In this excerpt from his new book of photographs and recollections, Queen In 3-D, guitarist Brian May reflects on how tours in the 1970s were so different to how they are conducted nowadays
IN THOSE days, long gone, nobody was worried about terrorism — we as Western powers hadn’t yet been up to our bullying tactics (or had we just got away with it ?).
So we weren’t under constant fear of attack. Getting on a plane for an internal flight was just like getting on a bus. No passports needed, no ‘security’ to speak of — just clamber on board, hoping they’d put your luggage in the hold. Imagine that!
US rock radio in those days was completely regional and generally quite autonomous — DJs could play almost whatever they wanted — subject to some guidance from the programme director. These stations were the lifeblood of rock and roll. They spoke directly to the kids in their bedrooms and kept them informed of which bands had new releases, and who was coming to town to play a concert. We’d go and visit the radio station (or sometimes two or even three of them), shake a lot of hands, take pictures, and sit with the DJ on the air, live, and often take phone calls from the kids listening. It was immediate, and exciting, and kicked the whole visit into high gear.
The kids would be stoked that we were in town, we’d get a great vibe from them, and the whole town would then feel the vibe, and come out in force to see us play. The radio station benefited from us being there, because it reinforced their position as a channel for kids to get close to their heroes. And we benefited because it was the way of announcing the gig.
Things are a bit different these days, with radio stations mostly playing music off playlists that are agreed for a whole slew of stations across the country, by a panel of executives who are choosing the records they play based mainly on how much money they can make from their advertisers. Maybe that’s a cynical view, and there are exceptions, but I think most radio people today look back on those times as free and creative and spontaneous in a way that is no longer possible.
Well, the gig would usually be that same night. So, interviews completed, we’d head straight to the concert venue (the gig) for soundcheck. Now throughout our history we always did soundchecks; with very few exceptions, and that’s true to this day.
I’m inclined to believe that attention to soundchecking is what defines how serious and how professional the band is. You get two hours, one night, maybe just one time, to get across to your audience in that city. You don’t want to spoil half of the show trying to adjust the monitors so you can hear yourself.
In the soundcheck we’d work on the sound, rehearse a few songs, and make adjustments to the on-stage sound monitors (foldback) and to the out-front sound (PA system), to acclimatise ourselves to that particular stage environment. So when we hit the stage in front of our audience that night, we’d be up to speed from the first chords – able to work at our full potential.
Soundcheck done, time for some food – usually at the gig, but if there was time, we’d go to the hotel and check in and get some food there. Afterwards we’d get dressed and sorted, go to play the show, give it our all for around two hours, then … well, then feel unable to go to bed because the adrenaline would still be flowing fast.
So, we’d get in the cars and go some place where we weren’t being idolised … some club or bar … and spend a few hours unwinding. And searching, I think, for that ‘rush’ of connection we’d felt on stage in the real world and never quite finding it.
Hence the endless search for, as the Zeppelin guys put it so well, “an angel with a broken wing” – communion with the perfect companion; which perhaps never quite comes about. But sometimes for a moment it seems like it has.
Eventually to bed, mostly alone but sometimes not, for in those days this was a universe that seemed to have almost no connection with our home lives. No mobile phones, no texting, no Skype, not much contact at all except perhaps a daily phone call, which to us was expensive, from your hotel room.
By the time the gig was finished, the time difference guaranteed that everyone back home in the UK was asleep anyway, so you couldn’t phone home. You’re on your own, wondering what life is about, and why, when you’re the centre of attention on a stage every night, loneliness is one of the most common emotions you feel in the course of a day.
Wake up in the morning — ouch —and the whole thing begins again. That touring ‘bubble’ we lived in was massively different in 1975 from the way it is now. When you played Detroit, the audience had no idea what to expect; they hadn’t seen your previous show on YouTube. It was exciting and unknown, for the kids in the audience, and for us too.
The experience was a shared chunk of time together. And if they were great, you might feel moved to announce “You guys in Cleveland are the best ! So much better than Detroit last night !” And the chances of anyone in Detroit ever hearing about it were vanishingly small — the communities were separate.
Nowadays not only Detroit but the whole damn world would know that you’d said the Cleveland audience was better than Detroit. In those days every day was a different universe. The only common factor was your shared experience with mates in the band party and the crew — the travelling family.
As well as being a renowned guitarist, and the possessor of a PhD in astrophysics, Brian May has long had an interest in 3D photography.
Queen In 3-D is part-memoir, part-collection of photographs. It delves into his interest in the medium, originally sparked by an offer on the back of a Weetabix box in the late 1950s, and also combines tales from being on the road wth Queen with intimate pictures he took with his 'stereo' cameras. The book also has some images taken by other photographers.
Obviously, the vast majority of the tales come from the band's decades with the late Freddie Mercury, but there are also insights into more recent incarnations with Paul Rogers and Adam Lambert. (The latter singer fronted a superb gig at the 3Arena in Dublin reently.)
Each book comes with an OWL stereo viewer, designed by May himself to view the pictures.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved