Queen talk first gig and band early days

Memories of Queen's early days were stirred at yesterday's plaque unveiling
Memories of Queen's early days were stirred at yesterday's plaque unveiling

Tuesday 5 March saw Brian May and Roger Taylor unveiling a PRS Heritage Award plaque at the site of Queen's first major London show, Imperial College, in London - and MusicRadar was on hand to witness it.

Imperial was a popular early haunt for the band as Brian May attended university there and even used it's noticeboard to recruit drummer Roger Taylor. The Heritage Award marks the location and date (18 July, 1970) of the band's first proper London show in the college's Union Hall and was presented to the band by Guy Fletcher OBE, chair of the UK performing rights society, PRS For Music.

Following the ceremony, the band sat down to an open press Q&A and discussed the show, selling popcorn and commandeering lecture theatres for the band's first rehearsals.

"That [gig] was pretty special because I was on the entertainments committee and we used to book all kinds of acts," said May. "We booked Jimi Hendrix and it was only a couple of years later that suddenly we were playing in that room. It was packed and I couldn't believe it, it had been such a dream. It was one of the first times where I was playing to people that actually knew our material."

"We had so many experiences up there - not all of them repeatable," expanded Taylor. "But I remember seeing great bands, like Mott The Hoople, T. Rex, Procol Harum, so that room was part of music history, really."

Although it's now thought by both band and fans to be something of watershed moment for Queen, at the time it seems that nerves weren't an issue.

"I think we were just at that age where you are often full of a - probably misplaced - confidence," continued Taylor. "We believed in what we were doing."

Brian: "We were young and we were full of ideas and we thought we were better than anyone else, precociously. We just went out to conquer the world and it was foolish and ridiculous, but somehow it worked out."

As well as being the site of their first major show, the union was a hang-out and a rehearsal space for the burgeoning rock gods.

"I remember as if it were yesterday, meeting Roger in a little room next door," said May of his first jam with Taylor. "Roger sat down and started tapping the edges of his drums. I said, 'What are you doing?' And Roger said, 'I'm tuning my drums!' The people that I'd played with at that point had basically just hit things, but Roger was a craftsman. As soon as he started to play, something amazing happened. It sounds corny, but it really happened instantly because we just gelled."

After a period of jamming with different bassists and frontmen under the moniker of Smile, Taylor and May eventually joined forces with the inimitable Freddie Mercury, then known as Farrokh Bulsara.

"Freddie used to come and see Roger and I play here and, basically, criticise [us]," revealed May. "He'd say, 'This is very good, but you should do this. You should be an act. You should give it everything you can.'"

Again using the college as his base, May called in a favour with a lecturer and found rehearsal space in one of the university lecture theatres, even playing some tiny showcases gigs in the classroom.

"We invited people from the record business hoping they would give us a record deal," said the guitarist. "We'd play and we made our own popcorn and orange juice and sold it. Those were the very first gigs with Freddie, so there's a whole load of history. [Even near where we're sat] there was a sandwich bar where I used to go and be afraid to talk to people - everyone becomes a rockstar because they have to!"

Matthew Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.