Sunday Times Queen Feature
Sunday Times Culture Magazine - 22 February 2011
Queen are 40 this year - and, to celebrate, they're reissuing their first five albums. Brian May and Roger Taylor tell Rob Fitzpatrick about the pouncing around, the leg-up from Bowie, and still missing Freddie.
Freddie Mercury once described his band's songs as being like "disposable razors - use them darling, then throw them away". Yet, almost 40 years after Queen's first LP, that seems an ever more unlikely scenario. Every possible attempt has been made by critics and the self-appointed guardians of musical good taste to ridicule, belittle and bedraggle their arch, explosive, overwrought, emotive, theatrical, propulsive, gargantuan records (between arch 1974 and December 1992, they had 40 UK chart hits - even their successful streaks were wildly over the top), but the public voted time and time again, and the public voted, more often than not, for even more Queen, even more of the time.
Nine years ago, the band spent a reported £7.5m of their own money on a musical, part-written by Ben Elton - then, as now, easily as unfashionable as Queen - featuring their songs. It was savaged by the press (one reviewer from the American magazine The Advocate flew across the Atlantic just so they could call it "complete bollocks"), yet nearly a decade later, the towering, if rather unflattering, statue of Mercury triumphant still towers above the entrance to London's Dominion Theatre - and, every night, every seat in the house is full.
"Respect is a funny thing," says the guitarist Brian May, enjoying the aubergine special at a smart Italian restaurant in Holland Park. "If you look for it, you'll forever be disappointed." Queen have had very little, I suggest. Does that seem fair? "It's true," he laughs. "But we get everything, from complete, overwhelming love to total outright derision. I don't take any of it on board, really. It would ruin you if you believed it. You'd go nuts. I care what people say, but both extremes are dangerous."
The drummer Roger Taylor, sipping champagne on a leather sofa in his penthouse duplex overlooking Battersea Park, finds the whole situation hilarious. "Oh God, we've always got stick for everything," he grins. "People say, 'You're mistreating the legacy', and I think, well, thanks for your concern, but it;s my f***ing legacy."
Five years ago, it was announced that the band's Greatest Hits LP was the UK's biggest-selling album of all time, and now Queen have signed a new record deal with Island/Universal, after almost 40 years with EMI. The band - effectively May and Taylor (Mercury died in 1991, while the bass player, John Deacon, keeps his old colleagues "at arm's length", according to the guitarist) - will be spending the next 12 months revisiting their history.
The anniversary celebrations begin with a photography exhibition - Stormtroopers in Stilettos - that opens this week and focuses not he band's nascent, ultra-pouty, satin-blouse-and-nail-polish years, most of the images coming from May's own "air-conditioned and bomb-proof" archive. "I do look at those pictures in wonderment," he says. "I'm so strange and angular and awkward and uncomfortable-looking. I used to be embarrassed by it, but now I feel really forgiving. It's like looking at my own children."
Following that will be the rerelease of their first five albums, from the ultra-glam, heavy-rock debut up to the panoramically ambitious A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, which marked the end of Queen part one. All will arrive as deluxe sets, with a wealth of extras, and all have been remastered by May and Taylor. The pair have been closer to their early material than they have been for years, and seem genuinely amazed by what they found. "You can hear how we wanted to be intense and passionate and heavy, but still very melodic," May says. "We were always trying to find ways to fulfil what we heard in our heads."
"What was always thrilling to me was when people really loved the records," Taylor smiles. "There's a basic truth there - you shouldn't be ashamed to reach a lot of people. What could be better than reaching a lot of people while retaking sow intelligence?"
Few groups can claim members born in King's Lynn and Zanzibar, but then few groups are quite like Queen - "the most preposterous band that ever lived", according to Mercury. May and Taylor met at Imperial College London in 1968 and formed a band called Smile. In early 1969, their own bass player introduced them to a friend of his called Farroukh (Freddie) Bulsara (later Mercury) who was studying art in Ealing. May and he had lived less than a mile from each other in Feltham, southwest London, but had never met.
"I remember the first time I went round to his house," May says. "He wanted to play me Jimi Hendrix on his Dansette record player - he was totally obsessed with him. Even then, Freddie was a star - very shy, but he'd compensate by being grand and flamboyant. He was a serious dandy."
"We got on immediately," laughs Taylor, who teamed up with his new friend to set up a vintage clothes and art stall in Kensington Market. "We had a dream of being in a working band, but the only way to live was to sell the sort of outlandish clothes we loved. So we pounced around in velvet capes and tight trousers, and sold the look to other people."
Freddie had his own bands, Ibex and Wreckage - the latter even supported the psychedelic journeymen Iron Butterfly - but both came to nothing. By late 1970, after he had tried out various day jobs, including working for a bookmaker, the friends came together as Queen. Taylor remembers their first gig being arranged by his mother: they secured £50 to play for the Red Cross in Truro. Soon after, they were doing regular gigs, and rehearsing, at Imperial College. The band signed to EMI in late 1972 and were introduced to the world with a showcase gig at the Marquee. Their fist single, May's Keep Yourself Alive, flopped on release, while their ambitious debut album also failed to make an impact. Meanwhile, David Bowie, for one, was developing into a huge success with a similar mix of high camp and hard rock. "It was a traumatic time," Taylor says. "We always feared we'd been left behind. It took us such a long time to get any success."
"Me and Freddie would travel up and down to our management on a No 9 bus, asking why nothing was happening or why we couldn't get back in the studio," May says. The band used downtime at a place Bowie had hired to record. The call might not come until 3am, but when it did, they would race in and work until the sun came up. "It was a shambles," May laughs.
Queen embarked on a bout of prolonged, intensive touring, including an infamous US trip with Mott the Hoople. A Billboard review from 1974 admonished Mercury for "leaning a little too heavily on stage dramatics", but that never bothered the increasingly devoted crowds too much. "Mott were perfect for us," Taylor says. "They had an open-minded, very rock 'n' roll, insane audience. They were liberated, colourful - not the normal rock crowd."
"That was when we learnt how to be rock stars," May smiles. "Just as you thought the day was over, one of Mott would burst into your room, loaded with bottles and whatever else, an off you'd go again. It was very, very full-on and very, very exciting."
All the touring made Queen II a proper hit; then Bowie helped out again by pulling out of Top of the Pops at the last moment. Queen filed in, and Seven Seas of Rhye became their first chart smash.
"We got our hook into the mainstream," Taylor says. "The shows got bigger, but it was rough. Fred wouldn't get out of the van some nights. He and Brian had black-and-white fingernails, and literally wore dresses, but the tough audiences in Liverpool and Glasgow and Newcastle loves us."
The band's third album, Sheer Heart Attack, pushed them over the top. The most heinous excesses were reined in, in favour of a streamlined, hit-delivering monster. Taylor describes it as "grand, but not preposterously so". The single Killer Queen became their biggest hit yet.
Queen had other problems, however. Playing two shows a night on early tours left Mercury with nodes in his throat, and the band were in a "stifling" relationship with their management. "We were penniless," May says. "They kept all the money and spent it on swimming pools."
A new deal with Elton John's manager, John Reid, promised to wipe out these worries, and the band soon delivered their next single, Bohemian Rhapsody. EMI turned it down flat, demanding a radio edit. No such cut was made, the six-minute song stayed at No 1 for two months. The album that followed, A Night at the Opera, went Top 10 all over the world. Taylor laughs, recalling how, when Queen came to record A Day at the Races, they realised that Opera was "bloody impossible to follow up".
All the looking back has made May and Taylor consider the 20 years that have passed since Mercury's death. "These days, our creative fire is more like an ember that flickers occasionally," Taylor says. May stirs his espresso and smiles. "I just wish he was here to enjoy this with us. He would love this. It was Roger and me in the beginning, and it's Roger and me again, but Freddie's always with us. He's eternal, part of the fabric of every day of our lives."