Roger Taylor featured in Record Collector – brilliant interview…
“IF PEOPLE DON’T LIKE IT.
Far from being a geezer who just bangs the drums a lot, Roger Taylor is one of the smartest men in rock. He recalls Queen‘s heyday, Bowie, the Pistols, Mott and so much more for Paul Lester. But don’t get him started on politicians …
Roger Meddows Taylor, sometime leader of The Cross, solo artist and sticksman with a band called Queen, is one of the select few rock drummers to have achieved household name status: Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, Phil Collins – he’s one of those. And the stately suburban manor, the Surrey home set in a large, leafy estate, goes with the territory. As does the tinnitus – Taylor has suffered from the condition for years, though with the help of a Harley Street doctor he’s kept it under control.
“It ‘s something I can deal with,” he says, in the studio at the back of his mansion. “It’s all to do with a positive mental attitude. People tend to get annoyed by it, and that just makes it worse. It’s psychosomatic.”
He has another rock star requisite: several tattoos, on his arms and elsewhere. “I love tattoos,” he beams, acknowledging that he’s discovered the joys of body art “very late in life … It’s probably the best way,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter anymore – there’s nobody to tell me off. It’s my way of saying “f*** you” ?
But to whom is he saying “f*** you”?
“All authority,” laughs Taylor, more outspoken and extensive in the range of targets of his articulate venom than he’s given credit for. “Anybody telling me what to do. I was always like that. I didn’t like to get ordered around. And I hate to be told what to do.”
RC: It’s amazing how quickly bands historically have moved out to the suburbs, from The Beatles onwards. You’ve done the same, Presumably, it’s for privacy rather than an opportunity to flaunt your wealth?
Roger Taylor: Yes, absolutely. I remember when we toured, you’d feel trapped wherever you went and didn’t feel you could get away or have any privacy. I love London – I think it’s the hub of the world – but I grew up in the countryside, and you come here to have peace.
Being in a hugely successful band, you must feel simultaneously invincible and vulnerable, all-powerful yet always on show?
I think it’s a fool who feels invulnerable.
Even on-stage at your most majestic at Live Aid, say?
No, at something like Live Aid you’re just worried it’s all going to go wrong!
What was your moment of supreme invincibility, if you ever had one?
Never had one. I’ve had many huge highs, and moments of satisfaction, normally after a show. It’s never like that before a show – it’s very quiet. Most people deal with it [nerves] by going quiet and focusing, because you’ve got a job to do and you have to do it properly. I don’t think anybody who’s any good breezes onstage and just does it.
Nick Cave told me he’s at his most self-loathing just before he goes on stage. All the doubts and anxieties about himself that he’s ever felt rear their ugly head just then.
I know exactly what he means, though that’s a very angst-ridden way of putting it. You feel your most self-questioning. I wouldn’t go as far as loathing.
What was the first record you bought?
I think it was Little Richard, a 45, and I only had a 78 player so I tried to take it back. Then I bought a Shadows record – I loved them.
Are you in touch with members of your early bands like The Reaction or The Bubbling Over Boys?
No. With The Bubbling Over Boys I was eight or nine. In The Reaction I was a teenager, but we’re not in touch. Tim [Staffell] from Smile, I see very occasionally.
Was the music you played in these bands Merseybeat and mod rock?
No, soul. That’s what kids in pubs and clubs wanted. Their idea of soul was Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band. Everywhere, there would be chants of “Geno! Geno!” We did Otis Redding material, then I tried to steer it towards Jimi Hendrix, which was hard because he wasn’t mainstream yet.
Did you see Hendrix live?
Yes – 14 times! We were very driven by him. I saw that famous [tour] with Hendrix, The Move, Pink Floyd, Amen Corner and Eire Apparent on the bill. It was unbelievable. He was the best live performer I ever saw.
Have you still got your first ukulele?
No. It was a dreadful, fake Hawaiian thing. It cost about two quid. I was eight. I wanted to be Lonnie Donegan: I saw him on TV. There was more music on TV in the late 50s and early 60s than than there is now, which is disgusting and pathetic. The people at the BBC are stupid bureaucrats who don’t understand what we’re good at in this country. We’re good at music. We’ve conquered the world with our artists.
Poor old Top Of The Pops.
Their mistake was never featuring albums. Just as the single was becoming irrelevant in the 70s and the album was outselling it, they ignored it! Do I sound scathing? That’s because I absolutely mean to be.
Can you recall your first Top Of The Pops?
Yes. We were on with nobody because it was in the weather studio. I think there was a strike, Bowie cancelled, and we got his slot. It was for Seven Seas Of Rhye. It was a tiny studio and they shot it with no audience.
The chat in the school playground the next day would’ve been of the befuddled kind.
Yeah, “Who were that lot? And who was that bloke prancing in feathers?” That was the whole point of Top Of The Pops: to make a splash and get people talking, hopefully with good music behind it. People used to dress up.
Did you plan what to wear?
We always said we’d wear black or white, or both. No colours. We thought colours were uncool. Freddie and I were quite into clothes.
Fashion [Taylor and Mercury had a stall at Kensington Market) or dentistry [Taylor studied it before switching to biology) could have been alternative careers for you?
I was never going to be a dentist, let’s face it. I was crap as a clothing entrepreneur as well.
Did Queen have a stylist?
No. Freddie had people who made his clothes, and Zandra Rhodes made us a whole bunch of stuff, which I wore once at Friars in Aylesbury, and I sweated so much I never wore it again.
Was there talk among you about outdoing Bowie for sheer outlandishness?
No, we didn’t try to outdo him. He was doing his thing, which we thought was fantastic. We thought of ourselves in a different way.
Did you mix with other bands at first?
Well, we were thrown together with the pop people at Top Of The Pops – people like Slade. Noddy [Holder], Jimmy [Lea], they were lovely people. There was a lot of crap, of course, but then you’d meet serious bands at gigs. We got on well with Mott The Hoople – we supported them round the country, and in America. We’d go on and sing All The Young Dudes with them at me end. They were a great rock act. We learned a lot off them.
Did you tour with 10cc?
No, but we did one gig with them. They were excellent. We had more of a show than they did. They had more of a session vibe, but great, inventive stuff. They weren’t a stage act as such.
Did Queen hear 10cc’s mini-opera Une Nuit A Paris before you cut Bohemian Rhapsody?
No. I remember a friend of mine playing me I’m Not In Love from their album [The Original Soundtrack) before it was a single, and that was great. But I don’t know if any of us ever heard that other one.
Were Queen art-rock?
Harmonic metal? The latter would be more right. We didn’t want a pigeonhole. We weren’t trying to fit in anyone’s box. We went in all sorts of directions. We weren’t glam rock, but we were theatrical. We were heavy and had powerful harmonies. We had quite a good arsenal.
Were the harmonies influenced by The Beatles’ Abbey Road?
Not really. We weren’t that into harmonies [by other bands], apart from Yes. They were brilliant at the [London} Marquee.
Was there a band of the time that, in terms of their scale and ambition, influenced Queen?
Yes, Led Zeppelin. We liked everything about them. I remember following them around when they were absolutely at their peak in America. We hadn’t got to that size yet.
When did Queen play their first arena?
We went from big colleges to .. . I remember our first Madison Square Garden, and that was quite a big step. I was quite nervous for hat one. You had to step up.
It’s weird how the rock behemoths – Zep, Floyd, yourselves – regarded as unarguable members of the pantheon today, regularly got small or dismissive reviews at the time …
Yeah, I remember [Hendrix’s} Electric Ladyland got a terrible review from [Melody Maker’s} Chris Welch. And I thought, “Are you deaf, you idiot? I thought you were an intelligent man!” Because I thought it was a groundbreaking double-album of wonder. I guess it didn’t fit what the critics wanted.
Can you remember your first review?
No, I don’t. But there were shedloads of negative ones. I remember the Melody Maker accused us of being “supermarket rock”, whatever the f*** that is. I don’t think Freddie ever went into a supermarket!
Freddie got a lot of stick. There was the NME title next to a photo of him in a white leotard, that read: “Is this man a prat?” Did Queen seek retribution from journalists?
I didn’t. But in Downtown LA I saw John Bonham lift a guy from Sounds by the scruff of the neck and punch him in the stomach. I was talking to John and he went, “Excuse me a minute.” I thought, “Mmm.”
Did you rush over to help the hapless hack?
No! I agreed completely with Bonham. Apparently, he’d given him a bad review and it had ruined his breakfast.
Queen always seemed too well behaved to do anything like that.
That’s not at all true. We just didn’t worry about criticism after a while. After a lot of sh**, and when you’re popular, you realise what really matters is that people like what you do. If other people don’t like it, well, tough sh**.
Did any member of Queen punch another?
Never in absolute anger – we were slightly more intelligent than that. We had our spats .. .
Was there ever a near break-up that we never got to hear about?
Oh, I’m sure with every band they nearly break up every so often. But reason prevails. I never had a cross word with Freddie, really.
Who was the diplomat and peace-maker?
And the wild card?
John [Deacon]. He just used to disappear.
To do what?
I’ve no idea. There was a note on his bass one day that said: “Gone to Bali”. He came back two weeks later. That was in the early 80s.
Do you, John and Brian (May) ever get together to reminisce about the glory days?
No. I never see John. He’s disappeared into the bowels of London. I don’t think anybody sees John. That’s his decision. I don’t think he enjoys people. I think they make him very nervous. He’s fragile and we should let him be.
It must be tempting to get together with the two chaps who went through it all with you?
Not if they don’t want to! The last thing I’d want to do is go, “Come on out for a drink, mate!”, because it would be pointless. I see Brian all the time – we get on really well. Why shouldn’t we? We’d be daft not to. That’s why we work so closely doing all these Queen things [the musical, the movie, the band]. We know each other so well. He’s quite a polymath, with his amazingly different interests. Some of them are a bit mad, some are incredible – like his astronomy.
Do you have any strange obsessions?
I like the countryside, and the sea.
Was I’m In Love With My Car (B-side of Bohemian Rhapsody) your biggest payday?
Certainly not. [But] If you wrote the B-side of a hit, you got the same publishing income [as the A-side]. That doesn’t apply now.
Which song brings in the most royalties?
We Will Rock You. Some of our songs have grown bigger over time, especially Don’t Stop Me Now, which was a medium hit and is now one of our most popular songs.
Did your audience change as Queen’s career began to take off?
It was different. In Japan we had a lot of very young girls. In America it was more students.
Is it true that you were due to appear on the episode of the Today show with Bill Grundy that the Sex Pistols eventually appeared on?
I gather we were booked to go on and we couldn’t. It’s not a great moment, looking back. He [Grundy] was a silly old sod, wasn’t he? A silly, irascible old git and very easy meat. But they said “what a f***ing rotter” really quietly. All the fuss was about that.
It’s said that Freddie had a run-in later on with Vicious and Rotten. Is that true?
Not a run-in. We used to get on with them very well. Sid was stupid. He couldn’t play; a hopeless man, really. A punk icon maybe, but he was a kn*b. John was funny. And the other two [Steve Jones and Paul Cook] were a great rhythm section once Chris Thomas [producer of Never Mind The Bollocks] got his hands on them. We [Queen and the Pistols] used to watch the telly together at night in the Wreck Room at Wessex Studios in Stoke Newington.
It’s funny looking back at Freddie and Johnny in their garb – as flamboyant and un-“street” as each other!! In hindsight, tartan bondage trousers and safety pins seem no less inauthentic than a white onesie ..
It was fu**ing show business, wasn’t it? It’s all nonsense. Still, the red tops sold lots of papers, pretending it was all outrageous.
Was your debut single from 1977, I Wanna Testify, a back-to-roots punk move?
Not really. It was an old Parliaments cover, so I saw it as an a cappella thing. I remember lots of four-part harmonies. It was a doo-wop song – nothing to do with punk. I maybe made it more rocky because that’s where I was coming from. It’s been so long since I heard it.
Queen are unusual in that you were so quintessentially a 70s band, then in the 80s you had another career almost as a different group in terms of look and sound …
I suppose it’s the singles and the videos that define that in people’s heads. Not in our heads. We had some very big hits, and MTV was flying then and visually we became part of that.
You became unexpected purveyors of the totalitarian anthem in the 80s.
I’ve always had faith in the British public: they stuck by us. We never wanted to be pinned down, so our music covered a lot of ground. To escape boredom. We never wanted to make a record that was just like the last one. But I don’t know about “totalitarian”. All-encompassing anthems, yeah. I’ll take that as our middle name.
Why did you gravitate towards the stadium chant: One Vision, We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions, I Want To Break Free?
If you can write an anthem of any kind you’ re doing well. We wrote them to connect with our audience and encourage a feeling of unity and oneness with them. There’s nothing wrong with trying to appeal to as many people as possible. You’re in music to communicate. Alternative national anthems, though? I don’t like flag-waving. I can’t stand it – f***ing patriots. But I guess they worked out well – and then they were picked up by sports people, particularly in America, where one or two of our songs are mass live anthems. That’s fantastic and positive. It means your music is part of the culture and that’s one of the things that Brian and 1 are really proud of. You cannot get away from us!
Were you the playboy of the band?
Nah. I think we all were. All shockers, really. Score sheets? No, certainly not.
Is there an equivalent Led Zep red snapper legend in Queen’s annals?
We got up to lots of things but I can’t think of an equivalent to that.
Was there a moment of pure farce?
There were whole tours that were pure farce, really. It’s hard to remember individual incidents. Some I’d rather not remember …
A magazine once proclaimed you “Britain’s Second Favourite Band”.
A back-handed compliment if ever I heard one.
Zeppelin, Who, Queen, Stones: who was biggest and best?
You can’t answer that, can you? Different sort of eras, really. We’ve [Britain] produced all the greatest bands in the world. But you wouldn’t know it if you were a tourist.
Queen are a brand these days, what with the musical, the tribute band, the movie …
I don’t want to talk about the movie. Every time 1 do, something changes. I’m just glad I’m not in the film world. We’ re not producing it – we’re doing the music.
Do you know who’s playing you?
Have they asked you about certain conversations you might have had in, say, 1978, that they want to recreate for the film?
They ask, “Was that true?”, “Is that likely to have happened?” We’re sort of consulting.
What scene are you most nervous about them re-enacting?
It’s more about getting Freddie right. That’s more important than any individual portrayal. I’m keeping out of it as much as I can. I’m not tempted. I don’t want to stick my oar in. Just get the right people and let them do their job.
Do you have power of veto?
We won’t let them have our music – that’s our veto. But we don’t want some sanitised, nice, polite, tidy version of the truth. Is it a mixture of comedy and tragedy? I guess you could say that. T hat’s what it was. Rags to riches, triumph to tragedy. It’s all there.
Biopics are rarely great.
I Walk The Line was good. I was never particularly a fan till his [Johnny Cash’s] last two records. They were fantastically emotional.
What was the last record that made you feel like that?
I very much enjoy the music of Sigur Ros. They move me.
Fun On Earth, your new album, is eclectic.
I hope it’s eclectic. One Night Stand is me doing Bolan – there’s a little bit of Get It On in there. The guitar solo is me. Be With You is, not intentionally, but someone said it reminded them of Pink Floyd circa Wish You Were Here. Quality Street is blue-collar rock worthy of The Boss.
Is that how you see that one?
That’s interesting.It’s sort of aspirational, a hard-working man who’s scraping the soil and gets lucky. Up is quirky art-funk, with the same analogue synth I used on Radio Ga Ga. I Am The Drummer (In A Rock’N’Roll Band) is my comedy song. The drummer is usually the butt of the jokes. Some of those jokes are quite funny: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “A drummer.” “Well, you can’t do both.” I just thought I’d take the piss a little bit and say, “I am the drummer, but I do all the work in this band.”
Is your career the drummer’s revenge?
You’d better ask Phil Collins! I’m just trying to be a musician, really, and do the thing I love. It really is that simple. And play the guitar, and write songs, which is incredibly satisfying.
Is it true that Fun On Earth was originally going to be tided The Unblinking Eye (Everything Is Broken)?
No. That was just a song I wrote 18 months ago and it came out on the net. It was all about the country falling to bits and everything being broken, which it was. The economy, the high street, all the shops shutting. Complete mismanagement. A disaster.
Have you ever been moved to make your feelings known to your local authorities?
I think politicians are shells. Their skins are so thick I don’t think anybody could talk sense to them. I see William Hague was desperate to storm into Syria the other day. What war-like twats we are. I couldn’t believe how quick we were to commit to another war. He was very inflammatory. Of course now he’s backpedalling furiously. I don’t trust any of them.
Ever considered getting involved?
I couldn’t bear the bureaucracy, the committees and the bullshit. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a loner.
Yet you did the Royal Jubilee in 2002, and the Olympics. Are Queen rock royalty, as establishment as the Queen? Or do you feel like an outsider gate crashing the barricades?
If you’re asked to take part in the Olympics closing ceremony, you probably say yes. But we insisted on doing it live. It’s much easier to put the hard disk on and pretend to play. But since TOTP, Brian and I don’t do that. It’s horrible miming; it’s a curse. Rod Stewart took the piss out of it. He didn’t even pretend to sing at the mic. It was quite subversive.
Cl’eem magazine said you resembled “Rod Stewart under shock treatment”. Thoughts?
Oh dear! Is that nice? I don’t know. He’s very funny. He does tend to overdress. Always got the waistcoat and the tie as well, which I think is one step too far. Fashion? You tend to drift with the look that’s around, if you’re vaguely current. Like in the 80s, you had to wear padded shoulders. But I don’t think we fell into the trap of looking unbearably 80s like some of the bands did. Yes, we’ve all got 80s hair, but some groups were appalling.
What means more: being voted the eighth greatest rock drummer in a recent poll, or appearing in the Sunday Times Rich List?
The rock drummer. The Rich List is crap. It’s marvellous to be in a list alongside Bonham and Moon; two of my favourites.
Is there a compliment you’ve been paid over the years that sticks out?
Compliments are great, but I’ve learned to take them, and the opposite, in an even manner. Don’t let compliments go to your head, and if you get a slagging, don’t let it affect you, either: there’s nothing you can do about it.
With your box set, The Lot, you can survey your whole career. How does it look?
It’s very satisfying to get it all in one place. I didn’t realise how much there was: eight CDs, videos, lots of singles. I’d forgotten a lot. But it’s very satisfying. Now I can say: “Look, that’s what I did. I was also in that band. © brianmay.com