Queen (wanna)bes


March 17, 2006


"Of course it wasn't really Queen on stage -- how could it be without Freddie Mercury?" a reviewer for a newspaper in Belfast noted last June. "But in every other sense, this was a true royal command performance."

Go ahead and accuse me of abandoning my usually acute "nostalgia alert" oldies-act warning system. But even though the show is being billed as "Queen + Paul Rodgers"-- the gruff-voiced former singer for Free and Bad Company is as much of stylistic contrast as one can imagine from the flamboyant Mercury, and I can certainly live without ever hearing "Feel Like Making Love" again -- I am nonetheless excited about the chance to see one of the most over-the-top bands in rock history (or some facsimile thereof) in concert one more time.

"Tie Your Mother Down." "Fat Bottomed Girls." "Killer Queen." "Keep Yourself Alive." I am so there!

This only slightly chagrinned Queen fan spoke to guitarist Brian May from London several weeks before he began the American leg of the reunion tour with original drummer Roger Taylor, his old friend Rodgers and assorted hired backing musicians.

Q. Brian, I think American fans of a certain age assume that all English rock stars know each other, and they probably gather once a year at some fancy club in London. How did you first meet Paul Rodgers?

A. Ooh, that's going back. I know we said hi when we went to [Led Zeppelin and Bad Company manager] Peter Grant's office to talk about management, and Paul was just leaving and that was it. But Paul was a hero of ours -- we wouldn't have said that much more to him really. He is the same age as us, but Free was out there at such a young age conquering the world, it's incredible. [Guitarist] Paul Kossoff is a great hero to me and still is.

Anyway, Paul [Rodgers] probably said hi at that stage, and I would bump into him at various times, and we would remain in touch and send each other Christmas cards. And I would play with him on a couple of occasions just to get up and do a song, and it always felt good. "All Right Now" is in my blood, and it was never a problem if Paul would say, "You wanna come and play this?" But it wasn't until the Fender gig [the September 2004 50th anniversary party for Fender guitars] that it hit me so hard that we had such a good flow of energy and what that could mean. Something went "bing!" in my head -- a light went on -- and I went, "My God! Why didn't we think of Paul [for Queen]?" Paul's wife was there, and he looked at me and then looked to her and said, "All you guys need is a drummer."

Q. A lot of people have noted that it's actually a liberating thing that he's such a different kind of vocalist, because he doesn't have the burden of trying to imitate Freddie.

A. Absolutely. It's wonderful because there is no sense of re-treading old ground; it all feels new with Paul and that's wonderful. He's such a great talent to work with.

Q. Were there earlier discussions over the years about touring with somebody else?

A. Yeah, occasionally, but on the whole I have to tell you I was fairly happy with my life. I didn't want to be wrenched out to spend months away from home again; it's a big decision, and I can't overstate that. You're used to having your time and your freedom after you have had years on the road, and there is a part of you that doesn't want to say goodbye to your home and family. It has to be good for you to want to do that. Yet now I feel that it is good -- too good of an opportunity to miss.

Q. Let me ask an indelicate question: Given your success, are you rich enough to never have to work again if you don't want to?

A. Ah, yes! But I have to tell you that I never did it for money anyway. Maybe that sounds a little bit altruistic, but I can tell you that when we lived in a bed-sit when we started out with Queen, I was perfectly happy with fish fingers and cod in a bag. I never felt a need for money. Yes, I do have it now. But if it disappeared tomorrow, I would survive and still make music.

Q. Was the grind of touring the reason that original bassist John Deacon opted out of the reunion?

A. Yeah. John is in a different place, and when the subject came up, the first thing we did was ask John, but he prefers not to. He wants his life as it is now and doesn't want to go back into that -- what can I call it? -- that jungle.

Q. Was it like riding a bicycle again for you and Roger Taylor?

A. Yes. There is something that happens when Roger and I play together; we're like brothers. We fight, and there is a certain amount of needling between us, but the brotherly thing means that things work. Everybody says that as soon as we sit down together and play, something strange and wonderful happens. I'd be the first to admit that I'm sure I play better with Roger than with anyone else.

Q. I interviewed Roger years ago, before the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, and we talked about how drummers never get credit for anything besides drumming, though throughout Queen's history, he was also important as a vocalist and songwriter. Was showing people that part of the incentive for him?

A. Yeah. I think he would be very mad, still, if he was talking to you now. He became a major writer and wrote a couple of the bigger hits like "A Kind of Magic" and "These Are the Days of Our Lives," which is a very beautiful song I think. And he plays pretty good guitar, too.

Q. How about Queen's influence? We've seen so many examples of that, including last year's "Killer Queen" tribute album. What do you hear carrying the stamp of Queen's legacy that gets you most excited?

A. It makes me very happy if people refer to it in any way, like when the Foo Fighters talk about us in a complimentary way. I find it very rewarding and exciting, because they're the pinnacle of what's going on at the moment. The Darkness also acknowledges us as a great influence. It makes me very happy that we're a part of the river that flows -- we had our influences and they had us, and it makes me proud.

Q. The thing that always strikes me is that Queen has such a variety of different influences and wide-ranging elements in its sound. There's the "Tie Your Mother Down" Queen, the "Bohemian Rhapsody" Queen, the "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" Queen -- few bands attempt to run the whole gamut of styles as you guys did.

A. Yes, it was very wide; we didn't feel any boundaries. That was the fun of it, really, and it still is. Our influences -- a lot of them were half unconscious things that we heard when we were kids, and of course it was very varied during those days. There was no rock 'n' roll when I was really small; you heard ['50s children's musician] Uncle Mac playing things like "The Laughing Policeman" and "The Thunder and Lightning Polka" and skiffle, and we had a fantastic place for us to grow as seeds.

Q. There were also very few genre boundaries during the psychedelic explosion in the mid-'60s, when you started playing, or in the glam movement of the early '70s, when Queen began to make its mark.

A. Yeah, and to me, that's something rather precious. Psychedelia for me embodied freedom and new growth, and that stays with me, though I didn't take the drugs. For me, I just wanted it to be the pure music; there was enough there to keep me excited, and there still is.

Q. Is there talk of recording again with this new band?

A. There is a lot of talk, but no recording at the moment. The touring is tough enough right now; physically, it's a mountain, because we all really need to get in shape. But I think we would like to do a bit of recording, because there does seem to be a good chemistry, good feel and a good marriage of life views. I think we are quite close in a sense, Paul and me, in what we think is important in life and what we want to write about. So I'd love to see it happen.