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December 20, 2021

The Story Behind the Iconic ‘Queen II’ Album Cover, Which Was Inspired by a Similar Photograph of Marlene Dietrich

Queen II is the second studio album by the British rock band Queen. It was released on March 8, 1974 by EMI Records in the UK and by Elektra Records in the US. Described as “arguably the heaviest Queen album,” Queen II marked the end of the first phase of the band’s career.

The album combines a heavy rock sound with art rock and progressive rock elements, and has been called “a pillar of grandiose, assaultive hard rock” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The cover of Queen II (1974).

Rock photographer Mick Rock was engaged to create the album’s artwork. In Rock’s words, the band wanted to “graft some of [the trademark] decadent ‘glam’ sensibility” of his previous work with artists such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. According to Rock, Queen were looking to grab people’s attention with the cover, especially since their first album had failed to do so. “They realised that if you could catch people’s eyes you could get them interested in the music.”

The brief he received from the band conceived a black and white theme for the album. The cover features a photograph described by VH1 as “Queen standing in diamond formation, heads tilted back like Easter Island statues” against a black background. The iconic chiaroscuro image of Queen was inspired by a similar photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the 1932 film Shanghai Express.

“And of course no one was ever more ‘glam’ than the divine Ms Dietrich,” Rock quipped. “It was just one of those flashes of inspiration that happens sometimes,” Rock explained. “There was a feeling that [echoing the Dietrich pose] might be pretentious,” but Rock convinced the band otherwise. “It made them look like much bigger a deal than they were at the time, but it was a true reflection of their music.”

“For the concept, I was feeding off the music and the band. They had no doubt they were going to make it big, so I felt it needed to have a certain grand quality. I’d come across a photo of Marlene Dietrich on the set of 1932’s Shanghai Express, and she was under a top light, with hood eyes, arms crossed, fingers spread. I showed Freddie the image and he loved it. So that was sold to the rest of the band as the basic idea.”

A photo of Marlene Dietrich on the set of 1932’s Shanghai Express. (Photographed by Don English)

“At the time, the band didn’t understand what went on in the studio, or about lighting, and I was running up and down on a ladder while they kept running back and forth to look in the mirror. It took a bit of fiddling to get them all arranged right. Brian May brought a veil that we put on his head for some shots, and we tried a few different hand arrangements from Freddie.

“Freddie was ecstatic with it. But there was some debate over whether it should be the white or the black shot that went on the cover. Someone had accused the band of being pretentious. Obviously, Freddie couldn’t give a damn, but it had stuck a bit with the others, and they thought the black shot was too strong, because they were an unknown band, and the black cover made it look like they were already there. But if Freddie wanted something, he could twist the others into it, and eventually they went along with it. And I know they’re glad they did…”

To expand on the black and white theme, Rock made a second image of the band, dressed in white against a white background, that was used in the album’s gatefold, advertising, and the “Seven Seas of Rhye” single sleeve.


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