– March 2011
Pubished 28 January 2011
WORDS BEN MITCHELL
A KIND OF MAGIC
FROM RECORD SALES TO STRIPPERS AND SCRABBLE SCORES, EVERYTHING IN QUEEN’S WORLD WAS WRIT STAGGERINGLY LARGE. ON THE GROUP’S 40TH BIRTHDAY, BRIAN MAY AND ROGER TAYLOR LOOK BACK UPON THEIR EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY.
Look at old photos of Queen and you’ll discover that drummer Roger Taylor favoured two default poses. One was a sultry pout, the other a satisfied grin suggesting he had more fun the previous night than an average man experiences in his entire adult life – which as a member of the world’s most decadent band, was invariably true. At 61 years old, Taylor retains an insouciant charm even though these days he prefers skiing and sailing to less wholesome activities. As he talks to Q of past times in his faintly husky voice (he and guitarist Brian May have requested to be interviewed separately), his stores are punctuated by a warm chuckle that brings to mind that somewhat less risqué raconteur Ronnie Corbett.. “Sometimes, if we’d had one too many parties, it’d definitely be an early night with a book,” he says with no conviction whatsoever.
In 1971, Queen’s line-up was finalised when bassist John Deacon successfully auditioned to Roger Taylor, Brian May and singer Freddie Mercury. “Aargh,” exclaims Taylor. I’ve been working with Brian for 40 years! More than that, actually.” As evidenced by their 20-minute masterclass at 1985’s Live Aid, Queen were a peerless stadium rock act. In Mercury they had an outrageously charismatic and witty frontman who, in his spare time, enjoyed acquiring 19th-century French furniture, koi carp and rough-hewn male lovers. Incorporating influences ranging from disco to Mozart, Queen’s records have sold an estimated 300 million copies worldwide, about the same as Led Zeppelin. The only group to beat that are ABBA and The Beatles, though Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) takes second place to Queen’s 1981 Greatest Hits collection as the UK’s best-selling album of all time. In every way Queen were gloriously excessive, from the grandiose ambition of 1975’s Bohemian Rhapsody to the lavish parties where guests would be attended by topless girls. Mercury’s unbridled sexual gluttony, though was to prove calamitous.
The singer passed away due to Aids-related bronchial pneumonia at the age of 45 in 1991. Six years later Deacon retired from public life, leaving Taylor and May – musical comrades since 1968, when they first played together in a group called Smile – to curate Queen’s colossal legacy. “Effectively we are ‘the brand’ Queen,” says Taylor. “Running that is extraordinary. There seems to be tremendous interest, still, in our old music. Essentially this is a band that hasn’t existed for 20 years but still does. It’s very odd.”
In celebration of Queen’s 40th anniversary their back catalogue will be remastered and released throughout the year. There is also a Queen film starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Mercury currently in production. (Taylor doesn’t know who will be playing him yet but suggests either Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt). In parallel to these new pleasures, the West End production of We will Rock You looks set to go on and on. “That’s still doing very well – the musical,” confirms Taylor during our hour-long conversation. “If I may use the word…”
Who did you have most in common with when the band first got together?
Brian, really. We haven’t always got on but we’ve come to realise that we need one another. Brian is my enduring mate, but I was very close to Fred. I think we were the naughty ones.
You and Freddie were flatmates for a while in the very early days of Queen. Did you cook for each other?
Oh God! [Laughs]. One Christmas I was there with Fred and all we had was a packet of bread sauce that you make with water. We used to dream of a can of beans! We were very broke but we still managed to ponce about and appear rather grand.
You’d been a dentistry student. Did Freddie ever ask you for advice about his teeth?
Well, not really. His teeth were in strange places. I think he was very fearful, quite squeamish about having anything done because it would have involved fairly major surgery.
Queen released their first seven albums between 1973 and ’78. Not bad going…
No, I suppose it wasn’t. We were very painstaking making the albums, too. It was almost like a privilege to get in these studios which, at the time, cost what seemed like a fortune. Thirty quid for every hour! So we respected that and just grafted.
Did Bohemian Rhapsody seem like a peculiar song at all when Freddie first suggested it?
No, I loved it. The first bit that he played to me, was the verse. “Mama, just killed a man, dah-dah-la-dah-daah, gun against his…” All that. I thought, “That’s great, that’s a hit!” It was in my head, a simpler entity then; I didn’t know it was going to have a wall of mock Gilbert and Sullivan stuff, you know, some of which was written on the fly. Freddie would write these huge blocks of mass harmonies on the backs of phone books.
When Freddie would say thinks like “What’s a mortgage, darling?” in interviews, Brian and John didn’t seem to like it too much…
No, I don’t think they did.
What did you make of it?
I thought it was hilarious because it was always a complete wind-up. He knew that what would annoy people more than anything was assuming this sort of Marie Antoinette… “Let them eat cake!” That was him. You know, “F*** ‘em. If they don’t like me I’ll be even worse than they expect.
Did you ever accompany him on his legendary shopping sprees?
Oh yeah. We used to buy each other rugs occasionally. Freddie used to say, “Always buy the best, dear”, which is a great piece of advice. There’s no point in getting the Jag when you can have the Aston Martin.
Was that your philosophy?
In a way, although I didn’t take it anyway near as far as he did. We’ve been incredibly lucky, we’ve had a great career and I’ve never been one to hide it. We are what we are. At the same time we’ve done lot of quite good things. Maybe [laughs].
Queen’s parties were infamously wild…
It really was a very small part of what was going on. We just thought it was a laugh. If we could screw that much money out of the record company to have an almighty blowout then why not? It’s just become… the myth of the dwarf with the coke on his head [at the New Orleans launch party for their 1978 album Jazz] and all that. It never happened.
No. Well, I never saw it [laughs]. I’d tell you if I did. There were weird things going on but… [mildly weary] the parties and everything, people like to hear about all that but it’s sort of in the past now.
But you must appreciate why people love those stories.
Yeah, but I wouldn’t recommend a party with a hundred strippers as a great marketing tool.
In an interview back then you said, “I like strip clubs and strippers and wild parties with naked women.” Was that an accurate summary of your interests?
Ha! All true, of course.
Was cocaine ever your thing at all?
Well, everything was around then. We did a bit of this and that but I don’t think it ever really ruled us.
Everything in moderation.
[Laughs]. We were never for moderation.
As Queen became more successful, why did you travel around in separate limos?
That was the easiest way to do it. Limos are the stupidest cars. There’s really only room for two passengers and you’d usually have your girlfriend or wife or whatever, companion, or your assistant with you. We could afford four you know? It was nothing to do with not wanting to speak to one another.
What did you think when Freddie turned up one day with his new moustache?
I always said that he could have ridden naked down Oxford Street and got less publicity than he did by growing a f****ing moustache. One man grows moustache. Not a big deal. But it was, obviously, in his case. It represented this sort of gay clone scene at the time, so there was some sort of vibe off that. I mean, it didn’t bother us at all.
What misconceptions do you think people might hold about Freddie?
Well, he had a very shy side and a very forceful side as well. That was it, really. In the studio he was such a worker. That’s where he was completely at home, not shy at all. I never had a cross word with Freddie. He was the glue that kept us together, in a way. It’s difficult to describe. A complex man. In a social situation he might be quite shy, but then he could also enter the room with all the charisma turned up to 10 and take it over, but he’d have to psyche himself up for that.
As he would if he was going onstage?
Absolutely. The same thing, really.
Apparently on tour you and Freddie played a lot of Scrabble. Who was the best?
Fred and I used to love Scrabble. We all played, but it got a bit too serious so the other two would drop out. Freddie was brilliant because he could score more with fewer tiles. I was pretty much his match, I think. Brian got the most points I’ve ever seen with one word, which was 168. Can I remember what the word was? Yes, “Lacquers”. “Q” on the triple, all seven letters, triple word. Work it out. [Q Ed’s note: we’ve tried and failed – over to you, Scrabble nuts.]
When you knew that Freddie was dying was there any question of stopping?
No. He only asked two things. The first was let’s keep working. The other thing was when he was really sick, just come and visit me.
Towards the end Freddie’s home was besieged by the press. That seems normal now but it was quite unusual at the time.
Yeah, his house was surrounded by vultures. They’d even be photographing his groceries as they were brought out of the car. It was horrific, actually.
Did you make your feelings known when you would go and visit him?
I did hit a photographer one night and I think I ran over another one’s foot. All those people, what are you going to say, you know? Just horrible dickheads.
Did you get to say goodbye to him?
Well, one time he was very, very sick. I was about 300 yards up the street on my way to see him when Peter [Freestone], his assistant, rang me and said, “Don’t come, he’s just gone.” That was a real blow, but… yeah, literally 300 yards away on Kensington High Street. [Pause, little smile] Next question.
No, that’s alright.
After the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 did you think, “Well, what do we now?”
Oh, definitely. There was a very empty period. It was, “What do we do now? Well, let’s give up. Yeah, let’s give up. That was good. That’s done.” Then, of course, after a while you’d feel, “Well, shall we finish that material?” Eventually we summoned up the strength to finish it and I think we made a good job of it [the resulting album was 1995’s Made In Heaven].
Can you understand why some fans think that the whole idea of the Queen musical We Will Rock You, is almost offensive?
Yeah, I do, and they’re welcome to think what they like because I hate musicals. The fact is we did our best to make it an enjoyable experience for those who might like that kind of thing. I make no excuses for it. If you get all purist about things… everybody wants everything to be kept in a jar like it always was and that’s not the way the world works.
Queen’s album sales are often given as being approximately 300 million. Do you have any idea what the actual figure is?
Honestly, I don’t know. Somewhere between two and three hundred, maybe. It’s a lot. [Pause] Great, isn’t it? [Laughs]
Taylor claims not to pine for his glory days, though will admit that he misses playing live. To that end, since 2005 he and May have twice taken to the road to perform their greatest hits with former free singer Paul Rodgers. Though it was made abundantly clear that Rodgers was in no way a replacement for Mercury, the indifferent reception afforded their collaboration as Queen + Paul Rodgers on 2008’s The Cosmos Rocks album suggested that there was little appetite for a Queen record without Freddie. “Yeah, well don’t buy it,” says Taylor. “We can’t do one with him.”
[- See HERE for Brian May’s interview.]