Mercury Rising: The Queen Interview
by Jonh Ingham
AND SO IT CAME to pass that the Santa Claus single this Yuletide season was a spaghetti-melodrama of Love and Death, by that most British named of groups, Queen. (Ignore that in the early days the name caused snickers due to its, uh, “homo” connotations. Times change.)
And lo, it came to pass that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was joined in enthronement at the top of the charts by its parent album, A Night At The Opera. And verily, the people showed these waxings and the group were indeed special unto them and voted them Best Group, Single and Album in the Sounds magazine poll. And it came to pass that Freddie Mercury of the mighty larynx spake unto the tape recorder.
The only gossip that emanates about Fred comes from his record company. It’s sparse at that, but the dominating feature seems to be an excess of ego and a style on the raconteur’s part that is, at the warmest, condescending. And lord knows Freddie can humiliate you with effectively blunt savagery when he wants to. Which is OK – if it takes that attitude to produce the goods, so be it.
But then he bounds through the door into what must be the only room in stately Rocket Records’ Mayfair building that looks like an office, and you’re so overwhelmed by his ebullience and verve that you immediately warm to the guy. He’s spent the afternoon talking to a pencil’n’pad from Fleet Street and apologises for his tendency to ramble.
With ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ enjoying its eighth week at Number 1, it seems a logical subject to begin with.
“I’m going to shatter some illusions,” he smiles. “It was just one of those pieces I wrote for the album: just writing my batch of songs. In its early stages I almost rejected it, but then it grew. We started deciding on a single about halfway through. There were a few contenders – we were thinking of ‘The Prophet’s Song’ at one point – but then ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ seemed the one. There was a time when the others wanted to chop it around a bit, but I refused. If it was going to be released, it would be in its entirety. We knew it was very risky, but we had so much confidence in that song – I did anyway. I felt, underneath it all, that if it was successful it would earn a lot of respect.”
He takes a fresh breath and continues. “People were all going, You’re joking, they’ll never play it, you’ll only hear the first few bars and then they’ll fade it out. We had numerous rows. EMI were shocked – A six-minute single? You must be joking! The same in America – Oh, you just got away with it in Britain.”
It transpires that although ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is leaping up the American charts – Number 59 in its third week – it is acceptance of the album (48 in its fourth) that is more important. Not that Fred wouldn’t be overjoyed if ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ made it to Number 1.
“What its success means to the band is acceptance,” and then breaking off: “Ooh, what a lovely Christmas gift. I didn’t open any others.” He laughs naughtily.
If nothing else, Queen have only Todd Rundgren to beat in utilising the full capacities of a studio.
“I do enjoy the studio, yes. It’s the most strenuous part of my career. It’s so exhausting, mentally and physically. It drains you dry. I sometimes ask myself why I do it. After Sheer Heart Attack we were insane and said never again. And then look what happens!”
Were you desperate to get into a studio in your early days?
“I think that is the basis of Queen actually. We were very, very meticulous. That has now become an obsession in a funny way, for want of a better word. It’s subconscious now, but we feel that we have to better that past standard we’ve created. Otherwise they’ll say, God, look at what they did on Sheer Heart Attack and look at what they’re churning out now. And you have to supercede it for your own satisfaction.
“But I did discipline myself… Take vocals, because they’re my forté – especially harmonies and those kind of things. On Queen II we’ve gone berserk. But on this album I consciously restricted myself. That’s brought the songwriting side of it across, and I think those are some of the strongest songs we’ve ever written.”
Suddenly, he changes track. “I’ve just heard we’ve sold out the first three days in New York. We were going to do a big one, but John [Reid, Queen’s manager] decided it would be better to play several small ones. Because our stage act works well in that size hall just now, and it’s nice to take it over to America in that capacity…”
He flounders for words and just as suddenly plucks at his jacket. “Isn’t this outrageous?” he asks gleefully. “I got it in Florida.” It is skeins of wool the thickness of swollen spaghetti utilising what appears to be every tint and shade of every colour in combinations no doubt pleasing to a Turkish hophead. It looks great. “I just bought it on the off chance; I’m usually a black and white person.”
Speaking of which, what about the ever-present black nail polish gracing your left hand?
“I’ve always worn it. Why one hand? I can’t think of an answer.”
Because you’re right handed?
“That’s it! Exactly.” (A lady friend has subsequently assured me that getting those right fingernails is a true test of artistry.) “It started in the early days when the black and white thing was really strong. That was, for want of a better word, a concept, and we thought we’d take it that one stage further. We did like to dress in black a lot, but then we got into white because we became very aware of projection and all that.”
Which reached a climax of sorts with Queen II. “It just evolved to where there was a batch of songs that could be considered aggressive, or a Black Side, and there was the smoother side.”
Such concepts, Freddie continues, extend to all areas, such as the airbrushed crest which graces the cover of A Night At The Opera, and from there to T-shirts, posters etc. “I think each – we look upon it as a campaign and a project – should have a label and a stamp on it. It has a nice tying-up quality about it. The advertising side of me comes out in that aspect. It’s not just music, it’s whatever’s interesting. Why not? Why just stick to music?”
The thinking has developed with experience. In the early days, “it was much more general. Can the four of us really – we weren’t going to enter into it if we weren’t really serious enough to actually go the whole hog. When Queen was formed and we were still in university, we decided to finish our courses first, which meant one and a half years. If we were still together then it meant we were serious.
“At that time we said, OK, but let’s try to make it interesting, let’s try to incorporate all the different backgrounds that we’ve acquired. We weren’t snobbish but we were careful. We did want to appear tastefully. Even though we weren’t anybody we felt we should appear that way. We shouldn’t do the club circuit and… Well, it was snobbish, really. We didn’t want Queen to be just everybody’s band but a select few to start with.”
Speaking as you were all those paragraphs ago about the new album containing strong songs, was ‘Death On Two Legs’ written in a strong emotional mood?
“Ooh, yes!” Freddie laughs nastily. “The words came very easily… Let’s say that song has made its mark.” He chortles again. “I decided that if I wanted to stress something strongly I might as well go the whole hog and not compromise. I had a tough time trying to get the lyrics across… I wanted to make them as coarse as possible. My throat was bleeding, the whole bit. I was changing lyrics every day trying to get it as vicious as possible.
“When the others first heard it they were in a state of shock.” It gives him great amusement to recount these anecdotes. “When I was describing it they went, Oh yeah, and then they saw the words and they were frightened by it. But for me the step had been taken and I was completely engrossed in it, swimming in it. Wow! I was a demon for a few days.
“The album needed a strong opening and what better way than to have the first words, ‘You suck my blood like a leech’? Initially it was going to have the intro and then everything stop and the words, ‘YOU, SUCK, MY’ – but that was going too far.”
Elsewhere on the record, of course, are those tunes that sound as if they come straight from the George Formby songbook; a curious aspect for a group whose reputation has built on flash and show and volume and imagination.
“Do you like those songs?” he asks.
Sure, but they’re not exactly ‘I’m In Love With My Car’.
“It’s a sign of transition. We could probably have done them on the first album but you can’t have it all, and it’s taken until this fourth album to try to put it across. There are so many things we want to delve into. I’ve always wanted to write something like that. I’ve become more piano orientated anyway. ‘Ogre Battle’ was written on a guitar but I’ve given that up. I’m getting into ‘Love Of My Life’- and ‘Lily Of The Valley’-type things. I’ve always listened to that kind of music.”
‘Bring Back That Leroy Brown’, the first recorded evidence of these musical tastes, from Sheer Heart Attack, goes down a bomb in concert, so the band isn’t alone in appreciating the form.
Inevitably, talk turns to Queen’s Christmas TV show [at Hammersmith Odeon on 24 December 1975, broadcast live simultaneously as The Old Grey Whistle Test’s Christmas Special and a Radio 1 Live In Concert]. Both Fred and Brian (who was downstairs autographing pictures for a contest) claimed that they felt the show was fantastic while they were doing it but were horrified when they saw a videotape immediately afterwards.
“It’s not up to you anymore. It’s up to the cameras, the lighting people. You can’t help getting Mycroft images [those coloured lines that dominated the screen half the time] when a camera’s that close to me. I knew that was going to happen.
“It’s also very hard to decide what audience to cater for. The people in front of you have paid money to see you but at the same time you’re doing a very prestigious concert and you have to try to make sure you come across on television.”
Both Fred and Brian felt they had failed in that respect. But then, the show did come in the middle of business meetings delayed by their recent tour and preparations for four months in America, the Far East and Australia. They had two days to “precis the repertoire and what do you choose and what do you leave out? Also, we were used to pacing ourselves for an hour and a half… I wouldn’t want to do live TV again. Film is much better because you have control over it.”
The case in point being, of course, the film that accompanied ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on Top Of The Pops. Worked out by the group while rehearsing at Shepperton, they called in Bruce Gowers, who has worked with them before, and filmed it in four hours the day before the tour started. Freddie concedes that the clip was instrumental in the single’s success. He has been talking almost an hour and from the rapid increase in body twitches it’s obvious he now wants to leave. He gets up to go but then he thinks of something else:
He has been talking almost an hour and from the rapid increase in body twitches it’s obvious he now wants to leave. He gets up to go but then thinks of something else.
A few weeks before I had written a story that adored in detail the tightness of Freddie’s costume and the obvious bulge it contained. The Editor had not missed the opportunity to use an obvious headline.
“You know, your ‘Cock Opera’ piece has done me more harm than good. It was a wonderful piece, but My God, I’ve got to live up to it now. The insinuations of hosepipes and things, it’s gotten really amazing. My God! A day hasn’t passed when someone hasn’t made a comment on it.”
I was reminded of critic Lillian Roxon interviewing Tom Jones and wanting to poke her pencil there to see if it was all Tom. I guess only Fred’s tailor knows for sure.