51 years ago …. 27 June 1970, Queen performed their very first show, Brian and Roger performed with their new lead singer, Freddie Bulsara (not yet Mercury) under the name Queen at City Hall in Truro, Cornwall
This is the very first gig Queen ever performed, a charity event organized by the British Red Cross. It was booked for Smile (the pre-Queen band consisting of guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and bassist/vocalist Tim Staffell) by Roger’s mother (Winifred) who was involved with the charity. She posted numerous ads, the earliest one in February. A roadie at the time, Ken Testi, insists they were called Queen at the first gig. Roger Taylor confirmed this in 2019 with a photo of his May 27, 1970 diary that he posted on his Instagram. Another photo he posted indicates they considered calling the band ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ a few days prior.
Upon meeting Roger Taylor: “I remember being flabbergasted when Roger set his kit up at Imperial College. Just the sound of him tuning his drums was better than I’d heard from anyone before.”
Smile had developed a reputation for being a solid band on the London college and club circuit. Brian May, being a student at Imperial College, keenly networked with the right people on campus and soon booked top acts like Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd to perform there, and ensuring his band in the opening slot. Performing at Royal Albert Hall was another career highlight for them. They recorded six original tracks in the studio and released a single in the US entitled ‘Earth’ that flopped. Feeling no forward progress they called it a day in 1970. From the ashes of Smile came Queen.
John Deacon wasn’t yet in the band at this point. Mike Grose was Queen’s first of many bassists. He had briefly played in a band with Roger Taylor in 1965 called “Johnny Quale and The Reaction,” founded by his brother, John Grose.
The first Queen gig wasn’t Mike’s first with Brian and Roger. Tim Staffell had left Smile in the spring of 1970 (on March 29, precisely), forcing Mike to join Brian and Roger on little notice to play mostly covers and blues standards at one or both of these April gigs at PJ’s, a venue he co-owned at the time. The three of them shared vocal duties. There were two remaining Smile gigs in April and May 1970, and Tim was likely persuaded back by Brian and Roger to fulfill the commitment. Tim went on to play in bands in 1970 called No Joke! (which included Mike Grose) and Humpy Bong, and then in 1971, Morgan (whose namesake, Morgan Fisher, would later play with Queen as their touring keyboardist in 1982). On Morgan’s 1972 album Nova Solis, Staffell’s Smile track ‘Earth’ would resurface as part of the adventurous title track that spans all of side B.
With this knowledge that three quarters of the first incarnation of Queen played (at least one of) these April shows at PJ’s and that Queen were booked as Smile at this June 27 show (and likely others over the next few months), it is now clear that there was a process of Smile evolving into Queen, rather than Smile suddenly becoming Queen at a particular moment in time as previously thought. Interestingly enough, the ad from the third week of April states the band being replaced by Smile was named Sour Milk Sea, a band who were booked the previous week but had just split up – whose singer was named Freddie Bulsara.
Born Farrokh Bulsara, the singer was going by the moniker Freddie Bulsara at this time. Freddie was well-acquainted with the three members of Smile. He was Brian’s flatmate at the time, attended many of their shows, and sometimes acted as a roadie. He loved their music, but also had candidly vocalized to them his opinion that their stage presentation was all wrong and needed more theatricality. Brian later recalled Freddie saying, “This is really good – it’s great how you’re aware of building up atmospheres and bringing them down. But you’re not dressing right, you’re not addressing the audience properly. There’s always opportunity to connect.” At some point between April and June 1970, Freddie, Brian, and Roger would join forces musically. The photos seen above are likely from their first rehearsal at Imperial College, as confirmed by Brian May in 2019.
According to an interview in a 1977 issue of Circus, Freddie recalled the first song the band ever performed to be Stone Cold Crazy – the only original piece performed by the band that evening. “It was not as polished as they’d have liked and the audience was relatively small, but Freddie hadn’t played in front of a proper audience before,” writes Jacky Gunn in the As It Began book. Many accounts had recalled it to be a much slower version of the song, but Brian May said otherwise in 1998:
“Regarding ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ – yes, it is the same version, although there was a very early attempt by Freddie with his previous group done with a different riff at a slower tempo. I think the truth is we weren’t sure it was good enough for the first album and it didn’t fit the format of the second album – Queen II. By the time Sheer Heart Attack was being made, we’d had a lot of practice at it!”
Roger Taylor recalls the gig well, and stated that the band also played Son And Daughter at the first gig. The rest of their set was most likely covers – perhaps including some Smile songs, which both Freddie and Mike would have been familiar with. Doin’ Alright, which would later be reworked for the debut Queen album (and respelled to read ‘Doing All Right’), is a likely candidate. Mike Grose says the band covered Led Zeppelin songs at these early shows. Amongst them was likely Communication Breakdown, as Freddie had performed it last year with his band, Wreckage. Mike later stated that doing covers was easy, because they could just lift the songs off the record note for note, whereas the arrangements of Queen originals kept changing.
Roger later recalled how Freddie “didn’t have the technique he developed later on; he sounded a little bit like a very powerful sheep.” On another occasion he said, “Freddie had a natural musicality. It was a real gift, but he had a very strange vibrato when we first met, which some people found rather distressing. But he applied himself and forged his own persona. He invented himself.”
On another occasion he recalled how rich they felt earning £50 for the gig. In a 2018 interview he added: “That was actually arranged by my mother in aid of the Red Cross. We were paid £50 which was quite a lot of money back then. I’m not sure many people turned up though.”
Far from the vast lighting rigs they would have in the future, they played under only two of their own lights.
Brian also played with a six-pence coin instead of a guitar pick from the beginning, another key element of his unique sound, one of the most coveted tones of all time for aspiring and professional guitarists alike.
Queen would remain in flux throughout the rest of the year, gigging semi-regularly with new bassist Barry Mitchell taking over in August, and finally coalescing into its most successful lineup with the arrival of John Deacon in March 1971. A little more than two years later, they released their debut LP —
The rest is history!0