Monday, July 2nd 2018 will go down as one of the greatest, mind-melting nights of my life. If you disregard the day I met my wife and the two nights I become a Father, I’m pretty certain nothing has been as monumental as this was.
I first ‘met’ Jamie Humphries many, many years ago on FB and over the years we’ve become very good friends. We have a very similar sense of humour (our partners will confirm that is being mostly like 13-year-old boys) and share a deep love for our instrument and music. When I first started to chat with Jamie I was painfully aware he was one of the resident guitar players in the London show of “We Will Rock You” and had toured with Dr Brian May… over the years he’s gone on to do the European Tour of WWRY and many other major touring shows. But, you know, he’s now just the guy that literally makes me cry with laughter on a regular basis. Jamie is widely regarded as one of the guys who can do Brian as well as Brian himself… along with that, his knowledge of the Red Special and Brian’s gear in general is frighteningly deep – we always joked about how I would react if I ever got to hold the Red Special. He always said that one day he would sort it for me but I never thought it would actually happen.
It was many months ago that Queen announced that they were touring with Adam Lambert again and hitting the UK in Summer. I mentioned it to Jamie and he said (in an off-hand way): “I’ll see if I can get us tickets, it’s right on my birthday so, you know, it may happen, I’ll try to get us backstage as well”. Lisa and I tried not to get too excited about it, but it was always in the back of our minds. Then, last Friday, I get a text from Jamie saying something along the lines of “Answer your phone you ******” – I hadn’t noticed he was repeatedly trying to call me… when I spoke to him he confirmed that we had tickets for the Monday night and the after-show party.
Then followed the strangest weekend of my life. Two gigs, one tremendous and the other one completely screwed up, all played out in slow motion. When Monday finally came around, we got in the car and made our way to London. The journey, as it often is, was awful but we got to the hotel next door to the venue (10 minutes’ walk from concert seat to bed – BOOM!), checked in and waited patiently for the clock to tick round. Jamie was frantically calling what felt like every 5 minutes as he was stuck in traffic coming from Lick Library in Essex to the o2, the language used was a thing of beauty. Filthy, but so articulately filthy I couldn’t help but laugh at him. We finally met up about 10 minutes before the show was due to start, at the box office, and made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare.
I don’t know what it is about Queen. I’m yet to meet a rational person who doesn’t really like them on some level, it almost feels like they have been, at some point, everyone’s favourite band but at the same time, hardly anyone’s actual favourite band. They just seem to be deeply appreciated by almost everyone. For me, it’s a family affair – they were one of my Mother’s favourite bands, they are one of my favourite bands, one of my wife’s favourite bands and one of my kid’s favourite bands… It seems like everyone has several Queen songs that mean the world to them. It’s not hard to understand why, when you think of the songs, or think of Live Aid, or think of Freddie, or think of the guitar that Dr May made with his Father (Harold) between 1963 and 1965… it’s just one hell of a story and one hell of a back catalogue of simply great songs.
Judging by the way Facebook has reacted to my many posts about this since last Friday, it’s apparent that some people think Queen should have died a natural death when Freddie did. To me that’s a little crazy, why shouldn’t the surviving members carry on? Not only in tribute to the music they created but to Freddie himself, and to the fans that still hold the music very close to their hearts. It was as I was thinking this, that the lights went down and the show started. When you see a band like Queen for the first time, and you are staring a lifetime of memories and happy thoughts right in the face, it takes a few moments to get your head back on. And once I did, there were two things that kept going through my head… the first was “I think that’s the best live guitar tone I’ve ever heard” and “Adam Lambert is incredible” – I turned to Jamie and said something that rhymes with “Duck tree – that tone!” and he laughed and said, “Told you it was good!”.
The following two or so hours went by in a whirl. Song after song of massive hits, a flawless stage show, several guest appearances by Freddie via the video screens, masterfully edited in, and at the heart of it, one of my favourite players, playing the iconic guitar, with just the biggest and ballsiest tone I’ve ever heard. He didn’t play the original all night, but whenever he did, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The great thing about seeing a show like that with a straight up Queen nerd is that all the way through I was being updated with what gear he was using. Just perfect for a perpetual tone chaser who can legitimately think of nothing better than avidly listening to Jamie telling me about Brian’s wet/dry/wet rig, modified AC30’s, treble boosters, and the various ‘other’ Red Special’s that were being used.
Once the show was over, we made our way to where the after-show party was being held. Myself, Lisa, Jamie and Kim (the fourth member of our little group who owns Lick Library and Guitar Interactive Magazine) found ourselves in a room with a free bar and bizarrely, a Rock DJ playing some RAWK classics. It was then that the gravity of the situation started to hit me… Big Phil, who is Brian’s personal security guard – and has the title of being one of the most lovely and terrifying people I’ve ever met – came over for a chat… Phil Hilborne – whos impact on guitarists of our age can never be overstated through his work with Guitarist Magazine and Guitar Techniques Magazine – was also was a long-standing member of the WWRY band – came and joined us, I turned around and noticed next to us were Rami Malik, Gwilym Lee and Joseph Mazello – who play Freddie, Brian and John in the upcoming film “Bohemian Rhapsody”… edged on by the comfort of having a couple of beers on an empty stomach I had a chat with them, and it was clear just what big fans they are of the band as well. That film is going to be epic. There were so many people indelibly connected to Queen, just there, all around me.
It was when I had just been to the bar again (to replace the beer that Lisa had dropped) that I noticed that Jamie was talking to a guy with a gig bag strapped to his back, I thought “No, that can’t be”, but judging by the way Jamie smiled at me, I knew it was. I knew that Pete Malandrone – Brian’s long-term tech – who kept the original Red Special with him at ALL times, and I mean, at all times, was right there and he had ‘it’ with him. There I was, within touching distance of the guitar that played on all those hits, stole the show at Live Aid, was the cornerstone of that Guitar Legends gig, and is quite possibly the most iconic guitar of all time… So near, yet so far.
Pete wandered off, and then about 10 minutes later, Jamie tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Come with me”. I stood up, grabbed Lisa’s hand, and we were quickly led into another room. After we were all in and the door was closed behind us, Pete took the gig back off his back, opened it up and I was confronted with I can only describe as what looked like a military grade carbon fibre shaped guitar case. My first thought was “That’s so small, it can’t be”. He opened it up (the whole thing was like that scene from Pulp Fiction when Travolta opened the briefcase and Samuel L Jackson said, “Are we happy?”) and it was.
Pete picked up the Red Special… THE original Red Special, and handed it to me. In that instant, it was almost like people describe as “your life flashing before you” trick of the brain, the whole history of that guitar flooded through me. So… what did I do? Well, like an idiot I sat down and started to play the first solo from Bohemian Rhapsody. Jamie started laughing and said “Don’t play Queen licks on that you muppet” and we all just started laughing. I mean, fair comment really. I looked up and noticed Pete’s face was just lit up with a huge smile. There must have been many times when he’s handed that guitar to someone and they react the way I did – in complete awe – and it looks like he genuinely loves to see that reaction. Then he started to go through the history of its construction, you know how it goes… The fireplace mantelpiece, the bike rack tremolo arm and knitting needle top, where the finish had been worn off over the years and where it had been refinished… the buttons used for the fret markers, the bike springs in the tremolo, the single bolt holding the neck on… I stopped playing and just looked at it. Even though I’ve read about it a million times, when it’s in your hands and the guy who knows it as well as Brian does is telling you about it, it takes on a whole new meaning. It was at that point Pete put his hand in his pocket and said “Have this, it was the one he used tonight, I just found it on the stage by his mic stand” and handed me a classic Six Pence piece… I then started to play again (very gently with the sixpence) and that’s the point it jumped out at me. The neck was enormous, the frets are non-existent (it’s never been refretted)… and to be completely honest, the neck feels like a baseball bat that’s had a small part of the front shaved off. It’s uncomfortably huge. The profile of the board is actually really quite rounded but… you know… it’s THE Red Special. He made it with his Father over 50 years ago and it feels like it. It may be weird to play, but it doesn’t matter – that is truly a guitar of legend. After what felt like a second I gave it back to Pete, who put it back in the case (cue Travolta in my head again saying “yeah, we’re happy”), put the case back in the gig bag and we left the room to carry on enjoying the free bar. As the night progressed, more beers were drunk, more people met, more laughs were had (including the continuation of a long-held discussion we’ve been having about Phil’s Red/Pink PRS) and even a free curry. As Lisa and I walked back to the hotel some hours after, most definitely quite squishy from the beer, I’m pretty certain my feet never touched the ground even once.
If you are a Queen fan, go and see them. Especially if you love them but think that it won’t be Queen without Freddie, because other than everything I explained above, the one memory I will have about that night was just how perfect for the job Adam Lambert is. As he said during the show “I know a lot of you think ‘He’s not Freddie and he shouldn’t be trying to be him’… All I can say is this… I’m not trying to be him, I could never be Freddie. I’m here for the same reason you are – I love Freddie and I love Queen and I’m so lucky I get to pay tribute to him with those amazing guys”.
I’d like to thank Jamie Humphries for giving me a true memory of a lifetime, Pete Malandrone for his love of the instrument and allowing me to play many, many inappropriate licks on it, and Dr Brian May for being, well… Brian May.
*header photo: Dave Watson.