Brian May and Roger Taylor's Sixties Power Trio Smile
In the fall of 1968, Imperial College classmates Brian May and Tim Staffell placed an ad on the student notice board looking for a "Ginger Baker–type" drummer to join a new group, formed from the ashes May's previous endeavor, 1984. Roger Taylor, freshly arrived in London to study dentistry, answered the call. The former leader of an R&B combo called the Reaction in his native Cornwall, he immediately impressed the pair. "We thought he was the best drummer we had ever seen," May later said. "I watched him tuning a snare – something I'd never seen done before – and I remember thinking how professional he looked."
They tapped an Ealing Art School student named Chris Smith to play keyboards, and in the peaceful and loving spirit of the times they dubbed themselves Smile. "Smile was really a semi-professional outfit. We had not made the big jump to go professional. I guess we couldn't because we were all still at college," May reflected in the documentary, Champions of the World. They made their debut on October 26th opening for Pink Floyd (or the Troggs, in Smith's recollection) at Imperial College, and soon became the unofficial support act for visiting headliners. "Mostly we were playing adaptations of other people's material," said May. "We did a heavy version of 'If I Were a Carpenter' and a lot of more or less pure jamming where we'd start off with a riff and build on that. I think we did a couple of adaptations of Motown things, and we did a couple of Cream songs like 'N.S.U.'"
Smith was displeased by the band's song choice, which veered too far from the purity of American blues for his tastes, and by February 1969 they had agreed to part company. They remained friendly enough for Smith to bring along his art-school friend, Freddie Bulsara, to watch the newly minted power trio. Bulsara was immediately smitten with the group and desperately wanted to join. He took to offering his unprompted, and often very strong, opinions. "In my mind's eye I remember him very much dressed like a rock star," May says of his first impression of the future Freddie Mercury. "But the kind of rock star you hadn't seen before – really androgynous. He was flicking a pompom around and being very flippant, saying, 'Yes, it's wonderful, it's wonderful, but ... why don't you present the show better? Why don't you dress like this?' He was very full-on from the beginning." Instead, Bulsara bided his time in short-lived bands like Ibex (later called Wreckage) and Sour Milk Sea.
Smile rose through London's rock ranks, playing at the exclusive Speakeasy club, and even a fundraising gig at the Royal Albert Hall (where Queen's post-Mercury vocalist Paul Rodgers opened with a nascent Free). Eventually they were given a one-off recording contract with Mercury Records, affording them a chance to record three songs at SoHo's Trident Studios that June. Staffell's "Earth," a folky sci-fi rock song distantly related to David Bowie's "Space Oddity," was marked for release as a single, while "Step on Me," an old one of May's from his time in 1984, was the flip. Issued only in the United States, it sank without a trace. Though it would surface in a reworked form on Queen's debut album, the third song from the Trident sessions, a May/Staffell collaboration called "Doin' Alright" was due to remain in the vault. So were three additional songs recorded that September at De Lane Lea Studios.
Staffell left the band in the summer of 1970, and Smile began to circle the drain. May and Taylor welcomed the newly renamed Mercury into the group and on July 18th, 1970, at Imperial College, they played for the first time as Queen.