GUITARIST BRIAN MAY CAN STILL REMEMBER the moment when he first realized his band were on their way. It happened in 1973 when Queen played at London’s Imperial College, where he’d been a student and had been on the school’s entertainment committee. “We booked Jimi Hendrix to play in the Great Hall for 1,000 pounds,” he says “And then came the day when we played that hall. I don’t think we were paid as much as 1,000 pounds, but it was our gig, it was full, and we went on. And for the first time, the audience knew every song. That was a big thrill, an amazing rush of energy and belief.”
Fifty years since the original Queen lineup of May, drummer Roger Taylor, bassist John Deacon and singer Freddie Mercury got together, the British band’s popularity is undiminished. Their ‘70s and ‘80s rock anthems not only still get radio airplay on, but have also been featured on TV commercials and at sporting events. Three decades after Mercury’s death, Queen are still attracting new audiences, buoyed by the 2018 biopic smash Bohemian Rhapsody.
Throughout this year, the members of Queen have been marking their golden anniversary through a number of campaigns, including a 50-part weekly YouTube series highlighting notable moments in their history; the reissue of their first Greatest Hits album, which is the best-selling record of all time in the U.K. and a pop-up shop that opened in September in London. Next year, the band (minus bassist Deacon who retired from music in 1997) will be touring Europe with American singer Adam Lambert. “We find ourselves continually amazed that we still have some relevance and people seem to enjoy our music so much,” says Taylor, 72. “It’s a wonderful feeling. Who would have thought? Nobody expected it to last so long.”
“Very often I think, ‘My God, did that really happen?’” says May, 74. “It was a dream shared by four precocious kids who had no reason to be so optimistic. But we had the dream. Curiously and miraculously it came true, and it came true even more than we could have imagined.”
The members of the original lineup were truly more than the sum of its parts when it came to their brand of elaborately produced hard rock that incorporated pop, metal, punk, funk and disco: May’s dazzling playing on his Red Special guitar; Deacon’s melodic and soulful bass lines and Taylor’s powerhouse drumming. Not to mention, the flamboyant and charismatic Mercury and his extraordinary vocal range. Taylor says, “Those components were all so different. Yet we all contributed so much. So it was really a wonderful chemical reaction.”
May and Taylor, who had first known each other as university students and been in a group called Smile, formed Queen in 1970 with Mercury, an up-and-coming singer. “We loved Freddie from the beginning,” says May. “He was such an ebullient character and so full of confidence. We thought ‘He’s a good showman. But can he sing?’ In the early days, he would throw himself around and give it 100 percent, but the voice wasn’t developed. The instrument was there, but he hadn’t learned that incredible control, which made him the great god Freddie Mercury. So we didn’t know. We just thought, ‘Well, we should give this a shot. Freddie seems to be up for it. Why don’t we go for it?’” “We didn’t know there’s this incredible songwriter with this incredible musical sensibility hidden,” says Taylor. “He was really such a joy to be around, a driving force for the band in the early days.”
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