In amongst the Ghost Town Twitterstorm, I’ve noticed over the last couple of days that there is still a lot of chat about the QAL tour. Some people (including me) are missing it terribly and are still talking about just how good this tour was, and how superbly everything was put together. And of course in the last 24 hours there has been a lot of excitement about more dates in South American and the “Don’t Stop Them Now” tour.
One thing that has particularly interested me is the how the show was put together; the setlist itself and how that extraordinary stage set worked. The setlist is particularly interesting; how the songs linked together and indeed whether the guys were trying to tell us how they felt by their choice of songs.
I think I need to say I am excluding the Q+PR collaboration from this blog entry – not because I think it wasn’t valid, but because the performances they did weren’t “all” Queen – they included Free, Paul Rodgers and later some original music. This makes it very difficult to compare the shows, so this is about “original Queen” and how they turned their output into the QAL tour of 2014-15.
First of all, we need to go back in time – about 30 years, in fact. As it was decades since Queen had toured as Queen, there wasn’t an easy existing pattern to fall back on – and there had been another three studio albums produced in the meantime.
Queen’s last performance in their original lineup took place in 1986 at the Knebworth festival. It was the end of the “Magic” tour and none of us who were Queen fans at the time could have imagined that they would never tour again in that format. This tour was typical Queen – a massive stage rig, complete overload of lighting and pyrotechnics and a mixture of tracks from the new album, old favourites and a few bits of rock ‘n roll here and there.
Assembling an entire show of this size – one that is going around a large part of the world, is a real challenge logistically and artistically. On the logistics side, there is the set itself; designing it, building it, transporting it and adding the various lights and effects.
The set itself was constructed to Roger’s idea of a huge “Q” which would dominate the stage. The metal structure would surround an enormous screen, supplemented by side screens at the front of the auditorium. The floor of the set included a central runway and two side stages accessed with steps. The Q could be moved and was dropped flat during Seven Seas of Rhye.
(video from Erotic Sludge’s YouTube uploads – includes a rather good Killer Queen!)
The set was embellished with a large amount of gold and there was, of course, the chaise longue; these were both Adam’s contribution to the design.
The effects rig included pyrotechnics, the all-too-familiar “overkill” lighting and a glitter ball over the central runway.
Two complete stage rigs were constructed; a “forward” crew would be setting up one venue whilst the other rig would be in use elsewhere. This needed detailed planning and a large crew. The tour lorries became a familiar site at the venues.
Putting the music together can be an incredibly complex operation. There are a number of formats you can use, and this applies to classical music as well as pop and rock. You can go for a straight chronological progression through the music, or you can group songs together around a theme. However, you do have to be slightly careful around timings and particularly the change in key from one song to the next. Have you ever listened to the radio where there is a really uncomfortable segue? Certain key changes are not enjoyable.
Putting the setlist together from an artistic perspective must have created a whole raft of problems. There was a need to produce a programme which showed off Queen’s repertoire, showcased the guys as individuals and also was respectful to Freddie (and John) in terms of how they were referred to in the music.
The short tour of 2012 was something of an experiment. It was more of a “getting to know you” exercise, but by the three London dates QAL were looking like a confident set-up and there was a real rapport there.
(video from ki55andtell’s YouTube uploads)
But if 2012 was the introduction, then the 2014-15 tour was the real deal, and it’s obvious that a huge amount of effort had been put into getting every detail right. In having a detailed structure, QAL had moved away from being “just” a rock concert, even given that Queen have never done things by halves. It was obvious to us that they wanted to put on a show like we’d never seen before.
The setlist for both parts of the tour (US/Asia/Australasia and UK/Europe) was structured into cleanly divided sections and there were clear visual clues given by Adam’s costume changes. (I know the detractors picked on this, but actually guys, you’re going to a show. Ever seen the stuff that Madonna wears onstage?) The styling was a great trick; through it we saw the various stages of the gig laid out before us.
There were also individual touches added for each concert; Brian had a language crib sheet in non-English speaking nations to enable him to engage with the audience in their own language, even if at a basic level, and this was always appreciated. Extra touches were added in the form of one or two venue-specific songs, such as Plaisir D’amour for Paris and a couple of verses of the Beatles for Liverpool.
I would also imagine that some attention was paid to whose songs were performed, so that there was a good balance. Freddie and Brian wrote the bulk of Queen’s songs before the decision to credit everything to the group as a whole, but it’s usually easy to identify Freddie’s songs as they covered such a wide range of musical styles.
There was even some thought given to what would be played as background music before the start of the gig. People who were listening closely might have recognised the use of Track 13. This mysterious instrumental was one of the “hidden” tracks on Made In Heaven and was designed as a tribute to Freddie, with 30 seconds of music for every year of his life.
The opening number did change between the two halves of the tour. The 2014 dates started with Now I’m Here, a song by Brian very closely associated with the US. It was written when he was recovering from the bout of hepatitis which cut short Queen’s first tour to the States. For the UK/Europe leg, the opener was One Vision, the song which had opened their very last live appearance at Knebworth.
The “glam rock” section of the show remained settled throughout, other than I Want It All moving later in the show for the UK/Europe leg.
The central section was a mixture of Brian and Roger’s own tributes to Freddie and some solo items. The tributes were handled with great sensitivity; Brian’s rendition of Love of My Life never failed to bring a tear to someone’s eye
Roger sang Days Of Our Lives; although later Queen songs weren’t attributed to any one person, the main structure of the song was his, and it was accompanied by beautiful video footage of “the old days of Queen”, which also remembered John.
There was also a careful nod made to showcasing the other talent in the band with a most unusual bass solo from Neil Fairclough and the father and son drum battle between Roger and Rufus. Roger must be incredibly proud that his son is such a capable musician, and it was great to see them performing together.
Adam returned for the next section looking much more sombre, but this is a section of the concert that got tweaked more than most. For the US, the middle number was Love Kills, but was substituted with Dragon Attack for the last two shows over there. Brian has spoken about Love Kills having painful associations with Freddie’s illness and death, so although it’s a superb song, I can understand why he maybe didn’t want to bring it into the 2015 concerts.
For the UK and Europe, Save Me was introduced, giving this section a “dark romance” feel to it; the pairing of Save Me and Who Wants To Live Forever was inspired; lost love and doomed love. These superbly demonstrated Adam’s musical and performance skills and also highlighted the relationship he has built up with Brian. That combination of voice and guitar with the eerie lighting effects was the high point of the show for many of us.
(video from vanglam76’s YouTube uploads)
The tension in the air was kept up by Brian’s guitar solo, and it was only in the final section that we saw Queen back in rock mode, with Adam in plaid pants, tattoos on display. This last section gave the crowd the opportunity to sing, stamp, clap and even dance. Bohemian Rhapsody was the perfect ending as it contained a final nod to Freddie in the video footage.
Queen’s traditional encores have been We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions for a long, long time and the QAL versions of these didn’t disappoint. There was another touch of genius in the styling for this; instead of Freddie’s imperial crown and ostentatious robes, Adam appeared as the Crown Prince of Glam Rock in a leopard print suit and glittering coronet. I feel this was a conscious communication from Brian and Roger to acknowledge that Adam wasn’t an attempt to supplant Freddie, but that he was the person they waited so long to find.
There were also some extra numbers that appeared from time to time; Dragon Attack and The Show Must Go On appeared fairly regularly, along with Don’t Stop Me Now. A “special” item included in South Korea and Japan only, was I Was Born To Love You. This was originally a solo song by Freddie which had been reworked into a Queen version. It’s consistently one of peoples’ favourites and I’m sure it would be incredibly popular if it were done in a future tour.
(video from nico glambert’s YouTube uploads)
Of course, the ultimate problem was “too many hits”; Queen have always played a lot of their hit records in the concert tours, rather than doing the traditional rock band thing of featuring most of a new album. In any case, Queen were never the type of band that churned out albums very quickly; they were very particular about the music they put out and they wanted it to be of the highest quality possible. There is lots of material on YouTube about the making of various of their songs, and you can see how much detail is put into every one.
But for the QAL tour, it seemed to be a question of what they could realistically leave out. There is still a lot of fantastic material in the Queen repertoire that they could perform (although I would love to see QAL do some original material as I think they could produce incredible music together).
Of course, the news of the “Don’t Stop Them Now” tour makes me wonder if there will some more amendments made to the setlist. There are core songs that will always be part of any Queen gig and there will always be the question of what to leave out. There are some songs that I would love to hear QAL perform, either because they’re just personal favourites of mine, or because I would love to see how they would sound with Adam’s voice. So, the ones I would really love to see on a setlist are:
- I Was Born To Love You (just because!)
- Hammer To Fall (for me, one of Brian’s best rock songs)
- Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy (A Freddie song in the Noel Coward tradition – Adam would do a fantastic performance of it, I’m sure)
- It’s a Hard Life (another Freddie song; love it hugely and would love to hear Adam belt out that line from Pagliacci at the beginning)
- Innuendo (because it’s a monumental song in the style of Bo Rhap and I think Adam would do justice to it)
- Brighton Rock (another one of Brian’s songs – an oldie but a goodie; it would make a fantastic show opener
We know that there isn’t going to be any concert activity until September, but there is bound to be more speculation about where else QAL are going to appear in the world. I think we’re all hoping that they turn up at an arena near us.