The story of Queen famously flag-waving their hatred of synthesizers before executing a shameless hi-tech about turn is a tale littered with misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Often mis-percieved as one of rock’s most famous ‘sellouts’, Queen’s gradual embrace of the synth through the ‘70s and ‘80s wasn’t so much a band jumping on a bandwagon as one carefully moving with the times to cement a 20-year career at the top
In fact, the collective understanding that Queen ever hated synths at all is at best confused and at worst just plain wrong. Allow us to explain and debunk.
To start the story we need to look back into rock’s history to a time when the very notion of ‘going electric’ was off limits, and a potentially career-ending faux pas. Bob Dylan had to power on through the brickbats for his Bringing It All Back Home album as the sheer audacity of a perceived ‘folk’ artist daring to use an electric guitar upset and confounded his stick-in-the-mud fans.
The 1965 album has since become an all time classic, of course, with countless other artists soon taking his lead (literally), following suit and embracing the new sonic landscapes made possible by the emerging studio tech and - gasp - solid body guitars requiring pickups and amplification.
But this war against technology and ‘real music’ wasn’t won overnight. It raged on for decades afterwards, with fans of ‘real music’ (in its countless forms through the ages) frequently decrying any notion of their favourite band ‘selling out’ or appearing to hop on a trend bandwagon in order to widen their fanbase beyond hardcore, there-at-the-start stalwarts.
So when synths by the likes of Moog began to appear, making electronic instruments more affordable and unquestionably helping to popularise their multifarious sound, musicians retreated to their relative trenches to fight their side of the war.
And the clue was in the name. Synthesizers are ‘synthetic’, making approximations of sound rather than the ‘real thing’. Therefore, if you’re in the business of making ‘real music’ you simply have to give them the swerve, right?
Conversely, the use of real strings, real brass and real choirs etc were easy badges of honour to wear. Proggers such as Yes couldn’t wait to get orchestras in the studio and prove their worth, ‘progressing’ rock by shoehorning in classical music pretensions. Early keyboard player Tony Kaye proudly and famously refused to engage with upstart synth tech, arguing that rock’s holy combo of piano and Hammond organ was all the genre needed to get the job done. Synths in rock? Ridiculous. Though it’s worth noting that the band subsequently kicked him out in favour of Rick Wakeman, who’s love of the Minimoog and Mellotron gave them the sonic breadth they needed to escape prog’s gloomy navel-gazing and put them in the charts instead.
Meanwhile, the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer went full throttle to embrace the sonic bombast of the synth, with Emerson blazing a trail for the use of tech in prog that broke rock's rules and soon became the norm. Drum solo, guitar solo, synth solo. Why not?
But as to which side of the battle Queen were on? There lies a tale.
Famously, the band proudly wrote ‘No Synthesizers!’ on the sleeve notes of their second, third, fourth and fifth albums (Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack, A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races). Yes, Queen were making ‘real music’ and not any of that synthetic stuff. All pretty much par for the course for a band who famously “don’t like Star Wars”…
But digging deeper, the lines become more blurred. It seems that rather than proudly showing their hand and despising the synth, Queen’s apparent hatred may simply have been a long-running misunderstanding.
Hammer To Fall
It’s important to understand the lie of the land in the heavy world of rock circa 1973. Despite their future mantle as rock legends, Queen’s first LP – also entitled Queen – wasn’t exactly well received. In his review for the NME, Nick Kent noted: “The singer has got Jon Anderson’s cosmic castrato and Robert Plant’s lemon-squeezer screech down pat and the guitarist must have worked up every lick on Led Zeppelin 2 over and over again,” before – famously – describing the bands as being “like a bucket of stale urine.” (Though in actuality he was referring to what he thought of the band’s “stupid name”.)
Meanwhile, Chris Welch in the Melody Maker playfully put the boot in by commending the “Great use of synthesizer!” on the album, at once plopping the band in a pop-not-rock pigeonhole which left the band fuming.
Because – like it or not – it can be argued that Queen never made a great album. Instead they made lots of great hits… just never in the same place. It’s no wonder, therefore, that Queen’s Greatest Hits (across I, II and III forms) are their best-selling (and best) albums.
But, back in 1973, after having their indignance piqued by Kent’s coat-down, the band saw Welch’s comment as the last straw. Queen’s misunderstood sonic mix was in fact all the work of Brian May’s guitar and the band’s skill in the studio. In short, rather than to declare war on the synth as many have since thought, Queen boasted “No Synthesizers!” on the sleeve notes of their next four albums because they didn’t think that May’s guitar work was getting the credit that it was due.
Or, to put it another way, there was no synthesizer on that first album and the band bloody well wanted everyone to know it!
On the commentary track for 2005’s DVD release The Making of A Night At The Opera, Roger Taylor sheds light on the problem. “On the first album, Brian did a lot of stuff on guitar featuring specific harmony guitars, which was a fairly new thing at the time. And a lot of reviewers in England – I can quote one, Chris Welch in the Melody Maker, a paper famous for its inaccuracy, I might add – said ‘Great use of synthesizers here!’. And of course it was all guitar, and that got up our noses quite a lot. We were a bit put off by the early synthesizers and decided we would actually say from then on – for the next four albums or so – that we had no synthesizers on them."
Thus the band never ‘hated’ synthesizers. They simply wanted everyone to know the extremes to which May was putting his guitar.
And the move didn’t go unnoticed. Rock fans loved the band’s heavy-handed anti-synth stance, giving Queen II a far easier ride. Meanwhile, pop fans shrugged indifferently and, on the other side of the battlefield, synth pioneer Larry Fast fought back with a note on his first Synergy album stating "…and nobody played guitar" followed by “…and still no guitars" on the second and "Finally, guitars...sort of," on his third (in reference to the use of a modified guitar feeding CV to his Moogs).
But by their fifth album. 1977’s News of the World, Queen’s bold “No Synthesizers!” joke/boast had worn thin, and with May’s skill out in the open and no further point to prove, the band abandoned the jibe.
It’s therefore often assumed that the ‘synth’ squalls and effects on Get Down Make Love from News of the World are a synth – thus prompting the claim’s removal and attracting the ire of ‘rock’s true believers’ – but again, the sound is all studio trickery employed around Brian May’s guitar. By 1977 the Eventide Harmonizer H910 (introduced in 1974) had become ubiquitous in top-flight studios and, used to shift pitch, it could – of course – be abused with an excessively high setting of its Feedback control, sending whatever was fed into it into ever increasing loops of upward or downward sonic spirals. That is what you’re hearing.
The stripped-down album proved to be their biggest seller yet and its opening salvo of We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions combined to propel the band into history with not a synth in sight.
But with the sleevenote boast removed, why not give synths a try? Turns out that this was simply due to primitive synths’ inability to provide the playability Mercury enjoyed via piano or Hammond. Speaking to Circus in 1977 on the matter of synths, Mercury said: "We've built up a terrible aversion to them. But you never know. To me, [May] always sounds better than a synthesizer."
Roger Taylor explains more: “In the beginning synths were what we call monophonic, you could only play one note at a time. But then suddenly they started making these ones which you could play chords on and they became much more usable as musical instruments, tools and things. I bought one, took it into the studio and Fred said ‘This is good, give us a go on that!’ We started using it quite a lot in our records and I guess we made some more what you'd call purely pop records in the ‘80s, whereas in the ‘70s we thought of ourselves as sort of being a hard rock band really.”
The synth in question was an Oberheim OB-X which – in the pursuit of distancing himself from the Queen sound post 1980’s The Game album – drummer Roger Taylor had bought for what would become his synth-heavy solo album, Fun In Space. An album which – further proving the point that Queen’s ‘No synthesizers!’ boast wasn’t so much a rule as a misunderstanding – bears the liner note “PPS 157 synthesizers”. The majority of Fun’s tracks – with no John Deacon at hand – feature synth bass rather than the real thing, setting a precedent that would be carried back to the mothership to further develop the future Queen sound.
Don’t Stop Me Now
That same OB-X was therefore used extensively across Queen's next album, 1982’s Hot Space, joined by a Roland Jupiter-8 and Roland VP-330 vocoder and string ensemble. Notable also is the presence of the Linndrum digital drum machine, signifying both drummer Taylor’s and bassist Deacon’s willingness to grasp new tech and keep Queen moving forwards.
Perhaps at this point the band should have started writing “Yes, synthesizers!” on their albums instead.
Of course, by 1984’s The Works – and lead-off global mega-smash single Radio Ga Ga – the cat was well and truly out of the bag. By now Queen had effectively done a complete about turn, with that Roland Jupiter-8’s arpeggiator taking charge of bass duties and the Linndrum giving the song’s writer, Roger Taylor, the night off. Instead, John Deacon’s understated additional bass work – elevating the bass with stylistic and jazzy flourishes while the synths do the heavy lifting – seals the deal on a classic.
Even Brian May’s ‘guitar solo’ on follow up single I Want To Break Free is actually a synth, with May handing solo duties to session keyboard player Fred Mandell who plays the oft mistaken-for-a-guitar part on that Roland Jupiter-8.
And of course when it was time for Freddie Mercury to go solo for Love Kills in late 1984 there was only one place to go – direct to synth legend Giorgio Moroder, who handled the co-write and the song’s production. And with Mercury’s electro-disco pop persona set in stone, his 1985’s solo album Mr Bad Guy, featuring hit singles I Was Born To Love You and Living On My Own, was a 100% synth-driven affair.
Thus, Queen embraced the tech having never really hated synths at all. By 1986’s A Kind of Magic the sound of Queen was changed forever, right through to their final single with Mercury, These Are The Days Of Our Lives – a song written by Taylor and released following Mercury’s death – which – including drums and percussion – is almost entirely made on a Korg M1.
In fact, after setting their stall as ‘anti synth’, the group actually broke their own rule as soon as their second album. Technically, the closing I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside fade on Seven Seas of Rhye – a track which famously appears in unfinished form at the closer for their first album and in finished form as the closer for their second – features the first synth on a Queen record – a Dubreq Stylophone played by Roy Baker, and used to prop up the vocal melody.
No synthesizers? No way.