Added on 12-Sep-2008
September 13, 2008 12:00am
IN a case of do or die, Queen - the band that was a global phenomenon - has re-emerged with a fresh identity.
What's in a name?
Well, when you're one of the biggest bands of all time, quite a lot really.
Normally musicians could be expected to have long debates over potential album titles, but for rock icons Queen, the question was slightly different - what to call their band.
The addition of former Free and Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers posed a dilemma for the remaining original members of the group, guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor.
Were they still just Queen, or were they something else?
Millions of fans, meanwhile, are debating a similar question - are they Queen without the legendary force that was Freddie Mercury?
Answering the name question, the band chose Queen + Paul Rodgers.
Sitting in a London hotel suite, his trademark hair reaching down to his shoulders, May says they could have gone by any random name.
"We could have called it Green Onions and we went through all this process," he says.
"But if you call it something that's not connected to the past, really you're depriving all the people who are loosely connected with your history from finding you.
"We'd be dead before people discovered 'oh actually these guys are still there from Queen and this is Paul Rodgers'."
Earlier that day, Rodgers was asked the same question - why not just Queen?
His reply also addressed what this combination was all about.
"If I had of done that, if we'd said OK we're going to call it Queen, people would have said 'well you can't call it Queen because it's not Queen, it's something else'," Rodgers says.
"So we decided to avoid that and be very clear and up-front from the start.
"In my mind anyway it was a good idea to be very clear with the public, it's not actually Queen, it's Queen and myself joining forces so expect something different."
May, 61, agrees that this isn't Queen any more, or at least not as the world knew it.
"I feel it's a new band, I really do," he said.
"We all bring to it what we have in our histories and what we have in our hearts, but it is a new band."
This week the trio released a first studio album together, The Cosmos Rocks, with 13 new tracks.
It is Queen's first studio production in 13 years.
Simultaneously, the band has launched a three-month tour of Britain and Europe that is set to be extended elsewhere, though unlikely to Australia.
Why the new album and tour? It's not like they weren't busy.
May, remarkably, was working on his PhD in astrophysics, which he had abandoned when Queen became successful three decades earlier.
He completed it last year, an achievement of which he is rightly proud. It follows a book he co-authored on the history of the universe, while he is now working on a new book about 1850s photographer T.R. Williams.
Perhaps his mental powers were enhanced by his lifelong abstinence from drugs, of which he says: "I felt there was enough going on in my brain anyway and my brain was unstable in a sense, just with the music and my surroundings."
Rodgers was happily on a solo tour.
May says it was a case of there being nothing to lose.
"It was just like 'let's see what happens'."
So they set aside three weeks and booked into the Priory studio at Roger Taylor's home.
However it wasn't only Freddie Mercury who was absent.
Also missing, as he has been for a long time, was Queen's bassist John Deacon, who has opted for a quieter life.
May says: "We send him everything and we invite him to everything.
"And when he feels like it he will respond."
Had he responded lately, on the album for example?
"No, not really," May said.
"But there is a tacit thing, there's an agreement.
"If he doesn't respond he likes it.
"If he doesn't like something you hear from him straight away."
And on the business side of things, Deacon was still very much involved.
"He talks to our accountant more than he talks to us. Believe me," says May.
In the first recording session they got a long way into Time to Shine.
Another song, Voodoo, was done on the second take.
May says they played together every day in the studio.
"That's something I'm proud of," he said.
"We didn't just go in there and fiddle with machines.
"We went in there and we played our instruments and worked off each other, you can hear that on the album I think.
"It's an organic album at its core."
Taylor, 59, wearing a pin-striped suit, his silver hair neatly trimmed, says it was a case of no album, no tour and probably, no more Queen.
"There was no point in carrying on, I think, without new material," he said.
"Otherwise you're not a potent ongoing force.
"If you're just going to recycle old records, old songs, old hits, you sort of become your own tribute band."
The album is dedicated to Freddie, whose death from AIDS-related illness in November 1991 is still mourned. Rodgers is behind half the new tracks and it is abundantly clear he didn't take a back seat, his blues grounding unmistakable.
Rodgers, 58, was successful before Queen, of course.
Think of Feel Like Making Love, All Right Now and Shooting Star.
In fact, Mercury was known to go to Rodgers' shows and he was one of Queen's early influences, the band says.
So how does he feel about singing another band's songs, as he must do over and over again?
On this tour for example, the two-hour concerts will feature as few as three of the new songs, giving audiences the chance to sing along to the old classics.
"I feel very free in whatever I sing. I don't sing anything that I don't feel comfortable with," says Rodgers, who has been performing with Queen for three years now ("that's actually as long as the time I spent with Free, and this is still a new entity," he says.)
"Fortunately so far everything we've done I have been able to reinterpret or step into and make myself comfortable within those songs - and they play my songs so well, I have to say."
Even Rodgers admits, however, to being daunted by the global phenomenon that is Queen, whose hits such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Another One Bites the Dust and We Will Rock You are anthems known by anyone who has ever turned on a radio, gone to a sporting match or walked into a pub with a jukebox.
Rodgers says: "To step into that from my point of view is a bit like strapping myself on the front of a rocket ship without a safety net."
What of the elephant in the room?
How can he expect to fill those very big, dancing, flamboyant, camp shoes of Freddie Mercury?
Admirably, Rodgers does not try to dodge the issue.
"It had to work on a musical level for me," he says.
"I'm a musician.
"I'm a singer and a songwriter.
"I have great respect for what Freddie did, he was flamboyant, he was a showman, a great frontman, very entertaining and people loved him, and it was great for magazines too because it was great copy.
"But you see, that's not who I am.
"The only way I could do this was to actually just be myself, which is much more down to earth.
"Sorry. Perhaps I'm a little boring, but I'm just me."
The day before the interviews, with only weeks to go before the start of their tour, the band gave a group of reporters a chance to see them in action in a full dress rehearsal.
The session was held at London's Elstree Studios where the UK's Big Brother house is located, ironic given new single C-lebrity is all about talentless fame.
It was an experience a Queen fan would give their right arm for, with a set of eight songs starting with Fat Bottomed Girls.
However as Rodgers went through his paces, it was impossible not to wonder what a 62-year-old Freddie would be doing if he was up there on stage.
The "Freddie factor" had given Rodgers pause for thought before he started down this path.
"I suppose I did