The History of Smile: The Band That Set the Stage for Queen
In the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a young Farrokh "Freddie” Bulsara checks out his favorite rock band, Smile — consisting of singer and bassist Tim Staffell, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor— performing “Doin' Alright” onstage in 1970.
That same night after the gig, Staffell tells May and Taylor he's quitting Smile and joining another band called Humpy Bong. A dejected May and Taylor are then visited backstage by the shy Bulsara, who offers to become their new singer. They're skeptical about this stranger with the buck teeth, until Bulsara starts singing. With the addition of bassist John Deacon, and Bulsara changing his name to Freddie Mercury, the group that was once Smile transforms into the newly minted Queen.
That movie scene is the abbreviated version of Smile. They lasted about only two years and made just a few recordings, but that band launched the professional careers of May and Taylor — a collaboration and friendship that still continues five decades later. More importantly, Staffell's departure created an opening for Mercury, who saw Smile as the ideal vehicle for his musical ambitions.
The Smile story began in 1968, when May, then an undergraduate studying physics at London's Imperial College, formed the group with his friend Staffell, a student at the Ealing College of Art. Both had previously been in another band called 1984. They posted an ad on the Imperial College bulletin board looking for a “Ginger Baker/Mitch Mitchell-type drummer.” According to the 1992 biography, Queen: As It Began, that ad drew the notice of Roger Meddows-Taylor, who was in another band at the time called the Reaction and studying at London Hospital Medical School to become a dentist.
Listen to Smile's 'Doin' Alright'
“I booked this jazz club room [at Imperial College], and Roger brought his kit in,” recalled May in the 2011 Queen documentary Days of Our Lives. “I brought a guitar and that was the first time we played together. Something happened. We thought, 'Hmm, there is some kind of special sound to this.' I guess we sort of had the same sound in our heads.”
“Brian had never met anyone before who could actually tune drums,” Taylor remembered in 2002 (as quoted in Mark Blake's Queen book Is This the Real Life?) “He wasn't even aware that you can tune drums. Typical guitarist! But he and I clicked straightaway. His playing was beautiful.”
With a logo of huge smiling lips and large teeth designed by Staffell — which predated the Rolling Stones' famous lips logo by a few years — Smile rehearsed during the fall of 1968. By Staffell's account, the band's first gig occurred on Oct. 26 that year at Imperial College, opening for Pink Floyd, though Chris Smith, a keyboardist who had briefly played with Smile, believed the band's debut show was in support of the Troggs.
Either way, Most of the band's concerts at the time took place at Imperial College and in Taylor's hometown of Cornwall. Smile's biggest concert at that point happened in February 1969 as part of a benefit show for the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child at the Royal Albert Hall; the bill also included the Bonzo Dog Band, Spooky Tooth, Joe Cocker and Free.
Listen to Smile's 'Step on Me'
Smile's sound drew from the blues and progressive rock of peers like Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Procol Harum. “I guess Smile wanted to be heavy rock,” Staffell later said, as quoted in Is This the Real Life? “But there was also a pressure to try and make it appear virtuoso.”
In addition to performing covers by artists such as Tim Hardin and Tommy James and the Shondells, the members of Smile also wrote original songs, both individually and together.
With help from a friend of Taylor's, a tape of Smile's music ended up in the hands of Mercury Records A&R executive John Anthony (who would later co-produce Queen's self-titled 1973 debut album). When Anthony's boss, Lou Reizner, saw the band perform in London in April 1969, he signed Smile to a one-single deal for the U.S. market.
“What I saw in Smile was a ‘Led Yes,’” Anthony said in Is This Is Real Life? “Because they had Yes' harmonies and Zeppelin's big riffs. I was sure they would do something but not in that incarnation. To be honest, I wasn't sure about Tim Staffell.”
The band recorded three songs: “Earth,” “Step on Me” and “Doin’ Alright’ at Trident Studios, according to Blake's book. Mercury Records released “Earth” as a single in August 1969, but it didn't make a dent.
Listen to Smile's 'Earth'
It was also around this period when Bulsara became part of Smile's circle. He and Staffell were students and friends at Ealing Art College in London. Bulsara loved Smile and attended many of the band's shows. He and the other members of Smile hit it off, and they even shared an apartment together in London. Bulsara was not shy in offering his opinions about the band's music or look. “He would always say, “You guys are brilliant, brilliant! But you should do this, and you should do this!” May later recalled of his future Queen bandmate in Days of Our Lives.
“I think Freddie was there in the wings when we first played,” Smith later said. “He was full of suggestions, full of ideas. I said to Brian, 'Fred is desperate to be in this band, you know', but Brian was like, 'No, no, no, Tim is the lead the singer. He'd never wear it.'” Determined to be in a rock group, Mercury joined a number of bands like Ibex, Sour Milk Sea and Wreckage; none panned out compared to Smile.
Meanwhile, at the behest of Mercury Records, Smile returned to the studio in the latter part of 1969 to record more material for a possible album. While Smile's recordings were certainly less theatrical, flamboyant and over-the-top compared to Queen's, there's certainly foreshadowing of things to come: Staffell's charismatic singing, May's distinct guitar sound, Taylor's heavy drumming and shared harmony vocals.
May's performance on the hard-rocking “Blag” predated his guitar solo on Queen's “Brighton Rock”; the baroque-sounding ballad “April Lady” could've found a home on Queen's first two albums; and Staffell's bouncy and poppy “Step on Me” would have been a shoo-in on Sheer Heart Attack or A Night the Opera.
But none of Smile's recordings ever saw the light of day.
Listen to Smile's 'Polar Bear'
By the early part of 1970, the writing was on the wall for Smile. In an archival interview, May once said, “We had a lot of successful gigs, we played colleges and we played pubs and small clubs up and down the country. We just never got anywhere.” Then in the spring of that year, Staffell announced he was joining a new band called Humpy Bong that included former Bee Gees drummer Colin Petersen; Mercury Records dropped the band afterward.
May told Mojo magazine in 1999, “Tim gave up in disgust and he was within his rights to leave us. ... Roger and I were left with no group. We wondered if we should give up. But then young Freddie Bulsara arrived on the scene.” “Freddy sort of got us and said, 'C'mon on, you can't give up. I want to sing,'” Taylor added.
Smile were no more, and a new and far more successful musical chapter began for May and Taylor that lasted for the next five decades. Even though Smile never put out an official album during their lifetime, their recorded output has been released on compilations like Gettin' Smile (from 1982) and Ghost of a Smile (1998) long after their breakup.
Listen to Smile's 'Blag'
As for Staffell, Humpy Bong had a hit with “Don't You Be Too Long” during the summer of 1970 before they broke up. He later found a second career as a model-maker for TV commercials and films, and worked on the children's show Thomas the Tank Engine. In 2005, Staffell released his first solo album, aMigo, which featured a guest appearance by May. And in October 2018, Staffell put out another LP, Two Late. “At this stage in my life, the renewed opportunity to create more of my own music is very welcome,” he told Patrick Lemieux on Queen's website.
Meanwhile, the friendship among the former Smile members never wavered throughout Queen's ascendancy. Queen's 1973 debut album featured the Mercury-sung rendition of the May/Staffell composition “Doin' Alright” (slightly retitled as “Doing All Right”). In 1992, Staffell, May and Taylor appeared together at a Queen Fan Club Christmas party, where Taylor's other band the Cross were headlining, and performed their old song “Earth,” as well a cover of Tim Hardin's “If I Were a Carpenter.”
In 2018, Smile reunited again and went into London's Abbey Road Studios to revisit “Doing All Right” for the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack. It marked the first time in five decades that any Smile recording was officially released. “[Brian] invited me to sing the vocal and dub the bass guitar as I had all those years ago,” Staffell told Lemieux. “It was a hybrid effort -- Brian, Roger, and I all contributed. We didn't reconvene the band. The elements were played at different times and composited in the studio afterward. The challenge was to use modern techniques to create the sound and flavor of 1969, but with the higher fidelity of 2018. I think the guys did a pretty good job.”
While Smile never achieved much success, there's no denying the band's crucial role in Queen's history. Looking back at the Smile experience, May told Mojo in 2017, “It seemed like there was an impenetrable wall between us and bands that were making it work. We felt powerless. ... But I think we had the beginnings of that belief in ourselves, Roger and I.”
Listen to Smile's 2018 Version of "Doing All Right'