As Richard Houghton readily admits in his introduction to Queen: A People’s History, there was a sense of conflict for his 16-year-old self in 1976, knowing all too well it was far cooler to follow emerging ground-zero bands like The Clash and The Damned at the time and ditch a group seemingly more about pomp than punk back then.
He writes, ‘I was conflicted, as the largely hostile music press said these well-educated college boys clearly weren’t a serious rock band when the guitarist played a homemade guitar with a sixpence and the singer camped it up outrageously with his long hair and painted fingernails. I was so conflicted that in 1978 my best friend taped Jazz on one side of a C90 cassette for me and put the first Clash album on the other.”
On September 18th, 1976, two days before the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Subway Sect opened the 100 Club’s notorious two-day punk festival barely a mile away, this Northamptonshire lad was at Hyde Park for a free Queen concert, impressed enough to go on to catch the band three more times, ‘downsizing each time – Hyde Park to Earls Court to Wembley Arena to the Rainbow’.
This royally-named quartet certainly weren’t on the way down though, many more crowning glories following, not least going on to fill Wembley Stadium, play Rock in Rio, Knebworth Park, and sell millions more records. And as Richard adds, ‘At Live Aid they played to the biggest audience of all – the whole world’.
Over 380 or so pages, we follow the band’s amazing journey from Roger Taylor’s first live engagements in Cornwall to his late-‘60s move to the capital, where he met Imperial College astrophysics student Brian May, their fledgling outfit – at that point known as Smile – soon attracting a young Londoner surnamed Bulsara among their entourage, the rebranded Freddie Mercury joining them in early 1970, John Deacon completing the classic line-up the following year.
They still mainly flitted between London and West Country dates then, but Queen were soon turning heads, a self-titled debut LP landing in July 1973, their first top-10 hits following the next year, before ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and parent album A Night at the Opera went one step further than ‘Killer Queen’ and Sheer Heart Attack to top the UK charts in late ’75, the whole world soon catching on.
It was with Sheer Heart Attack that it properly started for Manchester-based Richard, who 45 years after his first live sighting of the band is just about to retire from Lancashire housing association landlord Chorley Community Housing, where he has worked for the past 14 years, to concentrate on his writing, having previously served nearby Preston Borough Council from 1993 to 1999, overseeing regeneration programmes there.
Having launched his Spenwood Books publishing company this year – its first publication being another book in the same series, Cream: A People’s History – I reckon that makes it 17 music books he’s edited in total, since 2015. And that’s some going, I suggested.
“Yes, I suppose I’ve stumbled across or invented – depending how you look at it – a formula that can be applied to any artist from any era. And since it’s very much driven by fans’ memories and stories they want to tell, if I get enough material on any one artist, I can produce a book on them.
“I know, all my books say, ‘by Richard Houghton’. But I am very much editor/compiler. Sometimes I’m rewriting interviews or rehashing what somebody sent in an email to make it more coherent, but the key to it, I think, is trying to preserve the original spirit of the story, whether it was watching The Beatles in 1962 or The Wedding Present in 2011.”
There are elements in a few similar fans’ account books, I find, where lots of those interviewed end up sounding like that person doing the editing, but you’ve managed to avoid that, so must be doing something right.
“Hopefully. I do try to keep the original author’s voice where I can, which can bring conflicts with the English language occasionally, on account of the grammar when they’re speaking or writing! Sometimes I change that, and others I leave, where it impacts on the story.”
Other than the Queen book, of course, seeing as that’s the one we’re chiefly looking at here, which did you enjoy doing most?
“I’ve enjoyed doing them all, but the one I look back on with the most fondness is The Who: I Was There. Although I considered myself a fan before and was fairly conversant with their early history, I learned quite a bit about the band. Also, in the process of putting the book together, I uncovered details of three Who gigs that hadn’t been recorded elsewhere. In one case, a lady had seen them in Stevenage at such and such a venue on such and such a night. I said, ‘But they played there the week after,’ I said, and they replied, ‘No, they played there both weeks, and here’s our diary entries to prove it’. There was satisfaction in that, adding something to the band’s canon and established chronology. So when it comes to whether my books have any artistic merit, hopefully they serve a little bit of a purpose in terms of social history as well as any musical knowledge they might add.”
How did Queen enter your life? Was it through hearing a song on a radio or somebody else’s record?
“They were a band that emerged through the remains of glam, I suppose, on the back of Slade and T. Rex. Freddie (Mercury) with his painted fingernails and all the rest of it was part of that. I must be honest and say I don’t remember the first single, ‘Keep Yourself Alive’. They did do an appearance on Top of the Pops, but the tape doesn’t survive.
“What I do remember is ‘Killer Queen’ on Top of the Pops, one of those Bowie-like appearances when everybody who saw it remembers it, because Queen looked so different from everybody else, Freddie really vamping it up for the camera.
“My friend Roger, my best friend from school, bought a copy of Sheer Heart Attack, and I remember being round his house and us playing that LP to death.
“I just think that was Queen at their prime. People look back now at the first three albums – and for some Queen fans, just the first two albums -and are very fond of those, feeling the band kind of sold out with A Night at the Opera, which is where most of the rest of the world discovered them, via ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It’s funny that they had that hardcore fanbase that fell out of love with them around 1975. There is clearly some great stuff on the first couple of albums, but to suggest A Night at the Opera or A Day at the Races are somehow secondary albums is having rather a skewed view of the world, I’d suggest!”
And as you mentioned Top of the Pops, there’s a tale within of someone catching the band perform ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ on there too, another early performance.
“Yeah, and again that’s one that hasn’t survived in the BBC archives, as they were still in a policy of wiping or over-writing footage then. I think there’s something on YouTube, something which appeared in a recent TV documentary, but it is a viewer’s own recording so it’s quite poor quality in terms of how it appears on the screen, although again it gives you a sense of what Queen were like at the time.”
You mention first seeing them at Hyde Park in 1976. Was that a big moment for you?
“That was the first gig I went to on my own. Previously, my mum had taken me to see The Beatles, Sacha Distel, Cliff Richard and various other people at the London Palladium in the ‘60s. I was with my friend, Roger, it was September 18, we’d been to a football match that afternoon, Arsenal against Everton.”
A 3-1 home win for the Gunners, incidentally … not as if Manchester City fan Richard’s pal Roger, an Everton supporter, would choose to recall that in too much detail, Liam Brady, Malcolm Macdonald and Frank Stapleton on target at Highbury in a Division One clash played in front of 34,076, George Telfer scoring the Merseyside visitors’ consolation goal. Anyway, on with the story, Richard …
“We arrived early enough to see the infamous appearance by Kiki Dee. She’d just had a No.1 with Elton John with ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’. The rumour was that Elton was going to appear on stage with her, but she actually appeared with a cardboard cut-out of Elton. The urban myth is that they had an argument backstage and that’s why he didn’t go on. But that would suggest they manufactured a cardboard cut-out of him rather quickly!
“We were quite a way away for Queen, but it was a free concert, like the (Rolling) Stones and Pink Floyd and others had done in Hyde Park in the late ‘60s, the sort of gig that now you would easily pay upwards of £100 for. I remember the lights particularly, because of the marquee-style tent they used. It was getting dark, with the effects quite spectacular, a lot of dry ice and smoke bombs. It was a real sense of occasion, a real coming together, Queen saying to their British fans, ‘thanks very much’. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ had already been a big hit around the world, and they didn’t play many gigs in ’76.
“It was a fantastic day out, and on the back of the fact that Queen weren’t fashionable with music critics. There was that famous NME headline, ‘Is this man a prat?’. The music press at the time didn’t seem to like Freddie and Brian and Roger and John because they were college boys, and college boys weren’t supposed to be down and dirty rock’n’rollers. And there was tension between what Queen were and what they represented, Brian doing his astrophysics degree at Imperial College, London. They were all a bit too posh for the papers, which they knew and didn’t care, and the fans didn’t care either. There were 100,000 people in Hyde Park, but it was almost like a secret gathering. You know, ‘we can’t tell anybody else we’re here, but we’re proud to be here because we’re Queen fans’.
“And I remember that when I went to see them at Earl’s Court in ‘77, all these people with union flags around their shoulders, coinciding with the Queen’s silver jubilee, union flags painted on their face and the rest of it. Again, I thought I just don’t see these people on a normal day, where have all these Queen fans been hiding? It was this coming together, this celebration for a Queen concert in a way that almost no other band was doing at that time.
“We caught the train down from Wellingborough to St Pancras, having to leave before the end, sadly, to make sure we got the last train home, because we were well behaved 16-year-old boys, not sleeping on railway platforms or taking any risks to get the milk train home. We had to be on that 11 o’clock train out of St Pancras!”
I always enjoy the early days tales, and in this case there’s a strong West Country link, with Truro being Roger Taylor’s adopted patch, him getting lots of bookings as Smile then Queen, a number of those dates recalled in this book, sometimes with a certain Freddie Bulsara in tow.
“Yes, I think he was he was part of the circle of friends of the band that was then called Smile. He had one, if not two other bands on the go at the time, before that personnel change, going on to be the lead singer before John Deacon came in as bass player. And there was a June 1970 line-up billed as Smile at Truro City Hall initially, but that night they said, ‘We are Queen’. That was Freddie’s first appearance, but he’d been hanging out with Roger and Brian, actually sharing a flat with them for a while.”
I have to say, much as I like the band from their interviews, the later years didn’t do it for me, not least the more recent dates, post-Freddie. For me, he would aways be the frontman.
“Well, that is a line of thought that can either get people saying you’re absolutely right or shouting you down! There are a lot of people who think Queen plus Adam Lambert are still Queen. I must confess as somebody who saw them with Freddie, I’ve never been tempted to see them with Adam, and that’s with no disrespect to him. Partly to preserve the memories I’ve got, and partly, it’s got to be a different beast in the same way that if the Rolling Stones went on the road without Mick Jagger.
“Then again, Ozzy Osbourne did say if you went to see the Stones – and he was talking about his own departure from Black Sabbath in 1978/79 – and the only member there is Bill Wyman and they’ve got Freddie Mercury up front, it’s not the Rolling Stones’! It does seem to be an issue on which Queen fans definitely have an opinion. People either love them with Adam or wouldn’t buy a ticket to go and see them with Adam. Personally, I think if Brian and Roger want to be out playing music, celebrating their legacy, they should be free to do that. As long as nobody goes under the impression that they’re going to get a genuine Queen performance, fine.”
True enough. And I do realise full well how important all four classic line-up members were to the equation, not least the way Brian May defined their sound with his trademark guitar.
“Yeah, as you hinted there, they all wrote songs and brought something to the party. And John Deacon wrote ‘Another One Bites the Dust, one of their biggest number ones. But yeah, the Brian May guitar sound is quite distinctive. When you hear Brian’s guitar, you know it’s Queen. That Red Special just shines on every track it appears on, the guitar he made with his dad. That in itself is obviously quite something. That you happen to be in one of the biggest bands in the world is a bonus really, but to make a guitar and have hit records playing it is something very few people can say, ‘I did that’.
If I remember correctly, the word spread somewhat about Queen when they supported Mott the Hoople in late ’73, didn’t it?
“Yes, Queen’s first national tour was supporting Mott. And Mott were big while Queen were emerging, I suppose. But as some of the tales in the book describe on the British tour, on occasions people came away saying Queen had blown Mott away, although others suggest Mott held their own. But what I thought was really nice was that Freddie and Roger were doing backing vocals on one of their songs. So they (Mott) obviously took them under their wing, whether that was Ian Hunter, the band or their management.
“It certainly wasn’t one of those situations where the support band gave the main act a hard time and the main acts fell out with them. And there are many tales of that nature in rock history, of course, where people get kicked off a tour for being too big for their boots. But they went on to tour as support to Mott in America the following year too.”
Have you a favourite story among all these?
“There’s one from the early gigs, I can’t remember the venue now, where the urban myth is that there were only six people in the audience. But the chap who tells the story was in the support band and says, ‘We were the audience – our band of five people and our roadie! They watched us and we watched them and there were no paying customers whatsoever’. And Brian apparently came to see them at a later gig as well, so there was moral support from Brian too … although that other band didn’t go on to any success, as the author readily admits.”
And is there a favourite LP or a song that jumps out at you all these years on, taking you back to a certain time and place?
“I’m a big fan of Queen II, all that kind of stuff just really worked as a concept. That’s my favourite album. It’s the guitars, and the whole ‘nobody played synthesiser’ mantra that ran through those early albums. But of course, they use the synth to great effect on songs like ‘Radio Ga Ga’. There’s something there for lots and lots of different fans of different music styles. If you came to the band around the time of The Works, just before they did Live Aid, you could listen to the album and get into them through that and not necessarily go back and appreciate those early albums. But then there’s an anecdote in the book where some fellow said he started listening to Queen II, really liked it, then the penny dropped that there must be a Queen I, so he had to go and look for that as well.”
And what’s next on the horizon for you, book-wise?
“I’m working with the management of Jethro Tull on a book about them. I think it’s going to come out next summer, although I’m waiting for the publisher and band’s management to determine that. I’ve also been working on a book about The Faces with Rod Stewart for a number of years and I’m determined that will come out next summer, as Rod and Ron Wood are supposed to be doing some shows and a new album, going back to some old material which was recorded but never finished. It would be great to do that. It’s been 46 years since they performed as a band together.”
For this website’s feature/interview concerning Richard Houghton’s 2020 book on The Smiths, head here, You can also check out the following links to chats with the man himself about his Rolling Stones book in 2015, The Beatles in 2016, and The Who in 2017.
Incidentally, there’s also a book about Slade in the pipeline, one right up this scribe’s street, and for which Richard is also keen to hear memories of, as is the case for his planned people’s history publications on Thin Lizzy and Neil Young, and any other acts you feel may make fitting subjects for comprehensive ‘fan’s history’ style publications. To get in touch, and for more details about how to order a copy of Queen – a People’s History (Spenwood Books, 2021), you can email Richard via email@example.com or visit his website.