50 Years Ago: Queen’s First Single Flops
Years before Queen released their first music, they were messing about in practice sessions and local gigs, trying to find their footing.
They didn't even have a regular bassist yet. It was just Freddie Mercury, Brian May and Roger Taylor, gradually building their reputation as a live band, performing original material that would later appear on their albums. But at that point, Queen was still figuring out their songwriting style.
"I wasn't very sure that I was a songwriter, really," May explained years later. It was around this time that the guitarist began developing a song titled "Keep Yourself Alive."
"I just sort of had this idea, and strangely enough the lyrics for 'Keep Yourself Alive' are meant to be kind of a comment, they’re meant to be slightly ironical," May noted. "Everyone always did think that 'Keep Yourself Alive' was just a jolly song about how great it is to be alive, but it's actually more about asking the question, 'Is there more to life than this?' in a sense."
Listen to Queen's Original 1971 Recording of 'Keep Yourself Alive'
The first version of "Keep Yourself Alive" was recorded in 1971 at London's De Lane Lea Studios, a few months after bassist John Deacon officially joined the band. Produced by Louie Austin and featuring an acoustic guitar intro by May, the early demo take is the version May considers the best.
More than a year later, Queen was asked to give "Keep Yourself Alive," plus other songs intended for their debut album, another try, this time at Trident Studios. But May wasn't as excited by the updated recording.
"I thought it was terrible," May said in a 1983 interview with BBC Radio 1. "And I was very unhappy about it and I thought the De Lane Lea one was better, and I eventually managed to persuade [producer Roy Thomas Baker] that it was better as well. So, we went back in and did it again in a way that was a bit more true to the original. But there is no way that you can ever really repeat something. ... I still think that the De Lane Lea one had that certain sort of magic, so I was never really happy."
Queen tried to remedy the situation by reworking the song's mix so many times that the band lost count. "Eventually we went in and did a mix with Mike Stone, our engineer, and that's the one that we were in the end happiest with," May explained. "That's the one we put out."
"Keep Yourself Alive," the adjusted version recorded at Trident in 1972, was released on July 6, 1973, in the U.K., a week before the band's self-titled debut album arrived. But the song went nowhere, failing to chart in their home country and the U.S. when it was released on Oct. 8.
Watch Queen's 'Keep Yourself Alive' Video
Queen recovered from this stumbling start, and the album was better received, but May never forgot that 1971 demo.
"I have this great belief that the magic of the moment can never be recaptured and, although we ended up with something that was technically in the playing and perhaps even in the recording a bit better than the De Lane Lea thing," he said in 1983. "To my mind 'Keep Yourself Alive' was never really satisfactory. Never had that magic that it should have had."