A highly accomplished and well-respected musician and songwriter, Fred Mandel toured extensively across North America and Japan with Queen in 1982. In an exclusive Official International Queen Fan Club interview with Dave Fordham that originally appeared in the summer 2020 fan club magazine, Fred took time out from finalising his new solo album, Part-Time Rebel, to talk about playing keyboards and piano on the Hot Space tour and contributing to The Works, Star Fleet Project and Mr Bad Guy albums. The full interview is available in the Queen Fan Club’s members only magazine archive. For exclusive interviews by Dave Fordham with Tim Staffell and Jason Falloon in the winter 2020 issue, join the fan club now: www.queenworld.com
How did the opportunity to play with Queen come about?
That’s a question I’ve never really been able to answer myself! When I co-wrote a record called Flush the Fashion in 1980 with Alice Cooper and Davey Johnstone, I became friends with the producer, Roy Thomas Baker. Through that link, I became aware that Queen were looking for a keyboard player. After a very short interview by the late Gerry Stickells in LA, he said I’d got the job… without hearing me play! He told me: “I know you can play, I just had to make sure you’d get on with the guys!”.
So it was all a bit of a whirlwind?
I had just one week to learn a new synthesizer and a whole repertoire before flying to Montreal to meet the band, rehearse for only two days and then play the Montreal Forum in front of 18,000… that’s like preparing for a blues gig, not playing with Queen! John was playing rhythm guitar on some Hot Space material, and the bass parts left to me were not easy to learn. I don’t know how I retained it, but I was very enthusiastic and they were happy with what I did.
What songs did you contribute to on stage?
I played on a lot of the Hot Space songs and wherever else I was needed, such as Under Pressure and some piano parts on We Are the Champions. Freddie started bringing me out to the front of the stage for Crazy Little Thing Called Love and introducing me. It expanded into a whole big feature with the honky-tonk piano being an integral part of the tune. I got the chance to rock out and tear it up on Freddie’s piano with him joining in… it was a lot of fun.
Do you have a favourite gig from the tour?
Although Toronto wasn’t my hometown, it’s where I’d grown up and served an intensive rock fusion R&B apprenticeship playing clubs with the brilliant Domenic Troiano Band. I was supposed to play Toronto in 1980 with Alice Cooper, but there was a riot when Alice didn’t turn up! So it was definitely a highlight to play two nights there with a massive band like Queen… and unlike the Alice Cooper gig, people weren’t throwing chairs at my amplifiers!
How did the Japanese audiences differ to those in North America?
The Japanese fans were pretty fanatical… but in a good way. When we landed at Narita airport, it was like A Hard Day's Night! Brian and I had to run to the cars and there were fans everywhere for the rest of the tour.
What was it like to appear on Saturday Night Live with Queen in 1982?
It was their first performance live on American television and was the only time I ever saw them a little nervous. We performed Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Under Pressure and although I suspect the producer didn’t want the keyboard player filmed at all, Freddie came over to me as usual! Compared to normal, Freddie may have had a few glitches with his voice that night, but he still sang better than anyone else and all in all, it was a really good performance.
And soon after, you joined Brian for the recording of the Star Fleet Project at the Record Plant studios in LA with Eddie Van Halen, Alan Gratzer and Phil Chen?
We cut the record in just a few days. The Star Fleet theme was very organised and I played synthesizer. We then jammed for Blues Breaker and Let Me Out, with a lot of solos from Brian and Eddie! Blues Breaker was just a jam with three chords…
Brian described the session as one of the best experiences of his life…
There was a lot of camaraderie and all of us had a great time. You don’t always get to go into the studio, wing it and play some blues; usually you’re going in there for a specific purpose and working within an outline… but this was pretty free and I think the record captured that.
How did your contribution to The Works album come about?
After the Hot Space tour, Queen decided to take a year off. But as a working musician, I went on tour with Supertramp in 1983 before joining Elton John’s band. But I was still in touch with all of Queen and they asked me to go back to Record Plant with them.
How was the dynamic different from touring with Queen to working with them in the studio?
I wasn’t aware that they hadn’t had any other musicians in the studio before, so I wasn’t looking at it as a landmark thing. By the end of the Hot Space tour, I had become pretty good friends with them all, so I wasn’t at all intimidated and there was a comfort factor. And I wasn’t really a session player as I’d recorded original material with all the bands I’d played with.
They had faith in me as I think I’d proven on the road that I could accomplish what they needed.
Bearing in mind the four tracks you contributed to on the album were individually written by all four band members, what can you tell us about the recording processes for each song?
They had three studios rented out and I worked separately with all of them. There wasn’t a lot of guidance in what they wanted; it was never like that with those guys.
For Radio Ga Ga, Roger had done the original sequence bass part and I put down a piano part and then a synthesizer part on top of that, plus the bells you can hear throughout. Before I left the studio, I wanted the track to be more complete so I put on some bass parts, some of which were ideas that John later retained on the record.
In a different studio with Freddie and Mack, I played chords on my Jupiter 8 while Freddie sang into a mic to make the vocoder effect. The tune was completed when Brian put his guitar parts on.
I thought Man on the Prowl was a kind of follow-up to Crazy Little Thing. Freddie asked me to take over piano three quarters of the way through and do ‘all your rock and roll stuff’, and then he laughed and said: “They’ll all think it’s me anyway!”. But being the honourable guy he was, Freddie gave me specific credit for the ‘rip-roaring finale’! The track actually ends with me just fooling around with the low end of the keyboard.
Mack reminded me recently that for my work on I Want to Break Free, there was a guide electronic drum machine and a guitar part only on the track and I played all the keyboards on that tune. The solo was done in one take, apart from the last note that goes down a whole octave where I had to reset my Jupiter 8 (it was set up for guitar lines because when I’m playing synthesizer like that, I’m thinking with my guitar brain). Credit to Mack’s incredible engineering skills that he was able to catch that one note with the technology available at the time. The rest was impromptu and the reality is, I’ve never played that solo again as it just came out of my head. I had no idea until afterwards that there was a precedence of nobody ever having played a Queen solo except Brian. I would never do anything to interfere with my relationship with Brian, but I believe he thinks it’s a good solo as part of the tune… and he’s still doing a great job of playing it live on guitar! The final note is that we’re still friends!
For Hammer to Fall, it was just a small contribution of some bleeps and blips.
Were there conflicting opinions from within the band about the use of synthesizers on The Works album?
Although I’ve joked previously that they didn’t use synthesizers before I came along and put them on everything, Freddie and John had already actually played a lot of Jupiter 8 on Hot Space. The band members may have all had different influences and preferences, but they were somehow able to incorporate them and come out with different and original material.
They always came together because everybody was putting their different parts onto each tune no matter who wrote it. Their individual playing contributed to the uniqueness of the sound, because nobody played like them. Queen had an immediately recognisable sound, no matter what genre they were working in.
Thirty years on from The Works sessions, how was it to finally hear your piano parts intact on the finished version of Let Me in Your Heart Again from the Queen Forever album?
I’d always liked that track and urged Brian to release it. Brian, Roger, John and myself originally cut that as a four piece for Anita Dobson’s record… and although I didn’t know that Freddie had done a vocal on it, I think it’s one of his best; very raw and right in your face. It’s a great Queen tune and I’m really proud and happy to have been a part of it. I wish it had been released around The Works time.
Was there ever an opportunity to be involved in further Queen tours before Spike Edney took over on keys for The Works tour?
It was not that I didn’t want to be involved but I’d already joined Elton’s band by that point and was touring extensively. Spike has done a really great job with Queen, because it’s really a tough task to keep all those keyboard parts together… and it got even more complicated after the likes of Radio Ga Ga.
I was playing with Elton at Live Aid and got to see some of the Queen set and meet the guys afterwards. Then in 1986, I saw them live in Holland and they sounded great. And many years later, I had a great time jamming with Brian and Roger at the Walk of Fame afterparty with the SAS Band in Hollywood in 2002.
At a similar time to your work in the studio for The Works, you played additional piano, synthesizer and rhythm guitar on Freddie’s Mr Bad Guy album?
Although I was with Elton, I flew to Munich for just a few days and played on several tracks, including the piano solo on Living on My Own. It was a short trip but a lot of fun.
It was very free flowing and casual in the studio; the body of Foolin’ Around was already together but I had the idea for the R&B guitar part and it was kept in.
Freddie and I actually worked on a tune together and ended up co-writing She Blows Hot and Cold. It was a jam, but we had a framework and it became a B-side. I wasn’t aware of how the tracks evolved after my session, but for the version of She Blows Hot and Cold with Brian on guitar, he must have added that afterwards.
Despite limited commercial success, many fans are fond of Mr Bad Guy…
Not everything artistically is measured by commercial success. I think Freddie wanted to get some stuff off his chest and do his own thing like all artists do. Obviously it’s always preferable to be successful, but just like all the other band members, he had desires to do solo work outside of Queen’s framework… but not to the detriment of the band.
How did it feel to be shown in the background in the recreation of the Mr Bad Guy sessions in the Bohemian Rhapsody movie?
I didn’t originally catch the part where it’s supposedly Mack and me, but I’ve seen it on YouTube. I liked the movie, but it’s strange watching your friends being portrayed by other people and I’m pretty sure I was the only guy in the theatre that had played with Queen! But once I was past that, I thought it was well done and putting aside anything chronological, it told a good story that was made for entertainment purposes.
How would you summarise the dynamic between John, Brian, Freddie and Roger?
They were a formidable bunch and all top-notch musicians. They were like the four musketeers and the sum was always greater than the parts. As a quartet, they came together to play in a unique fashion. The three-part harmonies were quite amazing on stage and sounded so huge coming from just three guys without being multitracked. It was very insightful to witness firsthand their musicianship and what a big, powerful sound they generated.
Their relationships with each other went beyond friendships; I would say it was a brotherhood. I only ever saw a few small disagreements, usually over things like the set list. They were all very professional. Sometimes they’d go their separate ways because they’d lived together for so many years that they’d need a break once in a while… but they were very tight, both personally and professionally.
And how would you summarise the four of them individually?
Brian and I have always been friends. He’s an amazing musician and a superlative player, as well as a brilliant guy personally. He’s very bright and a real rock and roll aficionado. After his name was a question last year on Jeopardy, a game show in the US, I emailed Brian to tell him it doesn’t get much bigger than that!
In the dressing room at the start of the Hot Space tour, I joked with Freddie: “You know, it’s going to get a little confusing with two ‘Freddies’ on the tour… I think you are going to have to change your name”. He laughed and we really hit it off after that. After a while he started messing around and making me wear his leather jackets because he didn’t think I had a good enough stage outfit…
Freddie was the whole package and there’s nobody like him. He was an incredible musician with unsurpassed vocals. Freddie’s whole concepts and influences were extremely wide and yet he was unique. He was a great piano player and I appreciated firsthand just how well he functioned while playing complicated tunes with first grade vocals on top.
Not only is Roger the quintessential British drummer, he contributed so much to the overall vocal sound by singing all those high parts. And after Radio Ga Ga was such a huge hit, he was on an even footing with songwriting too.
John is an excellent bass player and I’ve described him as a secret weapon because he came up with those huge hits. We used to hang out a fair amount in LA and although I’ve reached out to him in recent times, I respect that he’s leading a private life away from anything to do with Queen. But I’m sure we’re still friends!
When was the last time you saw Freddie?
In November 1988, Peter ‘Ratty’ Hince and I attended a Thanksgiving party staged by Queen in London. We hung out with the whole band and as Ratty and I went to leave, Freddie asked us to stick around so he could play us the Barcelona record… it was so impressive, and I told him so. I was pretty knocked out and it was a logical progression to where he was going with his vocals. There was a party in 1991 in LA for the release of Innuendo, and I was surprised that only Roger and Brian showed up. So I was a little suspicious, but the band were sworn to secrecy and the next thing I heard was the press release followed by Freddie passing away the next day. It was shocking and sad.
Does it surprise you that Brian and Roger still have the desire today to tour extensively as Queen?
Queen are even more popular now than when I played with them… the legacy is incredible and the whole thing just keeps growing.
I’m glad they are continuing and still making great music. These guys spent years working to get their careers going and my hat’s off to them if they want to continue it, however they do so.
I saw Queen + Paul Rodgers in LA in 2005. Paul’s a great front man with an amazing voice and he did an admirable job in a way that was very respectful because he wasn’t trying to be Freddie.
I haven’t had a chance to see Queen + Adam Lambert yet, but I’ve seen them on TV and Adam is a great singer who does an amazing job. There’s not a lot of people that could fit into that slot. And it’s not entirely the same; it’s their own thing and more power to them.
And finally, what can you can tell us about your new solo album, Part-Time Rebel?
It’s basically a rock record and I did all the vocals and played all the instruments except drums. I had a few friends play on it and my wife and daughter did some background singing. It’s a pretty rocking record and I’m proud of it. I hope Queen fans will like it too!
This article is © copyright Dave Fordham and the Official International Queen Fan Club and is not to be reproduced without permission.
For more information about Part-Time Rebel and Fred’s accomplished musical career away from Queen, visit www.fredmandelmusic.com.
Thanks to Peter Hince (www.peterhince.co.uk) for kind permission to reproduce his image from Queen Unseen: My Life with the Greatest Rock Band of the 20th Century (revised version with added material available on Amazon). The overhead view of Queen and Fred Mandel at Freddie Mercury’s piano playing Crazy Little Thing Called Love is from the Seibu Lions stadium, Tokyo in November 1982. This track is available on the bonus material on the Queen on Fire – Live at the Bowl DVD with Fred Mandel’s ‘honky-tonk piano’!