My hands are hurting from transcribing this very long interview from the start of Queen`s career. But it was worth it as this is a great article from when they just started to hit the big time in Britain. And interestingly, we even get some quotes from John Deacon, which makes it even more interesting.
What have psychic suburbanites, middle-aged motorists, soused Scotsmen, and Endless Hordes of Frenzied Youth all got in common?
They all get off on Queen, dear
Julie Webb on the road with the Biggest Thing since Attila the Hun
In the past week Queen have sold somewhere in the region of 65,000 albums. Their single “”Killer Queen”, retains its position at number two in the charts and every gig on their second major tour of Britain so far has sold out.
Queen are, in short, Big Business. And at a period in time when there are some 20 major tours doing the rounds it’s something of a coup to sell out every venue. At Swansea they were booked in the same week as Humble Pie and Sparks, who reportedly did less than marvellously crowd-wise.
Queen got a capacity crowd of 1,500. That’s their starter for ten.
ALL OF this — the Queen Story Etc — will come as no surprise to the Linney family. Now the Linneys come from Hove and, back in the summer when the band returned from America, they wrote to Queen and informed them they would become “more famous than the Beatles.”
An old chestnut? Read on.
There are three Linneys; Maw, Paw, and a sixteen-year-old daughter. Evidently the daughter was a fan of the band, played their early music to her parents — and now the whole family are getting their rocks off, if you can believe it.
Says guitarist Brian May: “They wrote a lovely letter saying that we had converted them to listening to Today’s Groups and thanking us for opening up a whole new world to live in. Previously, I believe, they had only listened to classical music.”
Anyway, they came to see Queen at Southampton — along with two and a half thousand others. Before the gig, in the dressing room, the assembled company were advised not to smoke cigarettes in the immediate vicinity of Freddie Mercury since his throat was in a “dangerous” condition.
Mercury was also advised by the rest of the band not to say “it’s nice to be back in Southampton” since they had never before played the joint.
The Gaumont ìs a sizeable venue — two-tiered, with a large stage draped with their ten tons of equipment. The band walk on stage in darkness, start playing “Now I’m Here” — and as Mercury, dressed in his eagle outfit (a particularly inspired piece of black and white material draped around his torso) starts to sing the words “now I’m here” a white spot picks him out. The audience reaction is, you might say, enthusiastic.
The lights dim, and our Fred removes himself to the wings of the stage and, while personal on-the-road manager Dave Thomas holds a torch, he changes into a little white satin number. Swiftly he’s back on stage for “Ogre Battle”.
From the back of the hall, where your reporter retreats, the set sounds loud but reasonably balanced. There is the odd twinge from the equipment here and there but this is hardly dìscernable.
The lights are sheer artistry. Green red, white and blue flashing at the appropriate time, never once missing a cue.
The whole effect is quite mesmerising — which is doubtless why the audience sit watching from their seats with a certain amount of awe.
The Queen repertoire includes material from all their three albums but is a bit of a shock (for those who merely came to hear “Killer Queen”) in that the band only play about one-thìrd of the single as part of a medley. It is, in a way the one lowspot of the set — certaìnly it’s flat as far as visuals are concerned. Mercury, who up till now has been poncing round the stage, strutting out in his usual sluttish manner, removes himself to the side of the stage to concentrate on playing piano!
However, the Ancient One who, up till now, seemed totally behind the band, deserts them for their encore. The band comes back to play “Big Spender” — the bump and grind number (with Mercury this time wearing a totally tasteless tarty black ensemble.) Drummer Roger Taylor begins, Mercury emerges from the side and the guitar claps well ‘n truly out. There is a momentary panic while a roadie scrabbles on the floor before John Deacon (on bass), Taylor and Mercury improvise with a three-piece backing track until the guitar is fixed. It is to say the least, unfortunate, but it’s a temporary setback and, in the ensuing three minutes, they more than make up for it.
Afterwards, of course, there is the expected post-mortem. Oaths and curses from all members of the band save Brian May who keeps repeating “I don’t believe it”. It was, however (I am informed) not quite as embarrassing as one of the earlier gigs on the tour when Mercury, beginning hts strut on “Big Spender”, slipped and fell — somewhat ungracefully — on his butt.
“When you strive so hard for perfection, dear,” says Mercury, “it’s very aggravating. It was the simplest thing in the world that went wrong,” May explains. “The curly lead from the guitar broke — just a little bit of wire. Terrible. We have procedures for changing over if something goes wrong — standby systems and things. Its when the obvious things go wrong that there’s the most chaos.”
May must be one of the least aggressive guitarists around. And when he’s not on stage he comes across as a very gentle person — one wonders if his illness back in the summer (which caused the cancellation of a US tour) has made him more subdued. He, far more than the others, will painstakingly talk to enthusiasts of the band about the intricacies of playing. But all of Queen are incredibly polite to those who wait outside the stage door (a true sign of a Band On The Up).
First procedure, natch, is to get safely inside their limo. Once safely ensconsed they talk and sign any amount of albums, autograph books, slips of paper. They even signed a paper bag for one young lady.
“Ere mister,” yelled one such. “Most of the band don’t bovver to talk to us or to sign autographs – it’s really nice of ya!”
Back at the hotel it’s getting rather late but, by prior arrangement, they have a meal and frineds(?-Ed.) (including their fan club secretaries waiting for them). The secretaries take care of business and then get on to the subject of Japan.
“We’re getting so many letters from there — they don’t ask the usual questions. They seem more interested in what you think of the world situation. I mean how do you reply to a letter like that?” With difficulty, I imagine.
By 3am, the party having split up, Mercury is sitting in the foyer complaining slightly of his sore throat and how his back is “wracked with pain, dear”. Some twenty feet away sits a lonely Scotsman who proceeds to talk loudly.
“Dead, Southampton, isn’t it?”
Mercury: “Really, dear?”
Scotsman: “I tipped the porter at the station and asked him where there was some life and He told me of this little club bar thing. Terrible it was. There was a band playing there.”
Scotsman (now pointing in Mercury’s direction): “I knew I’d seen you before. It was you playing wasn’t it?”
Mercury (keeping his cool): “I don’t think so dear.”
Chauffeur (getting very irate): “They were playing a large concert hall.”
Mercury: “The Gaumont dear.”
Scotsman: “That’s it, the Gourmet. Or was it the Gomay.”
Fred has a habit of getting recognised. The following day, en route to Swansea, at a service station on the M4, a middle aged gent approaches, shakes his hand and says, “Just want to shake your hand and wish you all the best. ‘I think it’s a smashing record.”
Middle aged? Yes. And remember those Linneys.
Freddie on stage
THE JOURNEY to Swansea is gruelling. They may travel by Daimler but it still takes some five hours. On arrival, feeling – to quote Mercury, “like a vulture’s crotch” – they arrive at the hall for a sound check. One of the road crew informs them that there is trouble with the piano. Apparently it doesn’t have the required number of legs. One ìs missing.
“My dear” says Mercury “whatever next? I mean, how can I play a piano that has one leg missing?”
It is a tense, somewhat bad-tempered sound check. The chauffeur, who has, in his own words, been “converted to Queen” informs me it will be all right tonight. “Just wait, they’ll be really good. Professional, that what they are.” Mike, it should be mentioned, is a very, er, normal sort of person — suit, shirt, tie, short barnet etc. — but he’s thrown himself wholeheartedly into the whole tour and now is the official masseur for Mercury when The Singer complains of a back “wracked with pain”.
They have half an hour at their hotel in which to relax, bathe, wash hair, or take massages, or whatever. Time for Mercury to get out his hair tongs, for Roger to have a shower (“I like at least three a day”) — time to unwind.
As an observer I feel knackered; as performers they must feel completely drained. Yet they walk in the dressing room tense but definitely ready for the gig. The crowd, we are informed, are very warm, Hustler, the support group, get a good reception. Queen relax a little.
The dressing room — as on the previous night — has a selection of fruit, cheese, crisps, biscuits, lager, Coke and orange juice. Honey and lemon for throats and a portable wardrobe where they take their clothes (some of them still damp from the night before) for stage. Once again, Thomas has Mercury’s change of clothes on hand.
The gig is electric. Audience and band both explode at the same time. The special effects of smoke (usually at the beginning and the end of the set) are a bit dodgy since there is a sprinkler arrangement in the hall and no one is is quite sure whether the smoke will trigger it off or not. So theatrics are kept off at the beginning.
Fred Mercury is going bananas — he’s caught some of the electricity off the crowd in his pants, or so it seems. He bumps and grinds, struts and pouts and generally shows off. May, in his gentle unassuming way, is spotlighted and particularly impressive on “Son And Daughter”. John Deacon on bass, who has much more to the fore, is even beginning to twitch his ass, — and Taylor on drums is Doing It like he’s a toy that’s been wound up and is scared hìs battery will run out.
It is very impressive and, whereas on their last tour there was evidence that here was a band who had great potential, now there is a flash, almost cockily-confident unit.
With so much going for them it seems a pity that there is the hang-up with the piano. A missing leg and the pick-up not working properly leaves Mercury no choice but to drop the medley (including of course “Killer Queen”). The audience, however, unaware of the numbers the band should be playing, notice nothing amiss and are ecstatic.
It is only after the Swansea gig that there is time to talk. May is still looking decidedly fragile but, before he decides to retire for the evening, he sits down to spiel about the band.
Since his illness, he, along with Roger and occasionally Fred (when he can swallow them, dear) consumes some 10 vitamin pills a day. His health has become very precious.
“It was very depressing being that ill. It takes away all your drive and creativity. I felt I could never write anything again. I don’t have the urge to do anything — nothing seemed worthwhìle at all. And that feeling persisted even after all the physical effects had gone.
“I feel okay now. l’m enjoying everything, getting ideas again. You know the second time I was ill I felt I was going back to some other world — and that I would never return to this one.”
May is the most lauded musician in the band — the one who is always getting asked about his playing. Strangely, it doesn’t make him swollen-headed — he’s still flattered by all the attention, and on occasions he’s embarrassed.
“It happened tonight. There was a guy outside the hotel and he came up and said he couldn’t believe a certain solo I’d played and how did I do it. And I didn’t think that particular part was very good tonight so I wasn’t sure whether to say ‘I didn’t feel it was very good actually’ because it would make him feel down, or to be dishonest and say, ‘Oh, yeah, great’. In actual fact I just said Thanks Very Much.”
He uses a pre-amplifier: “All that does is that the signal that comes from the guitar is made a bit louder before it goes into the amp so you can get a bit more gain from the whole system. So instead of having to push a note out you can touch a string and it plays itself more or less. All the other rubbish is a wah-wah pedal which I rarely use now. I’ve gone off it.”
May says on stage his main worry is playing in tune. “The way I play guitar ì’m pushmg the strings up a long way and there’s always the possibility of them slipping and going out of tune. It’s okay when you play the single strings but if you go back to playing chords there’s a certain point in the act where it’s very critical and I always think ‘Oh God, it’s coming up’ and you are wondering what the strings are going to be like when you play them straight. Sometimes it’s dreadful and there’s nothing you can do because both hands are busy, you can’t do any tuning or anything.
“It varies a lot from song to song. It’s a very difficult situation, sometimes, because the keener you are on something the more pig-headed you are about thinking how it ought to be. And if somebody disagrees it’s very hard to give in. Particularly with me. I’m a very pig-headed person.”
May cites Hendrix as “The” guitarist. “On hearing Hendrix my immediate reaction was, he’s done it all. It’s difficult for me to describe just how good he was.”
How does he judge a good guitarist?
“Some people see what they want to see. They see someone moving around a lot and think he must be good but that is not necessarily so. I look for the communication between head and his fingers — is he playing what he’s thinking or is he just playing.”
On to the silent bassist, John Deacon. Now there’s an underestimated man. He’s one of those clever buggers who manages to avoid getting quoted at all costs. Not tonight, Deacon. As May disappears for some trip Deacon finds himself cornered.
“I’m not that fond of interviews” he admits.
Deacon reckons Queen are doing well at the moment because of “excellent quality material, well performed and produced”. He doesn’t sound modest but, then again, Queen are doing so well he can afford to display a little pride.
“I have”,’ he adds, “the feeling that the whole thing is getting a bit more professional all round. I’ve more confidence in the whole show — it’s about time too. We are, after all, on our third album.”
Financially one wonders just where Queen will stand at the end of this tour. Taylor previously informed me that budgeting on 90 per cent houses they might break even or even lose money. Deacon comments: “We don’t own all the equipment ourselves — all the stage gear is our own but the PA and the lights are hired. It works out very expensive for just the lights. This tour and Europe will cost us several thousands. And you’ve got to realise it’s not just the hire or lights — it’s a lighting crew of five, their hotel bills, expenses…”
Someone has obviously poured a lot of money into Queen — and only now will they begìn to see any returns. When I further ask Deacon about their financial situation, he says “l’d rather not discuss it. We tour for our own satisfaction and also to increase the status of the group. It’s a long-term thing rather than a short-term tour. The important thing is that we’re not in it for any short-term breaks. If we break big we`ll be all right in the end. It’s all or nothing.
“We seem to be cracking it here but England’s not really the be-all-and-end-all because you can do a tour with a lot of equipment and you don’t make a lot of money. Even with the copies we sell of the album in England we might only break even. The new one cost £25,000 to make.”
Is Deacon surprised that the band seem to be gaining generation gap appeal with the new single? (Remember the Linneys).
“No, not really. A lot of people thought we were just a heavy group but ‘Killer Queen’ showed a completely new side to the band. Certainly the album bridges the gap — it’s more listenable and will appeal to more people.
“I’ve got more confidence in the group now than ever before. I was possibly the one person in the group who could look at it from the outside because I came in as the fourth person in the band. I knew there was something there but I wasn’t so convinced of it. Till possibly this album.”
The sad thing about the British public is that they don’t always realise they have a monster group on their hands until too late. Fortunately this is not so in the case of Queen. Despite the crappy weather, despite the fact that the music press may have slagged off early Queen material and despite the fact (I am informed) that Capital Radio got in a twist last week and announced that Queen (instead of Mott The Hoople) were cancelling their tour, the audiences have come in their droves. There are plenty of bands touring at the moment — can they all say the same?
Hiding behind sunglasses
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper and you are free to use it as you like. If you use it on your own webpages – please credit me or put up a link to my blog.
This number of New Musical Express also contains articles/interviews with these people: Stacia (Hawkwind), Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jethro Tull, Pilot, David Essex, Pink Floyd, Deke Leonard (Man), Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, Jimmy Savile, Herbie Hancock, Kevin Coyne.
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