"Will satisfy the curiosity of anyone wanting to know what it was really like to work with a famous rock band." —MOJO
Queen Unseen: My Life with the Greatest Rock Band of the 20th Centuryby Peter Hince
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Imagine being alongside one of the greatest bands in the history of rock, touring the world and being there as they perform at some of the best and biggest music venues in the world. Peter Hince didn't have to imagine: for more than a decade, he lived a life that other people can only dream of as he worked with Queen as head of their road crew. In 1973, Queen was the support act for Mott the Hoople, for whom Peter was a roadie. Back then, Queen had to content themselves with being second on the bill and the world had not yet woken up to the flamboyant talent of Freddie Mercury. Peter started working full time for Queen just as they were making A Night at the Opera, the album which catapulted them to international stardom. In this intimate and affectionate book, Peter recalls the highlights of his years with the band. He was with Freddie when he composed 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'; he was responsible for making sure that Freddie's stage performances went without a hitch - and was often there to witness his famed tantrums! He was also party to the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll which are invariably part of life on the road with a rock band. Many books have been written about Queen and Freddie Mercury but this is the first real insider's story. Packed with the author's own exclusive photographs, this warm and witty book will entertain and inform. It is a must-read for any music fan.
"Will satisfy the curiosity of anyone wanting to know what it was really like to work with a famous rock band." —MOJO
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Read an Excerpt
My Life With The Greatest Rock Band of the 20th Century
By Peter Hince
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2015 Peter Hince
All rights reserved.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
(THE CREW ARE READY – WHERE'S FRED?)
'I can't do it! I simply can't go on! It's no good – the show will just have to be cancelled!'
Freddie Mercury, the singer with rock band Queen, often expressed to his beloved live audiences that he'd like to have sexual relations – with all of them. Well, looking at him right now, it appears that last night he did, plus a few of their friends. And shared drinks with them all too.
Queen are at the peak of their successes – and excesses. A pale and fragile-looking Fred is sheltering backstage in the comfort of the dressing room. Outside there is a packed arena containing nigh on 20,000 baying rock fans and it's less than an hour until show time. Mr Mercury is in one of his moods and nobody present dares to say anything in response. They just ignore him and hope it will go away. It doesn't.
Fred stands, waves his arms theatrically and loudly states his feelings again: 'I'm telling you – I can't do this show – my voice is fucked. I'm fucked!'
Well, what do you expect – screaming and ranting like that?
Brian May and Roger Taylor start to mutter support and try to win him round, while bassist John Deacon stretches out on a couch, a Walkman plugged into his ears – nodding and smiling. Grinning actually. Meanwhile, 'management' stop picking at the copious plates of food laid out like a banquet, and begin to get twitchy as they search their address books for lawyers' and insurance companies' telephone numbers. The promoter's face has turned white.
Fred is precisely where he wants to be – at the centre of everyone's attention, and is playing the drama queen role to perfection. Silly old tart! This scenario has happened before, but this time it looks like he might be serious.
One of the band assistants thumbs through his Spartacus guide and gleefully tells Fred that there is a gay telephone box, pedestrian crossing or even a late-night hardware shop in the area that they could go to after the show. Fred isn't impressed.
A drink, perhaps – to raise the spirits? Champagne – your favourite – Moët? No. Vodka, a large one? No. This is going to be hard work.
'Give me a ciggie!' Fred demands of one of his 'valets'.
He snatches a low-tar king size and takes a perfunctory draw.
That'll really help the voice Fred ...
Gerry Stickells, Queen's wily tour manager, who has been hovering and observing in the background, approaches, and candidly reminds Mr Mercury that a hell of a lot of people – a sold-out crowd in fact – have waited a long time and paid good money to see him perform tonight, and that it wouldn't be very nice to let them down, and Fred was never somebody to let his people down. Was he?
Me? Peter Hince (aka Ratty), Fred's and John's roadie and head of Queen's crew. I'm ignoring all this melodrama and ambling around the dressing room, being one of the few people allowed in during this pre-show period. Fred calms down a little as he ponders the tour manager's words, passes the cigarette to somebody to extinguish, takes a drink of hot honey and lemon and, with a frown, huffily settles into a comfy chair. He says nothing, as the rest of Queen leave him to it and excitably begin asking the perennial questions of their tour manager, assistant or roadie:
'What's the sound like out front now the crowd is in? The show is completely sold out tonight – isn't it? How are ticket sales for the rest of the tour going, are they sold out too? Is the new single number one yet? What time are we on? What time will we be off? Is it hot/cold out there? Has that nasty buzzing sound in the monitors gone? Is it really true Van Halen have more lights in their show than us? And what about the tour merchandise – how are the Queen toasted sandwich makers selling ...?'
Queen's dressing room varied in size and style, depending on the venue. Theatres had dedicated dressing rooms, but sports-arena and convention-centre-style venues had functional facilities that had to be 'dressed' before they could be deemed a dressing room worthy of Queen's visit. Carpet and rugs were laid down on the cold concrete floors, bare walls draped with material or pictures, and furniture, lamps, flowers and 'objets' were introduced to make it more comfortable and relaxing for the visiting artistes. There were adjoining showers, make-up mirrors, areas for Queen's wardrobe cases and a central space for relaxing, with tables of food and bins of iced drinks against the walls.
Meanwhile, beyond the comfort of the dressing room, the distant drone of the support band can be heard bashing away on stage. On occasion, when some of Queen were feeling tense or irritable, they would insist that the opening act turn down the volume so they could prepare in peace ...
'So then, Fred?' I venture jovially, to one of the world's greatest showmen.
'Yes, dear, what is it?' he replies with a little more verve.
He seems a bit better now.
'Songs for this evening? Your choices?'
'Ah. Yes, right.'
The silly old tart, for whom I held the utmost respect, admiration – and exasperation – has decided he will perform after all. I never really doubted he would let down the audience, the rest of the band or the crew – who have spent the last 12 hours or more sweating blood to put all this together, just so he can prance around in a few silly costumes for a while. As usual he would get through on his formidable willpower, self-belief and determination. In other words – professionalism.
Few people could approach Fred as he prepared for a show, but I would saunter over to him, while he was surrounded by 'beautiful and important' people, and ask, 'Oi! What do you fancy playing tonight then, Fred?'
'I don't know – why don't you guess?'
'Yes, Ratty – guess!' he would giggle, playing to his immediate audience, who would laugh rather superficially with him.
'That's not exactly helpful, is it?'
'I'm not telling you then!' he would state with camp authority – again playing to the gallery of his invited coterie.
'Oh all right then,' I would shrug, knowing this was just a game he wanted to play.
'I'll arm wrestle you for it!' he said, pumping himself up and flexing his muscles.
'Come on – I'll take you on!'
Those not used to our rapport would be amazed that this dishevelled and irreverent roadie could hold the attention of one of the world's biggest rock stars. Fred would then usually reply with a laugh, twirl his hands in the air and say dramatically, 'OK then – you choose!'
This was quite flattering but not very constructive, so I would suggest a couple of Led Zeppelin songs, a Stones classic and 'maybe you could even play some of your own songs, Fred?'
Playfully whacking me with a towel or whatever was to hand, he would chase me out of the dressing room, screaming: 'Same as the last fucking show!'
The voice certainly seems somewhat better now, Fred?
The set list was now set. The content of this sheet of paper was the burning question on the lips of the entourage as show time approached; the final selection of songs always being down to Fred and how he and his voice felt. Sometimes he just wanted to mix things up a bit – to keep everybody on their toes. He occasionally referred to the Queen set as 'our repertoire'. Well, after all, Freddie Mercury was a very well-spoken man and highly literate.
'Scaramouche, and doing the fandango?'
He was extremely intelligent and well educated.
'Thunderbolts and lightning, appeared to be very frightening!'
An eloquent man, who wrote songs of depth and intricacy – and full of meaning.
'He wanted to ride his bicycle ...'
Having been told to get on my bike by Fred, I now had to convey the set list to the relevant crew so they could adjust and make notes on their personal set lists, on which the song titles were always abbreviated: 'Bohemian Rhapsody' became 'Bo Rhap' and 'We Are The Champions' was simply 'Champions', for example. Annotations were made in black felt-tip pen as songs were dropped or added.
Cues for Queen and the crew were noted adjacent to song titles in code. Fat D, for example, was a reference for John to tune the low E string on his bass guitar down to D, prior to playing 'Fat Bottomed Girls'. (Fag B was merely a cigarette break for John and me, as Fred would be off stage at that point and I didn't have to constantly watch him.) The irreverent crew cheekily renamed the songs on set lists: 'We Will Rock You' – 'We Will ROB You', 'Now I'm Here' – 'Now I'm Queer', 'I Want To Break Free' – 'I Want To Break Wind', 'Flash!' – 'Trash!' And so on ...
The set list taped to the top of Fred's piano was the first piece of 'inside information' given to outsiders during the show set-up. His black nine-foot Steinway D concert grand was the first piece of band equipment to take the stage and, as it was lowered from its enormous flight case to await the graft of its third leg, the local crew would already be studying and making comments on Queen's proposed show selection. Meanwhile, yours truly would be lying underneath one ton of wood, metal and imitation ivory, screaming at them to 'lift the bloody thing' so I could hammer the last leg in place.
With show time approaching, towels and drinks for the band's refreshment on stage would now be strategically placed: water and beer for Fred, beer for Brian and Roger and the Backstage Bar for John, comprising water, beer, soft drinks, wine and whatever spirit or cocktail he fancied at the time: Southern Comfort, vodka or tequila. Added to John's cocktail lounge were mixed nuts and chocolate M&M's. All of this was located discreetly to the side of his electronics control rack, where he could simultaneously knock the volume up and a drink down. A copy of the set list was taped here for John, and others to refer to – along with opening hours.
Fred had champagne glasses on top of his grand piano to sip from. I kept these wrapped in an old towel in the bottom of a flight case, and before the show I would give them a wipe with the bottom of my T-shirt and fill them with local tap water.
It was never champagne. I did try using Perrier water in places where the water was a very dodgy colour as it came out of a backstage tap, but Fred cursed me – the bubbly water made him burp! After an incident where one of the champagne glasses caused a member of the audience to be injured, I was told I had to replace them with plastic champagne glasses. Fred was horrified when he saw these tacky items from a party shop and we switched to plain plastic cups and Evian or still mineral water, as our backstage catering became more sophisticated.
With show time very close, Brian would be escorted to the backstage tuning room to tune his guitars and warm his fingers up. He would invariably be in conversation with somebody as he did this, get carried away and forget which guitars had been tuned, which not – and have to start all over again.
Show time is imminent and Brian is fruitlessly trying to plug a ukulele into an electronic strobe tuner.
'Brian, it's an acoustic instrument!'
He grins and tunes it by ear.
All of John's and Fred's guitars would be tuned by me on stage, prior to the show, being closest to the temperature and environment in which they would actually be used. In the early Queen silk and satin days I had to hang a triangle on John's mic stand, so he could take and strike it once during 'Killer Queen', then hand it back to me. Triangles? Not seen those since the days of my primary school band. Fortunately, I didn't have to tune it. A local piano tuner would be hired by the promoter to tune Fred's Steinway before sound check, and touch up again in the early evening. The strobe tuners for all the guitars would take their calibration from the piano setting. Over the years I got to know many of the tuners personally; one excellent tuner and lovely man, who always did the shows in Boston, was Sal Corea – uncle of legendary jazz musician Chick Corea. Sal wasn't blind, but several piano tuners were, and I once made the embarrassing mistake of offering a blind tuner 'tickets to see the show?'
After the first few shows of a tour, Fred and John very rarely did any kind of sound check. They trusted all of their crew. It also meant they could sleep in much later.
Queen were confident individuals, but sometimes at huge outdoor shows or vast arenas in major or new cities, nerves could start to creep in. That was the time that irreverent crew banter would help to relax them and keep their spirits up. Queen could usually laugh at themselves and see the funny side of some of the pompous things they did, and it also helped keep their feet on the ground, as there were plenty of sycophants ready to assure them everything they did was wonderful and beyond reproach.
'The audience is all in now, Fred.'
'Good – how do they look?'
(How do they look? Keen? Smart? Angry?)
'Well, they seem like a very nice couple to me.'
'Oh, by the way, the new album has just gone ...'
'Gold? Platinum? Double platinum?' one of Queen would snappily interject.
'No – vinyl.'
'I've heard a woman in Slough bought a copy ...'
'Fuck off and die! Now let's get on with it! When are we on?'
With Queen itching to get on stage, the buzz increased, and you could feel the hyped nervous energy in the corridors backstage. With Access All Areas passes slung around their necks, crew members would wander the stage to check the equipment and check out any female 'leisure potential' in the front rows.
Meanwhile, Queen's dressing room had been cleared of non-essential personnel as the band donned costume and regalia; preparing themselves for the daunting, yet exciting, ordeal to come. In order to exorcise nervous tension and warm up their voices, Fred and Roger would screech loudly at each other in high-pitched squeals, like a couple of late-night tom cats. Roger would have a pair of drumsticks in hand, repeatedly tapping and hitting things – including his assistant and former roadie, Chris Taylor (aka Crystal – and no relation)
Queen were sometimes late appearing on stage but once, at a show in Spain, it was not their fault. Joe Trovato, Queen's lighting designer at the time, had been partaking of the cheap and plentiful local wine, causing him to spend several sessions in a backstage lavatory. Forlornly sitting there, he lost track of time until there was a polite little knock on the door and a concerned, recognisable voice asked, 'Are you all right in there?' Joe opened the door to see Fred peering in, along with the rest of Queen – all ready to take the stage. With a grimace and an apology, he adjusted his attire and took off to the lighting console.
Now it's show time – what today has been all about. The next couple of hours are all that matter. Shortly Queen will be on stage in your town playing for you – just for you, you privileged ticket holders. The four famous faces will be up there on stage – attached to their instruments, in moving, living person – and colour. They have travelled over land and sea and overcome obstacles and hangovers to give you this special personal experience. So be sure and enjoy it!
The stage is ready; everything taped down, the carpet vacuumed, all equipment powered and humming, everybody on standby at their assigned station. The crew are standing to attention – but not in uniform, despite attempts to get us to wear things to camouflage ourselves on stage. Influenced by their first visit to Japan, Queen gave the crew black 'Happy Coats': short kimonos, with Queen printed in red Japanese letters on the back. Very stylish, but not very practical loading-out attire and it would be hard to gain the respect of a six-foot-plus, 300-pound union teamster or truck loader while wearing a boudoir garment. All onstage spotlight operators wore fitted black overalls, but I found them restrictive, as I was constantly scuttling under, over and about during the show; so jeans and a T-shirt – preferably a Queen freebie, to show some mark of loyalty – were what I wore.
The final check of instruments was done in conjunction with a line check. Not that kind of line, but a check that all the instruments were placed back into the correct channels after use by the support act. That's why you often hear chords crashing on guitars, drums banging and pianos tinkling before a band takes the stage. There is a distinct art and calculated procedure to these exercises; knowing too much is dangerous, but so is knowing too little. Don't play a recognisable riff (poseur) and, if it's a Queen riff, you run the risk of getting a cheer from the audience, your 15 seconds of fame and enraging the band. It would also brand you as a total wanker to the rest of the crew. The middle path of single notes or chords was preferable. However, there was still an enormous temptation to crank the volume up and let rip with a couple of power chords ...
Excerpted from Queen Unseen by Peter Hince. Copyright © 2015 Peter Hince. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter Hince met Queen as a teenager in 1973 when they were the support act to Mott The Hoople. Later he began working for Queen during the recording of A Night at The Operaalbum, and stayed with the band until their final concert in 1986. Head of Queen's road crew, Peter then left the music business to start his career as a professional advertising photographer. He continues to work as a photographer and writer.
Peter Hince met Queen as a teenager in 1973 when they were support act to Mott The Hoople. Later he began working full time for Queen during their A Night at The Opera album, and stayed with the band until their final concert in 1986. Head of Queen’s road crew, Peter then left the music business to start his career as a professional advertising photographer. He continues to work as a photographer and a writer.
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This book was amazing #Queen fan 4 life
Been waiting for Mr. Hince to write this for a few years now and he does not disappoint here! A great book about what it is like to be on tour with the great band Queen from the early days to their final shows. Loved hearing about Mr. Hince's days touring the USA and his interactions with the late, great Freddie Mercury. This is a must-read for not only any Queen fan but any fan who wants to know about what goes on behind the scenes touring with a major rock and roll band!