26th April 2012

Queen - A Life At The Races: Fan Feature by Steve Coles

Queen - A Life At The Races

by Steve Coles

Hmmm, QUEEN…for many, a potentially emotive subject.

I guess I first saw them back in early 1974 on Top Of The Pops doing Seven Seas Of Rhye, and from that moment was sold by both the music, and the band’s image. Here you had a band where the singer didn’t really strike you as your usual pretty boy with the long blond locks, the type of band that most labels seemed to be pushing, neither was he your Jack the lad bovver boy with platform soles trying to steal Slade’s fans away. Being a 14 year old school kid, the next time I was able to get to the local town, I bought the single and absolutely played the backside off of it. As soon as I had the funds, I then bought Queen II, closely followed by the first album. I think possibly the most amazing thing about Queen II as an album, is that you can still bang the headphones on, concentrate, and pick out “new” previously unheard things going on within it, even on the 200th listen. There aren’t many pieces of modern music with that much attention to detail about them.

I remember later that year doing a media project at school that involved making up a pop music chart, and both Killer Queen and Sheer Heart Attack figured quite heavily in it. Life was a bit of a whirr back then, and also I wasn’t old enough to be able to go to live shows, so like many my age, the only Queen info I really got was via the music magazines, and by the band putting singles and albums out.

I remember hearing about the pre-release info for Bo Rhap, and so pre-ordered two copies of the single in my local record shop. Notably, it was the first Queen single in the UK to come with a proper picture sleeve, and I thought at the time that this was a nice touch. An extremely tasteful photograph, and arguably one of their best ever posed pictures. I don’t know how much longer it was after that, that both the song and it’s accompanying video were shown on Top Of The Pops, it was a couple of days for sure, but it’s fair to say that all of a sudden I went from the only person in my school class who was interested in Queen, to being one of about half a dozen, literally overnight. It didn’t take long for this surge in nationwide popularity to give the band their first #1 single.

Within a short space of time, the album A Night At The Opera was released, which I bought that very day, and like it’s 7” baby, it very quickly got to #1 too. I remember swiping the family’s portable TV, setting it up in the bedroom, and enjoying what was in actuality, my ever first live rock show, Queen Live At The Hammersmith Odeon – Christmas Eve 1975. Sure I’d watched The Old Grey Whistle Test before, but despite it being one of their specials, THIS wasn’t in the same league as the normal weekday BBC2 programme.

I guess a few months after that, I was approaching my exams at school, and had a fairly good part-time job. Around this time, I first joined the Queen Fan Club, and found that they were advertising copies of the band’s first single ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ and the spin-off single ‘I Can Hear Music’ on their merchandise sheets. I rushed an order back to them for one of each, only to receive a letter back saying that between the band and EMI, they’d decided not to issue any more copies of the Larry Lurex, and I think the copy of ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ I got was one of the last they had. Thinking back now, I remember the first Larry Lurex I ever managed to get was a US Anthem copy (retrospectively, it’s dubious if these were ever really THAT legal), somewhere in the very late seventies, via Record Collector magazine. Things moved very quickly for me around this time, and I’d left home, joined the forces, and like a fair few out there, was diverting any free money towards the international foundations of a Queen Collection.

Maybe I could sit here and write an expanded ‘insomniac’s special’ piece about what every nuance of every song meant to me at the time, but I think that’s probably being a bit too self-indulgent, and not necessarily constructive. One thing is for sure, this body of music means different things to different people, and I’m pretty sure most of it has its own particular significance and importance to the individual.

Anyway, step forward to around the time of News Of The World. I remember definitely being a current member of the fan club, and definitely NOT getting an invite to the We Are The Champions video shoot, that in itself wasn’t that disheartening, as the fan club had 50,000 members, and the theatre had a capacity of about a thousand, but the subsequent non-invites to any of the video shoots for The Works, or Friends Will Be Friends that involved fan club members were retrospectively, a bit of a blow. I think I thought it was maybe getting personal. Anyway, I digress, back to NOTW, a Spring Tour was announced. I queued up overnight outside the Keith Prowse ticket agency somewhere in the centre of London. About 15th in the queue, and apparently, THIS was the only place that was going to be selling Wembley tickets for this 1978 Spring Tour. I bought my tickets within about 10 minutes of the door opening, and was astounded when I saw where the tickets were in the arena. Over halfway back, I thought “Hmmm, now how does THIS work again, exactly?” I never did find out why, maybe someone out there might know.

Cue forward to the evening of 13th May 1978. We arrived at Wembley about two hours before the concert. I remember looking back down the queue, and seeing a double-decker London bus entering the complex. I thought this must be a bit weird, driving a bus on the little road between the Stadium, and the International Ice Pool (later to be called Wembley Arena), and I noticed there wasn’t many people on the bus either. I thought to myself “That would be a novel way for a band to arrive!”

A few years later, I remember seeing an interview where Brian said something about arriving at a gig in London, on a specially chartered bus, and immediately thought there was a likely connection somewhere.

From what I remember of that gig, last of the tour, it was like that Hammersmith Christmas gig, only amplified by about a 1000. You had this huge Crown light rig that lifted off half way through the opening song of We Will Rock You. From that point on, they didn’t let go of you until Roger destroyed his drum kit at the end of Champions, something he apparently only ever did five or six times in Queen’s entire live career. I think from that moment on, the times I went to see Queen, I tried to make it the last night of the tour. I remember two rather long “interludes” for want of a better word, a bit sketchy, but I think they involved Brighton Rock, White Man, Prophet’s Song, and Get Down Make Love, though I couldn’t tell you now in what order.

We then went through the ‘middle’ years, the ones where the band skipped the country, tax exiles or whatever you want to call them. Successfully surviving the punk rock boom. Freddie writing strange songs about Bicycles, odd Elvis Presley pastiches, and finally, the hairy top lip.

First time I saw it, I thought he’d accidentally glued a pair of caterpillars there, as a joke. Coupled with the leather gear and looking like he’d just done a weekend standing in with the Village People, “Right Fred, “if” people were wondering anything in particular about you, then maybe they shouldn’t be now!”

Despite getting tickets to two consecutive Birmingham NEC nights on the Flash Gordon tour, both of which I never got to see, the next time I saw the band was at Milton Keynes, along with the support of Teardrop Explodes, Heart and Joan Jett. A strange day, not least for my car breaking down in the queue to get out, literally waiting until eight queues had filtered into one, before doing it, and thus holding other people up for a bit.

The gig was filmed for Channel Four, but I lived in one of the remote areas where Channel Four just hadn’t happened yet, so I never got to see the televised version until a few years after. And on anyone seeing it on DVD as “On Fire At The Bowl”, all I’ll say is that “to me” it sounds far better on the disc than it did actually “in the mud-bath”, but the atmosphere “in that mud-bath” was absolutely immense, and despite modern digital technology, you still can’t bottle THAT and compress it to fit on a DVD.

18 months or so after that, I saw an advert in the music press that just said Radio Ga Ga, and had a telephone number, literally nothing else at all. Because of the fan club, I had “an idea” that the band’s next single might be a title pretty close to that, so I phoned it on the off chance. There was no mistaking Freddie’s voice, even over an old analogue phone, and being on the Atlantic coast of Scotland, but an electronic backing track? What was going on?

By the summer, I’d moved back down to civilisation, but as I remember it, tickets for The Works tour had happened while I was moving house, and had sold out phenomenally quickly. Missed that one. 

Everyone has their own memories of Live Aid, which I’m sure every long term fan watched live with a whole host of emotions flowing, if they were able. My reaction was simple. Yes with half a dozen exclamation marks. “I” knew you could perform like that, and so, now does everyone else. I guess it was just huge pride that “the” band I’d chosen to follow eleven years before, had finally been recognised and had proved themselves alongside other bands that other people had thought were great. They weren’t “just” a band that used studio trickery, they “could” control a stadium too.

End of the year came a return to studio form and a classic rock single, in the form of One Vision. A song which later got the tag “From the film ‘Iron Eagle’.” I’m not sure who paid who what, but I have my doubts the song came from the film, more a case of it got released and later included into the film, and part of the deal was a two-way tie between song and film.

I remember trotting up to Stevenage for the Knebworth gig. I think the album was released about two months before the gig, but virtually no-one had seen the film Highlander, from which a proportion of the songs had originated, due to it being released in the USA, but hardly anywhere else, at that time. Arguably, the strongest song on the album was Princes Of The Universe, which had it not flopped in the States as the album’s first single issue, would have been the follow up to A Kind Of Magic in Europe, instead of “everyone’s favourite” ‘Friends Will Be Friends’ and by some isane kind of logic, we “might” have got it played on what transpired to be the band’s last tour.

Apart from previously writing a fairly in depth review of this particular gig, which I won’t return to at any great length at this point, my two biggest memories of it are a). the river of turds floating down the hill under your arse in the toilets, and b). being stuck in a field at the end of the show with 140,000 other “human sheep” who didn’t have the slightest fucking clue how to get out, and then having some bright spark switching the vast majority of the stage lights off, leaving us to try and survive a cattle rampage in the darkness.

Apparently this has almost become an annual sport at Knebworth, and the organisers hold a sweepstake on how many people will wind up getting hospitalised.

Fred’s final gig with the band. WOW! Little did we know that back then. I’m sure if we had have known, we’d have probably tried to have gone twice!

About three years of quiet followed, during which we probably all went out and bought Queen At The Beeb, Queen Live Rare, the original VHS of Wembley, and maybe even a bit of a dubious album called Shove It. Two more proper Queen albums followed, the second of which definitely hit a few switches in the community. First time I ever heard the song Innuendo was on Radio One, maybe about two or three weeks before release, I switched the radio on just as the flamenco guitar bit kicked in, so there was a passage of about a minute or so, where no previously recognisable Queen trademarks are THAT apparent, it was another of those “I don’t actually know for sure who this is yet, but for some reason, I’m being inexplicably drawn towards it!” What an amazing track to stick out as a single? At the time, it must have almost been like a Bo Rhap 2 type decision.

Anyway, back in those days the Queen community WAS based around the fan club, and those who’d met at Queen shows, and events, and stayed in touch. The newspapers were rife with rumour, but who wanted to believe it, especially when Freddie was saying it was all bollocks, and the band were “refusing to pander to such speculation”.

Late November 1991, if you were a Queen fan, was probably not a very good time. Apart from losing Freddie, and the potential of his creation, a few people who were known to be Queen fans, also became the target to a whole host of ignorant people saying how Freddie deserved it, and/or cracking jokes about either his sexuality or the illness he suffered. Even the press was divided with half of them saying what a hero the bloke was, and the other half trying to justify his death with tales of extreme hedonism. Sad times.

20th April 1992 – Wembley Stadium. A day of mixed emotions. 70,000 Queen fans swirling round the place with red and white pseudo-silk scarves, and red carrier bags. They cheered us up, and then if we hadn’t known it before, we then realised that Queen as we know it, has just become something of the past. Following that, Made In Heaven crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s in what many of us consider the final chapter of the book.

In the years around and since then, I’ve been lucky and met a few of my heroes, band members and people who did their time with band members, and I’ve met a few of you too. Crazy as it might seem, I STILL believe that someone needs a certain something about them, to genuinely like Queen’s music to that point that they are a “QUEEN fan” and the band mean more to them than any other band. It’s not necessarily an intelligence thing, probably more of a taste thing, but I think a wider knowledge and acceptance of music, and indeed musical styles, might help someone to achieve that level of taste. Whatever our differences, ultimately we follow the same team.

About our contributor:

How I discovered Queen: A friend of my brother was the son of an EMI A & R rep. I used to go round to his house occasionally, and because he used to get EMI freebies to "try out", I first heard of Queen, Cockney Rebel, Pilot and Geordie round his house. But I didn't really take any notice of Queen at that point, probably because I didn't know what they looked like.

Favourite Album: Can't choose just one, sorry! I hold Queen II and A Day At The Races as a photo finish. I like them for very different reasons, one is sheer art and the other an example of how to craft ten masterpieces.

Favourite Track: The Show Must Go On. Just the right track at exactly the right time. In my honest opinion, there's never been a better song crammed into four and a half minutes by ANYONE!

Favourite Single: As above.