The March of the Black Queen


Five years before the first Queen album was released, half of that future supergroup worked together in Smile, a hard rock outfit that played in the London and Cornwall area in the late '60s. Although the band never was able to commercially release any of their work during their 18-month existence, they did record six songs which finally saw domestic release in 1997 on the album Ghost of a Smile.

Smile was formed at Imperial College in Kensington, London, in late 1968. Students Brian May (guitar) and Tim Staffell (bass, vocals) had previously worked together in the band 1984.
After that group broke up, the two put an ad up on a school bulletin board looking for a "Ginger Baker/Mitch Mitchell-type drummer" and a young medical student named Roger Taylor auditioned and got the job.
Staffell was attending Ealing Art College with Farrokh Bulsara, and introduced him to the band. Bulsara soon became a keen fan. Staffell himself designed a logo for the group which was a pair of large grinning red lips with glimmering white teeth and the band started gigging at Imperial College in October 1968.


In early 1969, Smile supported such recently established acts as Pink Floyd and Yes. The group's biggest public performance was on February 27, 1969 at the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child. Held at the Royal Albert Hall, May, Taylor and Staffell performed as a trio on guitar, drums and bass respectively. Keyboardist Chris Smith had been fired the day before, according to Staffell. (According to Smith, he was only briefly in the band and left of his own accord because he was interested in different styles).

Focusing mostly on hard rock covers, the group would extend the songs they played to lengths of up to 20 minutes, changing tempos frequently. The group's reputation soon grew and Smile became Imperial College's house band. In the Cornwall area, where Roger Taylor grew up, the band also developed a solid fan base.

 1969, February 27th - Douglas Pudifoot's photos of Smile, pictured outside the Royal Albert Hall, prior to their gig for the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child.
Below: Smile at the Albert Hall, snapped by Douglas Pudifoot. Clips of his home movie of this shot are in the "Champions of the World" video

At one of their gigs in April 1969, Smile were approached by an A&R man from Mercury Records America who offered them a deal to record a single. Lacking much original material, the band chose to record a Tim Staffell-penned track called "Earth" (Staffell) and backed it with "Step on Me" (May), which had its birth with 1984 at the Trident Studios. The group put down the tracks in June 1969, but Mercury ended up only pressing promotional copies of the single. However, the label retained enough interest in the group to book more studio time for them in September 1969.

The following photographs (by Paul Humberstone, from Mark Hayward's book 'Queen on camera, off guard') document Smile's recording studio debut, making their first (and only) single, 'Earth'.

At De Lane Lea studios, Smile laid down three more songs, all originals, including "Doin' Alright" (Staffell/May) which was later performed by Queen.
However, in September of the same year, Mercury Records commissioned them to record three more songs: "April Lady" (Stanley Lucas), "Blag", a May instrumental, and "Polar Bear", a "gentle song about a polar bear" written and led by May, at De Lane Lea Studios. Again, the record was not released at the time. 


 It may be very grainy, but it's one of the only shots of Smile in action. Tim Staffel's toothy logos adorn three of Roger Taylor's drums; the legend on the snare reads "Don't Forget to smile".
Below: Smile on stage.
However, Staffell was beginning to lose interest in the group and became more attracted to American music. Meanwhile, May's astronomical studies at college were taking him away from the band for weeks at an end.

Staffell left Smile in early 1970 but the flamboyant Bulsara persuaded May and Taylor to continue and he soon joined the band as lead vocalist and changed the band's name for "Queen" on July 1970.
The band had a number of bass players during this period, namely Mike Grose, Barry Mitchell and Doug Bogie, who did not fit with the band's chemistry. It was not until February 1971 that they settled on John Deacon and began to rehearse for the first album.