When I spoke with Roger Taylor in 1993, the Queen drummer was 43 years old and had lost his longtime day job. Two decades later, at the same age, I was in a similar jam.
Taylor (pictured above, at right, alongside guitarist Brian May) entered middle age as a multimillionaire rock star, the jetsetting member of one of the biggest, most hedonistic bands of all time and the writer of hits like “Radio Ga Ga” and “A Kind of Magic.” As for my accomplishments, uh, never mind.
What we did have in common at 43 was an uncertain professional future. I had been fired after 23 years at Reuters, and Queen had lost singer Freddie Mercury to AIDS in November 1991. Taylor and his surviving bandmates, May and bassist John Deacon, paid tribute to their flamboyant frontman by organizing a charity concert at Wembley Stadium five months later. They backed an all-star lineup that included Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie, Elton John and Robert Plant. The performances with vocalists George Michael and Lisa Stansfield came out on a five-track album called Five Live in April 1993. That was Taylor’s reason for calling me that month from England.
We spoke as the jury in the retrial of the four Los Angeles cops involved in the Rodney King beating continued its lengthy deliberations. Taylor was worried about the verdict because he had to be in L.A. the following week and did not want his visit marred by a sequel to the previous year’s riots. The interview was a relaxed affair, a relief since Queen never went out of their way to butter up the press. When Mercury finally confirmed that he had AIDS, the day before he died, his statement noted that he was “famous for my lack of interviews.”
Here are some edited highlights focusing on the Freddie tribute. The considerably longer version, covering Queen’s career and Freddie’s death, appears in my book Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, available here.
Given that some of Queen’s biggest moments have been in these sorts of extravaganzas, like Live Aid –
– Rising to the occasion, it’s called!–
Is that perhaps a fitting finale for the band?
Well maybe. I don’t know. People keep asking me, they say, “What are you going to do? Is that it? Are you going to stay together?” We’re all still friends, we’re obviously in business together, we still sell records. We’ve got to finish one album yet with Freddie’s voice on it. Together we’re great friends. But at the same time Brian is pursuing a solo career at the moment, Brian May. And in fact I’ve been writing for the last year, well since Freddie died really. I’ve built a studio at home here and I’m actually recording a solo album here, over quite a long time. So I’m looking forward to actually completing that, although it’s quite a long way off at the moment. Whether we’ll actually play together again I’m not sure, apart from in the studio. I really couldn’t say.
Did Freddie complete the vocals for all the songs?
The three of us did all the harmonies – Freddie, myself and Brian. But he’s just so incredibly irreplaceable in a way. He was so big, bigger than life. He was a remarkably –, he was a great person and we all miss him so much. We don’t feel really that we could replace him. Having said that it’s great for the three of us to be playing with George Michael singing because, I tell you, he sang so wonderfully.
It can’t be too much fun making that record without Freddie
We haven’t actually got ourselves into the studio yet to tackle it, because it’s all stuff that was recorded before Freddie died. I know it’s there, it’s waiting to be finished and in a way it’ll be nice to get it finished, and it will also be really a matter of pride to make a really good job of it, a really decent job of it.
Does that fulfill your U.S. obligations with Hollywood Records?
It’s not really a matter of fulfilling obligations because if there is no more there’s no more. That’s it. That’s your obligation. But that’s definitely the last they’re gonna get with Freddie Mercury singing. But who knows? Queen, whether it will continue in some other form, I really can’t answer. But nobody’s had any bright ideas yet.
I guess it’s similar to the issues faced by the Doors after Jim Morrison died
I suppose so. But I’d like to think we were – oh, I don’t wanna knock the Doors – a more democratic organization maybe, than the Doors. I don’t know. Maybe they were a democratic organization. But it is true that the three of us instrumentally play wonderfully together, it’s like an old shoe. It just slots in and there it is. It sounds enormous, sounds like 10 people, and one knows what the other is going to play next. There’s no doubt about it. Like on the tribute thing, it was quite interesting, y’know?
Just going back to that concert, how would you describe the emotions of you and your bandmates beforehand and on the day?
I can’t speak for the others, but for me it was a helluva lot of work. It was such intensive work for about three to four months, but it didn’t quite sink in that it was suddenly all over. I just went on holiday for about two months. It went too quickly to be emotional, almost. I was concentrating so much on making sure the thing went OK and then all of a sudden it was over.
Q magazine ran a series of photos from the concert a few months ago, and you were in virtually every shot, looking very busy –
– and extremely tired! I’ve never given more telephone interviews than I gave over those three months, with people ringing me at four and five in the morning from all over the world, saying, ‘Well, what if I do this?’ Well, you do that. Let me get some sleep.
I understand Madonna was supposed to appear (according to Q)?
No. No. No. I’m afraid there’s no truth in that. I can’t really see what Madonna would relate to, at all. I know we don’t relate to her! I don’t know which song she would’ve done, but I’d like to hear it! We thought it apt that nobody should play “Another One Bites the Dust” because that was rather unfortunate phrasing there.
Do you have any poignant memories from the show?
I’ve got many poignant memories. It brought back old times, like playing with David Bowie out the front again. I think really probably the standout moment for me was when Axl (Rose) came on to join Elton in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I thought spoke volumes in a way. I thought that was a great moment. It made me smile.
Do you think the concert had any effect on AIDS consciousness?
Who knows? I think people were conscious, but it was a great platform at the time that we really had to take advantage of, apart from celebrating Freddie and his life, etc. We almost had a duty – we had the global platform – to bring to young people, just to remind them – not in a boring way hopefully – of the dangers. And if it did that at the time that’s as much as we could have done. We must remember that in Africa, because it was aired in Africa, they don’t have the educational awareness that we have or the efficiency that we have in the westernized countries. So I do hope it did some good. There’s no way to tell. There’s no such thing as an awareness meter.
So you’re fairly philosophical about the whole thing?
That’s the only way you can be. You do your best, and hope you did a bit of good. There’s nothing else you can do and by worrying about it, you’re definitely wasting brain cells, I think.
It’s refreshing that you have such a realistic attitude
It’s the only way. We miss Freddie very much because we really were the greatest of friends and he was a part of our lives and we miss him like hell every day. But life does go on, and let’s face it, we’ve been very lucky. We had an incredible career. We’ve had an incredible career.
What do you think some of the legacies will be, both of Queen and of Freddie?
I’m continually amazed at the young age of a lot of people that like our music. It’s just quite extraordinary. I see 9-year-olds playing the Greatest Hits II and that’s quite a big album with 9-year-olds, which I find staggering, which is absolutely terrific. I think at the end of the day, if your music’s touched a lot of people and brought some kind of entertainment or enjoyment – whatever – affected them in some way positively, I think you’re doing a good job as a musician. In 50 years from now, who cares really? It’s interesting. At least we managed to bring quite a lot to a lot of people, which is good. Hopefully it’s accessible.
You never lectured us with the music, which was nice
I think there were a few messages in there, but hopefully they weren’t sort of preachy. I can’t stand being preached at especially by some piddly pop star, y’know? And I’m sure most people are the same! We took ourselves seriously in a way that we were proud of our music, but hopefully we weren’t ever pretentious about it. We did have a sense of humor about it, there’s a lot of tongue in cheek there.
I was reading some of the press accounts, and I know you guys don’t get on too well with us
To be honest, the last 10 years we could’ve given a shit, y’know? In fact it seems to be a rather better relationship than it was then. It doesn’t really matter, no.
I guess press attention is good at the outset, but once you’ve got your franchise and your fans, it doesn’t matter
That’s right. Really we found that there were two things. There was basically people and radio that were absolutely vitally important, and really nothing else mattered in terms of popularity.
But without the Queen name, Brian May is essentially starting out from scratch, isn’t he?
In some ways he is, yeah. It’s tough, isn’t it, because the power of the brand name is extraordinary. Look at Roger Waters or even Mick Jagger, who finds it very hard to have a hit. I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense, but (it’s) the incredible power of the brand name to get across to the great mass.
They’re two interesting examples because they’ve done lots of press. Roger Waters is still reliving his Pink Floyd days
Yes, I don’t think he should do press, actually! I’m surprised they let him out! I think he suffers from being a terminal arsehole.
Copyright © 1993, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING