Queen: A Seventies Bombshell
By Chris Welch
“People think I’m an ogre at times. Some girls hissed at me in the street… ‘You devil’ They think we’re really nasty. But that’s only on stage. Off stage, well I’m certainly not an ogre.”
Freddie was shouting at me in the deserted bar of a Liverpool hotel at 11 am on Saturday. No – he wasn’t expressing anger at recent MM criticism of the band. He was just trying to make himself heard above the noise of a woman sucking at a carpet full of cigarette ash, with her Holiday Inn vacuum cleaner.
“Oh my dear, she’s coming this way.” Freddie sighed as the din grew louder. Fastidious, elegant, he maintained an even temper, despite the ravages of last night’s celebrations. Many bottles of champagne had been consumed in the aftermath of a riotous reception for the boys at Liverpool’s stately, if somewhat battered Empire. Inevitably, thoughts had turned to another group of long ago, who caused similar scenes as they trod those hallowed boards. Oddly enough, Brian May, Queen’s fleet-fingered guitarist, uses AC 30 watt amplifiers, just like the Beatles. But Queen’s music is from the seventies – not the sixties. Cleverly arranged, carefully timed, delivered with maximum effort to create the greatest impact, it works on a young and receptive audience like a bombshell. Forget eight-year-olds screaming at the Osmonds. Their big brothers and sisters are learning how to yell again.
“Yes, I like an audience to respond like that,” Freddie was saying. “Maybe we’d like them to sit down and listen to some of the songs, but I get a lot more from them when they’re going wild, and it brings more out of me.”
Queen are a strange, refreshing bunch. They are in that happy position in a band’s story, when the first wave of excitement and success is breaking over them. Events are moving rapidly. Singles and album hits in Britain. America is within their grasp and beckoning seductively. Yet their image may have served to confuse and sow seeds of suspicion. Like any band achieving success too quickly for the media’s liking, they are under fire, although they seem more disappointed with the critics than hostile. The whole situation is an exact replica of Led Zeppelin back in 1969, when they were first deluged with self-righteous cries of abuse. Perhaps Queen have gone about the business of forming a successful group with too much skill and intelligence. And yet they cannot be blamed for wanting to avoid the mistakes of their fore-bears. They have the example of the last ten years of triumph and failure in the world of rock music to study, and they have profited from the examination. Like many of Britain’s most significant rock talents, Queen are collegians who have abandoned their degree courses for the lure of showbiz. Freddie Mercury in fact has a degree in graphic art. Roger Meddows Taylor, their drummer, studied dentistry and has a degree in biology. Brian may, incredibly, is an infra-red astronomer, and could become doctor if he completed his studies. When Concorde raced the sun to study an eclipse, he was in line to join the team of scientists on board. John Deacon, their bass guitarist, has a degree in electronics. If ever the band’s stage equipment presents a problem, then the roadies are tempted to call on him for expert advice. Their amiable, efficient American manager, Jack Nelson is somewhat in awe of them. “Freddie designed the group’s logia y’know, and he never told me. If you look, you’ll see it encompasses the four astrological signs of the group. Freddie’s a Virgo.” Jack has managed the band since they first emerged from London’s Trident Studios. “They go to Japan after they’ve been to the States in April. It’s funny, they are the number one group in Japan, above Jethro Tull, Yes and ELP, and even Deep Purple, and they used to OWN Japan. But they’ve never seen Queen yet – it’s all through the ‘Queen 2’ album.” Meanwhile the vacuum cleaner roared in ever decreasing circles.
“I’m feeling less than sparkling this morning,” said Freddie, who admitted that the concert had been exhausting, even before the champagne took its toll. ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, their third album, just released, had already received a dose of press abuse. How did Mercury react?
“The album is very varied, we took it to extreme I suppose, but we are very interested in studio techniques and wanted to use what was available. We learnt a lot about technique while we were making the first two albums. Of course there has been some criticism, and the constructive criticism has been very good for us. But to be frank I’m not that keen on the British music press, and they’ve been pretty unfair to us. I feel that up and coming journalists, by the large, put themselves above the artists. They’ve certainly been under a misconception about us. We’ve been called a supermarket hype. But if you see us up on a stage, that’s what we’re all about. We are basically a rock band. All the lights and paraphernalia are only there to enhance what we do. I think we’re good writers – and we want to play good music, no matter how much of a slagging we get. The music is the most important factor. This is our first headline tour, and the buzz has got around, without any support from the media. I suppose they like to find their own bands, and we’ve been too quick for them. You see, when we started out, we wanted to try for the best. The best management, the best record deal, we didn’t want any compromise, and we didn’t want to get ripped-off. So far, it has paid off. In America, we’ve broken the ice already. As you know, we started a tour there last year, supporting Mott The Hoople, but Brian was taken ill and we had to come back. But we had a top thirty album hit there. We’ve undertaken a huge project, but it’s all good fun.”
How long did Queen spend in planning their project of world domination?
“You make it sound so preconceived!” Freddie protested. Mercifully the cleaning device wailed to a halt, and helped dampen a threatened Mercurial outburst.
“Believe it or not – it was spontaneous! It grew and grew, and remember, we had all been in various bands before, so we had plenty of experience of what NOT to do, and not be flabbergasted by the first rosy offer. That’s how much planning went into it. This isn’t overnight success you know, we’ve been going for four years! We just got the right people to work for us, and the right company, and it’s taken a long time. And yet we’ve been accused of being a hype, compared to bands we’ve never even heard of, and then finally told that we didn’t even write our own songs. That hurt. Right from the start we have been writing our own songs, and that was the whole point – to come up with some ORIGINAL songs. In this country, to gain respect in a short while seems very difficult, and the papers like to feel they have you in their grasp. Well – we slipped out of their grasp.”
However, Freddie is the first to admit that there can be dissent within the group, as well as without.
“We tend to work well under pressure. But do we row? Oh my dear, we’re the bitchiest band on earth. You’ll have to spend a couple of days with us. We’re at each other’s THROATS. But if we didn’t disagree, we’d just be yes-men, and we do get the cream in the end.”
THE GIG: An atmosphere approaching bedlam is prevalent inside the Empire, long before Queen emit a hint of activity behind the sombre barrier of the safety curtain. Hustler have come and gone, and now the audience are hungry for action. Bad reviews? Supermarket rock? Thousands of Queen’s Liverpool supporters look suspiciously as if they couldn’t care neither jot nor little. They whistle and chant and clap with all the precision of the football terraces. The ancient cry of “Wally!” still heard in northern territories, echoes around the faded gilt decor. Jack Nelson is intrigued by the cry, wonders if Wally are a local group and wants to sign them, until informed Bob Harris already has a stake in the real thing. Mersey accents boom over the PA: “We do apologise for technical hitch, it’s to do with the PA system and we are assured the show will start in two, three or four minutes.” More whistles, as tough-looking lads in white trousers and combat jackets with ELP and Jethro Tull emblazoned on the back, pass beer bottles and conduct the audience with cheeky gestures. It’s all in fun and the only mild aggro comes when the Queen’s entourage from London try to claim their seats near the front. ” #### off!” directs one youth as PR Tony Brainsby pleads for his seat. “All these seats are taken, up to the gentleman there,” says Tony, pointing at me. Ribald laughter from the watching stalls, and repeated cries of “Ooh – Gentleman!”. Grousing, the seat pirates eventually relinquish their hold, with dark mutterings of: “Alright, but we’ll see you outside.” The battle was in vain, for as the party took their seats, the safety curtain went up, and the audience rushed forward. Instantly the house lights went up again and the curtain jerked uncertainly down. A nervous man with face ashen of hue appeared at the side of the stage clad in incongruous evening dress, as if he were the master of ceremonies and this was old time music-hall. “There is no way we are going to start…” he began. “All you have to do is enjoy the show…” But there was a way. Somebody turned a blinding spotlight on the managerial figure, and he retired defeated, as the curtain halted in mid descent and began a jerky upward movement. Within seconds most of the audience were standing up to gaze desperately at the darkened empty stage, and there they were – shadowy figures bounding towards the waiting instruments. The lights blazed, and there was evil Fred, clad all in white, the archetypal demon rock singer, pouting and snarling:
“Queen is back. What do you think of that?”
A tumultuous roar indicated that the mob were well disposed to the idea. It was difficult to assess the early part of the band’s performance because the fans with that wonderful selfishness of clamorous youth, decided to stand on their seats, their bodies screening both sight and sound. As a non-paying guest, I was not too worried on my account, but felt sorry for the kids at the back who had paid their cash. Retiring to the back of the theatre, and giving up the hard won seats, we watched the scenes of tumult, including a boy on crutches, perhaps unable to see, but desperately waving his steel supports in supplication. The band’s strategy and appeal began to take shape as they tore through such dramatic pieces as “Now I’m Here”, “Ogre Battle”, “Father To Son”, and “White Queen” from the second album. Roger’s drum are the band’s workhorse, punching home the arrangements, and mixing a sophisticated technique with violent attack. Roger says his favourite drummer is John Bonham. Brian is a fervent, emotional guitarist, who is like a Ronno-figure to Freddie, and is obviously a gifted musician. The onstage attention is judiciously divided between them, and when May takes a solo on his guitar, Mercury leaves the stage, only to return in a stunning new costume. Into a medley now, and apart from their slickness, and Freddie’s dynamic presence, the extra power of almost choral vocal harmonies is appreciated, something that few bands with a central lead singer can achieve. The camper aspects of Queen are displayed in “Leroy Brown”, a gay, dixie-land tune that Freddie insists is inspired by the Pointers Sisters. Then their first hit “Seven Seas Of Rhye” and a lunatic tempo on “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Liar”, and the finale from “Lap Of The Gods”. Dry ice began to envelope the stage, and as red light glowed through the fog, group and audience took on an eerie aspect, like a scene from some Wagnerian forste, as arms waved like young saplings in a night breeze. Then an explosion of white light, and two red flares burn over a deserted stage. Queen have gone, signalling a desperate roar of “MORE!” After some three minutes the band responded to the insistent demand: “We Want Queen”, Wally having been long forgotten. Into “Big Spender”, with its slow, measured pace and finally “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll”, an apt anthem for a group of our times. The band are still developing, and their mixture of heavy rock and glamorous display might seem curious. But as Queen makes its royal tour of the land, the effect on their subjects is to inspire unmitigated loyalty. And amidst predictions of gloom for the British rock scene, it is a healthy and encouraging spectacle.