(By Phil Sutcliffe from Q magazine, March 1991)
Mostly victorious, the reign of Queen has seen two decades of pomp and bombast, outsized gesture and theatrical flamboyance. But, as Phil Sutcliffe discovers, even royalty has its downside. "It's hard to see how we've stayed together all this time. No amount of fame or money can insulate you from the pain."
It has to be said, Queen do not operate within modest parameters. The parchment-style wallhanging to the right of the reception desk at their Notting Hill Gate office announces that Queen are The Band Of The Decade. It was presented by ITV "on behalf of the people of Britain". The people of Britain might not be wrong. This is a band that, in a 20-year career, has sold 80 million albums, trillions of singles and zillions of concert tickets to produce salaries (not including massive individual royalties) which got them into the Guinness Book Of Records as Great Britain's highest-paid executives with individual annual salaries not unadjacent to £700,000. And that last-known figure was for 1979.
Freddie Mercury certainly wasn't kidding when he said, "Darling, I'm simply dripping with money! It may be vulgar, but it's wonderful."
Yet one of the more charming facts about this band of unrepentant flash bastards, who have never thought it worth a hand's turn to merely endear themselves to anybody, is that their resident axe hero, Brian May, still plays the same guitar he did at the outset, a DIY job hewn from an old timber fireplace. He worked on it for two years with his dad at home in Feltham, Middlesex and it cost £8.
"Yeah, that old piece of junk: the myth is all true," he says, trying to prevent his Spud-U-Like baked potato with prawn dressing becoming entangled with the resplendent clavicle-length hair which, unlike his trim colleagues, he retains from Queen's earliest days. "I'm quite stunned that it lasted this long, but nothing else has ever quite come up to it, that warm sustaining sound. A combination of design and luck I suppose."
The tremolo arm is made out of a saddle-bag holder and a knitting needle. The body trim is plastic shelf-edging, the decoration on the neck sawn-up bits of mother-of-pearl buttons. They filled the woodworm-holes in with matchsticks. But the guitar of his dreams had been a Fender Stratcaster.
"It was a matter of being poor," says May, effectively Queen's sole representative on Earth since, at Freddie's insistence, they gave up touring four years ago and very rarely do interviews. "We were very scientific about it, lots of tests as we went along. My dad was wonderful like that, an electronics wizard. It's a good memory. It was really a great compromise for him to help me - he wanted me to concentrate on my studies..."
At 43, May finds the innocent past and the complicated present making powerful connections at the drop of a reminiscence. "I suppose my dad only came to terms with me being a rock musician when he saw us play Madison Square Garden. Until then it was, That's OK, but you'll have to get a proper job later.
"The funny thing is I think I still suffer from the same delusion myself. Sometimes I have problems in dealing with what I am. Right through to playing stadiums I'd think, Well, you're doing all right for now, but maybe something else will turn up. Then, when we gave up touring I suddenly realised, Oh, you've never really stopped to enjoy this and now it's ending. That was the beginning of a major crises for me. My dad died at the same time and my marriage broke up (in the full glare of the tabloids he left his wife and three children for then star of EastEnders, Anita Dobson). So for a while I didn't exist as a person. I'd look at myself in the mirror and think, Oh, he's all right, he's a rock star. But inside there was almost nothing there...I was...I can't describe how bad I was, it just all went.
"You get through in the end though. I know who I am again now. But no amount of fame or money can insulate you from that sort of pain. Still, I'm OK! I'm productive again. I took a major part on the new album. In fact, the other three have all had a lot to deal with in the last year and I was the one saying, OK, I'll hold the fort."
It was at London University in 1971 that Queen came together and it was Brian May, BSc Maths & Physics, PhD Infra-red Astronomy (never completed), who put the pieces together. He found Roger Taylor, BSc Biology, for his first band, Smile, with a union noticeboard wanted ad for a "Ginger Baker/Mitch Mitchell-type drummer". They soon fell apart, but not before one Freddie Bulsara, Diploma Art & Design from Ealing College Of Art, had become a fan of sorts. that is, he used to stand in the audience and shout comments about how he'd do it if he was the frontman.
First impressions of Freddie were as exotic as his background: Bulsara is a Persian name, but his parents were British, his father a diplomat, which is why he was born in Zanzibar and spent much of his childhood in Bombay.
"He always looked like a star and acted like a star even though he was penniless," says Brian. "He was captivated by Hendrix. When he and Roger had their clothes stall in Kensington Market they shut down for the day when Hendrix died (September 18, 1970). They were in on the beginnings of what became Glam Rock with that stall. Though some of it was incredibly tatty. When we all started sharing a flat, Fred would bring home these great bags of stuff, pull out some horrible strip of cloth and say, Look at this beautiful garment! This is going to fetch a fortune! And I'd say, Fred, that is a piece of rag."
Musically, though, they agreed that what they wanted was "this big, heavy emotional wave of sound with strong melodies and harmonies" together with some fairly startling "frocks", as Freddie put it, and a good deal of vigour on the posing front. When they'd resolved an "exploding bass player" situation with the arrival of John Deacon, BSc Electronics, Bulsara became Mercury, Smile became Queen - Freddie's idea, naturally - and they set about making their masterplan reality. This involved a lot of rehearsal, leaving out the flog-round-the-pub-circuit-in-the-back-of-a-Transit phase and landing the big deal with some sensational demos. It sort of worked, but a lot more slowly than intended.
A management deal with the company who owned Trident Studios seemed hopeful, but while Queen passed up other promising careers - the crunch for May came when he turned down an offer of a research post at Sir Bernard Lovell's Jodrell Bank observatory - their "heavy plus glamour" notions seemed to be drifting into obsolescence while they waited. "About '72 I saw Bowie at the Rainbow," says Brian. "There I was thinking, He's doing it, he's made his mark and we're still struggling to get a record out. It was incredibly frustrating."
Eventually, though, they were signed by EMI who, in July, 1973, released Queen's first single, Keep Yourself Alive (recorded two and a half years earlier), and their self-titled debut album. An autumn tour supporting Mott The Hoople, still hot with All The Way To Memphis, gave Freddie the chance to prove himself as an onstage seducer supreme and within a year they were established as leading contenders in "the major markets": Britain, USA and Japan.
"In Japan something clicked," says Brian. "When we went through customs into the airport lounge in Tokyo there were 3,000 little girls screaming at us. Suddenly we were The Beatles. We literally had to be carried over the heads of these kids. I was half-scared and half-amused. This wasn't a rock band thing, this was being a teen idol. But we had to admit it was fun."
As Freddie used to say, "Talent will out, my dears."
Out, in fact, was what they wanted from their management contract. "After three albums people thought we were driving around in Rolls-Royces already," says Brian. "Actually we were deeply in debt and our accountants explained that the management contract was set up so that most of the money would never get through to us. That's when we started to feel very resentful. the debts were a terrible pressure. We couldn't pay lighting companies, sound companies. It affected our private lives too. John had a baby by then and he was still living in a bedsit because Trident refused to give him a couple of thousand for a deposit on a house."
They decided to look for advice from the names they respected most in the business. A legendary array they were too, from the aggressively hard-nosed end of the range in Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin) and Don Arden (Electric Light Orchestra) to the more calculator-oriented John Reid (Elton John) and Harvey Lisberg (10cc). All expressed their sympathies and offered their own solutions to the group's penury but, with Elt taking a sabbatical, they plumped for Reid, who sent them to the studio with instructions to forget about it all while the lawyers performed the requisite contractual surgery.
"It worked brilliantly," says May. "We had time to write. I think we knew we had something special. We said, This can be our Sgt. Pepper. Or whatever."
Whatever, indeed. But A Night At The Operas was, at least, the all-time apotheosis of Queen. a Palladium variety show of four writer's distinctive styles - including May's all-guitar jazz band (Good Company), Mercury's music hall pastiche (Seaside Rendezvous) and Deacon's lush pop (You're My Best Friend) - made a gaudy setting for the unprecedented entertainment that was Bohemian Rhapsody. Like some huge old building of controversial merit, its story is now told in numbers: three weeks in the studio, 12 hours a day, including seven days assembling the operatic section's 180 voices; nobody thought Radio One would play a six-minute single but they did and, boosted by its make-an-epoch-for-£4,500 video, it was top of the British chart for nine weeks.
"We ran the tape through so many times it kept wearing out," says Brian. "Once we held the tape up to the light and we could see straight through it, the music had practically vanished. We transferred it in a hurry. Strange business - holding on to this elusive sound signal which gradually disappeared as we created it. Every time Fred decided to add a few more 'Galileos' we lost something too."
It took Queen to a new level internationally, establishing their peculiar identity with carefully constructed and unmistakable signature sounds.
"Def Leppard once asked me how we got our vocal sound, did we use hundreds of tracks all the time?" says May, a fish to muso waters. "It's more like six usually. Apart from Freddie's leads, it's from him, Roger and me singing lines in unison. Fred has this sharp crystal tone, Roger is husky and raw, and I have a sort of roundness. Put them together, double-track it, and it comes out big.
"Then with the guitar harmonies, a lot of people try them but what you have to do is make the parts speak and interact. Just play a couple of parallel lines and it sounds naff but make them cross and touch each other and move apart again and it sounds a million times better. Treat each line as a voice. You get tensions. That's what makes music."
For public consumption, at least, Mercury's attitude was always less intense. "My songs are like Bic razors," he'd say. "For fun, for modern consumption. You listen to it, like it, discard it, then on to the next. Disposable pop."
But when, in September, 1976, they played a free concert to 150,000 in Hyde Park, the first band to pull off this regal gesture since The Rolling Stones' requiem for Brian Jones, they had proved themselves not so much disposable as invulnerable.
The middle years of Queen's career are a chronicle of relentlessly hard work on the road and in the studio - in the old-fashioned trouper way they released 12 albums in their first nine years - secured and immured by success, yet somehow, it seemed, feeling sour about a lot of it.
They became obsessed with music press hostility towards them. After a few articles bearing headlines like Is This Man A Prat? Freddie came to restrict his media utterances to the camp one-liners which had always been a speciality.
"Even when the albums were selling a lot, the critics generally trashed them," says May, still bemused. "You thought, I wonder what the truth is? Are we any good or not? Where's the yardstick? You never know, so you can only believe in yourself."
Then, one year after Bohemian Rhapsody, punk erupted, denouncing overblown rock music and attendant lifestyles. Although Queen fell into a cheery, bantering relationship with temporary EMI labelmates The Sex Pistols when they happened to work in the adjacent studios (Freddie to Sid Vicious: "Ah hello, Mr Ferocious, dear!") the contrast between Johnny Rotten's God Save The Queen and their own show-closing bravura guitar version of the national anthem was hardly comfortable for them.
Amicably quitting John Reid for self-management, they largely withdrew to an inner sanctum of Queen "family", seeming to register their bilious humour in a series of extravagant, contempt-tinged gestures.
There was the notorious Fat-Bottomed Girls/Bicycle Race video in which scores of naked women were filmed riding bikes around Wimbledon stadium. Then to launch the accompanying album, Jazz, they staged a party in New Orleans for their British and American record companies and hired a cast of characters which included topless waitresses, hermaphrodite strippers, dwarfs and a woman who smoked cigarettes in an orifice which, at least, avoided the threat of lung cancer. Freddie make a grand entrance accompanied by a dozen blacked-up "minstrels". Perhaps it was satirical, but the subject in hand seemed to be usage and abusage rather than fun.
We Are The Champions became their theme tune. "The bigger the better - in everything!" said Freddie.
"We were quite excessive, but in a fairly harmless way," says May, for the defence as it were. "I don't think we ever did anyone a great disservice. I can understand some people saying We Are The Champions was bombastic. But it wasn't saying Queen are the champions, it was saying all of us are. It made the concert like a football match but with everyone on the same side.
"It's true, though, that we were in a protected environment, especially on tour, a little bubble. We'd feel like a small army, everyone interdependent, a great team spirit. We were always trying to take the next step - a million records this year, two million next; one night at Madison Square Garden this time, two next time. So you had this terrible...I say 'terrible' because it's like being at school, get better marks and get a pat on the head. It was artificial, a game, a very comforting game, or that's how I see it now. We didn't really judge ourselves by ticket and record sales, but you do start to wonder about the reality of it all."
And then the gang wasn't always in love with itself. "We did hate each other too for a while," Brian says mildly. "Recording Jazz (1978) and those albums we did in Munich, The Game (1980) and The Works (1984), we got very angry with each other. I felt the group a couple of times - just for the day, you know. I'm off and I'm not coming back! We've all done that. You end up quibbling over one note.
"And we always rowed about money. A lot of terrible injustices take place over songwriting. The major one is B-sides. Like, Bohemian Rhapsody sells a million and Roger gets the same writing royalties as Freddie because he did I'm In Love With My Car. There was contention about that for years.
As Freddie put it, "four cocks fighting - nice!"
While there's been some oscillation in Queen's fortunes in different "territories" over the years - blowing America since the early '80s being their most conspicuous faux pas - their massive core following in Britain has remained unshakable. But in October, 1984, they offered Queen-haters a whole new arsenal when they played eight concerts in the Las Vegas-style resort of Sun City. Bophuthatswana, one of South Africa's bogus "independent tribal homelands". for an undoubted truckload of krugerrands. They were immediately slapped on the United Nations blacklist for breaking the anti-apartheid cultural boycott and held in opprobrium by anyone with the faintest pretensions to political correctness.
But there were no apologies from the band, though they did offer a range of responses to the outcry, some of them hinting at desperation. They were an apolitical band and would play for their fans anywhere; there would be little profit from the trip because of the high costs involved; they were giving some of their South African royalties to a school for black deaf-blind children near Sun City; and Nelson Mandela's ANC had adopted their recent single I Want To Break Free as an anthem so they must be OK, mustn't they?
Six years on, Brian May stands by the Sun City venture unembarrassed and still wants to say his adamantly cred-free piece about it. "Of course, we are totally against apartheid," he says, "Our business manager, Jim Beach, went over to suss it out. We carefully considered all the pros and cons for a year before deciding we would be doing more to achieve the end of apartheid by going than by staying away. Sun City was the only place in South Africa then where a colour bar wasn't operating. The audiences were mixed, the hotel we stayed in was mixed. We were able to speak against apartheid in interviews and play with black musicians in Soweto.
"I'm sure a lot of people still feel we're fascist pigs because of it. Sorry, there's nothing I can do about that, We have totally clear consciences."
May's commitment was such that, way beyond the call of superstar duty, he went to a Musicians' Union branch meeting to defend Queen's position against a censure motion. "I made a speech and the general reaction was, at least, Thanks for coming, we understand why you did it now. But they fined us anyway because we'd broken the rules."
Genuine as they doubtless were - it took a pretty dedicated Queenophobe to imagine they favoured white supremacy - the surprisingly unsophisticated level of political awareness within the degree-bestrewn band bubble was exposed, alarmingly, in Brazil a couple of months after their Sun City sojourn. When Freddie donned his wig and false bosom for I Want To Break Free he suddenly found himself dodging a hail of cans and even stones. Prudently, he whipped off the offending impedimenta and the crowd settled down again. The band presumed he'd affronted Latin macho, until the locals explained that the song really had become a liberation anthem for them, a "sacred" message against dictatorship. The audience had assumed Queen meant it that way and they simply couldn't bear to see it defiled or mocked.
As they happily admit, Queen have a lot to thank Bob Geldof for. When he first asked them to do Live Aid they hesitated because past experience of chaotic and unproductive charity gigs had made them wary. But he personally tracked Jim Beach to his holiday hideaway and confronted him. "I said," reports Geldof on Magic Years, Queen's video autobiography, "'Tell the old faggot it's going to be the biggest thing that ever whatsit happened!'" Beach did as he was bid and they were persuaded.
Geldof plainly regards Queen as a rib-tickling rock'n'roll joke, yet his amiably piss-taking account of their performance at Live Aid gets the freedom of Magic Years because he understood that it was 20 minutes in which they came in from the cold contrast between fan adoration and non-fan disregard.
"They were absolutely the best band on the day whatever your personal preference," he says. "They played best, they had the best sound, they got the global jukebox idea exactly. And it was the perfect stage for Freddie. He could ponce about in front of the whole world."
Queen were pretty impressed themselves. In John Deacon's view, "Live Aid turned our whole world upside down." Commercially, it was a quite stupendous advertisement, stirring extraordinary back catalogue sales, which in turn led to their stadium tour in 1986 - two Wembleys and a Knebworth as well as a pioneering excursion to Budapest. But it also revived and revised the band's spirit. There was surely a new magnanimity about them as they cast aside quibbles to join the charity wave, contributing hugely to Save The Children and Greenpeace. With Steve Van Zandt's Artists Against Apartheid hammering the message on the radio every day, they even quietly agreed not to play Sun City again, pending big political changes in South Africa.
More important, perhaps, for Queen's future, they resolved the eternal, balls-aching question of songwriting royalties. Through the early '80s they had come to agree that B-side proceeds should be split equally, regardless of whose name appeared on them. For the A Kind Of Magic album they had even sunk to the sort of anti-artistic compromise which has scuppered many a collective career, an arithmetically even-handed two songs each with one composition credited to the band (the first ever). That arrangement had to go if Queen's natural processes of quality control were to survive.
So, after 15 years, Queen discovered generosity. From 1989's The Miracle album onwards, they decided to share all credits and royalties equally.
"I wish we'd done it earlier," says Brian. "It's the best decision we ever made. It does mean a sacrifice, letting your baby go, but once you actually do it you have a group working together on all fronts. Before, it might have been, Oh that's John's track, he can get on with it. Now our name is on everything and we all want to do our best on every track. You feel easier about admitting your own song might not be tight as the single too. It takes away a lot of grief. We'll come into the studio with about 20 songs between us and then it really is survival of the fittest as to which ones make the album."
"Well, it's nice of you to say you're glad we're reunited, but actually we never split up," says Brian May, who's broken off for a quick live interview on the telephone to Radio KLOS, Los Angeles. The reality of Queen's American debacle could hardly have been expressed to him less delicately. Where in 1980 the Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Another One Bites The Dust singles and The Game album were Number 1s, Queen are now, Queen who?
Like much in the Queen world view, though, even things transatlantic are looking up. A new record company, Disney-offshoot Hollywood, has signed them up in the US and bought their back catalogue for a mooted $10 million; and by, on the whole, happy coincidence, rap star Vanilla Ice has just floated his massive hit Ice Ice Baby on a bass-line borrowed off the 1981 Queen/Bowie collaboration Under Pressure.
"I first heard it in the fan club downstairs," says Brian. "I just thought, Interesting, but nobody will ever buy it because it's crap. Turns out I was wrong. Next thing my son's saying it's big here, And what are you going to do about it, Dad? Actually, Hollywood are sorting it out because they don't want people pillaging what they've just paid so much money for. We don't want to get involved in litigation with other artists ourselves, that doesn't seem very cool really. Anyway, now I think it's quite a good bit of work in its way."
Queen as Messers Nice Guy once more! Money differences resolved, Freddie's lone insistence on not touring swallowed, they present a resolutely grown-up and sneerless visage for general inspection these days.
Oddly enough, May gives a certain perverse credit to the tabloids for drawing them closer together than at any time since their earliest days. The breakdown of his own marriage, the ongoing "shock revelations" about Freddie's bisexuality, Roger Taylor leaving his long-time girlfriend and their children only days after they finally married to romance the girl from the Cadbury's Flake ad, even John Deacon's motoring misdemeanours - it's all come out in 72-point.
"We're very supportive of each other now," says Brian. "The group tends to be the most stable family we've got, although it's hard to see how we've stayed together all this time. Roger is the most extreme in extravagance and the rock'n'roll lifestyle. Freddie is a mystery, nobody ever knows quite where he's coming from. John too, the archetypal quiet bass player - he can be incredibly considerate and inexplicably rude, make someone curl up and die with a couple of sentences. He's very strange, but he's the leader on the business side, studies the stock market, understands the deals. And me, I think the others would tell you I'm the most pig-headed member of the band and I can see it in myself. Get an idea and I can be so insistent. It's not good. I have to check myself."
He politely calls a halt to catch a plane to Newcastle where Anita Dobson is engaging in a little seasonal thigh-slapping as Aladdin. In a couple of days he's off to Queen's own studio in Montreux to record new material, though the release of Innuendo is still a month away - Mercury and Taylor dined together over the New Year and decided the flow of energy was such that it shouldn't be restrained.
The show goes on. As Freddie has reflected, "I used to think we'd last five years, but it's got to the point where we're all actually too old to break up. Can you imagine forming a new band at 40? Be a bit silly, wouldn't it?"