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Red Special Book: QOL Meets Simon Bradley

OK, here comes the introduction - who are you and what do you do?

I’m Simon Bradley, 28 years old, Aries, wrestler of alligators, decimator of beers, breaker of hearts. I worked for Guitarist magazine for 17 years until the meaty fist of redundancy knocked me out of there in 2014 and I now earn a crust as a freelance guitar and music journalist. Actually, call it 28-ish.

How did you get to that position? Failed musician?! Ha, just teasing...

Believe it or not I saw a position on Guitarist being advertised, applied and got it. That was in 1996 and it’d never happen that way now: these days you need to be good. I worked in guitar retail in Birmingham for a time before that, during which I underwent my ‘I gotta make it in rock and roll!’ phase. I didn’t, needless to say (yep…failed!), but got a guitar tech gig with Brummie prog dudes Magnum out of it, which was reward in itself. And if you thought Mötley Crüe, or, indeed Queen at their decadent height, were hardcore on the road… let’s just leave it there.

Why are we chatting today, what is your Queen connection?

I am the co-author of the Red Special book with Brian. I’ve also interviewed him many times since 1998 and, if anyone remembers the 1999 National Music Show at Wembley Conference Centre where Brian chatted and played for over 2,000 gobsmacked fans, I was the sweating bag of nerves sat to his right on the stage who’d booked him for the event. I also tried out for one of the two guitar slots in the original We Will Rock You theatre band in 2001. I auditioned in front of both Brian and Roger, and got down to the last three… gah!

Pressing further on the Red Special book with Brian, how did that all originally come together?

It struck me one day that there wasn’t any sort of book about the Red Special and just decided to do something about it. I knew something about its construction and had fantasized about playing it for years, like most Queen fans I guess. I’ve been mates with Brian’s guitar tech Pete Malandrone for ages, so I rang him to gauge his interest and we both took it from there. My experience with publishing allowed me to formulate a workable concept fairly quickly and, after successfully pitching it to both Carlton Books and, then to Brian, we started it knocking it into shape.

The whole thing took over three years to put together and get onto the shelves, and I have to admit that I loved every single minute of the process. Brian has said subsequently that he’d long wanted to get a book together about the Red Special, and I’m flattered that he not only considered me suitably qualified to undertake such a task, but also liked the final result. In fact, in an email to me he described it as “…a lovely book…”, which did make me go a bit quiet and chin-wobbly.

Did you meet up regularly to discuss progress?

Not frequently, but regularly, yes. Brian, quite rightly, wanted everything to go through him so he needed to sign off on everything as we went. He was so busy, though, that it sometimes took him a while to get around to evaluating my enthusiastically-submitted copy and giving it the attention he felt it required, but he did give us unrestricted access to his huge photo archive, which was vital to the book’s exclusivity.

I’d run ideas past the likes of Pete, Greg Brooks and Richard Gray, and I was always able to drop Brian an email when I needed specific insight from him. He’d get back to me as quickly as he could and would provide the information I needed along with words of encouragement and appreciation.

We had one long brainstorming session in his office one afternoon where, after reading a chapter, he turned to me and said: “It’s not really working, is it?”. My head dropped as I was forced to agree with him, but we spent the next few hours bouncing ideas off each other and forcing the manuscript into the place we both wanted it to be. I was dimly aware that we were speaking to each other as equals of a sort and that I was working closely with the man who played that solo on Bohemian Rhapsody, who’d blown my tiny mind when I first saw Queen in 1979 and who’s still part of England’s greatest ever rock band. I’m very glad to say that he was never anything other than accommodating and positive during the whole process, even when things were getting a little fraught as deadlines loomed.

Was the final book all you wanted it to be?

Yeah, just about. The curse of producing this sort of thing is that you’re forever going back to it and spotting a little error here or something else you’d have done differently there: it’s the nature of the beast. Put it this way, though: if I hadn’t been intimately involved with the book and, as a fan, had gone to Waterstones and bought it, I’d have loved every word and picture. I do think it’s a great book and I’m so happy that the many Queen fans who’ve taken the time to get in touch think so too.

I should say that it’s a little different from the original concept I’d pitched to Brian - I was thinking of something along the lines of a Haynes manual - but he made a number of significant changes during the initial production discussions that made the finished book so much better. In addition, he didn’t hesitate when I suggested we take the Red Special apart for what I consider to be the jewel in the book’s crown: those pictures of such an iconic guitar in bits are just incredible. He knew how special that would be and he allowed us to go for it. Holding one of the original Burns Trisonic pickups in my hands was a sobering moment and one I’ll never forget, and I’ll always admire him for giving us the go ahead to dismantle the Red Special. I’ll also be eternally grateful for his insistence to the publishers that my name should be on the book’s cover. That sort of kudos is a massive deal for someone like me and he didn’t have to.

The whole project has been well received from what I gather - translated versions etc…

I hear so, yes. I believe the first print run sold out, which is very gratifying. The Red Special fascinates even those who aren’t usually bothered about the inner workings of guitars and to have the story told by Brian himself, illustrated by the original diagrams and some lovely family pictures, was a real treat. That mix of technical depth with the personal side of the whole Queen phenomenon was a formula that couldn’t really fail, but everyone involved – and it wasn’t just me and Brian by any stretch of the imagination – did a brilliant job.

The Italian edition has sold really well and I’ve heard whispers that versions for both the Japanese and American markets are in the pipeline, although there’s no official word on this that I’m aware of right now. The popularity of both Brian and Queen remains undiluted across the world, so it’d surely be a good move: the Japanese would love it, I’m sure.

Is there any sort of scope that could see a follow up come together?

We’ve not discussed anything. Would there be a similar interest in a book concerning, for example, Brian’s amps or other pieces of gear? I’m not convinced there would, and I’m also not sure what Brian’s take would be on another book. Never say never, though: for example he still has the actual Echoplex that he customised and used on the solo to Stone Cold Crazy, plus a few other genuine relics, so we’ll see. It’d need to be very special and we’ve set the bar exceedingly high.

Have you got to work closely with any other guitar greats?

I’ve been very lucky to have interviewed and videoed many legends during my time. Let’s see: Slash, Joe Perry, Angus Young, all of Iron Maiden, Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, Mark and Myles from Alter Bridge, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani, Joe Bonamassa, Paul and Ace from Kiss, Tommy Thayer, Nuno Bettencourt, Alex Lifeson, Phil Collen, Richie Sambora, John Petrucci, Michael Schenker, Justin and Dan from The Darkness, Andy Timmons…you get the idea!

Outside of Queen, who are your heroes and why?

Eddie Van Halen, but the Eddie of 1978, not the faintly ridiculous Eddie of today. I truly believe that he’s the greatest guitar player of my generation and is on a par with other true innovators such as Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly and Hank Marvin. His huge tone, incredible technique and great songs have a place in anyone’s guitar shrine and, patchy as Star Fleet Project might have been, I still listen to it with childlike glee. Brian and Ed, together at last… manna from heaven.

What tunes are you currently spinning? 

I’m a card-carrying guitar nerd, so the new albums from Steve Vai and Paul Gilbert are getting a good blasting right now. Also on t’pile, amongst many others, is Time Machine Live by Rush – love Rush! - and the Portal 2 soundtrack, which is beyond-weird dystopian electronica.

And just to finish off, a couple of standard questions…favourite Queen album?

Probably Jazz, as it was the first Queen album I bought. Jealousy is one of my favourite tracks of them all, Dead On Time is an underrated bombastic classic, and the effortless simplicity of In Only Seven Days proves just what Queen are missing with John Deacon’s continued absence. Tomorrow, it’ll probably be Live Killers: Brighton Rock slays me every time. For the record, it’ll never be Hot Space.

And finally, your favourite Queen track?

Again, if I had to pick one, it’d be Love of My Life. Freddie’s vocal harmonies have never been bettered and the guitar break just demonstrates how wonderful a musician Brian is. All played on a home-made guitar, of course… still staggering.

More information @ www.theredspecial.com

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Red Special Book: QOL Meets Simon Bradley

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