Queen and Paul Rodgers? Compared to Queen and Freddie Mercury, it’s a combination that’s like chalk and cheese. Or fire and water, if you will. And to Rodgers’ credit, it’s a fact that’s acknowledged freely – pun most definitely intended – by the veteran frontman himself.
As Classic Rock wrote this story in mid-March 2005, Rodgers had been rehearsing with Queen stalwarts guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor for a little over a month. But by the time anyone read this, the new band – officially dubbed ‘Queen + Paul Rodgers’ – had played their first show, an Aids Awareness Concert in South Africa on March 19. They’d performed a special preview concert for their European tour, at London’s Brixton Academy on March 28. (The group’s line-up was augmented by keyboardist Spike Edney, New York bassist Danny Miranda and guitarist Jaimie Moss.)
So, what could fans expect when the British leg kicked off officially, at Newcastle- upon-Tyne Metro Arena on May 3 2005?
“I’m not supposed to tell you,” laughs May. “It’s still slightly fluid, to be honest. We’ve rehearsed more songs than we’re actually going to be playing. But if you really want to know, I suppose it’s about 65 per cent Queen and, and… erm, hang on a minute… 35 percent Paul,” he says, doing the maths. “Something like that. But really we haven’t solidified the set yet. It’s close.”
Rodgers: “It’s largely Queen, I think people will expect to see that. Brian and Roger tell me they’ve always been big fans of Free. They want to do particular songs in the set that I wrote with Andy Fraser in Free, and a couple of the numbers I wrote with Mick [Ralphs] in Bad Company. There’s going to be a sprinkling of my songs throughout.”
Rodgers refers again to Freddie Mercury, who – incredibly – had been dead for 14 years that following November. “I think Freddie would be happy,” Paul insists, “because I feel his spirit throughout the music. I’ve been listening to so much of Queen generally, and Freddie’s singing specifically. Just studying his vocal style, really. Getting into the spirit of the man. And I feel, actually, quite close.”
It’s easy to be critical about May and Taylor linking up with Rodgers. (The other surviving member of Queen, bassist John Deacon, is retired from the stage.) But the fact is, the tickets for their tour sold out like stone-cold-crazy. The band had recently announced a massive outdoor show at London’s Hyde Park on July 8.
Rodgers, in particular, was amazed by the turn of events – particularly as that summer marked the 35th anniversary of when Free played the Isle Of Wight festival, in 1970.
“I was thinking today that I’ve lived about eight lifetimes. Here I am, I’m 55 years old, and I feel like I’m 17 again, starting a brand new career. It is quite incredible. We put the Hyde Park show in because the UK tour had sold out so quickly. A lot of people didn’t get the opportunity to buy tickets; it took them – and us – by surprise. It’ll be a great thrill; it’ll be the first time I’ve played Hyde Park.”
Talking to Rodgers and May, Classic Rock had little doubt that this alliance was for real. Yes, there were probably truckloads of money to be made by all parties. Yes, fervent Freddie fans might be sceptical about the entire shebang. And yes, it remained to be seen if Bohemian Rhapsody would be included in the band’s set. (Let alone songs from The Firm, Rodgers’ collaboration with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.)
But May, for one, remained defiant: “I’m not in the business of persuading anybody – if it doesn’t suit their palate, if they don’t like the idea, then that’s fine. I’m perfectly comfortable with that. To be truthful with you, we’ve dealt with cynicism our whole career. There’s always been people grousing and sniping. I don’t really have anything to say to the cynics except, fine, just stay away. I won’t say the negativity doesn’t affect you, but in a way it also makes you stronger.”
Rodgers urges: “Just come and see us play. The only way you’re going to know if this works or not is to go and see it. Quite honestly, I don’t think people can pre-judge anything at all.”
The whole Q+PR (calm down, Loftus Road fans) thing kicked off when Brian May and Paul Rodgers appeared together on stage in September 2004, at the Fender Stratocaster 50th anniversary show in London.
May: “We’d just finished playing All Right Now, and we both realised that it felt incredibly right. The chemistry was there, and there were sparks flying. Paul and me looked at each other and we went: ‘Hmmm…’ We both had the same thought in our minds. Then Paul’s girlfriend, Cynthia, said: ‘All you need is a drummer, don’t you?’ And I said: ‘Well, I might know a drummer…’
“That’s kind of where it came from. I got the tape of our performance and sent it to Roger, and he said: ‘Why didn’t we think of this before?’”
The trio’s relationship was cemented when Rodgers, May and Taylor played together at the UK Hall Of Fame Awards, belting out Queen’s We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, and finishing off with another version of Free’s All Right Now.
“Roger has always been the one who’s been keen to get back out on tour, “ May reveals. “It was me who was holding things back, because I didn’t think things felt right. There was no one on the horizon who I thought could do the job of singing with us. And then suddenly we’re looking at this man [Rodgers], who can not only do the job, he can do a lot more besides – he brings something completely new to it, and that’s what turned me around.
“To be honest with you, if you’d spoken to me even nine months ago, I would’ve said no, I’m never going out again – as far as Queen is concerned, that’s it.”
May speaks a lot about the ‘chemistry’ between him and Taylor, and Rodgers. Can he be more specific?
“There’s a reason for it, insofar as we both really grew up with Free’s music. Paul Rodgers is a very big influence on us, because Free were out there while we were still at college. Free’s Fire & Water album is one of our real inspirations and influences. Paul has been part of our history all along – and Freddie was a huge fan of Paul’s; he was one of the few singers he really looked up to.”
May adds: “Freddie used to give me a hard time if I wrote something that didn’t really suit him, and he’d say: ‘Look, Brian, you’re fucking writing this for Paul Rodgers, I can’t do this.’ It became a joke between us, because Paul had that blues edge and Freddie was something different – something very exceptional, as we know. So yes, Paul and Freddie might be poles apart, but there is an overlap because they can both sing Tie Your Mother Down, and it suits them both down to the ground – as we’ve discovered.”
Did Rodgers ever meet Freddie?
“Not properly,” Paul says, his Middlesbrough accent still very much in evidence. “I passed him on the stairs once – I passed the whole band on the stairs – when Queen were auditioning managers one time, and they went to see Peter Grant [who used to manage Rodgers and well as Led Zeppelin]. I happened to be visiting Peter as well. And we just said a quick hello, hey, how’re you doing… and that was it, really. But I got a very nice vibe from Freddie indeed. He seemed really, really cool.”
Rodgers has an active solo career. How does this collaboration with Queen fit in?
“I must say my solo band have been incredibly nice and understanding about it all. Howard Leese from Heart and the guys, they’ve just been great about it. There will be some solo dates in the future but for the moment I’m putting that to one side.
“I recently worked with the Four Tops. They made a DVD for their 50th anniversary in Detroit, and they invited me up. Aretha Franklin was there, and Sam from Sam & Dave, The Temptations were there as well… and I was actually the only white guy on that stage. Which was a real compliment. I didn’t even know that the soul family, if you like, had heard of me. So it was a terrific thing.”
Rodgers continues: “As a result of that, the company that was making the DVD, Omni Broadcasting, asked me to do my own DVD along the same lines. But I’ve had to put that on hold as well because this is a huge learning curve for me. I’ve got to learn pretty much the entire Queen catalogue in a short space of time, and well enough to be able to deliver it on stage. So it’s been my total focus.”
These are, obviously, extremely hectic times for May and Rodgers. We spoke to the duo separately: May was on the car phone in the back of a limo, speeding off to God-knows-where; Rodgers was holed up in a posh hotel in Bray, Berkshire, close to Queen’s secret rehearsal location.
The Queen + Paul Rodgers project – which was originally mooted as just a couple of isolated dates in London – had now taken on a seemingly unstoppable momentum, which had taken both May and Rodgers by surprise. The last full set of Queen shows, after all, was the Magic Tour way, way back in 1986.
May: “We’re already at the point of signing on the line for a tour in America, which we plan to do in the autumn. It makes me nervous. Well, being on stage doesn’t make me nervous, but it makes me nervous to realise that I am now in the process of giving away my life again. Being in hotel rooms, flying on planes here, there and everywhere… it’s quite tough, and I know Paul feels the same way. We’ve had lots of home time to enjoy in recent times… and this involves a sacrifice.”
Rodgers: “From my point of view, I hadn’t really planned on doing any full-on major tours whatsoever this year. In fact, the only reason I can actually do this venture with Brian and Roger is because I planned to pull back from my own shows in 2005, and just take it easy. So I didn’t quite realise this was such a huge undertaking. It’s taken my breath away.”
Prior to their encounter at the Fender Stratocaster anniversary show, May and Rodgers had collaborated sporadically in the past.
May: “We did a record together called Reaching Out, which was written by Andy Hill and Don Black, for the Rock Therapy charity. I’ve also played on one or two or Paul’s solo records. I played on a track called I’m Ready, which is on his blues album, and the other time when we worked together significantly was when I did this concert in Seville [Spain] called The Guitar Legends.
“I was hired to do the rock night and we had some of the world’s greatest guitarists there. But I didn’t want to have them all up there widdling on stage the whole time, so I rang up Paul and he came down. Of course, guitarists love to do all this highly technical stuff, but give them a chance to do the riff to All Right Now and they’re in seventh heaven. So Paul and me have been loosely in contact since then. It goes back some years.”
So, is Queen + Paul Rodgers a short- or long-term thing?
May: “It’s too early to say. We’re enjoying ourselves an awful lot, I have to say, so the signs are that we might want to take it further. But equally, we may have had enough of it after we’ve done this fairly intense tour. It’s a pretty serious tour, I have to say. It’s not the sort of thing I envisioned myself doing at this time of life, ha-ha!”
Rodgers: “We’re going along with how it feels – at the moment it’s wide open. We’re all songwriters, we’ve three pretty good songwriters in the band, so the chances are that we’ll start writing, given the opportunity. There are other things I’d like to do, obviously – I’d like to do that DVD, and I’ve been asked to do a solo album of acoustic material, which interests me too – but one can only do so much at a time.”
So is there, potentially, is the prospect of a Queen + Paul Rodgers album some time in the future?
“I wouldn’t say it was out of the question but it’s early days yet,” stresses Rodgers. “Really, the live shows are the main focus right now.”
Even though the spirit of Freddie Mercury still looms large, May has no qualms about teaming up with Rodgers: “I’m absolutely sure Freddie would love it. You might think it strange for me to say that, but I feel very tuned in to Freddie every day of my life. He was virtually a family member, and that’s partly why I haven’t wanted to do something like this up until now – I’ve never felt comfortable about any of the ideas that people came to us with.
“But I know that Freddie would be so happy to hear we’re doing something with Paul. I know Freddie would be very excited, and the other thing I know is that his mum’s excited, which means a lot to me. I’m in touch with her quite often. We’ve got the Bulsara family seal of approval. Absolutely. She said to me that she knows we’ll make her proud. That’s lovely. That’s all I can ask for.”
Brian May’s Favourite Paul Rodgers Track
“Apart from All Right Now, obviously, Can’t Get Enough by Bad Company has always been a big favourite of mine. They’re all favourites, to be honest. The entire Fire & Water album has never left me. We’ll be doing some of that on tour, and it’s a joy beyond compare. Every time we come to play one of Paul’s songs, everybody starts smiling. We just love it – it’s a sort of recreation for us.”
Paul Rodgers’ Favourite Queen Track
“There’s a song called The Show Must Go On, which is incredibly dramatic. In my early years as a singer, I listened a lot to Otis Redding. I still do, in fact. Otis has a great spirit and a great soul to his voice; his whole approach to music is very soulful. I’m trying to apply those things – that heart and that soul – to The Show Must Go On. Even though it’s early days, it’s sounding just monstrous.”