Queen drummer Roger Taylor: ‘It was part of the job to have an outrageously decadent time’

·9 min read
Taylor in his oufit from the video for It's a Hard Life, June 1984 - Mike Maloney
Taylor in his oufit from the video for It's a Hard Life, June 1984 - Mike Maloney

“I suppose I was the pretty one,” says Roger Taylor, looking back on his time as the blond, baby-faced drummer of Queen in their 1970s heyday. “It felt like a bit of a curse, actually. Because we were quite serious about our music. We didn’t want to be in [girl’s teen magazine] Jackie, we wanted to be in Melody Maker and the New Musical Express. The prettier you are, the less seriously they take you. It really is a double-edged sword. But obviously there were some advantages.”

Taylor, now 72, has a twinkle in his eye; a mischievous smile flickers beneath his white beard. Queen rose to the top in what may have been the most hedonistic period of pop history, when bands routinely behaved in ways that would be frowned upon in our more censorious times. “People have become very prudish and judgmental,” Taylor says. “But it was part of the job to have an outrageously decadent good time. And we certainly had our share. I don’t think we were the worst or the most extreme, but yeah, we were close. Boy, you wouldn’t get away with any of that stuff now. More’s the pity.”

He declines to be drawn on specifics, offering only another ambiguous smile. “Those days are definitely over,” he says. “My wife won’t let me shave the beard off now. She’s afraid of what she might find underneath.”

Taylor is talking to me via Zoom from his palatial home, a former priory in Puttenham, Surrey, where he lives with his second wife, 49-year-old Sarina Potgieter. The couple have been together since 2004, and Taylor has five adult children from previous relationships. It was during the early stages of last year’s first lockdown, spent at a second home in Cornwall, that he began work on his first solo album in eight years, Outsider. “It was just my wife and I down there together, not sure what was going to happen. There was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, and I thought, ‘Well, I might as well put my time to some use.’”

The result is a hugely accomplished album, filled with philosophical songs about the state of the world in styles that span from moody electronica (Tides, Isolation) to sensitive ballads (Absolutely Anything, Journey’s End), via rip-roaring heavy rock (More Kicks) and funk (Gangsters Are Running This World, The Clapping Song). Taylor wrote and played almost everything you hear. Although primarily known for his powerhouse drumming, he is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, whose piercing falsetto was a feature of Queen’s fantastic harmonies. That’s Taylor singing “Galileo, Galileo” on Bohemian Rhapsody and screaming during In the Lap of the Gods (from Sheer Heart Attack).

He also took over lead vocals from Freddie Mercury on several Queen songs, including I’m in Love with My Car (from A Night at the Opera) and Modern Times Rock ’n’ Roll (from the band’s 1971 debut album, Queen). “In school, I was known as a singing drummer,” says Taylor, who grew up in Truro, Cornwall. “It’s tricky to do both. I never harboured designs on being out the front. Only Fred had the nerve to do that. I’m happier behind my kit.”

Queen drummer Roger Taylor says modern audiences have become ‘very prudish and judgmental’ - Rankin
Queen drummer Roger Taylor says modern audiences have become ‘very prudish and judgmental’ - Rankin

Drummers are, as Taylor observes wryly, a “much-maligned species”, the butt of “thousands of jokes”. However, between drummers themselves, he says “you always feel a certain brotherhood. Nick Mason [of Pink Floyd] said that a band consists of a drummer, a bass player, and assorted novelty acts.” Among his friends, Taylor counts Chad Smith from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters. Of the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, who died last month, he says: “Charlie was always a lovely gentleman. I did like his incredibly spare style. He hardly raised an eyebrow, but he was central to the Stones’ sound. It was all in the wrist technique. You don’t have to wave your arms up and down. It’s not really necessary. Looks good, though! Keith Moon didn’t know what he started there. He was wonderful!”

Moon (of the Who), Mitch Mitchell (the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) are the drummers who most strongly influenced Taylor’s own dynamic style. Taylor also used to play guitar, but gave up ambitions in that direction after meeting Brian May at college in London in 1968. “I just thought, ‘Wow!’ I’d never met anyone with Brian’s facility. It’s a natural-born gift.” The two formed a blues-rock group, Smile, and found an enthusiastic fan in a flamboyant British-Indian art student named Freddie Bulsara. After the departure of Smile’s bassist and singer, Tim Staffell, Bulsara persuaded them to give him a shot on vocals.

“He was so extreme, one was tempted to laugh at first, because he hadn’t developed his voice; he didn’t have the control he had later,” recalls Taylor. “But he had this thrusting energy and zeal for everything. And, really, a massive array of hidden talents. We were big pals. We had a stall in Kensington Market and he was so delightful, just great to be around, with a tremendous lust for life. He sort of invented himself.”

Taylor has praised the late Freddie Mercury's confidence on stage - Hulton Archive
Taylor has praised the late Freddie Mercury's confidence on stage - Hulton Archive

Bulsara changed his name to Mercury, bassist John Deacon was recruited in 1971, and Queen were born. “We were a gang, very tight-knit. The whole thing was greater than the sum of the parts. We were very lucky with that chemistry. Fred had an incredible faith in us and our path. As he would endlessly say: ‘Talent will out, my dears!’”

Taylor believes a significant key to Queen’s artistic progress and internal harmony was sharing songwriting royalties. “Freddie and Brian were the main writers at first and then John and myself sort of took over in the Eighties. And Fred came up with a wonderful solution. He said, ‘Look, everything is under the heading Queen, so we split it equally.’ Which actually didn’t go that well for me, because I was writing most of the hits by then. But I can’t complain.”

Taylor was the key songwriter on some of Queen’s most famous songs: These Are the Days of Our Lives, A Kind of Magic and Radio Ga Ga. That last came about while he was experimenting with a keyboard arpeggio and drum machine. “My son, who was about three at the time, said something about the radio being ‘kaka’, because he was obsessed with s*** at that age. And these two ideas sort of mingled. It actually says “kaka” on the record, but people choose not to hear it, I think.”

Taylor has fond memories of writing and recording Under Pressure in 1981 with David Bowie, “the most interesting person I ever worked with”. “We were messing about in the studio in Montreux in Switzerland doing Cream covers for fun and David said, ‘Why don’t we write our own song?’” says Taylor. “He was doodling on the piano and we sort of stuck it together in bits.”

Mercury’s death from Aids-related pneumonia in 1991 left the band devastated. “It was a dark period, a massive loss. It wasn’t just the band, it was more personal than that. I think it took five years for it to really sink in.” The remaining members of Queen threw themselves into staging a tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in 1992, and completing a posthumous album, Made in Heaven (released in 1995). “It was a way of diverting some of the grief,” says Taylor. “We thought that was it. It was wonderful. But it was over.”

How wrong they were. The band are arguably more popular now than ever before. Released in 1981, their Greatest Hits remains officially the biggest-selling album in British history, having shifted more than six million copies and spent more than 950 weeks in the charts. Internationally, Queen are the 12th-most popular music artists in history, with more than 200 million album and single sales. Throughout lockdown, Queen have rarely been out of the album and streaming charts. “Ultimately, I think it’s the strength of the material,” says Taylor. “There’s no master plan, just constant attention to doing stuff and keeping the embers glowing.”

John Deacon retired from music in 1997. “He really doesn’t want anything to do with people in general,” Taylor says. “He’s quite fragile. He took Freddie’s death so hard.” But May and Taylor have continued to collaborate on Queen projects, touring with guest singers, creating the long-running West End musical We Will Rock You and producing the Oscar-winning 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a blockbuster success that grossed more than £650 million worldwide. Played in the film by Ben Hardy, Taylor says his character “came over fairly two-dimensionally as a sort of womanising pretty boy”. “And they got the clothes wrong,” he says. “I’d never have worn that stuff. “But it was about Fred, really, and I’ll defend it to the end.”

Since they resumed touring in 2011, with American Idol singer Adam Lambert on lead vocals, Queen have once again become one of the highest-grossing live acts in the world. “Running into Adam was the luckiest thing,” says Taylor. “He knows he’s not Freddie but at the same time he’s funny and brilliant and brings a whole new modern dimension to the material.”

As for May, Taylor says: “Brian and I like to say we’re brothers from another mother. We’re completely different but very close. He’s a good man. Completely bonkers, of course, but in a good way.” In recent years, May has revealed that he suffers from depression. “He was always on a bit of a roller coaster. It wasn’t really understood at the time, but people talk about it now, which I suppose is a good thing. I’m more positive. I try to squeeze every last bit of enjoyment out of life – so I’ll probably be the first to go! But we’re both very happy to still be doing this, while we physically can. It won’t last much longer, let’s face it.”

Next month, Taylor will embark on a solo tour, playing songs from Outsider alongside Queen classics. “There is something slightly melancholy about looking back across your life, but, you know, I’m quite old now, so it’s hard not to. There were ups and downs, but our career fulfilled most of my dreams. I feel incredibly lucky.”

Roger Taylor’s Outsider is out on 1 October. He plays the O2 Newcastle on 2 October, then tours. Info: ticketmaster.com