YOU wouldn’t think a self-respecting rock star would be seen dead in the audience of a tribute act to his own band. But Roger Taylor, multi-tasking drummer, songwriter and singer from Queen, is no stranger to such gigs.
20 May 2014 by Simon Edge
“There are so many of these bands,” he tells me. “There are Abba ones and Led Zeppelin ones and I don’t know how many Pink Floyds there are now. I think one broke up due to musical differences.
“Of the Queen tributes, some of them are very funny and some of them are really not funny at all. The terrible ones are cheesy and pantolike, more about dressing up in a Brian May wig and a Freddie Mercury moustache and what they’re missing out is the fact that the music is quite complicated and actually not easy to perform.”
He says it’s flattering on one level because imitation is a form of flattery “But when they’re not doing it very well it’s a bit distressing.”
It set him thinking how much better it would be if he could get a band together that could deliver brilliantly timeless Queen hits such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Another One Bites The Dust and A Kind Of Magic (one of the six hits Taylor himself wrote) which have helped Queen sell as many as 300 million records since it formed in 1970. So he set about conducting an online audition process in North America. Once the applicants came forward, fans were invited to vote for those they liked.
A young French Canadian singer emerged called Marc Martel whose vocal resemblance to Mercury was so strong that his audition clip got 8.5 million hits on YouTube. He was good enough to build a band around, and The Queen Extravaganza, as they are called, performed on the final of American Idol in 2012 and subsequently toured North America.
They have just opened in Europe and will embark on a 14-date UK tour in September.
The 64-year-old Taylor, who still performs in his own right as Queen alongside May, sometimes with American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert as their new frontman, is the producer. But his approach is mainly hands-off.
“I spent some weeks with them in Canada rehearsing but they’ve found out what works and what they’re good at, they’ve got some brilliant arrangements of a lot of our old stuff and I’ve sort of let them get on with it now. It’s great – I just go and see them occasionally and they’re wonderful,” he says.
THE band arrives in Britain just as We Will Rock You, the “juke-box” musical developed by Taylor, May and Ben Elton which has been playing at London’s Dominion Theatre for the past 12 years, comes to an end. After nearly 5,000 performances to 6.5 million people it’s going out on a high but Taylor has made little secret of the fact that he never much liked the show.
“I’m not a musical theatre person and I never will be, especially after seeing the way it operates,” he says. “It’s so incredibly inefficient. It takes three weeks to effect a change. It can be a lighting change, a script change, a musical change – you have to meet with six different departments and about a month later it may happen. It’s become very unionised with lots of rules. It’s very old-fashioned and it should have a shake-up. I think a lot of big musicals close because of the rules they’re bound by that make it impossible for them to be efficient.”
Raised in Cornwall, where his father worked for the Potato Marketing Board, Taylor won a scholarship to Truro School and initially trained as a dentist.
Now a father of five, he married his first wife Dominique just as they were splitting up – it was a way of protecting their two children’s future interests – then spent 15 years with his second partner Debbie and for the past four years has been married to Sarina Potgieter, with whom he divides his time between London, Surrey, Cornwall and occasionally Los Angeles. He is worth around £60million thanks to Queen and his life remains focused on it.
As well as The Queen Extravaganza, he is involved in a film biopic of Mercury, who was an early casualty of the Aids epidemic and died in 1991 at 45.
Sacha Baron Cohen (from Ali G and Borat) was initially cast in the lead but has since left the project. There were rumours that Daniel Radcliffe was up for the part and most recently director Dexter Fletcher has quietly departed.
“This one does seem to be taking an awfully long time to come together,” says Taylor, who is musical director alongside May. But he is very satisfied with the casting of Ben Whishaw as Mercury.
“He’s an absolutely fantastic actor,” he says. “We want someone playing Freddie who is credible and will do him justice. We were very keen on Sacha Baron Cohen at one point and then we weren’t so keen at another point. We didn’t want to make a comedy. We take Freddie’s legacy very seriously and I’m not sure he would have done.”
He won’t say whether an actor has yet been cast to play himself. “I try to keep at arm’s length because you can’t really make a film that you’re portrayed in and be closely involved. I think for Brian and me, our main job once all the ducks are in line is to make sure the music is great,” he says.
But he can confirm that Radcliffe was never in the running. “That was complete fiction, much as I like him,” Taylor agrees. “It came from someone’s fertile imagination.”
It’s now nearly a quarter of a century since Mercury’s death but Taylor says he’d like to think they would still be performing together if he were still alive.
“We became closer and closer at the end of Freddie’s life and I think we were co-dependent in many ways. We stuck together for an awfully long time and I think we all felt we needed one another.”
He has described Mercury as his best friend.
What makes his loss all the more painful is that if the singer had lived three or four years longer, he would have benefited from the breakthrough in HIV treatment and might have been saved.
“It was considered an incurable thing at the time and I guess it was, then,” Taylor says. “It was a horrible period, just horrendous for us to lose one of our family.”
Given their closeness he may be able to shed some light on the claim made last year that Mercury once took Princess Diana disguised as a man to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a famously shabby gay club in south London. As a confidant of Freddie’s, he must be in a position to know whether the yarn is true.
“Maybe,” he laughs cautiously. “I mean, I wasn’t there. That’s all I’ll say about that.” He’s either being discreet about people who are now dead, or he doesn’t want to say it’s a load of nonsense for fear of offending actress Cleo Rocos, who first told the story. But for the life of me I can’t tell which. He just smiles. “Interpret it any way you like.”