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Roger Taylor on Elvis, Freddie Mercury’s belief in Queen and his weekend with Bowie

The drummer for legendary rock band Queen talks to The Big Issue about his childhood, Live Aid and the band’s continued success.

Queen drummer Roger Taylor knew he wanted to join a band after hearing Little Richard on the radio as a child. But it was Freddie Mercury’s “unshakeable belief” that made him realise he could make a living out of it.

He tells The Big Issue his younger self would have been “flabbergasted” by Queen’s level of success, and discusses a New York weekend alone with David Bowie.

My thoughts at 16 were mostly about girls and music, music and girls. I wasn’t madly into school, but I had a band from age 12, and I could actually do gigs while being at school. My passion for music came from first hearing rock ’n’ roll on the radio. Until then radio was so limited, Doris Day and Perry Como and the BBC Light Orchestra, or whatever they were called, all that crap.

Then suddenly you’d get Rock Around the Clock or Elvis. That was like a revelation. Hearing Little Richard – it was like a shaft of magical sunlight. After that all I wanted was to join a band.

My parents wanted me to go to university and all that stuff most middle-class parents want.  My mother and father split up when I was eight, and we had a pretty rocky time actually, my sister and myself. Being in a band was an escape from some of that.

I was always very close to my mum, and I have to say my dad, before he stopped living with us, was always supportive of what I did. He bought me my first set of second-hand drums, which we built up one drum at a time; it started off with two drums, and ended up with three. 

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I suppose I knew making it in music was unlikely but you have to believe. When I look back, it seems the odds were impossible, almost insurmountable. But if you don’t have a sort of unshakeable faith in yourself, I don’t think you’re ever going to do it.

When I met up with Brian [May] and then eventually Freddie [Mercury] – Freddie especially had unshakeable belief in us as a band. That’s when I knew for sure I was not going to be a dentist.

Taylor with Queen bandmates Freddie Mercury, Brian May and John Deacon. Image: Michael Putland/Getty Images

We thought between the four of us in Queen there was magic in the machine. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

We felt very much the same about a lot of things, and there is tremendous strength in that. But in the very early days you’re just doing your best really. I knew Brian was an incredible guitar player, and Freddie had this terrific self-belief.

Only later did his amazing songwriting talent come out, and his voice got better. He wasn’t the greatest singer when I met him, he sort of created himself out of a lump of Plasticine. 

Freddie had a natural exuberance, which then turned into flamboyance. He was a breath of fresh air to be around. I remember when we were all in the same flat and he was working in Harrods, he used to come in fresh from work and I thought, oh, Fred’s back!

He was lovely to be with. My mother could never work out how his trousers were always so uncreased, they were perfect. Then we found out he put them under the mattress every night to press them.

The younger me would have been flabbergasted by the level of success that we’ve achieved all over the world. We had faith but we didn’t expect to become so completely immersed in the sort of musical wallpaper of the country.

Obviously I feel very grateful about that, very lucky to be one of just a few bands that really seem to transcend the generations. But it doesn’t happen overnight.

It takes a while before you realise, bloody hell, we have actually kind of made it. We didn’t suddenly get big headed, I don’t think. It took years to get big headed.

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I never worried about the impact of success. I wasn’t scared of press interest, though I didn’t particularly want it. We never courted the press actually. I think a lot of people confuse being in the press with being successful or financially successful, but there’s no real connection. There’s a lot of people who are in the press all the time and they’re actually broke.

So we didn’t pursue attention but we never thought, Oh no, we don’t want to be this big. We always wanted to be big and successful. These people that say, Oh no, it’s too much, I can’t take it  – I find them hard to believe actually. Some people are not equipped to make sure success doesn’t affect their personality and I think it’s important not to let that happen. You have to be strong.

At the time of Live Aid [in 1985] we were quite tired and slightly jaded. We’d done a lot of touring around the world and we’d come to a little bit of a hiatus really. I’d say our mental energy wasn’t at its highest. And I guess we weren’t the latest thing any more. So I think a lot of people were quite surprised when we kind of reminded them; Oh look, it’s Queen, they’ve got some good tunes and they’re very good live.

I think that was basically people’s initial reaction. Obviously we were a very professional outfit by then, we were pretty good at the job. And also what we were playing was very familiar to that audience. So Live Aid was just like a giant reminder to a lot of people that we weren’t dead yet. 

After Freddie went [he died in 1991 aged 45 due to Aids-related bronchial pneumonia] we didn’t know if anything would continue. We gave him all the support we could and that in turn gave us all a bit of strength, I think; we all huddled together. But it was such a shock when he eventually did go. And Brian and I thought, well that’s that with the band, it’s all over. But it just sort of refused to die.

And I’ve got to say, I was with Brian yesterday and we get on very well and we’re really happy, at our advanced age, that we can actually still do it. It’s a bit of a joy to have something to look forward to. We’re touring next year [with Adam Lambert] and I’m really looking forward to that.

We had quite a lot to do with the film [2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody], with the script etc. I know the timeline is a little bit screwed around, but it is entertainment.

I thought we got it pretty much right because essentially it’s true. It gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people and I think if you can do that with a movie you’ve done a good job. I was really, really happy that so many people liked it. You want a movie to entertain people, otherwise you’d be better making a documentary. 

Have I seen Rocketman? Yeah. I love Elton. I wish it had his voice in it. I wish it had been more about him and his music, and less about his troubles.

I’m not big on musicals and it was a bit too close to a musical for me. And I didn’t think it was a celebration of him in a musical sense. Obviously he was very pleased with it but I wouldn’t have done it like that.

A positive change for 30 years

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If I could re-live one moment in my life it would be the weekend I spent in the Power Station studios in New York with David Bowie, when we finished off Under Pressure [in 1981]. It was mainly just the two of us.

That whole weekend was very satisfying, I was so happy with that song. We knew that we were doing a good piece of work and I got on very well with him. He was so inventive and brilliant in every sense, and he had a great sense of humour – that seems to keep cropping up in the people I like, a sense of humour.

It was horrible to lose him in 2016. What a shock. He was a friend and he was a genius. I really loved him.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone in my life, it’s got to be Freddie. I was literally on my way to see him, less than half a mile away, when they rang me in my car and told me he had gone. I just stopped the car on Kensington High Street, in a kind of shock. Because even when you know somebody is going to die, it’s still such a shock when they actually do.

I just wish I’d been there to give him moral support. That’s what he wanted. He liked his friends around. I think [the subsequent outpouring of love for him] has been terrific. He would have been so happy about it. But I just wish I’d got to say goodbye. 

Roger Taylor’s new solo album Outsider is out now

Interview: Jane Graham @Janeannie

This article is taken from an interview in the The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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