Friday, 3 October 2014

September 1979

New balls, please

Photo copyright Neil Matthews

Queen are among that elite number of bands universally despised by the rock press. And the feeling is, make no mistake, mutual. When you’ve been on the receiving end of a stream of vitriol at the outset of your career and watched it being carefully cultivated over the next six years, you’re bound to retaliate.

Queen’s hatred manifests itself in their continued habit of ignoring the music press. There’s the occasional token chat, as pointless as it is innocuous, but in the main it amounts to a blanket, ‘No.’

One of the last interviews Freddie Mercury gave was the final nail in the Perspex coffin. Under a headline that boldly asked, ‘Is This Man A Prat?’ the king of the leotards was demolished by one of the old school Queen-haters and Freddie obviously came to the conclusion that interviews in future would be superfluous because he was popular enough already. It just wasn’t worth the hurt.

The curtain, velvet naturally, closed.

So I’m intrigued.

I drive down to Roger Taylor’s very big house in the country for a chat about Freddie Mercury’s balls. In fact, his home is so large that when I go to the toilet halfway through the interview, I get lost. As I search around for the door to the lounge from which I emerged seemingly hours before, I walk past open French windows in an endless hallway and glimpse two people playing tennis in one of the courts outside − Freddie Mercury and Brian May. Freddie waves and I wave back, and that’s the closest I ever get to the guy. They may have released more than their fair share of duffers, but Queen cream is creamier than anyone else’s. It’s an honour to get a royal wave from the greatest showman of them all.

But when Roger saw Freddie pirouette across the stage with the Royal Ballet in a skin-tight leotard and looking for all the world like the Fonteyn of youth, he had to admit Freddie had a lot of balls.

‘I was more nervous than he was,’ says Roger, who’s not the biggest ballet fan in the world. ‘I mean, I wouldn’t do it. That’s just not me. But I’d like to see anyone else have the courage to do that − and carry it off as well as he did. He had a lot of bottle to go on that stage. He loves all that stuff.’

And as Freddie delighted the dickie-bow dahlings with his well-developed pas de deux and distributed his obvious terpsichorean talents liberally around the theatre, young Roger lent a hypercritical ear to the music − orchestral versions of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’.

He wasn’t impressed. ‘It was awful. Badly played, under-rehearsed, they couldn’t even keep time. These guys seem to be ruled by opinions, not by music. A lot of people are conned by these classical musicians who bandy the word "culture" about so frequently. They hide behind it. Rock ’n’ roll isn’t culture − it’s vulgar, thank goodness.’

Still, you could hardly accuse Freddie of being ‘vulgar’, more Olga as in Korbut, such is his gymnastic dexterity when he leads Queen across the quiescent wastes of pomp (as in -adour) rock.

‘Freddie is only being himself. He doesn’t care − and it’s the only way to be. Some people think that’s great − others simply hate it.’

Roger, a little wary, a little weary, sits stiffly in an armchair. He seems to be the only member of Queen left who is prepared, albeit rarely, to open his mouth in the presence of a hack. ‘We all sat around a table to discuss the press situation and we agreed I should be the one to represent the band. Freddie is very uncompromising and refuses to have much to do with journalists.’

Roger, too, has a very low opinion of the music press. ‘Most of it is rubbish,’ he says. ‘There was something I liked recently, a piece on Malcolm McLaren.’ (Hope it was mine.) ‘I think I’m the only member of Queen to actually read the music papers.’

Why does he think the band are slagged?

‘Queen have always come across as being a rather confident band and I think the press may have mistaken confidence for arrogance. Hence they became very wary of our motives, which in turn has bred a dislike for our music.’

At the risk of being sent to Coventry by my colleagues, I’d like, if I may, to come clean. I love Queen. My love affair began with a simple, pre-packed but indispensable line – ‘Dynamite with a laser beam’ -- and has continued mainly uninterrupted right through to Live Killers.


Freddie Mercury’s lascivious lisp – the most attractive intonation known to man; Brian May’s reel-’em-off rococo riffs that would, in his capable hands, transform the music for Corrie into a masterwork; John Deacon’s stoic stance; Roger Taylor’s intense power, so unexpected from one so slight; the band’s ability to go over the top without falling into the trap of caricature; a desire to give the punters what they want; their cast-iron confidence; those nine glorious winter weeks of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which kept the cold away from my door.

The monkey on Queen’s back, as corpulent and cantankerous as ever, has been put there by those who firmly believe they can never emulate past achievements.

‘That all began after "Bohemian Rhapsody",’ says Roger. ‘When it stayed at number one all those weeks, we were told that we would never be able to make another single to rival it both artistically and from the point of view of sales.’

Yet ‘We Are The Champions’ sold a great many more. Why did they decide to dispense with the services of a manager?

‘Because we were fed up with giving other people money. I mean, everything seems so great when you get into the charts for the first time. You’re living on cloud nine and nothing else matters. But in truth that hit means absolutely nothing. Oh, you think you’re really living . . . for a while. Somebody gets you a flat in Chelsea and it’s all free. But one day the rent stops being paid for you and you realise you’re skint.’

My attention is suddenly diverted.


Wimbledon, the Persil white opiate for the suburban strawberry munchers, wrings out its perspiring petticoats on the huge back-projection TV in the next room. Roger’s girlfriend, an extremely attractive French girl called Dominique, is engrossed. The couple have lived together for two years. Crippled old marriage questions permeate the air.

‘I don’t believe in marriage,’ says Roger. ‘It’s simply a contract and the fewer contracts I enter into the better.’

What’s it like having a bank account overflowing with money at the age of twenty-nine?

‘I’ve completely lost touch with how much things cost. When you find yourself living in hotels for so long you never really deal in money as such. Everything is available whenever you want it − but you never see the cash actually being handed over. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be penniless, which Queen were for years.’

Roger is a decent chap who knows how to schmooze. In fact, most of these guys are pretty decent chaps, whether they’re Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer, Lemmy or Johnny Rotten, Debbie Harry or Paul Weller. There’s a kind of streak of decency that links them all. They are artists, masters of their crafts, confident in their ability, devout in their belief. They know what they want and they know how to get it. They don’t want to destroy, they want to create. They are your friends. They help you glide through life.

A music journalist kinda destroys more than he creates because it’s a lot fucking easier to write. It’s one of life’s tragedies.

(Roger has released four solo albums – two since Freddie Mercury’s death in 1991. He also released three albums with his band the Cross between 1987 and 1993. He still played under the Queen name with guitarist Brian May and ex-Free singer Paul Rodgers, and they released the album Cosmos Rocks in 2008. Since 2011, May and Taylor have collaborated with vocalist Adam Lambert under the name of Queen + Adam Lambert. Later this year, Queen will release a new album, Queen Forever, featuring vocals from the late Freddie Mercury. The band had 18 No. 1 albums, 18 No. 1 singles, and 10 No. 1 DVDs. Estimates of their record sales generally range from 150 million to 300 million records, making them one of the world's best-selling music artists. They received the Outstanding Contribution to British Music Award from the British Phonographic Industry in 1990, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Roger has been married twice and has five children.)  

Next: Ian Dury

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain

© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives



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