On the Spot… Morgan Fisher
Having already enjoyed a number one hit with Everlasting Love in 1968, Morgan Fisher’s association with Queen began exactly 50 years ago when he formed a band with Tim Staffell. In the colourful journey that followed, he witnessed Queen’s early development firsthand on their supporting tours with Mott the Hoople and later joined Queen’s Hot Space tour as their first-ever keyboard player. Morgan spoke to Dave Fordham in an exclusive interview that originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of the Official International Queen Fan Club magazine. This article is reproduced with permission and the full version is available in the fan club’s members only archive. For Dave’s exclusive interviews in the forthcoming winter 2021 magazine with Steve Howe of Yes and Darren Reeves, Queen Extravaganza musical director and keyboardist, join the fan club now at www.queenworld.com.
With Tim Staffell having left Smile the year before, how did he come to join you in the progressive rock band Morgan in 1971?
I didn’t know Tim before he came for an audition and played us some of his Smile songs. Knocked out by his high, powerful voice and with him being a great songwriter too, we got him in straight away and a new version of Smile’s Earth was on our first album, Nova Solis.
Did Tim introduce you to his former Smile bandmates?
I got to know Brian casually when he came to see us many times during Morgan’s residency at the Marquee Club (he was easy to spot in the audience, towering over everybody!). He was very loyal but I think he actually liked the band which is why he kept coming back.
Tim also briefly introduced Freddie to me once as ‘the guy who's taken over as singer in Smile’. I remember thinking he was an exotic-looking chap!
And you went on to join Mott The Hoople in advance of Queen supporting their 1973-74 UK and America tours?
Morgan produced some really good music but there was a glut of amazing progressive rock bands at that time and the record label felt we were too inaccessible.
Soon after I joined Mott, Queen were signed to open our UK shows and although I didn’t know them, our management or Ian Hunter would’ve checked they were a suitable opening act for us.
It was such a small world that just a year before, I’d been hanging out with Brian and suddenly we’re touring together!
Freddie seemed to have come out of himself since our previous meeting and was certainly more outgoing and outrageous! There was often a table tennis table backstage and Freddie thrashed everybody… it was incredible!
Roger was one of the lads and we hung out together. It’s fair to say that he and I were the ‘rockers’ and in the Mott In America DVD I made, you can see how close we were when walking hand in hand with the same girl in New Orleans!
John was definitely the quiet member of the group but always smiling and seemingly in a good mood.
Mott were a unit that had brought their roots into the music, but Queen were an interesting bunch with four very different personalities…
So it was quite a strong relationship between the two bands?
We all stayed in the same hotels and travelled on the same coach for the UK tour. I used to read extracts from the Goon Show Scripts book on the tour guide microphone and they all had a good laugh! Those tours were full-on with almost no days off which was good because, in those situations, boredom can lead to drug excess, etc. Booze was a different story with us, but even then, nobody got out of order and certainly, no one from Mott or Queen got into such a state where they couldn’t play properly.
And your initial impressions of Queen onstage?
My feeling was they were trying too hard, desperate to get the audience going. Mott were basically still a rock band, but Queen took it so far with the Zandra Rhodes outfits, etc that I thought it wasn’t really rock; it was something else, something exciting that moved out of the arena of rock and didn’t really have a name. Although Queen didn’t get to me personally in the same way as core rock from some of our other support acts like the New York Dolls or Joe Walsh, it was very impressive.
There was certainly no question about Queen’s competency and I’d already experienced that secondhand through Tim’s intelligence and sharpness. His singing was precise and methodical with lyrically brilliant songwriting and I saw more of the same with the guys in Queen. Of course, it's laughable now to claim Queen tried too hard because it did produce results and work rather well, didn’t it?
Did the prospect of Mott being upstaged by Queen provide healthy competition?
Queen generally went down very well. As the tour went on, they got more and more outrageous and I think some people were quite astonished. The majority of Mott’s dedicated audiences seemed to like Queen and recognised them as new, exciting, and powerful… but Mott were so established that even a band as powerful as Queen were absolutely no threat and were never going to blow us away, no matter what you might read these days. It was just a very exciting double bill!
Do you remember Brian, Freddie, and Roger joining Mott on stage in Southend?
I don’t recall it but I’m sure it’s quite plausible.
My strongest memory of the UK tour is the backstage party on the last night at the Hammersmith Odeon. Queen presented us with a huge cake as a thank you but as no one had thought about plates or knives, I started serving by hand! Roger and Freddie immediately joined in, grabbing handfuls and throwing them! A brilliant end to an amazing evening.
On the subsequent American tour, were you aware of the ‘dispute’ in Harrisburg between Aerosmith and Queen as to who would appear on stage first to support you… leading to Brian and Joe Perry getting inebriated and striking up a lifelong friendship?
I didn’t know anything about it because we were in our dressing room, but it was funny to hear about it afterward. That’s the only time one of the band got drunk before a gig!
And then Queen’s support was cut short with Brian contracting hepatitis?
I felt really sorry for them. We carried on with a different support band but we all had to be vaccinated.
How does it feel for Mott to be regularly acknowledged as an influence by Queen?
I don’t necessarily hear direct musical influences, but part of it was about attitude and, for example, that fairly ordinary people could make some magic on stage without any chemical assistance. I expect they were also picking up ideas like pacing a show because Mott were very good at it.
Did you follow Queen’s progress during the rest of the 1970s?
We were all so busy and didn’t really keep in touch, but I did see Brian occasionally and we were obviously aware that Queen were becoming huge…
Jumping to 1982, how did the opportunity come about to play the European Hot Space tour with Queen?
After working almost non-stop for 13 years, I took an extended break but when the itch to tour and record returned, I wrote to some people I knew. Brian responded, asking if I wanted to go on tour! I was expecting a bit of session work but this was a major tour with Queen!
As mentioned, I’d never thought of Queen as a rock band – they were something else, so much on their own that I struggled to imagine playing with them. Somehow, they were so self-contained with arrangements that were so tight that I didn’t know what I could add to it. But they had started using more keyboards and synthesizers and needed someone on tour to do those bits.
Did you have to audition?
Yes, in a movie studio in Hollywood where they were also testing their new light show. Without knowing the setlist, I learned a pile of albums in a short period of time and managed to get everything written down if not memorised. The other guy they had in mind was Roger Powell from Todd Rundgren's Utopia… but with our history and perhaps with me being British, I got the job.
But it didn’t turn out to be the perfect match?
Mott were a loose band, leaving space for different things to happen every night and I had carte blanche to try new things and be creative. Even in Queen’s early days, I don’t think they’d ever really thought that way. Their early albums were quite complex and there’s no way of jamming on that… it had to be quite precise.
I didn’t quite know how to fit in with Queen because there was no room for me to add anything musically in the slightest. The brief was to play exactly what was on the record - note for note. And I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy playing exactly the same, night after night. Nothing at all against the guys - it was just not a very creative job.
Queen was basically the first band I toured with since Mott and was on such a different level; premeditated, super professional, and being part of a huge team that was almost like being in an army. It frankly didn’t suit me.
And you all must have changed since the Mott tours?
Yes and in different directions. My life had changed drastically and I was quite a clean boy by then. I’d gotten into vegetarianism and meditation and was no longer the funny drunken pianist from Mott they remembered.
Queen were now very confident and ultra-professional. It’s a very different atmosphere when you get that established and there was none of the trying too hard anymore as they just had to walk on, play the songs and it would go down incredibly well.
It was all a long way from 1973’s sex, booze and rock ‘n’ roll. Very occasionally we’d go to a club but most nights it was just very good slap-up meals. There were wives and children everywhere.
How would you summarise the reception from the fans at gigs?
Queen lead the field in that tight, impressive, well-structured performance built to create ecstasy on a massive scale. That’s their specialty and a reason why they’re still huge.
But it was a distant roar and I struggled with the shows being so big; I was in no way used to being so separated from the audience. Mott could’ve got that big if Ian Hunter hadn’t left, but even though we were used to playing sizeable gigs, we still had eye contact with people in the front row who had their elbows on the stage.
With Queen, I was in the far-right corner and not very visible. In the beginning, they invited me to come out to the front and bow with the band, but that stopped after about a week. I think they wanted to make it clear it was still a four-piece and the keyboards were an additional thing. But they still introduced me every night.
What were your highlights of the tour?
I liked Crazy Little Thing Called Love because I could almost do a little bit of improvising. On We Are The Champions, I could also just bash away as they wanted dramatic piano.
Some of the Hot Space material was tricky live as the synthesizer part was exactly the same as the guitar part so if I got one note wrong, it stuck out like a sore thumb alongside what Brian was playing. I really had to be on my toes and it had to be perfect every night. John was also playing some rhythm guitar when I was playing synthesizer bass.
For me, the most fun was when Freddie was singing his ‘Ay-Ohs’ with the audience as it was different every night. Freddie was the loose cannon. The music was very tight but Freddie on top of it was the wild card. The things he would say to the audience were quite hilarious; he was talking to tens of thousands of people but it came out so naturally.
How was your departure confirmed?
Although they were perhaps too embarrassed to speak frankly to me at the end of the European leg, I think they realised I wasn’t enjoying it so much and that I didn’t feel very comfortable. It made sense to part company and they almost did it to be kind to me. But rather than try and explain it all, they sent me a telegram saying they’d decided they didn’t need a keyboard player for the next tour - I didn’t know until later that they got someone else in. I wasn’t heartbroken because of the way things had transpired and I don’t feel any grudge whatsoever… it was almost a relief.
Shortly after, I wrote to Brian, almost apologising that we’d all changed and I wasn’t the Morgan Fisher they’d known and loved from before. I wanted to make it clear there were no hard feelings and it was a pity it hadn’t worked out. It cleared the air, but after all these years we’ve still not been able to talk about it - we’ve been very British and ‘stiff upper lip’ about it!
There was a story about you taking Freddie’s limo and champagne out for a jolly?
Absolutely not true. My only misdemeanor was observing the band ordering wine by the bottle during a private meal staged by the record company, getting carried away, and ordering myself a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne! With it being Queen, it didn’t occur to me that there’d be a problem. I apologised but it was only a small faux pas and that was as ‘outrageous’ as I got…
I’ve also read that I left because I was afraid of flying… again, not true!
Have you kept in touch over the years?
I played with Roger at the Mick Ronson Memorial Concert in 1994 at Hammersmith Odeon. We rehearsed in his garage!
In 1996, Brian covered All the Way from Memphis on Moth Poet Hotel, a Japanese Mott the Hoople tribute album that I produced. Two years later he used it on his Another World album.
Brian also kindly sent me tickets for his solo gigs in Japan (where I’ve resided since the mid-eighties) and I remember joking to Spike Edney: “So you’re the guy that got my job, are you?”!
With Mott having reunited in recent years, I also joked with Brian before he guested with us at Shepherd's Bush Empire in 2019: “Hello Brian, long time, no see – now, I know you fired me, but I forgive thee!”.
Finally, what can you tell us about your current activities?
I’m finally releasing a new album of socially-oriented songs (yes, I do sing!) that I wrote just before the millennium. My home studio has kept me sane during the pandemic! I’m also doing online concerts on YouTube and we’d love to reschedule Mott’s American tour of the west coast…
This article is © Dave Fordham and the Official International Queen Fan Club and is not to be reproduced without permission. Join the fan club at www.queenworld.com.
Details on Morgan’s latest activities can be found at www.morgan-fisher.com and www.facebook.com/morganicfisher. A trailer for the Mott in America DVD is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xMY3MB9eyE and can be ordered at www.etsy.com/shop/Mottpix. Thanks to Denis O’Regan for kind permission to reproduce his photo of Morgan with Queen (www.denis.uk).