Adapted from article by Andy Davis / John S Stuart
“Smile was really a semi-professional outfit, we had not made the big jump to go professional. I guess we could not because we were all still at college.” That’s how Brian May described the precursor to Queen in the documentary, “Champions Of The World”. Featuring Brian on guitar and Roger Taylor on drums, Smile included half the members of the band, which, would go on to scale heights few in the Rock world would ever rival.
“By hook or by crook”, continued May, “we got this gig at the Royal Albert Hall, which was at the bottom of the bill. We actually got our first review, which was in “The Times”, and said something like, 'the loudest group in the western world has unplugged and left the stage', but it didn't say who it was”.
The gig May describes was actually a benefit concert for the National Council For The Unmarried Mother And Her Child on 27th February 1969. Smile were not quite bottom of the bill - they played ahead of Free, then only recently formed - but if there was any truth in the "Times' report, it was that the band was certainly loud.
“We wanted to be heavy…” says Tim Staffell vocalist and founding member of Smile. “… We wanted to be intelligent. They were our criteria, but we had disciplined loudness; we didn't just rely on power to punch a song through. We made songs dynamic in the proper sense of the word”.
In an interview for Music UK (January 1984), Brian’s view of Smile was reported by Steven Rosen as, “mostly we were playing other people's material, adaptations of other people's material. We did a heavy version of If I were a Carpenter and a lot more or less pure jamming where we'd start off with a riff and build on that. We had an elemental version of Doing Alright which was on the first Queen album. There was a particular track called Earth which was a Smile single which was released in America and sold zero. I quite liked it. I think we did a couple of adaptations of Motown things, and we did a couple of Cream songs like N.S.U. and I think we also did Sweet Wine”.
Tim Staffell first met Brian May at Hampton Grammar School in Middlesex, and had been lead singer in Brian's schoolboy band, 1984, which lasted about four years, and counted a 1967 support slot for Jimi Hendrix at Kensington's Imperial College (where Brian enrolled to study astronomy) among its greatest achievements.
Smile was a giant leap towards the sort of professional group 1984 (and Brian in particular) dreamt about becoming. “Brian put an advert for a drummer on the student union notice board at Imperial and Roger came along” remembers Tim, who was studying graphics at Ealing College of Art. An audition at Roger's Shepherds Bush flat, followed shortly afterwards. “Roger was excellent, a good player… He was really confident and flamboyant. I loved the way he used to sit up and hit his crash cymbal and then deaden it immediately. He was funny, too. A good bloke”.
Brian May stated that before Smile… “I was playing in an amateur group called 1984, and I had it then. But … 1984 it was just a schoolboy band”. However, just like Smile, and Queen after them, 1984 was based upon the unique sounds of Brian’s guitar. “Because I couldn't afford what I wanted. I thought I wanted a Les Paul or a Stratocaster, though I'd never had one in my hands. I didn't particularly like what most of my friends had, which were Hofner Coloramas and Futuramas. I sort of liked them but I thought I could do better. So my father and I set about it. Originally I designed the pickups but I ditched them because, although they had a good sound, they didn't have a uniform enough feel. You'd squeeze the string and they would just make the wrong sound, so I threw them out and put Burns pickups on; which were commercially available at the time, and they're what I still use. I filled them up with Epoxy resin, to stop them from being microphonic but, apart from that, they're standard”.
Another contributor to the Smile sound was Brian’s fondness of his trusty Vox AC30 amplifier; “(Vox) AC30's from pretty early. First of all I was using an old valve amplifier which was part of a radio we had at home. We disconnected the radio part and plugged into the preamp and that was the first thing I used. That's when we were playing in each other's houses. Next, I bought a Burns amplifier which I was never very happy with. By then I had played some of my friends' AC30's and that's what I went to. I got a second hand AC30 pretty soon after that, and I've stuck with the AC30's ever since. The Shadows were the big AC30 people in those days, that's where I got the idea for it”.
Founding Smile member Chris Smith remembers “After seeing Tim’s band perform at a dance one evening, I said to him that he and the guitarist were much better than the rest of the band. 1984 were having problems at the time, so we had a meeting in a pub in Soho, and decided to work together. That’s how we came to put an advert on the notice board at Imperial College, where Brian studied, which as is now well known, was answered by Roger Taylor… I only played a couple of gigs with Smile, and left within a matter of weeks, but as I recall it, I started the band with Tim”.
Smith also asserts; “My involvement with Tim and Brian… actually goes back to 1968, when they were both in 1984. During that time I was at art college in Ealing, in the same graphics class as Tim and Freddie Mercury, or Bulsara as we knew him back then. The three of us tended to sit together because we were musicians”.
Smile’s final recruit, drummer and vocalist Roger Taylor had moved to London from Cornwall in October 1967 to study dentistry at the London Hospital Medical School in Whitechapel. As the leader of the Reaction, he'd progressed through R&B and Soul to become a powerful exponent of the newly emerging Heavy Rock genre. With Smile however, he seemed content to let bassist Tim Staffell take over the vocal lead, but his role in the band was far from a supporting one. “Roger turned a straight line into a triangle”, Tim recounted to Mark Hodkinson in 'Queen - The Early Years'. “He was lively and exciting, and ran on adrenalin. He was always 'up'. Smile were enhanced by Roger's energy”.
“We thought he was the best drummer we had ever seen”, recalls Brian May. “I watched him tuning a snare - something I'd never seen done before - and I remember thinking how professional he looked”
Chris Smith added, “I played the organ and backing vocals in the original line-up of Smile, which was a four piece: Tim, Brian, Roger and myself.”
Coming together in the closing months of 1968, Smile was keen to adopt the trappings of a proper band. “A guy called Peter Abbey, a dental student from Roger's college, became our manager”, recalls Tim, “although really, it was only a casual arrangement”. Additionally, a school friend of Brian's by the name of Pete Edmunds became the band's roadie, driving them around in a green Thames Trader van, for which he'd traded in his MG sports car. Using his design skills, Tim Staffell created the distinctive grinning-mouth logo for the band, complete with pearly-white teeth and crimson red lips, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the leery Dr. Feelgood trademark. When Smile sent a demo tape (contents now long since forgotten) to the Beatles' new Apple label, the only feedback they received was that Paul McCartney liked their logo.
Brian May's connections at Imperial ensured a steady supply of supporting gigs on the burgeoning college circuit. Smile also signed to the Rondo promotions agency. “We dealt with a guy who was really plummy”, recalls Tim. “Rondo was in the same building in Kensington Church Court as Juliana's Discotheques, which was a real up-market, toffs disco for debs' coming-out parties. It's probably an oil company now. Rondo was more involved with Genesis than they were with us; in fact, I once designed a poster for Genesis: a really big illustration, printed on lime-green fluorescent paper with 'rock'-style writing.”
As a newly chic power band, Smile played their inauspicious debut at Imperial on 26th October 1968, at someone else's auspicious gig: opening for Pink Floyd, who'd recently charted with “See Emily Play”. Smile were billed as one of two “supporting groups”, and were somewhat taken aback by these psychedelic pioneers. “They were strange” recalls Tim Staffell. “That wasn't something I could easily relate to. They were extremely English”. Like their predecessors 1984 and the Reaction, Smile was essentially a covers band. They had few compositions of their own, and were content to reconstruct existing material to suit their own developing tastes.
Chris Smith’s recollections of the same events however, are somewhat different; “I remember our first gig at Imperial College… we didn’t support Pink Floyd, but the Troggs”. (The Troggs by this time were a household name and had charted in the UK with tracks like “Give It To Me”, “Night Of The Long Grass”, “Hi Hi Hazel”, and “Little Girl”. Four of their singles - “Wild Thing”, “I Can’t Control Myself”, “Anyway You Want Me”, and “Love Is All Around” – had scored top ten hits, while the massive “Girl Like You” claimed the coveted number one spot for two weeks in August 1966). Smith continues; “I opened our set with Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor”, rushing straight into “Can’t Be So Bad” by Moby Grape at Break-neck speed”.
Their music was “rather wild and unpopular” reported Jim Jenkins and Jacky Gunn in Queen's official biography, “As It Began”. “They would play a cover version of a popular song, using every change in tempo they could fit in. Often songs would last as long as twenty minutes”. Tim Staffell agrees: “We used to like Yes, and the way they varied their tempos and arranged their material. We also did a heavy piece by the Small Faces, 'Rollin' Over', which Brian rehashed on his 1992 solo album, 'Back To The Light”.
Whatever genre they slotted into, Smile's musical formula proved to be successful, and they went on to become a popular attraction at Imperial, eventually becoming the college's house band. As far as Tim Staffell was concerned, though, the musicians in Smile - himself at least - were still at a learning stage. “Initially we were quite… loose…” he claims. “That was probably as a result of my bass playing. I wasn't as disciplined as I should have been. When I look back, I was all over the place”.
Smile quickly became an all-consuming behemoth for the quartet, and both Brian May and Roger Taylor began to doubt their chosen careers in astronomy and dentistry. At the end of 1968, Taylor dropped out of college (he has since said that “studying dentistry was merely… a way to get to London”), although May continued his course for the time being, and to this day maintains an interest in the celestial world.
1969 brought a new face into the Smile camp, a college friend of Tim's by the name of Freddie Bulsara. Freddie became a friend and supporter of the band, offering his advice whenever it was - or wasn't - needed, but he never actually performed with them publicly. Eventually, though, after accompanying them to gigs in their Trader van, he moved into Brian, Roger and Tim's shared flat in Ferry Road, Bames, South-West London. As the story goes, Freddie was desperate to join Smile at this stage, but had top be content to latch onto another trio, Ibex - a group from Liverpool who swung into the Smile circle the same year.
In 1984 and the Reaction, Brian and Roger had been used to headlining their own gigs, albeit at a local level. In London, however, Smile was lucky to be offered support slots, and aside from Pink Floyd or the Troggs, all of their documented appearances in the capital were as an opening act. Among those committed to history are gigs with Tyrannosaurus Rex; the yet-to-record Yes at the Richmond Athletic Club in February '69; Family at Imperial on 15th March (a good eight months before their breakthrough hit, No Mule's Fool); and Mighty Baby, the psychedelic band formed from the ashes of the George Martin-produced Action.
By far the band's most prestigious appearance of 1969 was the Royal Albert Hall event Brian May referred to earlier. Immediately prior to the concert Smile, still rehearsing with keyboardist Chris Smith, decided that it would be a good idea to dismiss him from his services. “He was a good bloke”, recalls Tim. “He had a pink Vox Continental organ - not a wonderful instrument. But he wasn't a bad player, more boogie-woogie, a bit more American-influenced - kind of in the Dr. John mould. If I'd have met him later, I'd have appreciated his playing much more. We were more what you might call Britrock these days. We fired him the night before we did the Albert Hall. We were sitting in the back of the van going round a roundabout somewhere and I had to say, 'Chris, we'd rather do tomorrow night as a trio'. He's still around, up in Yorkshire somewhere. People tell me he goes around feeling like the fifth Beatle, but that's my prerogative”.
Again, Chris Smith’s recollection of events differs slightly; “I was not as Tim Staffell suggested sacked from the band; I resigned. If Brian May, Roger Taylor and Tim did all get together one day in 1969 and decide I wasn’t right for the band, then they never told me! It is true I was only in Smile for a very short time, but this means I can remember the sequence of events quite clearly”. For example, Smith contests that his “huge pink Vox Continental organ” came out of Tim’s imagination. I had a Selmer Capris, and it was grey!”
However, “As Tim rightly pointed out… I was already steeped in American Rhythm and Blues and Soul music. I was more interested in Muddy Waters than the Who and Led Zeppelin. My idea of starting a band in London at that point was to try and be the next Rolling Stones, while the rest of Smile, were as Tim said, Britrockers. I had wanted us to be a Blues based band, but I very quickly realised that it wasn’t going in that direction, so I left amicably”.
With or without Smith, Smile saw the Albert Hall gig as the zenith of their achievements to date (although 1984 had played the same venue a few years before). Their short set included versions of Bobby Darrin’s “If I Were A Carpenter”, Tommy James & The Shondells “Mony Mony”, Brian May’s ubiquitous Blues number “See What A Fool I've Been”, plus Tim Staffell's “Earth”.
“See What A Fool I've Been” has always been something of a mystery. According to Tim “The song was an old blues number I first heard on a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee album. Brian came up with a new arrangement, based on the piece, rather than a completely original song”. Asked to elaborate Tim continued; “It's hard to be too determined about this, but I'm sure I had an album with this track. The trouble is, I used the record swap stores quite a lot, and didn't hang on to albums for that long. Crazy really, since one invariably regrets this practice. I have always enjoyed Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. They had an easy, rolling style that always felt good to me, even with some of the more melancholy songs, of which this wasn't really a particularly good example… but I fear I might need deep hypnosis to draw it out!”
However, Brian May stated; “This song has remained a mystery to me over the years, too. It is based on an old Blues number. When I tried to find out the original writer at the time, and again a few years later, I drew a blank. My recollection is that I heard it on a TV show, performed, I think by Muddy Waters… I just remembered what I could and made up the rest, especially most of the words”. Tim now concedes; “It’s got me wondering, perhaps it's a line from something else.... I didn't think so, though” The mists of time may now obscure the original inspiration behind the track, but it certainly lends itself to the likes of Cream’s “Sitting On Top Of The World” (Previously released on the 1968 “Wheels On Fire” album, and also performed in their legendary Albert Hall concert which was filmed and screened in cinemas all over Europe).
Brian has since reported on his official website that See What A Fool I've Been was actually inspired by the track 'That's How I Feel' by Sonny Brown, Terry McGhee & Big Bill Broonzy - so that clears up at least one ancient mystery!
The actual gig, compered by DJ John Peel, wasn't recorded, although Roger Taylor did invite along a friend of his, future Queen photographer Douglas Puddifoot. As well as shooting stills from the right of the stage, Puddifoot also captured around three minutes of the band's performance on a black-and-white, 8mm home movie.
The footage is silent and is far from optimum quality, but nevertheless still survives. Just over a minute's worth of the film was included in the “Champions Of The World” documentary, overdubbed with excerpts from “Step On Me” and “April Lady” from the Mercury De Lane Lea session, which somewhat ironically, had still to be recorded.
Tim Staffell - has another reason to recall the Albert Hall event: “I remember running out across the stage and my lead was too short, and the opening chord of the first song was minus my bass guitar. That has a strange irony about it, doesn't it?”
With a ready-made network of contacts back home in Cornwall, Roger Taylor also secured regular gigs for Smile. Among those he sought out was Peter John Bawden, ex- guitarist with Cornish band the Staggerlees (backing band for singer Dave Lee on two singles for Oriole in 1963), who'd recently founded his own Club, PJ's, in Truro. The gigs were coming-home events for Taylor.
“Those weekends in Cornwall were highlights of our time with Smile, because everyone used to make so much fuss of us there”, Tim Staffell told Mark Hodkinson. “It became a great social thing with lots of drinking sessions”. The camaraderie also extended to Mike Dudley, Roger's old friend from the Reaction, who would often join the band on stage. “It was fairly easy to play for a couple of hours after knowing each other for years and years,” he recalls, but as Smile developed, eventually mutating into Queen, Mike's guest spots dried up: “It happened for one or two summers, and then the third it didn't”.
Smile's adverts in the 'amusements' section of Truro's 'West Briton and Royal Cornwall Gazette' were prone to London-style hyperbole: “Beautiful sounds once again from Smile”, promised one; “The fantastic, beautiful Smile”, added another. Did these descriptions fit the band? “Hardly”, admits Tim Staffell. “That was probably more to do with what was being smoked than anything else. Or probably not. That was significant, you know. Smile wasn't a drug band at all. I've no idea what happened in Queen, although I suspect the old nose candy turned up a bit. That's not to say in Smile we didn't have the odd smoke now and again, but compared with some of the things I got into later on - you know, 'Can someone carry me out of the door, please' - it was quite an innocent, clean-cut little outfit. If the drugs squad had asked Brian to turn out the pockets of his cardigan, I can assure you that they have found nothing”.
Further advertiser's license took place on 28th March 1969, when Smile played their debut at PJ's, billing themselves as a “Tremendous London Group” who had “appeared at top clubs, the Revolution and the Speakeasy and have recently broadcast on Radio 1's “Top Gear” Smile had indeed played the fashionable nightspots mentioned (and would continue to do so), but on Radio l? It's difficult to imagine exactly what would have been broadcast on 'Top Gear' in March 1969, given that Smile's debut recording session was still four weeks away. Such an event would have been important enough to have made at least a small impression on the band's lead singer, but Tim Staffell suggests the ad was a ruse. Although 26 years have passed since the alleged broadcast, 'Top Gear's presenter, John Peel, is similarly adamant that it never took place. “They didn't record a session, of that I'm certain”, he says. “But it's worth pointing out that in far flung comers of the country, it wasn't uncommon for bands to make these claims”. Just to make sure Peel checked his alphabetically catalogued personal record/acetate collection, and no such disc exists there.
Back in London, Smile was eventually given a break. On l0th April, they played another Speakeasy date (not the Revolution, as has been reported elsewhere), only this time they were introduced to Lou Reizner, A&R man for Mercury Records (Reizner later went on to produce Rod Stewart and mastermind one of the '70s Beatles tribute albums, "All This And World War II"). Reizner liked what he heard and offered Smile a one-off single deal.
Smile found themselves now having to transcend being simply a covers band – “It had began to become important to write your own material”, agrees Tim. “One summer, probably 1968, I made a particular effort to write, and came up with two or three songs. 'Earth' was one of them, and ended up accepted as being the strongest of the bunch. There were no musical influences on that song at all. I wrote it because I was a bit of a science fiction buff. In fact, all of the songs I knocked up that summer - and most of them were cobblers - had science fiction-based lyrics. They're the kind of things which would be considered pretentious guff these days”. What were the other songs, and was Silver Salmon one of them?
For the B-side, Smile chose one of the few originals in their repertoire, “Step On Me” - one of Brian and Tim's first compositions, which dated back to their 1984 days (a version of which appears on 1984's Thames TV demo tape). “It's still a good song”, reckons Tim. “The tune and most of the words were written by Brian. I contributed to the words”.
Both songs, plus a third, "Doin' Allright", were cut in June 1969 at Trident, the Soho studio which became synonymous with Queen's early years. Future Queen producer John Anthony, whose credits included Van Der Graaf Generator and Rare Bird, produced the session.
Only U.S. copies of the single were pressed, and there's no evidence to suggest that “Earth"/"Step On Me” was intended for release in the U.K. “It was Mercury America, which was independent from Mercury in the U.K., who offered us the deal”, remembers Tim, “so the contract wasn't for Britain anyway”. The publisher of both songs was Shapiro Bernstein, another American company, but despite these connections, Smile's debut release stalled at the promotional-copy stage in August 1969. “Everybody hedged their bets”, recounts Tim. “The record company wasn't willing to commit themselves to it. I don't recall the single being much of a big deal. None of us were over the moon about it, because there was no money in it. Had there been, I think we'd have thought that we'd cracked it, but we were aware that that record was going to have to be hawked around before anyone got behind it, and if a plugger did get on the case, it didn't generate much interest”.
There is reason to believe, however, that some moves may have been made to push the song in Britain: at least that's one conclusion to be drawn from the discovery of a double-sided acetate of "Earth"/"Step On Me" at the London office of the now- defunct Shapiro Bernstein. As it turned out, however, the U.S. promo copy was the only commercially produced recording of Smile, or indeed any of Freddie, Brian, John or Roger's pre-Queen bands.
It's worth repeating here that the Smile single has been bootlegged on a 7" single credited to Iron Wire, and while we're on the subject: Brian and Roger's Smile has no connection whatsoever with a group by the same name who backed singer Denis Couldry on a couple of singles for Decca in the late 60s; nor the Smile who issued "One Night Stand" on Uni in 1972, who were an American band.
Despite their lack of success on the recording front, Smile was producing music worth listening to - at least according to Ken Testi, the manager of Ibex. He recalled spending an evening with them at a friend's flat, when, as he recounted to Laura Jackson in 'Queen And I': “Suddenly Brian, Roger and Tim began to play us their songs and talk about what they were looking for. I knew immediately that that I was in the presence of something extraordinary. They were playing remarkable stuff, and Brian's technique was outstanding. It was seminal Queen. They were special, and everyone watching them in the flat knew it”.
Mercury must have thought the same, and in September booked Smile into De Lane Lea in Kingsway, Holborn, to record three more songs: “April Lady”, “Blag” and “Polar Bear”, produced by Fritz Flyer, former lead guitarist with 60s pop outfit the Four Pennies.
”De Lane Lea was a basement studio and it was a very late session”, recalls Tim. “I seem to remember I was really shagged out. I believe there was a bloke called Keith Nelson on that session who played electric banjo. I don't know if there's any mention of him on the album cover, because I haven't got a copy of the record, but I think he was an American who had built his own instrument. It was a funny thing, and I remember thinking it didn't sound much like a banjo, but there was an immediate rapport with Brian, as regards the 'Red Special…” Who plays piano on Step On Me?
“April Lady” was a ballad written by Stanley Lucas, which had been presented to Smile by Mercury. “That was in 5/4 time, it was a bit clever”, says Tim Staffell. “We responded to that, because we wanted to be seen to be capable. It had pretty meaningless words, but I quite liked it”. Each member is clearly discernible on the recording: Tim Staffell on lead vocals and bass, Brian on an acoustic and guitar and Roger Taylor on drums and backing vocals.
Interestingly for such an obscure song, two other covers of “April Lady” exist, both issued in the States as late as 1981. One is by a group called Wax, who recorded for RCA, while the other, faster version by modern soul singer, James Perry, appears on a new compilation "Carnival Of Soul" (Kent CDKEND 124). Although, on the evidence of Perry's version, Stanley Lucas seems to have written two different songs with the same title. Another song with the same title was recorded by Southern Comfort.
”Blag” was an instrumental written by Roger”, continues Tim. “It was a riff he'd had lying around for ages and we eventually established it as a piece. I think that always went down bloody well at gigs. It was a vehicle for us to blow. There were some three- part vocal harmonies on it, which supported the rhythmic figure. It was a bit of a blaster”. It was also the heaviest track Smile recorded, with Brian’s proto-metal riffs clearly paving the way for Queen’s heavier outings like “Liar” “Son And Daughter”, and especially Sheer Heart Attack’s, Brighton Rock.
”Brian wrote “Polar Bear” and sings lead on it”, adds Tim. “That's one of those numbers which I'd forgotten from that day to this. It was a gentle song about a polar bear. Hence the title! It was a bit out of character, actually. I suppose, though, that in the sense that Smile wanted to be dynamic, that meant we could be sensitive when called upon. But I'm not sure I'd ever be able to pigeonhole that as being suitable”.
Nothing from the De Lane Lea session was released at the time, but on 23rd September 1982, Mercury Japan finally issued a mini-album called “Gettin' Smile” without the consent or permission of the band. The long passage of time had obscured the Smile era to such a degree, that the sleeve-notes listed two of the song writing credits as “unknown”, while initially, both Brian and Roger claimed recording as many as six tracks with the band. More recently – on 30th June 1998, Double Dutch, (a company obviously based in Holland) licensed the tracks from Mercury US and released the “Ghost Of A Smile” CD, which for the first time offered digitally remastered versions of the songs.
Geoff Orens writing for the prestigious US “All Music Guide” reviewed the CD as: “Primarily of interest to Queen fans, “Ghost Of A Smile” contains Smile’s one single, “Earth/Step on Me”, and four other songs recorded in 1969, but never released. A great live band known for being quite innovative with their dynamics, Smile were not captured well on record, where poor production accentuated the trio's sometimes sloppy playing and immature lyrics. That said, the group could write fine melodies and lead singer Tim Staffell has a soulful voice that is heard best on the bouncy “Step on Me” and “Doin' Alright”, played here in a gentler fashion than on Queen’s debut record. Meanwhile on “Blag”, the hard rock psychedelic influence of acts like “Cream” is evident with a heavy jam that showcases the talents of Brian May and Roger Taylor in a way that was not usually heard in Queen. Although most casual fans of Queen or '60s rock will not find this record enthralling, it nonetheless serves as an important document in the history of one of the world's most successful groups and proves that despite the group's shortcomings, Smile was capable of making some interesting music”
”Does the title, “Gettin' Smile”, have anything in common with the sort of English translations of Yamaha keyboard manuals that we've all come to know and love?” muses Tim. “You know, the kind of thing that goes: 'For the putting of battery up the compartment, make surely to rotate when polarity come to match required directions…because it doesn't make any sense to me!”
The three De Lane Lea songs were augmented on the LP by “Step On Me”, “Earth” - or “Earth It” as the Japanese called it (“That's a much better title!” laughs Tim) - and the Staffell-May composition, “Doin' Alright”. ”Doin' Alright” ended up on the first Queen album (as “Doing All Right”)," says Tim. “It has, never bowled me over as being a particularly brilliant song, but it has got me out of a hole more than once. I've just paid this quarter's tax bill on the latest royalties”. Thanks to Roy Thomas Baker's bombastic production, Queen's version of the song is heavier than Smile's. However, its complex structure, harmonic arrangement and heavy-rock sensibility were obviously well in place on “Gettin' Smile”.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Smile recordings is the vocal similarities between Tim Staffell and his successor, Freddie Mercury. Freddie won hands down in the falsetto stakes, but on “Doing All Right” and “Step On Me” particularly, the two vocalists seem almost interchangeable, but Staffell got there first. “My hackles rise at the suggestion that I might have borrowed from Freddie," he told Mark Hodkinson. “I was always very aware of what I was doing with my voice and how I sang”.
Tim reflects: “I wasn't surprised when that other material wasn't released. I can't answer for Roger and Brian, but it wasn't really happening for me. We were 21-year-old guys, departing from our adolescence, becoming aware of personal responsibilities, being exposed to more sophisticated things. It was a gradual process of me going off heavy rock and getting into much more disciplined songs. Queen did the same thing in a way, but from an English perspective. Some of Queen's songs stand out as some of the best English songs of all time. There's much more cultural integrity with Queen, because you can't call them bloody American clones, like you can with virtually everything I ever did after leaving Smile!”
Smile's final recordings were unofficial. In September 1969, after their second De Lane Lea session, a mutual friend of Brain's introduced them to Terry Yeadon, who worked at Pye in Marble Arch. “I was actually a maintenance engineer”, recalls Yeadon, “but we did whatever we could. The session took place at around midnight at Pye's Studio 2, and lasted for about six hours. We recorded “Step On Me” and “Polar Bear” on an Ampex four- track machine: first the backing track, then the vocals, then we mixed it. I was impressed by their sound. Roger might have been a little rough at first, but Brian had a guitar sound identical to that he used in Queen. A friend of name, a cutting engineer called Geoff Calvar managed to cut an acetate just before the morning shift started. About half-a-dozen were done later, which we gave to the band”. Unfortunately, none of these discs has ever surfaced on the open collector’s market.
Yeadon rejected to work with Smile more extensively, and saw nothing of them until 1973, when Brian May got back in touch around the time Terry happened to be looking for a band to test the new De Lane Lea Music Centre studio in Wembley. For his efforts, Terry Yeadon received a mention in the credits on Queen’s debut, self-titled album.
The next memorable event in Smile's calendar took place on late December 1969, at the Marquee in Wardour Street, when as a parting gesture, Mercury Records booked them as support for a showcase for Nick Lowe's Kippington Lodge (who would relaunch themselves as Brinsley Schwarz). Smile played a 30-minute set, but by all accounts failed to whip up much interest. The concert obviously made no great impression on Tim Staffell, either. “Kippington Lodge was where they all lived”, he says. “I remember that. It's a shame, but I can't recall anything about that gig”.
The turn of the Seventies shed an all too harsh light on Smile's shortcomings. Astronomical studies took up much of Brian's time, and by February, he was spending weeks away from the band researching zodiacal light in Tenerife. Losing enthusiasm, the band began to peter out. “It understandably suffered from a lack of finance, just as most student bands did at that time”, Tim told Laura Jackson. “…We'd played some notable gigs and supported some very big names. We'd also had a good time doing it. I think I'd say that at our worst, we may have been a little shaky, but at our best, I'm sure we were quite worth the admission price”.
Freddie Mercury finally received his wish to join the band after his own outfits - Ibex, Wreckage and Sour Milk Sea - ground to a halt. When the last of these acts disintegrated in early 1970, he jumped at the chance to fill Staffell's shoes. “I left Smile because I was beginning to be seduced by the way the Americans made music”, recounts Tim. “There is a radical difference to the way English people do it. Around 1970, I bought one album which completely changed my attitude towards music and that was Ry Cooder's first album”. (The self titled; Ry Cooder LP was released on the Reprise Label in 1970). “That was a real catalyst. I suddenly decided against English rock and the way it works”. Speaking to Laura Jackson, he added: “Whereas I left Smile for my own reasons, in one sense I was moving out of the way, and the birth and evolution of Queen were a natural outcome”. Quote from Freddie Mercury set… “Thank God I moved aside!”… Or something similar!
While Freddie matched the power of Tim's voice, he couldn't even attempt to follow his bass playing, and it took two men to replace him. Mike Grose, a friend of Roger's from Truro (no relation to the Reaction's Johnny Grose – but I thought they were brothers!), became the second new member of the band, and Queen's original bassist.
Smile played their last gigs in Roger's home town of Truro, and their mutation into Queen is documented in adverts placed in the town's West Briton' newspaper. Although the name change had occurred a short while earlier, on 27th June 1970, at a gig at the town's City Hall, they were billed - for contractual reasons - as Smile. On 25th July, at “PJ's”, they were advertised as “Queen (formerly Smile)”. Queen's London debut took place the weekend before, at Imperial College, on the 12th June 1970.
”I went off looking for a band which could make an American sound”, muses Tim, “which turned out to be Humpy Bong (named after the area of Australia where the settlers landed in 1840). Via them, I met Jonathan Kelly, who was a major influence on my life, both musically and intellectually”. Initially at least, the move proved wise. While Queen continued the college circuit Smile had worked earlier, “Humpy Bang appeared on “Top Of The Pops” with our first (and only) single, “Don't You Be Too Long”, recalls Tim, but after that: obscurity.
While Queen struggled for the next three years (their first album was not released until 13th July 1973), Tim Staffell moved out of Humpy Bong, via Jonathan Kelly's Outside “an illustrious bunch of musicians -with Chas Jankel and Snowy White” and into progressive band Morgan, featuring future Mott The Hoople keyboardist, Morgan Fisher.
Smile's “Earth”, written by Tim, was later incorporated into a sidelong suite on Morgan's concept album, “Nova Solus”. “The idea was that our star exploded, the earth became incinerated and the remnants of the human civilisation were scattered throughout the solar system without a home”, proffers Tim. Brian May’s future career path took a somewhat different turn from Tim’s. “Smile got very disillusioned and split up” Brian told Steve Rosen. “Although we'd put a record out, it didn't sell and we felt like we were going nowhere; it was just general depression. Sometimes we'd play in a club and get a good reaction, but it wouldn't lead anywhere because you'd go to the next place and no one had ever heard of you. So we thought we'd try to make a record because that's how you get to the next stage. That's how you get to the point where people know who you are and instead of just listening to you while they're drinking their beer and picking up girls, they're going to come and listen to you because they like you. So we directed our efforts towards writing, and Queen started to come together at that time… So we made the album (Queen), and it did reasonably well, but it really didn't sell that many. It did, however, give us enough notice to be able to go back in and do a second album. They gave us the proper time to do it and off we went”.
These days, Staffell is a commercial model maker, whose credits include the children's TV series “Thomas The Tank Engine” However; even a career-change couldn't distance him from his former colleagues. “In 1981, after I'd packed in music altogether” he recalls, “I made a model for an album cover for the Hipgnosis design team. It was of a little alien head with glowing eyes. I didn't know what it was for, but it turned out - and I didn't discover this until years later - to be the front cover for Roger's “Fun In Space” album! I had no idea. That was peculiar”.
Although they are no longer close, Tim Staffell, Brian May and Roger Taylor remain in casual contact. Tim even took part in a Smile reunion of sorts on 22nd December 1992, when Taylor's band the Cross played the Marquee. Tim joined Roger and Brian on versions of “Earth” and “If I Were A Carpenter” - two songs Smile had played at their most memorable gig, at the Royal Albert Hall, back in 1969.
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