Reflecting on “40 Years of Queen”

Queen in their heyday.
Queen in their heyday.

It’s almost a year to the day that I was asked to write the biography of one of the world’s biggest rock bands, Queen, to celebrate their 40 years together. I almost missed the opportunity. Going into my Hotmail, I decided to check on junk mail, something I usually just delete, but for some reason went into it and there was this email with a subject line saying “Queen writing project”.

The email was from the editorial manager of Carlton Books saying that Queen had asked him to ask me if I would be interested in writing the official Queen biography. Intrigued, I wrote back in the affirmative. Roland and I had a meeting, agreed terms and off we went. So the lesson here is: ALWAYS check your junk mail!

Brian and Harry:

Brian and Harry:

As with all things Queen, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Once I had agreed, they then had to confirm everything, which took a couple of weeks. As this was a very tight deadline, we needed to get cracking to meet the publishing date of the book. Also, this would not be a “normal” book, but highly illustrative, with inserts, paraphernalia (tickets, posters, promotional items from Queen’s career and a CD interview with the band from a BBC radio programme in 1977). It would be printed in China, which added more strain to the deadline.

I was also holding down my “day job” as managing editor of Books & Media, which is completely deadline driven itself, so basically it was three months of early morning and late night writing. As luck would have it, my neighbour, Graham Middleton, was a raging Queen fan, wrote quite well himself and he agreed to be the proof reader and pick up any errors I would make as I worked... and I made a few, which Graham loved pointing out.

First we had a production meeting at Carlton to work out the format of the work. Carlton’s designers, Queen’s archivist (yes, they full time archivist to look after their history) and Queen’s own designer, Richard Gray, and myself hammered out the format, and I would write to those specifications. So, it wasn’t so much a book but a series of features – beginnings, first album, Bohemian Rhapsody, Live Aid, the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert, We Will Rock You, movies etc).

I had toured and interviewed Queen from their very early days as a journalist with Disc and then Melody Maker. So they were a young band and I was a young journo just arrived from Ireland. From the start, I loved their music and was an obvious candidate to interview them. As they grew as a band, I grew as a writer, though they were soon to outpace me!

The robot from Queen's News of the World album at the launch party

The robot from Queen's News of the World album at the launch party

I remember the first interview with Queen. It was in their PR’s office in South London. It was supposed to be with Freddie Mercury and Brian May. When I turned up, only Mercury was in attendance. Even in those very early days, Mercury had an aura around him that screamed “ROCK STAR”. He looked the part, long black hair, cool clothes, painted fingernails! Oh yes!! He apologised for the absence of Brian, who was in the recording studio recording his guitar parts. He had missed the main sessions with the rest of the band as he was laid up in hospital with hepatitis. “Darling, he’s FAR too busy in the studio…,” he announced. “That’s what happens when you get sick in Queen; you have to make the time up!” Mercury turned out to be an enthralling interviewee, totally confident in his own and the band’s abilities. As far as he was concerned, everything was achievable... and on their terms.

I realised immediately that this was no normal band of reprobates out for a good time and nothing else. This was a business.

It could have been so different back in1969 as these four young men prepared to set off on widely varying careers… except that they each had similar ideas that were a world away from their academic studies.

Zanzibar-born Farouk (Fred to his friends) was learning the intricacies of graphic design, alongside running a gauche fashion stall at Kensington Market. In Teddington, South London, Brian May was discovering the secrets of the universe via his growing interest in astronomy, and going on to study physics and infrared astronomy. Originally from Norfolk, Roger Meddows Taylor (as he was then known) had relocated to London where he was working through a dentistry degree course. Meanwhile, Leicester-born John Deacon had secured an electronic degree course at Chelsea College, London.

By any stretch of the imagination, this was a group of high achievers who didn’t need to do anything but follow their studies to secure a lucrative future.

But they all have one obsession in common… a love of rock’n’roll.

Believe it or not, Queen were pretty much broke until the massive hit with Bohemian Rhapsody in 1976. Their obsession with doing things their own way meant that they turned out record deals that didn’t suit their ideals, i.e. total control over their music, production and design. They’d done a production deal with a company called Trident, which owned a recording studio, had a management division and publishing arm. Queen pretty much signed over their lives to them in exchange for artistic freedom a deal that would soon bite them on the bum and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to escape from. But on the positive side, Trident did provide the facilities to create music, and eventually the record deals came to fruition, with EMI Records in the UK and Elektra in the USA, two companies with a massive pedigree.

The result of a studio trial at London’s De Lane Lea studios was a demo tape that consisted of most of the songs that would appear on the first album, and EMI rushed to sign the band. A first single, ‘Keep Yourself Alive’, was released during October 1973, and flopped, and the band’s gig as support act on a Mott The Hoople tour earned them meagre attention.

The second album, Queen II, however, broke the deadlock, and it included the first hit single, ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’. From then on, it was game on for Queen. “Queen II was a point where all the adventurous ideas came out,” Brian May told me “There are seeds in Queen II of almost everything we’ve done since, but it was so compressed that all of it didn’t come out unless you’d listened very closely.”

They soon consolidated their success as a singles band with the snappy ‘Killer Queen’ and, as an albums band, with Sheer Heart Attack. Then came the monster called ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the six-minute opus with the operatic middle-section, and it gave them a much wider audience, most of whom went out in force to sample the variety of wares on A Night At The Opera. But it would BoRhap that would become Queen’s signature tune.

As recording commenced that summer in Sarm Studios, London, and Rockfield Studios, in Wales, Queen were getting to grips with Bohemian Rhapsody and its many parts. A backing track of piano, bass and drums was laid down first, and Freddie was clear in his head what he wanted. As May says: “We just helped him bring it to life.” It took three weeks to deliver the baby!

Producer Roy Thomas Baker was tasked with interpreting on tape what Mercury required. Thirty second operatic sections would expand in length and vocal depth, taking twelve hours a day. Hellish words such as Galileo, Beelzebub, Magnifico, Figaro were central to a multi-tracking choral harmony bombardment that would be sung in unison many times over, amounting to 180 vocal overdubs for that section alone. 1970s’ studio technology was being stretched to the limit, and there were still another three suites of the piece to facilitate – the intro, the hard rock guitar section and the conclusion. This was a single with EVERYTHING – it was a ballad, a mini-opera, and a steaming rocker.

May’s part was crucial to the track, as history has shown. “Freddie’s got a knack of using me to my best advantage,” he told me later. “Usually, he has everything sorted out to the last note and tells me what he wants.”

The track clocked in at 5 minutes, 55 seconds… and then to the amazement of management (John Reid and their late personal manager Pete Brown), record company and even a band member allegedly (John Deacon), Freddie grandly announced that this would be the single.

In fact, when Freddie shared this information with the management, the track and the album, were yet to be finished… and they were having an official playback of both that night in Roundhouse Studios, London.

“I’m really pleased about the operatic thing,” he told me that night. “I really wanted to be outrageous with vocals because we’re always getting compared to other people, which is ridiculous. With this, there are no comparisons. Somebody suggested cutting it because the media reckons we have to have a three-minute single, darling. That’s ridiculous too. There is no point in cutting it. If you want to cut Bohemian Rhapsody, it just doesn’t work.”

Management weren’t persuaded though: “I tried to make Freddie see that they were quite mad to propose Bohemian Rhapsody as their next single,” Brown said. “I thought it spelled the kiss of death.” John Reid was equally resistant, telling the band that no radio station would put a single that long on their playlist. Another of his charges, Elton John, was a bit more direct and said to Reid: “Have they gone fucking mad?”

But Mercury was determined and he had the entire band on his side. As usual, Queen’s “one for all and all for one” policy won the day. Many around Queen experienced what they perceived as their arrogance. “Some people think that Freddie is arrogant,” May said at the time. “But, in fact, he’s only arrogant when he knows he can afford to be.”

On Melody Maker, I was renowned as the man who would interview Queen. In honesty, most of the rest of the writing staff thought the band were pretentious, stuck up and would fall flat on their faces. Queen were never a critics’ band, and the band didn’t care. It was from that point that Queen’s notorious hatred of journalists festered, and it goes on ‘til this day. They seemed to like me, though, probably I had no pretentions about what my job was. Coming from the Derry Journal, I had a reporting background, so as far as I was concerned that philosophy carried over to Melody Maker. I was there to report what was going on in the music world.

Sure, I had a few bust-ups with Queen, notably when they toured the East Coast of the States with Thin Lizzy. I had written that Thin Lizzy blew Queen off the stage in Boston, which they did. On returning to London, I bumped into Brian May and Roger Taylor at an Elton John gig. Brian laid into me, saying that I didn’t see Queen’s set, that I had left with Lizzy before they went on. “Nobody blows us off stage in Boston,” he ranted. “Boston is OUR city.” Turned out Boston was where Queen would always prep for US tours. I told Brian he was wrong, and a few weeks later he apologised.

It was on that tour that Freddie announced that he wasn’t doing interviews any more, so fed up were they with critics. He told me in the oddest way, in the middle of a post-gig party in New York, where Queen and Thin Lizzy played Madison Square Garden. He came up to me, patted me on the bum and whispered in my ear, “Harry darling, sorry but I’ve decided to stop doing interviews with the music press. Nothing personal.” And off he gaily went!

Queen went on to become the world’s biggest band, bestsellers on every continent, tours became bigger, lightshows were dazzling. In the middle of it all, the band shone, and the hits rolling on, even on albums that are perceived as weak in their canon of work.

When I left Melody Maker, I stayed in touch, especially with Brian. I had moved on from music to work in the book business. Brian, being the academic he is, wrote books that were not to do with music, notably A Village Lost and Found, which portrayed the idyll of life in an 1850s village, “far from the sound of the train’s whistle”. The identity of the village was lost to the world for 150 years, and only by a miracle does this magical set of stereoscopic views survive, brought together for the very first time by May and his co-author, photohistorian Elena Vidal. Their research is amazingly in-depth, but the book is utterly readable, and the pictures leap into glorious 3-D, viewed in the new focussing stereoscope which May has designed and produced, to bring the stereos to life, and then fold neatly into the slip-case of the book.

The “lost village” turned out to be Hinton Waldrist in Oxfordshire, and May hosted the launch of the book there in a converted barn. This was a different Brian, an academic with glasses, giving an erudite presentation as we sat there fascinated in our 3-D spectacles viewing these historic pictures of a time long gone.

But Queen, as always, were on the horizon. After their final album following Freddie’s tragic death from AIDS, Heaven for Everyone, the band thought that was that. Bass player John Deacon went into retirement, but Brian and Roger were busy keeping the legacy alive. The musical written around their songs, We Will Rock You, celebrates its 10th anniversary next year. Then, sacrilegiously to some fans, they decided to tour again as Queen, with Paul Rogers (Free, Bad Company) as vocalist. Rogers was a hero to Mercury. They went out as Queen+Paul Rogers, just to make it clear that Rogers was not a member of Queen. They went on a hugely successful world tour. The tour opened with an open air gig in the Ukraine in front of 350,000 people. It was filmed for DVD and theatrical release. The band asked me to do the sleeve notes, which I was honoured to do.

And then came the book offer, the work and now it’s published! It hit number one of the Amazon music biography charts on pre-sales alone. It’s very special – photographs never seen before, memorabilia from Brian May’s personal hoard. Being a scientist, May kept EVERYTHING to do with the band and at the launch in the Groucho Club, London, this week, there was a mini-exhibition of a lot of that very special collection, including the robot from News of the World, the Freddie Tribute Concert poster signed by every act on the bill, rare record sleeves, and, of course, Brian’s legendary guitar, the Red Special, built with his father from an old oak fireplace.

I’ve been deeply honoured to have been involved in this project, and now that it’s done, there’s a bit of a gap in my life. That, though, will only last until Christmas, when I start the Thin Lizzy biography, along with guitarist Scott Gorham, for release this time next year. Keeps me off the streets!

*”40 Years of Queen”, by Harry Doherty, is published by Goodman Books and available in all good book stores or online at www.amazon.co.uk