Sunday May 29,2011 by Brigit Grant
Queen: Days Of Our Lives, a two-part documentary
featuring Roger and Brian May, BBC2
As the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of Queen get underway, drummer Roger Taylor tells how, despite personal setbacks, the band is still a major force
THERE’S a running joke in Roger Taylor’s house. Ask the Queen drummer a question, any question, and the response is always the same. “Half-past seven is my standard reply,” he says with a smile. “It doesn’t matter whether they’ve asked me what I want to drink, watch on TV or where I want to go on holiday.”
Behind this private joke lies the uncomfortable truth that one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock music has suffered dramatic hearing loss. Talking for the first time about his secret struggle to hear, Taylor revealed that he has joined the ranks of Who guitarist Pete Townshend and former Genesis drummer Phil Collins as the latest casualty of mega-volume stadium concerts.
“I guess it was inevitable and hardly surprising given what I’ve been doing for the past 40 years but at least I’m in good company,” says Roger sitting at a desk in the office at his Surrey home. “The sound levels on stage were so loud with all that constant banging and smash, smash, smash; it did
untold damage to the fine nerve endings in the inner ear, though it is worse in the left, which is the side of my snare drum and the monitor.”
It was Roger’s wife Sarina, whom he married last October, who noticed the adroit drummer had a problem.
“She was the one who kept pointing out that the TV volume was up too loud, though I could only just hear it. Then I kept missing out on dialogue in films and at dinner parties and social gatherings I couldn’t understand what people were saying. It felt strange and frustrating to a point where I was starting to lip-read. I realised my hearing wasn’t what it should be.”
Tests at the Harley Street Hearing Clinic in London showed that Roger has hearing loss in both ears due to prolonged exposure to loud noise.
“Now I’m wearing hearing aids in both ears,” he says pointing at said ears which are no longer covered by the trademark blonde mane that was back-lit on Queen’s album covers.
“When hearing aids were first mentioned, I pictured myself as that old geezer at the back of the church with the whistling ear trumpet but you can’t see these Phonak hearing aids and people don’t realise you’ve got them in.”
So hearing loss hasn’t made Roger any less of a rocker?
“No, but I am an older rocker now,” he insists, though at 61, subtly-tanned and dressed in a smart white shirt and navy trousers, he is still the looker with the drumsticks whose falsetto highnotes (his voice spans three and a half octaves) characterised many of Queen’s songs; he wrote several more classics for the band, including Radio Ga Ga and It’s A Kind Of Magic. Hearing loss has not affected my vocal range. I can still pitch perfectly but without the hearing aids I don’t hear the intricate high parts of the actual spectrum. It goes all ‘wooferly’.”
Still being able to hit the high notes at this time in his life is reassuring for Roger, who has made four solo albums and after a 12-year gap plans to release a fifth next year.
As he says: “It’s already been three years in the making. I work on it only when it comes to me.” Yet it’s probably wise for Roger to hold back, as this year the attention is on Queen celebrating their 40th anniversary, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the band officially “broke up” in 1993, yet have seemingly never ceased to exist.
The enduring legacy of the late Freddie Mercury, the ongoing success of the stage musical We Will Rock You and the Queen reunion in 2004 and subsequent tours with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company are part of the continuing history of a band that sold in excess of 300 million albums worldwide. To mark the anniversary Island Records is reissuing five of Queen’s greatest albums from the years 1977 to 1982, which must make Roger feel very proud. “Some of it does,” he says pensively.
“There are bits where you think I wouldn’t have done that now but a lot of it makes me realise how much work we put into our music. The idea behind reissuing the albums is to get people to reassess their perception of the band as there is a view that we were just a singles band. Now we can introduce the albums to a new audience technologically enhanced so that the bass is more defined and the sound is crisper. Freddie would have loved the remastering.”
Roger and the then-Freddie Bulsara were particularly close from the moment they met in 1971 when the latter joined Smile, the band formed by Brian May which at art student Freddie’s behest was renamed Queen. Roger, who had abandoned his dentistry studies, traipsed around London clubs with Freddie to see Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, who all came to influence the band’s sound.
“I was thinking about all that the other day and then it hit me that Freddie will have been dead for 20 years in November.” says Roger bowing his head. “I was staggered because it doesn’t seem possible that all that time has passed and I still miss him. He was my best friend, my best man. We shared so much and I owe so much to him.”
WITH SUCH treasured memories of Freddie and periodic contact with his mother, Jer, and sister, Kashmira, one might assume that Roger would have mixed feelings about the forthcoming bio-pic starring Sacha Baron-Cohen, of Ali G and Borat fame, as the idolised front man but both he and Brian couldn’t be happier.
“The casting is inspired and we have a lot of faith in Sacha because he is an incredibly clever artist who runs a lot deeper than most people realise. He is much taller than Freddie but I think he might really surprise people with this performance, though I haven’t seen him do any scenes. We haven’t yet got to that stage but we have given lots of material to help Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) fashion the script so that he could recreate the dynamic and the dialogue that went on between us.”
As to which handsome blond actor will be playing Roger is yet to be revealed. “I don’t want to be involved in that,” he retorts with a grin. “Brian May and I will just supervise the music.”
The interview is interrupted briefly by a text from Roger’s daughter Rory. “She says that Dragon Attack (writtenby Brian) is a great track and has had it on repeat on her iPod,” he laughs, adding: “She’s a junior doctor.” Roger has five children, aged from 31 to 11. He is delighted, however, that his son Rufus took to the
drums without any persuasion or pushing from him and is now on the We Will Rock You tour. “He is a brilliant drummer and will be joining Brian when he performs with Kerry Ellis.”
With his solo album bubbling on a low-heat, Roger has been busy watching rushes for a BBC2 documentary on the band to be shown tonight and tomorrow.
“Our story is in two halves as the band’s career up to Freddie’s death was 20 years and 20 years later, our music is as popular as it was then. It’s a sort of everlasting…income.”
So what does he think he’s worth? “7.30pm,” says Roger, with a smile.
Island Records reissue the five Queen albums on June 13 and BBC2 will screen Queen: Days Of Our Lives, a two-part documentary featuring Roger and Brian May, tonight and tomorrow at 10pm.
For more information on hearing aids visit phonak.co.uk