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Queen’s mega-hit has been interpreted countless times. But who did it first?
Three years ago,we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” complete with a reissue of the single’s original artwork for Record Store Day’s Black Friday and a Queen-endorsed brew, aptly named “Bohemian Lager,” made in — where else? — the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic.
Over the years, the Freddie Mercury-penned song has evolved from a radio staple to competition showcase for melismatic singers everywhere to something akin to public domain. There’s countless parodies: “Bohemian Carsody,” a car-themed parody by the all-female comedian troupe SketchShe, has racked up almost 30 million hits. There’s also ascience-themed “Bohemian Gravity,” College Humor’s “Bro-hemian Rhapsody,” “Bohemian Momsody,” the Minecraft-themed “Bohemian Craftsody,” and “Nintendohian Rhapsody.” And that’s just scratching the surface.
Interpretations of “Bohemian Rhapsody” also abound. Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro’s TED Talk cover from 2010 has nine million views and counting. American Idol’s Adam Lambert’s rendition of “Bo Rhap” led to a job playing Mercury himself in a biopic set to release this year. Kanye West, the supremely self-confident rap artist and provocateur, opened his headlining set at Glastonbury Music Festival with a “Mama” heard ‘round the world in a performance that could charitably be described as pitch-imperfect. Remember Robert Wilkison? Arrested for driving while intoxicated in Alberta, Canada, he proclaimed his innocence with a full-throated “Bohemian Rhapsody” from the back of a squad car. He racked up 11 million hits. They did not let him go.
But who made the very first “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover?
Or maybe the 1987 cover by Bad News, the comedy metal band?
Good guesses, but both are wrong.
The very first “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover was recorded for a Top of The Popscompilation volume and released in December 1975, three months after the original song was released on the airwaves. Not to be confused with the television show by the same name, the Top of The Pops series were budget-priced compilations that featured studio musicians and singers recreating chart-toppers, and usually featured a scantily clad model as the album art. We’re talking everyone from the Supremes to the Sex Pistols. Found on Top of The Pops #49, the “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover was recorded at De Lane Lea Studios, next to Wembley Stadium, where — it might be noted — Queen recorded early demos for tracks like “Keep Yourself Alive.”
Recently I tracked down Tony Rivers, one of the four Top of The Pops singers who recorded that first “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover. He was also the vocal arranger on the sessions, a thankless task for which he was well-prepared: Rivers’ long and varied career includes working on tracks from early 60s vocal groups Harmony Grass and the Castaways, recordings with Pink Floyd and INXS, and singing backup for Cliff Richard and Elton John — all of which he’s written about in his book, I’m Nearly Famous: The Tales of a Likely Lad.
Rivers was kind enough to let me pick his brain over email about the original “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Everyone covers or parodies “Bohemian Rhapsody” these days — from the Muppets, Phish, Flaming Lips, William Shatner, Zac Brown Band, Kanye West — everyone climbs Bo Rhap Mountain, it seems.
Well, not many could manage to put this together, least of all Kanye West!
But you were the first.
I have always assumed that [it was], mainly because harmony wasn’t many singers’ strong point at that time, and it was the most complicated arrangement to learn in a few days and record.
A few days? The original famously took three, four weeks.
There were very few around who could have done it that quickly. It was a bit easier for us four, all coming up with vocal group backgrounds. All four of us sang on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We usually took a day to lay down lead and backing vocal tracks, and would be on our way home by 11pm. Not this time!
So it wasn’t easy to do, then.
No. With due modesty it was difficult for us because of the time restriction — maybe two or three days to live with it (once the committee had chosen it).
By “committee” you mean the people at Top of The Pops?
A small group of Hallmark employees, along with producer Bruce Baxter, would sit down prior to the planned sessions and choose the potential hits. That, of course, was the secret to the label’s success. I have no idea what their thoughts were in choosing “Bohemian Rhapsody” other than “what an amazing record!”
The cover is pretty much perfect, note-for-note. How did you pull that off?
As usual, I had the job of sorting out the vocal arrangement. I had to listen and memorize the parts. John Perry and Ken Gold were also listening and were both assigned lead lines that suited their voices, which they did brilliantly I think. Oh, and let’s not forget the late Stu Calver, who was the very high voice on the Roger Taylor parts — the “Gallileo”’s and so on.
Normally this wouldn’t be too big a deal, but with this song, I had to sit for hours at home listening, making notes, and memorizing vocal lines — apart from the other tracks we had to do that day!
The time-consuming job of layering track after track of vocals ’til we got the sound and the voicing right seemed to take forever. But in the end, it had been a great opportunity to find out how that song was put together.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around you doing all of this in a few days, to be honest.
The harmony parts were obviously part of the problem, but they are not difficult harmonies. The problem was lack of familiarity with the whole thing. We could copy sections, piece by piece. The other problem was the time needed to achieve a similar “sound.” That kind of mass tracking takes time, and wasn’t usually available in big lumps. This was something with many lumps!
We were helped greatly by the fact that all three of us had good range in our voices with JP and Stu blessed with fantastic falsetto range.
I believe we spent the early part and the rest of the day, singing whatever vocals or harmonies needed on the other songs that had been selected.
You worked on other songs at the same time?
Memory tells me at around 7pm we started on Bo Rhap, bit by bit, until each section sounded good, and added voices until it did. We finished and hit the A406 [a main London road] around 7 the next morning in a daze, in rush hour traffic, with “Gallileo”s running round our heads.
I have nothing but admiration for the man who created it: Freddie Mercury. What a record.
A bit different from something like [The Sweet’s] “Little Willie!”
The original version made a splash, of course, but the TOTP version made headlines as well. Kenny Everett, who famously played the test pressing of the original track, also played your cover.
Kenny Everett was a big name at that time , and decided to see if the listeners could tell which version had taken months and a fortune to record, and which was done in a few hours on a budget album! He played our version and Queen’s, cutting between the two, asking “Can you tell which one’s the ten-bob version, and which one cost six million quid to make?”
Did you ever hear from the Queen camp regarding your cover? I know you worked with Cliff Richard for quite some time, and Freddie Mercury and he were friends.
Ken Gold was introduced to Freddie whilst on an Elton John tour of the USA. Ken decided to ask Freddie what he thought about “that cover.” He looked pensive, then added, “Hmm, an interesting version!”
I did meet Brian May once. He said, “Hi, Tony! Roger and I used to go to see you live at Loughborough Uni/College, and you were a very big influence on our harmonies!” Not bad, eh?
I can’t do it! I simply can’t go on! It’s no good — the show will just have to be cancelled!’
Freddie Mercury, the singer with rock band Queen, often expressed to his beloved live audiences that he’d like to have sexual relations with… all of them. Well, looking at him right now, it appears that last night he did, plus a few of their friends. And shared drinks with them all too.
Queen are at the peak of their successes — and excesses. A pale and fragile-looking Fred is sheltering backstage in the comfort of the dressing room. Outside there is a packed arena containing nigh on 20,000 baying rock fans and it’s less than an hour until show time. Mr Mercury is in one of his moodsand nobody present dares to say anything in response. They just ignore him and hope it will go away. It doesn’t.
Fred stands, waves his arms theatrically and loudly states his feelings again: ‘I’m telling you — I can’t do this show — my voice is fucked. I’m fucked!’
Well, what do you expect — screaming and ranting like that?
Brian May and Roger Taylor start to mutter support and try to win him round, while bassist John Deacon stretches out on a couch, a Walkman plugged into his ears — nodding and smiling. Grinning actually. Meanwhile, ‘management’ stop picking at the copious plates of food laid out like a banquet, and begin to get twitchy as they search their address books for lawyers’ and insurance companies’ telephone numbers. The promoter’s face has turned white.
Fred is precisely where he wants to be — at the centre of everyone’s attention, and is playing the drama queen role to perfection. Silly old tart! This scenario has happened before, but this time it looks like he might be serious.
One of the band assistants thumbs through his Spartacus guide and gleefully tells Fred that there is a gay telephone box, pedestrian crossing or even a late-night hardware shop in the area that they could go to after the show. Fred isn’t impressed.
A drink, perhaps — to raise the spirits? Champagne — your favourite — Moët? No. Vodka, a large one? No. This is going to be hard work.
‘Give me a ciggie!’ Fred demands of one of his ‘valets.’
He snatches a low-tar king size and takes a perfunctory draw.
That’ll really help the voice Fred…
Gerry Stickells, Queen’s wily tour manager, who has been hovering and observing in the background, approaches, and candidly reminds Mr Mercury that a hell of a lot of people — a sold-out crowd in fact — have waited a long time and paid good money to see him perform tonight, and that it wouldn’t be very nice to let them down, and Fred was never somebody to let his people down. Was he?
Me? Peter Hince (aka Ratty), Fred’s and John’s roadie and head of Queen’s crew. I’m ignoring all this melodrama and ambling around the dressing room, being one of the few people allowed in during this pre-show period. Fred calms down a little as he ponders the tour manager’s words, passes the cigarette to somebody to extinguish, takes a drink of hot honey and lemon and, with a frown, huffily settles into a comfy chair. He says nothing, as the rest of Queen leave him to it and excitably begin asking the perennial questions of their tour manager, assistant or roadie:
‘What’s the sound like out front now the crowd is in? The show is completelysold out tonight — isn’t it? How are ticket sales for the rest of the tour going, are they sold out too? Is the new single number one yet? What time are we on? What time will we be off? Is it hot/cold out there? Has that nasty buzzing sound in the monitors gone? Is it really true Van Halen have more lights in their show than us? And what about the tour merchandise — how are the Queen toasted sandwich makers selling…?’
Queen’s dressing rooms varied in size and style, depending on the venue. Theatres had dedicated dressing rooms, but sports-arena and convention-centre-style venues had functional facilities that had to be ‘dressed’ before they could be deemed a dressing room worthy of Queen’s visit. Carpet and rugs were laid down on the cold concrete floors, bare walls draped with material or pictures, and furniture, lamps, flowers and ‘objets’ were introduced to make it more comfortable and relaxing for the visiting artistes. There were adjoining showers, makeup mirrors, areas for Queen’s wardrobe cases and a central space for relaxing, with tables of food and bins of iced drinks against the walls.
Meanwhile, beyond the comfort of the dressing room, the distant drone of the support band can be heard bashing away on stage. On occasion, when some of Queen were feeling tense or irritable, they would insist that the opening act turn down the volume so they could prepare in peace…
‘So then, Fred?’ I venture jovially, to one of the world’s greatest showmen.
‘Yes, dear, what is it?’ he replies with a little more verve.
He seems a bit better now.
‘Songs for this evening? Your choices?’
‘Ah. Yes, right.’
The silly old tart, for whom I held the utmost respect, admiration — and exasperation — has decided he will perform after all. I never really doubted he would let down the audience, the rest of the band or the crew — who have spent the last 12 hours or more sweating blood to put all this together, just so he can prance around in a few silly costumes for a while. As usual he would get through on his formidable willpower, self-belief and determination. In other words — professionalism.
Few people could approach Fred as he prepared for a show, but I would saunter over to him, while he was surrounded by ‘beautiful and important’ people, and ask, ‘Oi! What do you fancy playing tonight then, Fred?’
‘I don’t know — why don’t you guess?’
‘Yes, Ratty — guess!’ he would giggle, playing to his immediate audience, who would laugh rather superficially with him.
‘That’s not exactly helpful, is it?’
‘I’m not telling you then!’ he would state with camp authority — again playing to the gallery of his invited coterie.
‘Oh alright then,’ I would shrug, knowing this was just a game he wanted to play.
‘I’ll arm wrestle you for it!’ he said, pumping himself up and flexing his muscles.
‘Come on — I’ll take you on!’
Those not used to our rapport would be amazed that this dishevelled and irreverent roadie could hold the attention of one of the world’s biggest rock stars. Fred would then usually reply with a laugh, twirl his hands in the air and say dramatically, ‘OK then — you choose!’
This was quite flattering but not very constructive, so I would suggest a couple of Led Zeppelin songs, a Stones classic and ‘maybe you could even play some of your own songs, Fred?’
Playfully whacking me with a towel or whatever was to hand, he would chase me out of the dressing room, screaming: ‘Same as the last fucking show!’
The voice certainly seems somewhat better now, Fred?
The set list was now set. The content of this sheet of paper was the burning question on the lips of the entourage as showtime approached; the final selection of songs always being down to Fred and how he and his voice felt. Sometimes he just wanted to mix things up a bit — to keep everybody on their toes. He occasionally referred to the Queen set as ‘our repertoire.’ Well, after all, Freddie Mercury was a very well spoken man and highly literate.
‘Scaramouche, and doing the fandango?’
He was extremely intelligent and well educated.
‘Thunderbolts and lightning, appeared to be very frightening!’
An eloquent man, who wrote songs of depth and intricacy — and full of meaning.
‘He wanted to ride his bicycle…’
Having been told to get on my bike by Fred, I now had to convey the set list to the relevant crew so they could adjust and make notes on their personal set lists, on which the song titles were always abbreviated: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ became ‘Bo Rhap’ and ‘We Are The Champions’ was simply ‘Champions,’ for example. Annotations were made in black felt-tip pen as songs were dropped or added.
Cues for Queen and the crew were noted adjacent to song titles in code. Fat D, for example, was a reference for John to tune the low E string on his bass guitar down to D, prior to playing ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’. (Fag B was merely a cigarette break for John and me, as Fred would be off stage at that point and I didn’t have to constantly watch him.) The irreverent crew cheekily renamed the songs on set lists: ‘We Will Rock You’ — ‘We Will ROB You’, ‘Now I’m Here’ — ‘Now I’m Queer’, ‘I Want To Break Free’ — ‘I Want To Break Wind’, ‘Flash!’ — ‘Trash!’ And so on…
The set list taped to the top of Fred’s piano was the first piece of ‘inside information’ given to outsiders during the show set-up. His black nine-foot Steinway D concert grand was the first piece of band equipment to take the stage and, as it was lowered from its enormous flight case to await the graft of its third leg, the local crew would already be studying and making comments on Queen’s proposed show selection. Meanwhile, yours truly would be lying underneath one ton of wood, metal and imitation ivory, screaming at them to ‘lift the bloody thing’ so I could hammer the last leg in place.
With show time approaching, towels and drinks for the band’s refreshment on stage would now be strategically placed: water and beer for Fred, beer for Brian and Roger and the Backstage Bar for John, comprising water, beer, soft drinks, wine and whatever spirit or cocktail he fancied at the time: Southern Comfort, vodka or tequila. Added to John’s cocktail lounge were mixed nuts and chocolate M&M’s. All of this was located discreetly to the side of his electronics control rack, where he could simultaneously knock the volume up and a drink down. A copy of the set list was taped here for John, and others to refer to — along with opening hours.
Fred had champagne glasses on top of his grand piano to sip from. I kept these wrapped in an old towel in the bottom of a flight case, and before the show I would give them a wipe with the bottom of my T-shirt and fill them with local tap water.
It was never champagne. I did try using Perrier water in places where the water was a very dodgy colour as it came out of a backstage tap, but Fred cursed me — the bubbly water made him burp! After an incident where one of the champagne glasses caused a member of the audience to be injured, I was told I had to replace them with plastic champagne glasses. Fred was horrified when he saw these tacky items from a party shop and we switched to plain plastic cups and Evian or still mineral water, as our backstage catering became more sophisticated.
With show time very close, Brian would be escorted to the backstage tuning room to tune his guitars and warm his fingers up. He would invariably be in conversation with somebody as he did this, get carried away and forget which guitars had been tuned, which not — and have to start all over again.
Show time is imminent and Brian is fruitlessly trying to plug a ukulele into an electronic strobe tuner.
‘Brian, it’s an acoustic instrument!’
He grins and tunes it by ear.
All of John’s and Fred’s guitars would be tuned by me on stage, prior to the show, being closest to the temperature and environment in which they would actually be used. In the early Queen silk and satin days I had to hang a triangle on John’s mic stand, so he could take and strike it once during ‘Killer Queen,’ then hand it back to me. Triangles? Not seen those since the days of my primary school band. Fortunately, I didn’t have to tune it.
A local piano tuner would be hired by the promoter to tune Fred’s Steinway before sound check, and touch up again in the early evening. The strobe tuners for all the guitars would take their calibration from the piano setting. Over the years I got to know many of the tuners personally; one excellent tuner and lovely man, who always did the shows in Boston, was Sal Corea — uncle of legendary jazz musician Chick Corea. Sal wasn’t blind, but several piano tuners were, and I once made the embarrassing mistake of offering a blind tuner ‘tickets to see the show?’
After the first few shows of a tour, Fred and John very rarely did any kind of sound check. They trusted all of their crew. It also meant they could sleep in much later.
Queen were confident individuals, but sometimes at huge outdoor shows or vast arenas in major or new cities, nerves could start to creep in. That was the time that irreverent crew banter would help to relax them and keep their spirits up. Queen could usually laugh at themselves and see the funny side of some of the pompous things they did, and it also helped keep their feet on the ground, as there were plenty of sycophants ready to assure them everything they did was wonderful and beyond reproach.
‘The audience is all in now, Fred.’
‘Good — how do they look?’
(How do they look? Keen? Smart? Angry?)
‘Well, they seem like a very nice couple to me.’
‘Oh, by the way, the new album has just gone…’
‘Gold? Platinum? Double platinum?’ one of Queen would snappily interject.
‘No — vinyl.’
‘I’ve heard a woman in Slough bought a copy…’
‘Fuck off and die! Now let’s get on with it! When are we on?’
With Queen itching to get on stage, the buzz increased, and you could feel the hyped nervous energy in the corridors backstage. With Access All Areas passes slung around their necks, crew members would wander the stage to check the equipment and check out any female ‘leisure potential’ in the front rows.
Meanwhile, Queen’s dressing room had been cleared of non-essential personnel as the band donned costume and regalia, preparing themselves for the daunting, yet exciting, ordeal to come. In order to exorcise nervous tension and warm up their voices, Fred and Roger would screech loudly at each other in high-pitched squeals, like a couple of late night tom cats. Roger would have a pair of drumsticks in hand, repeatedly tapping and hitting things — including his assistant and former roadie, Chris Taylor (aka Crystal — and no relation)
Queen were sometimes late appearing on stage but once, at a show in Spain, it was not their fault. Joe Trovato, Queen’s lighting designer at the time, had been partaking of the cheap and plentiful local wine, causing him to spend several sessions in a backstage lavatory. Forlornly sitting there, he lost track of time until there was a polite little knock on the door and a concerned, recognisable voice asked, ‘Are you alright in there?’ Joe opened the door to see Fred peering in, along with the rest of Queen — all ready to take the stage. With a grimace and an apology, he adjusted his attire and took off to the lighting console.
Now it’s show time — what today has been all about. The next couple of hours are all that matter. Shortly Queen will be on stage in your town playing for you — just for you, you privileged ticket holders. The four famous faces will be up there on stage — attached to their instruments, in moving, living person — and colour. They have travelled over land and sea and overcome obstacles and hangovers to give you this special personal experience. So be sure and enjoy it!
The stage is ready; everything taped down, the carpet vacuumed, all equipment powered and humming, everybody on standby at their assigned station. The crew are standing to attention — but not in uniform, despite attempts to get us to wear things to camouflage ourselves on stage. Influenced by their first visit to Japan, Queen gave the crew black ‘Happy Coats’: short kimonos, with Queen printed in red Japanese letters on the back. Very stylish, but not very practical loading-out attire and it would be hard to gain the respect of a six-foot-plus, 300-pound union teamster or truck loader while wearing a boudoir garment. All onstage spotlight operators wore fitted black overalls, but I found them restrictive, as I was constantly scuttling under, over and about during the show; so jeans and a T-shirt — preferably a Queen freebie, to show some mark of loyalty — were what I wore.
The final check of instruments was done in conjunction with a line check. Not that kind of line, but a check that all the instruments were placed back into the correct channels after use by the support act. That’s why you often hear chords crashing on guitars, drums banging and pianos tinkling before a band takes the stage. There is a distinct art and calculated procedure to these exercises; knowing too much is dangerous, but so is knowing too little.
Don’t play a recognisable riff (poseur) and, if it’s a Queen riff, you run the risk of getting a cheer from the audience, your 15 seconds of fame and enraging the band. It would also brand you as a total wanker to the rest of the crew. The middle path of single notes or chords was preferable. However, there was still an enormous temptation to crank the volume up and let rip with a couple of power chords…
It is very important to check instruments immediately prior to the show as things do change after the sound check. The positioning of speakers has to be exact and the acoustics can alter dramatically. The classic sound engineer’s excuse is ‘Don’t worry — it will sound fine when the audience are in.’ All types of radio transmitters can suddenly become operational, which affect the ‘wireless’ systems for guitars and mics. Temperature and humidity cause tuning problems, and with drums an awful booming feedback. The local cab company or radio station could now be broadcasting through Brian’s Vox AC30’s, or the building’s freight lifts could be on the same phase of electrical power as the sound system, and now transmitting a spluttering ‘motorboat’ noise. It’s guaranteed that all manner of unexplained electronic gremlins only come out of the darkest depths of Mordor to plague you two minutes before show time.
‘ONE — ONE — TWO — TWO.’ A familiar call shouted by onstage sound monitor engineer Jim Devenney, into Fred’s trademark silver Shure 565 SD microphone, as he wandered the stage with the famous ‘wand’: a custom-made chrome plated tube, like a section of microphone stand, which Fred used together with the mic as his stage prop. It could be a sword, guitar, machine gun, golf club, baseball bat or whatever Fred wanted to convey with it. Most commonly it was ‘My cock, darling.’
The stage manager, having checked that all was definitely ready, would call the dressing room by crackling walkie-talkie to bring the band up.
Having emptied their bladders, Queen, flanked by minders, wardrobe ‘mistress’ and assistants, were now bouncing on the balls of their feet in their hidden position and itching to get up on stage. A message was conveyed by headset to the house electrician to ‘kill the house lights’, and as the venue plunged into darkness, it created a huge adrenaline rush for both crew and audience. Queen would be swept by a combination of this energy and torch light on to the stage and into the Doll’s House: a freestanding frame covered in black drapes, located in the back corner of stage right. This was where the band would rest, or hide from view when not active on stage.
Not even Access All Areas gained access into here.
The intro tape pumped through the PA and monitors, battling for level with the audience noise — as smoke machines hissed out an atmosphere for the lights to cut through as they came pulsing to life. No going back now. The hundreds of lamps in the rig flashed and flickered but remained tethered, not yet releasing their full power until the dormant metal monster slowly began to rise in the air, spitting light beams of multicolored fire. Awesome, but also quite scary…
Queen would take up their positions: Roger crouched low down on a drum stool, behind his gleaming kit; Brian, with his homemade ‘red special’ guitar plugged into its extended umbilical curly cord, concealed behind a large black monitor on stage left. I would put John’s Fender bass on him and he would pace nervously up and down behind his stacks of speaker cabinets like an expectant father in the corridor of a maternity ward — waiting for news of a new arrival.
On cue with the intro tape, the trio would crash perfectly into the opening song as Brian and John bound on stage. Fractionally after the opening bars, Fred would glide out of the Dolls House like a cat, and swoop his wand mic from my hand as he effortlessly strode on stage. The initial roar for the band was pushed to another level as Fred took his place upfront, and when the overhead rig manoeuvred into its final position, blazing and scorching with light as the pyrotechnics exploded, the energy created was truly tremendous. Queen’s mantra of ‘Blind ’em and deafen ’em!’ worked every time.
Queen are here to entertain you! BIG show, BIG hits and right now — the BIGGEST band in the world! Queen may have played the venue before but, like secretly agreeing to meet an ex-lover, there is a certain expectation from both sides — how far will it go? The air is charged with energy and sexual tension — who will make the first move?
Fred. He would tease and cajole his audience like an experienced lover, using strength, stealth and power to take control. Drawing his conquests in closer, he would slow the pace to show his own vulnerability, before taking them back to the heights of excitement and final consummation.
Hence his announcement: ‘I’d like to fuck you all!’
A promise he did his best to keep. Having adjusted my eyes to the dimness of the blackout, my photoreceptors are now in overdrive. Here we go again, another day at the office. Most nights Queen were very good, and on occasion absolutely magnificent — or not quite so good. However, they were undoubtedly a great live band that were exciting to watch. The secret to this was simple: they could play. Musicians who had mastered and applied their instruments, firmly believing in quality in all they did. When Queen took to the road after a new album was released, they always strived to give their best to the paying public as these four guys unashamedly wanted to be The Biggest Band in the World.
The first song was naturally a little tense; was everything working OK? It was audible to me, but could the band hear themselves well enough? This was the point when you would catch each other’s eyes. The system of nods, winks and gestures between us would indicate their level of satisfaction. The discomfort of the smoke and showers of dust hailing down from the pyrotechnic explosions and building ceilings were brushed aside as concentration intensified. The first song seemed to speed by like lightning, and often lead directly into a second hi-tempo number without break or introduction. After the final chord crash of that song, Queen would bow and acknowledge the audience, Fred offering a shrill ‘Thank — YOU!’ before enquiring:
‘Are you ready to rock?’
‘Are you ready to roll?’
‘OK — let’s (fucking) do it.’
Another fast-paced rock ’n’ roll number would sometimes sustain the crowd’s excitement, followed by the first piano song, which gave Fred and the audience a brief rest, and him the chance to give me any relevant message.
‘Tell him he’s out of tune — how can I pitch my voice??!!’
‘Who would that be, Fred?’
‘You know! And that c*** can’t even pick the beat up!
What’s wrong with him?’
I would simply nod in agreement.
‘Never mind — never mind, how do I say Good Evening in Belgian?’ he would pant.
‘It’s written in pen on the back of your hand, Fred.’
‘I can’t see that in the fucking dark, can I!?’
Roadie: mind reader, whipping boy and infrared linguist?
‘No — and it’s now rubbed off — all that sweating you do.’
‘Uuuuh — Guten Soir, senoras?’ I’d shrug.
‘Oh fuck ’em!’ Fred would splutter, then take the safe option — and use English.
The hand-over exchange I made with Fred was his microphone on a stick for a freshly made drink of hot honey and lemon. A sip was taken to ease the throat and he would sit down, shuffling himself to adjust to life at the piano. A major testing time — was Fred happy with how things were going? Was all well in his Mercurial world? As he gently tickled the keys, got comfortable and threw morsels of comment to his hungry public, I would be crouching at the end or in the curve of the black Steinway grand, focusing on him intently and trying to avoid the multi-coloured glare and hypnotic reflections from the highly polished piano lid.
The rest of the band would take this opportunity to catch their breath, have a drink and give their instructions about the onstage sound. John’s instructions were minimal and usually about the snare drum and hi-hat in his floor monitor.
Fred’s first piano song was a crucial part of the show and, when I got the look, which was a series of nods, hand waves and expressions, I could tell if Fred wanted his vocal louder, the piano sound was too hard, if he was tired from the previous night’s escapades or even how he felt the rest of the c***s were playing… all from his facial contortions, finger twirls and head inclinations. One particular Mercurial twirl meant he was hot, and I would turn on a fan under the piano to cool him down. When Fred gave me an unscripted nod, wink or smile, it was like an older brother showing confidence and support. I admit, it gave me a glow, made me feel good, appreciated and special.
So what did I do in return? I took the piss by staging a glove puppet show at the end of the piano with Crystal or wearing a baseball cap given by a fan in Japan that had a giant pair of large clapping hands protruding from the front. I would pop up from the end of the piano, pull the string to operate the hands and applaud Fred along with the audience. He laughed. Fred laughed a lot. Then he chased me into the wings to administer a playful slap or punch. When Fred whacked me it was seen as part of the job and him releasing some fired up energy, and the strikes were just playful and didn’t hurt. And of course I was dead hard myself in those days!
The onstage crew could clearly see the audience as they were illuminated by the glow from the stage lights, but for the band, however, this was difficult as they were constantly being tracked by powerful spotlights focused directly into their eyes. A dozen or more could be on Fred alone, so he would gauge the crowd by audible response and feel, as he could rarely see further than the first few rows.
But that was enough.
Post-show, provincial U.S. town, Mr. Mercury comments:
‘Did you see those people at the front! Did you? They were all ugly! I will not have that at a Queen show!!’
So, are audiences to be vetted at a casting session before premium Queen concert tickets get released? Check with the promoter on that, will you…
It was always tempting to glance into the audience to see the reaction of the ‘ugly people’ or check out the ‘talent,’ but if Fred caught me straying, the glare I received across the stage or piano would freeze me. I was expected to watch him like a hawk and be prepared to scuttle urgently on stage, half crouching, to release him and his mic cable from any onstage obstacle, while attempting to avoid detection by the audience—like a Wimbledon tennis ball boy scampering on at speed to retrieve the ball, then returning to a kneeling sentry position. I bent over so much I looked like I had a permanent lumbar condition, so, between me and the front row ‘uglies,’ we could have made the perfect Quasimodo.
Nevertheless, Fred was very sharp and aware on stage, and could keep himself out of potentially embarrassing situations despite being caught up in his expressive creativity. Brian, however, would go charging back and forth across stage, oblivious to the surroundings and totally into his playing, a black curly umbilical cord thrashing in his black curly-haired wake. Fred would deftly sidestep so their cables didn’t cross, get tangled and inhibit each other’s movements. As Brian returned across stage, still on Planet May, Fred would even pass his ‘wand’ under Brian’s cord to avoid being locked together. When tangles did unavoidably happen, Fred would drop the mic, give me the eyebrows raised signal and take his spare mic set-up. Sometimes he’d sit on top of me and laugh while I was on my hands and knees unravelling the mess in the middle of the stage, then bounce up and down and chuckle. Fred, enough of that — people are beginning to talk…
John was not involved in any tangled-cable fracas and usually kept upstage or on the steps of the drum riser; he didn’t use a cable for later Queen tours and utilized Nady radio transmitter packs on his bass guitars. John had an electronics degree — no fooling him if technical things went wrong!
However, an early experiment in the late 1970s using a radio pack on John’s bass was not quite successful. I was trying the then state-of-the-art Schaeffer system at sound check, and after trying different notes on the bass called over the PA system to Trip Khalaf, Queen’s sound engineer.
‘What’s it sound like — is there much compression?’
‘It’s like an alligator farting’ was the less-than-enthusiastic reply.
Back to the cable for now then…
Fred loved a microphone cable, using it as another prop on stage by gripping and twisting it with levels of intensity, cracking it like a whip or flicking it like a lasso. Only on the final Magic tour with its vast outdoor stages and walkways did he switch to using a wireless microphone:
‘Mmmmm — it’s very modern’ he exclaimed when shown the latest piece of expensive technology during rehearsals:
‘And quite horny as well!’
The phallic-shaped Sony mic was different than his classic Shure one; longer, fatter and matte black. It would not have looked out of place in a Soho sex shop.
Queen’s show continued with the medley — sections of old and new hits generally based around piano-oriented songs, which helped Fred pace himself. After an intense bout of rushing around stage, a spotlight picks him out, collapsed over the top of the piano. ‘I’M FUCKED!’ he would scream, and get a roar of approval from the crowd. This would inspire him to rise and thrust himself at the piano as if shagging it.
More audience appreciation followed.
Fred did not address the audience from the piano, just the occasional acknowledgement, thank you or reference; he liked to do it centre stage, on the extended catwalk with all the spotlights focused on him. This is where he would use his formidable presence to communicate. He was never predictable and surprised occasionally by asking the front rows: ‘Any requests?’
Somebody once asked for an old Queen song that was never included in the live show: ‘Play that? Hah! Yoooooou’ll be lucky!’ he replied in a shrill, camp, rising voice as he threw his head back and walked away. ‘Yoooooou’ll be lucky!’ became a Queen catchphrase that traversed many tours. And beyond.
Back at the piano, I’d hand Fred another soothing hot drink that he’d asked for.
‘How are we going down — how is it?’
‘Good, it’s going great, Fred.’
‘Good, that’s good — and so it fucking should be!’
However, occasionally the audience response would not be as expected, so in response Fred would force himself to work even harder to get the crowd on his side — as he had to for Queen’s first ever show in Madrid in 1979. One expects a Latin audience to be hot-blooded and excitable. No. The initial crowd response and light applause faded rapidly. This enraged Fred, so he strode to the edge of the catwalk and toasted the paying public with his champagne glass and a few limited local phrases. The response didn’t improve, so he threw the water over the front rows and snapped: ‘Take that! That’s for being Spanish!’ He then gestured to the sound engineer, and screamed: ‘TURN IT UP!’
The volume increased considerably, and Fred worked with fervour to get the Spanish going, and it inspired the rest of Queen too. It worked and from then on the show and crowd response was as Mr Mercury thought it should be. Fred always led by example. Returning to the piano in the blackout having won them over, and amid the screaming and calling that followed the applause, he banged his fist hard on the piano lid to emit a low hollow resonance through the speakers and pronounce loudly off mic: ‘That’s the way to (fucking) do it.’ Self-reassurance of the magnificent talent and unwavering belief that he held.
‘Is everything all right now, Fred?’
‘Yes — yes, but tell Brian to turn it down, I can’t hear myself fucking sing!’
And just how do you get a rock guitarist to play softer or slower?
Give him some sheet music. In the spoof rock band movie This Is Spinal Tap, the heavy metal guitarist is proud to show that his amplifiers don’t go to the standard volume of 10, they go to 11. Just that bit extra — for when you need it. Brian May had his volume go to 12 — and a half. And he always needed more…
The answer? Everybody else turned up.
QUEEN WERE DEAFENING ON STAGE.
Sorry, I said, ‘Queen were deafening on stage.’ My ears are testament to that. During a hearing test some years ago, I was asked if I had ever worked in a noisy environment.
I’ll probably have to put my few bits of Queen memorabilia into auction in order to buy a decent hearing aid for my old age.
When Queen were playing well live and really ‘cooking,’ there was a huge buzz and energy felt on stage, so that even a crew member could vicariously feel part of the band. On stage, the sound you heard varied according to where you were positioned. You didn’t hear the balanced mix of ‘out front,’ but whatever was coming from the closest monitor would dominate. The sides of the stage were good as most things in the mix could be heard, but standing behind the drumkit gave a strange perspective. You heard the real sound of the acoustic kit being hammered plus the amplified sound of it in the monitors, and then a boom and echo off the back wall or roof of the venue.
Behind the ‘back line’ of band gear you could close your eyes and — even with the loss of vision — still feel the energy and sensory bombardment. The odour of gels burning in hundreds of lights, a warm electronic whiff of humming amplifiers and the taste of smoke and dust biting in your throat. You felt the vibrations of speaker cabinets, and a kick in your chest as the bass drum was pumped.
You could reach out and touch it all: the rough edges of flight cases, the tough weave of the stage carpet, the chill of iced water in the drinks bins, the smooth and sensual contour of guitar bodies, and the burn of Fred’s rubber-coated mic cable as I pulled and coiled it tight. It was best to avoid being behind the drum area when Roger threw his head back — as he would then usually spit high in the air, purging his lungs from the exertion of drumming and Marlboro cigarettes. His poor roadie was tasked with mopping up the cymbals the next day…
The show moved on with various hits and new songs, until around halfway through the set there would be the solo spots, where Fred would chant and scream vocal scales at the audience, for them to respond back louder. This was when he showed his true stagecraft of taking thousands of people in the palm of his hand with just his voice and charisma. Usually the show included some form of (fortunately) short drum solo, where Roger turned into Animal from The Muppet Show, and the extended guitar solo that worked… some of the time. (I was a young man when Brian started his solos…)
Time to take a break: Roger would come down off his riser and into the Dolls House for a rest, a drink and maybe a hit of oxygen. Fred would be relaxing in there too, removing his shirt, towelling down, changing outfit, taking refreshment and then having a suck on a Strepsil antiseptic throat lozenge. John would stroll off, take the cigarette I had lit for him and go behind his speakers for a quick puff, pausing only to throw peanuts at Brian, who would be lost somewhere in his extended solo.
Next up, the acoustic interlude: time to sit on bar stools at the front of stage, and when Roger would sometimes come forward to play tambourine, bass drum and sing. This was the only opportunity the fans got to see RMT (Roger Meddows Taylor) clearly, apart from his bow of appreciation at the end of the show. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see them, as he had weak eyesight and needed to wear corrective lenses. Blind Melon Taylor he had been nicknamed in Montreux, when rehearsing a New Orleans ‘bluesy’ number. Roger had many nicknames, the most popular being Rainbow Man. The most fashion conscious in Queen, Rog was always buying clothes, the majority in bright, bold colours and worn in the most unlikely combinations. (He could have auditioned for the lead part in Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat.)
Some of the other members of Queens’ nicknames were:
Freddie: Kermit — after Muppet character Kermit the Frog. During Fred’s ‘ballet’ period in 1977, he took to wearing white leotards on stage and when exposed under green lights, his lithe body in the skin-tight costume made him look like the Muppet character — especially when he sat on the steps of the stage set. ‘Halfway up the stair?’ (Nobody dared to call him Kermit personally, I hasten to add.) After interviewing Fred during this period, the NME music paper ran the headline: IS THIS MAN A PRAT? As you can imagine, he was not happy — and a long taut relationship with the press followed.
Usually, he was referred to by the crew simply as Fred, but, if he was being difficult, he could become The Goofy Toothed Rascal or, if he was being verydifficult, all manner of uncomplimentary names — including ‘Horsey.’ Nothing to do with Fred’s teeth, but his appreciation of Russian-born ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.
‘Who?’ the crew asked. Didn’t he win a few horse races? Fred used this cited dancer of the early 20th century and his costumes, particularly the black and white patterned leotards, for inspiration in Queen’s live shows. Mary Austin, Fred’s girlfriend of many years, was still living with him in 1977, and had presented Freddie (she never called him Fred) with a glossy coffee-table book on Nijinsky as a gift. She had inscribed it to Freddie and added: ‘To the true artist that you are’.
And typically, like Fred, Nijinsky the racehorse was a thoroughbred and multi-award-winning champion.
Brian: Percy — after Percy Thrower, the original British TV gardener. Brian was very keen on nature and gardening, and in 1976, when I was delivering some equipment at night to his London house, he answered the door in ragged clothes, a torch in hand, with his mane of hair interwoven with twigs and leaves. He had been out in the dark attending to his beloved plants and trees. He immediately got an update to The Infrared Gardener, due to his academic degree in infrared astronomy.
John: Birdman or Deaky (self-explanatory). John had all his hair cropped off military-style at the start of the ’78 USA tour and looked like The Bird Man of Alcatraz. He received it in good spirits and wore the convict’s outfit adorned with black arrows the crew bought him for the show encore.
The gay contingent had their own unique way of giving nicknames by assigning girls’ names to all male members of the entourage and any other ‘friends.’ They would then refer to everybody as ‘she.’
Queen’s secondary nicknames:
Freddie Mercury: Melina (Melina Mercouri — Greek film star)
Brian May: Maggie (Maggie May — Rod Stewart song)
Roger Taylor: Elizabeth (actress Elizabeth Taylor)
John Deacon: Belisha (Belisha Beacon?)
I was called Helen. Don’t ask. The culmination of the acoustic interlude was Fred and Brian performing a simplified version of ‘Love of my Life.’ Time for audience participation and sing-along. It’s easy to become very cynical on the road and blasé towards the paying public, as the siege mentality sets in. However, to see and hear over 130,000 people in a stadium singing perfectly in a language not their own was really something special. It may sound like an old cliché but music does transcend all barriers.
By now, the show was steamrollered into the home stretch with big hits such as ‘I Want To Break Free,’ bang-your-head rockers like ‘Hammer To Fall’ and more audience participation ‘clap-your-hands’ with ‘Radio Ga Ga.’ While rehearsing ‘Ga Ga’ for the live show, Fred had substituted the word radio with the rhyming word fellatio. This caused the band to break down in fits of laughter. Fred liked to surprise and provoke, but above all he loved to perform and to perform well.
There was only one occasion where I was really disappointed with Fred’s live performance, as to me he was the consummate professional. It was at the only show the band ever played in New Zealand, an outdoor venue at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland. New Zealand: beautiful country, but hardly a rock tour paradise with its severe lack of clubs, drugs and loose women; which inspired us to suggest that the authorities put a sign up at immigration stating: Check your genitals in here — you will not be requiring them during your visit. Unless you like sheep…?
When Fred came on stage, he was late and clearly drunk. Boredom or bad influences? Both. He was late, due to Tony Williams our wardrobe ‘mistress’, having dressed him with his trousers back to front, which had gone undetected until Fred began his long walk to the outdoor stage. Tony was invariably drunk himself and often had the shakes, asking: ‘Dear boy, could you help me thread this needle?’ Lovely man, who became Mr Hyde when he drank. At those times, just being his friend became a full-time job.
As the show started, Fred was giggling and forgetting words to songs, his timing was off and he even asked me what songs he had to play — and how did they go! The show was not a disaster, but Fred sporadically lost his grip and the rest of Queen suffered as a result. The encore was the classic Elvis Presley song ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and invited onstage to join in was Tony — not drunken ‘wardrobe’ Tony thinking he could have a sing-along, but Tony Hadley, singer and front man of Spandau Ballet. Tony, who was on a break from his own tour, is a great, unpretentious guy — but he didn’t know he words! A rock singer who doesn’t know the words to Elvis Presley’s ‘Jailhouse Rock?’
While crouched at the end of Fred’s piano watching him singing his heart out, I occasionally looked out at the audience and pondered on life, death and where I was going on my own personal journey. What would I do? What was this life all about? Why was I doing it? By my mid-twenties I had become a sub-Steinway Sage. ‘Is this the real life? Is this just Battersea?’ The penultimate line in Bohemian Rhapsody: ‘Nothing really matters…’ became poignant to me as I often reflected on the futility of all this ‘rock stuff’ and how easily jaded we could become on the road. However, as the song ended and all the lights came up, illuminating the thousands of people in raptures over ‘Bo Rhap,’ then I guess it did really matter to some people and was an important part of their lives at that time.
Queen would then rip into the next rocking song and my introspection evaporated. Back to business… The final song of Queen’s set often climaxed with me setting off a chain of pyro explosions across the front of the stage — and singeing a few photographers and security guards in the process. Fair sport. Brian was the only other member of Queen to address the audience directly, and usually only once or twice. In the mid-1970s, before the final song of Queen’s set, Brian would announce: ‘We would like to leave you as we always leave you — In The Lap Of The Gods.’ (Crew version: ‘We’d like to leave you as we always leave you — bored and screaming for your money back!’)
Queen would exit the stage to tremendous applause, leaving us in the twilight zone before encores. All around were thousands of lit matches and lighters held aloft, sparkling in the air, thick with smoke, pyrotechnic dust, humidity and an energy-charged atmosphere. This became a common sight, but the first time I saw it in America I just wanted to stop, stare, absorb it all and see how long the lights could be sustained. Would you like one more? An encore?