20 December 2014 by Nick Hasted
You can’t replace Freddie Mercury. But on the eve of a tour, the royal family’s Brian May and Roger Taylor and crown prince Adam Lambert explain why they’re keeping the band’s legacy alive. “
My songs are like Bic razors,” Freddie Mercury declared in Queen’s early days. “For fun, for modern consumption. You listen to it, like it, discard it. Disposable pop.” But 23 years after his death, his band’s latest album is called Queen Forever. And that band’s two remaining members, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, concede that for them the title is true.
“I understand people who say: ‘There is no Queen without Freddie. Just leave it be,’” Taylor admits, “because that’s what we felt, following his death. All three of us said: ‘Right, that’s the end of the band.’ But the band just didn’t seem to die.”
May now believes that trying to lay Queen to rest with its singer was doomed from the start. “Even though both Roger and I were adamant it was over, it never went away.”
The Queen machine has been cranked into its highest gear for almost a decade during the past 12 months. Queen Forever reworks three forgotten Mercury vocal tracks, alongside a collection of mostly neglected ballads, intended to reactivate interest in their catalogue’s deep backwaters. Queen were added to Classic Rock’s Roll Of Honour as Band Of The Year, after triumphant tours of the USA, Far East and Australia with new singer Adam Lambert. In the US especially, a relative wasteland for Queen since the 80s, Lambert’s flamboyant performances and solo stardom since contesting American Idol in 2009 (when he first performed with Queen) has helped raise them to new heights.
May and Taylor still have regular Queen band meetings. When they and Lambert speak to CR they are in the peculiar position of preparing to go back out on the road for Queen + Adam Lambert’s first full European tour, while curating their late singer’s legacy in Queen Forever. It’s an odd afterlife which began with 1995’s posthumously finished album with Mercury, Made In Heaven, continued with four tours and 2008’s now virtually disowned album with vocalist Paul Rodgers, The Cosmos Rocks, and shows no signs of ever stopping. Queen’s classic songs keep gaining new leases of life. But, as May and Taylor admit, they don’t expect anything they do now to equal their music with Mercury.
Brian May, sleepy after a trip to Paris, calls Classic Rock on the phone, as does Lambert. Taylor meets us in his home studio, a stone’s throw from the pub and golf club of a sleepy Surrey village. His mansion and the South Downs can both be glimpsed through the trees. Tracksuit-casual, his hair and beard white, Queen’s drummer is the most bluntly forthright about their future in 2015. And he can’t raise much enthusiasm for Queen Forever, for a start.
“I was very we had three new tracks to put on it, which we laboured long and hard over,” he says. “As well as the Michael Jackson track There Must Be More To Life Than This, there is another song Freddie did with him called State of Shock [later recorded with the Jacksons and Mick Jagger], with a massive rock sound. But we could only have one track with Michael, which is a great shame. Let Me In Your Heart Again is absolutely typical mid-period Queen. And it was Brian’s idea to revisit Love Kills, which I feel works. But apart from that it is a rather odd mixture of our slower stuff. I didn’t want the double-album version they’ve put out. It’s an awful lot for people to take in, and it’s bloody miserable! I wouldn’t call it an album, either. It’s a compilation with three new tracks. It’s more of a record company confection. It’s not a full-blooded Queen album.”
“I can understand Roger’s reticence,” May laughs. “He’s not really a ballad writer, so this album’s not really representative of Roger Taylor. It actually wasn’t our idea. If it had been down to me it would have been an EP of these new songs, but we’d already promised the record company some kind of compilation.”
May still had strong feelings, hearing Mercury’s voice again on the rediscovered tapes. “There’s always a moment,” he says. “Particularly with Let Me In Your Heart Again. When I put the original tape on, it was so astonishingly real, like it had been recorded that morning. I got quite emotional about the way Freddie was doing his thing. It’s like suddenly coming across recordings of your parents after they’re gone. And then it turns into something rather joyful. In the old days I was often the one there at night anyway, trying to sort out takes that Freddie was all over. It feels comforting to be back in that situation. It’s almost like Freddie’s still around.”
“Well in a sense he’s always active, no matter what we’re doing,” May believes, “because I don’t think we can ever go out there without Freddie being a part of it. We’ve been on tour in the States with Adam Lambert, and Freddie’s already there because of the writing, and the original performances that we model the show on. But he’s there also in a much more tangible way, because we use video footage. It’s nice to feel he’s part of it, without being swamped by nostalgia. I think we tread that line quite tastefully and carefully.”
“There’s never going to be another, and I’m not replacing him,” Adam Lambert explains. “That’s not what I’m doing. I’m trying to keep the memory alive, and remind people how amazing he was, without imitating him. I’m trying to share with the audience how much he inspired me.”
Lambert’s youthful energy, vaulting vocal range and American stardom have revitalised the band in the US over the last year. Queen’s classic songs had already gained new audiences as they found their way into TV shows and films, from Bohemian Rhapsody in Wayne’s World to Somebody To Love in Glee.
“It’s massive there now,” May agrees. “What’s changed is, Adam is the first person we’ve encountered who can do all the Queen catalogue without blinking. He has that range, and that affinity for things on the edge of camp that Freddie had. You can see people at concerts looking a little reserved at the beginning: ‘Why are we looking at this guy from American Idol singing Queen songs?’ After about three songs, they go: ‘We get it!’ They laugh, they cry, and it’s a Queen show as much as it ever was. I don’t think Freddie would mind me saying that, or that I’m being disloyal to Freddie. Adam’s got that instrument, and goes for it.”
To be continued…
Queen + Adam Lambert begin their UK tour on January 13