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"Keep Yourself Alive" is a song by British rock band Queen. Written by guitarist Brian May, it is the opening track on the band's eponymous debut album Queen (1973). It was released as Queen's first single along with "Son and Daughter" as the B-side. "Keep Yourself Alive" was largely ignored upon its release and failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic. It was also re-released as the non-album B-side of Lily of the Valley in 1974.
Writing and recording
According to Mark Hodkinson, author of Queen: The Early Years, "Keep Yourself Alive" was conceived on acoustic guitars during Queen's practice sessions at Imperial College and the garden at Ferry Road in 1970. At the time Queen had not yet found a permanent bassist; the group consisted of guitarist Brian May, singer Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor. In a radio special about their 1977 album News of the World, May said he had penned the lyrics thinking of them as ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but their sense was completely changed when Freddie Mercury sang them.
The first version of "Keep Yourself Alive" was recorded in summer 1971 at De Lane Lea Studios. It was produced by Louie Austin and includes the intro played on Brian May's Hairfred acoustic guitar. All of the song elements were already present, including call-and-response vocals by Freddie Mercury (verses) and during the break, where Roger Taylor sang a line and Mercury answered it. This demo version remains Brian May's favourite take of the song.
Subsequently they did several attempts to "recapture the magic" when they went on to do the "real" version at Trident Studios. The one mixed by Mike Stone was the only one moderately accepted, and it's the one released as single. It includes Freddie Mercury doing all of the harmony vocals in the chorus (multi-tracking himself) and Brian May singing the "two steps nearer to my grave" line instead of Mercury (who did it live and in earlier versions). This recording does not use acoustic guitar; the printed transcription on EMI Music Publishing's Off the Record' sheet music lists at least seven electric guitar parts, one of which uses a prominent phasing effect. It can also be noted that this recording includes the line "Come on and get it, get it, get it boy, keep yourself alive," which was not in the original version.
The newly formed Queen quickly added "Keep Yourself Alive" to their live set. Mercury commented that the song "was a very good way of telling people what Queen was about in those days" (RAM, 21 May 1976, p 17). Indeed, the number included a drum solo by Taylor and one line sung/spoken by him.
"Keep Yourself Alive" was part of the band's live set until the early 1980s. On the 1980 and 1981 tours, the band would play an improvisational jam before the start of the song then after the drum solo, it would morph into Taylor's tympani drum solo followed by May's echo-plexed guitar solo spot before either segueing into the "Brighton Rock" finale or a drum and guitar climax or segued into a Flash Gordon medley (which consisted of "Battle Theme"/"Flash's Theme"/"The Hero"). The band would not play it again until 1984 on The Works tour as part of a medley of old songs (with "Somebody to Love", "Killer Queen", "Seven Seas of Rhye", and "Liar").
In live performances, Mercury would often sing the line "all you people keep yourself alive" (which is sung only two times in the studio version) in place of the more-repeated line "take you all your time and a money honey you'll survive". This choice was likely made in favor of the easier phrasing and fewer syllables of the former.
Release and reception
EMI Records released "Keep Yourself Alive" as a single in the United Kingdom on 6 July 1973, a week before Queen hit the stores. A few months later, on 9 October 1973, Elektra Records released the single in the United States. However, "Keep Yourself Alive" received little radio airplay and was largely ignored on both sides of the Atlantic; it failed to chart in either the UK or the US. According to Queen biographer Mark Hodkinson, although "[o]n five separate occasions EMI's pluggers attempted to secure it space on [Britain's Radio 1] play list", they were denied each time, reportedly because the record "took too long to happen". "Keep Yourself Alive" remains the only Queen single not to have charted in the UK.
The single received mixed reviews from the British music press. New Musical Express praised the "cleanly recorded" song, as well as the "[g]ood singer", and quipped that if Queen "look half as good as they sound, they could be huge". The reviewer for Melody Maker felt that Queen "[made] an impressive debut with a heavily phased guitar intro and energetic vocal attack"; however, he thought the song to be unoriginal, and unlikely to become a hit. On the other hand, Disc magazine's critic believed the single "should do well". The review praised "Keep Yourself Alive"'s drum solo, as well as its "attractively stilted, vaguely Hendrix-y lead riff". The South Yorkshire Times rated the single as "good"; the newspaper predicted that "[i]f this debut sound from Queen is anything to go by, they should make very interesting listening in the future." In his album review of Queen for Rolling Stone Magazine, Gordon Fletcher hailed "Keep Yourself Alive" as "a truly awesome move for the jugular".
Retrospectively, "Keep Yourself Alive" is cited as the highlight of Queen's otherwise inconsistent debut album. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic wrote that while Queen "too often . . . plays like a succession of ideas instead of succinct songs", "[t]here is an exception to that rule — the wild, rampaging opener 'Keep Yourself Alive,' one of their very best songs". In 2008, Rolling Stone Magazine rated the song 31st on its list of "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time". The magazine dubbed "Keep Yourself Alive" as "Brian May's statement of purpose: a phalanx of overdubbed guitars crying out in unison, with rhythm and texture from over-the-top effects. . . . an entire album's worth of riffs crammed into a single song."
- Freddie Mercury - lead and backing vocals
- Brian May - electric guitar, lead vocals on middle eight, backing vocals
- Roger Taylor - drums, tambourine, cowbell, lead vocals on middle eight, backing vocals
- John Deacon - bass guitar
- 7" (1973 UK release)
- "Keep Yourself Alive" (Brian May) – 3:47
- "Son and Daughter" (May) – 3:21
- 7" (1975 US reissue)
- "Keep Yourself Alive" (May) – 3:47
- "Lily Of The Valley" (Freddie Mercury) – 1:43
- "God Save the Queen" (trad., arr. by May) – 1:11
- Hodkinson, Mark. Queen: The Early Years. Omnibus Press (2004). 3rd edition. ISBN 1-84449-012-2.
- "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time: 31. 'Keep Yourself Alive'". Rolling Stone Magazine. 12 June 2008. Retrieved on 3 October 2009.
- Hodkinson, p. 122.
- "QOL History—Queen". QueenOnline. Retrieved on 29 June 2009.
- Rivadavia, Eduardo. "Keep Yourself Alive" song review. Allmusic. Retrieved on 29 June 2009.
- Hodkinson, p. 158
- "Queen: 'Keep Yourself Alive' (EMI)". New Musical Express. 14 July 1973.
- "Queen: 'Keep Yourself Alive' (EMI)". Melody Maker. 21 July 1973.
- "Queen: 'Keep Yourself Alive' (EMI 2036)". Disc. 21 July 1973.
- "'Keep Yourself Alive'/'Son and Daughter'—Queen (EMI)". South Yorkshire Times. 27 July 1973.
- Fletcher, Gordon. "Queen review". Rolling Stone. 6 December 1973. Retrieved on 2 August 2009.
- Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Queen review". Allmusic. Retrieved on 2 August 2009.
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- Official music video at YouTube
- Lyrics at Queen official website
- "Keep Yourself Alive" at Queenpedia