“Just a working class kid who got lucky” was how Peter Hince introduced himself tonight, at a Funzing talk to promote his book ‘Queen Unseen: My Life with the Greatest Rock Band of the 20th Century’.
Hince’s musical adventures began in 1973: the year of strikes, three-day weeks, oil crises – and Britain entering the EU. Life, in general, was challenging – but glam rock “provided an escape” for teenagers like Hince, who had moved to London to live with his cousin, who worked for rock n roll bands. Having talked his way into David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ tour, at the age of 18 Hince was made Mick Ronson’s guitar roadie. “I had to learn quickly”, he recalls, “but it was fantastic fun and an amazing adventure. And we never thought about the money”.
In this golden period for British rock, Hince worked with Lou Reed and bands such as Roxy Music, who had a connection to Bowie. It was while on tour with Mott the Hoople that Hince bumped into a supporting act called Queen for the first time, who dresse in their stage costumes whilst rehearsing in the snow. “To be honest, I thought they were poseurs who’d never make it”, he told us, smiling wryly.
The four members of Queen were “demanding and full of themselves” and that never changed; nor did their drive, determination and professionalism. They never doubted that they would be successful, particularly Freddie Mercury, who used to tell anyone who’d listen “I’m going to be a legend, darling”.
Mott the Hoople’s split coincided with Queen looking for a new road crew and Peter joined them in the summer of 1975, when the band was recording ‘A Night at the Opera’. Rumoured at the time to be the most expensive album ever made, for his part Peter was paid the princely sum of £40 per week.
It’s easy to forget what a struggle Queen had getting airtime for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, with record executives and DJs equally horrified by its six minute length: “People were baffled by it”, recalls Hince. With so much at stake, though (Queen had just sacked their manager and replaced him with Elton John’s manager, John Reid) it had to be a hit. As always, the band did what they wanted and released ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as an ‘A’ side – and, in the stuff urban myths are made of, Kenny Everett saved the day.
This led to the making of the iconic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ video which brought Queen huge acclaim – and, arguably, launched the pop video years before MTV came along.
Hince then accompanied Queen on a “fantastic” UK tour, acknowledging how much the band had changed since its days as a support act. He was hugely impressed by their drive & professionalism and, as always, by Freddie Mercury; “he possessed the same theatrical edge as David Bowie”.
After Queen’s legendary Christmas Eve 1975 concert (a huge success, but no extra money for the roadies!) followed an “intense” ten years of touring. “I was at Queen’s beck & call 24/7 – but I loved it”, reminisces Hince. This, of course, was a very different era: roadies didn’t have contracts and there were no health & safety regulations. The work was physically demanding and most of the crew suffered from back problems and hearing loss. But: “It was an adventure”, despite the lack of sleep, and living on a bus. Best of all: “We got to see the world: a huge attraction for a working class kid”. Queen, after all, were the first band to perform at big stadiums in South America.
Those were golden days. Everywhere Queen played they were well-received, and they were always put on the best possible show. “Quality and style” was Freddie Mercury’s mantra.
Freddie Mercury. It’s nearly 30 years since he died, but people’s eyes still light up at the mention of his name. I’ve been lucky enough to see most of my musical heroes perform live, but will always regret not seeing Freddie, even more so after tonight’s talk. Queen’s front man had a clever knack of getting people to do exactly what he wanted, Hince told us. He didn’t suffer fools and could be a diva, screaming and shouting – but was good at getting the best out of his fellow band mates and others around them.
“He rarely gave praise”, recalls Hince, “but you knew when he appreciated and respected you”. Mercury was generous with his time and to other people. He had formed a close bond with John Deacon, the “typical quiet bass player” who, according to Hince, was the best rhythm guitar player in the band and who would take Mercury’s death very badly indeed.
Are the rumours of debauchery and excess untrue? Actually – no, Hince told a disappointed audience. Certainly, in the band’s early days, drugs were “taboo”; Brian May didn’t even smoke cigarettes, let alone take anything stronger. Mercury didn’t take drugs, either – and the band was deeply disapproving after a police raid on the roadies’ bus turned up speed and hash. There was, Hince admits, more excess after the band became successful – but nothing like what was reported. “It was The Who and the Stones who were the druggie bands”, notes Hince (let’s not forget that The Rolling Stones hired a retired army colonel whose sole job was to get Keith Richards on stage every night). Led Zeppelin, Hince’s all-time favourite band, experienced similar problems: Hince once saw them perform an acoustic set during which one of the band fell asleep.
Who can forget Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance? I certainly shan’t: I can still remember, as a 13 year-old, being transfixed by what I was seeing on my TV screen. And yet, it nearly didn’t happen. Queen had declined their original invitation to perform, saying that they weren’t a political band. Truth be told, they weren’t in a good place at the time, having just completed their ‘Works’ tour, during which they had “lost” America; MTV had refused to play the ‘I Want to Break Free’ video, with Queen consequently refusing to do any publicity. They’d also made the mistake of playing Sun City and been lambasted from all sides: unfairly, believes Hince: Queen had been assured in advance that they’d be playing to a mixed audience (untrue, as it turned out).
By now, there was a lot of tension in the band and John Deacon, in particular, was “exhausted”. Freddie Mercury and Brian May were pursuing solo projects – and, Hince recollects, sadly – “Mercury’s lifestyle was out of control”. Then, Bob Geldof bumped into Freddie in a restaurant on Fulham Road – and “strong armed” him into agreeing that Queen would play at the world’s first-ever charity gig. The rest, as they say…
Live Aid was “the most amazing day”. All of the artists were there for the right reason and there were no egos. As for Queen, their performance was “Extraordinary. They just went out and played”. It gave the band a much-needed shot in the arm and they went on to make another album and do the ‘Magic’ tour – sadly, Queen’s last-ever tour with Mercury, who died just five years later, aged 45.
“Everyone knew Freddie was ill”, reflects Hince, “but we never spoke about it”. Freddie was such a formidable, larger-than-life character “that nobody believed anything bad could happen to him. His death came as a wake-up call to many people”.
Freddie Mercury was a one-off, of that there’s no doubt. That was obvious at the tribute concert held one year after his death, when so many singers struggled to perform his music, including Robert Plant, Hince’s favourite singer. He describes Liza Minelli’s performance as the “most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen” (he was equally unimpressed by her massive entourage and the fact she flew in on Concorde). She did at least turn up for rehearsals, unlike Axl Rose (Slash did, but was “wasted”).
John Deacon, badly affected by Mercury’s death, no longer wanted Queen to continue, but Brian May and Roger Taylor are “working musicians who want to play”. Hince is a fan of Paul Rodgers but believes him to have been the wrong fit for the band. Not so, Adam Lambert – and Hince was impressed by Rami Malik’s portrayal of Mercury in last year’s biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. He was less impressed by the film itself, although he acknowledges that condensing 20 years into a two-hour film was never going to be easy. And: “The film changed massively from the original script. They had to make it more family-friendly: that’s not Fred’s life!”
This post is longer than I intended to make it, so I will conclude by saying that I enjoyed every minute of Peter Hince’s engrossing talk and will be seeking out his book at the earliest opportunity: I urge you to do the same.