Soft Hands, Hard Beat (Septemeber, 1975)Soft Hands, Hard Beat
Queen's Roger Meddows-Taylor - His hands are soft but his beat is hard
Circus Raves September 1975 - By Frank Rose
If Freddie Mercury identifies with the Queen of Spades - the most arrogant and vainglorious card in the deck, he's quick to tell you - then Roger Meddows-Taylor must be the Queen of Hearts. At the very least he's the heart of Queen. After all, the drummer is the heart of any rock group; it's his steady beat that keeps the rest of the band alive. Thumping away in the background, surrounded by a veritable ribcage of equipment, the drummer is the one who pumps fresh blood into the group's sound with every beat.
Trouble is, drummers never get any attention until something goes wrong. Then open-heart surgery is required and things get very messy. There have been exceptions to this rule of course, like Keith Moon and Ginger Baker, but for the most part it holds. Roger Meddows-Taylor looks like the latest exception.
For although Queen is a new addition to the star gallery of the seventies and Roger could go virtually unnoticed behind the outlandish posturings of singer Freddie Mercury and guitarist Brian May, the 26-year-old drummer seems to be attracting a sizable segment of the spotlight. The indications are that Taylor has at least as many fans as any other member of the group, and it's reliably reported that when they go on tour he attracts even more groupies than Mercury -although he somehow manages to stay fairly celibate on the road. "I do have a good time in America," he modestly admits.
Nevertheless, Taylor seems somewhat surprised at all the attention he's been getting. "It is hard for a drummer - because the drummer usually sits in the back - to exert a strong personality" he says. "Especially when you've got somebody like Freddie in front. But we all sing, which is a help I think. Definitely a help."
HEAVY MEDDOWS KID
The thing about Taylor, though, is that he's really a guitarist at heart. He has the guitarist's love of flash and power and the guitarist's sense of stage presence. And ever since he was nine years old he's been a struggling guitarist.
He was born in Norfolk, on the east coast of England, and he spent his teens in Cornwall, the summer resort area in the southwest. His background was respectable and ordinary - "the boring middle class," he calls it - but he's been captivated by rock 'n roll ever since the age of eight.
"It was like a bit of a dream then," he says. "I kept that all the way through my teens. I always wanted to do it. When I was in school I was always in little groups and stuff. I sort of stuck with it all the way through college. And eventually it got the better of everything else. It got the better of my conditioning, my middle-class conditioning, and then it broke out and that was it."
He started playing acoustic guitar at nine, and then when he was 12 he decided to take up drums and electric guitar. "Basically I was a frustrated guitarist," he says. "But I seemed to be better at drums. My father just bought me a drum, and I took to it and started adding to it and found I could get along well. 1 found myself getting better quite quickly, so that sort of spurred me on. It was at that point that I became a drummer rather than a guitarist - which I'd always wanted to be before. I think everybody wants to be a guitarist, but I'm' a better drummer than a guitarist anyway."
Taylor was a 19-year-old dental student in London when he joined his first real band - an outfit called Smile which also included future Queen guitarist Brian May. He quit after a year of dental college because he "just couldn't be bothered any more," but then he decided to go back to school for a degree in biology from East London Polytechnic. But by that time Queen has been formed.
"Brian and I were very disillusioned," he recalls. "But we had known Freddie and eventually, after about six months or so, Freddie persuaded us to start Queen working. Which we did. It was pretty hard going in the beginning. We had quite a few bass players, we went through about five or six until we found John, who was the only one who really fit in." And after that came the problem of finding the right contract, which wasn't accomplished until 18 months after the band's formation, when they hooked up with the new production arm of Trident Studios.
"We wanted to do it right. We wanted the right contract with the right people. So we were really very careful. I think we could've moved a bit quicker, but I think that probably was the best idea. It took a lot of patience, a lot of faith, but we got a pretty good deal in the end. We were offered quite a lot of deals by virtually every major company over here, but this really seemed like the best thing to go for at the time."
Since then, of course, Queen has scaled the rickety ladder of success with amazing swiftness. They've swept the British polls, placing first in four categories in the most recent reader tally. But even as the drummer for one of Britain's most important new bands, Taylor retains his love for the guitar. When he's not touring with the group, that's the instrument he most often plays. "I used to rehearse all the time," he says, "but we've been working so much on the road lately that I'm a bit sick of the sight of drums. But also it's a bit impractical to practice drums where I'm living at the moment. I'm trying to move, you know, find some place bigger to live. But I don't practice as much as I should."
Taylor lives by himself in a ground-floor flat in suburban Richmond, on the western edge of London. "It's got a lot of character," he says, "It's got a lot of history. All the old kings used to live down there. There's a palace, I think. But I certainly don't live in it myself. We're all basically living where we lived before. None of us has had a chance to move because we've been working really hard over the last two years."
If you said Taylor attacks his drums with a blistering intensity, you wouldn't be far off. One of the consequences of his inability to practice in his home has been his perennial victimisation by the traditional drummer's malady - blisters. He's been plagued by the sores on both of Queen's American tours, and the sight of his bloody nubs has been shocking enough to send roadies scurrying feverishly about in search of bandages and healing ointments.
"I've really had a lot of trouble," he confesses. "Blood everywhere and a lot of bandages. It's a really intense stage act. It's in no way laid back. It's pretty high energy, and yeah, it's pretty hard on the hands. At the beginning of a tour, especially if we haven't been playing for awhile, your hands tend to soften up. It's just a case of hardening them. After two or three weeks they harden up pretty well. At the beginning of the last tour it was really bad because we did a lot of double shows. That was tearing my hands to bits. I know a few other guys who get a lot trouble like that. Bonham tears his hands to shreds. The only way to get over it is to practice like hell two weeks before you come over to do a tour. Just keep playing all the time."
COFFEE, TEA OR YEN?
Despite the toll on his dukes, the man from Queen professes to enjoy the touring experience -especially last spring's, a 13-week affair which began in Columbus, Ohio and ended in Japan. But who wouldn't enjoy a tour like theirs? In most of the major American cities their first show sold out so quickly a second had to be added; there were riots in Chicago and at the airport when they landed in Japan. Definitely a heady experience.
"It was amazing," Taylor laughs. "I think it was the best tour we've ever done, too, in terms of organisation, reaction, etc. The audience were without exception excellent. We'd been told to expect less in the South and on the West Coast than, say in the Northeast and some of the Midwest. But they were all very good. We were all surprised at the L.A. audience and the San Francisco audiences, which were great. In fact we had to do an extra show in LA. I think the South was the only place where we played to a few non capacity audiences.
The audiences we got were great, but they weren't as big as we'd hoped. But there were really only about two dates I can remember when the audience wasn't packed in. We had a bit of trouble halfway through the tour, when Freddie lost his voice completely because he'd developed some nodes on his throat. We had to call off a week in the middle of the tour, which was a drag. I think it just created a strain on his voice because we'd been working so hard, really. We did a lot of double shows in the period of the tour, and that involves playing four hours a night."
When they got to Japan, after an eight-day layover in a secluded beach hotel on the Hawaiian isle of Kauai, they found themselves at the top of both the singles and the albums charts. Success was assured. It was the first time they'd played the Land of the Rising Sun - "it costs a fortune to get all the equipment over there," Taylor moans - and the nation's transistorised teens nearly short-circuited with delight.
There were originally hopes of an Australian tour as well, but that had to be scrapped when the band suddenly realised they had a job to do back home So they winged it back to Albion and closeted themselves away to write their fourth album, "Everybody goes off to their separate homes to get their stuff together," Taylor says, "and then we all sort of get together somewhere else for about two weeks and pool all of the material we have - play around with it, pull it to pieces, throw some out, change bits, and get a sort of rough idea, as good an idea as we can, of what shape the album's going to take. It's a very soul-destroying time."
Since he only reads music a little, Taylor works on tape with his - you guessed it - guitar, and then adds bass and drums. Although he's actually fairly prolific, only a few of his compositions have appeared on Queen's albums. The fault, he says, is his own.
"I'm very sort of finicky, you know. I get something written and then I listen to it the next day and I throw it away out of hand. Probably too finicky, but I don't know, I get sort of fussy and go off my own ideas very quickly. The others usually never get to hear them even.'
Since he hates the sight of drums (at least for the moment), plays guitar at every opportunity and even writes on his guitar, has Roger ever thought about chucking his tom-toms altogether? "Not in the foreseeable future," he replies thoughtfully, "But if everything's sort of finishedâ€”possibly. Yeah! Quite possibly!"