Queen: “It was all like a fantasy to see how far we could go”
Freddie Mercury would have turned 67 yesterday – so in tribute to the great singer, songwriter and frontman, here’s another look at our cover feature from Uncut’s March 2005 issue (Take 94). Brian May and others tell the full, debauched, incredible story of Queen, right up to their controversial team-up with Paul Rodgers. Words: Jon Wilde / Additional reporting: Nigel Williamson
Halloween, 1978. Queen are preparing to party on a scale far beyond what might be considered practical, plausible or remotely possible. “Excess all areas” is their credo. Indeed, singer Freddie Mercury lays fair claim to coining the phrase.
On the back of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and subsequent albums (A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races, News Of The World), Queen have become just about the biggest band on the planet. Not only are they insanely popular, but they’re absurdly wealthy and immoderate: “The Cecil B DeMille of rock,” as Mercury proclaimed.
Mercury has established himself as the ringmaster of Queen’s famed social gatherings. Every one of these is a no-expense-spared Freddie Mercury Production. And, he decides, the launch party for new album Jazz will be the most outrageous in history.
A budget of £200,000 has been decided upon, then conveniently forgotten after Mercury declares: “Fuck the cost, darlings, let us live a little.” A venue has been chosen – The Fairmont, an elegant hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans. A guest list of 500 has been drawn up, including rock and movie stars, friends and loyal journalists. The food and drink is ordered – oysters, lobsters, the world’s finest caviar, vats of Cristal. All that’s left to organise is the entertainment.
According to Bob Gibson, the LA-based publicist in charge of the evening’s festivities: “Freddie decided that he wanted to bring in a lot of street people to liven things up. I was instructed to find anyone vaguely offbeat who might bring a little, ahem, colour to proceedings.”
These include a man who specialises in biting the heads off live chickens and a woman who, for a price somewhere within knocking distance of $100,000, offers to decapitate herself with a chainsaw.
Not for nothing does the party become known as Saturday Night In Sodom. As they enter the hotel, guests are greeted by a troupe of hermaphrodite dwarves serving cocaine from trays strapped to their heads; the coke has been specially imported from Bolivia and quality-checked by Mercury.
Fortified by “lines of marching powder as long and as thick as your grandmother’s arm”, the guests are free to choose from a menu of exotic diversions. The hotel ballrooms, made up to resemble labyrinthine jungle swamps, are swarming with magicians, Zulu tribesmen, contortionists, fire-eaters, drag queens and transsexual strippers. Drinks are served by naked waiters and waitresses who politely request that any tips are placed not on trays but in bodily crevices. Naked dancers cavort in bamboo cages suspended from ballroom ceilings. Nude models of both sexes wrestle in huge baths of shimmering, uncooked liver, while 300lb Samoan women lounge on banquet tables, smoking cigarettes from various orifices. As a bonus, visitors to the hotel’s grand marble bathrooms are orally serviced by prostitutes of both sexes.
“Most hotels offer their guests room service,” quips a passing Mercury. “This one offers them lip service.”
Hedonism on such an industrial scale could not last and soon enough extracted its inevitable price. By 1987, Mercury was too ill to tour and when he died of complications from AIDS in November 1991, it seemed that Queen had expired with him. Four years later came Made In Heaven, a posthumous album containing the material Mercury was working on with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon at the time of his death. And yet, a decade and a half after the singer’s death, the mighty Queen are back, fronted by former Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, who was once alarmingly nominated by Tony Blair as his favourite rock vocalist.
Now, Queen were never cool. They were way too over-the-top for that. But their reformation comes at a time when their critical stock has never been higher, with bands such as The Darkness and Scissor Sisters owing them a debt and everyone from The Foo Fighters to The Killers singing their praises. Demand for tickets for their first tour in almost 20 years is bound to be enormous, but the recruitment of Rodgers is also certain to prove controversial. The recent reformation of The Doors under similar circumstances, with The Cult’s Ian Astbury filling the shoes of Jim Morrison, has divided fans down the middle.
But then, Queen never cared much for reputation. From their formation in 1970, Queen pushed the boundaries musically, visually and commercially. According to Roger Taylor: “It was Freddie who instilled in us the belief that we had to make people gasp every time.” Yet the gasps were initially muted, and Queen struggled to make an impact on an early-’70s British rock scene dominated on the one hand by Bowie’s androgynous alien and Bolan’s bopping, pouting, glitter pixie and, on the other, by the cosmic pretensions of Yes, ELP and the prog-rock contingent. Somewhere in between was the art-rock of Roxy Music and the witty pop pastiches of 10cc and Sparks, who Queen found themselves supporting at an early gig at the Marquee.
It was hard to see quite where Queen’s bombastic combination of camp theatricality and heavy rock fitted. Even by the standards of the times, they were outsiders. Brian May, the poodle-permed astronomer who’d joined the band during a PhD on Motions Of Interplanetary Dust, fashioned guitars out of old fireplaces and quaintly employed a sixpenny coin as a plectrum. Dentist-turned-drummer Roger Taylor had the look of a dissolute 1930s Hollywood lothario. Science student John Deacon on bass was anonymous to the point of invisibility.
Then there was Freddie Mercury. Born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 to Persian parents in Zanzibar, Mercury had arrived in the suburbs of Bohemian London in 1963 with the vague notion of pursuing a career in graphic design or fashion. Having enrolled at Ealing College (previous alumni: Pete Townshend and Ron Wood), he drifted into music, fronting a series of uncelebrated bands including Wreckage and Ibex.
He also developed a flair for sartorial bravura. Friends of the time recall him walking along London’s Portobello Road dressed as a pirate, or decked out in leather and feather boas. His flamboyance was matched by an ambition that one associate described as “full of volcanic, pent-up urgency”. Long before Queen fell into place, Mercury’s self-belief bordered on the fanatical.
“I’m not going to be a star,” he’d announce to anyone who’d care to listen. “I’m going to be a legend.”
Crucial to the evolution of that legend and Queen’s unique sound – built around a studio confection of monumental slabs of multi-tracked guitars and huge, operatic choruses of layered vocals – was producer Roy Thomas Baker. He’d cut his teeth working with hard-rock acts such as Nazareth and Hawkwind and, despite Queen’s propensity for sonic operatics, was determined the band shouldn’t use synthesisers, relying instead on May’s guitar to provide whatever special effects were required.
It would take Queen three whole years to complete their 1973 debut album, most of which time was spent experimenting in London’s Trident studios, the rest touring the provinces. Press reaction to the early shows was mixed, partly because Queen resisted neat categorisation. Due to Mercury’s stage garb (flared satin pants, tight leotards, diamanté codpieces, ballet pumps, mascara, nail lacquer) they found themselves lumped in with the glam movement. May’s baroque signature riffs earned comparison with Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. The portentous subject matter of their early songs (“My Fairy King”, “Seven Seas Of Rhye”, “Ogre Battle”) saw them likened to prog rockers. In one of their earliest critiques, a Melody Maker writer decided: “Queen are either the future of rock’n’roll or a bunch of raving pooftahs trying to jump on the Bowie bandwagon while doing a poor piss-take of Black Sabbath.”
“We quite like to confuse people,” said Mercury in one of his first interviews. “We’re not really like anyone else. If anything, we have more in common with Liza Minnelli than Led Zeppelin. We’re more in the showbiz tradition than the rock’n’roll tradition.” The truth of this statement was soon proved when Zandra Rhodes was hired to design stage costumes for the band. But despite including live favourites such as “Liar” and “Keep Yourself Alive”, the debut album got little airplay and sales were poor. It took a slice of luck in early 1974 to turn the tide when a promo film of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”, due to be shown on Top Of The Pops, became unavailable at the last moment. Queen were swiftly recruited to fill the vacant slot, and their performance of “The Seven Seas Of Rhye” changed their profile overnight. The single made the UK Top 10 and helped to catapult the album Queen II to No 5.
Yet, as Mercury would later concede, it wasn’t until their third album, Sheer Heart Attack, released at the end of 1974, that Queen found their feet, providing international recognition and their debut UK Top Five single – “Killer Queen”.
“We’ve found our identity now,” he said. “And we have the feeling we can outdo anyone. We’ve always been striving to be the biggest and the best. Now we’re in touching distance of that.”
The following year they went widescreen. Encouraged by the advances made by 10cc on their own tripartite pop operetta “Une Nuit A Paris” (from the Manchester band’s groundbreaking May 1975 album The Original Soundtrack), “Bohemian Rhapsody”, released in November 1975, took the basic elements of Queen (camp grandeur, strutting self-assurance, multi-layered ostentation) and distended them into a near six-minute rock operetta that divided listeners more than any record before or since.
From this point on Queen would be impossible to ignore. Everything about them (the anthems, the videos, the stadium tours, the rock-star lifestyles) would be consummated on a scale devoted to pushing the needle into the red. Understatement was anathema. Overstatement was their métier.
After “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Queen so finely tuned their sense of self-mockery that they were almost immune to censure. Mercury, in particular, managed to hone his personal style so it embraced both absolute conviction and a heightened sense of his own absurdity. This enabled him to turn a negative criticism to his own advantage. If the band were accused of shallowness, he’d say: “Of course, dear. We’re wonderfully shallow. Our songs are like Bic razors. Designed for mass consumption and instantly disposable.” Faced with the charge that Queen were pompous and preposterous, he’d gleefully accept the epithets as compliments: “All true, darling. We’re the most preposterous band that’s ever lived.”
He was no less playful when deflecting questions about his sexuality. In 1975, he came close to being outed when a US journalist who turned up to interview him in Ohio was shown into his hotel room 30 minutes early to find him reclining on a pile of cushions, waited on by a group of scantily-clad, muscular young hunks. “These are my servants, dear,” he bluffed.
Even on the occasions when he did encourage the rumours surrounding his sexual orientation, it went largely unnoticed. As in 1976 when, asked point-blank whether he was straight, bisexual or gay, he replied, “I sleep with men, women, cats, you name it.”
The truth was that, by the mid-’70s, Mercury was as confused as anyone about his sexuality. Though he’d been experimenting with men since the age of 14, he’d been in a long-term relationship with boutique owner Mary Austin since the late ’60s. According to his long-standing personal assistant, Peter Freestone, the seemingly incomprehensible lyrics of “Bohemian Rhapsody” are a thinly disguised attempt to resolve his personal situation at the time: still living with Austin, he had a regular boyfriend in music publisher David Minns, and an escalating interest in casual gay pick-ups.
After the mammoth success of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the hits came thick and fast. The 1975 album A Night At The Opera stayed in the UK charts for more than a year. The following year’s A Day At The Races went over huge in Japan, and in Britain all four Queen albums had simultaneously taken up residency in the charts.
Love Queen or loathe them, A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races were masterpieces of their kind. Nobody before or since has done pomp and bombast with more exuberance and joie de vivre. This was indeed rock’n’roll as choreographed by Cecil B DeMille. The former was at the time the most expensive rock album ever made. Recorded and mixed in six different studios, it stretched the technology of the time to its limits. “Bohemian Rhapsody” itself took three weeks to record, and there were more vocal overdubs than it was possible to fit on the tape at certain points. A Day At The Races was the first album to be produced by the band. But the absence of Roy Thomas Baker is hardly discernible, so fully had Mercury and May in particular absorbed the technique Baker himself described as “kitchen sink over-production.”
With the double-A single “We Will Rock You”/“We Are The Champions” spending six months on the US chart and giving them their first Top Five hit, their 1977 album News Of The World made them superstars in the States.
“As soon as we made it,” Mercury said, “we knew there were no longer any limits on what we could do.”
By now, of course, punk had exploded all over the face of popular music. It made little difference to Queen’s popularity but it did appear to persuade them to tone down some of their more grandiose tendencies. News Of The World boasted shorter songs and a more straightforward rock direction. But the band’s main contribution to punk was unwittingly to facilitate the legendary Sex Pistols/Bill Grundy debacle. Queen had originally been scheduled to appear on the programme, but pulled out at the last minute. Left with a slot to fill at short notice, EMI nominated Queen’s newest labelmates to swear themselves into TV history.
Meanwhile, the band embraced success and excess. In 1979, to mark Mercury’s birthday, more than 100 friends were flown in on Concorde for a party in a New York hotel. “Don’t worry about the costs, dears,” he said. “The only thing you’ll have to pay for are the condoms.” Supplemented by regulars from the area’s gay clubs, along with an assortment of deviants, there ensued a five-day orgy. Highlights included a trio of auto-fellating transsexuals and a group of ladies who performed a variety of sexual acts with snakes.
Nothing compared to the rampant hedonism that was life on the road for Queen. “Led Zeppelin set the benchmark for rock’n’roll touring excess,” confides a former road manager. “But Queen took it up a number of notches. Their excess was organised like a military manoeuvre. The drugs were flown in to whatever city they were playing. If the coke didn’t arrive on time, the show would be delayed. The sex was always on a plate. Half the fun of touring with any band is sitting down at breakfast the morning after a show and hearing what the musicians had got up to the previous night. Roger Taylor had the reputation of being a complete rock slut. Every morning there’d be a story going round about him that would make you drop your knife and fork. Then someone would stroll in and spill the beans on what Freddie had got up to and that would make you fall off your chair. Around ’78/’79, when Queen became huge, Freddie’s appetites soared. He was non-stop sex and drugs. Before a show, after a show… even between songs. Before an encore, he’d nip backstage, have a few lines of coke, get a quick blow-job from some bloke he’d just met, then run back to the stage and finish the gig. The man had stamina.”
In autumn 1980 came “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (reputedly written by Mercury in his bath at the Berlin Hilton) and “Another One Bites The Dust” from the album The Game, providing Queen with their first US No 1s. Mercury settled in New York, purchasing a luxury apartment overlooking Central Park. The big disease with the little name had yet to cast its terrible shadow and NY’s gay community was enjoying a golden age of promiscuity. As Mercury put it: “New York is Sin City and here I am free to slut myself to the hilt. I get up in the morning, scratch my head and wonder who I’m going to fuck next.”
In his 1998 memoir Freddie Mercury, Freestone describes Mercury’s average day between 1980 and 1982. He’d rise around 4pm and rid his apartment of the previous night’s conquests – often as many as six. After breakfast, he’d hand a shopping list to Freestone, who would head off to the drug dealer. Around 8pm, a limo would pick up Mercury and his entourage and drop them at a club, where they’d join hundreds of others in a non-stop fuck-a-thon.
According to Elton John, Freddie partied harder than anyone he ever met. “We’d be up for nights,” he told Uncut in 2001, “sitting there at 11 in the morning, still flying high. Queen were supposed to be catching a plane and Freddie would be like, ‘Oh fuck, another line, dear?’ His appetites were unquenchable. He could out-party me, which is saying something.”
At the start of the ’80s, Queen looked invincible. Their popularity had not only survived the punk storm but grown exponentially.
When punk first hit, Paul Rodgers, the man who’s been chosen to front Queen in 2005, was singing with Bad Company, who’d enjoyed worldwide hits with “Can’t Get Enough” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love”.
“When the Pistols and The Clash came along, bands like Bad Company became dinosaurs overnight,” Rodgers tells Uncut. “Suddenly, nobody wanted to know us. Whereas Queen just got bigger and bigger. They seemed to ride over punk, regardless. Just as they rode over other musical fashions. They were just so well-defined. They were a law unto themselves. Nothing could touch them.”
“Another One Bites The Dust” confirmed their status as America’s favourite band, selling 4.5 million copies. In the UK, “Under Pressure” (featuring David Bowie) was their best-seller to date, and their 1981 Greatest Hits entered at No 1, staying in the charts for 312 weeks. They also cracked South America, their 1981 tour culminating in a gig at São Paulo’s Morumbi Stadium for 131,000 fans.
But with the new decade, tastes were changing, and there were signs of Queen losing momentum. Yes, they’d ridden out punk. But whether they could survive in the post-punk era of new romanticism, white funk and the new electronic pop being made by Sheffield bands like ABC and The Human League was another matter.
Their 1980 Flash Gordon soundtrack and 1982’s ill-conceived, dancefloor-oriented Hot Space were conspicuous flops. American sales dipped alarmingly once Mercury dropped his trademark ‘flash and glitter’ image and adopted a gay clone look of short-cropped hair, ‘flavour-savour’ moustache, PVC trousers and leather-and-chain cap. And, behind the scenes, Queen’s unrelenting regime was taking its toll. There was growing in-fighting, including a mass backstage brawl at a 1984 Italian festival, as the group’s vastly contrasting personalities began to clash under the phenomenal weight of their success. In contrast to Mercury’s flamboyance, Brian May fretted and fussed and suffered from long bouts of manic depression. Meanwhile, Roger Taylor seemed hell-bent on out-grossing Freddie in the rock slut stakes, while John Deacon played the stoical bass player to perfection, just as John Paul Jones did in Led Zeppelin. The psychological complexities of the relationship between the four of them would have required an army of analysts to resolve, and at times threatened to tear them apart.
Both Taylor and May embarked on solo projects, while Mercury occupied himself with a series of extra-curricular ventures, including a songwriting stint with Michael Jackson (abruptly terminated when Jackson wandered into the studio lounge to find Mercury snorting coke through a $100 bill).
As May explains, it was make-or-break time for Queen. “The excess leaked out from the music into life and became a need,” he says. “As a band, we were always trying to get to a place that had never been reached before and excess is a part of that. It was all like a fantasy to see how far we could go. And that started to take its toll. We were all out of control. We’d gone to a place that was difficult to recover from.”
Recover they did, storming back in 1984 with “Radio Gaga” and “I Want To Break Free”. Yet it was hard to shake the suspicion that Queen had reached the summit of their potential.
Then came their thoughtless eight-show visit to Sun City in South Africa in the autumn of ’84. Apartheid was at the height of its obnoxious design, and Sun City was the regime’s most notorious whites-only entertainment complex in the so-called ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana. The British Musicians’ Union had imposed a boycott on South Africa as far back as 1961. The Beatles and the Stones had refused to play there, and most bands with any social conscience or even with a less altruistic concern for their own reputation had likewise declined to play to South Africa’s racially segregated audiences. Queen waded straight in, earning a place on the UN’s cultural blacklist as a result, as well as the opprobrium of rock’s right-on community, which had never liked their brashness anyway.
The backlash eventually forced them to promise never to go back, and May and Taylor’s support today for Nelson Mandela’s anti-Aids charity 46664 (named after his Robben Island prison number) can be seen as part of an ongoing determination to make amends. That they managed to ride the Sun City storm was probably down to a single, fateful phone call from Bob Geldof.
It was David Bowie who, in 1976, posited the view that “Adolf Hitler was the first rock star”. It’s tempting to dismiss this as the facile ravings of a coked-up rock star. But Bowie was touching on an inescapable truth. Live rock’n’roll has always had something of the totalitarian about it. Queen exemplified this better than any other group of their era. Critics hated them for it: after the Sun City debacle, the NME castigated the band’s “I Want To Break Free” and “Radio Gaga” videos for their “vile, pseudo-fascist imagery” and accused Queen of evoking the atmosphere of a Nuremberg rally. But just when it seemed they’d used themselves up, Live Aid offered Queen a chance to test just how far they could extend themselves in front of a TV audience of nearly two billion. Their response to charges of stadium bombast and epic folly was to up the ante as they stormed their way through a bravura set that included “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Radio Gaga”, “Hammer To Fall”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions”.
As Geldof tells it: “Live Aid gave Freddie Mercury the chance of poncing about in front of the world. They were absolutely the best band on that day. It was the perfect stage for them and they seemed to instinctively know that. It was as if they were the only act who grasped the fact that this was a global jukebox and they had to be the biggest and the loudest if people were going to sit up and take notice.”
The whole of Queen’s career had been leading up to their show-stealing 20-minute set on July 13, 1985 – and everything led away from it. Having pummelled the planet into submission by the supercharged verve of their performance that day, maybe there was nothing left to prove. Post-1985, there would be huge Queen tours, including the following year’s Kind Of Magic extravaganza, which Roger Taylor described as “the sort of thing that makes Ben Hur look like The Muppets”, and which saw Mercury take the stage in ermine-lined cloak and jewelled crown. There would also be global hits like “I Want It All” and “Innuendo”. Even so, everything Queen did after Live Aid couldn’t help but look and sound like an anti-climax.
Meanwhile, that terrible shadow was closing in. By 1987, the AIDS virus had been common knowledge for at least four years, though Mercury had steadfastly refused to compromise his hedonistic lifestyle. It was an attitude he would be forced to revise in early ’87 when two of his close friends died of AIDS. Then, around Easter of that year, he tested positive himself, at first choosing to share the dreadful news only with his boyfriend, Jim Hutton.
Mercury’s final years were a sombre, muted contrast to the tumult that had defined his previous decade. As his illness worsened, he was reluctant to leave the Kensington home he shared with Hutton, venturing out only for work. Despite fierce media speculation, an official announcement of his condition was delayed until the night before his death on November 22, 1991.
“Freddie didn’t want to be looked at as an object of pity and curiosity,” explains Roger Taylor, “and he didn’t want circling vultures over his head. We thought we’d announce that he had AIDS late in the day, when it was too late to really bother him.”
Mercury was never less than brutally honest whenever he was asked about the prospects of Queen’s music standing the test of time: “I don’t give a fuck, dear. I won’t be around to worry about it.”
If anything, in the decade following his death, Queen were even more omnipresent. Throughout the ’90s, their music was repackaged with such regularity there was rarely a time when they were absent from the charts. More recently, the We Will Rock You musical, written by Ben Elton, co-produced by Robert De Niro, has been a runaway success across three continents.
In the years since Mercury’s death, rumours of Queen reforming have been persistent. As Elton John once said: “For May, Taylor and Deacon it must be like keeping a fabulous Ferrari in the garage and not being able to drive.” In 2002, May appeared to have finally put the matter to rest when he remarked, “How can you replace the irreplaceable?” And so, news of Queen’s reformation this year has been greeted with stunned disbelief. If ever a band was defined by their singer, it’s Queen. But Paul Rodgers is unrepentant. “In case you’re wondering, it ain’t the money,” he says. “The original guys from Queen certainly don’t need the money. And neither do I. We’re doing this because there is a creative spark there. It’s about the music. It’s always about the music.”
What would Queen’s new singer say to Queen’s old singer if he had the chance?
“I’d say, ‘I hope we rock you, Freddie.’ If he’s up there looking down on us, I hope he’s smiling.”
“IT’S NOBODY’S BUSINESS BUT OURS”
Brian May talks Uncut through the comeback of the year
UNCUT: How would you describe the reaction to the news that Queen are going to be touring again?
MAY: I think most people have been stunned by the news. When I stop to think about it, I’m stunned. It is strange to me. As the tour approaches, it feels like my whole body and soul have been tipped upside down. Nineteen eighty-six was the last time we went out under the banner of Queen. I’ve toured on my own since then. But it’s now dawning on me that this huge ball is about to roll again. It’s slightly more exciting than scary, though.
Why Paul Rodgers?
For years, I couldn’t see the point of doing Queen again. I couldn’t visualise it. Then we performed some songs with Paul and it was like a door opened in my mind. It suddenly occurred to me that we could do something which will give people a little bit of what they want but will also take it to a new place. I’m starting to wonder why we didn’t think of it before.
Do you expect to be shot down in flames?
Of course. Almost my entire life has been lived amid a hail of bullets. As far as I’m concerned, it’s nobody’s business but ours. If you think you’re gonna hate it, don’t come.
When Queen first started, do you remember making a conscious decision that everything had to be big, big, big?
We knew we wanted to maximise what we were doing. We wanted to be the fulfilment of the kind of band we wanted to see on stage. We’d look at bands like The Who and The Beatles, see how exciting they were, and realise that we wanted to produce that level of excitement and create that kind of vision into beyond. That was there from the beginning, but we had time to design ourselves as something that suited us. Our aim was to be ready when the opportunity came along and to have something that was unique and special. We always had that arrogance about us.
Would you agree with Freddie that Queen had more in common with Liza Minnelli than Led Zep?
We were a mix of both those things. We embraced the value of bands like Free. They were a huge influence on us. But the way we presented ourselves was very different. I’m not sure it was necessarily a showbiz thing. But we did use every device possible to make an audience go “wow!” We used costumes, lights, every dramatic effect we could think of. We wanted to provide a complete entertainment. We wanted people to feel wrung out by the time a Queen show was finished. We felt the need to blind the audience and stun them to the point where they could take no more. At the same time it had to feel like a celebration.
Did “Bohemian Rhapsody” change everything?
Quite honestly, “Bo Rap” wasn’t that big a deal to us. It was a pivotal moment for us. But it was one of many, many pivotal moments. With each album came new territory, a new way of thinking. We needed every album to be ground-breaking for us. When we sat down to start work on an album, the first thing we’d do was pull everything apart. Then we’d put it all back together in a new way. “Bo Rap” was just one of the things that came out of that approach.
When you hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” has yet again been voted Best Single Of All Time, aren’t you tempted to say, “Actually, there’s loads of better songs than that”?
Quite honestly, I don’t think there are any better songs. I certainly can’t think of any. Even the Stones… I don’t think they did anything to match “Bo Rap”. Having said that, I’d agree that The Who were a better band than Queen.
Do you have any idea what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about?
I think I know what Freddie was trying to say in his lyrics. But everyone seems to have their own take on it. For me, that’s the beauty of it. It’s not that I’m trying to preserve the mystery. The mystery will preserve itself no matter what I say. It was Freddie’s baby. He never explained it, and I think he was right not to do so.
Freddie once said that all Queen songs are meaningless except for some of yours.
Well, Freddie did have a lovely way of dismissing everything. He’d say that Queen were completely disposable. But I’m not sure he meant it. As far as our songs go, I don’t think they were enigmatic or meaningless. Queen were never enigmatic. We were always totally upfront about everything. As for being meaningless, I’m not sure that songs need to have a meaning. They’re not like a piece of prose. The best songs speak directly to the emotions and I’m not sure it’s important what they’re supposed to mean.
Did people miss the humour in Queen?
It was missed by some people. Especially the press, who seemed hell-bent on having a dig at us. That still goes on. So I wasn’t the least bit surprised that, before we’d played a single note with Paul Rodgers, people were telling us we shouldn’t be doing it. I suppose Queen are the sort of band that people either love or hate. Nobody ever says, “Queen are OK.” Maybe that’s a good thing.
Why do you think Queen survived punk when so many other bands were put to the sword and never recovered?
I don’t think we were bothered by fashions and punk seemed like a fashion to me. One of our great strengths was that we thought of ourselves as international. Even if punk had made us unfashionable for six months in England, it wouldn’t have mattered because we had the rest of the world. So we never felt threatened by it. If anything, it had a small influence on us in that, after experimenting with very complex arrangements on A Night At The Opera and A Day At The Races, we went back to a rootsier thing with News Of The World.
It has to be said, Queen knew how to throw a party.
We did like a party, yes. As for what went on at those parties, our standard line is that a lot of excessive things might have gone on but we didn’t see them. The thing about Queen is that we knew when to work and when to play. Life on the road was pretty full-on. To be what we were, we had to live it to the full. We could never have been a weekend rock’n’roll band. It had to be a full-time thing. And, yes, I’d go along with the theory that we were organised in our excess.
Did things get out of control in the early ’80s?
We moved out to Munich to isolate ourselves from normal life so we could focus on the music, and we all ended up in a place that was rather unhealthy. A difficult period. We weren’t getting along together. We all had different agendas. It was a difficult time for me personally. Some dark moments. But it was only after Queen that things properly caved in for me. But I don’t want to get into that…
“Fat Bottomed Girls” and “We Will Rock You” are two of your compositions. What was the thinking behind them?
With “Fat Bottomed Girls”, I was trying to write about the feelings I had about being on the road. Good title, too, in my opinion. “We Will Rock You” came to me in the middle of the night. I just wanted to write a song that the audience could participate in. But the lyrics are about the ages of man and the ultimate futility of violence.
Do you ever hear one of Queen’s songs on the radio and think, “Bloody hell, there’s no escape!”?
Honestly, no. You never get fed up hearing one of your own songs on the radio. It’s always a thrill. Occasionally, it would be nice to step out of being me for a while. Not that there’s anyone else I’d rather be. But there are times when I’d rather not be Brian May the rock star. That would be very refreshing.
In the build-up to Live Aid, were you aware of how important the event was going to be for Queen?
Basically, I took Bob Geldof at his word. He said to me: “You’re the biggest band in the world. We need you on the bill because we need to sell this thing worldwide. It’s a global jukebox so just go out there and play the fuckin’ hits.” So all we did was go out there and give people what they wanted to hear. Compared to most of the other acts, we had the advantage because we were used to playing football stadiums all around the world.
Would you agree that, after Live Aid, the rest of Queen’s career was an anti-climax?
Not really. I mean, a year after Live Aid we filled Wembley Stadium on our own as part of the biggest tour of our lives. Then we finished off with a night at Knebworth that set the attendance record. We had our finales after Live Aid and, looking back, I’m just glad we quit when we were at the top.
Any regrets about dressing up as a penguin for the “I’m Going Slightly Mad” video, or as a housewife for “I Want To Break Free”?
Absolutely not. My attitude was always, “OK, let’s give it a go.” We weren’t afraid to go down any road. The idea for putting us in drag for “I Want To Break Free” came from Roger’s girlfriend. I thought it was a fantastic idea, even though it caused us inestimable damage in America. A lot of places around the world just couldn’t handle Queen in drag. The penguin costume, that was a different kind of fantasy. But it was all fun to me.
How difficult was it to make your final recordings when Freddie’s health was deteriorating?
For all of us, the studio was always a great escape from the worries and the cares of real life. Because you go in and you’re completely immersed in the music. Freddie was always a joy in the studio. Always full of ideas. That continued right to the end. For him, it was a great lifeline. So those last recordings weren’t trying. Quite the opposite.
Through the ’90s up to the present, how difficult was it to live in the shadow of Queen?
Queen was such an amazingly charged environment. When it all stopped, that became impossible for me. Looking back, I was grieving. For Freddie, mainly. But also for the end of the band and the end of my marriage. I’d be doing my solo things, but there was no getting away from Queen. I worked very hard at running away from it. Then I realised that running was futile. Why should I have to fight the very thing I worked so hard to build up all those years? Why can’t I be proud of it? So I stopped running. Then I got to this point where I could see the sense of going out on the road with Queen again.
This forthcoming tour – will it be any good?
It won’t be the same as it used to be, that’s for sure. It has to be different, and it’s the fact of being something different that’s part of the reason for me doing it. If I thought it was going to be like a Queen tribute band, I wouldn’t be bothering. I have a good feeling in my water that this is the right time for it to happen and that it’s meant to be. Will it be any good? I think it’s going to be bloody marvellous.
Interview: Jon Wilde