The Power and Glory (Rhythm Interview, September 2002)
He Will Rock You
Occupant of the drum throne with the grandest band in rock, Roger Taylor powered Queen throughout their illustrious career, in the process contributing to some of the most outstanding recordings of the last 30 years. A decade after the band's untimely demise, their popularity shows no sign of waning. Rhythm salutes a true monster of Rock.
Queen were and remain a phenomenon like no other, Possibly the greatest rock group ever, they created their own sound - a mock operatic fusion of macho rock and vaudevillian fey delivered with outrageous theatricality. Standing head and shoulders above their peers, Queen were always bigger and better than anyone else. Fronted by the impossibly charismatic Freddie Mercury, they were driven by Brian May's distinctive multi-layered guitar and steered by the intelligent and musical rhythm section of Roger Taylor and John Deacon.
A string of classic '70's albums - Sheer Heart Attack, A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races, News Of The World and Jazz among them - underlined their accomplished musicianship and original songwriting skills, while their muscular and ever more flamboyant live shows put beyond all doubt their ability to excite and entertain, And they moved with the times: they ushered in the '80's by releasing 'Another One Bites The Dust', a slice of funk genius that became the biggest selling single of the year in America.
In the mid-'80's the band began touring further afield from the UK and America and in the process broke into massive new markets. They were particularly popular in South America, playing to over a quarter of a million people at the Rock in Rio festival. The experience proved fruitful. After returning to England, they appeared at Live Aid in the summer of 1985, and showed the world how to whip a stadium full of people into a frenzy in the space of 20 minutes.
The years that followed this show-stopping performance were some of the band's most successful. With all four of its members writing the songs equally, another batch of hit-packed albums littered the charts and sell-out tours of the grandest scale soon ensued.
And then, in 1991, it ended abruptly with Freddie Mercury's untimely death. The shattered remaining trio vowed to celebrate Freddie's life in the style to which he was accustomed, and in the spring of 1992 staged the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Once again a sold-out Wembley Stadium reverberated to the sound of Queen's anthems, while an international audience of one billion watched around the world. Simultaneously 'Bohemian Rhapsody' topped the charts again in the wake of it's starring role on the soundtrack to the smash-hit Wayne's World movie.
In 1994, the three surviving members reunited to add music to vocal tracks that Mercury had recorded on his death-bed culminating in 1995's Made in Heaven album. Since then things have been understandably quiet on the Queen front. John Deacon has retired altogether from the public gaze, leaving Roger and Brian May the sold representatives of Her Majesties Purveyors of Rock.
It is fitting, therefore, that the eponymous sovereign herself enlisted the skills of the duo to help celebrate her Golden Jubilee in June of this year. Indeed, their sparkling performance at Party At The Palace showed that the band have lost none of their popularity. If Anything, there is a massive Queen revival under way: the West End musical We Will Rock You has weathered savage reviews to become a huge box office hit, while the Greatest Hits I, II & III collection has raced into the top ten.
Throughout the years, Roger Taylor has added his individual touch to some of the finest moments in popular music. His performances are always perfectly weighed - restrained and full of subtle flourishes in the right places, yet delivering full-on power when required. His trademark meaty fills - that instigate involuntary bouts of air-drumming in listeners - demonstrate his musicality, while his more demented kit flurries, unleashed when suitable opportunities are presented, are evidence of his great showmanship. Still passionate about drumming and music, Roger met Rhythm at his house in Surrey.
The phrase 'enduring popularity' could have been invented for Queen...
Roger Taylor: It never ceases to amaze me. We try to stay a bit visible occasionally, but we seem to have had a run of high exposure just lately.
Does the loyalty of the fans surprise you?
Roger Taylor: I think of it on a two-tiered basis: There are the hardcore fans that have been amazingly loyal for many years. Some of them used to follow us all over the world - I used to think they were bonkers, but they were very nice and very loyal. And then there's the mainstream audience who see us playing a big event on television and say, 'Oh, they were good.'
Speaking of which, how was the Party At The Palace? You looked as though you were enjoying yourself...
Roger Taylor: Yeah, it was good Brian and I take things a bit more in our stride now. It was quite a lot of work, though because we were both playing on quite a few different things, so we had to keep focused. We had to do the intro, then I had to go on very quickly with Phil Collins for 'You Can't Hurry Love' and then we did our own set. And then McCartney asked us to play with him, which was nice, but it was right at the end, so I had to keep sober all the way through it! Playing 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was interesting because I hadn't played the middle section since we'd recorded it. We never used to play that part live, because there were only three of us singing and you need 30 singers to do it. I had to study the parts - I actually asked Tony Bourke, who plays it in the show (We Will Rock You) ' What Happens Here?' and then it all came back.
Apart from sharing the same moniker as our monarch, your regal connections go back another 25 years don't they?
Roger Taylor: We played at Earl's Court as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. Earl's Court is the worst place to play that I can remember - I would never ever play there again, It's just a great monstrous echoing barn, with absolutely no soul whatsoever. The only thing I saw that worked there was 'The Wall' - of course, that's a monstrosity in itself, so that's why. I can't believe that was 25 years ago. I remember hating it - It's such an unwieldy place to play.
I trust that the Party at the Palace was a happier event for you?
Roger Taylor: Definitely!
Take me back to the young pre-Queen Roger Taylor.....
Roger Taylor: I grew up in Norfolk in King's Lynn, until I was seven. Then my father got a job in Cornwall, so we moved down to Truro. My father's family were from Cornwall, so it was sort of a return home for him. By then I was banging on saucepans - small, medium and large - and a pair of wooden knitting needles. That was my first attempt at drumming. There was a moment, when I was about eight, when I began playing the ukulele with no chords, but drums were my first instrument because that's what I was good at.
I did try the guitar but it was so difficult. Drumming came naturally to me - I always found it sublimely easy, and to play guitar properly was anything but.
And did you begin playing in local bands?
Roger Taylor: Yeah, I started getting really interested when I was 12 or 13 years old. I played throughout my schooldays and made a bit of good pocket money out of it. We'd do all the local villages and towns, in town halls. And I loved it, I absolutely loved it.
What prompted your move to London in the late 60's?
Roger Taylor: I moved up to study at college, but I really wasn't interested in an academic career - I wanted to be a musician in a band.
What was it like playing around London in those years?
Roger Taylor: It was very student-orientated. I met Brian after only a couple of weeks in London. We met in the Student's Union Bar, Imperial College, and immediately clicked.
So you decide that Brian was a man that you could do business with?
Roger Taylor: I just thought, 'This bloke ha got a special touch which I've never heard,' and you can only describe his playing as beautiful: a real feather-light touch and vibrato - he really made his instrument sing. And we liked all the same people, with a few exceptions.
He'd never met anyone before who could actually tune drums - he wasn't even aware that drums were tuneable. he just thought they were things you hit - typical guitarist. Guitarists only think about guitars, that's all they hear when they listen to a record. Anyway we started our band in the jazz room at Imperial College, and it all just grew out of that really. We were doing all sorts of student gigs at universities - we even ended up at the Albert Hall with a very strange line-up: The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Joe Cocker, Spooky Tooth and Free.
What was the name of your band?
Roger Taylor: Smile - it was just Brian and I with another guy called Tim.
Cue your meeting with the young Freddie Mercury...
Roger Taylor: Freddie came over with our singer one day; they were both at Ealing College of Art, and he became one of the circle. He was full of enthusiasm - he had long black flowing hair and this great dandy image, and was great fun to have around. He got himself into a couple of bands, and our band broke up and then his did, and the natural thing was to come together, so we did. We had difficulty finding any bass players who would fit - until we found John.
Did it start to really feel right then?
Roger Taylor: It felt like a unit - maybe because we' all been students, I don't know. It was very democratic - Freddie had good leadership qualities, but he always insisted that everybody had a vote. There was lots of arguing, but it was mainly friendly. back then Freddie was the real driving force because he was the most prolific writer.
Did his vision ever surprise you?
Roger Taylor: Many times. His understanding of harmonic structure was phenomenal. He was a brilliant musician, which most people forget among all the dressing up and ridiculous costumes and his outrageousness. Quite a visionary really.
The general consensus is that you were the best-looking member of the band by some degree....
Roger Taylor: (laughs) Well I definitely disagree with that!
.....So to be stuck at the back.
Roger Taylor: That never bothered me - we always thought 'You have a job to do'. Freddie's job was to be the front-man, the visual focus for the audience and he was brilliant at it. And then we all had our own functions and I think we were quite happy. I never wanted to be at the front.
What was the high point of Queen for you?
Roger Taylor: Well there are a lot of high points, really. We always thought of ourselves first and foremost as a live band. Although we sold a lot of records we enjoyed playing live. Live Aid was a high point - for everybody it really was a great day - but we had particular shows which were good. I think when we we were touring Argentina we were absolutely at our peak and pretty unbelievable.
So what exactly is it like to play to a quarter of a million people?
Roger Taylor: It's impressive. Basically you're just so focused that you want to do it right and make sure that things don't go wrong, so most of the mental energy goes into that. There are so many people that it's just a mass, so you really have to make sure that you get it right, that it comes over and it works.
But how do you mentally prepare for that sort of scale? Is it a lot of rehearsal?
Roger Taylor: No there's no extra rehearsal - it's just getting used to playing that kind of big audience. It's a different sort of art, I think that we were good at it, particularly because Freddie was so good with the grande gesture - he knew how to work the audience, how to communicate and make everybody feel like it was one big party. To an extent U2 have that, they're very good. Pink Floyd are also good at big shows, they have such monstrously huge productions - very impressive lights that go wonderfully with the music.
Did you sense that you would get so big?
Roger Taylor: We always liked the idea of doing big stuff, and the bigger the better. Maybe we were ambitious, maybe we needed to gratify our egos. I don't know, but the idea of communicating with that number of people was exciting.
Apart from the obvious one, were there any low points for you in Queen?
Roger Taylor: There was a point where we'd got to incredible popularity in America, around the time of 'The Game' but then we really dipped. We made a couple of strange choices for albums - we went down a sort of funk avenue with the slight dance angle, and that was everything our US followers hated. I felt at the time that we were going too far down that road, but because we'd had a huge hit with 'Another One Bites The Dust', we thought 'Oh this is our new direction' ; but it wasn't really us. The lowest point of all was when we found out about Freddie's condition.
Was it difficult to separate the personal and he professional sides of your relationship with Freddie when it became obvious he wasn't going to get better?
Roger Taylor: We became closer. He wanted to work - he wanted to occupy his mind and his days. So we spent long cloistered periods abroad, just backing him up an forming a protective wall. It was actually a good time in a way, because we felt very close - the closest we've ever been. In the end Freddie was doing all the singing in the control room because he couldn't walk into the studio. The last album, Made in Heaven, was very hard work, because Freddie had died and we had to fill in the holes. I think it's a very strong album - certainly the most emotional album.
It must have been a tough time for you.
Roger Taylor: It was a very difficult period. When you look back, it's actually much worse - you go around pretending that it's not that bad, but it was five years before any of us realised the tremendous effect it had.
Did the reaction to his tribute concert surpass your expectations?
Roger Taylor: I thought that it was great, the audience was wonderful and I think that we put together a hell of a show in about two months. It actually helped me at the time because I threw my whole being into it and it took away a bit of the pain.
As an all-round musician, did you ever feel restricted by the drums?
Roger Taylor: We were very much a team, Brian would play piano here and there and I played rhythm guitar on some things. John played keyboards and acoustic guitar on 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love' for instance, so we weren't that restricted. Also, as time went on we all became writers. At first, Freddie and then Brian were the dominant writers, but then John and myself came up, so all four of us were contributing. By the end things were very equal. I was one of three singers as well, so there was an awful lot to do. I did some solo work too, because there wasn't enough space on the Queen albums for all my ideas I just thought 'Well I could do a bit more, do it solo'.
You've always had a good idea of what a set of drums can bring to a song.
Roger Taylor: That's something that we learnt very quickly in the studio. the tendency in those days was for everybody to be virtuoso - to show off on your instrument. But to me you were playing a song, and so the instrument should compliment the song in every possible way. Obtrusively or unobtrusively, you should play the song and not think about dots or bars. That's what I tried to do. The more you just let yourself flow with the song and understand it - how the tempo should be, if it should push here - the more you play with it. I gave a desperate mistrust of dots - you can never put in the dots what is needed. the language simply isn't good enough.
You play from the heart?
Roger Taylor: Absolutely, and I think that you should just watch the song and learn the song.
And use your ears?
Roger Taylor: Yeah, maybe the beat should be a little bit behind, maybe you should push, whatever. It's all about feel really.
Your trademark 'big sound' dates back to early Queen. How did it come about?
Roger Taylor: I've always like to use big drums. I've got nothing against the Stuart Copeland kind of thing, which is very good in it's own way, but I was always into the ambient sound of a drum kit. I like big, tuneful drums with a natural room sound, so the whole kit sounds balanced. I wanted it to sound as though it were in a room and you were hearing the reverberation from the walls. Sometimes you would achieve that with machines and sometimes you'd get the right room and it sounded great - 'Bites the Dust' was as dry as you can get, but typically I would have a big, fat, ambient monster drum sound.
As a self-taught musician were you inspired by any particular drummers?
Roger Taylor: I used to like the jazz drummers because of their beautiful fluidity. I love Mitch Mitchell - I think that some of his stuff on the first Hendrix album 'Are You Experienced?' is just sublime, absolutely floating over it all. Of course I love Keith Moon, but probably above all, I love John Bonham. It's a pretty predictable pantheon, but let's face it they don't make them like that any more. Although there are some great guys around......
Is there anyone from nowadays that you think stands out in a similar way?
Roger Taylor: I think that McCartney guy - Abe Laboriel Jnr - is really good, but my own personal favourites would be Taylor Hawkins and Dave Grohl. To have them both in the same band is incredible - when they play together it's like dynamite. Dave is brilliant and Taylor, he's just like a firestorm. Those two play phenomenally.
Over to the musical We Will Rock You. Do you see it as a fitting tribute to the band?
Roger Taylor: It's a mainstream piece of entertainment. It's not meant to be biographical at all. It's a lightweight story that has a few salient points and the music comes over very well. I think it's a great night out - It's like a sort of adult panto with great music. Every night there's a fantastic ovation at the end and people come out buzzing. It got the worst reviews I've ever seen, but they're basically missing the point; it's a light hearted piece - it's not something to get worked up about.
Queen's single-mindedness was as big a factor in their success as their musical talent. Do you think that a band like Queen could prosper in today's music business?
Roger Taylor: I think the answer is 'Yes' but they would have to get around having somebody like Simon Cowell or a record company of that ilk controlling then and marketing them into talcum powder. The very idea of them thinking that they know more about music because of their market research and demographic is nonsense - 'They've got a hot band, let's get one like that!' - is rubbish. But there are labels that do respect the artists creativity, so proper bands that actually excite and break the rules instead of just following like homogenised sheep could succeed with the right company behind them. Bands like Radiohead have complete creative control, and they are totally uncompromising with it.
I don't personally like their latest stuff very much: I thought the best record they did was 'The Bends' - what a fantastic record. But they're treading their own path; that's the main thing. At least they'll be interesting, even if they're uninterestingly interesting!
What's on the horizon for Roger Taylor?
Roger Taylor: At the moment I really need a holiday, but there might be something new in the pipeline. I'm enjoying doing the odd thing like Parkinson, which was seat-of-the-pants live stuff with the show's cast, and the Party at the Palace, and Brian and I did a show in Amsterdam - 150,000 people turned up and we thought 'Wow!' We've been working very well together, so we might think of doing something - the dinosaurs might creep out of their cage.
1.) Roger is not just a pretty face and a world-class drummer - in the midst of his formative years he passed his Biology degree. 'I managed to finish it while we were making our first album, though I wasn't a serious student and it wasn't exactly a first'
2.) On one wall of Roger's rehearsal studio hangs an amazing display of front bass drum heads from each of Queen's tours.
3.) Roger loves sailing and owns a fabulous yacht. 'Boats are a great passion for me, things are so different out in the ocean, but I prefer to be somewhere warm, not down by the Isle of Wight'.
4.) All this messing about in boats hasn't dimmed Roger's appetite for white-knuckle thrills - in early 2000 he braved the bobsleigh run at St Moritz. 'It's so quick that you don't have time to be terrified. When you flip into a corner it's like having a rhinoceros sit on your chest - the G-forces are absolutely unbelievable.
5.) Roger's parts to the amazing operatic middle section of Bohemian Rhapsody were played with Roger having no idea what they would eventually accompany. 'You couldn't really picture it with that in it at all, All the punctuating was co-ordinated by Freddie - he was sat at the piano conducting us with his own little language.
TAYLOR ON TAYLOR
Foo Fighters firestorm Taylor Hawkins selects his favourite Roger Taylor tracks.
Roger Taylor playing 'We Are The Champions' with Queen - I will never forget watching that, I remember all this sweat flying off his hair - he was so visual, the ultimate in cool, calm and collected, he was rock 'n' roll.
Roger has been a huge influence on lots of drummers and for many guys in America - including Stephen Perkins, Matt Cameron and myself - Queen was our first ever concert The band were big in America in the 70's and early 80's and if you ask drummers what it is about Roger that impressed they, they will say it was his feel and the way he played. He swings like no-one else, and that's impossible to emulate. You know it's him when you hear the hi-hat open up every time he hits the snare. I can play every fill he's ever done, but I could never get his feel. I've tried and it's impossible!
Roger gave Queen their heavy feel and big sound. His playing was laid back, loose and - I use this term loosely - punk rock, because he did have that sort of rough edge to his drumming too. And he always put on a real show - he was a very theatrical drummer.
He is also a songwriter, which I think plays a part in his fills - they are always musical, almost orchestral, but he can also rock out - just check out Live Killers, some of my favourite drumming from him. People forget that he also has an amazing rock 'n' roll voice. His songs were always eccentric - not in Freddie's way, or Brian's - but darker and his voice was raw and raspy.
Roger and I hang out and we're friends, but he is also this mythical superhero rock star to me. We played double drums at Shepherd's Bush a few years ago, and more recently in 2001 when Queen were inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, which was amazing, I'm just smiling the entire time.
In the tracks I've chosen, I have tried to cover all Roger's different feels, He's so versatile - he can sound like a heavy metal, dixieland or orchestral drummer, but filtered through who he is. Hope you enjoy them.
Smile, Earth - this was the first band that Roger was in with Brian May. This is really cool because he's developing and you can hear the Keith Moon an little Ginger Baker-style influences. It's kind of 60's drumming - still loose - but this is his first recording and it's fun for that reason.
Queen, Great King Rat - There is some very cool - and very quick - drumming on this track, and some really interesting beats.
Queen, Ogre Battle - This is heavy in that early Deep Purple kind of way - which has a lot to do with Brian's guitars as well. And the drums are actually quite Metallica-esque without the double-kick, but with the same kinds of patterns.
Queen, In The Lap of the Gods....Revisited -Revisited has a great 6/8 swing and a cool kick patern that feels really good. It's hard to pull off - even though it sounds simple - and Roger does it very well.
Queen, Prophet's Song and Good Company - Prophet's Song is a long prog-rock type 70's song with a march like feel to it, while Good Company has a ragtime/dixieland vibe. Roger is able to emulate all these different styles, but still be himself.
Queen, Millionaire Waltz - A very orchestral track. There aren't a lot of drums, but when they do come in they are colossal, have a huge sound and sound like timpani.
Queen, We Are The Champions - This is one of my favourite drum tracks of Roger's - the fill that he does before the chorus is so interesting. Never in a million years would I have thought of doing some of the stuff he did! It's his feel in this too - he is so good at that 6/8 swing and making things feel good.
Queen, More of That Jazz - This is a Roger Taylor song. It has a really cook beat and a stiff, almost mathematical-type drum feel to it - very creative.
Queen, Keep Yourself Alive & Brighton Rock - Though Roger completely dismissed Live Killers when it came out, I love the drum sound on it - it's amazing! It's live and has that natural ambience. Roger's drumming throughout Live Killers is great - he plays everything a little faster, more extended and has that real live edge. Keep Yourself Alive, with it's drum solo, rototoms and cowbell just sings. It's not the most difficult, but Roger makes even simple things sound very creative, it's awesome.
This version of Brighton Rock is amazing too. Just the groove itself and the fills he does - it's so high powered and it's Roger at his craziest.
Queen, Dragon Attack -The drum solo in the middle, and the pounding Bonham-esque beat, gives this a dancey groove. As a band Queen were always creating and going deeper.
Roger Taylor, Let's Go Crazy - His first solo album Fun in Space is a must-buy for any fan. This track has a real rockabilly feel that shows off Roger's diversity once again.
Queen, Under Pressure - The drumming is not the main part of the show here, but this is my favourite Queen track ever. It's such a cool, deep song, and it's one of Roger's favourites too. It's got a great dancey, pulsey groove and it's a very simple drum track with some great fills.
As a drummer I tend to be self-gratifying sometimes, but Roger is all about the music in almost every song he finds a little space, though and throws his things in.