By Ken Sharp
FOR A SELF-DESCRIBED “frustrated guitarist” whose parents had wished he pursued a more sensible vocation — he earned a degree in biology — than one in the unpredictable world of rock and roll, Roger Taylor steadfastly followed his own path both in Queen and as a solo artist, carving out a formidable 40-plus year career of musical adventures on his own terms.
With Queen, Taylor was one quarter of a vital partnership, equal parts combustibility and creative invention. He was the band’s resident rocker, penning such metallic finery as “Modern Times Rock n’ Roll,” “Sheer Heart Attack,” “I’m In Love with My Car” and “One Vision.” Yet he could also surprise with his versatility as a songsmith with “Radio Ga Ga” (techno-rock), “Rock It (Prime Jive)” (funk), “A Kind of Magic” (pop R&B) and the grandiose power ballad “These Are the Days of Our Lives.” His mastery of myriad styles and idioms would carry over to his solo career; the first fruits of his solo pursuits outside of Queen came in 1977 with the one-off single, “I Wanna Testify,” a reworking of The Parliaments’ 1967 original single. Four years later came “Fun in Space,” Taylor’s first full-fledged solo album. From there, Taylor balanced his work with Queen with his extracurricular musical pursuits. Over the next two decades, four solo albums followed in its wake: “Strange Frontier,” “Happiness?,” “Electric Fire” and “Fun on Earth,” along with three albums by his offshoot band, The Cross.
Those who never got beyond Taylor’s music with Queen, have great chance to do so now, as there are two career-spanning collections that showcase the breadth of his artistry: “Roger Taylor: Best,” an 18-track career overview, and “The Lot,” a lavish 12-CD + 1 DVD presentation that rounds up all of of Taylor’s solo albums and work with The Cross, including all available singles and remixes. The bonus DVD features a treasure trove of Taylor’s promotional videos and live clips.
After Queen laid lead singer Freddie Mercury to rest more than 20 years ago, Taylor and guitarist Brian May made it a point to keep the band’s music and legacy alive. (Queen’s notoriously reclusive bassist, John Deacon, retired after Mercury’s death.)
In 2014, Taylor and May took Queen’s music back out on the road, with vocalist Adam Lambert picking up the mic. The band’s long-awaited “Live at the Rainbow ’74” boxed set also was released to universal acclaim, and “Queen Forever,” a new compilation album, arrived with three previously unreleased tracks in tow: “There Must Be More to Life Than This,” “Let Me in Your Heart Again” and a bare-bones rendition of Mercury’s solo track, “Love Kills.” Amid this whirlwind of activity, we corralled the legendary drummer on a rare day off to revisit his storied past.
GOLDMINE: At what point did you realize you’d made it as a musician and that you’d never have to go back working in the clothing stall at the Kensington Market in London?
ROGER TAYLOR: (Laughs.) Oh, that question is so hard; it’s difficult to answer. I imagine I felt we’d finally cracked it when we had our first hit with “Killer Queen,” I would say. That was when that moment hit me. Although you convince yourself you’ve made it early on, it all comes down to if you don’t have faith and you don’t imagine that you’re more successful than you actually are, then you probably wouldn’t have the impetus to go on.
GM: Your parents initially had different ideas for you in hopes of you pursuing a serious and sensible career. When did they warm up to you having a career in music?
RT: My parents were very separate; they lived separately for a lot of my life. But they were supportive, really. I remember my dad got me this very ancient, secondhand, half a drum kit when I was really young, like 12 years old. He was very supportive of that, but I don’t think either of my parents ever thought I’d do it for a living. But my mother put up with it during my teenage years. I always was in bands. But my parents never really thought I could actually make a living at it. I guess when “Bohemian Rhapsody” was No. 1 for so long in the U.K. was a turning point. I remember that my mom came to see a Queen show that we did, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” went to No. 1 that day, and I think she was finally convinced then. It was like, “He’s obviously doing this.”
GM: She didn’t have to worry about you anymore.
RT: Well, she worried about me, yeah. She always worried about me. I think if you’re a parent, you worry, no matter the age of your child.
GM: Every musician dreams of stardom, but 99.9 percent never get there. Once you achieved the near-impossible with Queen, was success better than you imagined, or just different?
RT: I can’t say success was better than I imagined; it was just more complicated, really. The definition of success is really difficult. I mean, I know so many famous, supposedly successful people that are pretty broke, so it’s a very soft, blurred-edge definition, I think.
GM: I guess it all comes down to how you define success.
RT: Yeah, I think so; that’s a good way to put it. It’s pretty simple; I think if you’re happy you’re successful in life. (Laughs.)
GM: Back in 1977, you released the solo single, “I Wanna Testify,” and four years later, your first solo album, “Fun in Space.” Was this a case of blowing off creative steam being in a band with four strong writers, or was this a matter of doing material that would not fit within the confines of Queen?
RT: It was a case of wanting to express just me. Up to that point, I’d been in a band, which is such a collective. But it’s sort of inevitable that you think you want to do something that you solely want to do and not have to get three other people’s OK. So, yeah, but it was ultimately about self expression. That said, I was always very happy working in the group context with Queen, and when I look back now, I was actually happier working in the group context, because we always felt we were more invulnerable as a band rather than being on your own, which is much more of a vulnerable situation.
GM: Being a solo artist adds many additional layers of responsibilities on you which are often shared in a band context.
RT: Absolutely. I think Queen was always more than the sum of its parts. When you’re on your own, it’s much, much tougher than you think; the buck stops with you. You have to be decisive, because it really is that much tougher on you.
GM: Were your ambitions and goals different working as a solo artist and with The Cross than with Queen? Perhaps you felt more of a sense of freedom knowing your success with Queen afforded you the ability of pure expression without worrying about having hits?
RT: Well said. I think you’re absolutely right. With Queen, we were very ambitious, and success was the prime directive, you know. But yeah, you’re right; I felt much freer. I didn’t expect my solo career to be massively commercially successful, so I was free to sort of do what I want. I could be slightly more political. Queen was never a political band really. We didn’t see that as our role at all. So yeah, you can be much more yourself working solo.
GM: You mentioned politics, and that fits right into my next question. One of the standouts on “Roger Taylor: Best” is the song “The Unblinking Eye (Everything Is Broken).” It’s a powerful and timely reflection on the world today with its pointed lyrics: “Why send our young men out to die in wars that we don’t understand? Why on earth should we be meddling in places like Afghanistan?”
RT: Thanks for mentioning that song. You really are putting yourself on a limb when you say stuff like that. It’s very direct, and it says exactly what you feel. You’re sort of laying yourself wide open, but that’s OK, because if that’s what you believe — which I certainly do — I felt at the time somebody should say something. (Laughs.) It seems that the age of the protest song is just gone, and that’s a shame. It’s just not really there anymore.
GM: Well, you brought it back.
RT: Well, yeah, exactly. It didn’t stop the world, but it’s never going to. But I think sometimes, you’ve got to come out and take a stand and say something. As you said before, your previous point, I wasn’t trying to be successful as much as wanting the freedom to be able to say something that I felt strongly about, and I was able to do so on that song.
GM: Going back to your beginnings as a songwriter: Was there a watermark moment for you where you came up with a song that wasn’t just good but great, which made you feel “I’ve cracked it, I’ve arrived as a songwriter?” Now, I have an idea of which one I’d choose, but’s that solely my own personal opinion.
RT: Well, tell me which one …
GM: OK. I’d say “Tenement Funster” from “Sheer Heart Attack” is your first great song, and you’re not gonna change my mind.
RT: (Laughs.) All right, fair enough. Up to that date, “Tenement Funster” was definitely my best. (Laughs.) But I quite like the one I wrote after it, “I’m in Love with My Car.” But I think you hit the nail on the head there; I thought that was the first decent proper song I’d written up to that point in our career.
GM: Were you writing a lot of songs during that period, Roger?
RT: No. I was not writing enough at that time. Writing is a habit that you get into, and Freddie and Brian were much more into the habit of writing than I was. We were all very closely involved in arrangements and performance, but they were the two main writers in Queen back in the beginning. I had less input, because it’s not so easy on the drums; it’s not a natural writing instrument. But my writing sort of flowered as I worked on it more and more, and now I find writing the most rewarding part of it for me.
GM: By the way, what exactly is a “Tenement Funster?” Inquiring minds want to know …
RT: (Laughs.) Well, it’s just an expression that I just sort of made up. It was like the prankster on the block, the naughty boy; you know what I mean. It was the good-time guy in the area. (Laughs.) I’ve never heard that term before of a “Tenement Funster,” so I sort of made it up.
GM: What’s interesting about your writing is there’s often a stylistic thread running through your music celebrating your love of ’50s rock and roll and rockabilly. You can hear it in Queen with “Tenement Funster,” “Coming Soon” and “Rock It (Prime Jive),” and you can also recognize it on solo tracks like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Man on Fire.”
RT: You know, I think it’s the thread of my musical appreciation. That’s the kind of music that first set me on fire — rockabilly or early rock and roll, like Little Richard and early Elvis and Eddie Cochran. I loved all of that. That was the fire, so it’s natural that early rock and roll made its way into my music. I loved that early rock and roll; it’s an American invention, and we just sort of took it back to you. (Laughs.) But yeah, I do love that early stuff, and it’s the backbone of what I call ‘proper music.’ (Laughs.)
GM: I’m a huge Elvis fan. I could see him singing “Rock It (Prime Jive)” from Queen’s “The Game” album, which would have been perfectly suited for him.
RT: Oh, I would love to have heard him do it; that would have been wonderful.
GM: Going back to “Modern Times Rock ’n’ Roll” from Queen’s debut album: You’ve been writing songs for over four decades. Given the experience of writing songs being akin to magic — pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, so to speak — is coming up with something that pleases you easier or more difficult today?
RT: I don’t think that it’s ever easy. It’s so easy to write to a formula, which I try hard not to do. But it’s very hard to not get into the habit of, “Now I need a middle-eight here,” or “Now I need a solo here.” In songwriting, there really shouldn’t be rules. So it’s hard to write songs and not be seen as formulaic, you know. It’s difficult. It’s nice to try and break rules successfully, but it’s not easy. But I don’t find writing any easier than I used to. It’s always been tough.
GM: Have there been any “happy accidents” in your writing, where you came up with something that far exceeded your abilities?
RT: I wouldn’t really say anything was an accident, but I do remember spending quite a lot of time working on the chords for “Radio Ga Ga,” which are quite involved. I remember thinking, “That’s a good chord sequence.” (Laughs.) It took me a while to work it out again when I’d forgotten it. I’d say that’s the closest thing to something like that. “Radio Ga Ga” was really more chordal than I’d been up ’til then. I just wanted to be rhythmic and melodic.
GM: Being a drummer — and obviously also being able to play other instruments, too — has that percussive DNA impacted the shape and form of your writing?
RT: Yeah, it’s just what I bring to it. Obviously, being a drummer, you think in terms of rhythm. Before I was slightly more technical; I would rely a lot more on rhythm in my songwriting, which I found to be the most important thing anyway. (Laughs.) I love songs with one chord, you know. (Laughs.) I like “The Clapping Song” by Shirley Ellis.
GM: You’ve certainly written some very powerful songs with just a few chords; “Sheer Heart Attack” is one that comes to mind.
RT: Yeah, “Sheer Heart Attack” was really all about attitude. It was tapping very much into the punk ethos. It’s a thrash. It was about the sheer frustration of being inarticulate and not being able to express your rage, I guess.
GM: That’s the classic teenager’s lament.
RT: Yeah, I think so. It was meant to be about a teenager.
GM: I’m curious about the song “Sheer Heart Attack.” Queen’s third album was called “Sheer Heart Attack,” yet your song with the same title didn’t appear until a few years later with the band’s 1977 album, “News of the World.”
RT: I’d written some of the song a few years earlier during the period we were working on the “Sheer Heart Attack” album, but we hadn’t recorded it properly. So I think I demoed it, and we didn’t record “Sheer Heart Attack” until a couple of albums later.
GM: Going back to writing rhythmically: “Coming Soon” from Queen’s “The Game” album perfectly epitomizes that stylistic sense, a song driven more by the vibe and rhythm than anything else.
RT: Yeah, “Coming Soon” is all about the rhythm and the hook line. It’s all about big, fat, rhythmic sounds on that one, and it reflects where I’m able to channel that kind of approach into my writing.
GM: By contrast, then you move to a later song of yours with Queen that stands as the polar opposite, “These are the Days of Our Lives,” which is a touching and beautifully crafted ballad with an inventive and complex chord structure. That certainly doesn’t sound like a song written by a drummer.
RT: (Laughs.) No, it certainly doesn’t.
GM: Was being able to write a song like “These Are the Days of Our Lives” something you had to work hard on to stretch the scope and breadth of your writing?
RT: No. I don’t think so. It was just a mood, really. I was in a reflective mood, and it made me write in a reflective way. It’s a song about reminiscing. It’s a sort of sad song in one way but also it sort of says, “These are the days of our lives,” so live for the moment.
GM: Listening to your complete solo work as presented on “The Lot” box set from start to finish, can you hear the progression of your artistry?
RT: I think these albums are long snapshots of who I was at the time, definitely. There’s very much ’80s lyrics on the album, “Strange Frontier,” when we were all sort of living under slightly more of a nuclear shadow. So the lyrics are of the time in some way, but, yeah, they are snapshots, really, and they have to be. I’m sure you know all the albums Bob Dylan has made. They are so different, but they are snapshots of where he was at the time — and in some pretty strange places (laughs) — but then these gems come forward.
GM: This past year marked the 40th anniversary of Queen’s first U.S. tour, which kicked off in April of ’74 in Denver, playing 14 cities and winding up in New York City at the Uris Theater.
RT: It was fabulous. It was very exciting. It was all new, and we got on great with Mott the Hoople who were headlining those shows, which was fantastic. They treated us well, and we gave them a run for their money every night. But they were great. We learned some tricks off of them. America was just so big and so new. I remember thinking that the birds sound different over here. It was just great. I remember so many of the cities we played —New Orleans, New York, Memphis. It’s a shame that the tour was cut short because Brian was sick. We were gonna go on to Boston, but we never got there on that tour. But I remember so much about the tour. It all seemed so big. To us British boys, it seemed pretty luxurious. Holiday Inns were fabulous. (Laughs.)
GM: Knowing the size of the States compared to England, was it daunting in terms of the effort Queen would need to muster to break through in America?
RT: We felt if we all worked together and believed in ourselves, we’d eventually crack it. We did think this place is huge and the distances are huge; every city is a different market in a way so you have to crack that city. But we did absolutely love it; we sort of relished it in a way.
GM: Your work with Queen and as a solo artist demonstrates your unique approach to vocal harmonies and stacking. Who were the mentors who led the way towards this kind of thinking? The Beach Boys?
RT: Yeah, The Beach Boys had fabulous harmonies, but even though I love their records, we never based ourselves on The Beach Boys at all. It was more a Beatles influence harmonically. We all loved The Beatles, and we loved [Jimi] Hendrix and [Led] Zeppelin as well when they came along. Those were our sort of great influences. But in terms of harmonies, I’d have to say that The Beatles were the biggest influence on us, more than any other act, chorally, definitely.
GM: Back to The Beach Boys: You participated in an as-yet unissued recording of Dennis Wilson’s “Holy Man.”
RT: That’s a really nice track. I was fan of Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue” record; I love that album. I think it’s absolutely fabulous. Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters got Brian and I involved in that project. It’s a nice track; I’m not sure why it hasn’t come out.
GM: As a producer of your solo work and outside production work, what did you learn from the likes of Roy Thomas Baker and Mack that you applied to your work?
RT: I would say a sense of discipline and the understanding that it had to be right was what I brought into my production work, which I learned from them. These were the days before drum machines, and the takes had to be good, and so the band had to be disciplined. There was very little fixing you could do back then, so they better get it right. I think that’s probably what I learned from them.
GM: You also have to be part psychologist producing an album knowing how to push and inspire the players at hand.
RT: Yes, definitely. I think producing records is almost a thankless task, actually, because if the record’s big, the artist gets massive praise. And if the record flops, the producer gets fired (laughs) or shouted at, so I think it’s a very thankless task. But I did quite enjoy the outside productions I worked on.
GM: I particularly like the Virginia Wolf album you produced. They sounded like Free meets Bad Company with a touch of Foreigner thrown into the mix.
RT: Wow, you remember that Virginia Wolf record? That’s a good record. The singer (Chris Ousey) definitely had elements of Paul Rodgers’ beautiful voice in there.
GM: Queen’s “Live at the Rainbow ’74” was recently released on DVD and CD and shows off the harder edge of the band’s wok, which has perhaps been overlooked. How do you look back on that show and that period for the band in general?
RT: I enjoyed listening to it again. I was real surprised to remember what a heavy rock band we were before we had hits. I was listening to it, and having not heard it for years, I went into rehearsal for the latest Queen tour with Brian with “Live at the Rainbow” fresh in my mind said, “Why don’t we start with a couple of these old, very heavy songs we used to do?” I think people have forgotten that Queen were a heavy rock band, really. (Laughs.) I was very pleased with the way that “Live at the Rainbow” project came out. I thought it was a nice thing.
GM: 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of “A Night at the Opera,” which featured your signature track “I’m in Love with My Car,” which continued in grand tradition of writing about cars, as evidenced by The Beach Boys with “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and “No Particular Place to Go” by Chuck Berry. Share the back story behind that popular track.
RT: Yeah, “I’m in Love with My Car” was really about men’s obsession with their cars. I love cars myself. Our sound engineer at the time was crazy about his car, which was a little Ferrari Dino. He loved it and washed it. That song was really about comparing cars to women (laughs), and how cars were generally more reliable. (Laughs.)
GM: Another guy who loves cars is Bruce Springsteen. On your 1984 album, “Strange Frontier,” you do a wonderful cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” song, “Racing in the Street” and make it your own, which is a hard thing to do.
RT: I loved that song, and I used to see Bruce play it live. But for me, it was always too slow, and I just wanted to do it mid-tempo, because it’s such a moving song. I felt that song, for me, should be faster. Bruce always did it so slow, and it was very effective in one way, but I just felt it would be nice if it moved along a bit.
GM: Did you know if Springsteen ever heard it?
RT: Do you know what? I don’t know if Bruce ever heard my cover of “Racing in the Street;” I haven’t got a clue. I honestly don’t know, but I hope he would like it. I did sort of know Bruce at some point a long, long time ago, but it was before I did that track.
GM: If you could whisper a word of advice into the ear of 21-year-old Roger Taylor, what would you tell him?
RT: I think you sometimes learn from your mistakes, but I’d say you have to have faith in yourself and not give up. Mind you, sometimes that’s hard to follow. But the best advice I could give myself or anyone for that matter is to work hard and have faith; you can’t do any more than that, really.
GM: Were there moments of doubt for you whether Queen would ultimately make it?
RT: No, strangely enough I didn’t have any doubts we’d make it. We always thought even when we were broke that Queen would make it. We never entertained the possibility of not making it because that was unthinkable. (Laughs.) We were focused on what we were doing.
GM: For someone who knows nothing about Roger Taylor the solo artist, what solo album would you point them to get their initial education?
RT: Well, I can’t answer that. That’s too difficult; I wouldn’t have a clue. I’d say buy the new CD, “Best,” and that’ll give you a good idea of what I’m all about as a solo artist and see what you like. (Laughs.)