Britainic Majestics (Mojo Magazine)Britainic Majestics
THEIR BRITANNIC MAJESTIES REQUEST
From Mojo Magazine
Queens crimes: High camp, ambition and excessive sales. Their defence: they were rock's last revolutionaries. David Thomas maps their controversial story..........
Roger Taylor is drinking a refreshing cup of tea, prepared for him by one of his comely female staff, in the dining room of the private recording studio where the one-time Queen drummer is working on a solo album. He has a fair idea that this record will not be a hit, certainly not on the scale that his old band enjoyed, but as he notes philosophically, "Everyone has that problem. Mick Jagger is one of the biggest stars ever and he can't sell a solo record."
Still, it's not as if Taylor - a wee bit stockier than in his prime as Queen's prettiest, blondest member, but still in fine fettle for a man in sight of his 50th birthday - much needs the royalties. His share of Queen's earnings (a reported Â£36 million gross in the two years 1996 and 1997) brings in around Â£3 million a year to add to his estimated Â£40 million fortune. And boy, does it show. To get to his workplace, you turn off the A3, a few miles past Guilford, follow a track through some woods (his presumably), go past the fields filled with grazing horses, park by a barn and wander down to a gorgeous old water-mill, sat by a babbling brook, in which the studio has been built.
"It was very excessive. The excess leaked out from the music and became a need. We were always trying to get to a place that had never been reached before."
If you turn left instead of right, as you come out of the car-park, a set of steps lead up a hill to the lavishly-appointed mansion that sits at its top: Taylor's mansion. When I first interviewed him five years ago, as he was releasing a solo album called 'Happiness', Taylor described his life as follows "Deborah (Leng, the ex-Cadbury's Flake model who is his partner) likes to stay at home with her horses. But I like to travel. We're in the nice position of having more than one house in different countries. I love going boating or skiing and I love my garden. I can't say I'm a keen gardener - I don't actually do a lot myself: I just say, I'll have one of those, there. I'm very lucky, it's a very privileged lifestyle. But, as we keep reminding ourselves, the three of us that are left, we worked bloody hard for it." This time, Taylor told me about his ocean-going yacht. It has a skipper and a crew of five because, (a bit like his garden), "It's too big for me to handle. "The boat is a schooner, rather than a motor-yacht: or as he put it, "Not one of those stink-pot things."
That is the life that Queen seemed to embody from the moment they appeared on the music scene. Barely three years after their first hit, they were proclaiming that they were the champions and yodelling, "No time for losers." Three years after that, they were listed in the Guinness Book as the highest-paid company directors in Britain at Â£700,000 apiece: "We were buggered if we were going to suffer for our art," Taylor declares. "We always said we wanted to be the biggest in the world. Unashamedly, that was the object of the enterprise. What else are you going to say, 'We'd like to be the fourth biggest'?"
I could go on. But these few paragraphs of sneery reportage and context-free quotation should have confirmed every prejudice of anyone who hates Queen (as well as royally pissing off their many fans, not to mention Mr Taylor himself): So, by way of balance, follow me about 15 miles north, into the absurdly plush north-west corner of Surrey, where the golf-celebrity interfaces of Wentworth and Sunningdale sit pampered cheek by plump jowl with the private estates of Virginia Water, where the local car-dealer is a Ferrari franchise. Turn off the A30 at Windlesham, motor down another winding lane, press the button by the locked white gates and enter into Brian May's domain.
Pete, the roadie, answers the door. He leads me into a dark wood-panelled study and asks if I fancy a cuppa. When I say that I like mine strong, a dash of milk, two sugars, Pete seems pleased. "The boss likes it like wee-wee," he says, disapprovingly. As Pete scuttles off to do his thing with the tea-bags, I look around. The '30's style furniture is upholstered in a sort of burgundy velvet. There are plates hanging from the walls on which pictures of tigers and African sunsets have been painted. A collection of amplifiers is piled at one end of the room. Toys litter a table at the other. This looks like the room of a man who is entirely different to his physical surroundings - a man of wealth, certainly (the most recent estimate of his fortune is Â£50 million), but taste? Not so sure.
When May comes in to join me, he looks exactly as you might expect. His beanpole body is dressed in jeans and a loose, Hawaiian-print shirt. His hair is long, dark and curly. His trademark clogs are on his feet. But that is where his predictability ends.
His opening words are, "I live in my head too much." He speaks quietly, sometimes tentatively. Within minutes, it is overwhelmingly obvious that this man is incredibly honest, incredibly decent!and incredibly unhappy. "The material stuff has never got to me," he says. "I had Â£30 in the bank when we started and I was probably much happier than I am now. Roger was the one who adapted better than any of us. He enjoys being a rock star and the money that goes with it. He's better at spending money than I am."
Which I ask, semi-facetiously, he spends more of it, or he spends it more wisely?
"Both," says May, with a wry smile. "He enjoys the best of everything, and that's a very honest approach to it."
It isn't really Brian May's style just to kick back and wallow in the incredible good fortune of being part of one of the most successful rock groups the world has ever seen. Assuming that it was good fortune. "Queen was a wonderful vehicle and a wonderful, magical combination." He says. "But I think it came close to destroying us all. I'm not being dramatic. I think it truly fucked us up in the way that only a sort of out-of-world experience like that can do. Queen were the biggest thing in the world for a moment in time and everything that goes with that really messes up your mind somehow. Queen were the biggest thing in the world for a moment in time and everything that goes with that really messes up your mind somehow.
"You're universally adored and loved. But then you're surrounded by people who love you and yet you're utterly lonely. You get to a place which is hard to really recover from, and I'm conscious that I never have really recovered. It's like you never grow up. We've all suffered. I know definitely we have. Freddie, obviously, went completely AWOL, which is why he got that terrible disease. He wasn't a bad person, but he was utterly out of control for a while. In a way, all of us were out of control and - perhaps I shouldn't be speaking for Roger and John, but I think underneath it they would agree with me - it screwed us up."
Queen had a reputation for being one of the great party bands. "We had some wonderful times," says May, and no post-show celebration was complete without naked girls mud-wrestling, or gallons of champagne served by dwarves and drag queens - an endless backstage bacchanalia. The peak was reached on Halloween night 1978, when the band launched their latest album, Jazz, with an all-night binge in New Orleans: "It was deliberately excessive," May recalls, "Partly for our own enjoyment, partly for friends to enjoy, partly because it's exciting for record company people - and partly for the hell of it. There were all kinds of weird acts, including a guy who sat in a pile of chopped up liver, women who did unusual things with their anatomies!We made friends with all the strippers and transvestites, people who felt as misplaced as we did. On the face of it they were outrageous and promiscuous, but some of them were great souls. We had a hoot."
A hoot at a price. "It was very excessive. I think the excess leaked out from the music into life and became a need. We were always trying to get to a place that has never been reached before and excess is part of that." He smiles, "You know, I never understand how I was able to take no drugs and not drink that much and yet become totally unstable. I was needy beyond belief. A certain amount of your neediness is satisfied by the party lifestyle. But you have a terrible hole inside you which needs to be one-to-one with everyone. And that's a need which can never be fulfilled. You destroy everyone who ever comes close to you.
To be truthful, I was always screwed up about sex because I got married at totally the wrong time, at the beginning of all this. In the midst of all this I'm trying to be a husband and a good father to my kids, which was the number one priority for me. So that really excluded me from becoming wildly promiscuous. But emotionally I became utterly out of control, needy for that one-to-one reinforcement, feelings of love and discovery, and that's what I became addicted to, I think."
So I sat there, listening to Brian May strip his emotions bare, and I thought to myself: maybe I've got Queen wrong all these years. Because, with a very few exceptions - Love Of My Life, perhaps, or the death-defying bravery of The Show Must Go On - I've never heard any of the intensity, confusion or desperation that May describes beneath the baroque constructions of Queen's records. Great tunes, yes, pile-driving riffs a-plenty; but as Bowie once asked, "Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?"
To be fair, there were always plenty that could make me smile. You'd have to have a terminal sense of humour failure to hear Freddie Mercury sing, "I want it all/I want it all/! and I want it now," without breaking into a grin. Plenty that could make me get up and cheer, too. In 1986, the year after Queen walked away with Live Aid, I covered what turned out to be their last-ever concert, in front of 120,000 people at Knebworth. Commissioned to write a backstage account of the summer's biggest show, I got there the day before and watched the final preparations being made to the giant stage and lighting-rig, heard the sound-system being tested. The next afternoon I stood at the lip of the stage, looking out at the sea of people stretching up the hill towards Knebworth House, feeling a minuscule fraction of the energy they would generate when their heroes finally hit the stage
And then, that night, I saw a show that was as powerful an exercise in enormo-rock as has ever been staged. Mercury's stage manner could look ridiculous on film or TV. He did not dance and strut like Jagger, or shimmy like Bowie. Instead he threw a series of extravagant shapes, one pose following another. But on a mammoth stage this stylised motion made sense, reaching right to the back of the crowd. Plus, of course, he could really sing. And the band, stripped of all the endless layers of overdubs, could really rock. At times the performance was almost frightening. During Radio Ga-Ga, the entire crowd raised their arms to do the double-claps that punctuate the chorus. It was eerily reminiscent of some Leni Riefenstahl film of a Nazi night-rally. It made me think how closely related pop and politics are, how the rock singer is the orator of the late-20th century, tapping into mass emotion and desire, bending the crowd to his will, harnessing its power. We are the champions!no time for losers: even the rhetoric is the same.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I felt and feel ambivalent about Queen - an ambivalence not shared by vast numbers of Britons. For over 20 years, in countless polls, Queen's signature tune, Bohemian Rhapsody has been listed among the country's all -time favourite songs. In February this year, the readers of another monthly music magazine (seventeenth letter of the alphabet, comes between P and R) rated it the third best single of all time - beaten only by Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields and Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Just as Britain loves the song, so it loves the band. Freddie Mercury is featured on a second-class stamp (with Roger Taylor - the first living Englishman ever depicted by the Royal Mail), included among a selection of British heroes in the run-up to the millennium. In September 1998, a poll conducted for MOJO by the British Market Research Bureau put Queen fourth on the list of the most popular pop artists of all time, behind The Beatles, Elvis and Sinatra. The typical Queen voter turns out to be a middle-class male aged between 25-54. But here's a wild guess: I'm prepared to bet that the typical Queen voter was not a rock critic. Because as much as Queen are still adored by the public, they have long been despised by the critical establishment. As Roger Taylor puts it, "We were never critically acclaimed, which seemed to be quite important after a while because the more critically acclaimed you were, the more assured of failure you were too."
Failure was never a word in Queen's vocabulary, any more than poverty. At no stage in their careers did they play the accepted rock game and strike the approved, rebellious, anti-establishment poses (that this made them more perversely rebellious than those bands that did is, of course, one of life's delicious little ironies). They made no bones about their middle-class origins. They were unabashed about their academic qualifications.
For a young band to have Queen's rampant ambition might have come across as cool, sod-you cockiness in Blairite '90's Britain. In the strike-ridden, right-on early '70's, it was infinitely more offensive. So music press disapproval dogged Queen from the start. In 1973 EMI thrust them onto the national stage with a heavily-promoted gig at the Marquee and a Â£5,000 (phew!) advertising campaign for their eponymous debut album, thereby persuading many hacks that the band were nothing more than hype. When, in 1974, Queen II was released, Record Mirror described one track - Roger Taylor's Loser In The End - as "the worst piece of dross ever committed to plastic" and summarised the album as "The dregs of glam rock. The band with the worst name, have capped that dubious achievement by bringing out the worst album for some time. Their material is weak and overproduced...as a whole it is dire. Brian May is technically proficient, but Freddie Mercury's voice is dressed up with multi-tracking. A lot of people are pushing Queen as the band of '74. If this is our brightest hope for the future then we are committing rock 'n' roll suicide."
Three years later, as the punk revolution consigned bands like Queen to the dustbin of history, the NME ran a ferociously scathing profile of Freddie Mercury (so ferocious and so scathing, in fact, that it ensured he virtually never gave a full-length press interview again in his life). The headline was, "Is This Man A Prat?" A year later, when the marketing of Fat Bottomed Girls and Bicycle Race via a video, single-sleeve and poster featuring a horde of naked models on bikes was causing a considerable, and entirely predictable rumpus, the NME ran a rear-view photo of Freddie with the caption, "Fat Bottomed Queen". Not that they were homophobic or anything...obviously.
The irony of all this is that Queen, of all bands, really paid their dues. Their story begins, not with Freddie Mercury, but with Brian May. Born on July 19th 1947, the son of a civil service engineer, from Feltham in Middlesex, he was turned on to playing the guitar by going to see The Tommy Steele Story. Inspired by the Shadows, his taste ran to pure instrumentalists like Les Paul and Django Reinhardt; he and his pals at Hampton Grammer School would get together in the bike sheds to trade riffs from the latest records. The blues, they thought, were a bit beneath them: "We were a bit scornful. We were into the technicalities of chord structures."
Then he saw Clapton. "He based himself totally around that Albert King, B.B.King, Howlin' Wolf scene, and turned our whole world upside down. The Yardbirds were about more than just playing notes; this was raw sex and anger."
Along with an understanding of the music, came a dawning awareness of the power of performance. "I saw The Who many times, and there was an element of total anarchy and destructive power that was frightening. I remember seeing them in some seedy little Soho club with about 50 people there and they just destroyed the place.
"Hendrix had that frightening quality as well. I'd put a lot of work into playing guitar and was thinking I was pretty damn good. But Hendrix came along and destroyed everyone. I was deeply jealous, that was the firs emotion I felt. A friend played the B-side of Hey Joe, Stone Free, and Hendrix was playing scat and singing along with it and I thought it had to be a trick that he'd cooked up in the studio. When I saw him at the Savile Theatre, supporting The Who, I couldn't believe it. I felt excited, overwhelmed and also completely deflated. He changed all of our lives in an instant."
By then, May was at Imperial College, studying for his physics degree, and torn between the career in science for which he was being educated and the music to which he was still magnetically drawn. "My father sacrificed his life so that I could get a good education. So I found myself propelled along a scientific line, because I happened to be good at physics. I did four A-levels in science, a physics degree and post-graduate astronomy, though I never finished my phD on Motions of Interplanetary Dust.
"All the time this other part of me was bursting to make music. My dad had been the same but had denied it to himself. He played piano in a dance band as a kid, but then the war came along.
When he came back, he had a wife and a baby on the way - he had to get a 'proper job' and give up his musical aspirations. He thought I was wasting my education going off to play in this group called Queen. I also wanted to live with my girlfriend - and unforgivable crime. He hardly wanted to speak to me for a while.
"Then, much later, he saw us play Madison Square Gardens and understood the force and the fulfilment there was for me. He said, 'I'm so envious because I shut that part of me out of my life. You've achieved more in your life than I ever will. 'It was a terrible moment. I felt very sad and thought about it for a long time. So I went back and had another conversation with him, explaining that his life had enabled me to do what I was doing. It wasn't long before he died, so it was important to straighten that stuff out. I only realise now how much pain I caused my dad. It's the most painful thing to experience that kind of rejection from a child. I'm finding it with my children now. I digress..."
Well, yes and no. Because May's father played a crucial role in the Queen legend as the man who helped Brian make the guitar that has been his musical mainstay for more than 30 years. "It was made in our little house in Feltham, in a spare bedroom converted into a workshop. It's all still there - I haven't been able to deal with it since my mum died two years ago - and I went back recently and found all the tools we made."
So they not only built the guitar, they built the tools that built the guitar? "Yes, we were very scholarly about it. We felt all the people who had been making guitars had just been lucky. For instance, I remember seeing a Fender Stratocaster and it was just a happy accident that the tremolo worked. I thought I could design something better by scientifically going back to first principles." With help from his father, he did. Two years of evenings and weekends produced a guitar made from a fireplace, bits of an old table and assorted bizarre components including a saddlebag-holder and knitting needle (for the tremolo arm) and the springs from motorcycle engine-valves.
By 1967, May was playing in a band called 1984 with a pal from Hampton Grammer School called Tim Staffell. Their highpoint was supporting Jimi Hendrix at Imperial College, but May left the band to pursue his studies and his own music, keeping in touch with Staffell, who went to Ealing College of Art. The two of them wanted to keep making music together, but they needed a drummer, so in the autumn of '67 May put an advertisement on the noticeboard at Imperial College, saying that he was looking for a drummer into Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon. Enter Roger Meddows-Taylor.
He'd grown up in Cornwall, and gone to Truro School (a minor public school, also attended by future Liberal MP David Penhaligon). Taylor's school band, The Cousin Jacks, played a benefit gig for the Young Liberals, which actually lost money, although as Penhaligon later admitted, "That might be a reflection on the Young Liberals." Taylor had three musical heroes: John Lennon, Bob Dylan...and Jimi Hendrix, whom he'd seen in Bristol, driving the 100-odd miles from Truro for the gig. In late 1967, Taylor was a dentistry student at the London Hospital, and was alerted to May's ad by his flatmate Les Brown, a student at Imperial. Roger met Brian at the college bar, talked music and then May wrote a letter setting out his musical ideas. "He seemed quite intelligent," Taylor later told Bob Harris.
Looking back, says May, "I remember being flabbergasted when Roger set his kit up at Imperial College. Just the sound of him tuning his drums was better than I had heard from anyone before. It was amazing. Roger has a flair and a polish to his drumming which I've never heard in anyone else. He's unequivocally a great rock drummer and any drummer you talk to will say so. Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters - Roger is absolutely the bible to him, and Dave Grohl feels the same as well.
"Roger and I hit it off like brothers, and we've been together the longest, which may be why we fight so much. The sound of my guitar and his drums worked from the beginning. It gelled and it had thet hugeness."
May, Taylor and Staffell (the bassist/vocalist) formed a band called Smile. "It had the beginnings of the magnificence I was after," says May. "We made a record for Mercury of America, which was disastrous. They only pressed about 10 of them. It was thoroughly depressing, business-wise. Tim gave up in disgust and he was within his rights to leave us because he had an offer to join (ex Bee Gee Colin Petersen's group) Humpy Bong, who'd had a hit and been on Top Of The Pops. Roger and I were left with no group. We wondered if we should give up. But then young Freddie Bulsara arrived on the scene."
Farroukh 'Freddie' Bulsara, alias Mercury, was born on September 5th, 1946, the son of a court cashier from Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania). His family were Parsees, an ethnic group who had fled their home country of Persia in the 8th century, rather than abandon their |Zoroastrian religion in favour of Islam. In 1955, the Bulsaras sent young Farroukh to St Peter's public school in Panchgani, near Bombay, India, where he was educated until 1963. By then, his parents had been forced to flee Zanzibar settling in England - in Feltham, Middlesex, a few hundred yards from the Mays (unbeknownst to them).
Cut to 1969. Mercury was a friend of Tim Staffell's at Ealing College of Art and had become a fan of Smile. "Freddie was a very big advocate and appreciator of our talents," May recalls. "He had this thing that we were presenting ourselves all wrong. He was into the show as a show, which was a pretty unusual idea in those days because the fashion was that you had to wear jeans and they had to be split and you had to have your back to the audience, otherwise it was pop. Freddie had the idea that rock should be a show, that it should give you something that was overwhelming in every way."
"We came together through Hendrix," says Taylor. "When we spoke to Freddie, we discovered we had the same musical tastes. He was a complete Hendrix freak. He once saw him 14 nights in a row, in different pups every time."
Mercury had always been musical, but Taylor recalls that he was by no means the finished article. "Freddie had a natural musicality, it was a real gift, but he had a very strange vibrato when we first met, which some people found rather distressing. But he applied himself and forged his own persona. He invented himself."
To May, Mercury's musical gift was his natural eccentricity. "Freddie wrote in strange keys. Most guitar bands play in A or E, and probably D and G, but beyond that there's not much. Most of our stuff, particularly Freddie's songs, was in oddball keys that his fingers naturally seemed to go to: E-flat, F, A-flat. They're the last things you want to be playing on a guitar, so as a guitarist you're forced to find new chords. Freddie's songs were so rich in chord-structures, you always found yourself making strange shapes with your fingers. Songs like Bicycle Race have a billion chords in them."
He had humour, too - an outrageous, camp sensibility that was one of Queen's most prominent, and controversial, characteristics. But beneath the 'darlings' and the Moet and Chandons lurked a more thoughtful character. "Freddie's stuff was so heavily cloaked, lyrically," May recalls. "But you could find out, just from little insights, that a lot of his private thoughts were in there, although a lot of the more meaningful stuff was not very accessible. Lily Of The Valley (Sheer Heart Attack) was utterly heartfelt. It's about looking at his girlfriend and realising that his body needed to be somewhere else. It's a great piece of art, but it's the last song that would ever be a hit."
There was one final gift. Keith Richards recently described the Stones' earliest ambitions to me by saying. "We just wanted to turn London into the South side of Chicago." Well, Freddie wanted to turn it into the metropolitan Opera House. Lots of late-'60's , early -70's rockers talked about creating rock operas, but no one had as instinctive an operatic sensibility as Mercury. Perhaps that's what made Queen's songs so popular in Latin countries. It certainly accounts for the way that their most popular tracks are both as imposing and as hummable as Verdi's best marches or arias. Right from the earliest days, and tracks like In The Lap Of The Gods, Mercury was able to create epic, audience-swaying, singalong chants. Both Lap...and the verse of We Are The Champions are waltzes - perhaps he wanted to turn London into down-town Vienna, too.
The final addition to Queen was John Deacon, a 19-year-old science student, on bass. "We tried a lot of bass players out, "May recalls, "and we came to realise that a bass player wasn't just someone who filled in the low ends. Again, it was lucky, because one of our girlfriends knew someone whose boyfriend was John. So, having been through a lot of hugely thunderous bass players, this quite shy guy turned up with his immaculate Rickenbacker bass and immaculate amplifier, plugged in, and as soon as he started putting bass lines to what we were doing we realised it was right."
As befits such a self-effacing individual, Deacon was less overwhelmed. He later observed he was "possibly the one person in the group who could look at it from the outside, because I came in as the fourth person in the band. I knew there was something but I wasn't convinced of it until possibly the Sheer Heart Attack album."
In the meantime, the band, now called Queen, started playing live, mixing the London college circuit with dates in Taylor's old Cornish stamping grounds. On August 23rd, 1970, they appeared at the lecture theatre at Imperial College, promoted by a hand-written ad on the college notice board. A few months later, on February 20th, 1971, they supported Yes at Kingston Poly: admission 50p.
It would be three years before they released their first album, and as Taylor says, "It seemed like forever. That's why Freddie and I started our stall in Kensington Market. We were selling artwork from some of the students at Ealing. Then we sold Fred's thesis, which was all based on Hendrix. There were some beautiful things - there was Planetscape and he'd written the lyrics of Third Stone From The Sun - things like that are probably worth a lot of money now. Then we went to very old second-hand clothes. We'd get bags of Edwardian silk scarves from dodgy dealers, the place would be full of dust, and take them, iron them and flog them."
When Hendrix died, on September 8th, 1970, the stall closed for the day as a mark of respect. "When we all started sharing a flat," May once recalled, "Fred would bring home these great bags of stuff and say, 'Look at this beautiful garment! It's going to fetch us a fortune!' And I'd say, Fred, that is a piece of rag." But it was the rags that financed the grandiose schemes. "We managed to get some demos done and went round everywhere," says Taylor. "A lot of people were saying they were interested, but nobody was actually signing anything. We were turned down by EMI. Then we signed to Trident Productions, a very happening studio at the time. The Beatles were in there, George Harrison. Bowie did Ziggy and Hunky Dory there, loads of stuff. In fact Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar's Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I'd seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-at??? They looked like spacemen."
In a recent Internet interview; Bowie was asked if he had been influenced by Queen, to which he replied, "I doubt it, since Freddie asked me to produce his first album." "Certainly not!" Taylor exclaims. "But David was producing Lou at the time. We were taking the down-time. Literally, they'd be coming up the stairs and we'd be going down the stairs. David probably remembers it slightly differently, but I doubt he was being 100 per cent serious. Knowing David, very little he says is!"
The sessions took place in November 1971. Right from day one, Queen had very specific ideas about how they wanted to be recorded. "From the beginning, we were fighting to get reality into the sound. I remember having this huge argument with some guy when we first started to record, because he wanted to put the guitar amplifier into a sound-absorbing box, so that it wouldn't leak onto anything else, and stick a mic in front of it. He said, 'We can do anything with that, after the event. We can put echo on, make it sound any way you want.' I said, No you can't. It will sound like an amp in a dead box, and it's true.
"We were in a situation where the studio people were our managers, so we had to record at Trident, which was known for its sound. It was a kind of trademark, and it was the exact opposite of what we wanted to be. The drums were all close-miked and covered in sticky-tape to make them dead. We wanted everything to sound like it was in the room, in your face. We had this incredible fight to get the drums out of the drum-booth and into the middle of the studio, and to put the mics all round the room.
"I remember Roy (Thomas Baker) saying that the only way to get a good performance was to play it 50 times over. I said, 'No: the only way is to get the first performance and keep it. I can play it 50 more times, but you'll go back and you'll hear that the first one has something special.' I'm not putting down Roy at all, because he brought a great perfectionism to it and a flawless technical approach. Between the two of us we were fighting the whole time to find a place where we had the perfection, but we also had the reality of performance and sound. And it didn't really happen 'til the second album."
Trident licensed Queen to EMI, but for 18 months, with the album in the can, nothing seemed to happen. May remembers "going on the number 9 bus up to town every day with Freddie to pummel the company into doing something, because we felt that the album had gone cold. David Bowie had risen from Aylesbury to heaven. Groups like Nazareth were all over the radio and we couldn't get our foot in the door."
The first album - simply titled Queen - was eventually released on July 13th, 1973. It was not a hit, but there were a few signs of things to come. Mike Appleton, producer of the hugely influential BBC2 TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test, came across a white-label copy of the album at his office and - completely unaware of the record's identity or that of its makers - put it on the turntable. Side one, track one was Keep Yourself Alive. Appleton liked it so much that he commissioned Phil Jenkinson, who used to set songs to surreal compilations of old movie footage, to put together some accompanying visuals. Appleton: "I just gave it to Phil, and said, Let's put this on. We'll say on the programme that we don't know what the hell or who the hell, but if anyone out there knows, could they please call us. It was a different industry back then!"
"It came in a series of small steps," says Taylor of Queen's rise to stardom. "Our first album sold quite well in America, not huge amounts, but it was the first hint. We built up a small live following and that kept the egos afloat. We used to play a place called the County Ballroom in Taunton. It would be packed, and then we'd go back three weeks later and it would be even more packed. We realised we were getting really good on stage. Then we got the tour support to Mott The Hoople, and that's what we wanted - to get round to the main towns and be seen; we were, and it worked. We developed a following quickly and it was loyal. We didn't support (in the UK) again."
By then, too, they were beginning to develop a distinctive visual image, due in large part to their meeting with the photographer Mick Rock. He had been working with David Bowie, then making Pin-Ups at the Chateau d'Herouville (the legendary Honky Chateau), when Ken Scott suggested he go to meet this new band that had a management contract with Trident: Queen.
At that point, Rock, a 24-year-old Cambridge graduate, was a bigger player in the business than Queen. The four band-members were hugely impressed by his work with Bowie and the fact that he had shot the covers for both Lou Reed's Transformer and the Stooges' Raw Power. As for Rock, "The first thing that struck me was how confident they were. No one knew who they were - I didn't have a clue what their music was like - but they had a sense of their own destiny. They were obviously very intelligent, too, but I'd been spoiled working with David Bowie and Lou Reed, because they were both extremely bright."
The band was a genuine democracy: decisions depended upon majority approval. But, says Rock, "I realised after a while that when it came to the visual end of things, Freddie's opinion was the strongest. He had been trained at art college and designed the band's logo. So he was the one I had to zero in on. They wanted me to extrapolate an image for them. They wanted to be absolutely fabulous." So in December '73, Rock organised a photo session. "They'd never been in a photo studio before," he recalls. "They were very naÃ¯ve about these things." The result was a set of pictures which showed the band posing topless (and, unless you looked very closely, apparently bottomless, too), pasted in make-up and pouting for all they were worth, in true glam-rock style. If the idea was to get the band noticed, it worked. "The shots created quite a bit of fuss at the time," says Rock. "Everyone started putting them down and they got quite a lot of stick. But those were times when to be hip you had to be Queenie - I used to wear mascara and rouge - and of course they weren't gay. Even Freddie was living with Mary Austin in those days."
Aside from the other three members of Queen, Austin was the one constant in and finally the inheritor of the bulk of his estate. As Rock recalls, "They used to live in a little apartment Freddie Mercury's adult life: first his girlfriend, then his personal assistant in Holland Park. I went round quite often for a chat. I'd hang out and have tea and what struck me was that they seemed like a very domesticated couple. Mary was not demanding of the limelight and she was very accommodating of Freddie. She was like a little wife. She'd make tea and bring it in. They clearly had a very close relationship and I have no doubt that there was sexual involvement. But I also have no doubt that Freddie was what one would have called bisexual. Once Bohemian Rhapsody hit, his relationships with men became more overt. But that didn't necessarily preclude dabbling with a lady here or there - I do know of one or two names!"
His analysis of the other three band-members shows that little has changed over the past quarter century. May was both the main co-writer with Mercury and the band's worrier: "He could always see the potential negative side of things." Deacon was very polite, very sweet-natured, but "not a communicator. The limelight didn't seem to mean much to him." As for Roger Taylor, "He certainly had plenty of verbal input and in some ways he was the most traditional rock star of them all. He was the womaniser. And he was the first one I ever talked to about drugs."
Rocks biggest contribution to Queen was the creation of the front-cover imagery to Queen II, which would later inspire the video for Bohemian Rhapsody. The band had told him that the record was to have a Black Side and a White Side, and they wanted photography to match. By chance, Rock had recently been working with the Canadian photography collector, John Kobal, who had paid him in photographs, one of which was a dramatically lit black-and-white shot of Marlene Dietrich, taken from the 1932 film Shanghai Express. One night during the Mott tour, Rock took Freddie aside and said he wanted to use the Dietrich, shot as the basis for the Queen II cover. "Freddie was tickled pink," he remembers. "But the rest of the band were not so thrilled." They wanted to go with a white shot on the front cover and it was only thanks to heavy persuasion by both Mercury and Rock that they were persuaded to change their minds. Which, as it turned out, was an amazingly fortunate decision."
By March 1974, Queen II was out and with it the band's first hit, Seven Seas Of Rhye (a version of which had been included on the first album). By then, says Taylor, "We were finding a certain way of doing things. I remember making Queen II and thinking, this is getting interesting."
May agrees. "I have a great affection for that second album, which never really became a world-beater because it was not perhaps as accessible as Bohemian Rhapsody. But if you listen to things like The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke or Father To Son, all the elements that people loved in Bohemian Rhapsody were there. The third album was Sheer Heart Attack, where we went in the opposite direction and simplified it so that people would damn well find it accessible, which worked!and then with Night At The Opera we just went for it, the whole thing."
"We really got there on Sheer Heart Attack," says Taylor. "It 's still one of my favourites. It's got a lot of fire and it's slightly more streamlined - Queen II is a bit lumbering in places. We were working very hard in the studio by then. There's a song on Heart Attack called Bring Back That Leroy Brown that's incredibly complex in terms of instrumentation and arrangement - there were countless hours labouring over that. Even the harmonies on Killer Queen took quite a while because we tried all the different inversions of versions and they never sounded right. We must have re-recorded the vocals four or five times."
One witness to the Queen recording process was Gary Langan, who later became a founder-member of The Art Of Noise, but who was then 20 and working as an assistant engineer at Sarm West Studios in Basing Street, just off Ladbroke Grove. He worked with Queen from the mixing of Now I'm Here, on Sheer Heart Attack, through to the recording of News Of The World (Innuendo was also recorded at Metropolis Studios, in Chiswick, of which he was a co-founder). His first job gave him some indication of what was to come, as he gaffer-taped two Revox A77 tape-machines to the control-console to help create a primitive version of the sort of phasing effect that nowadays comes straight from a box. "I remember thinking, This is mad," he says. But he very soon learned that there was always a method to any of Queen's madness. "They'd work really, really hard. The level of professionalism and musicianship was far superior to most other bands at the time." The basic backing-track of drums, bass, guitar and piano (played by Mercury) would be laid down live. Then, says Langan, the real work would begin. "Fred was very rarely away from the console, especially on Night At The Opera. He would sit next to Roy at the console. He and RTB were hilarious. Roy would just egg him on, geeing up the campness.
"The performance was the big thing. There's a performance in each and every one of Queen's backing vocals. They would work so hard at that, and that was what Brian would be striving for, too - the ultimate performance of the solo or guitar-part that he'd written.
"Brian was possibly the slowest. Doing a solo with Brian, you'd just bring in your sleeping bag because it would go on and on. He was completely meticulous, note by note. If he was working on what we'd call a guitar orchestra, he'd have a big picture already there. It wasn't fumbling around - they were extremely focused, all of them. Fred would be as meticulous with his vocals as Brian was with his guitar. They were the two largest amounts of time consumption."
Queen were now a hit-making band. Seven Seas Of Rhye had made their first ever chart entry on March 9th, 1974, rising to Number 10. And that November - accompanied by an appearance on Top Of The Pops which saw Freddie mincing around in the studio in skin-tight satin pants (he wore them so tight they had to be unzipped before he could sit down) and a waisted fur jacket - Killer Queen rose to Number 2, kept off the top spot by David Essex's Gonna Make You A Star. They toured America, again using a support slot on a Mott The Hoople tour as a spring-board for their own success.
Then, in the spring of 1975, they visited Japan and discovered for the first time what it felt like to get star treatment. Thousands of fans were waiting to meet them at the airport. Huge arenas were sold out. Every TV show wanted them as guests. "We encountered something like Beatlemania there," Taylor recalls. We came back after being demi-gods and playing five nights at the Budokan or something (two, actually) and I went back to my bedsit in Richmond, 120a Kew Road. We were still on 60 quid a week."
The band were increasingly unhappy with their relative poverty - John Deacon, who was now married, had been forced to plead with Trident for the Â£2,000 he needed to put down a deposit on a house - while their managers were driving around in Rolls Royces. The word got out that they were looking for new representation. The legendary Don Arden thought he might have a chance of getting a contract, especially since Freddie had taken a shine to one of his staff, a man who is now a director of a major record label. According to this employee, Arden offered him Â£1,000 to sleep with Freddie, hoping that this might secure the deal. The man said no: he was heterosexual. And what's more, he pointed out, he had a girlfriend - Sharon Arden, Don's own daughter.
In the end, there was a gay connection, because the band's new manager was John Reid, who had made his name as Elton John's personal and business partner. Reid proved his worth almost immediately with one simple decision: insisting, despite all arguments to the contrary, that Bohemian Rhapsody should be Queen's next single, the first off their fourth album, A Night At The Opera. Roy Thomas Baker, the man ultimately responsible for assembling the epic, describes Bo Rhap's creation thus: "Freddie was sitting in his apartment and he said, I've got this idea for a song.' So he started playing it on the piano - it had some words missing and there were some bits of melody he hadn't worked out - just the basic framework. Then he stopped and said, 'Now, dears, this is where the opera section comes in.' I went, Oh my God...
"It was going to be a brief interlude of a few Galileos and then we'd get back to the rock part of the song. When we started doing the opera section properly it just got longer and longer, and we added more and more blank tape. Every day we thought, It's done now, and then Freddie would come in with another lot of lyrics and say, 'I've added a few more Galileos here, dear,' and it just got bigger and bigger."
Gary Langhan remembers the recording process well. "I wasn't there for the basic track, because they did that at Rockfield. But then they came to Sarm for all the guitar and vocal work. The song arrived in three sections and they were given funny nicknames - which, sadly, I can't remember - but Fred knew what he was doing. With Queen, unlike some bands, the big picture was very much in place. The reason for being in the studio was to complete this picture, not to make it or design it and I don't think there was ever a feeling that it might not work. That was never in the equation.
"There were technical hurdles to overcome, but they worked through that and got a system of how to do the vocals efficiently and quickly and how you'd do all the marshalling of the tracks. Sarm had 24-track recording, which was very advanced for the time. This was where technology and Fred went together because here was a medium he could use to further his greatness. When 24-track came along it must have Ben like the sun coming out for him, the fact that he could use multi-tracking to do all these vocals."
But even 24 tracks- six times the number available to The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper - were soon used up, as Langan explains. "The drums, the bass and maybe a guide guitar and piano from Fred have got to be 10 or 12 tracks and it only leaves you another 12 to fool around with, which isn't very much when you look at the amount of vocals that are going on. You had to keep bouncing things down without losing the quality of everything, and we couldn't go back a stage. Once you'd gone down a route then nine times out of 10 it would destroy what you'd already done, so you had to make sure that what you were doing was 100 per cent right, because there was no 'undo' button in those days."
Finally, though, the completed Rhapsody was ready for playback. "I can remember the time when we played the mix back from start to finish. I stood at the back of the room and my jaw was on my chest. I just hadn't heard or felt or witnessed anything like this track. It was just amazing. You knew then it was destined for such greatness. It had this whole charisma about it."
The resulting magnum opus was far too long and far too mad to be a conventional single. But once Kenny Everett had pinched a copy of the tape and played it 14 times in two days on London's Capital Radio, and Top Of The Pops had broadcast the revolutionary video that Queen made to promote the song (on the basis that it would be impossible to play live, or even quasi-live on TOTP), it became a phenomenon. The album from which it was taken - A Night At The Opera - was, and is, equally impressive. Wildly eclectic, and yet unified by the band's instantly identifiable sound, it's a perfect distillation of early-period Queen, with May's blistering attack on the band's former managers, Death On Two Legs, complemented by Roger Taylor's auto-erotic wall of sound I'm In Love With My Car and John Deacon's charming (and refreshingly human) You're My Best Friend. There are even a couple of Temperance Sevenesque pastiches - Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon and Seaside Rendezvous - thrown in for good measure.
A Night At The Opera roared to Number 1 on the album charts in December 1975, at the start of a 50-week stay. It made Queen into bona-fide superstars and it left them with an immediate problem: what next? The answer, 12 months later, was: more of the same. A Day At The Races had almost identical album artwork, another Marx Brothers title and a very similar blend of styles. According to Brian May, "We regarded A Night At The Opera and Day At The Races as twins. Some of Day At The Races is a baroque masterpiece - mainly the stuff that I didn't write - and I feel very proud of it.
"One of my favourite tracks is the Millionaire's Waltz, which was recently used in a ballet by the legendary French choreographer Maurice Bejart. It's a great choice because it is so rich in invention. It staggers me, the stuff that Freddie put into it. The bass lines are phenomenal, and listening to what I did on it I can't even remember how I arrived at all that stuff. Sometimes there are 10 different things going on at once - different guitars, with different sounds, going different places.
"Somehow it all works, but having done it, we looked at it and thought that this was as far as we could go in that direction - so we should go the other direction. We'd already decide that we had saturated ourselves in multi-layered production before the Sex Pistols came along, so (in 1977) we deliberately made News Of The World to go back to basics and find some vitality again. It was viewed as an answer to punk by some people, but we'd arrived at that conclusion all by our little selves."
Just in case they should be tempted to revert to their old ways, the Pistols were working next door. "We'd looked at each other with real distrust," Roger Taylor remembers, "but strangely enough we became quite friendly. The drummer and guitarist were very down-to-earth guys, but Johnny had a big charisma about him." And then, of course, there was Sid Vicious - or 'Mr Ferocious', as Mercury used to call him.
The second track on News Of The World was We Are The Champions, a song that has since become both an anthem and a source of critical and political disgust. Taylor's view of the lyric is that it shouldn't be taken at face value. "No time for losers," he says, "is a silly line, but it wasn't written seriously. It was a throw-away."
May, as one might expect, has a rather different take. Pointing out that We Are The Champions was the one song in Queen's repertoire that always worked live, anywhere in the world, no matter how much of a disaster the rest of the show had been, he says, "You can read it as pure arrogance. But in concerts there are no losers and the losing streaks in ourselves are forgotten, so it works as a self-affirming thing. I remember saying, Your can't do this, Fred. You'll get killed. He just said, 'Yes we can'"
By now, success was starting to impose strains on the members of Queen as four intelligent, egotistical men began to pull in different directions. Money was a constant source of conflict: immense resentment was caused by the cash earned by Roger Taylor when I'm In Love With My Car was used as the B-side to Bo Rhap, for example. And the creative arguments within the group that had long acted as a form of quality control became ever more venomous. Increasingly, Mercury would be in one studio laying down vocal harmonies, while May toiled ion his multi-layered guitar solos somewhere else, neither one talking to the other.
Roger Taylor agrees that by the time Jazz was released in November 1978, the band were less hungry, less fresh, and increasingly jaded. Worse was to come as they settled down at Munich's Musical studios in the spring of 1980 to record the tracks that would become The Game. "We went through a bad period in Munich," admits May. "We struggled bitterly with each other. We were all frustrated with each other. I remember John saying I didn't play the kind of guitar he wanted on his songs. We all tried to leave the band more than once. But then we'd come back to the idea that the band was greater than any of us. It was more enduring than most of our marriages."
Ironically, this period of creative stagnation saw Queen enjoy their greatest triumphs in the US as both Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Another One Bites The Dust hit the top of the singles charts and The Game became a Number 1 album. They wee able to sell out four straight nights at Madison Square Gardens, but it was to be a short-lived phenomenon. A combination of factors - a switch of contracts from Elektra to Capitol; the failure of the movie Flash Gordon, for which they had written the soundtrack, and the mass-market disapproval of Freddie's increasingly obvious gayness - ensured that there would be a 10-year gap until their next top 5, The Show Must Go On. Their last-ever US show was on September 15th, 1982, at the Los Angeles Forum, "I remember suddenly realising that we weren't packing them in quite as much as we used to," Taylor recalls.
"We always assumed that we would go back," says May, "but events overtook us. I know Freddie was very keen for that last album (Innuendo) to be accepted in the States. But we never got there and even the impact of Freddie's death wasn't anything like as big as the impact of Wayne's World. It wasn't the same as in Europe."
But at the very point when they lost their North American audience, they found an even more fanatical following in South America. Something about their music crossed boundaries of language and culture. As May puts it, "There was always some place where we where shit-hot and we could go and be ourselves and not worry."
Their work, though, became increasingly unreliable, culminating in 1982's Hot Space, an unsuccessful attempt to turn into an R&B dance act. By now, Mercury in particular was leading a life of unbridled hyper-promiscuous decadence. Then, in the mid-80's, Queen suddenly rediscovered themselves as a hit-making act. Their brand of polished pop-rock was now the staple form of radio and video product: from Duran Duran to Foreigner to Def Leppard, bands who had clearly been influenced by Queen's grit-free sound were topping the charts. And now the technology existed to create, at the simple touch of a button, the effects over which they had laboured for months. Even more importantly, just as the hits began to dry up for May and in particular, Mercury, so Deacon and Taylor found their voices as songwriters.
It was Deacon who wrote the stripped-down Another One Bites The Dust (Queen's biggest-selling single ever worldwide, exceeding even Bohemian Rhapsody, it was also funky enough to be sampled by Grandmaster Flash), put the bass line (again, much sampled) onto Under Pressure, and then came up with I Want To Break Free. Taylor, meanwhile, contributed Radio Ga Ga, It's A Kind Of Magic and One Vision. Love them or loathe them, these were massive hits, hitting sections of the marketplace that Queen had never come close to before.
More to the point, they emphasised a unique aspect of Queen's career: they are the only four-piece band in rock history which contained four individual songwriters each capable of writing chart-topping material. So if ever one band-member was running low on creative gas, there was always someone else to take over in his place.
Even so, there was an increasing sense within the band that the scale of their success had seriously diminished the motivation that had once been so strong. John Deacon: "When we first started, we were very future-thinking. We wanted to do this, or go there. We wanted our albums to be successful here, there, and everywhere and we worked really hard at it. But once we'd achieved that and been successful in so many countries in the world, it took away some of the incentive."
Then, of course, there was Live Aid. It's easy to forget that in the run-up to the show, Queen were political pariahs. In October 1984, they visited South Africa and played seven shows at the Super Bowl in the gambling centre of Sun City. It was a breach of the cultural boycott that provoked outrage and disapproval, epitomised by Steve Van Zandt, who created Artists Against Apartheid and recorded ( I Ain't Gonna Play In No) Sun City as a direct response. Roger Taylor admits that, in retrospect, the South African concerts were a mistake. But both he and May stand by the principles that led them to perform there. In Taylor's words, "The black and the white communities were delighted that we'd gone there. We'd had a huge hit in the black market in South Africa with I Want To Break Free and Brian went and presented the Soweto Music Award."
Then, in the spring of 1985, while the band were touring Australasia and Japan, Bob Geldof approached Jim Beach, by then Queen's manager, asking for them to appear at Live Aid, and adding with characteristic tact: "Tell the old faggot it's gonna be the biggest thing that ever happened." How could he refuse?
"Live Aid was a shot in the arm," remembers Roger Taylor. "We sere so jaded by that point. We didn't think we'd tour again for five years if at all - we'd just had it. But we thought we'd better rehearse a bit, and we ran the whole 17 minutes into one medley of hits: why bore them with something they've not heard before? We didn't have a sound-check, but we sent our brilliant engineer to check the system, so he set all the limiters for us. We were louder than anyone else. I remember being in the audience and hearing the first few acts thinking that I could hardly hear them. You've got to overwhelm the crowd in a stadium."
This was where Queen's middle-class work ethic, and their intelligence, really paid off. As Geldof later put it, "Queen were absolutely the best band of the day. They played the best, had the best sound, used their time to the full. They understood the idea exactly - that it was a global jukebox...they just went and smashed one hit after another...it was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world. And he could ponce about on stage doing We Are The Champions. How perfect could it get?" As at Knebworth a year later, the most awesome sight of all was that of the entire audience clapping to Radio Ga Ga. "I'd never seen anything like it in my life," says May. "and it wasn't calculated, either. Everybody thinks that everything about Queen was calculated and sure, some of it was. We weren't stupid. We understood our audience and played to them. But that was one of those weird accidents, because of the video."
Even the original track only had one clap after every repetition of the title-phrase. "But our producer thought it would be nice to put an echo on it. The video-producer thought, 'Oh, that's nice, a double-clap. We'll have people actually doing it,' because it was a parody of Metropolis. Everybody saw that video, because it was one of our most successful, and then the first time we saw it happen was at Live Aid. And this is not a Queen audience. This is a general audience who've bought tickets before they even knew we were on the bill. And they all did it. How did they know? Nobody told them to do it."
Buoyed up by their triumph, and the massive back-catalogue sales that Live Aid provoked, Queen set out on a massive trek through Europe - the first and only profitable tour in their entire career - in the summer of '86. But not long after that triumph, the three other band members were confronted with the news that Freddie Mercury had AIDS. "We discovered about Freddie in 1987 or '88: we were in Switzerland. We'd all known that something wasn't right, but that really did bring us together, knowing that he was on borrowed time. There was nowhere to run, so we just went on and did what we could. He was getting tragically frail towards the end."
"As soon as we realised Freddie was ill, we clustered around him like a protective shell," May agrees. "We were lying to everyone, even our own families, because he didn't want the world intruding on his struggle. He used to say, 'I don't want people buying our f*****g records out of sympathy.' We all became very close. We grew up a lot."
The two post-AIDS Queen albums were The Miracle in 1989 and then, in February, 1991, Innuendo, which was arguably their best work since A Night At The Opera. "It wasn't one of the more successful, but it was one of the better ones," agrees Taylor. "Freddie and I were very disappointed when I'm Going Slightly Mad wasn't a big hit (it peaked at 22 in the UK): we really liked it."
By then Mercury's illness, though still not officially admitted, was too evident in his appearance, no matter how heavily made-up, to be ignored. Pictures appeared in the tabloid press, showing a desperately thin, hollow-eyed Mercury, his suit hanging off his skeletal frame, en route to lunch with his doctor. The photographer, Jason Fraser, agonised for a fortnight before releasing the shots, rationalising his decision by the fact that Mercury had been in a public place and that his desperate physical condition was a legitimate news story. But when I spoke to Roger Taylor in 1994, he was still upset by the shots. "I saw one full-page picture, grainy as hell, you could tell it had been taken a quarter of a mile away, and I thought, what is the point of that? It's not news. It's just horrible. Catering to the lowest common denominator always works, but it doesn't mean you have to do it.
"It was tragic that that terrible bloody disease should break up Freddie's career, because he was improving and improving as a singer and a performer. It was just a terrible shame. He felt that he couldn't deliver what was expected of him. I miss him tremendously.
"After Freddie died (on November 24th 1991) I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I threw all my energy and all my persuasive telephonic powers into helping to organise the tribute show. So that was good for about three months and it kept my mind off what on earth I was going to do. I took a holiday for about a year, not sure if I even wanted to be involved in music any more. But then the bug came back and I started writing songs again. I thought if I was going to get back into this very tough business, I might as well write about things that affected me and that I thought were important."
He also joined the other three (I think he means two survivors -author's mistake) survivors to work on Made In Heaven, the posthumous album compiled from unreleased Queen and Mercury tapes: "It took a couple of weeks to get over the sound of Freddie. The worst things were the little spoken ad-libs in between the takes, that was weird. But after a while you know every breath and they cease to be poignant, it's all just part of the material."
Made In Heaven sold more than seven million copies world-wide, including 1.5 million in Germany alone (a platinum album, marking that fact, is hung on the wall of Taylor's studio), proving that Queen's popularity remains as great as ever. The survivors, meanwhile, have to get on with the rest of their lives in the band's shadow. Taylor affects and air of easy-going acceptance: "The power of the brand-name is something you have to accept. I make my solo records mainly for fun." But I suspect that beneath his casual exterior, this ambitious and competitive individual would share Brian May's rueful confession to being frustrated with the obscurity of his solo material: "I think I've done some damn good stuff and some of it warranted wider exposure."
In the final analysis, though, May absolutely stands by his work with Queen: "There isn't one of our albums I'd want to apologise for." Just back from a family holiday in the US, he reports that, "There is an enormous wave of re-acceptance of Queen in America at the moment. I was swamped with people saying how much we had influenced their lives, much more so than over the last few years.
"There seems to be a vast pool of respect for us in the younger bands. Lots of them seem to have us firmly in their library of influences. It includes people that I would never expect like Cypress Hill, who I would have thought were the total opposite end of the spectrum. I went to see them with my son and expected to be reviled backstage and they all clustered round and said how important our stuff had been to them. They used the expression 'closet rock fans'/ And of course there's a lot of rock bands: Guns 'N' Roses (whom May once supported as a solo artist) held us in great respect."
I ended my trawl through Queen's back pages certain you'd have to be a seriously devoted fan wholly to agree with May's assessment of their work. But you'd have to be a major-league curmudgeon not to find at least a dozen great songs that inspired affection and respect. Most of all, though, I'm left with one final image of my conversation with Brian May. We were sitting in his kitchen, drinking tea made by him this time. The tape-recorder had been turned off, the notebook put away, when May - with that expression of slightly pained musing that is so characteristic - almost whispered, "You know, I sometimes think that Fred was almost lucky to die when he did." Freddie never had to watch his powers decline, or see the band fade away into obscurity. And, of course, by dying he gave Queen a longer, more powerful lease of life. As he might have said, you know how it is darlings...the show must go on. And on.