped on and wrestled to the ground by an enthusiastic Mercury) and Roger making an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1981.
Roger returned to the Top Of The Pops studios for the first time since 1975 to promote ‘Future Management‘ – the first single from his debut solo album ‘ Fun In Space‘, in April of 1981. The performance failed to lift the song any higher than number forty-nine, though it would be repeated to the delight of many fans on the clips show Top Of The Pops 2 to coincide with Roger’s birthday in July of 2001.
1982 followed much the same pattern as recent years, although the band did appear on the BBC’s Weekend programme in May, and returned to the Top Of The Pops studios in June to perform their single ‘Las Palabras De Amor (The Words Of Love) ‘ – the only visual recording to accompany the album/single cut of the song, as for once no promotional video was made to accompany the single. Roger would also appear on Pop Quiz that October.
1983 saw the band switch loyalties somewhat, as their Milton Keyne’s gig from June of 1982 was broadcast on new rival station Channel Four in January. Their second of two Wembley gigs in the summer of 1986 would later follow suit and be shown on Channel Four instead of the BBC also.
To document the remainder of Queen’s television and radio appearances on the BBC would be difficult, suffice to say near-impossible. Various appearances on quiz shows, kids tv and various interviews followed over the course of the following years, as did bought in performances at the Montreux Pop Festival and of course, Live Aid. Freddie gave a rare Radio One interview to DJ Simon Bates in June of 1985 and Brian would make frequent appearances on the DJ’s show in the late eighties and early nineties. A further in depth interview with Radio One DJ Mike Reid followed at Easter in 1989. Broadcast on 29th May 1989 to publicise the band’s new album, ‘ The Miracle‘, the interview was similar in style to the 1977 interview with Tom Browne. 1989 also saw the release of some of the band’s BBC sessions on the indepedant Band Of Joy label (the album ‘Queen At The Beeb‘ was not a success and has since become a collector’s item).
Brian and Roger’s involvement with Comic Relief’s 1991 single by Hale & Pace And The Stonkers would see them included as part of that years night of comedy and entertainment designed to raise money via viewer donations. October 1991 saw Top Of The Pops proudly premiere ‘The Show Must Go On‘ video (in a now much sort after alternate cut to that found on ‘Greatest Flix II‘), but it was a different event late that year that would prompt the band’s first real involvement with the BBC in years.
Freddie Mercury died on November 24th 1991. The following day saw news report after news report retell his story as more and more fans surrounded his house in mourning. That evening, a hastilly organised tribute programme was broadcast, with a specially recorded introduction by an obviously shocked and deeply saddened Elton John. The show was an almagamation of clips from the archives – interview footage, clips from the Hammersmith Odeon gig from 1975, Queen’s Live Aid performance almost in its entirity – anything possible to fill the allocated space. The show was watched by millions, and was given a repeat showing in January of 1992, at a time when the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘ video was being shown once again on Top Of The Pops.
When Brian and Roger appeared at the Brit Awards the following February to collect awards on Queen’s behalf, they announced to all present, and to all watching at home on BBC One, that there would be a concert at Wembley Stadium to celebrate the life and work of Freddie Mercury. That concert was broadcast in it’s entirerity on BBC Two live on 20th April 1992, under the title A Concert For Life: A Tribute To Freddie Mercury. The show overran, yet the BBC proudly kept it running – and 6.3 million watched, a figure then almost unheard of for BBC Two. An edited ‘highlights’ version of the concert was broadcast once again on BBC Two on Christmas Day, 1992.
A Future At The BBC?
Since the tribute concert, Brian and Roger have made several appearances on BBC television and radio. Brian pushed the ‘Ressurection’ single hard, with an interview for The O Zone and a performance on Top Of The Pops in 1993, whilst Roger was a memorable guest on the Sunday teatime quiz A Question Of Music a few years back. Whilst Channel Four have made and/or broadcast several notable Queen documentaries since Freddie’s death, the BBC bought the rights to the tv version of The Untold Story documentary which features in the boxed set Freddie Mercury: The Solo Collection. Most recently, the BBC have not only made a documentary called ‘The Story Of Bohemian Rhapsody‘, but premiered an edited version of the Classic Albums series take on A Night At The Opera, which was released on DVD in 2006.
Brian and Roger were also back on Top Of The Pops – literally – performing their chart topping retake of ‘We Will Rock You‘ with boyband 5ive in June 2000, and they opened the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in style with their own much loved interpretation of ‘God Save The Queen‘ in 2002 – with Brian playing his trusty Red Special on the roof of Buckingham Palace to a large audience both at the palace and on the BBC. That year also saw Brian guest on Radio Four’s long running Desert Island Discs, selecting his favourite pieces of music for Sue Lawley to discuss with him.