*** MOJO MAGAZINE August 99 ***

The second greatest band of all time
QUEEN
At last, the outrageous inside story



Their Britannic Majesties Request

Part Two

THE IRONY OF ALL THIS IS THAT QUEEN of all bands really paid their dues. Their story begins, not with Freddie Mercury, but with Brian May. Born on July 19, 1947, the son of a civil service engineer, from Feltham in Middlesex, he was turned on to playing the guitar by going to see The Tommy Steele Story. Inspired by The Shadows, his taste ran to pure instrumentalists like Les Paul and Django Reinhardt; he and his pals at Hampton Grammar School would get together in the bike sheds to trade riffs from the latest records. The blues, they thought, were a bit beneath them: "We were a bit scornful. We were into the technicalities of chord structures."

Then he saw Clapton. "He based himself totally around that Albert King, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf scene, and turned our whole world upside down. The Yardbirds were about more than just playing notes; this was raw sex and anger."

Along with an understanding of the music, came a dawning awareness of the power of performance. "I saw The Who many times, and there was an element of total anarchy and destructive power that was frightening. I remember seeing them in some seedy little Soho club with about 50 people there and they just destroyed the place."

"Hendrix had that frightening quality as well. I'd put a lot of work into playing guitar and was thinking I was pretty damn good. But Hendrix came along and destroyed everyone. I was deeply jealous, that was the first emotion I felt. A friend played the B-side of Hey Joe, Stone Free, and Hendrix was playing scat and singing along with it and I thought it had to be a trick that he'd cooked up in the studio. When I saw him at the Savile Theatre, supporting The Who, I couldn't believe it. I felt excited, overwhelmed and also completely deflated. He changed all of our lives in an instant."

By then, May was at Imperial College, studying for his physics degree, and torn between the career in science for which he was being educated and the music to which he was still magnetically drawn. "My father sacrificed his life so that I could get a good education. So I found myself propelled along a scientific line, because I happened to be good as physics. I did four A-levels in science, thought I never finished by PhD on Motions of Interplanetary Dust."

"All the time this other part of me was bursting to make music. My dad had been the same but had denied it to himself. He played piano in a dance band as a kid, but then the war came along. When he came back, he had a wife and a baby on the way - he had to get a 'proper job' and give up his musical aspirations. He thought I was wasting my education going off to play in this group called Queen. I also wanted to live with my girlfriend - an unforgivable crime. He hardly wanted to speak to me for a while."

"Then, much later, he saw us play Madison Square Garden and understood the force and the fulfilment there was for me. He said, 'I'm so envious because I shut that part of me out of my life. You've achieved more in your life than I ever will.' It was a terrible moment. I felt very sad and thought about it for a long time. So I went back and had another conversation with him, explaining that his life had enabled me to do what I was doing. It wasn't long before he died, so it was important to straighten that stuff out. I only realised now how much pain I caused my dad. It's the most painful thing to experience that kind of rejection from a child. I'm finding it with my children now. I digress..."

Well, yes and no. Because May's father played a crucial role in the Queen legend as the man who helped Brian make the guitar that has been his musical mainstay for more than 30 years. "It was made in our little house in Feltham, in a spare bedroom converted into a workshop. It's all still there - and I went back recently and found all the tools we made."

So they not only built the guitar, they built the tools that built the guitar? "Yes, we were very scholarly about it. We felt all the people who had been making guitars had just been lucky. For instance, I remember seeing a Fender Stratocaster and it was just a happy accident that the tremolo worked. I thought I could design something better by scientifically going back to first principles." With help from his father, he did. Two years of evenings and weekends produced a guitar made from a fireplace, bits of an old table and assorted bizarre components including a saddlebag-holder and knitting needle (for the tremolo arm) and the springs from motorcycle engine-valves.

By 1967, May was playing in a band called 1984 with a pal from Hampton Grammar called Tim Staffell. Their highpoint was supporting Jimi Hendrix at Imperial College, but May left the band to pursue his studies and his own music, keeping in touch with Staffell, who went to Ealing College of Art. The two of them wanted to keep making music together, but they needed a drummer, so in the autumn of '67 May put an advertisement on the noticeboard at Imperial college, saying that he was looking for a drummer into Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon. Enter Roger Meddows-Taylor.

He'd grown up in Cornwall, and gone to Truro School (a minor public school, also attended by future Liberal MP David Penhaligon). Taylor's school band, The Cousin Jacks, played a benefit gig for the Young Liberals, which actually lost money, although as Penhaligon later admitted, "That might be a reflection on the Young Liberals." Taylor had three musical heroes: John Lennon, Bon Dylan ... and Jimi Hendrix, whom he'd seen in Bristol, driving the 100-odd miles from Truro for the gig. In late 1967, Taylor was a dentistry student at the London Hospital, and was alerted to May's ad by his flatmate Les Brown, a student at Imperial. Roger met Brian at the college bar, talked music and then May wrote a letter setting out his musical ideas. "He seemed quite intelligent," Taylor later told Bob Harris.

Looking back, says May, "I remember being flabbergasted when Roger set his kit up at Imperial College. Just the sound of him tuning his drums was better than I had heard from anyone before. It was amazing. Roger has a flair and a polish to his drumming which I've never heard in anyone else. He's unequivocally a great rock drummer and any drummer you talk to will say so. Taylor Hawkins, from the Foo Fighters - Roger is absolutely the Bible to him, and Dave Grohl feels the same as well. "

"Roger and I hit it off like brothers, and we've been together the longest, which may be why we fight so much. The sound of my guitar and his drums worked from the beginning. It gelled and it had that hugeness."

May, Taylor and Staffell (the bassist/vocalist) formed a band called Smile. "It had the beginnings of the magnificence I was after," says May. "We made a record for Mercury of America, which was disastrous. They only pressed about 10 of them. It was thoroughly depressing, business-wise. Tim gave up in disgust and he was within his rights to leave us because he had an offer to join [ex-Bee Gee Colin Petersen's group] Humpy Bong, who'd had a hit and been on Top Of The Pops. Roger and I were left with no group. We wondered if we should give up. But then young Freddie Bulsara arrived on the scene."

Farroukh 'Freddie' Bulsara, alias Mecury, was born on September 5, 1946, the son of a court cashier from Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania). His family were Parsees, an ethnic group who had fled their home country of Persia in the 8th century, rather than abandon their Zoroastrian religion in favour of Islam. In 1955, the Bulsaras sent young Farroukh to St Peter's Public School in Panchangani, near Bombay, India, where he was educated until 1963. By then, his parents had been forced to flee Zanzibar settling in England - in Feltham, Middlesex, a few hundred yards from the Mays (unbeknownst to them).

Cut to 1969. Mercury was a friend of Tim Staffell's at Ealing College of Art and had become a fan of Smile. "Freddie was a very big advocate and appreciator of our talents," May recalls. "He had this thing that we were presenting ourselves all wrong. He was into the show as a show, which was a pretty unusual idea in those days because the fashion was that you had to wear jeans and they had to be split and you had to have your back to the audience, otherwise it was pop. Freddie had the idea that rock should be a show, that it should give you something that was overwhelming in every way."

"We came together through Hendrix," says Taylor. "When we spoke to Freddie, we discovered we had he same musical tastes. He was a complete Hendrix freak. He once saw him 14 nights in a row, in different pubs every time."

Mercury had always been musical, but Taylor recalls that he was by no means the finished article. "Freddie had a natural musicality, it was a real gift, but he had a very strong vibrato when we first met, which some people found rather distressing. But he applied himself and forged his own persona. He invented himself."

To May, Mercury's musical gift as his natural eccentricity. "Freddie wrote in strange keys. Most guitar bands play in A or E, and probably D and G, but beyond that there's not much. Most of our stuff, particularly Freddie's songs, was in oddball keys that his fingers naturally seemed to go to: E-flat, F, A-flat. They're the last things you want to b playing on a guitar, so as a guitarist you're forced to find new chords. Freddie's songs were so rich in chord-structures, you always found yourself making strange shapes with your fingers. Songs like Bicycle Race have a billion chords in them."

He had humour, too - an outrageous, camp sensibility that was one of Queen's most prominent and controversial, characteristics. But beneath the 'darlings' and the Moet and Chandons lurked a more thoughtful character. "Freddie's stuff was so heavily cloaked, lyrically," May recalls. "But you could find out, just from little insights, that a lot of his private thoughts were in there, although a lot of the more meaningful stuff was not very accessible. Lily of the Valley [Sheer Heart Attack] was utterly heartfelt. It's about looking at his girlfriend and realising that his body needed to be somewhere else. It's a great piece of art, but it's the last song that would ever be a hit."

There was one final gift. Keith Richards recently described the Stones' earliest ambitions to me by saying, "We just wanted to turn London into the South Side of Chicago." Well, Freddie wanted to turn it into the Metropolitan Opera House. Lots of late-'60s, early-'70s rockers talked about creating rock operas, but no one had as instinctive an operatic sensibility as Mercury. Perhaps that's what made Queen's songs so popular in Latin coumtries. It certainly accounts for the way that their most popular tracks are both as imposing and as hummable as Verdi's best marches or arias. Right from the earliest days, the tracks like In The Lap Of The Gods, Mercury was able to create epic, audience-swaying, singalong chants. Both Lap... and the verse of We Are The Champions are waltzes - perhaps he wanted to turn London into downtown Vienna, too.

The final addition to Queen was John Deacon, a 19-year-old science student, on bass. "We tried a lot of bass players out," May recalls "and we came to realise that a bass player wasn't just someone who filled in the low ends. Again it was lucky, because one of our girlfriends knew someone whose boyfriend was John. So, having been through a lot of hugely thunderous bass players, this quite shy guy turned up with immaculate Rickenbacker bass and immaculate amplifier, plugged in, and as soon as he started putting bass lines to what we were going we realised it was right."

As befits such a self-effacing individual, Deacon was less overwhelmed. He later observed he was "possibly the one person in the group who could look at it from the outside, because I came in as the fourth person in the band. I knew there was something but I wasn't convinced of it until possibly the Sheer Heart Attach album."

IN THE MEANTIME, THE BAND, NOW CALLED QUEEN, started playing live, mixing the London college circuit with dates in Taylor's old Cornish stamping grounds. On August 23, 1970, they appeared at the lecture theatre at Imperial College, promoted by a hand-written ad on the college noticeboard. A few months later, on February 20, 1971, they supported Yes at Kingston Poly: admission 50p.

It would be three years before they released their first album, and, as Taylor says, "It seemed like forever. That's why Freddie and I started our stall in Kensington Market. We were selling artwork from some of the students at Ealing. Then we sold Fred's thesis, which was all based on Hendrix. There were some beautiful things - there was Planetscape and he'd written the lyrics of Third Stone From The Sun - things like that are probably worth a lot of money now. Then we went to very old second-hand clothes. We'd get bags of Edwardian silk scarves from dodgy dealers, the place would be full of dust, and take them, iron them and flog them."

When Hendrix died, on September 8, 1970, the stall closed for the day as a mark of respect. "When we all started sharing a flat," May once recalled, "Fred would bring home these great bags of stuff and say, 'Look at this beautiful garment! It's going to fetch us a fortune'. And I'd say, Fred, that is a piece of rag." But it was the rags that financed the grandiose schemes. "We managed to get some demos done and went round everywhere," says Taylor. "A lot of people were saying they were interested, but nobody was actually signing anything. We were turned down by EMI. Then we signed to Trident Productions, a very happening studio at the time. The Beatles were in there, George Harrison. Bowie did Ziggy and Hunky Dory there, loads of stuff. In fact, Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar's Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I'd seen him about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-t??? They looked like spacemen."

In a recent internet interview, Bowie was asked if he had been influenced by Queen, to which he replied, "I doubt it, since Freddie asked me to produce his first album." "Certainly not!" Taylor exclaims. "But David was producing Lou at the time. We were taking the down-time. Literally, they'd be coming up the stairs and we'd be going down the stairs. David probably remembers it slightly differently, but I doubt he was being 100 per cent serious. Knowing David, very little he says is!"

The sessions took place in November 1971. Right from day one, Queen had very specific ideas about how they wanted to be recorded. "From the very beginning we were fighting to get reality into the sound. I remember having this huge argument with some guy when we first started to record, because he wanted to put the guitar amplifier into a sound-absorbing box, so that it wouldn't leak onto anything else, and stick a mic in front of it. He said, 'We can do anything with that, after the event. We can put echo on, make it sound any way you want.' I said, No you can't. It will sound like an amp in a dead box, and it's true!"

"We were in a situation where the studio people were our managers, so we had to record at Trident, which was known for its sound. It was a kind of trademark, and it was the exact opposite of what we wanted to be. The drums were all close-miked and covered in sticky-tape to make them dead. We wanted everything to sound like it was in a room, in your face. We had this incredible fight to get the drums out of the drum-booth and into the middle of the studio, and to put the mics all round the room."

"I remember Roy [Thomas Baker] saying that the only way to get a good performance was to play it 50 times over. I said, No: the only is to get the first performance and keep it. I can play it 50 more times, but you'll go back and you'll hear that the first one has something special. I'm not putting down Roy at all, because he brought a great perfectionism to it and a flawless technical approach. Between the two of us we were fighting the whole time to find a place where we had the perfection, but we also had the reality of performance and sound. And it didn't really happen 'til the second album."

Trident licensed Queen to EMI, but or 18 months, with the album in the can, nothing seemed to happen. May remembers "going on a number 9 bus up town every day with Freddie to pummel the company into doing something, because we felt that the album had gone cold. David Bowie had risen from Aylesbury to heaven. Groups like Nazareth were all over the radio and we couldn't get our foot in the door."

Continued in Part 3.....