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“I thought I’d bitten off more than I can chew”: how Yes guitarist Steve Howe accidentally ended up playing on a Queen hit single

Yes guitarist Steve Howe was having lunch in Switzerland when he was roped into appearing on Queen’s 1991 single Innuendo



Queen were always a tight-knit unit. With a few exceptions – notably David Bowie on 1981 single Under Pressure and Joan Armatrading on A Kind Of Magic album track Don’t Lose Your Head – they resisted the lure of guest musicians, preferring to keep everything in house in the studio.

One person who did guest on a Queen song was Steve Howe. The Yes guitarist made a memorable appearance on the title track of 1991’s Innuendo album, adding some intricate flamenco-style guitar to the six-and-a-half minute single. Yet the union came about purely by chance, as he revealed when speaking to Prog magazine in 2012.

“I was in Geneva sometime in 1990 with a friend of mine called Paul Sutin, and I said to Paul, ‘I fancy getting in a car and going to Montreux, there are some places I want to see,’” Howe told Prog.

Montreux was home from home for Queen, who had worked on and off at the city’s Mountain studios since the late 1970s. Howe himself had crossed paths countless times with the band over the years, starting when Queen supported Yes at Kingston Polytechnic in early 1971. Still, he didn’t expect to be invited into the studio while they were in the middle of recording Innuendo.

“I’m sitting in a restaurant, having some lunch, and a guy named Martin Groves walked by,” Howe told Prog. “He used to be our tech, but Queen had eventually adopted him. He came rushing into the restaurant and said, ‘What are you doing here? I’m sure the guys would love to see you, why don’t you pop down the studio?’”

While Groves left, presumably to tell Queen that Howe was in town, the guitarist finished his lunch. When he was done, he took a 10 minute walk to Mountain and knocked on the door to announce his arrival.

“Inside, there’s Freddie, Brian and Roger all sitting together,” Howe said. “They’re all sitting together. These guys are tight as a duck’s arse. They go: ‘Let’s play you the album.’ Of course, I’m hearing it for the first time: I Can’t Live Without You, I’m Going Slightly Mad. And they saved Innuendo itself until last. They played it and I was fucking blown away.”

That’s when the members of Queen dropped their bombshell. Did Howe want to play on the title track?

“I said, ‘You must be mad! Brian’s done everything on that track,’” Howe remembered. “Queen weren’t like Yes, who had a dualistic role of guitar and keyboards, where both shared the terrain. Brian had the terrain to himself. The remarkable thing was that he was the front and the back man. It required him to come up with more than guitar solos… He had to come up with a semi-thematic approach to play the guitar. And what he did was keep colouring.”

Except Brian May himself was insistent. “He said, ‘Yes, I’ve done some stuff there, but on Spanish guitar I don’t really improvise or race about.’ And then they all chime in, going: “We’d like you to give it some [flamenco guitarist] Paco de Lucia. We want some crazy Spanish guitar flying around over the top. Don’t just sit on that thing. Play right the way across it’. I said, ‘You want me to kind of improvise?’ And they were, like, ‘Yes! Improvise!’”

Howe listened to the track a few more times to get a handle on it. The next thing he knew, May was handing him a nylon-stringed Gibson Chet Atkins guitar.

“I started noodling around on the guitar, and it was pretty tough. After a couple of hours, I thought: ‘I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here.’ I had to learn a bit of the structure, work out the chordal roots were, where you had to fall if you did a mad run in the distance; you have to know where you’re going. They let me do stuff, climbing around, doing stuff that isn’t very structured. It got towards evening, and we’d doodled and I’d noodled, and it turned out to be really good fun.”

After a few hours, somebody looked at their watch and suggested they all go out for a meal. “We walked into this restaurant and everybody turned round to look at us,” says Howe. “People recognised Freddie everywhere. And Brian stood out. About halfway through the dinner, Freddie turned to me and said, ‘Have you ever been to Mexico? You know what, don’t go there.’ I’m still not sure why!”

When they‘d finished eating, Queen and Howe returned to Musicland to listen back to what they had played. “We were sitting there, listening to it, and they said, ‘That’s great, that‘s what we wanted. We wanted some crazy Spanish guitar flying around on top.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much, I had a great time.’ And before I knew it, I was back in the car, driving back to Geneva. And that was it, just like that.’”

Innuendo’s title track was released as a single on January 14, 1991. A multi-part epic that called back to Bohemian Rhapsody, it featured Howe’s distinctive solo as he’d played it (“Somewhere in the middle’ as a note in the album’s thanks list put it). The song would give the band their second No.1 single, though the album itself would sadly prove to be the last thing they released during Freddie Mercury‘s lifetime. For Howe, it was an opportunity to play with musicians he had long admired.

“That wildness and craziness Queen had was a front,” the guitarist told Prog. “It was a front for intelligence, talent and ability, and practice. These guys just knew the game.”