"I wasn't likely to upstage Brian or Freddie": Queen's John Deacon - a tribute to an elusive bass giant

Freddie Mercury, John Deacon and Brian May of Queen live on stage
Queen tearing it up in 1979 (Image credit: Rob Verhorst/Getty)

Last week, Brian May went on record discussing Queen's elusive bass player, John Deacon, and the moment he finally left the band in the wake of Freddie Mercury's death.

In an interview with The Guardian, the Queen guitarist said, "We all found it hard, losing Freddie, but I think John particularly struggled."

Recalling a special one-off 1996 Paris performance of No One But You (Only the Good Die Young), May's tribute to Freddie, the Queen ace continued, "We played with John on bass, and Elton John sang with us. 

"At that moment, John just looked at us and said, “I can’t do this anymore. We knew that he at least needed a break, but as it turned out he never came back." 

However, revealed May, "he’s still part of the machinery of the band. If we have any major decision, business-wise, it’s always run past John. It doesn’t mean he talks to us – generally, he doesn’t – but he will communicate in some way. 

"He’s still very much part of Queen."

He won't talk to me so why the fuck would he talk to you?

Brian May

After many failed attempts to interview him over the years we once tried the sneaky approach and asked Brian May if he could possibly pull a few strings for us?

"He won't talk to me so why the fuck would he talk to you?" he laughed at the time. A good point well made, Brian. From that moment on any hope of an interview was promptly abandoned.

But gone is not forgotten. John is an amazingly melodic bass player and although he's probably best known for the dominant riff on his composition, Another One Bites The Dust, he first caught our attention on Killer Queen.

"If I'd just been a bass player all my life with the band, I wouldn't be as satisfied as I am because I only consider that as part of what I do."

A chance meeting at a party introduced him to Brian May and Roger Taylor. They were desperate to find the right bass player for their band so John was invited to audition. He could obviously play and being of a quiet disposition, John fitted in well, "They tried several others before me. Their personalities seemed to clash, but I wasn't likely to upstage Brian or Freddie."

A lot of people thought we were just a heavy metal band but Killer Queen showed a completely new side to us

Queen was complete but in spite of being a good band, success was far from overnight. Their first album was completed two years before its release and it failed to make any impact when it finally escaped. 

The next, Queen II, produced Seven Seas Of Rhye and as a single it received good radio play and became a top ten hit. Fortunes would really change however with the next album, Sheer Heart Attack.

John recalls, "I knew the band had something but I wasn't fully convinced until that album. A lot of people thought we were just a heavy metal band but Killer Queen showed a completely new side to us."

The album also contained Misfire, John's first composition for the band on which he played rhythm guitar as well as bass. Sheer Heart Attack showed just how varied Queen could be with their compositions and musical interpretations.

At the top

Now they were on their way but A Night At The Opera, released in 1975, produced even greater results thanks to the mega selling Bohemian Rhapsody. It was good news for John too when his song, You're My Best Friend, was taken as a single pull and also charted. As Brian May said at the time, 'It's just the perfect pop song' and it did wonders to John's confidence as a writer.

Precision playing

John has used a few basses in his long career, including occasional upright excursions on record and a Jetglo Rickenbacker 4001 in the early days but he is best known for using the trusty Fender Precision. There were several of these (unless someone was rather handy with a paint sprayer) but the sunburst one seemed to be a favourite.

There was also one with a stripped body, a black one and even one of the first P-Bass models. Some early pictures show him with a natural Fender Jazz Bass, others where he's using a Kramer Custom, a Wal Pro Bass and a sunburst Music Man StingRay could be seen as a backup on several shows.

John went for a Warwick Buzzard for the Friends Will Be Friends promo video which seems a strange choice for him but it's certainly visually impressive. But the instrument that seemed to find favour in the later years was the custom-built Roger Griffin bass, similar to a Precision with a pair of pickups and natural wood finish.

John Deacon

(Image credit: Icon and Image / Getty)

Each subsequent album would feature one or more tracks written by Deacon, but it was the ability of all four members to write good material that first put a strain on the band. The choice of whose material went where (album, single, B-side) caused heavy arguments and the fact that John was introducing much more of an R&B element to his songs that left little or no room for Brian's guitar acrobatics didn't help at all.

What was more significant was the fact that Freddie seemed to embrace this musical diversion and with John he wrote Cool Cat, essentially a bass riff with scat singing and including David Bowie on the original version.

Bowie had called in to see the band whilst they were recording the Hot Space album in Switzerland and this led to them recording Under Pressure together. Released as a single it became a huge hit worldwide. So did I Want To Break Free (another Deacon song) from The Works 1984, but the promo video featuring the band in drag did not go down well in America and effectively destroyed their singles career over there until after Freddie had died.

Wembley calling

When asked to perform at Live Aid the band weren't sure at all. With so many of the newer acts appearing they were there to represent the established artists. The performing schedule was strict and there were no soundchecks but they decided to do it.

Coming from the end of a tour they were extremely 'gig fit' and stole the show. In spite of their album sales having declined somewhat over the previous years (partly due to this seeming lack of focussed direction) they captured everyone's attention and the band was effectively reborn!

"It was the one day that I was proud to be involved in the music business", John recalls. "The day was fabulous, people forgot that element of competitiveness and it was a good morale booster for us too."

Life was certainly good but by the time the band recorded The Miracle album in 1989, Freddie was having serious health issues.

They decided to start work immediately on the next album, Innuendo, and that was completed and released to much acclaim.

Dusty Trivia

On its release in 1980 Another One Bites The Dust sailed to the top of the American charts and stayed there for quite a while, out selling Queen's other biggie of that year, Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Curiously both tracks offered a new musical angle to the band's repertoire but whilst Crazy Little Thing looked back on their early musical influences, Another One Bites The Dust was a new funky element for the band and totally unexpected.

In the days when he did talk John revealed "I listened to a lot of soul music when I was in school and I'd been wanting to do a track like Another One Bites The Dust for a while but originally all I had was the line and the bass riff. Gradually I filled it in and the band added ideas."

Released on The Game album 1980, the track was picked up and played on some of the soul radio stations in America and it was actually Michael Jackson (a big fan of the band) who suggested it was released as a single and the rest is history. Later on, it was used as the theme for the UK TV show Gladiators and that track alone has probably helped keep John financially secure in his musical hibernation.

Freddie refused to stop working and they laid down the basic tracks for the last Queen album, Made In Heaven (released in 1995) and it very nearly was. In November 1991 Freddie lost his fight and unlike Roger Taylor and Brian May, John could see no point in carrying on. He participated in a few projects afterwards and played a handful of gigs with various people but nothing that featured his name.

As a bass player, John Deacon has been vastly underrated and this is probably due to him being the shy part of a quartet that featured three outstanding personalities, but without doubt it was John's solid and sometimes inspirational playing that helped them all to shine.

Looking back on his time with Queen, Deacon always felt that the writing side was important part. "If I'd just been a bass player all my life with the band, I wouldn't be as satisfied as I am because I only consider that as part of what I do. The songwriting and being involved in the decision making processes means I've been able to have a part in the bands destiny." And what a destiny it's been!

With contributions from