(EXCLUSIVE QUEEN FAN CLUB INTERVIEW)
Boasting a history with Brian May, Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor that dates back for over 50 years, Tim Staffell’s integral role in the events that led to the creation of Queen is well documented.
But in an exclusive interview with Dave Fordham for the Official International Queen Fan Club that originally appeared in the Winter 2020 magazine, Tim endeavoured to fill in some gaps.
This interview is reproduced with permission and the full version is available in the Fan Club’s Members Only archive.
How would you describe your relationship with schoolmate Brian May during your days as teenagers at Hampton Grammarr School?
I’d describe it as an unremarkable relationship as we were two average high school students. But socially we were in tune… and we were emotionally compatible too.
Having formed 1984 together, were you already aware that Brian’s playing was a cut above the rest?
Yes, but our schoolmate Peter Hammerton actually seemed a more impressive player at the time. He was in a band called The Others, who had secured themselves a short-lived record deal. Many years later, Peter and Rob Tolchard of The Others were among those I approached to appear on my aMIGO album.
And what were your impressions of Brian’s singing ability in those early days?
He and I harmonised naturally. I’ve always really liked the timbre and phrasing of Brian’s singing voice.
Did you ever get to play the Red Special back then?
I might have tinkered with it and I seem to remember the fretboard was rather wide!
How would you describe the dynamic of the writing process between you and Brian for 1984’s Step on Me and how did it evolve when you worked together on Doin’ Alright for Smile?
It was over half a century ago and I’m afraid I haven’t retained that level of detail. I really have very little recollection… but save to say that we were very aware that original writing was imperative for anyone who was serious about playing.
After Brian’s infamous Imperial College advertisement for a drummer when you were forming Smile, what were your initial impressions upon meeting Roger?
Brian and I were both mightily impressed. Roger was, even then, a flamboyant drummer… and that requires competence to develop the confidence for flourishes!
When did you become aware of his vocal talents in addition to drumming ability?
Immediately! I’m not sure if it was actually stated in the advertisement, but Brian and I were definitely looking to develop 3-part harmonies.
At that time, were there already signs of Roger developing his song writing?
I think so; a band is a small peer group and seeing how Brian and I were already writing, it was inevitable that Roger would go in that direction as well. And I think perhaps he’d already shown interest in writing for his previous band, The Reactions.
How would you summarise the chemistry in Smile and relationships between the band members?
I don’t recall any major disagreements; maybe a few minor squabbles here and there, but nothing serious. Looking back, if Brian and Roger were anything like me, they were self-obsessed and a little directionless, as those in their late teens and early twenties would generally seem to be!
What was your relationship like with Freddie at Ealing Art College?
Not that remarkable really. Except that art students were in the middle of a creative and cultural revolution in the West that conferred on us all a slightly snobby social kudos… which Freddie and I probably revelled in!
Do you recall introducing Freddie to Brian and Roger, a meeting that would start a chain of events leading eventually to the formation of Queen?
Sorry, I just don’t recall it.
Did you ever see Freddie perform with Ibex/Wreckage or Sour Milk Sea?
Yes, I saw Wreckage in Liverpool once, but I don’t really remember much about it.
Did you see anything in Freddie in terms of voice, performance or song writing that was an indication of things to come?
If I’m honest, possibly not… except for the burgeoning confidence. But if I’d bothered to think about it at the time, I would have realised that it was precisely the confidence that was the determining factor in what was to come…
Was Freddie genuinely a fan of Smile and offering the band advice etc, as reported?
If you mean was he a fan in the way that a non-practitioner of an art form can be a fan of an artist, then no – he was a contemporary, and as such I think the kind of dialogue we enjoyed was always constructive and observational… we by him, and probably he by us too.
Was your departure from Smile an unexpected development for Brian and Roger and how did they take the news?
Do you know, I’m not sure. I would imagine that they felt a little insecure at the time, but as Freddie stepped up to the plate quite early, I guess they didn’t lose too much sleep over it!
Having played bass for Smile, could you ever imagine having been the bassist and backing vocalist in Queen alongside Freddie, Brian and Roger if things had progressed differently?
I don’t think so. Part of the reason I left Smile was because I was taking a different musical path… their direction was one I didn’t really want to follow.
How closely did you follow Queen’s progress in the early years?
I was only vaguely aware of what they were doing at the time as I went to America for an extended period and then was working in Italy for a couple of years.
I recall keeping in touch with them at long drawn-out intervals, but I was really busy until around 1978… and I guess they were too!
What was your opinion of the Queen version of Doing Alright (née Doin’ Alright)?
Although I came to think of it as much gentler than I originally thought the song’s dynamic required, it was a very appealing version. I always thought that Doing Alright was included on the first album because they didn’t have enough original material… but maybe I’m just being cynical!
And the unreleased Queen takes on Smile’s Polar Bear and Silver Salmon tracks?
Well, you really are putting me ‘on the spot’ now! To be brutally honest, I was never much of a fan of Smile’s version of Polar Bear and I thought Queen’s version made more sense stylistically. In terms of Silver Salmon, Queen’s version contained a lot of unexpected extemporisation that wasn’t really present in the song as I had originally intended it….
Showcasing Smile’s original recordings, what was your involvement with the release of the Gettin’ Smile album in Japan in 1982 and Ghost of a Smile in 1997?
I didn’t have any involvement in Gettin’ Smile and it was a complete surprise when I first saw the album! But I was consulted about Ghost of a Smile. It prompted me to redraw the logo and the title was mine. I still don’t know why they included the unrelated extra tracks, but it was worth letting that pass for the sake of getting the CD released. It would be nice if the whole thing could be completely digitally remastered and reissued now.