In the rock shoe-filling stakes, there cannot be a more daunting task than taking on the frontman duties for Queen. Freddie Mercury, to many, was Queen; a flamboyant showman with that tremulous, distinctive voice. Anyone else taking on Bohemian Rhapsody is the stuff of terrible karaoke nightmares.
And yet one brave soul has taken up the challenge. Paul Rodgers, probably most famous for his 1970 hit All Right Now with Free, now finds himself touring the world with the guitarist Brian May and the drummer Roger Taylor. But as Queen + Paul Rodgers, it’s the classic rock comeback given a twist – Rodgers sings the greatest hits in his own way.
“Should I attempt to do Freddie Mercury impressions?” the affable singer ponders as they prepare for their date in Dubai. “Nobody should attempt to do Freddie Mercury impressions. Only Freddie Mercury could do Freddie Mercury. He was absolutely brilliant – I loved him to pieces and I had a great deal of respect for him.”
It’s this sense of respect – for the songs as much as the memory of Mercury – which means Rodgers approaches them in his own way. After all, there would be nothing more depressingly end-of-pier tribute-band than a full-on recreation with all the costumes. Still, it must have been nerve-racking the first time he prepared to go on stage.
“No, not nerve-racking,” says a man who has, after all, sold millions records with Free and Bad Company. “But it was challenging and extremely exciting. We were rehearsing in this empty auditorium and you had all these cleaning staff popping their heads in going ‘What’s going on!’ And at that point you can feel the power of it all, the intensity of the songs and what they mean to people. It was a good sign, you know, that these songs still had a life.”
That was four years ago, and what’s interesting is that Rodgers and Queen didn’t get together because of the dollar signs that world tours would inevitably bring. It all began as acquaintances collaborating for the love of the music.
“We played a television show in London where they were my backing band for All Right Now and I was their singer for We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions – that was the only deal Brian and I struck,” he recalls. “And then he called me a couple of days later asking if I’d like to do a couple of songs in Europe as Queen and Paul Rodgers, doing 50 per cent of my songs and 50 per cent Queen songs.
“I said that I liked the idea but actually wanted to keep it Queen-heavy because Queen haven’t toured in 20-odd years and people would be really looking to hear those songs. And so that’s how it came about; it grew from those few shows into a world tour.”
And this week, four years after they first played together, their second world tour will bring them to Dubai, for a concert which Rodgers already expects will be something special. “Honestly, I know people always say this about wherever they’re playing, but I’ve been doing silly things like looking at photographs of the venue. All the gigs are great in different ways, but Dubai is one we highlighted pretty early on,” he says.
What makes this different from most reunions or comebacks is that Queen and Rodgers decided to make a record of completely new material. It’s unlikely to go down in history alongside A Night at the Opera or A Kind of Magic, but in some ways the quality of the music is not the issue: it’s more important for them in the way that it validates the project as being more than a money-spinner; Queen have become a living creative act again with this year’s The Cosmos Rocks album.
“First time around, there was something of a novelty value to it,” admits Rodgers. “You go on tour once and everyone says, ‘Ooh, I wouldn’t mind seeing that’. But the big test is doing it again; you can’t keep going around the world doing just the old hits. So we had to take it that one step further if we were going to tour again.
“So we went into the studio just to see what we were going to do. We had no idea what would happen, we just started jamming on things and it started to cook up, feel great and, well, we surprised ourselves really about how good it felt.”
Whether The Cosmos Rocks will, a year down the line, feel as good to everyone else is a moot point, though you sense that, actually, Rodgers doesn’t care if people write off the record as the self-indulgent ramblings of a bunch of musical veterans. This was just him and his new band mates having some fun. That comes across in the shamelessly massive, full-on production and signature harmonies that everyone can recognise as being Queen. And Rodgers’ bluesy efforts – particularly the one-take Voodoo – suggest a man unafraid to rely on a musical cliché or two. Was there not the danger that such different approaches might not make for a coherent record?
“If the question you’re asking is whether the intention was to make a classic rock album or a classic Queen album, then perhaps we had ideas like that buzzing around in our minds. The big question with recording – and it’s not just us I’m talking about here – is whether when you put musicians together with their ideas that blends into something brand new.”
And right from the beginning, Rodgers felt that chemistry was there. “I would sit down at the piano, start playing Time To Shine or something, Roger would be on a full drum kit and pick up on that, and Brian would fall in on it and all of a sudden we were building a track. We’d do a couple of takes, realise that this was good, work on it some more and then by the end of the day have something that was extraordinary. It was enlightening and inspiring for all of us, not just me, to do that.”
All of which is fine, but as any regular gig-goer will testify, there is nothing more likely to burst the atmosphere of a concert than the words “this one’s a new one”. You get the sense that there’s a fine line Queen + Paul Rodgers are treading here.
“It’s true to say that people would be disappointed if we didn’t do All Right Now, We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions and so on,” agrees Rodgers. “But if you only did that, it wouldn’t work. As you say, to validate it creatively you have to do new songs – there’s only four or five in the set and they’re going down just as well, actually, as the ones that everyone knows.”
But if he’s arguing that Queen + Paul Rodgers have been creatively validated by The Cosmos Rocks, why the need for “+ Paul Rodgers at all”? Surely it’s, well, Queen, just a different Queen from the one that rocked Live Aid in 1985.
“We started out that way and to be honest I think I prefer it,” says Rodgers. “If it had just been Queen from the beginning, people would have said, ‘Oh, Paul Rodgers thinks he’s replacing Queen’, you know? And I wanted to make it very clear, and I still do, that it’s a joining of forces rather than me just simply joining the band. And they do play my songs extremely well: we do Feel Like Making Love, songs from Bad Company – songs from my career weave in and out from the live set from time to time.”
There was surely the danger, though, that if this hadn’t worked, he’d forever be remembered as the bloke who tried to replace Freddie Mercury?
“Well, it has worked, and anyway, I don’t really think in terms of career, honestly. My only motivation is, ‘Is this exciting to me?’. And if it is, then I’ll do it. It was a gamble, I’ll admit that. But we’re getting these massive audiences, so we must be doing something right. There’s an incredible energy between us every time we play and that’s been there from the start. Really, that’s what holds it together.”
And, of course, the songs that fans want to hear live one last time. Are there any that Rodgers particularly enjoys?
“It’s so difficult to pick out a favourite from before or during my time with the band,” he laughs. “For instance, We Will Rock You has been done to death, hasn’t it? But I can still get some juice into that, get right into it, and find a way of shifting it slightly; maybe putting a little blues edge into it.
“I love The Show Must Go On, too. because it’s a song they never got to perform live with Freddie as I understand it. So it’s virgin territory when I step on stage with it. I love the sentiment of the song, and when I’ve spoken with the guys, they’ve told me things that are so private about Freddie and why the song was written, so I really do appreciate the depth of feeling there. You know, The Show Must Go On works on so many levels, not least that the band Queen are and were so good that the show really must go on for them. That’s such a great, great song.”
And that last sentiment tells you everything about the Queen and Rodgers project. They really are in this for the love of the songs above everything else – despite the fact we’re speaking to Rodgers in a hotel converted from a castle, complete with moat. Such rock star clichés are perhaps an enjoyable by-product of the massive interest none of Queen or Rodgers perhaps thought they’d experience again, but the band – and not just Rodgers – are still finding out how deeply the music is appreciated and how it seems to gather weight and meaning as time goes by.
“We got together because it was exciting to play music together,” says Rodgers. “That was the only reason. I didn’t get into this thinking about the implications really; I was just thinking about the opportunity to play all this great music with these great musicians. It’s been quite incredible.”
And as they prepare to play Dubai, don’t bet against such huge enthusiasm for the music of Queen meaning they – and Paul Rodgers – will be around for some time to come.