Chapter I: Before the Storm
Editor’s Note: This section of the narrative draws heavily from Northwest metal historian Brett Miller’s personal account of Queensr˙che’s formation, first published in the late 1990s and later hosted exclusively by AnybodyListening.net. Miller was close friends with Chris DeGarmo in high school and was a highly-regarded musician in the Seattle area. Thank you for your generosity, Brett.
The musicians of Queensr˙che derive from a host of local Seattle area groups in the late-1970s. Michael Wilton founded the band Joker in 1978 with friends from Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash. Chris DeGarmo joined Joker in 1979, marking the first time the future Queensr˙che guitar duo would join forces.
Joker was fronted by Paul Passarelli, who was considered the “David Lee Roth” of Bellevue according to Brett Miller, a northwest metal historian. Passarelli currently fronts the Mike McCready (of Pearl Jam fame) UFO tribute band called “Flight to Mars.”
Around the same time, Geoff Tate – then known as Jeffrey Wayne Tate, or “Jeff Waterfall” – came onto the scene, fronting the band Tyrant. Tate impressed the local metal crowd with his operatic wails, reminiscent of Rob Halford of Judas Priest, and a versatile four-octave range. Tate was classically trained by the late Maestro David Kyle, a world renowned vocal instructor and teacher. Joker and Tyrant both entered a local “Battle of the Bands” at Lake Hills Roller Rink in Bellevue. Joker was dismissed in the first round, while Tyrant (also known for guitarist Adam Brenner) advanced to the finals.
Tyrant featured a variety of Van Halen cover songs and Tate was especially noticed for Tyrant’s version of the Rainbow classic “Man on the Silver Mountain.” Tyrant would lose to Ridge, featuring vocalist Ted Pilot, drummer Ken Mary and guitarist Ed Archer. Ridge would change its name to Fifth Angel a few years later and sign a seven record deal with Epic Records.
Tyrant disbanded following the event. Brenner told Miller in an interview years later that he and the members of Tyrant “were rock kids and only played metal,” and that “Geoff was trying to get us to play more progressive stuff like Yes & Genesis.” Brenner would later go on to change his name to “Adam Bomb” and signed a deal with Geffen Records in 1985.
Tate wasn’t the only future member of Queensr˙che without a band. DeGarmo was let go from Joker and replaced by guitarist Jeff Olson. Miller speculates that it had a lot to do with gear – Olson had high-end equipment and his own PA system, while DeGarmo had to borrow amps to play shows.
Joker’s profile went up following DeGarmo’s departure. The band got bookings across the state at local junior high and high schools doing heavy metal cover songs such as Judas Priest’s “Hell Bent for Leather.”
DeGarmo would resurface shortly thereafter, however. He joined Tempest – a band fronted by singer/bassist Mark Hovland. DeGarmo’s playing ability improved during this time, as the group attracted attention by doing covers of KISS songs and other hard rock acts. Eventually, they’d be joined by drummer Mark Welling, and the trio branched out on their own, under the moniker of D-H-W – DeGarmo-Hovland-Welling.
By the time the 1979-1980 school year came to an end, however, both D-H-W and Joker broke up. Welling had teamed up with Tate’s progressive rock group called Babylon and Joker simply ran its course.
Meanwhile, Wilton had graduated high school and enrolled in the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle to study music. During this time, he met future Queensr˙che drummer Scott Rockenfield at Easy Street Records. The two decided to start a band and called themselves CROSS+FIRE. The duo were heavily influenced by Iron Maiden, according to Miller.
The group began recruiting a bass player, ultimately landing a high school friend of Rockenfield named Eddie Jackson. They added James Nelson on second guitar and went on to play local parties without a singer. Eventually Wilton reached out to DeGarmo and asked if he and Hovland wanted to play. They agreed, with DeGarmo replacing Nelson and Hovland becoming the singer. CROSS+FIRE played a few shows, but Hovland quit the band due to commuting issues from the Renton, Wash., area.
It’s now 1981. A singer-less CROSS+FIRE had now renamed itself “The Mob” after the Black Sabbath song “The Mob Rules.” The lineup now featured DeGarmo and Wilton on guitars, Jackson on bass and Rockenfield on drums.
Miller offered The Mob, Babylon, and TKO the three prime-time slots for METALFEST ’81, a show he was promoting. The gig took place on Sept. 19, 1981, at the Lake Hills Roller Rink (billing itself as “The Palace”) in Bellevue.
The Mob couldn’t find a singer on short notice, so they asked Tate to stand in with them for the show. Tate agreed, figuring it would be cool to sing with two bands in one night (Babylon went on three hours after The Mob). The decision delighted local metal fans. After seeing Tate with Tyrant a couple of years earlier, people wanted to hear him sing heavy metal songs again, Miller explained. He called Tate “truly a local rock star” that everyone knew as the best singer around.
Miller picks up the story here:
“Showing up for The Mob’s performance, Tate nonchalantly dressed down wearing gray sweatpants and a leather vest to perform in … When he got up to play that awesome set of metal covers with The Mob, the crowd's reaction was the biggest of the night. My personal favorite song that night was ‘Victim of Changes’ by Judas Priest, delivered letter-perfect by Tate. The Mob also played ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ ‘Running Free’ and ‘Wrathchild’ by Iron Maiden and letter perfect versions of "Animal Magnetism" and "Sails of Charon" by the Scorpions, among others.
I wasn't a big Iron Maiden fan myself at the time, but it was amazing how the crowd and I were absolutely swept away with their performance that night. Tate was also noticeably impressed by the reaction.”
After METALFEST ’81 concluded, Babylon – which had a stable of all original progressive rock songs in the vein of Genesis and King Crimson – broke up, leaving Tate once again without a band. The Mob went on to play a couple of parties with Tate, but he wouldn’t commit to them. His heart was in progressive music, not heavy metal.
But the response The Mob received at METALFEST ’81 galvanized DeGarmo, Jackson, Rockenfield and Wilton. The quartet hunkered down over the next several months in Rockenfield’s parents’ garage to hone their playing skills and write original music.
The Mob spent months rehearsing and working multiple jobs to save up enough money to record a four-song EP at Triad Studios in Redmond, Wash. The Mob still couldn’t find a singer, but called up Tate and asked if he could lay down the vocal tracks. Tate agreed and the band scheduled five consecutive “graveyard shifts” at the studio, Monday through Friday.
At the time, Geoff was in the band MYTH (with guitarist Kelly Gray and keyboardist Randy "Random Damage" Gane, who would later play roles in Queensr˙che’s history). Predictably, Tate’s MYTH bandmates were apprehensive about their singer cutting a record with The Mob. Tate convinced them that in the long-run, having professional experience in a studio would be beneficial to all of them.
The Mob had three completed songs – “Queen of the Reich,” “Nightrider,” and “Blinded.” They also had one song with all the music complete, but no lyrics. That tune would ultimately be called “The Lady Wore Black.” Tate wrote the lyrics for it prior to recording the song.
Miller picks up the narrative here:
“I was in the studio the night that Jeff laid down the vocal tracks for ‘The Lady Wore Black.’ He needed to set the mood, so Jeff had the lights turned off and sang with a single candle burning in the studio. While waiting for his first verse to come up, he whistled along with the opening guitar not realizing they were taping him. He told them it was not meant for the recording, but everyone agreed it was good, so they kept it. What a cool thing to have seen!
About a week or two after they finished the recordings, Chris DeGarmo showed up at a party at Brett Umbedacht's house acting very suspiciously. He came over to me and quietly asked if I wanted to hear his new recording out in the car. I, of course, said yes and we went out to the Ford Pinto wagon he had recently bought from Scottie Duehn. Much like the soaring wail at the beginning of Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star,’ once I heard the opening chords of ‘Queen of the Reich’ and Tate’s soaring opening note, my jaw dropped to the floorboard.
I couldn't believe how professional their recording was. How well thought out every part of it was down to the sequencing and segueing between songs. After the end of ‘The Lady Wore Black,’ I couldn’t find the words to say to Chris, other than to say ‘it was awesome.’ None of the local bands in town had ever recorded anything that sounded this good out-of-the-box.”
Once complete, the EP generated a lot of local buzz in the Seattle scene. The Mob spent almost a year shopping it to labels, but came up empty. Eventually, Kim and Diana Harris, the owners of Easy Street Records, convinced the four members to sign a management contract with them.
At that point, The Mob also changed its name to "Queensr˙che" due to another band having the rights to “The Mob.” DeGarmo, Jackson, Rockenfield and Wilton chose the new name after a song DeGarmo had written called “Queen of the Reich,” changing “reich” to “r˙che” in order to avoid any association with the Nazi Party.
Queensr˙che had the EP pressed on its own "206 Records" label. The EP sold thousands of copies through word of mouth and the underground, finally attracting the attention of magazines and major labels. Queensr˙che pressured Tate to leave MYTH, but he was reluctant out of loyalty to MYTH. However, after the Queensr˙che EP received a stellar review in KERRANG!, album sales shot through the roof, which convinced Tate to leave MYTH and join Queensr˙che.
The band secured an opening slot for Zebra for two shows in Portland and Seattle during late June 1983. EMI Records came calling quickly afterwards, signing the band to a seven-album record deal and launching Queensr˙che's major-label recording career, leading to opening slots for headliners Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, and Dio in the fall of 1983. They returned home for the holidays to start work on the band's first full-length album.
-- Brian Heaton
What is believed to be one of the cassettes sent out to magazines in 1983 to generate buzz for Queensryche's EP. Note the date (the copy was made at Triad?) and then the copyright year below it. Photo courtesy of Thomas Brogli.
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