As some of you have noticed, especially if you saw my blog piece from July 2018 and are connected to me on Social Media, I’ve been on a real Queen trip recently. Dusting down those old and vintage records is always great, but every now and then you get your hands on something that is so mind blowing you can’t quite comprehend it. Case in point, I was sent the original 24 track stems for Bohemian Rhapsody.
I instantly loaded them into LogicX and started to listen intently to all the various parts and marvelling how 4 guys in the 70’s could do all that, without the help of modern high tech gear (as the only gear they had were their instruments and the ability to record them). Basically, it’s incredible.
I’m guessing that BoRap is a song that everyone knows and at some point in their life, loved. Whether you were around when it first came out, or were familiar with it when you were young then fell about laughing at Wayne’s World, or just over the years that have followed discovered it on the radio and been fascinated, it’s one of those songs that will always be with us.
There are many videos around that discuss it all but they can get a little nerdy… so I thought I would isolate each track (there are 24) and just tell you, as a fan of the band and of music in general, what I can hear – I’m by no means a recording engineer or producer so this is as basic and real as it can be... So, this could be deemed to be a reaction piece, but in reality, it’s just me marvelling at being able to listen to a moment in history in my headphones.
Track 1: “KIT kick”
The first thing you notice is how big, loose and flabby the bass drum sounds. There is a LOT of overlap in the recording, you can just about hear the hats, the ride and the crash cymbals are fairly prominent. Seriously, the bass drum sounds like an old marching band one, with the player having it strapped to their chest. I can almost imagine an oompah band playing along with it! In the rock bit after the operatic section, Roger has a heavy 4 on the floor… you just can’t help hearing the guide guitars in the background from when they were recording it.
Track 2: “KIT Snare”
This is one of the more fascinating, before Taylor starts playing, you can hear Deacy’s bass and the piano leaking in, also copious amounts of snare rattle… but, the all time best thing a Queen fan can hear is contained in this track. Right at the start, you hear Freddie make a little giggle and then count in “1,2,3,4”… Every time a bass note is hit, the snare rattles and fizzes, it’s amazing that it wasn’t gated or something to remove this, maybe in the final mix they had 24 fingers on the console making sure this wasn’t heard. The snare is tight, once again, quite marching band like – quite gunshot in character - a lot of cymbal overlap, the toms are in this as well. The toms are quite loose and huge. Hearing Roger’s dynamics under the first guitar solo is amazing, he really is hitting them extremely hard. As soon as the operative bit starts, you can hear the sticks click together, sounds like he put them in one hand for a moment before starting again. The toms are all over the operatic section as well, absolutely huge in isolation, referring back to the record they sound a lot more in moderation... It would have been awesome to hear them more up in the mix. All the way through to the end of the operatic section you can hear the bass and the snare rattling… then you hear the guitar overlap into for the rock section once more.
Track 3: “Kit Toms”
This is the one where you start to hear the bouncing… The first thing you hear on the track is “No escape from reality” in perfect (what sounds like) 4 part harmony. Then, utter silence until your start to hear the bass overlapping. All the drums are overlapping into this track, but when the toms hit they are thunderous, loose and powerful.
Track 4: “Kit Room”
Once again, bounced over is “No escape from reality”. In what sounds like the higher part of the chord from the one on the toms track. Once again, lots of bass overlap, this time piano as well, and then later on the guitar. You hear everything with the drums, as it’s obviously capturing the room ambience… man, the toms really come through though and so do the hats in the rock section.
Just the drum tracks in Isolation.
The first thing that catches you out, obviously, is the “no escape from reality” vocal. When put into balance you hear how they’ve managed to put these simple four track together to make a huge drum sound, makes me wonder… how would modern producers handle getting such a huge sound from only 4 tracks with massive amounts of overlap from the other instruments?
Track 5: “Bass1”
Exactly what you would expect, although some of Deacy’s note choices are odd, never noticed them before. The tone is thing and almost hollow, just seems to be high mids with no power and balls across the bottom. Loads and loads of drum overlap, especially with the bass drum, cymbals and a little snare.
Track 6: “Bass2”
This appears to be EQ’d to the opposite of Bass1, loads of low end and a nice amount of tightness around the top end.
Track 7: “Bass3”
Another EQ change, a lot warmer across the lower mid range almost giving it a nasal, honky feel... although by his playing style it doesn’t honk like a more funky bass, you can just really hear the wood in the tone. It’s really quite weird tbh.
Just the bass in isolation.
This is where you sit back and say “Ahhhhh” as it now all makes sense. The three put together just compliment each other perfectly (based on the bits at the end that you don’t hear, I am guessing that it was one line, split into three and each EQ’d differently to adjust during the final mix) making this a truly beautifully balanced bass tone. There is the right amount of low end, the mid is punchy and definite and the highs just add that clarity. I’m guessing these guys really knew what they were doing.
Rhythm section in isolation.
Now it’s starting to sound like the record we all know and love, your brain plays tricks on you and adds the piano, guitars and all those vocal lines.
Track 8: “Piano1”
This is where the recording technique and all the behind the scenes stuff comes into play, on the record the intro is 100% vocals... this track contains the guide piano line for that as well. Picking out the harmonies and then going into that famous cross hand line…. As always, copious amounts of drum and bass overlap… and then a little guitars as well. The piano just sounds beautiful. Makes the listener remember what a dynamic and expressive piano player Freddie was… Right in the middle of the “Let me go” vocal cascade section you can clearly hear Freddie say “one” as well, I don’t know why… Right after that, one of the more interesting spill over happens, you can clearly here Roger in falsetto singing “Mama Mia!”
Track 9: “Piano2”
Double tracked to give a wider sound… the difference in dynamics is subtle, but oh so obvious once you get right into it.
Both Piano’s together.
Well, hello Freddie. There is it. I would be lying if I said I didn’t see him in my mind during Live Aid playing it
Track 10: “Rhtm Gtr1”
Guitars. What guitars? Once again, you hear Freddie count it in… and then there are vocal harmonies all over it, and then what sounds like the most insane cymbal crescendo that sounds like it’s gone either through a filter or a something that appears to change the pitch… I had to listen to it 4 times to try to work it out. About 2 bars in from when the guitar starts, the mic opens up and all you can hear is the ground noise of Brian’s guitar hissing like mad… the tone is exactly as you would expect, screaming – it’s been pushed hard at the front end. It’s almost fuzzy at times, you can hear the sixpence scratching the strings… After the main solo, there are interesting out take notes from Dr May that I have omitted from the capture to save his dignity.
Track 11: “Rhtm Gtr2”
More vocal harmonies… man, this is getting complicated. Obviously double tracked for width and power. More interesting notes and outtakes after the first vocal section… and then the operatic section. Vocal stabs and harmonies everywhere. It’s almost like Freddie is in my head singing “Bismillah” – probably the most freaky thing on the entire track. Main vocal line for “So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye”… wow. Just wow. Tons of vocal harmonies, high end… probably Freddie and Roger… this track ends with the main vocal line of “Nothing really matters etc”.
Track 12: “BGR VOX & Gtr”
Hello Freddie, 1,2,3,4 again… then the main vocal line harmony in the intro. He is really pushing to the top of his range here, his voice is almost crapping out on his at some points. Loads and loads of overspill with Piano. The track then goes completely quiet until the “Thunderbolt and Lightning” then it’s all just lower harmonies, more Bismillah to freak me out… All the high end Mama Mia’s are on here as well. Then, hello Brian. It’s that riff that made us all laugh in Waynes World. Never heard him sound like that before, pretty certain this didn’t make the final track. The gain is insane, almost out of control… then during the second run through, before all the nice runs it tightens up again and you are hearing a more familiar tone.
Track 13. “BGR VOX1”
This, I’m guessing, is where the harmony nuts would get lost. In this track appears to be one half of the beautiful harmony opening. I think I can hear 6 different tracks bounced in. There are some unbelievably high harmonies on the section up to the first solo and then during the first few bars. Probably Roger Taylor, ridiculously high… opera. Scaramosh. High harmonies everywhere… the full Magnifico chordal break down. Full vocal chords on “No, we will not let you go”. The whole Beelzebub section is far more complex than the record gives away. How did they do this?
Track 14: “BGR VOX2”
The other side of the intro harmonies. The complexities of the chords they are creating here with their voices… Once again, insanely high harmonies running up to the solo and following bars. More operatic harmonies, more Magnifico… just a poor boy, from a poor family. More insanity around the Beelzebub line.
Track 15. “Lead VOX”
By now, you would have thought I would have expected the track to just contain what it’s labelled as! First line is the harmony from “caught in a landslide” and continues on into the harmony vocal line for ‘poor boy etc’… the main vocal line starts with “Mama, just killed a man”. Surprisingly breathy and laid back.. and then when he ramps it up, that classic Freddie metallic rasp as he’s really pushing it. Into the operatic sections, sounds like Roger doing the high “Let him go”. Low harmonies on “put aside for me”… piano for the main guitar rock section… And we welcome Brian in with some runs during the exit… main lead line for the outro… pretty breathtaking.
Track 16: “VOX1 & Snare”
More harmonies in a landslide, more eyes opening and ‘look up the sky and see’… ‘poor boy’ harmonies, ‘I don’t want to die’ harmonies… just everything… Full chords of vocal “Let him go”…. The “let me go” main vocal cascade… And then a snare overdub for the rock section. Tight, loads of attack and punch.
Track 17: “VOX2”
More complex harmonies from the intro… all Freddie. Double tracked lines for the main line and harmonies for “poor boy”. Double tracked “wind blows” and “to me…”. More double tracks for the “just killed a man” and on to the guitar solo. More full vocal chords of “Let him go” including Roger’s high parts… And we have Brian back with the rock guitar section… Man, that guitar tone is brutal!
Track 18: “VOX3&LdGtr”
More of the above… more intro harmonies. All the way through, so many double tracks and multiple harmonies. And then, that solo. Pretty sure that’s not his Vox amps, but the Deacy amp… the mid range is so nasal! More freaky Bismillah. I’m going to hear that in my sleep tonight I think! And then you hear the guitar, open amp floor noise… that big Bb before the runs and then the big sound for the rock section, but it drops out quickly… then there is tons and tons of overspill from everything. This tracks ends with huge harmonies of the whole “oh yeah” section, layers upon layers upon of layers… Then there is that Brian exit that he plays with his fingers on his right hand. Right at the end of this track you hear Freddie say “Oh, fuck it, let…” – I’d love to know what bought that on.
Track 19: VOX4
As you can guess, it’s just layers and layers of intro harmonies and double tracking. This track also contains the chimes from “shivers down my spine”… based on the floor noise, I’d say this was a guitar, with the strings being played behind the nut. Operatic harmonies… just everywhere, more “magnifico’ cascades… The very high harmonies of “For me” before the rock section, appears then to have a double track of the “stone me”. More Brian playing the exit arpeggios.. and finally, the exit gong makes an appearance!
Track 20: VOX5
I’m guessing you know what is on here. More doubling, more harmonies, more opera… more mayhem. More ‘stone me’ including a wonderful moment where Freddie’s voice sounds like it’s right on the edge, pushing it further than he should.
Track 21: VOX6 & Guitar6
Yep, harmonies, harmonies, harmonies, harmonies. Also, Brian doubling up on the high notes from the main theme (the octave piano part in the main theme) that I’ve always heard him do live but never picked out on the original. During the operatic section, you can clearly hear Brian and Roger adding their sections, but mostly it’s just Freddie either doubling what is already there or adding yet another harmony. Brian outtake for the rock section, I don’t blame them cutting that bit, not a great tone! More exit scales from Brian, completing the exit runs…
Track 22: Vox Ovdub1
This feels like this was when they had it almost there and Freddie was dropping the final piece’s of the puzzle in… the main vocal line “Carry on, carry on” followed by ‘matters’ in here as well. Also, the overdub for “wish I’d never been born at all”. Full harmony chords of “scaramoosh” and “fandango”… more parts of ‘magnifico’… tons of Roger high harmonies… Timpani drums. Full vocal chords of “No no no no no” and some more Beelzebub”. Drum overdubs for the rock section… And then, my favourite bit. Brian’s beautifully constructed guitar harmonies at the end. There must be at least 5 guitars in there.
Track 23: Vox Ovdub2
More bits and pieces tidying up the into vocals… any way the wind blows… some oohs and ahhs over the solo… Rogers very highest Gallieo’s, the highest “he’s just a poor boy etc”. There’s that Bismillah again. More beelzebub harmonies… I never knew how complicated that little section was.. and then finally, we are treated to more Brian’s runs at the end of the rock section!
Track 24: Vox Ovdub3.
Even more overdubs of the main and harmony lines… obviously not all of these made it to the mix… when you put them all on… it’s insane. There is only the slightest amount of modulation coming from the pitching, so Freddie’s voice is on note, every times. Almost to a freaky level. Exit rock guitars in the rock section, sounds like this was the one that was used… I can hear that sixpence again! And the rest of Brian’s harmony exit…
This was a total guilty pleasure for me, and one I was reluctant to look at too deeply as I didn’t want it to ruin the masterpiece we have all heard countless times. But, you know, when you are presented the opportunity to look into something so monumental, you take the chance and have a listen. I’m so glad I did as the respect I have for their talent, especially the producer who managed to get this on 24 tracks has been blown out of all proportion… Basically, the word genius undersells it.
Monday, July 2nd 2018 will go down as one of the greatest, mind-melting nights of my life. If you disregard the day I met my wife and the two nights I become a Father, I’m pretty certain nothing has been as monumental as this was.
I first ‘met’ Jamie Humphries many, many years ago on FB and over the years we’ve become very good friends. We have a very similar sense of humour (our partners will confirm that is being mostly like 13-year-old boys) and share a deep love for our instrument and music. When I first started to chat with Jamie I was painfully aware he was one of the resident guitar players in the London show of “We Will Rock You” and had toured with Dr Brian May… over the years he’s gone on to do the European Tour of WWRY and many other major touring shows. But, you know, he’s now just the guy that literally makes me cry with laughter on a regular basis. Jamie is widely regarded as one of the guys who can do Brian as well as Brian himself... along with that, his knowledge of the Red Special and Brian’s gear in general is frighteningly deep - we always joked about how I would react if I ever got to hold the Red Special. He always said that one day he would sort it for me but I never thought it would actually happen.
It was many months ago that Queen announced that they were touring with Adam Lambert again and hitting the UK in Summer. I mentioned it to Jamie and he said (in an off-hand way): “I’ll see if I can get us tickets, it’s right on my birthday so, you know, it may happen, I’ll try to get us backstage as well”. Lisa and I tried not to get too excited about it, but it was always in the back of our minds. Then, last Friday, I get a text from Jamie saying something along the lines of “Answer your phone you ******” - I hadn’t noticed he was repeatedly trying to call me… when I spoke to him he confirmed that we had tickets for the Monday night and the after-show party.
Then followed the strangest weekend of my life. Two gigs, one tremendous and the other one completely screwed up, all played out in slow motion. When Monday finally came around, we got in the car and made our way to London. The journey, as it often is, was awful but we got to the hotel next door to the venue (10 minutes’ walk from concert seat to bed – BOOM!), checked in and waited patiently for the clock to tick round. Jamie was frantically calling what felt like every 5 minutes as he was stuck in traffic coming from Lick Library in Essex to the o2, the language used was a thing of beauty. Filthy, but so articulately filthy I couldn’t help but laugh at him. We finally met up about 10 minutes before the show was due to start, at the box office, and made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare.
I don’t know what it is about Queen. I’m yet to meet a rational person who doesn’t really like them on some level, it almost feels like they have been, at some point, everyone’s favourite band but at the same time, hardly anyone’s actual favourite band. They just seem to be deeply appreciated by almost everyone. For me, it’s a family affair - they were one of my Mother’s favourite bands, they are one of my favourite bands, one of my wife’s favourite bands and one of my kid’s favourite bands… It seems like everyone has several Queen songs that mean the world to them. It’s not hard to understand why, when you think of the songs, or think of Live Aid, or think of Freddie, or think of the guitar that Dr May made with his Father (Harold) between 1963 and 1965… it’s just one hell of a story and one hell of a back catalogue of simply great songs.
Judging by the way Facebook has reacted to my many posts about this since last Friday, it’s apparent that some people think Queen should have died a natural death when Freddie did. To me that’s a little crazy, why shouldn’t the surviving members carry on? Not only in tribute to the music they created but to Freddie himself, and to the fans that still hold the music very close to their hearts. It was as I was thinking this, that the lights went down and the show started. When you see a band like Queen for the first time, and you are staring a lifetime of memories and happy thoughts right in the face, it takes a few moments to get your head back on. And once I did, there were two things that kept going through my head… the first was “I think that’s the best live guitar tone I’ve ever heard” and “Adam Lambert is incredible” – I turned to Jamie and said something that rhymes with “Duck tree – that tone!” and he laughed and said, “Told you it was good!”.
The following two or so hours went by in a whirl. Song after song of massive hits, a flawless stage show, several guest appearances by Freddie via the video screens, masterfully edited in, and at the heart of it, one of my favourite players, playing the iconic guitar, with just the biggest and ballsiest tone I’ve ever heard. He didn’t play the original all night, but whenever he did, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The great thing about seeing a show like that with a straight up Queen nerd is that all the way through I was being updated with what gear he was using. Just perfect for a perpetual tone chaser who can legitimately think of nothing better than avidly listening to Jamie telling me about Brian’s wet/dry/wet rig, modified AC30’s, treble boosters, and the various ‘other’ Red Special’s that were being used.
Once the show was over, we made our way to where the after-show party was being held. Myself, Lisa, Jamie and Kim (the fourth member of our little group who owns Lick Library and Guitar Interactive Magazine) found ourselves in a room with a free bar and bizarrely, a Rock DJ playing some RAWK classics. It was then that the gravity of the situation started to hit me… Big Phil, who is Brian’s personal security guard - and has the title of being one of the most lovely and terrifying people I’ve ever met - came over for a chat… Phil Hilborne – whos impact on guitarists of our age can never be overstated through his work with Guitarist Magazine and Guitar Techniques Magazine - was also was a long-standing member of the WWRY band – came and joined us, I turned around and noticed next to us were Rami Malik, Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazello – who play Freddie, Brian and John in the upcoming film “Bohemian Rhapsody”… edged on by the comfort of having a couple of beers on an empty stomach I had a chat with them, and it was clear just what big fans they are of the band as well. That film is going to be epic. There were so many people indelibly connected to Queen, just there, all around me.
It was when I had just been to the bar again (to replace the beer that Lisa had dropped) that I noticed that Jamie was talking to a guy with a gig bag strapped to his back, I thought “No, that can’t be”, but judging by the way Jamie smiled at me, I knew it was. I knew that Pete Malandrone – Brian’s long-term tech – who kept the original Red Special with him at ALL times, and I mean, at all times, was right there and he had ‘it’ with him. There I was, within touching distance of the guitar that played on all those hits, stole the show at Live Aid, was the cornerstone of that Guitar Legends gig, and is quite possibly the most iconic guitar of all time... So near, yet so far.
Pete wandered off, and then about 10 minutes later, Jamie tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Come with me”. I stood up, grabbed Lisa’s hand, and we were quickly led into another room. After we were all in and the door was closed behind us, Pete took the gig back off his back, opened it up and I was confronted with I can only describe as what looked like a military grade carbon fibre shaped guitar case. My first thought was “That’s so small, it can’t be”. He opened it up (the whole thing was like that scene from Pulp Fiction when Travolta opened the briefcase and Samuel L Jackson said, “Are we happy?”) and it was.
Pete picked up the Red Special… THE original Red Special, and handed it to me. In that instant, it was almost like people describe as “your life flashing before you” trick of the brain, the whole history of that guitar flooded through me. So… what did I do? Well, like an idiot I sat down and started to play the first solo from Bohemian Rhapsody. Jamie started laughing and said “Don’t play Queen licks on that you muppet” and we all just started laughing. I mean, fair comment really. I looked up and noticed Pete’s face was just lit up with a huge smile. There must have been many times when he’s handed that guitar to someone and they react the way I did - in complete awe – and it looks like he genuinely loves to see that reaction. Then he started to go through the history of its construction, you know how it goes... The fireplace mantelpiece, the bike rack tremolo arm and knitting needle top, where the finish had been worn off over the years and where it had been refinished… the buttons used for the fret markers, the bike springs in the tremolo, the single bolt holding the neck on… I stopped playing and just looked at it. Even though I’ve read about it a million times, when it’s in your hands and the guy who knows it as well as Brian does is telling you about it, it takes on a whole new meaning. It was at that point Pete put his hand in his pocket and said “Have this, it was the one he used tonight, I just found it on the stage by his mic stand” and handed me a classic Six Pence piece… I then started to play again (very gently with the sixpence) and that’s the point it jumped out at me. The neck was enormous, the frets are non-existent (it’s never been refretted)… and to be completely honest, the neck feels like a baseball bat that’s had a small part of the front shaved off. It’s uncomfortably huge. The profile of the board is actually really quite rounded but… you know… it’s THE Red Special. He made it with his Father over 50 years ago and it feels like it. It may be weird to play, but it doesn’t matter - that is truly a guitar of legend. After what felt like a second I gave it back to Pete, who put it back in the case (cue Travolta in my head again saying “yeah, we’re happy”), put the case back in the gig bag and we left the room to carry on enjoying the free bar. As the night progressed, more beers were drunk, more people met, more laughs were had (including the continuation of a long-held discussion we’ve been having about Phil’s Red/Pink PRS) and even a free curry. As Lisa and I walked back to the hotel some hours after, most definitely quite squishy from the beer, I’m pretty certain my feet never touched the ground even once.
If you are a Queen fan, go and see them. Especially if you love them but think that it won’t be Queen without Freddie, because other than everything I explained above, the one memory I will have about that night was just how perfect for the job Adam Lambert is. As he said during the show “I know a lot of you think ‘He’s not Freddie and he shouldn’t be trying to be him’… All I can say is this… I’m not trying to be him, I could never be Freddie. I’m here for the same reason you are - I love Freddie and I love Queen and I’m so lucky I get to pay tribute to him with those amazing guys”.
I’d like to thank Jamie Humphries for giving me a true memory of a lifetime, Pete Malandrone for his love of the instrument and allowing me to play many, many inappropriate licks on it, and Dr Brian May for being, well… Brian May.
*header photo: Dave Watson.