By Mark Guarino
What do you call a retirement plan for classic rockers?
The greatest hits tour.
That’s not in the cards when bands lose their lead singers to death or bitter feuds. But to get around such a trivial detail, surviving musicians eyeing one last payday have recently learned to stitch together new line-ups using recognizable faces that can simulate the glory years and sometimes, introduce some prestige of their own.
The Doors tour with the Cult’s Ian Astbury. The Cars will roll out a new version with Todd Rundgren. INXS hired an Elvis impersonator through a reality TV show. The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd have been through so many incarnations to count. And next week, Queen will be resurrected, with Paul Rodgers in the role of lead singer Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991.
Substituting the singer of Bad Company and Free for Mercury is an unusual choice considering the former Queen singer is one of the most flamboyant lead singers in rock history and Rodgers is one of the most stiff. The union took place last year when Rodgers performed Free’s “All Right Now” with Queen guitarist Brian May at a party celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fender guitar. What later sealed the deal was a combined performance at the U.K. Music Hall of Fame.
Queen last toured in 1986 before Mercury was stricken with AIDS. Starting in the mid-1970s, Mercury was unlike any other hard rock singer of his time. His songs featured staggeringly complex arrangements, mimicked opera conventions and his vocals rode a rollercoaster of ranges. When he died, he and Queen created a body of work that was as completely distinct as the audience is groomed.
This tour featuring a setlist representing Bad Company, Free and Queen received glowing reviews in the U.K. Founding Queen bassist John Deacon declined the invitation to participate, leaving May and founding drummer Roger Taylor. Taylor, 55, recently talked from his home in England about Queen stepping up to the throne once more.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: When you were putting this tour together, were you aware you were setting yourself up to criticism from people who might insist that this line-up isn’t Queen?
A: Absolutely, I guess. In fairness, we were never used to critical acclaim. The public liked us but the critics didn’t. I suppose we were right ready for that. You can’t live your life trying to please everybody. I guess it was like, ‘this is a great singer, this is the best you can do’. You can’t bring back Freddie.
Q: With so much history among you and Rogers, how do you go about structuring a show like this?
A: That was our main problem. Our own catalog was big and Paul has a big catalog too. In the States, we’re going to change it slightly and make it more based on the early years of Queen probably because that’s our better-known years in the States. We’ve been changing it around a bit each night to keep our interest alive, to keep us on our toes. We want to play what we feel what our audiences want to hear.
Q: Queen keeps popping up in pop culture, from the “Wayne’s World” movies to all the airplay you get in sports stadiums. How do you account for the music’s constant renewal?
A: It’s a continual delightful surprise. I don’t know, I can’t really answer it. I think people like the sound of some of that earlier records that don’t sound dated. They’re strong musically and probably melodically strong. They certainly seemed to transcend generations. The average age of people in the audiences in Spain and Italy was 20. That absolutely astounded us. We expected gray beards.
Q: Queen was always more popular in the U.K. than in the U.S. Why?
A: I think due to a number of factors. One, we didn’t concentrate on the U.S. Two, Freddie came out (of the closet) in a big way and that probably turned off the hard rock fans. People were not as open-minded as they are today. Three, the payola scam in the record industry created a complicated situation with Capitol. We had a hit in Europe with “Radio Ga Ga” but there was a backlash (in the U.S.).
Q: I’m surprised Freddie’s homosexuality was a factor. It seemed like rock fans at the time were oblivious even though the band itself was called Queen.
A: Given that when we first met him he didn’t know he was gay, that was something he came to realize. It just became obvious. The big gay thing was popular in Britain. Then we made club music. “Another One Bites the Dust” was a massive dance hit, making us go away from our rock roots; I think some people really didn’t like that turn of direction. I was always amazed (people didn’t get it). We used to come out wearing the most outrageous stuff onstage. This is not lumberjack territory. We came on virtually dressed as women. Everyone seemed to think it was very cool. Then it all changed. Fans didn’t (appreciate that) suddenly one of (us) was really serious. Maybe the wind changed a little bit.
Q: Paul Rodgers is choosing not to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on this tour. Instead, it becomes a duet between him and Freddie via archival video. What’s the origin of that song?
A: It was very different. That song was very much a creation of Freddie’s. He had it all in his head. He had written down massive lengths of it. To us, we thought, ‘this is very strange.’ For all those stops and starts, he would conduct us. Then, in the end, it came together in one seamless masterpiece or whatever you want to call it. It did all make sense in the end, I suppose, in many ways.
Q: Your setlist reflects songs in which you sang lead, probably for the first time live.
A: Brian and I do sing more lead than we ever did. It’s a big long show. And also because some of those song our own songs. They’re very personalized songs. It does give us a more chance, I suppose, to spread our singing. It’s a pretty tough gig for Paul. Some of it is high and demanding. (The show) got to be two-and-a-half hours.
Q: So many bands after Queen, from the Smashing Pumpkins to Jane’s Addiction, seem to have roots in Queen. Are there new British bands you’re following in which you see the lineage?
A: Probably the most influenced band by us is the Darkness. They didn’t break through as I thought they might. I like them but I don’t think they’re the future of rock and roll. I think what they do has been done but not necessarily by us. I think it’s a little regressive. It reminds me of the old bands. Franz Ferdinand, they look like the Knack. There’s just a lot of repetition, skinny white ties and black shirts.
Q: Queen went through so many transformations — what pushed you to keep changing?
A: I think we were trying to avoid the obvious or the cliché … We also wanted to be eclectic and embrace different styles. I think we got bored easily. We wanted to do different things. A lot of facets of what we did hopefully keep people’s interests. A good example is, if I listen to my favorite Beatles album. They had fantastic diversity. We were aspiring to that. In one album, to have one track not sound like next track.
Q: The tour generated controversy in the U.S. because of the ticket pricing. Some say it’s much too high for a band that is missing its original lead singer.
A: Brian and I are very concerned that tickets are not overpriced. We only heard whispers about this quite often last year very late. We took advice on this and we wanted (tickets) to be readily available and to not price ourselves out of the market as, in my opinion, certain people have done over the last couple of years. I just hope that we haven’t joined that bandwagon. How much are they?
Q: The top ticket goes for $200.
A: I have to say, in my opinion, that’s too much. I certainly regret that. It does sound too much to me for a night out for two or three of you.