11PM BBC RADIO 2
Brian May talks Queen Christmas Eve 1975 with Bob Harris
For one of the absolute Whistle Test highlights you go to the Queen Christmas Special, broadcast live from the Hammersmith Odeon on Christmas Eve – the 24th of December 1975
[NOW I’M HERE – faded]
Just a little section from ‘Now I’m Here’. That was Queen on stage at Hammersmith Odeon. That was our Christmas special and Brian May is here to reminisce about that moment ‘cos the first time I saw you I think was at the Rainbow Theatre, a couple of years or so before that, Brian, and you were playing that night, supporting Mott the Hoople.
BRIAN MAY: Well the Rainbow concert was ours, but the previous time we were at Hammersmith was supporting Mott the Hoople. Yeah that’s the time.
BOB: That’s the one.
BRIAN: Yeah, yeah. That was our first visit to Hammersmith Odeon as it was called of course. I don’t know what the hell they call it now. It’s always going to be Hammersmith Odeon to me. But we supported Mott the Hoople there and then we did our own Rainbow show, but coming back to Hammersmith as headlining for that thing.
BOB: Yeah, but ‘Now I’m Here’ was a song written by you about the Mott the Hoople tour experience really, wasn’t it?
BRIAN: It was indeed and about rock and roll in general and the fact that it blew my mind and I didn’t even take the drugs so there you go.
BOB: “Down in the city just Hoople and me”.
BOB: But that Christmas Special that we did together in December ’75, Brian. I mean the great atmosphere around the band at that time as well. because I was privy, wasn’t I, to some of the filming later of some of the videos that you did and everything else and a thing that really struck me, Brian, so forcibly was the extent to which the band you cared about your fans and you looked up to your fans.
BRIAN: Well that’s a very nice thing to say. Yes, we did and we felt very fortunate to have the kind of fan base that we had if you can even call it fan, because they were very intelligent and they didn’t require us to fit into any mould, for which we were always grateful. ‘cos we continually evolved and had all different kinds of shapes really, didn’t we, as a band but the fans were always. There’s the occasional grumble, you know, ‘What are they doing now?’, but basically they followed us and they enabled us to go on an amazing journey without any frontiers whatsoever. So we’re always very, very happy with our fans, and of course they came a moment a little bit after that when the fans kind of took over, ‘cos when it got to… well I’m thinking Bingley Hall some years later when the audience were singing every song and a few others besides and we really clocked on to the fact that our audience were part of us and that a show was a two-way experience – not just a one-way experience. It’s funny – now this reminds me, so we wrote ‘We Are The Champions’ and ‘We Will Rock You’ and that really purposely involved the audience in a participative kind of way.
But that brings me back to Hammersmith in a sense ‘cos I remember one of my first impressions is we’d got the idea of doing a show and it was very dramatic, you know, and I think we were sort of pacemakers in a sense, you know, sort of leaders in that field, because when Queen started it was very much ‘Let’s all play with our backs to the audience and and groove with her with the vibe, man, and let’s not…’,you know, doing a show was a bit uncool but we went out there and said, ’No, we will do a show. We’ll have sound and lights and we will make absolute maximum – we will take absolute advantage of the situation ‘cos we’re only there for two hours. Let’s give them everything. Let’s deafen ‘em, and blind ‘em and leave them wanting more’, you know. So we were very much into a show.
So normally we were lit very, very well – not huge lights in those days, but we had some lights and the audience was always in blackness, and I remember coming onto the stage for the Hammersmith thing and, of course, ALL the house lights were on and all the TV lights and whatever, and we stood there waiting for you to do your announcement just seeing all our audience which was a really strange experience Also we couldn’t speak, you know, we were waiting for you to do the announcement so we just came on there and stood there and there was a moment of eyes meeting – this contact between us and the audience in a completely different way from what we’d been used to. Normally we’d come on in a cloud of smoke and Big Bang , whatever, and, you know, as I say ‘deafen ‘em and blind ‘em’, but this was a very different experience and it was a strangely sort of liberating experience, because we felt as soon as the lights went down after you’d made your announcement, we were back to our normal sort of world, but we’d already made that eye contact with the audience so it was a very intimate kind of feeling for that show.
BOB: And at that moment you were the wave now that you’ve begun to surf on. At the time of that concert ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ had just gone to number one and there the song… that massive. “A Night at the Opera” was released I think either on the day or a couple of days later and that went straight to number one, so in a way that concert, that moment, represented the transition, wasn’t it, into the absolute sort of top of the premiership really?
BRIAN: Yeah I think it did. I think we were a bit shocked that we’ve been chosen to do that at that point, you know, I t was a sort of privilege to be the sort of TV attraction for that Christmas and you know we didn’t take it for granted. It was a big deal for us and, of course, it got you out of Christmas, which is the wonderful thing, ‘cos you you always wonder what to do at Christmas, don’t you? .Where do I go to? Oh God, I’m gonna upset someone.’ We were just there. We had to work on that show, which was a joy. We had a place to be.
BOB: You did, didn’t you, because actually you put Christmas on hold for a few days.
BRIAN: That’s right.
BOB: ‘Cos it didn’t naturally follow on as the date tagged on to the end of the tour. There was a little gap wasn’t there between…
BRIAN: That’s right.
BOB: … the tour dates you’d been doing and then that show – the Hammersmith Odeon.
BRIAN: That’s right.
BOB: So, you know, you’d had a lot of time to think about it.
BRIAN: Yeah, we set it up as a separate thing and then we rehearsed, as became the habit for us. I mean we’re actually a rather rather keen on the idea of rehearsal. We like to improvise. We like to step out and be dangerous, but there’s nothing like rehearsal to set you on on the right rails, you know. You have to know what you’re doing to be dangerous.
BRIAN: You’ve missed out the very first time we met, of course, which I am gonna have to remind you of. No, we didn’t meet but the first contact was you playing ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ on the Old Grey Whistle Test and we didn’t know you. You were some star that we thought we’d never be able to meet and you played ‘diddle-iddle-ing, diddle-iddle-lum’, and there’s a little train running along and all those wonderful old movie images and that was the first time we EVER got exposed on TV.
BOB: Do you know the story of that?
BRIAN: Tell me.
BOB: Well because Mike Appleton, you know, the program producer, somebody had left a white label on his desk but it wasn’t labeled in any way. There weren’t, you know, nobody had written on the labels so we didn’t know what it was and he put it on the record player and of course [imitates opening sound] and we loved it. He passed it over to Phillip Jenkinson who matched that cartoon and isn’t it amazing, Brian, the extent to which indelibly printed in one’s mind are some of those combinations of music and film.
BOB: And that was one of them, ‘cos that cartoon was like the runaway train.
BRIAN: It was yeah. Never to be forgotten by any of us. But you gave us that first contact so, you know’. we’re always incredibly grateful. That’s why I’m here today because there is a long-standing loyalty here.
BOB: Just one final thought because you know that the work that we were doing together – documentary filming, interviews, the … [?] filming – lots of stuff that we were compiling between us, Brian, at that time hadn’t seen the light of day had it until just recently found the Queen documentaries that have caused such a massive impact.
BRIAN: It’s incredible. They really have, yes, and a lot of the footage of you interviewing us was brought out and it was all covered in dust and scratches and the boys did rather a good job of restoring it to something that could be viewed but, of course, the moment is very precious, you know. We’re there, we’re talking about things which I think all of us had forgotten about, so that was a very important ingredient to the documentary. We’re very controlling people as you probably know, but we for once we didn’t put our big hands all over that we gave… Rhys and Simon put that documentary together really without us messing with them and I think they did a wonderful job they did. It was a labour of love for them ‘cos they’ve they’ve been fans as well as professionals but what a great job they did on the Queen documentaries.
BOB: Absolutely brilliant. So one final word about that Hammersmith Odeon concert, Brian.
BOB: The performance that night of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, because one of the aspects of ‘Bo Rhap’ that I thought was just fascinating was the piano. The different texture that the piano playing brought into that song, and it’s, you know I always thought this, think this about Paul McCartney, for example, who plays you know bass but then can walk across to the piano and by sitting down at the piano bring an entirely different feel and sound and of course that’s what Freddie did, wasn’t it – and it was the most idiosyncratic way that he played the piano as well, hitting the top notes with his left hand while leaving his right where it was. They sort of crossed over from his left to…
BRIAN: He had a very individual style and he had certain keys that he loved to play in which were not the keys which are easy for guitar players, so that really was a big influence on me. So I learned to play an E flat and A flat and F and whatever, you know, which most guitarists really hate doing but because that happened it made me find different ways of doing things. So the way that the piano and my guitar blended together was an amazingly – how am I gonna put this? – it was amazingly recognizable ingredient at the centre of a lot of the work we did, and Freddie was a great piano player. I would say that without hesitation. He didn’t think he was and as time went on he played piano less and less, as you probably saw, and he would get other people in to play for him but we loved the way he played piano. And if you listen to those old backing tracks stripped away to things like ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’, ‘Killer Queen’, whatever… ‘Play The Game’, the way he played with Roger and John on those backing tracks is monumental. He’s so percussive, so rhythmic as a piano player and he’s very exceptional, Freddie, in that department.
BOB: So lovely to see you. It always is Brian.
BRIAN: Thank you, Bob.
BOB: Thank you so much for being here and we’re just gonna close with the final moments from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
it was the truly wonderful way to heralding Christmas. Queen at the Hammersmith Odeon Christmas Eve December 1975.
The Old Grey Whistle Test writes:
We’re getting so excited about the big Old Grey Whistle Test evening on BBCFOUR on 23rd, meanwhile tonight at 11PM on BBC Radio2 we have an incredible line up as we remember series 5 of the show.
Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris play live and Brian May calls in and there’s incredible archive…
Episode 5 Old Grey Whistle Test 40, Series 1 Episode 5 of 16
Bob Harris continues to celebrate the classic music TV show. Each programme looks at one complete series of the original Old Grey Whistle Test and includes archive recordings alongside new interviews and recorded sessions with guests from the featured series.
Programme five covers the show’s run from September 1975 to May 1976. One of the highlights of this series was Queen’s Christmas concert broadcast live from the Hammersmith Odeon on 24 December 1975. Brian May joins Bob Harris in the studio with his memories of that event and of the band’s first exposure on the programme.
There is live music from Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne, and music from the Whistle Test archives comes courtesy of blues guitarist Freddie King and Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose live performance of Free Bird became one of the most requested in the history of the TV series.