Interviews: Queen: BBC Radio 1 '95
Welcome to this Sunday evening special presented by Kevin Greening on a band who can only be described as phenomenal - Queen
[snippets from A Kind Of Magic, Seven Seas Of Rhye, Invisible Man, Bohemian Rhapsody and Radio Ga Ga]
Freddie: We've all had ego problems, like any other group, but we've never actually let it go that far where we actually said OK let's forget it, because I think we've all, the four of us have actually said that this chemistry that's worked has really worked for us, so why kill the goose that laid the golden egg, and, er, the survival instinct that I have in me and I think the whole group has, through any thing we will just carry on, you know, until one of us drops dead or something, we'll just replace. I mean if I suddenly left, they have this sort of mechanism, you know, and they'd just replace me. Not easy to replace me, huh?!
One of the most successful British rock bands ever lost its lead singer in November 1991. With 21 years and 19 albums behind them, Queen had had a phenomenal reign. But there were still some surprises to come. Brian May, Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor and John Deacon were intensely competitive individuals. Perhaps that was the most important part of their chemistry as a band. That, the ir talent, and of course a little bit of luck. Brian May.
Brian: There aren't very many sort of real groups born every day, that's definitely true, and obviously there's a fantastic amount of luck involved. By some strange process we came together, and it was a very efficient little machine, you know, four people who certainly, viewed from the outside, would be seen as a very efficient machine. They're all kicking the shit out of each other inside the ma chine [laughs] but from the outside there's no doubt that everything was there. We had the skills to cover every area, and you couldn't put that together from the outside, make it happen. There has to be a bit of luck.
Queen fought from the word go, the moment they met. It was all argued and highly confrontational, particularly in the studio
Freddie: A Queen album is made up of that anyway. You have to fight. I think that's the best way. I mean, it's like ... I think with me, if it was made too easy, I think I would come up with ...lesser material, if you know what I mean. I like to fight, and I think I make everyone else fight as well. I think because we all fight, it makes it much more interesting and I think then you get the "creme de la creme" , you know, it's the cream of the crop, so I mean, the fighting for the Queen songs has been one of the worthwhile factors, to be honest. So you get the best songs. Some of the ones that were discarded ended up on my solo album, but they're good!
Brian: Everything, almost every note was a compromise [laughs] I remember that famous quote of Freddie's, "we don't compromise", which is true, but he meant we don't compromise with anyone else, you know, which is true, so if someone else comes along, he gets kicked out of the door very quickly, or else can't stand the heat [laughs]. It was pretty hard for anyone to sit with us, you know, as a producer or whatever, and the ones that managed it managed it by having very strong personalities. They sat with 4 very precocious young men becoming old men and sort of made the best of it they could, I guess!
Queen bust up points were usually near the end of albums, when crucial decisions had to be made about tracks and the first single. Freddie was often a compromising force in the studio. Even so there were walk outs.
Brian: Definitely, yeah. I think we definitely all walked out at least once every album I think. Maybe that's a slight exaggeration but there was times when all of us thought that it was enough. But we generally came back the next day and negotiated.
It wouldn't be strictly true to say that Queen mellowed with age, but Freddie's illness and his suggestion that they share writing credits eventually had a softening effect on their relationships. With the luxury of time, and money, Queen created a lot of their biggest successes in the studio, sometimes improvising, sometimes stitching two or three ideas together to make one, with the help of their Montreux based associate producer, Dave Richards.
Dave Richards: Innuendo was an improvisation type song where they actually recorded it here in the big concert hall, it's just next door, and we set up like a live performance, and they just started playing basically, and sort of got into a nice rhythm and a groove, and some chords and then Freddie said, "Oh, I like that" and rushed downstairs into the concert hall and started singing along with it, and obviously then, once that initial idea was down on tape, then there was a lot of rearranging and putting extra things on, but the actual beginning of it was like a live thing. It just happened. It was wonderful.
Queen's major influences in production were the Beatles. Always experimental, looking to find new sounds, new ways of doing things. They also wanted to make every possible use of technology, and that included being creative with the stereo picture.
Dave Richards: Freddie was very into that. He loved having things swinging from left to right and all over the place. He felt it created an extra dimension of interest.
Roger: We tried to take advantage of every single technical aspect that we could , and especially the stereo feel. It was always a bit magic, stereo, and, I mean, all sorts of counterpart harmonies and guitars and things like that would always come left, right centre, bing, bang, bong. Tome it makes t more interesting
Brian: That was sort of one of our guiding principles, that a record is something that you live with for years and years and years, and it should have all these levels to be discovered. Definitely, yeah, we were very into that. I think we learned it from the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix possibly also, you know. I remember going round Freddie's house when we were young and Freddie putting on the Electric Ladyland album and we would be running around his little stereo finding out which bits came out of which speaker at what time, and finding all these wonderful little magic things that were going on, so we were very conscious of that, yeah. And you'll never find on a Queen record that once you've heard the first verse and the first chorus, you know what's gonna happen, because we could never leave it that way, we always had to introduce new elements as the song went on. It became a sort of obsessive habit I think really. But it does mean that you can listen to it a lot of times and you'll always find something which you didn't perhaps realise was there the first few times you played it. "Development" we called it.
Queen rarely got into "supergroup" situations, recording with contemporaries. In fact, they only did it once, and that was with David Bowie.
David Bowie: That was through Dave Richards, the engineer at the studio. I was in town, in Montreux, doing some other work there, and because I believe that Queen have something to do with the studio on a business level, I think it's their studio or something like that and they were recording there, and David knew that I was in town and phoned me up and asked me to come down, if I'd like to come down to see hat was happening, so I went down, and these things happen you know. Suddenly you're writing something together, and it was totally spontaneous, it certainly wasn't planned. It was, er, peculiar [laughs]
The most famous of Queen's hits, and the one that contains all of their hallmarks in abundance, is of course Bohemian Rhapsody. This epic of operatic bombast grew over a period of weeks from three themes that Freddie had been working on. Their associate producer at the time was Roy Thomas Baker.
Roy Thomas Baker: Freddie was sitting in his apartment and he said "I've got this idea for a song" and he sort of sat down and he sort of started playing the song and it was all going along good, you know, and he had some words missing and some bits of melody that he hadn't quite worked out, but it was just the basic framework of the song. The he was playing away and he stopped and he said "Now dears, this is where the opera section comes in" and I went oh, my god! So we said, "Oh OK, this is the opera section" and it was just gonna be at the time a little brief interlude of a little bit of you know a few little things like Galileos. So we said OK, fine , stick a few little Galileos and then we can get on to like the rock part of the song. It started off as a ballad and then there's the opera section and then it went on and on. As we got into the studio we started formatting the song which we had to record it in sections because it was actually designed in sections, so we recorded it in sections and everything was fine. We did the ballad section and then we did the rock section going back to the ballad section - if you hear the song you understand what I mean. And we left a blank piece of tape to do the opera section. When we started doing the opera section properly, erm, it just got longer and longer and we just kept adding blank tape to this thing and it got bigger and bigger and bigger. Every day we just sort of thought "Oh, this is it, we've done now" and Freddie would come in with another lot of lyrics and say "I've added a few more Galileos here dear" and so we would put on a few more Galileos and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger and in the end it became the epic we all know.
[opera section of Bo Rap]
Almost everything that Queen did musically and visually was born out of the name Queen. It was outrageous, theatrical, it was grand and pompous, and clearly open to a variety of interpretations
Roger: I think Freddie had to be the sort of leader in this in the beginning, and he had definite graphic ideas, you know, having been a graphic designer at art college etc and there's this black and white theme, etc, so we always were thinking in terms of lights, presentation, clothes, colours, or lack of colours, and it had to be big, you know, we liked to think big - big, big, big! - very unfashionable now, but .. big, big, big. And we liked to be perceived as big, big, big in sort of every way, you know, and we wanted to .. people came to see the show live, we liked to sort of make them gasp. That'd be their first reaction. There was a very conscious thing, it was very important to us. I suppose it was a mixture of our own personalities as well. And a reaction against what was happening at the time when we, sort of, grew up, or came in to the business.
Brian: We were doing the completely unfashionable thing by being consciously visual. I don't think any of us really had any contact with the theatrical tradition, I mean, people have said this, but we didn't really. It wasn't conscious in that sense. We just felt that if you're on a stage you really have a kind of captive audience for a certain length of time and you should be using everything available to you to get across, give them an experience they'll never forget. That was always kind of the aim, you know. I don't think it was just entertainment, we wanted to just knock people completely out of their sockets, you know.
[Heaven For Everyone]
Queen live were something else. Less technically perfect, but offering a show that dramatically enhanced their songs. Their policy of not using live performance as a profit centre, but to promote their records, meant that their audiences had a no expenses spared experience. For the most part with Queen, what you saw was what you got - four musicians. It was only in 1984 that they incorporated another musician, S***e E***y, into their touring party.[Andy's note: this isn't true - they had Fred Mandel in 1981 and Morgan Fisher in 1982] S***e was recruited in a very informal way by a Queen associate. He went to Munich for their first rehearsal, wound up partying for most of the first night, and missed the first day's rehearsal. It later transpired that everyone else had.
S***e: The next day, we all managed to get to it eventually, to the first rehearsal, and all the gear was set up. The stage was huge, and I thought "Oh well, here we go then" and we got to the first song , and what I'd forgotten was that they hadn't actually played together for two years. So they said, OK, let's try one of the new songs, I think it was Radio Ga Ga, and we started playing it, and course, I knew it, I'd been studying it for weeks. You know, 1,2,3,4 and we start and we get about a minute into the song and the whole thing collapses. And they all look at each other, you know, very sheepishly, and they say, "Anyone know how it goes?" and I say "well, actually, I know. I know how it goes" and they said "Ah". And so I started showing them the chords and everything and Fred looked at me and said "You don't know the words, do you?" and "Well, yeah I do actually" so then they all came round the piano and we spent the whole day just going through songs, and I thought, "I'm gonna be all right here, this'll be OK"!
[Radio Ga Ga]
One Queen convert was Trip Khalaf , who became their regular sound man on tour. Assigned to work with them by Claire Brothers in 1976, he laughed at the mere concept of a band called Queen, but then became absorbed in their performance.
Trip: Queen was the last great rock 'n roll tour. Queen was the best fun I've had in this business I think! It was always... they were always ready for wretched excess. The parties were always bigger, the women always had larger breasts, the entire thing was just on a stupendous level, that I could hardly keep up with most of the time, and we actually all wound up having to be dragged around by huge minders just to get us to the next show a lot of times!
Trip probably saw more Queen shows than anyone else in captivity! He observed the strange mesmeric way in which Freddie did his job on stage, winning and holding an audience, and then incorporating them into the show.
Trip: What a strange person Fred was. He was a lovely, lovely person, but he wasn't.... he wasn't "one of us" . He was something...I think it's been said a million times before, but Fred was just a star. If he hadn't've been a star, he wouldn't've been! He was just a fascinating creature. He was funny, he was [laughs], I mean on one hand, he was just completely ridiculous. But he knew he was completely ridiculous and he almost enjoyed being ridiculous.
Although they toured once playing to small concert audiences, Queen were especially suited to the large spectacle, to the arenas and stadiums.
Roger: I think Queen almost specialised in, and helped to invent, the art of playing stadiums. I didn't say we invented it, but I think we certainly helped in dealing with the scale of it, and I think in Freddie especially as a frontman, we had somebody who could actually communicate with the back row of a Wembley or whatever stadium.
[Crazy Little Thing.. live]
Queen material never released on record or CD there - live in Budapest. You're tuned to Radio 1 and A Kind Of Magic. Freddie Mercury was central to Queen. He came up with the name, persuaded the others to go with it, was initially one of the 2 songwriter in the band, was the lead singer, and always conspired to be at the centre of attention on stage. What motivated him? Trip Khalaf again.
Trip: What drives and motivates a pop star is a subject of it's own. I'm, you know, I've seen a million of 'em and they all have reasons for doing what they do. Fred's reason for doing what he did was that he couldn't have done anything else![laughs] I mean, he had no marketable skills! What else could he have been but some sort of huge bombastic rock star .. and the son of a bitch did a great job!
From almost the first moment that he arrived at art college, to study Graphic Art and Design, Freddie began to groom himself for a starring role. The name change from Bulsara to Mercury merely confirmed his ambition. He'd swiftly arrived at the conclusion that it was his only possible role.
Freddie: If I didn't do .. this, I don't have anything to do! I can't cook, erm, I'm not very good at being a housewife! I just.. this is in my blood, I mean, I just .. I seem to have been doing this for so long that it's so in my blood I just don't know what else to do. I'd be very vulnerable, and I wouldn't know what to do so I think I just have to keep doing it.
Roger: He did actually once ask me, "By the way dear, how do you boil an egg?" ... Of course, I didn't know! I said, "well, I think it's got something to do with water and heating it or something" ! But no, he wasn't sort of hands on on the day to day practicalities of life, but that was what made him so sort of special. He was.. I don't know what he would have done otherwise, but you know.. I don't know, he invented himself and then he lived it.
Brian: I think Freddie was always meant to be that, in a way. He certainly never saw himself as anything else. From the days when we first knew him he was completely focused on being what he waned to be..and he acted that way from the start, really. He was always very shy and very private, but there was a side of him which wanted to achieve that sort of huge, other persona and be that mega god or whatever that he kind of became. Quite astonishing to see it, in retrospect, 'cos we always used to laugh, you know [laughs] again a double standard. Part of you believes that the group is the most wonderful thing the world's ever seen, and part of you is just a kid thinking, ooh, let's have a go at this.
[A Kind Of Magic]
One of the most fascinating aspects of Freddie Mercury's life is the contrast between the public and the private man.
Roger: They couldn't be further apart. And in fact he was actually.. he was a strangely explosive mixture of shy, quiet, withdrawn, almost secretive person, terrifically fertile brain though, and then, you know, mixed with this explosive, charismatic..diva![laughs] And, you know, it was a quite unique mixture. I've never met anybody remotely like him, and I know I won't.
In later years Freddie was able to reach a point where he could stand back and view his on-stage persona and sometimes with amusement. He was aware of his stature, but less certain about his legacy.
Interviewer: How would you like to be remembered, in the music business? Freddie: Oh, I don't know. I haven't thought about that. Dead and gone. No, I haven't, I haven't thought about that. I don't really think about, my god, when I'm dead, are they going to remember me? I don't really think about it. It's up to them. When I'm dead, who cares? I don't!
Brian: He was very clever Freddie, you know, you can't underestimate Freddie, you know, he always knew when he could work and when he could play, and he did both to extremes. So, he did well to last the way he did!
[A Winter's Tale]
Of all Queen's 704 live performances, perhaps the most important was Live Aid. It enabled them to show that without all of their trappings, their own light, their own sound, the power of darkness, and only an 18 minute set, they were still able to conquer the world. But did Bob Geldof find it easy to get them to take part?
Bob Geldof: I traced them all the way down to some tiny little beach or some little small seaside resort they were staying at or Jim was staying at and I said, "Oh, for Christ's sake, you know, I mean, what's wrong with them?" And he said, "well, you know, he's very sensitive", and I said you know, like, I mean," tell the old faggot that it's going to be the biggest thing that ever happened and that it's gonna be like, you know, this huge, mega, thing" and so we got back and said OK, we're definitely doing it, and I thought "Great" and then when they did do Live Aid, they were absolutely I think the best band of the day. You know, whatever your personal tastes is irrelevant, when the day came , they played the best, they had the best sound, they used their 17 minutes or whatever to the best, I mean , they understood the idea exactly that it was a global jukebox as I described it. They just did one hit after another, just going one into.. and it was just unbelievable. I mean, I was actually upstairs in the appeals box in Wembley Stadium and I went outside and I heard this sound, you know, and I thought, "God, who's got the sound together?" and it was Queen you know and I just looked out over this crowd of people just going crazy, and they were amazing on the day, really amazing. And I think that they were delighted they did it, I think Freddie in particular was delighted he did it, it was the perfect stage for him - the whole world , you know, and there he could ponce about on stage, you know, doing We Are The Champions, you know.. Great!
[We Are The Champions.. live]
The fact that Queen stayed together for 21 years is testimony to theirability to rub along together, whatever the differences. As Roger Taylor said, "It was a marriage that outlasted some of our others."
Roger: I had very few disagreements with Freddie. He was the one that you would expect would be very difficult, you know, the mercurial one, and he wasn't, you know, he was a joy to work with. I don't know, I suppose we just felt this tremendous group identity, I suppose. I mean, the funny thing was, again in adversity, as before when we didn't sort of have any money, you know, backs were to the wall, I suppose we sort of bonded together again in the adversity of his illness, at the end, and that's why it was a wall of silence and we didn't tell anybody he was ill. Also, we felt very protective, about his privacy and about finishing what we had to do, so again I suppose that made us come in together and be a stronger unit, and .. which is great. I'm quite proud of that really, I think that's, you know... whatever we were, love us or hate us, we were a real group.
And the friction between them? Were their differences also their strength? Their clash of creative forces was a proven success, evidence of the continuing health of the group.
Brian: It's a healthy thing as regards creating something, I think, yes, and I mean this last album is a good example. It's one of the most ridiculously painful experiences creatively I've ever had, but I'm sure the quality's good partly because we did have those arguments. Whether it'shealthy for life or not is another matter. I don't think so. And having had 20 years, or whatever, of this kind of very volatile democracy, I don't feel that I need it in my life any more at this point. You know, I've done it for this album because I thought that it was very important to get those last pieces of Freddie out there. If it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't have wanted to do it, I would have valued my life more than [laughs] more than the process.
[I Want It All]
In the late eighties, the realisation that Freddie was unwell dawned on the band. The signs were there for them to see. It's human nature to deny such things, but eventually it was Freddie who raised the subject.
Brian: We talked about it, and he said ..well, first of all he said, "you probably realise what my problem is, you know, my illness", and by that time we kind of did, it was just kind of, it was unspoken, you know, and he said "Well, that's it, and I don't want it to make any difference." He said, erm,"I don't want anything to be any different whatsoever, I don't want it to be known, I don't wanna talk about it, I just want to get on and work, until I can't work anymore" and that was it. I don't think any of us will ever forget that day. We all went off and sort of got quietly sick somewhere I think.
Roger: Freddie knew his time was limited and he really wanted to work and to keep going. He felt that that was the best way to keep his spirits up and he wanted to leave as much as possible, and we certainly agreed, you know, great, anyway, so we backed him up right to the hilt, and so really I think Innuendo was really made very much on borrowed time, and actually I still believe it to be a tremendously underrated album. It's much better than a lot of the other albums we made I think. The Miracle, he wasn't that well, but he wasn't that ill, and that was more of sort of a bit of an effort, a bit of a long album to make, but Innuendo was, he really wasn't very well, and I think there are some extraordinary performances on that one. I find it a very strong album all the way through, it's quite emotional.
[Somebody To Love]
With the acceptance of his illness came a flurry of recording activity. He lost himself in work. Freddie's best friend, Mary Austin:
Mary: I think it was the one thing that gave him much happiness. It made him feel alive inside through the pain he was experiencing. I think that fed the light inside, instead of things becoming dull and life becoming painful, looking at each morning, there was something else. There was something else he was working for. Life wasn't just taking him to the grave. There was something else he could make happen through that, and he did.
Queen, as in the early years, became a busy, tightly knit unit again in the adversity of Freddie's illness.
Brian: Because the group situation has always been so intense, like a safe place in our lives, I mean, we have conflicts within the group, which we can talk about and that's a different matter, it's insulated from the real, kind of grown up worries of life. You're really in a separate world, and I think Freddie did feel safe in that environment. Things were just as they always had been and probably we all tried too hard, I don't know [laughs] I don't know if I should even talk about it now, but we did, we tried to just make things very normal, and it seemed to work.
[I Want To Break Free]
So there was The Miracle, Innuendo, and, in the can, the makings of the last album, a bookend album, all recorded to some extent or other in their Montreux studio. Queen's manager, Jim Beach:
Jim Beach: I think it was a place which was a place to get away, where you were still really in your own domain. Certainly in his latter years, he came here partly as a refuge, there's no question, because the paparazzi were camping round his house, and he couldn't really go out to a restaurant in London or anything without somebody trying to take a photograph of him. His private life had completely disappeared, and this gave him a haven, without any doubt.
Despite rapid loss of strength and energy, Freddie Mercury drove himself, as always, to deliver the best performance.
Brian: Fred, as normal, got to some point and said "No,no,no,no,no, this isn't good enough, I have to go higher here, I have to put more into this, have to get more power in," so he downs a couple of Vodkas [laughs] stands up and goes for it, and you can hear the middle eight of Mother Love just soars to incredible heights, and this is a man who can't really stand any more without incredible pain and is very weak, you know, has no flesh on his bones, you know, and you can hear the power, the will that he's still got.
Mother Love was the last song that Freddie recorded. It's ironic that his swan song should have been recorded in Montreux, the Swiss town that he'd once found boring, and in the recording studio that he'd once said should be under the lake rather than beside it.
Brian: A lot of it was really, strangely enough, quite joyous, you know. It sounds odd to say that, and people are gonna hate me for saying it , but I know Freddie had some very good times in those last periods, and he was able to put it to one side and get one. And I think there was maybe a part of him that thought the miracle would come. I think we all did. I suppose you do, don't you. You never give up hope and Freddie was certainly like that. I never saw him kind of lay down, put his head in his hands, and let it all get on top of him, never ever. He would always just get on with things. And we had some very funny times, we were very focused and very together as a group. And I think we all regarded... we all realised how precious those moments possibly were gonna be.
Despite the media attention - his house was under siege for the last 18 months - he refused to give any press information. Only on the day before his death in November 1991, did he allow any announcement to be made about his condition
Roger: I think the last thing that he wanted was to draw attention to any kind of weakness or frailty , which was all too obvious anyway, you know, "look at me" , he didn't want any kind of pity or anything like that, and he was incredibly brave about the whole thing. Having said that, he didn't want to be usurped by sort of going, popping off and he said "look, I might pop off at any moment", that's what he used to say, erm, by sort of popping off, and then having not announced it, so I think that it was absolutely right to do it at the time it was done.
[I Was Born To Love You]
Mary: It took him a long long time to accept to himself that he had AIDS. How could he tell the world when he couldn't accept it himself? Freddie was all about living. He lived, he wrote, he produced, he was all about living, he wasn't about death.
Queen, A Kind Of Magic, was written by Stuart Grundy and presented by Kevin Greening. It was produced for Radio 1 by the Unique Broadcasting Company