Roger Taylor & Brian May Interview - Part 1

There are a few things going on around Queen at the moment…there is  a major retrospective exhibition celebrating the band’s formation and first five albums… your catalogue has been signed to Universal Music, the albums are being re-mastered and re-issued… and you have a 40th anniversary. Brian…What is it the 40th anniversary of?

BM: I think the popular view is that when John joined the band, the band was complete. So it’s the anniversary of that which I think is March. So we became the complete Queen group when John joined us.

Brian, The exhibition is called ‘Stormtroopers in Stilletos’, which was a kind-of subtitle to ‘She Makes Me’ on the third album ’Sheer Heart Attack’. ‘Stormtroopers in Stilletos’…what’s all that about?

BM: It’s just an image really, because it was actually Roger’s idea in the beginning to put this subtitle on because he said, 'look I really like this song it has a great beat and everything but I don’t like this title'. This is in 1975 or something. He said 'you should call it Stormtroopers in Stilettos if it has this big beat' and I said ok you can call it that as well if you want. So we put ‘She Makes Me’ and in brackets ‘Stormtroopers in Stilettos’. But I think that there is a kind of, ok there is some kind of reason because this exhibition is about the very early times and it’s about trying to get behind the veil, which we put up in a sense. You know for the first time we’re letting people see what life was really like for us, you know. So the Stormtroopers in Stilettos has this strange juxtaposition, it’s a nonsense, you know in a sense we are as a group, we’re something very powerful. You know, the very essence of our music is power and drive and very loud and everything but we are portraying very delicate ideas. So there is a kind of anomaly there, why is Killer Queen a rock song? Why is Good Company a rock song? The answer is maybe not, maybe it isn’t, but this is us, you know Stormtroopers in Stilettos is a kind of paradox. So people tell us we were a kind of paradox as a group, so this is expressing that paradox I think.

Talking about the exhibition – looking back on those old pictures of the band, what emotions does that stir in you – is that how you both remember it?

RT: We had a mixture of emotions. We weren’t quite expecting to be projected back. For forty years and to see all of those very old pictures of us when we were looking very young and very poor. We saw us as really kids, suddenly you remember what it was like in those days and it was quite painful I have to say I feel a great joy and a great pride in what we achieved in those early years, but it is kind of painful to look at it in that much detail.

Were there any bits that you found difficult, maybe almost too emotional, to re-visit?

BM: It was quite an emotional jolt I have to say because I am used to see pictures of Freddie the whole time you know and Freddie’s gone, but he’s still with us and this is something normal and part of our lives and a joyful part of our lives, but when we went into that exhibition suddenly you got a much clearer picture of the way things were when we started. I could see pictures of people who were very close to us who have died now and suddenly it was all very much more real. 

RT: Many of our old friends are in those pictures, preserved forever young and so it bought back some very sad memories. 

BM: Some of it was surprising, a lot of the material is from my own archives. I collected all of these posters and singles and tickets and stuff, so that was no surprise, but then there are some pictures there that I had never really seen. There’s one picture of us at the time of A Day At The Races and we were all sitting there in the stands watching these horses and it was a sort of promotion for the album and of course a lot of the people who were there are no longer with us you know, not just Freddie, and suddenly it was very real, it was life size and there’s my wife looking like a little tiny stick you know and me looking like a kid younger than my own kids are now, and it was a jolt and Roger and I both felt this. There was Pete Brown who was a wonderful friend and employee of ours who used to take us around the world, he’s gone, long gone. And there were lots of things there and I think looking at there was a glass case with the whole RockField's set-up and there are tape machines, all the bits and pieces which we used to play with the whole time including mounds of tape on the floor which is actually real because we did used to do this and if you’ve dealt with a mix and you know you’re not going to use it you just run it off on to the floor because it’s quicker and suddenly I had this feeling that maybe I should be inside that glass case as well. And we felt we were sort of looking’s almost like being dead. It was a very strange feeling I have to tell you and Roger and I both sat there once everyone had gone thinking and looking and saying to each other how we felt and it was a weird feeling, you know, there is great joy and great pride in what we did but it’s almost like going to the Victoria and Albert Museum and seeing Thomas Edison or something like that, you know, it’s all covered in dust and you think is that us? What are we? 

RT: It’s a long time ago, forty years. It was our formative period and it brought back all sorts of brutal memories like how poor we were and you know how we were saving up money for instruments and food. The next meal was a great high priority at the time and where was it coming from.

Roger – you’re one of the great rock & roll drummers, but the story goes that at 20 years old you wanted to study to be a dentist?

RT: I guess I was brought up in a way I know my parents would generally think, 'well we want you to be a doctor' and all that, they’d have loved that. I came to London to go to college to meet other people, to be in a band and that was my plan and the college was a way of getting to London and meeting like minded people. London is a real centre you know, and now as well, but in those days especially all the fantastic bands came out of London. Jimi Hendrix had to come to London to make it, you know and meet people, like minded people so that is why I came to London and dentistry fact I did Biology in the end, but dentistry was really a bit of a red herring. 

What kind-of band were you setting out to be in 1971 – did you have a musical vision?

BM: It was a vision in our head really. I think we would have described it at the time as very heavy underneath, but very melodic and very harmonic on top - there wasn’t really a model. We had heroes you know, Jimi Hendrix was a huge hero and Zeppelin were sort of almost contemporary but they were our heroes as well.  They managed to do what some of what we wanted to do, but they didn’t have this other side to them. We were very fond of Yes at the time who had an element, they had this very complex harmonic element which was an inspiration, but our heroes also went much further back in time so there’s people like George Formby and the Big Bands and The Temperance Seven all sorts of strange eclectic influences on us...became what we were. I think we were like a sponge and we observed all of this wonderful music that was around us at a very particular time in history, it couldn’t really happen now I don’t think but we grew up with all of these sounds in our heads and we knew what we want. The lucky thing was that Freddie and Roger and I had a very similar vision in our heads so when we came together it was easy to know which decisions to make to try and make this happen.

Tell us about Freddie back then, was he always the flamboyant showman we now remember him as? 

BM: He was always a rock star, he really was, that’s the funny thing. He was a very shy boy, very shy, very insecure I would say. He came from a very strict public school upbringing and very repressed in a sense, and so his reaction to that was to go completely the other way, to be completely outrageous and build a character around himself which he inhabited, and it came to it's climax when he actually changes his name and became Freddie Mercury instead of Bulsara. I regard Freddie as a completely self made man. He had his vision, he had his dream and he constructed everything about his life to make this dream happen and we were part of this whole kind of journey.

Back in the early days did you ever imagine that Queen would have such an impact on popular music…still be talked about 40 years on? 

BM: No, I still think it is a dream sometimes. There is this theory that there is only me that exists and everything else is a dream. I still get that feeling sometimes because everything is so incredibly, I was going to say lucky, but it’s unusual in every respect, we had these incredible dreams, but I think along with the precociousness and the belief and the sort of belligerence of trying to achieve your dream there is a little piece of you inside which says 'no this is impossible, we could never do this'. I still have that and I wake up some mornings and think how did that happen? How did we become this worldwide phenomenon? It’s great, it’s amazing and I feel very grateful and I think I still have a problem putting it in its place and maybe that’s just, maybe that’s lucky too.

Your first five albums…Queen…Queen 2…Sheer Heart Attack…A Night at The Opera and A day at the races…are being re-released, re-mastered…there are bonus tracks….Let’s talk about the first album, Queen, which you recorded here at Trident….which was mainly recorded at night time?

RT: Well, you’re right, it was recorded mainly at night time when David Bowie wasn’t, because we were signed to this studio, they were our managers. This was a very fashionable studio at the time. 

BM: The owners of the studio, in a sense owned us, they were our managers but they didn’t want to spend any money, so basically if someone was in here like David Bowie and he finished a session at 3 o’clock, we would get a phone call and they’d say 'come in boys we’ve got some downtime come in and do some work'. 

RT: So we would go, two until six in the morning.

BM: So that’s how that album was made. So although we had great technology around us we didn’t really have much freedom to use it. It really was grabbing little bits of time and we were regarded as, sort of the new boys who didn’t really know anything and nobody really wanted to listen to the way we wanted to do things. 

RT: Because we were being pushed slightly towards the fashionable sound with the drums etc; too dry for us. 

BM: They put tape all over his drums and they put cushions everywhere and sound absorbing and they made his drums go ‘pff’, ‘tich’, ‘tich’. 

RT: This famous Trident drum sound it was called, there was a booth that was over there. if you imagine this big room with this tiny bit area for the drums, then we used to put the drums in there, taped up and everything, so it was dead and that was the fashionable sound. David Bowie had used it, I think that album suffers for that, but it has a lot of good stuff on it though.    

Roger, there’s quite a different sound to the five bonus tracks included on the re-mastered first album…what’s their history…why were they recorded? 

RT: They are the demos that we did before we had any record contracts or anything. We hawked them around to every record company under the sun, begging for a contract really.  

BM: We went into a studio and we really had no contact, we’re very young people, we’re poor people, we have a dream, but nobody shares our dream and we were very lucky to find this person who wanted someone to make a noise in the new studios they were building, De Lane Lea in Wembley. We went in there and made some noise for them and in return they made us these five tracks. We were very precocious boys, we knew what we wanted already so the four of use went in with an engineer, Louis Austin, and made these five tracks and they were pretty much the way we wanted them to sound. Only a couple of days, two or three days, I think that we spent in there but it was enough to flex our muscles and make these...start to fashion the sounds that we had in our heads. 

RT: Brian did some great good work, he found them on an acetate and using the new technology managed to remove all of the sort of ‘clecks’ and  ‘clacks’ and ‘pops’ and it sounds fantastic. Sounds better than the first album actually.

Click here for Part 2.

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Roger Taylor & Brian May Interview - Part 1


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