“They came on stage and killed it!”
New Queen photobook focuses on 1973-1985, their epic live years.
Queen are the subject of a new photobook published in September. Covering 12 years of their history, Queen – Performances 1973-1985 brings together more than 400 photos of the band taken by veteran music photographer Robert Ellis, who first saw them as a support act to Mott The Hoople on their first major tour in 1973. From such humble origins it ends with Freddie Mercury and company headlining the Rock In Rio Festival in Brazil in 1985 in front of a quarter of a million fans.
As well as the photography, Ellis, who shot the band for NME, Melody Maker, Kerrang!, Burrn!, Bravo Rock & Folk and others, gives an insider’s view of Queen’s rise from obscurity to becoming one of the biggest attractions in the world.
“Just like my previous books on Led Zeppelin, Status Quo, AC/DC and others, it’s a personal voice,” Ellis explains. “I’m writing from the standpoint of an observer, rather than claiming to have an intimate knowledge of Freddie Mercury. I can’t stand that scurrilous type of a book.”
Ellis says he knew that Queen were destined for superstardom the first time he set eyes on them. “Thanks to their early club gigs a buzz was beginning to build,” he recalls. “At that point they had outlandish style but nobody really knew who Queen were. They were f lamboyant, they were showmen. With Mott they had the stage cleared and set up their equipment as if they were headliners, and that’s something you never see. Playing on a postage stamp wasn’t their style. I was totally blown away by them.
“By the time Queen headlined at The Rainbow in Finsbury Park the following year I couldn’t wait to see them again,” Ellis continues. “They did the Rainbow twice in 1974, in March and November.”
At the second of those two shows [Freddie solo pic, opposite page inset far left] “Queen were putting on the show they’d wanted all along,” says Ellis. “They were saying: ‘Here we are, this is us.’ It was such a stamp of authority. They came out on to that stage and killed it. That Rainbow show announced that they had arrived.”
And they would continue staking their claim. “The shot of Brian and Freddie together on stage [main pic, opposite] is from the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth, 1975,” says Ellis. “Punk was all the rage, but this pose tells you they’re real rock’n’rollers. I loved the fact that they were standing up for traditional rock music, for pomp and ceremony – everything the punks wanted to do away with. Queen were presenting an alternative view. I wish somebody would come along in 2018 and kick a few asses like Queen did back then.”
Despite shooting the band so many times, Ellis spent “very little” time socialising with them. “They were very shut off,” he explains. “If you met them in the bar or a hotel foyer, they were approachable but quite serious. Queen were not a band that felt terribly comfortable in public, unless they were on a stage.”
But even observing them from a distance, Ellis saw enough of Mercury to notice huge changes: “As the years went by, Freddie took on more and more of the persona for which he became known. He lost the normality which I had known in him. He seemed to me to inhabit party land. It might not have been so, but he appeared lost to the real world.”
Queen were at the top of their game at Rock In Rio, where they topped a bill that also included George Benson, Rod Stewart, AC/DC, Yes and James Taylor.
“Rock In Rio [1985, inset photo right] was the event that really exploded Freddie’s perception of what was possible,” Ellis remembers. “That was a colossal show over seven or eight days. Queen provided some of the real standout moments. Their whole expertise went into staging something exceptional.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Ellis says that Queen’s new film on the life of Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody, which finally hits the screens in late October, played little part in the publishing of his book.
“I’m not terribly interested in what Queen are doing now, and I didn’t even know about the film until quite recently,” he says. “I do hope they don’t think I’m trying to cash in on that.”
Ellis has not crossed paths with Brian May or Roger Taylor for quite some time now, but he says “they’ve always been friendly and polite to me. In the early days, Brian in particular always made me feel as though I was being well treated”. DL
Queen – Performances 1973-1985 by Robert Ellis is available to pre-order from www.therocklibrary.com, priced £95 (plus shipping).
“They were flamboyant, they were showmen.Robert Ellis