Before Queen: Inside Brian May and Roger Taylor’s First Band, Smile

Before Queen, Freddie Mercury met his favorite band, Smile. What happened after that iconic meeting would change rock history forever. Smile formed the basis for a music collaboration and friendship that would one day become the legendary band Queen.

The story of Smile is one that few rock fans know, but it’s as important to music as hairspray was to the teased hairstyles of the 80’s. Sit back, hold tight. This is the story of great music’s beginnings. This is the story of the band, Smile. 

Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Brian May and John Deason | Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

The formation of a band called ‘Smile’

Smile was the first band of original Queen members guitarist Brian May, and drummer Roger Taylor.

Formed in 1968, by May and his friend Tim Staffell, the guys knew they needed a star drummer to complete their band. So they placed an ad on the Imperial College bulletin board looking for a Ginger Baker/Mitch Mitchell-type drummer.

They found what they were looking for in a young dentistry student, named Roger Taylor. “We thought he was the best drummer we had ever seen,” said May.

When they played together for the first time, they were immediately struck by the sound. “There is some kind of special sound to this,” May recalls thinking at the time, as told in the Queen documentary Days of Our Lives. “I guess we sort of had the same kind of sound in our heads.”

The band performed covers of Tim Harden and Tommy James, as well as original songs they’d written themselves. They thought of themselves as a heavy rock band, and drew inspiration from blues and progressive rock. 

Eventually they made a name for themselves on the Imperial College campus, and became the college house band. It became an all-consuming pastime for the band members. Taylor even dropped out of his dentistry studies to focus on the band. 

After one of their gigs, they were offered a record deal from Mercury Records America, for which they recorded several tracks. 

Freddie Mercury became a fan of ‘Smile’

Mercury, then known by his birth name of Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara, became a fan of Smile, attending several of their shows around campus. Mercury introduced himself and hit it off with the band members, eventually even sharing an apartment.

During his time as a fan, Mercury often offered his opinion on the group. “He would always say, you guys are brilliant, brilliant! But you should do this and you should do this,” said May in Days of Our Lives.  

Meanwhile, Staffell began to lose interest in Smile. “It was a gradual process of me going off heavy rock and getting into much more disciplined songs,” Staffell said.  He became more interested in American style music, and began to move away from the direction Smile was headed.

Eventually, he decided to leave the band. 

“I left Smile because I was beginning to be seduced by the way the Americans made music. 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. That was a real catalyst. I suddenly decided against English rock and the way it works… 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.”

When Staffell left the group, May and Taylor felt lost. They began to lose hope, and wondered if they should just give up on their dream. 

Out of the ashes of ‘Smile,’ the rock legend ‘Queen’ is formed

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Mercury approached May and Taylor, and let them know that he wanted to be a part of the group. He could sing, and he felt that his vocals could match the quality of Staffell. 

In the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, the entire transition of Smile into Queen is done in one scene, during a concert where Mercury steps in. But in reality, it was a slow process.

Mercury joined the group and continued with his many ideas for the direction of the band. He had flamboyant ideas, and encouraged them to experiment with more elaborate costumes and stage set-ups. Eventually, he renamed the group Queen.  

While Mercury provided the vocals that Staffell had performed before, they also needed a bassist to cover all the roles Staffell had filled. With the addition of John Deacon as their bassist, Queen was complete. They went on to become one of the most well-known rock bands in the world.