It’s almost impossible to spot Spike Edney in the video of Queen’s legendary set at Live Aid, but if you pause the footage near the end of “Hammer to Fall” at the 12:22 mark you can just about see him in the background. He’s the dark-haired fellow playing guitar next to a wall of keyboards. Queen hired him a year earlier to contribute keyboards, piano, backing vocals and rhythm guitar and he’s been there ever since, helping out with everything from their 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute show at Wembley Stadium to their West End musical We Will Rock You, their mid-2000s tours with Paul Rodgers and their ongoing work with Adam Lambert.
Edney has played a vital role in all of these endeavors during the past 35 years, but many fans don’t even know his name. And so as the group winds down the North American leg of their highly-successful Rhapsody tour, we phoned up Edney to hear about his long tenure in the band, what it was like onstage at Live Aid, how he first spotted Lambert on American Idol, and what the future might hold for the group.
How is the tour going?
The word is fantastic, I suppose. The previous two tours have been on an upward curve and [Bohemian Rhapsody] has taken it to another level. I think the audience last night [in New Orleans] was one of the loudest I’d ever heard. Everybody seems to be really, really enjoying it.
I want to hear a little about your musical history. What was the first concert you ever saw?
My mom took me on my 12th birthday to see the Beatles. It was December 3rd, 1963, at Portsmouth Guildhall in my hometown.
Wow. What was that show like?
When you’re 12 years old and it’s your first concert, it’s all an onslaught to the senses. My biggest disappointment was you couldn’t hear a single note of music because of the screaming. You knew what song they were doing by whoever stood at the mic and they way they shook their heads. Body language told you what the song was. They did, like, seven songs. There were other acts on the bill. It wasn’t like today’s concerts where you get two and a half hours and everything is high definition.
How old were you when you realized you wanted to do this as your career?
It was that day.
Tell me your first memories of being aware of Queen.
It was reading about them in Melody Maker in the early 1970s. I was, first of all, outraged by the name [laughs]. “How dare they align themselves with The Royal Family?” The first song I heard was “Now I’m Here.” And I’m a soul lover. My heroes are Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone. At that time, I was hooked into American music over British music. The whole big hair and satiny shirts of the glam rock world wasn’t for me. I preferred Earth, Wind and Fire, who also had satiny shirts, I suppose.
I then heard Queen do a radio in-concert [special] and I dismissed them at first as a heavy band with intricate arrangements. I liked “Now I’m Here” because it didn’t follow a usual songwriting pattern. It wasn’t written as an obvious pop song, which everyone was trying to do back in those days. And then “Killer Queen” came out and the craftsmanship of what was in it was obvious. But I wasn’t a fan as such. I was an interested observer.
Did you see them in concert in the 1970s?
No. I heard them on the radio though. They were doing multi-layered guitars and harmonies on their albums, but of course they couldn’t do that live. And so I always thought it was a bit of a letdown from a production point of view. I was an annoyed musician and I thought, “If you can’t do it right, why are you doing it at all?” It was jealousy. That’s what it was.
You wound up touring in Dexys Midnight Runners right after “Come On Eileen” hit. How did that came about?
I made a living playing trombone for a while. I worked with Duran Duran and Dexys and Bob Geldof’s Boomtown Rats all through the 1980s.
Was Dexys a fun experience?
Not really. There were three or four hired guns like me, the horn section and the bass player. We were augmenting or replacing people that had fallen by the wayside or didn’t want to do it. They had their own band energy and rhythm and it was very much dominated by the lead singer [Kevin Rowland]. When you’re hired and you go into that situation, you keep your mouth shut and just observe and do your job. He wanted complete and utter loyalty, a bit like Trump.
Tell me about joining Queen. They were always a four-piece up until the 1982 tour. They used two keyboardists at various points on that one. How did you enter the picture for the next tour?
If memory serves, the first player was Morgan Fisher. He fell out with Fred. I think he took his champagne and limo one day and went off on a jolly!
With Fred I should say, it’s a big mistake. That’s the legend at least. Then they hired Fred Mandel, who had been playing with Alice Cooper. I don’t know how they found him, but he took over. He was my predecessor. He finished off the tour that Morgan Fisher should have completed. Then they took a break after their legendary tour of South America and went to Munich to complete The Works. Mandel was involved with that recording. He’s on “Radio Gaga” and “ I Want to Break Free.” By the time they got around to touring it, he was no longer available. Perhaps he was off with a gig he couldn’t turn down.
I don’t know what happened, but they needed someone. It’s really about being in the right place at the right time. I was playing in London at a bar and a member of Queen’s crew came in, someone I had known 10 years before. It was, “What are you doing here?” and yada, yada, yada. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m working for Roger Taylor. Queen needs a keyboard player. Do you want the job?” I went, “Yeah, of course.”
Of course, that is not how these things are done. You usually show up somewhere and sit down near 200 other keyboard players, wait your turn and then go home and then wait for the phone to tell you that you haven’t got it. This was different. I turned up to where I was told to go, I walked in and got interviewed by the legendary Gerry Stickells. He is one of the great men of rock & roll. Sadly, he passed away this year.
He said to me, “Do you have a passport?” I said I did. He said, “Are you available to go to on a world tour?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “OK, on Monday, you fly out to Munich and start rehearsals.” I said, “What? That’s ludicrous! What happens if they don’t like me?” He said, “Then on Tuesday, you’ll fly back.” And here we are 35 years later.
A big part of your job then and now was to recreate the sound of the album on the stage better than they could do as a four-piece, right?
Yeah. And that got better over the years, obviously. When I came along, I don’t know what vocally my predecessors had done, but backing-vocal–wise, John [Deacon] didn’t sing and Brian [May] only sang when he was near a microphone, which was 50 percent of the time and Roger was the captive backing vocalist. All of a sudden, I was there and there were three vocalists instead of two and a bit. Then I started augmenting using an antiquated machine called a vocoder, which had been used on “Radio Gaga.” You can sing into the mic and it beefs up the vocals as you play along. That added a certain thickness, but it was always a real shame we couldn’t get to some of those luscious harmonies they had. But that’s changed now because we have six people onstage and I’m the worst singer out of all of them. We can get those parts.
I feel like Freddie has almost become as much a myth to people as a flesh-and-blood human. How was the real Freddie different from his image?
The people who really knew him were the three guys in the band, Jim Beach, and Mary Austin. They were the ones that were the closest to him and were with him for the transition from a pop star to a megastar. What was he like? He could be a diva. He was very funny and he could be quite guarded. He was also quite shy. He unleashed his inner rock star on stage and offstage he preferred the quiet life. This is the one that I knew. I think the wild days were kind of behind him by the time 1984 came around. Also, he was so famous it was very difficult for him to go out in public. His life was one of seclusion that he would allow certain people to be a part of. For a while, I got invited to the parties at his house. When we were on tour and he couldn’t go out, we would stick around the hotel and go up to his suite and play Trivial Pursuit. Very rock & roll!
Was he good at that?
Oh, yeah. He was very competitive at board games. Scrabble was his big thing and still is for Roger. They used to have massive Scrabble competitions. Roger enjoys it to this day.
When do you recall first hearing about the possibility of playing Live Aid?
This is how it worked. As part of Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats, I toured with them when I was starting to work with Queen. At the end of the European Works tour, the Band Aid single [“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”] came out Christmas 1984 and was a huge hit. I then went back with Queen to do Rock in Rio. Then there was another gap and I did some English dates with the Boomtown Rats. It was March or April 1985. We were playing the Band Aid song every night to finish the set. In fact, we were collecting buckets of coins to put towards the cause every show.
During the course of that tour, I sat on the bus and Geldof said to me, “I’m going to do a concert and have all these bands: Led Zeppelin and this that and the other.” I said, “And how is this going to work?” He said, “We’re going to have it in London and America.” I said, “It’ll never happen. It’s too mind-boggling a thing to put together.” He was insistent it would happen. He said, “I want you to ask Queen for me.” I said, “Why don’t you ask them?” He said, “If I phone them up and make a big deal out of it and they say no, it’ll just piss me off.”
I asked them on his behalf. We flew out to New Zealand for a tour and at dinner I said, “Geldof has asked me if you’re interested in this ludicrous suggestion of playing at Wembley Stadium and America at the same time.” I think it was John Deacon who said, “Why doesn’t he ask us?” I said, “As soon as you tell him what your answer is, he will.” I called Geldof, he called Jim “Miami” Beach. That’s how it happened. The rest is…. well you know….
Tell me about rehearsals and figuring out how to squeeze a two-hour show into 20 minutes.
You know what? It’s only in hindsight that everything seems to be so big, important and iconic. At the time, we were match-fit and ready to to play. “How long do we get?” “Twenty minutes.” “What can we do in 20 minutes?” Well, Queen were famous for doing medleys, so it was obvious we’d do a big medley. We said, “What are the biggest hits? What’s the crowd going to love? They’re going to love ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Radio Gaga’ because that’s the big song from the tour.” Once we sat there and joined up the running order they were going to go, it pretty much just took care of itself. I hate to sort of disappoint everybody. There was no master plan. It was just common sense.
I couldn’t believe it on the day when I was watching all these other lame bands not doing what we did, not shoehorning as many of their biggest songs into the actual set. I thought, “That is just not common sense.” We did the common-sense thing. Everyone else seemed to miss the point.
During the set, did it feel like something groundbreaking?
No. It was just a gig. We were very pleased. It was daylight. There was no production. Like I said, we were match-fit. Contrary to what the film implies, that they hadn’t played together in two years, that’s simply not true. We’d been touring for six months before and were ace-tight. It was just a question of editing — that’s what we did. We just edited and went, “OK, what’s the most bang for your buck? The first bit of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ up to the guitar solo into ‘Radio Gaga.’” The only whole song we played was “Hammer to Fall,” or most of it. Then we did “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” with me at the grand piano out front, thanks to Fred, but the cameras didn’t pick it up.
Do you find that people don’t quite believe you were there because you can’t really see you on camera?
I was able to pause at various moments and see part of you.
There’s a nanosecond where you see me walking from the keyboards at the back to the piano at the front. I sat there and played on the whole of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and not one single camera shot caught me. Just look and see how many camera shots there are of Roger Taylor. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any.
What was the 1986 tour like?
That was the result of Live Aid. Their popularity was going through the roof and Highlander had been released. We went from playing arena shows, which we had done on the ’84 tour, to stadiums. I think it’s hysterical that they put Wembley Stadium on sale and it sold out so quickly, that they threw Knebworth at the end of the tour just as an afterthought. And that was, of course, Freddie’s last gig and the last proper performance of Queen. And they didn’t film it. They’ve filmed every single thing since then.
What stands out in your mind about the Knebworth show when you think back on it?
I’ll tell you what stands out. Everyone was so pleased and loved the helicopter ride in so much, that as soon as the gig was over, they took the helicopter ride out. I decided to hang on because backstage, the end of tour party was a huge fairground filled with topless models and I was the only one there! I’ve got pictures. Then I went home. I was single at the time, so it was OK.
It’s interesting that in your two tours with the original Queen in the 1980s, you never came to North America. Not one show.
That’s because Hot Space hadn’t been very well-received. On the back of “Another One Bites the Dust,” they went too much into a soul/disco/funk thing and that didn’t translate, even though if you play it now, it’s actually really good. But at the time it didn’t go down very well. So they went off the boil in America and when “Radio Gaga” came out, that didn’t do too well, followed by “I Want to Break Free,” which MTV wouldn’t play because they were in drag. MTV didn’t get the cultural gag, which everyone in Europe got since they knew what the joke was. The American TV companies didn’t get the joke at all and it didn’t get played.
They certainly suffered the loss of traction, I would say. They said, “What’s the point of going there and playing to a waning audience when we can tour the rest of the world and play to an ever-growing one?”
You were very involved in the Freddie tribute show in 1992, right?
Yeah. I was very involved in that right from the word “go.” Somewhere I have a piece of paper with all the original names. We put down a wish list of all the names of those who we thought should play and what they should sing. It did get changed, but not very much actually. I remember being in a studio in North London, a rehearsal place the size of an aircraft carrier. I looked down and it was like a doctor’s waiting room with David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Elton John and Robert Plant. They all sat there waiting for their turn. It was very funny and surreal!
You reunited David Bowie and Mick Ronson that night — just incredible. There were so many magic moments in that one show.
That was a concert to be proud of. I was very pleased about it. It went so well. A bit like Live Aid, the actual atmosphere was non-competitive in terms of showing respect for the other artists. That’s what happened at the Freddie tribute too. There was a lot of respect.
I imagine it was bittersweet because it must have felt like the end of the band, like there was no way it could continue without Freddie.
Everyone felt that way. Besides that, Roger had more solo stuff he wanted to release and Brian brought out his solo album. It was like, “That’s gone now, so this is the new story, the solo stuff.” It stayed like that until 2004. Quite a long time.
You toured in Brian May’s solo band in the 1990s. How were those tours? I imagine it felt like a bit of a downward shift after being in something as massive as Queen.
You could perceive it as that, but I wasn’t just playing with Queen. I did a lot of other things as well. It was the life of a hired gun. Even though I could say, “Alright, the Brian May tours were playing to smaller audiences,” it was still a blast. We got to play some great material. It was just a different setup. Also, I met some mates in the band. It was going like out with a bunch of mates that Brian was fronting. And the offshoot is that in 1994 I borrowed Brian’s band — Cozy Powell, Neil Murray, and Jamie Moses — and started my own band [Spike’s All Stars] and they were all on it. Now here we are, 25 years on from that and it’s still going. In September we will be celebrating our 25th Anniversary with shows in my hometown, Portsmouth on Thurs 12th and at London”s Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Sat 14th where all profits will go to support Freddie Mercury’s Phoenix Trust for HIV/Aids. (See www.sasband.com for details)
You have so many stories, have you considered a book?
Funny you should mention that! Over the years I’d be telling various stories and many’s the time that someone has said, “You need to write this shit down!” My default position, normally, is one of a sloth in a hammock with a never ending supply of martinis. It did, however, occur to me that with my advancing years (I’m 67), the old grey matter might soon start to deteriorate, so I started making notes and bullet points. Every time I told a story or remembered something, I would jot it down. The trouble is, every tale reminds me of another 5 and they each remind me of even more and so it goes on. I can say that I have gained a bit of traction and by my reckoning, it could be ready for autumn of 2020. As soon as my SAS tour is over I’m going to lock myself away at “The Loveshack” in Joshua Tree and as my dear old mum Brenda used to say, “get cracking”. Oh dear! I seem to have set myself a deadline! I hate deadlines!
John Deacon fell off the scene in the late 1990s. Have you talked to him much recently?
No, I haven’t seen him in years. He’s very much a recluse. I haven’t seen him personally since the opening night of We Will Rock You in London in 2002.
Do you miss him?
Yeah. We got on really well. We’re the same age. I’m just a couple of months younger than him. On that first tour, we hung out a lot. We had very similar musical tastes. He’s a big soul fan as well. We bonded over that. He was always up for going out and I was up for going out and seeing the sights since it was my first time around the world with them. I do miss him, yeah. But he has chosen his path.
Tell me about the birth of the Paul Rodgers Queen.
Well, it goes back to when Paul Rodgers was the lead singer of Free and the guys in Queen were great admirers of that band. I was too. I saw Free play at the Isle of Wight Festival a couple of times. I was a big fan of Paul Rodgers. What happened was, there was one of those spurious TV award shows where they make up some new award just to get a bunch of people to come onstage and do stuff. It didn’t actually mean anything. Paul didn’t have a band and Queen didn’t have a singer, so the producer said, “Would you play ‘All Right Now’ for Paul if he sings ‘We Are the Champions’ for you?” There was probably a bit more to it than that, but that’s the essence of it. They were big admirers of him and they said, “Yeah, if he wants to.” So we had a rehearsal, he sang it and sounded great. We played and the next thing you know we were touring. It worked out very well.
I, personally, love the sound of Paul Rodgers’ voice. He did a fantastic job singing another band’s music when all he wants, really, is to sing the blues and soul. I know there are people who weren’t that keen, but I was keen. I thought it was great. I still love his work to this day.
I’ve seen Roger say he loved Paul Rodgers as a singer, but felt he was a little too bluesy for the material.
For some of the material, certainly. Some of the songs didn’t suit him. But the ones he did sing, he sang the hell out of. I think proper respect for him for taking such a shot because it could have gone terribly wrong and backfired on him, but I think he comes out of it with deep respect, from me anyway.
When that tour ended, did you think maybe that was the end?
I’m always thinking it’s the end. I couldn’t see anything else happening there. I didn’t see how or why they would do it.
I’ve seen Marc Martel on YouTube and he sounds just like Freddie, but you don’t want an impersonator.
No. That’s the last thing you want because then you become a tribute band. You don’t want people saying, “That was just like Freddie, but he’s not Freddie.” The thing is Adam [Lambert] doesn’t sound like Freddie, but he’s a fabulous singer and people have now put that to one side and are saying, “OK, he’s not Freddie, doesn’t sound like Freddie, doesn’t look like Freddie, but he’s bloody brilliant at what he does.”
Tell me your first memory of hearing him sing.
My wife was the first person who heard him. We were in Joshua Tree and I sat outside our little cabin that we have there, our love shack and she said, “You better come in and watch this.” I said, “Watch what?” And she said, “American Idol.” I said, “I don’t need to watch that. There’s nothing for me there.” But she said, “No, come in.”
I went in to refill my martini and I just caught the last minute of him singing “Whole Lotta Love.” When he got to the very end I thought, “Here we go. Here’s where it counts.” He sang the final cadence and just flew through it. It was effortless. I thought, “Wow. That takes some singing chops to be able to sing it with that kind of confidence.” Then I googled him and the first thing I saw was him singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” a cappella at his audition. I sent off an e-mail saying, “I found a live one.”
Who did you send it to?
Roger. And I don’t know what week that was in the process, but obviously by the time the finale came around, Queen got asked to perform there with the two finalists, who were Adam and the other guy that nobody can remember [Kris Allen]. The deal was sealed then and there. They were aware of him because Roger had been keeping an eye on him from the moment I e-mailed him. Then they got together and Adam is obviously a charming man plus he can sing like not many people can sing. The universe put the elements together.
Did any part of you worry he was too young or anything? Did you have any doubts?
No. It was all about the singing for me and the fact that he looked like Elvis on TV. I thought, “You can’t go wrong with this. A gay Elvis that can sing Queen songs? Where’s the downside? There isn’t one.”
How were the first rehearsals with Adam?
Painless. The first thing we did together was the MTV Europe awards in Belfast. Again, a medley was the order of the day in order to get a whole bunch of songs in there. That was followed by another performance at the iHeartRadio festival in Las Vegas. Those two performances really proved that he had the chops and the stage presence.
These guys like to work really quick. They don’t like to hang around and they don’t like to spend too much time messing around with something. It either works or it’s discarded. Fortunately, Adam turned up pretty prepped. When we said, “Let’s try this,” he was on it. We didn’t have to spend too much time breaking him in, so to speak. He was also very good at taking direction. He quickly realized I was a useful ally, so he kept his eye on me at all times. I could give him nods and eyebrows to give him the cue now and then when something was about to happen. We had a good onstage musical rapport. We still do, but he knows everything now. He doesn’t have to look at me anymore.
How was the show in the Ukraine? That was the first real gig you did with him. It must have been nerve-racking.
It was really nerve-racking because there was barely any soundcheck. Elton John had gone on before us because he wanted to get out of there and go somewhere else. We were following, which is quite a big call. It was a big, big audience. I don’t know how big, but it stretched right across the square and down the roads on either side with people watching on screens, so it was a big deal and very nerve-racking, but he passed the test. We all passed the test.
The first American tour was a bit of an unknown. The band hadn’t toured in America in any real way since 1982. I imagine promoters were a little uncertain.
We had faith, but there was that thing about the audience. Some said, “That’s not Freddie. What do they think they are doing?” Plenty of reviewers still say, “If Freddie’s not in Queen, what’s the point of going to see them?” That was kind of the attitude the first time out for a lot of the older fans. But once they saw what Adam brought to the stage and how much new life he put into this material, he won them over. And look where we are today.
He also brings his own fans to the shows that may not even know much about Queen.
The audience was fragmented at first into old Queen fans who came with their arms crossed saying, “What’s this all about?” and the Adam fans who were like “What’s this old band he’s attached himself to?” Then there were some children of Queen fans who grew up listening to their parents records. That really has changed now. We’ve gotten to a point where 90 to 95 percent of the audience that shows up never saw Freddie Mercury perform live with Queen. But they have seen him on the screen and they know the songs because the songs are so much in the musical consciousness of everybody because of the TV commercials and sporting events and whatever, so everyone knows half a dozen Queen songs even if they don’t realize it.
I look out and I see teenagers weeping with joy when “Fat Bottomed Girls” comes on. And then there’s old people that are proud to say, “I saw them in 1975” or whatever. They’re all singing along with the same gusto. It’s crossing genres and generations, which is pretty much what they always did. Queen were never fashionable, so they’re never really unfashionable.
Roger and Brian look so happy during the shows. They had so many years where they didn’t have a way to play these songs in public, and they finally do again. It’s a real validation of their life’s work.
It is. It’s the music that really counts. That’s why they are there, but for them it must be quite rewarding to be able to sell out Madison Square Garden and carry on around the world. They keep talking about adding more bits to this as we’re rolling into next year. It’s amazing. They are both in their seventies. I’m not far off. It’s a challenge as well, physically, to do a show like that. We are coming to the end of this run. I think everyone is ready to lay down for a few weeks and take some time off. But we’re looking forward to coming back to New York in September [for the Global Citizen Fest].
How did you feel about the possibility of a Queen movie when you first heard about it?
Hmmm … Suspicious. And, to be honest … I think Rami Malek is fantastic and deserves the Oscar. He did a wonderful job. But what Hollywood does with these kind of stories is they move the story around to suit their dramatic needs. And so … it’s a version of the truth. Let’s say that.
It was weird to watch is as a fan and be like, “Wait a minute. They didn’t write ‘We Will Rock You’ in the 1980s. And they didn’t break up before Live Aid.”
Yeah, all that stuff. That’s the way modern entertainment is. It comes on TV and that becomes the truth.
I’m sure it was weird to watch events you were at be presented like that.
I did have to bite my tongue, I admit, but that’s the way popular entertainment is. Let’s face it. The way music is made, singers that can’t sing have hits. Movies get made and the facts are what they want them to be.
The good side is the movie introduced Queen’s music to a whole new audience. You used to do one night at the Garden. Now it’s two.
Yeah! The curve was already on the up from the previous tour. Their marketability and pulling power had been growing and growing as more and more people had been getting the Adam bug and saying, “He’s a good man to be doing this.” But then the movie cracked that wide open. I think they could probably tour for the rest of their lives. This tour could go on forever. It won’t, though. … It’s interesting to look out and see people lustily singing along to every song that was in the movie, and looking blankly during every song that wasn’t.
How has Adam grown as a singer and performer in these nine years he’s been in the band?
He’s very much his own man when it comes to performance and he’s managed to walk that fine line between deference to Freddie, the history of the band and presenting his own take on it. He’s not trying to be anybody else. He’s being Adam Lambert singing Queen songs. He always had the chops. He always had the stage presence, but now he’s having fun as well.
What’s the future? Can you see a version of Queen with Adam Lambert after Roger and Brian retire? Can it keep going?
Wow! That’s an interesting concept that hadn’t even occurred to me. I don’t know. Wow. You never say never to anything, do you? If the market is there for somebody to perform that music, somebody will turn up and perform that music. In what shape that will be, I couldn’t possibly say. And these guys aren’t done yet. They look around, and when you see the Stones still doing what they’re doing … It used to be “I hope I die before I get old.” It’s not like that anymore, is it? I think they could sit around at home and do nothing or tour the world and have a fabulous time. I know what I’d rather do.
Finally, how many times do you think you’ve heard the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” in your entire life?
Too many [laughs]. Absolutely too many!