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Queen's John Deacon -- Bass by Appointment

from "International Musician and Recording World" Sep. 1979
David Lawrenson is granted an audience with Queen's bass player.

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John Deacon typifies the role of the bass player in much of Sixties and Seventies rock music. That mainly unsung army of musicians who usually stand in the shadows -- stage left, and provide the anchor for the pyrotechnics of a lead guitarist or vocalist.

Almost by tradition, bassists are quiet, deep-thinking men who rarely take the spotlight, are seldom interviewed, and yet without whom most of the bands they play for would grind to a halt. It's almost as if some bands need one calm but solid member to offset the unpredictability of the rest -- and this role invariably falls to the man with the four strings.

John Deacon fits the mould perfectly. I suspect that few people look beyond Freddie Mercury and Brian May when talking about Queen, but after all, they only make up half the band. The other 50 percent belongs to John and drummer Roger Taylor.

Still, John doesn't seem to mind, after all he's fulfilling the same position that has been occupied by the likes of Bill Wyman, John Entwistle, John Paul Jones and literally countless others, and it doesn't seem to have done them any harm.

John's introduction to the bass also followed a seemingly time-honoured tradition i.e. starting out on guitar, but finding that four strings are easier to play than six. "I began by playing guitar at school in Leicester. I was a rhythm guitarist in one group, but the bass player wasn't that good and I wasn't really getting on that well with guitar. So we ended up swopping round with me on bass and the singer doubling on rhythm.

"That first bass I had was an Eko, a very old thing with a thin neck, I had that for quite a while. I played in bands all through school and when I was 18 I came down to university in London and gave it up for a bit."

John didn't play in his first year at university, but by the second he was missing his involvement in music and decided to bring his gear down. By this time he was playing a Precision -- a guitar he had always wanted. It was while playing with a guitarist who was doing the same course as him at college, that he first became involved in Queen.

"I think this guy knew Roger and knew they were looking for a bass player, and at that time we'd decided that our group weren't doing much and so I went along for an audition. At that time the group had already been going for about six months and had three or four different bass players. I went along and basically learned a few of the songs they were doing at the time, which were quite a few of the songs we ended up doing on our first album."

So with the addition of a bass player, the Queen line up was complete and John had joined his first professional band. If nothing else in those early days, the band showed a particular commonsense approach to the music business which led to them avoiding many of the music industry traps into which starry-eyed youngsters continue to fall.

For a start, John was determined to finish his studies, which he did, and also started work on a Master of Science degree into Acoustic and Vibration technology, but by then the band were taking off and it became his full-time occupation. He explained that the decision to follow a music profession was the risk filled situation which faces many would-be musicians, and from the off, Queen were going to kill themselves on the gigging trail -- they approached it rather differently.

"For me it wasn't any big decision, they already had all the ideas and all the songs, I just came in and played bass. Freddie and Brian weren't really into doing all the club gigs where no one knows who you are. When you start out without a record nobody knows you, but if you have a record it's a lot easier.

"We did do some gigs in those early days, for friends and that, but that wasn't how we eventually did it. Brian knew one of the engineers at the De Lane Lea studios, and at that time they were building a big new complex, and wanted a group to basically go in and make a noise to check the sound insulation between the various studios.

"We used it to rehearse basically, and in return they gave use some free time in the studio. From that we did a demo of five tracks and they were the tapes that aroused the interest because they were professionally done. After the album came out we did a few gigs which ended up as a tour. We didn't have a lot of success with that first album but we sold a few thousand and we'd done a John Peel session which got some plays."

For almost his entire time with Queen, John has remained faithful to Precision basses, although at one stage he did try a Rickenbacker because as he says "I used to like Chris Squire". However, he had problems recording with it and eventually went back to his tried and trusted Fender. John is not a super technician despite his degree in electronics or an avid guitar collector, but tends to choose his instruments because he feels comfortable with them.

"I've got a couple of Precisions which I've had for a while now, they're not really old, probably late Sixties. They're quite nice, I haven't done anything with them at all. They were both sunburst but I stripped the paint off them so they're both natural now. I tend to use one of them all the time with the other as a back up.

"I've tried one or two other things, like when we were in America I bought a Music Man Stingray bass. It's not bad and I've used it in the studio, but I still prefer the Precision. It's not such a natural sound, I find it a little bit artificial and hasn't got such a nice feel. It's very hard to beat the Precision.

"I think the Precision with the double bar pickup they have is good. Also on the last American tour I picked up a very old Fender, one of the really early ones with the small straight pickup which is quite nice and I'm just getting used to it. I used it when we were doing some recording in Germany on one track, but I still ended up coming back to my other Precisions.

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"In the studio I usually DI, but then again, with the band my kind of sound is a bassier sound and not one of those attacking bass sounds. With a bit of EQ it's there you know. When you plug in, it's not a very nice sound, flat, it's a bit woolly in the bottom end and needs a bit more bass to tighten it up. The Precision, if it's recorded right, is great."

In his choice of strings too, John remains faithful to the make which he's used from the start. There are many makes available these days, particularly for six string guitarists, but in the bass guitar field the British companies seem to rule the roost. None more so than the James How company whose work in developing strings has earned them the blessing of numerous musicians.

John is currently using their Superwound strings and is more happy to stay with the same brand. "They are the wire wound ones with just the inner cable and it only starts being wound when it gets over the bridge -- it's meant to be a bit more twangy. I use those and they're quite a nice light gauge really. I suppose I ought to use a heavier gauge at times to get more of a solid sound but I find the light gauge easier to play. I've always used them and haven't really tried others because I'm happy with the sound I get. If I wasn't I'd perhaps search and try some others."

On the amplification front, he is at present in the middle of a bit of an experiment. He basically uses Acoustic amp tops, but recently introduced some Sunn equipment. He used to use the Acoustic bins with flex speaker but found the sound a bit woolly. Now he is trying some of their 2 by 15 bins, two of which are on his side and a third is on Brian May's side. He also has one of the Acoustic amps driving a set up of a couple of 4 by 12s just for the top end of the bass. A couple of graphics is the only luxury he will allow himself in the effects field.

For the past year, Queen have been working outside England, but a British tour has been scheduled for the end of this year. It will be interesting to test the reaction of the fans after such a lay off, particularly since New Wave is still making such an impact.

In many ways Queen were one of the bands that the punks tended to criticise. Has the advent of New Wave had any affect on the band, will their music still be valid when they go out on the road again?

John says that he listens to a lot of music, but this doesn't necessarily apply to the rest of the band. "It depends on the individuals. I don't think Brian and Freddie particularly listen to a lot of music all the time, so there is a difference in musical taste within the band.

"Brian probably goes for the more American stuff like Aerosmith and Kansas but I like a lot of English stuff. England still puts out the best music and is still providing the new bands who are doing it in the US -- there's a lot of talent here.

"For us, it's a bit harder not to come up with original ideas. We've been at it for quite a long while and also have never used any session players at all, or used strings etc., on our records. We can adapt a certain amount, but not that much. In one way it's a good thing in another it isn't.

"It really depends now on the quality of the songs we can come up with, whether they are good enough, whether they stand out enough. When we were in the Musicland studios in Munich we were just playing, not for recording an album or anything and it was quite refreshing -- I enjoyed it."

However, being in an established band does have its drawbacks, particularly for someone like John who wants to get into other things. He would particularly like to do some producing, but the opportunities seem limited.

"We're a very insular group really, we keep very much to ourselves, within our own circle, and have not had much contact with the rest of the music business. Because of this we don't get to meet many contacts. I wouldn't mind doing some production, but when you haven't done any, people don't know that your're intersted in doing it.

"Quite a few people from established bands have been producing newer acts, but if you do one and it goes downhill you're a bit of a marked man. I'd be quite wary before I did anything. The other problem we have, is that a lot of bands these days perhaps wouldn't like the name Queen associated with them at all -- which I quite understand. It's not easy."

Coinciding with his own interest in recording -- he has started getting together some equipment at home -- the band have also ventured into the studio market. They have just bought the Mountain studios in Montreux, Switzerland.

John explaned, "We were always thinking about getting one in England, but it's quite hard, the right thing never came up. Then when we were at the Mountain studios we found out they were interested in selling it, so we bought it. It is a really nice place, and is actually built into the casino complex which is right on Lake Geneva and has the mountains on the other side.

"The jazz festival is actually held in the casino and the studios is two rooms in that unit and the studio records the jazz festival. Everything gets recorded on 24 track and it's really good. Quite a few live albums are made there but the rest of the year it is just a normal studio."

Mention of live albums invariably leads on to Queen's last long player, Live Killers. "It was quite a mammoth effort really and we probably ended up overrecording for what we got out of it." admitted John. "If we'd have recorded the right one or two gigs we could have virtually got away with that. I'm not a big fan of live albums anyway."

With the music scene in such a diverse state at the moment, everything from New Wave, disco, heavy rock and the resurgence of Mods, it is significant that Queen can still produce top ten albums, despite their lengthy sojourn from these shores. What kind of person is the average Queen fan?

"I don't know really, we've always had this thing where we've tended to cross over a very large age group. Even on tours we used to get a good cross section between 20 and 30 year olds. I don't know what the average Queen fan is like -- we'll find out on the tour!"

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