The second greatest band of all time
At last, the outrageous inside story
Their Britannic Majesties Request
Queen’s crimes: high camp, ambition and excessive sales. Their defence: they were rock’s latest revolutionaries. David Thomas maps their controversial story; Gay Dad’s Cliff Jones selects their finest records.ROGER TAYLOR IS DRINKING A REFRESHING cup of tea, prepared for him by one of his comely female staff, in the dining room of the private recording studio where the one-time Queen drummer is working on a solo album. He has a fair idea that this record will not be a hit, certainly not on the scale that his old band enjoyed, but as he notes philosophically, “Everyone has that problem. Mick Jagger is one of the biggest stars ever and he can’t sell a solo record.”
Still, it’s not as if Taylor – a wee bit stockier than in his prime as Queen’s prettiest, blondest, member, but still in fine fettle for a man in sight of his 50th birthday – much needs the royalties. His share of Queen’s earnings (a reported Ł36 million gross in the two years 1996 and 1997) brings in around Ł3 million a year to add to his estimated Ł40 million fortune. And boy, does it show. To get to his workplace, you turn off the A3, a few miles past Guildford, follow a track through some woods (his, presumably), go past the
fields filled with grazing horses, park by a barn and wander down to a gorgeous old water-mill, sat by a babbling brook, in which he studio has been built.If you turn left, instead of right, as you come out of the car-park, a set of steps lead up a hill to the lavishly-appointed mansion that sits at its top: Taylor’s mansion. When I first interviewed him five years ago, as he was releasing a solo album called Happiness?, Taylor described his life as follows: “Deborah [Leng, the ex-Cadbury’s Flake model who is his partner] liked to stay at home with her horses. But I like to travel. We’re in the nice position of having more than one house in different countries. I love going boating or skiing and I love my garden. I can’t say I’m a keen gardener – I don’t do a lot myself: I just say, I’ll have one of those, there. I’m very lucky, it’s a very privileged lifestyle. But, as we keep reminding ourselves, the three of us that are left, we worked bloody hard for it.” This time, Taylor told me about his ocean-going yacht. It has a skipper and a crew of five because (a bit like his garden), “It’s too big for me to handle.” The boat is a schooner, rather than a motor-yacht: or, as he put it, “Not one of those stink-pot things.”
This is the life that Queen seemed to embody from the moment they appeared on the music scene. Barely three years after their first hit, they were proclaiming that they were the champions of yodelling, “No time for losers.” Three years after that, they were listed in the Guinness Book as the highest-paid company directors in Britain at Ł700,000 apiece: “We were buggered if we were going to suffer for our art,” Taylor declares. “We always said we wanted to be the biggest band in the world. Unashamedly, that was the object of our enterprise. What else are you going to say, ‘We’d like to be the fourth biggest’?”
I could go on. But these few paragraphs of sneery reportage and context-free quotation should have confirmed every prejudice of anyone who hates Queen (as well as royally pissing-off their many fans, not to mention the Mr Taylor himself). So, by way of balance, follow me about 15 miles north, into the absurdly plush north-west corner of Surrey, where the golf celebrity interfaces of Wentworth and Sunningdale sit pampered cheek by plump jowl with the private estates of Virginia Water, where the local car-dealer is a Ferrari franchise. Turn off the A30 at Windlesham, motor down another winding lane, press the button by the locked white gate and enter into Brian May’s domain.
Pete, the roadie, answers the door. He leads me into a dark wood-panelled study and asks if I fancy a cuppa. When I say that I like mine strong, a dash of milk, two sugars, Pete seems pleased: “The boss likes it like wee-wee,” he says, disapprovingly. As he scuttles off to do his thing with the tea-bags, I look around The 30’s style furniture is upholstered in a sort of burgundy velvet. There are plates hanging from the walls on which pictures of tigers and African sunsets have been painted. A collection of amplifiers is piled at one end of the room. Toys litter a table at the other. This looks like the room of a man who is entirely indifferent to his physical surroundings – a man of wealth, certainly (the most recent estimate of his fortune is Ł50 million), but taste? Not so sure.
When May comes in to join me, he looks exactly as you might expect. His beanpole body is dressed in jeans and a loose, Hawaiian-print shirt. His hair is long, dark and curly. His trademark clogs are on his feet. But that is where his predictability ends.
His opening words are, “I live in my head too much.” He speaks quietly, sometimes tentatively. Within minutes, it is overwhelmingly obvious that this man is incredibly honest, incredibly decent – and incredibly unhappy. “The material stuff has never got to me,” he says. “I had Ł30 in the bank when we started and I was probably much happier than I am now: Roger was the one who adapted better than any of us. He enjoys being a rock star and the money that goes with it. He’s better at spending his money than I am.”
Which I ask, semi-facetiously, he spends more of it, or he spends it more wisely?
“Both,” says May, with a wry smile. “He enjoys the best of everything, and that’s a very honest approach to it.”
It isn’t really Brian May’s style just to kick back and wallow in the incredible good fortune of being part of one of the most successful rock groups the world has ever seen. Assuming that it was good fortune. “Queen was a wonderful vehicle and a wonderful, magical combination,” he says. “But I think it came close to destroying us all I’m not being dramatic. I think it truly fucked us up in the way that only a sort of out-of-world experience like that can do. Queen were the biggest thing in the world for a moment in time and everything that goes with that really messes up your mind somehow.
“You’re universally adored and loved. But then you’re universally vilified by other people. You’re surrounded by people who love you and yet you’re utterly lonely. You get to a place which is hard to really recover from, and I’m conscious that I never have really recovered. It’s like you never grow up. We’ve all suffered. I know definitely we have. Freddie, obviously, went completely AWOL, which is why he got that terrible disease. He wasn’t a bad person, but he was utterly out of control for a while. In a way, all of us were out of control and – perhaps I shouldn’t be speaking for Roger and John, but I think underneath it they would agree with me – it screwed us up.”
Queen had a reputation for being one of the great party bands. “We had some wonderful times,” says May, and no post-show celebration was complete without naked girls mud-wrestling, or gallons of champagne served by dwarves and drag queens – an endless backstage bacchanalia. The peak was reached on Hallowe’en night 1978, when the band launched their latest album, Jazz, with an all-night binge in New Orleans: “It was deliberately excessive,” May recalls. “Partly for our own enjoyment, partly for friends to enjoy, partly because it’s exciting for record company people – and partly for the hell of it. There were all kinds of weird acts, including a guy who sat in a pile of chopped liver, women who did unusual things with their anatomies! We made friends with all the strippers and transvestites, people who felt as misplaced as we did. On the face of it they were outrageous and promiscuous, but some of them were great souls. We had a hoot.”
A hoot at a price. “It was very excessive. I think the excess leaked out from the music into life and became a need. We were always trying to get to a place that has never been reached before and excess is part of that.” He smiles,”You know, I never understand how I was able to take no drugs and not drink that much and yet become totally unstable. I was needy beyond belief. A certain amount of your neediness is satisfied by the party lifestyle. But you have a terrible hole inside you, which needs to be one-to-one with everyone who ever comes close to you. And that’s a need which can never be fulfilled. You destroy everyone who ever comes close to you.”
“To be truthful, I was always screwed up about sex because I got married at totally the wrong time, at the beginning of all this. In the midst of all this I’m trying to be a husband and a good father to my kids, which was the number one priority for me. So that really excluded me from becoming wildly promiscuous. But emotionally I became utterly out of control, needy for that one-to-one reinforcement, feelings of love and discovery, and that’s what I became addicted to, I think.”
SO I SAT THERE, LIS-tening to Brian May strip his emotions bare, and I thought to myself: maybe I’ve got Queen wrong all these years. Because, with a very few exceptions – Love Of My Life, perhaps, or the death-defying bravery of The Show Must Go On – I’ve never heard of the intensity, confusion or desperation that Mr May describes beneath the baroque constructions of Queen’s records. Great tunes, yes, pile-driving riffs a-plenty; but as Bowie once asked, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”
To be fair, there were always plenty that could make me smile. You’d have to have a terminal sense of humour failure to hear Freddie Mercury sing, “I want it all/I want it all/… without breaking into a grin. Plenty that could make me get up and cheer, too. In 1986, the year after Queen walked away with Live Aid, I covered what turned out to be their last-ever concert in front of 120,000 people at Knebworth. Commissioned to write a backsktage account of the summer’s biggest shows, I got there the day before and watched the final preparations being made to the giant stage and lighting-rig, heard the sound-system being tested. The next afternoon I stood at the lip of the stage, looking out a the sea of people, stretching up the hill towards Knebworth House, feeling a minuscule fraction of the energy they would generate when their heroes finally hit the stage.
As then, that night, I saw a show that was as powerful as exercise in enormo-rock as has ever been staged. Mercury’s stage manner could look ridiculous on film or TV. He did not dance and strut like Jagger, or shimmy like Bowie. Instead he threw a series of extravagant shapes, one pose following another. But on a mammoth stage this stylised motion made sense, reaching right to the back of the crowd. Plus, of course, he could really sing. And the band, stripped of all the endless layers of overdubs, could really rock. At times the performance was almost frightening. During Radio Ga-Ga, the entire crowd raised their arms to do the double-claps that punctuate the chorus. It was eerily reminiscent of some Leni Riefenstahl film of a Nazi night-rally. It made me think how closely related pop and politics are, how the rock singer is the orator of the late-20th century, tapping into mass emotion and desire, bending the crowd to his will, harnessing its power. We are the champions … no time for losers: even the rhetoric is the same.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I felt and feel ambivalent about Queen – an ambivalence not shred by vast numbers of Britons. For over 20 years, in countless polls, Queen’s signature tune, Bohemian Rhapsody has been listed among the country’s all-time favourite songs. In February this year, the readers of another monthly music magazine (seventeenth letter of the alphabet, comes between P and R) rated it the third best single of all time – beaten only by Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields and Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Just as Britain loves the song, so it loves the band. Freddie Mercury is featured on a second-class stamp (with Roger Taylor – the first living Englishman ever depicted on the Royal Mail), included among a selection of British heroes in the run-up to the millennium. In September 1998, a poll conducted for MOJO by the British Market Research Bureau put Queen fourth on the list of the most popular pop artists of all time, behind the Beatles, Elvis and Sinatra. The typical Queen voter turned out to be a middle-class male aged 25-54. But here’s a wild guess: I’m prepared to bet that the typical Queen voter was not a rock critic. Because as much as Queen are still adored by the public, they have long been despised by the critical establishment. As Roger Taylor puts it, “We were never critically acclaimed, which seemed to be quite important after a while because the more critically acclaimed you were, the more asssured of failure you were too.”
Failure was never a word in Queen’s vocabulary, any more than poverty. At no stage in their careers did they play the accepted rock game and strike the approved, rebellious, anti-establishment poses (that this made them mow perversely rebellious than those bands that did is, of course, one of life’s delicious little ironies). They made no bones about their middle-class origins. They were unabashed about their academic qualifications. For a young band to have Queen’s rampant ambition might come across as cool, sod-you cockiness in Blarite ’90s Britain. In th strike-ridden, right-on early ’70s, it was infinitely more offensive. So music press disapproval dogged Queen from the start In 1973 EMI thrust them onto the national stage with a heavily-promoted gig at the Marquee and their Ł5,000 (phew!) advertising campaign for their eponymous debut album, thereby persuading many hacks tht the band were nothing more than a hype. When, in 1974, Queen II was released, Record Mirror described one track – Roger Taylor’s Loser In The End – as “the worst piece of dross ever committed to plastic” and summarised the album as “The dregs of glam rock. The band with the worst name have capped that dubious achievement by bringing out the worst album for some time. The material is weak and overproduced … as a while it is dire. Brian May is technically proficient, but Freddie Mercury’s poor voice is dressed up with multi-tracking. A lot of people are pushing Queen as the band of ’74. If this is our brightest hope for the future then we are committing rock’n’roll suicide.”
Three years later, as the punk revolution consigned bands like Queen to the dustbin of history the NME ran a ferociously scathing profile of Freddie Mercury (so ferocious and so scathing, in fact, that it ensured he virtually never gave a full-length press interview again in his life). The headline was, “Is This Man A Prat?” A year later, when the marketing of Fat Bottomed Girls and Bicycle Race via a video, single-sleeve and poster featuring a horde of naked models on bikes was causing a considerable, and entirely predictable rumpus, NME ran a rear-view photo of Freddie with the caption,”Fat-Bottomed Queen”. Not that they were homophobic or anything … obviously.