Roger Taylor Talks About Solo Work, Queen in the ’70s: ‘We Were Just a Heavy Rock Band’ – Exclusive Interview
For more than 40 years Roger Taylor has been the drummer behind the kit for Queen. And in that seat, he’s traveled the world many times over and been a part of nearly every magical musical experience a musician could hope to have. In that time, he also found time to dabble extensively in solo work, releasing albums under his own name and also with a separate band, the Cross.
Omnivore Recordings has collected material from all of his solo journeys in two new collections. ‘Best,' which comes out on Oct. 27, collects 18 tracks -- from Taylor's 1977 solo debut single through ‘Fun on Earth,’ his 2013 solo album. The set will be available on both CD and vinyl with many of the tracks making their vinyl debut for the first time. ‘The Lot,’ meanwhile, offers a deeper dive and will be in stores on Nov. 10. It presents the entirety of Taylor’s solo output, spread across 12 CDs -- including four discs of singles and remixes, plus a DVD of additional video content and a 64-page book.
Taylor spoke with Ultimate Classic Rock about the new releases, as well as his activities with Queen, both past and present.
Eight albums’ worth of work gives you a lot to choose from. How did you arrive at the final batch of material that we’re hearing on 'Best'? What made each one of these songs really stick out in your mind?
Well, I wanted people’s opinions, really. So it’s been put together with what people seem to think was the best, given the fact that I sort of vaguely agreed. So, I listened the other day in the car, as you do, and I thought it hung together pretty well. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to my stuff. You know, I find that you get so close to it when you’re making it. Then when you do this a few years later, it’s sometimes a nice surprise. So really, I think it’s a good bunch of tracks. They’re probably the more accessible tracks.
Then there’s the box set, which brings together all of your solo albums. From your end of things, what was involved in pulling it all together?
Well, it was just a great idea, and the record company was keen to do it -- and I just thought, "well, how nice to get all of that stuff, bring it all out and get it all in one box." For me, it’s great. You know, I’ve got several boxes of half of my life, and it’s amazing to just have it all there in one thing. It’s like tying up a bundle and making a neat [collection] of it. It’s great, so I feel I can move on now. [Laughs.]
Collections like this are nice, because often there’s stuff that’s been out of print.
That’s right! I think that some of it has been, and then it’s been back in and then it’s been out of print again. But you’re right, yeah, and there it is if you want it and it’s great. It’s really nice to have it all in a box. I’m very pleased with that. I have to tell you a funny story, we’ve been putting this box together for months, and I eventually get a finished box from the factory and in my huge excitement, I tear off the cellophane and open it up and there’s no CDs inside! [Laughs.] So there was a little manufacturing problem. I can imagine that you’ve paid this money for the box. and there’s nothing in it. But the book was in there! Anyway, we fixed it!
Queen was often a band that pushed recording technology to the max. Similarly, some of your solo work on these collections features a lot of layers. You probably get used to working a certain way in a band like Queen. I’d be interested to hear how you approached that from a solo perspective, when you had full control, and what your thoughts were as far as what you wanted to do musically with your work outside of Queen.
I wanted to do different things at different times. I wanted to do something slightly psychedelic on the first album, ‘Fun In Space.’ But I knew as I was the only instrumentation and voice on it, which I was very keen to be, I realized that I had to use the studio to its full [capabilities] and use all of the layering and overdubbing and double-tracking, etc. It’s not so easy [when it’s] just you, so you use all of the tricks that you know. But I mean, even with some of the Queen tracks, I would play the entire drum track without anybody else even being there and we didn’t have clicks or drum machines, you’d literally be playing a song in your head and playing along to it. There are about three or four examples of that in the Queen stuff, which is quite interesting. It’s quite a technique.
I think what your solo work kind of exposes is that for people who aren’t aware, you are somebody who can play a lot of different instruments. That probably allowed you to indulge in some different elements of creativity that you didn’t otherwise have a chance to engage in.
That’s absolutely right. I was able to express myself in a sort of selfish way, maybe. I don’t know, but it was great, because it was only me to blame. But it was I guess, as such, a kind of extension of your personality at your time.
At the same time, the percussive side of these records doesn’t suffer. It almost seems like in some of these songs, the percussive element of the music is magnified. Did you feel like you had a little bit of extra license to go a little bit further in that area than perhaps you did in your normal area of working with Queen.
I guess so. I mean, if you listen to any guitar player’s records, you’ll hear a lot of guitar in it. It’s always a fight, usually everyone thinks they should be louder in the mix, certainly in the early days, you know. Obviously, when you have a chance, you can make your main instrument the loudest thing on the record. I wouldn’t think it necessarily is on all of this stuff though. There is a lot of percussive elements, probably in the earlier stuff more. Obviously, I like the drums to be heard. I think they’re important. [Laughs.]
When you’re in a successful band like Queen and you start having these thoughts about doing some recordings on your own, how difficult is it to find the confidence to step outside of that normal world?
I guess the lead singing is the hardest thing to be confident about. It’s so subjective, and it’s also so innately you. We also had a hell of a lead singer, so that was tricky. But everybody in the band was always supportive of everybody else’s solo work. You know, we understood, if John [Deacon] wanted to go off, or Brian [May], or even Freddie [Mercury], and do something on their own? "Yeah, fine. Hey, good luck," you know? And we used to play on each other’s solo stuff occasionally, as well. Freddie even sang on one of my tracks. So it was good; it was all friendly.
‘Fun On Earth’ was your first solo album in 15 years. Without a doubt, you’ve kept busy over those 15 years. What finally brought you back around to doing another solo record?
I’m lucky enough to have a studio here where I live, and it was an accumulation of work. It wasn’t fast; it was quite slow building up. It just sort of came together in the end, and I thought I’d collect it all into one album. Then, you try and make a coherent record. But it really was an accumulation over quite a long period.
What has your writing process been like these days? Do you still write on a regular basis?
No, it’s very irregular. [Laughs.] If I have an idea -- and the good ideas normally develop super-fast, it’s the ones that you labor over, I think, that tend to be less successful as a piece of work. You know, if it takes that long to make it fit and make it work, it’s probably not the best idea in the the first place. I might start on piano or I might just start with some words. It can start either way, really. It’s a pretty haphazard process. I wouldn’t sit down and work at writing a song like a novelist or something.
Queen has been out touring this year with Adam Lambert and folks have been really happy to get a chance to see the band in arenas again here in the U.S. What was it like for you, going back out on an extended tour?
It was about four months, because we went to Asia and Australia as well. I have to say, it was just great. You know, we got on so well with Adam. He fitted in so well with us and he brought so much to the show. [He’s a] great frontman and he looked great and he sings beautifully, and his style is very suited to our music. You know, it’s pretty theatrical music, some of our stuff. He’s the greatest. So, we really had a ball and I think it came over in the shows. They were very well attended and the reception that we got in every city was great. So, it was a really great experience and I’m thrilled. We’re going to go on and do Europe in January and February. It’s all good.
After the European run that you mentioned, what sort of thoughts have you all had? Do you want to record with Adam?
I think it would be great to do something, yeah. Not an album, probably. He’s got his own stuff to do, and that’s very much a priority for him. I think it would be very interesting, because his voice is so extraordinary and I think we could really do something great with it. I see no end to the possibility and the potential of Adam Lambert. He’s a fabulous performer, and I think it would be very interesting to do something with him.
There is a new Queen compilation coming out on November 10th called 'Queen Forever.' There are some interesting things on this set, including several unreleased tracks. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of getting those tracks ready for release?
Well, in a nutshell, Brian and I worked on the three tracks to get them ready. The track featuring Michael Jackson ['There Must Be More To Life Than This'], which is an old Freddie song that he recorded with Michael, we had our version -- which was a very stripped down version with alternating lines. Then we got our friend William Orbit to do, I guess, a more radio-friendly mix. He has some alternating verses, so it’s very different. They’re two very different versions. The version you’re going to hear on the album is William’s version. Another track, ‘Love Kills,’ was an old dance record, really, with Giorgio Moroder, which Freddie did as a solo [track]. But we all actually played on it at the time without telling anyone. That one, Brian had the idea of doing that one half-time and just completely replacing the instrumentation and really bringing a new sort of gravitas to the song, I think vastly improving it. It’s a beautiful vocal performance from Freddie.
The third track is an old Queen track ['Let Me In Your Heart Again'] which we never really quite finished when we were recording ‘The Works’ in L.A. Brian and I just did a little more work on it, [added] a little bit of backing vocals and that track comes out great and you can hear the old Queen rhythm section in full swing on it and it sounds good to me!
I know that there was some other stuff that Freddie worked on with Michael. Did you guys look at those tracks too?
We did, yeah. But we had to really go along with what Michael’s record company and his estate would release. So, we had talks with them and that’s what they would agree to.
We’re at the 40th anniversary of ‘Queen II’ and ‘Sheer Heart Attack.’ Starting with ‘Queen II,’ what comes to mind when you think about those records? With that record in particular, did the idea of a “Black Side” and a “White Side” for the album, did that develop pretty early in the composition process for the record?
It did. I think that all along, we had this sort of black-and-white theme thing. We used to take it through to our stage shows, you know. Everything was either black or white. It was effective -- because in those days, there was very little production onstage. So, we thought we’d take it through to the album and so we just sort of named it. The slightly darker side was the “Black Side,” and the slightly more airy fairy side was the “White Side.” It just gave it a nice sort of feeling of its own, I think -- a little signature for the record to hopefully make it stand out a little bit. But we were very much very experimental at the time of ‘Queen II.’
The band was learning a lot about recording during the time that those first two albums were made. What was the scene when work began on ‘Sheer Heart Attack’? There’s no question that there was a continued evolution with the sound of the band. What do you recall about where you were at going into that third record, compared to where you had been with what you had done on those first two?
Well, I think that the third record, it sounds simpler, but I think it’s a better record in many ways. I think that we’d really gotten the grip of the studio by then and I think the sounds are better. The drum sound is better and I think we really got our vocal harmony techniques honed by then. I think ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ is a very good package. It’s not trying to be -- it’s not overblown. It’s just a good strong record, I think.
Looking ahead to the next album, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ seems like a song that the recording process alone could drive a band crazy.
Yeah, it was long and involved and very wearying. Because the tape machines would break and we had a lot of breakdowns. There were, I don’t know how many voices, 150-odd voices, which is basically three voices -- Freddie, myself and Brian. It was a lot of work, but Freddie had it all in his head and we believed in it, so we carried it through. I’ve got to say, I remember that we finished the track and we thought, “That’s pretty good!” We were very pleased with it.
The band would ultimately release seven albums in six years, starting with the debut in 1973. That’s an incredible period of activity. Creatively, how hard was it to maintain that pacing of writing, recording and releasing albums -- and then touring to support those albums?
Is that right? I didn’t know that! It was really album, tour, album, tour. It really was nonstop, pretty much. I guess it was hard. We got used to it. You know, in the very beginning, we would always assemble what material we had and then we would rehearse it. Then when we really got rolling, we would just turn up in the studio and try and write, see what came out then and we would come up with stuff. I’m sure some quality suffered at times; it must have -- it’s inevitable. But we sort of got used to doing it in a different way and there wasn’t time to really write and then rehearse and then record, so we’d try and shove it all into the same time period.
From your point of view, how important was Roy Thomas Baker to Queen’s process of making records? What did he bring to the table?
I think he brought a certain amount of discipline and a lot of cynicism [laughs], and a passion for fattening desserts. He liked his food, Roy. But no, he was very disciplined and very strict in the beginning. In the end, we didn’t take any notice of him. [Laughs.] But he would always get it right. The take had to be right. We would do a lot of takes sometimes before it was right. Because things were very different then, you know, you had to get it all right, all at once.
The recent Queen release of the Rainbow material from ‘74 made a lot of folks really happy. One comment that I heard was that it reminds you of how heavy of a band Queen was in the ‘70s.
Yeah, I mean, it surprised me when I heard it again. I hadn’t heard it for years. I played it in the car and I thought, “Wow, this is really heavy!” In fact, I was on the way to rehearsal with Adam and Brian and the band for the American tour and I said, “Look, why don’t we start with a couple of these older songs that we used to play -- wow, they are heavy!” Before we had hits, we were just a heavy rock band. So, I think people got to think of us differently, after you’ve heard the hits -- but that was what we were. I was very pleased with the way that whole Rainbow thing turned out. I think it looks great and it sounds good.
There have been quite a few live releases of Queen material from the ‘80s, so I think folks were pretty happy to get something from the ‘70s era of the band. What else is there in the vaults from those years that exists?
Very little. I believe that there is film of our free concert in Hyde Park, but I think it’s not complete and I don’t think it’s particularly good quality. I can’t think of anything else.
What else is there that you want folks to know about?
I’d like to say thank you to everybody who came and saw us on the tour. That was great and we’re still here, we’re still alive and enjoying it. It’s been a good ride. Queen is the train that never stops, I think.