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Roger Taylor interview: Bowie, Sun City, flying solo and the joy of Adam Lambert

Roger Taylor
(Image credit: Gus Stewart/Getty Images )

The past 18 months of pandemic panic and existential terror have been good for Roger Taylor. Forced into an extended break from touring the world with Queen, the veteran drummer, songwriter and vocalist began tinkering in his Surrey studio during the early days of lockdown. Before long an entire solo album began taking shape, Taylor having followed strict social-distancing rules by playing almost all the instruments himself. 

“I guess lockdown just seemed to spur a creative spurt,” Taylor explains. “I had a few songs that have crept out in the last three or four years, and then I just had a rush of blood to the head and we suddenly realised this would make a nice album.” 

Released in October to warm reviews, Outsider rounded off a quiet 2021 on a triumphant note for Taylor. His sixth solo album, it debuted at No.3 in the UK chart, his highest-ever placing outside Queen. These autumnal reflections and pastoral musings on mortality, regret, love and the soothing eternal rhythms of nature clearly struck a chord in these virus-haunted times. 

“’Autumnal’ is a very good word for it,” says the 72-year-old. “It’s slightly nostalgic and wistful and a bit more grown-up than my last couple of albums.”

For all its mellow mid-life motifs, Outsider is not entirely free of hard-rocking moments, with Taylor grunting lasciviously as he wallops the drum kit on the bluesy, raunchy More Kicks

“Oh yeah, I can still clobber away, believe me,” he says with a laugh. “But I like to think I clobber with more subtlety these days. Maybe not quite as much power, but more technique. My son Rufus has got all the power now. He plays for The Darkness. He is possibly the loudest drummer on earth.” 

Outsider climaxes with Journey’s End, an ambitious mini-symphony that clocks in at even longer than Bohemian Rhapsody. Lush and cinematic, most of the album’s ruminative sound paintings are rich in echoes of David Bowie, John Lennon and Pink Floyd, but far removed from the sound of classic Queen. 

“I don’t try and sound like anybody,” he insists. “I don’t try and sound like Queen or not sound like Queen, I just want it to be me. You mention Pink Floyd, who I love and know, and Bowie who I loved and knew, and John Lennon, who unfortunately I didn’t know. I’m not trying to sound like any of those people, but maybe the influences come though subconsciously.”

Speaking of Bowie, Taylor paid tribute to his late friend and collaborator by performing a rousing cover version of “Heroes” on his nationwide tour in October. He recently claimed that if he could relive one event in his life, it would be the weekend that he and Bowie spent finishing off Under Pressure together in the studio in 1981. Most Queen fans already know that Bowie also featured on another song from their Hot Space album, Cool Cat, but then requested that his backing vocals were removed from the official recording shortly before release. 

The Bowie version has since leaked online, inevitably. However, rumours have circulated for years that Bowie and Queen recorded more music together that remains unreleased. Excitingly, Taylor confirms this piece of rock folklore to be kind of true. Disappointingly, the only other song he recalls recording with Bowie was a rough version of Criminal World by minor late-70s British New Wave band Metro, which Bowie later reworked into a slick funk-pop arrangement for his blockbuster 1983 album Let’s Dance

“I did a version with him of Criminal World, which wasn’t very good, actually,” Taylor says, laughing. “I think we had probably had too much to drink. Then he did another version that came out on Let’s Dance… Hmmm, I don’t think we did anything else. It’s all a bit hazy. No, nothing that I can remember, anyway. Mind you, I do keep hearing things that I’ve forgotten we did. I would have loved to have done more with David, because I found him a joy and a delight and an extraordinary person."

In contrast to his songwriting with Queen, Taylor’s solo albums have never shied away from political statements, protest songs and angry social commentary. 

“In Queen we always tried to be apolitical,” he explains. “But when you have the freedom to express yourself as a single person you can say what the hell you like, which I’ve always tried to do.” 

Outsider continues this tradition with the self-explanatory Gangsters Are Running This World, which appears on the album in two different arrangements. The scathing lyric is aimed squarely at dictators across the globe, from Putin to Lukashenko to Bolsonaro. 

“It isn’t even political, it’s just a statement of fact,” Taylor says. “Because it seems fairly obvious to me, so many gangsters are running countries these days. And they are no more than gangsters… I’m talking about the Putins, the Bolsonaros, all those countries with these terrible right-wing dictators. They are influencing our lives in so many ways."

Of course, Queen’s “apolitical” stance has backfired on them badly in the past. Most notoriously in 1984, when they accepted an offer to play nine shows in the Las Vegas-style Sun City resort in Bophuthatswana, a bogus ‘independent tribal homeland’ created by South Africa’s apartheid regime, largely to attract tourist dollars. 

Queen were only following in the footsteps of Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Status Quo, Elton John and many more, but their visit drew much more flak. They were chastised by the United Nations and UK Musicians Union for breaking the cultural boycott, then implicitly shamed by ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt’s all-star supergoup Artists United Against Apartheid on their 1985 hit single Sun City.

For years afterwards, Queen protested defensively that their motives in playing to racially mixed crowds in Sun City were wholly honourable, and might even have helped hasten the end of apartheid. But today, almost four decades later, perhaps with more hindsight Taylor is more willing to concede that the band’s South African trip was a tactical error. 

“Oh shit, did we get grief for that,” he sighs. "There was no apartheid where we played, but there was apartheid in the country. I consider it a mistake in retrospect, but at the time we were only one of many artist who went – Elton John, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow. They didn’t get any stick, but we did. We went with the best possible intentions, actually. We didn’t make any money out of it. I remember Brian went to award some of the prizes at the Soweto festival. We went with the best intentions, but I still think it was kind of a mistake.” 

The year 2021 marked the thirtieth anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death, and also the tenth anniversary of Queen’s fruitful partnership with singer Adam Lambert. Looking forward rather than backward, the Queen machine is currently gearing up for a big comeback year in 2022. The European leg of the band’s Rhapsody word tour, on hold since February 2020, is finally going ahead next spring and summer, and will feature a hefty 10-date residency at London’s O2 arena. 

“We were very frustrated that we’ve had to postpone our Queen tour twice,” Taylor says. “The last tour we had was of the Far East, Australia and New Zealand, and it was joyous. We reached such a great point, great production, great people, it was such a happy tour. And we just managed to get out of Australia in time before the lockdown, which was kind of a miracle.”

Queen’s current third-act resurgence was partly fuelled by the phenomenal success of the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, which has garnered the band a whole new live audience. “Absolutely,” Taylor says, grinning. “We sold even more tickets at our concerts, we suddenly had loads and loads of young people. Because Brian and I are very senior these days.”

Bohemian Rhapsody may have opened to mixed reviews, but it went on to break box-office records and win four Oscars, including one for Rami Malek’s uncanny depiction of Freddie Mercury. But before that, the film went through years of tortuous development and script revisions. Both Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Wishaw left the project after being cast as Mercury, followed by the dramatic firing of director Bryan Singer midway through the shoot. Against the odds, the troubled production became a commercial blockbuster as big as Queen themselves, earning close to a billion dollars to date. 

“It was just delightful,” Taylor says. “Everything resulting from the film was just so positive. It was fantastic. I feel that when we were looking at all the seventeen scripts, we kind of got it right in the end. The balance is right. We wanted to take people on a journey, make them feel up and then down, then joyous at the end.” 

If Baron Cohen had remained in the starring role, then Bohemian Rhapsody would have been a very different animal. Although he officially left the film on good terms, Taylor does not mince his words about the comedy star’s limited acting skills. 

“I think he would have been utter shit!” he says, laughing. “Sacha is pushy, if nothing else. He’s also six inches too tall. But I watched his last five films and came to the conclusion he’s not a very good actor. I might be wrong there, ha! I thought he was an utterly brilliant subversive comedian, that’s what he’s great at. Anyway, I think Rami did a brilliant job in an almost impossible role.” 

Much of the criticism directed at Bohemian Rhapsody was for taking excessive dramatic license with Queen’s history. Most contentiously, that moving the date Mercury told the other band members he was HIV positive forward to lend extra dramatic tension to their Live Aid performance, was a cynical distortion too far for some. 

“It didn’t fictionalise the real story, only in detail,” Taylor protests. “As you say, it messed with the timeline. But when you’re making a movie, which is approximately a hundred minutes long, you have to mess with the timeline to make it work. The movie has to work, that’s priority one. Even documentaries don’t stick to the absolute timeline, they are all squeezed and tweaked and altered, to be effective. It’s a fucking film! It’s not claiming to be a documentary.” 

Anyone who caught the last Queen + Adam Lambert tour will know that these glam-rock veterans still push showmanship and spectacle to 11 and beyond. Lambert feels like a natural 21st-century replacement for Mercury, channelling the famously flamboyant frontman’s electrifying high-camp charisma without resorting to karaoke impersonation. Taylor and May even tried recording new material in Nashville with their new singer, which remains incomplete, but Taylor hopes they will finish it eventually.

“Adam is a joy to work with,” Taylor says. “My honest opinion is that Adam is one of the greater singers in the world, if not the greatest. I don’t know anybody that can sing the way he can. For Brian and I it’s just such a joyful combination. We never thought we’d find somebody that would approach Freddie, but we did.”

Now that Charlie Watts has sadly departed and Phil Collins is too fragile to pick up his sticks, Taylor is something of a lone elder statesmen in British rock nowadays, the last in a long line of venerable gentleman drummers. At 72 he acknowledges that retirement is a looming option, but not one to be taken just yet. With a hit solo album just released and a massive Queen tour on the horizon, he is too busy enjoying a blazing autumn to worry about bleak midwinter. 

“I doubt I will be doing this much longer, but I’m still able to do it, so I really embrace it,” he says. “And I want everybody to enjoy it.”

Outsider is out now via UMusic.