“Without Covid and lockdown, I don’t think I’d be releasing a new album,” says Roger Taylor. “I’ve never been particularly good at doing nothing, so I wandered over to the studio at my house in Surrey and was suddenly gripped by a burst of creativity. At my age, you have to take them when they come!
“Here I am with my first solo album in eight years and a full UK tour. This time last year, we were all wondering if we were ever going to see live music again. I’ll be honest with you, it’s going to feel good being back up there on stage. I’ve missed it.”
Roger Taylor’s drumming has, of course, powered Queen for over 50 years, but in between the hits and the mammoth world tours, he’s released a not-inconsiderable body of solo work.
Outsider - released on Friday 1 October - will be his sixth album. Three of previous efforts cracked the Top 30, and he’s even had the occasional hit single (Man on Fire made number 11 on the South African charts in 1984).
“Even after all this time, some people still think I’m ‘just’ a drummer,” chuckles the 72-year-old. “Last week, someone said, ‘Oh, you sing on the Queen records, as well’. Yeah, I sing on them. I even bloody wrote one or two of them!”
That’s something of an understatement. Taylor’s writes and co-writes include A Kind of Magic, Radio Ga Ga, One Vision, Innuendo, Stone Cold Crazy, Breakthru and the often overlooked You Don’t Fool Me - a no-nonsense wedge of strutting, muscular funk from the first album released after Freddie’s death, 1996’s Made in Heaven.
Outsider was all written and recorded by Taylor at his studio, and he played almost every instrument on the album, too. “There’s a sax solo by Steve Hamilton [Amy Winehouse, Blur, Radiohead], Jim Cregan from Rod Stewart’s band on acoustic and my old mate, Jason Falloon, did some of the guitars. His chord work’s better than mine!”
Of his process, Taylo says: “When it actually comes down to writing songs, I’m not really a planner. I don’t get up in the morning and think, ‘I’ll write a Queen song today’ or ‘I’ll write a song for the new solo album’. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all just… songwriting. It’s only when the thing’s finished that I start to think about where a song will end up. For instance, with A Kind of Magic, it was an obvious Queen song. Same with Radio Ga Ga.
“I suppose the big difference between Queen and this album is that I’ve written a couple of what you might call ‘political’ songs. That wasn’t something we really did as a band. It was a conscious choice.
“Right at the start - and you’ve got to remember that there was a lot of hardcore political stuff going on in the ‘70s - Freddie said, ‘Look, I don’t want to get involved in all that. I want to go round the world playing songs that people can enjoy. I’m not there to deliver a message’.
“I still think that’s a pretty good way to look at it. I don’t want to get too…preachy.”
Hang on. One of the songs, Gangsters Are Running The World, is all about Putin and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
“Ha ha! Yes, it is. But I hope I’ve been able to stay on the right side of the fine line between rock music and politics. I hope I never get to the point where I’m poncing around on stage, pontificating about what’s wrong with the world. Freddie would never forgive me.”
As you’d imagine, Taylor’s ‘home’ studio is a little bit fancier than the average bedroom setup. For a start, it’s bigger than some houses, and it boasts an envy-inducing kit list that includes a Steinway Grand, custom-made drum kits, some tasty production hardware and a few flight-cased analogue synths.
“The first synth we ever used as Queen was the Oberheim OB-X,” Taylor remembers. “It was one of the first polysynths and absolutely loaded with amazing sounds. That thing is all over the Flash Gordon soundtrack. I’m not sure what happened to it, but I’ve been looking around to try and get a replacement and there aren’t many of them about.”
Just a minute, we forgot to mention the guitars. Taylor’s got one or two in the studio. Well, one or two walls of guitars. To paraphrase the old Carlsberg ad, ‘If this was a guitar shop, it would probably be the best guitar shop in the world’.
Over Zoom, Taylor points out a beautifully weathered Telecaster. “That’s number 14 off the production line. Surprisingly, it’s not my favourite guitar to play. There’s a Gretsch Duo Jet that’s got a wonderful tone. And it plays so well.
“I do love the sound of old stuff. Just before I started work on the album, I found a vintage Trixon drum kit from the ‘50s… possibly ‘60s. You’re looking at real calfskin heads and the bass drum isn’t even round. It’s got what you’d call an interesting sound and I used it on my cover of the old Shirley Ellis tune, The Clapping Song.
“Sadly, I don’t think drums age in the same way that guitars do. There comes a point where they just start to sound a bit crap and things start falling off.”
Discussing his recording setup, Taylor says: “Like most studios, I’ve had to go partly digital; everything gets recorded on Pro Tools. Yeah, I could try and find a couple of 1960s reel-to-reel machines, but I’m sure the novelty would start to wear off when the damn things kept blowing up.
“Apart from Pro Tools, though, we have tried to keep things pretty old school. Record everything live and, obviously, all Auto-Tune plugins are banned.”
Despite being in solo mode, there is always something Queen-related in Taylor’s diary. Right now, it’s a 2022 tour with vocalist Adam Lambert, the online Queen Greatest Hits series and a recent spell at number one for the 40-year-old original Queen Greatest Hits album.
“To have that kind of interest in the band after all this time is just bonkers,” smiles Taylor. “I’m sure a lot of it is to do with the movie, but it’s still a very nice feeling. Will we ever do another Queen album? I don’t see why not. I honestly think that Adam’s voice deserves it… he deserves the chance to record a Queen song.
“Touring with Adam has certainly given me and Brian a new lease of life, but we will only carry on if we can do it properly. Live shows need that energy and that fire. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m being wheeled out to play the encore.
“Mind you, I’m sure there are people out there who’d say, ‘Would it really matter? He’s only the drummer’.”
Do drummers get annoyed by those ‘only a drummer’ comments?
“Yes, we fuckin’ do! Ha ha!”
We have visions of Taylor getting together with the likes of Chad Smith, Ian Paice, Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins… raging against the world and its drummer jokes.
“C’mon, let’s face facts, here. Drummers are the most talented, most humble, best-looking members of any band. They are the engine that drives the music. Without us, you’ve just got a couple of people in tight trousers jumping about at the front of the stage.
“As for the drummer jokes? Some of them are alright. The best one I’ve heard recently is: This little lad’s posh aunt comes to visit, and she says, ‘Johnny, what would you like to be when you grow up?’ Johnny thinks for a few seconds and says, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a drummer’. His aunt looks at him and shakes her head. ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t do both’.”
Roger Taylor on his 5 favourite Queen drumming songs
1. You’re My Best Friend, 1975
“This isn’t one of my favourite Queen songs, but I love playing it. Most drum fills go from high to low - start on the snare, finish on the low tom - but this one goes the other way round.
“It might not seem much, but little things like that keep a drum part fresh. You don’t need to do all the showy stuff, with 100mph drum rolls. Your job is to keep pushing the song forward and keep people interested.”
2. Innuendo, 1991
“There’s a strange feel to the start of this one, almost like a reveille. It’s all about allowing things to flow; don’t let the rhythm get in the way.
“The traditional way bands record is putting the drums down first, but when we were doing the Queen albums, we spent a long time working things out before anything was put on tape. I like to know exactly what every bit of the song is doing so I can fit my chops into the spaces that need chops.
“It’s tempting to overdo it when you’re putting down the drum track, but always remember… less is more.”
3. Under Pressure, 1992
“As soon as you hear that opening bassline, you know what the song is. And it was the same for me on stage. I’d hear John start playing and I was ready. There’s that little build and then, crack, in come the drums. Always a great song to play live.”
4. Killer Queen, 1974
“An early track, this one, and a good example of the whole band working together. What I was trying to do here was add a touch of sophistication, which isn’t always easy on the drums.
“There are a couple of nice touches in there - press rolls, the ‘absolutely drive you wild’ bit - but I really wanted to keep things light. This song doesn’t need a show-off drummer.”
5. It's Late, 1977
“Simple, really. I love the end bit where it suddenly steps up a gear. Just a good, old-fashioned rock out. What’s not to like!”
Roger Taylor’s new album, Outsider, is released on Universal on Friday 1 October. His UK tour kicks off in Newcastle on 2 November.