Words by Chris Anderson
September 19th 2017
More than 25 years since the death of singer Freddie Mercury, music photographer Denis O’Regan shares previously unreleased images of Queen’s biggest and final tour.
On August 9, 1986, the British rock band Queen had hit the peak of their fame. By popular demand, the group were forced to announce an extra date to their sell-out Magic Tour, which had started two months earlier and ended just days before in Spain. The venue was Knebworth Park, to the north of London, playing to an audience of around 115,000.
Singer Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon were to arrive by helicopter, swooping in over the crowds and landing somewhere behind the stage. Sensing the ideal photo opportunity, Denis O’Regan realised he needed to be there alongside them. “I went to a local airfield and hired a pilot to take me up in his own helicopter, so that I could photograph the band as they flew in from London,” he recalls. “The traffic jam along the A1 motorway was immense – so many people waiting to get in. When we spotted the band, we flew in side-by-side, and I took photos of their helicopter with all of the people below. A live album of the tour, Live Magic, was later released, and one of those shots became the centre gatefold.”
O’Regan was working in an official capacity, paid by Queen to document the tour, taking photos on stage and behind the scenes at every European city they visited over the summer – including two nights at London’s Wembley Stadium, each playing to 85,000 people. It resulted in many of the iconic shots still associated with the band today. “There’s the wide angle shot of Freddie wearing his golden crown, one arm aloft, with his regal robes draped over his shoulders, and another with his back to the camera, facing the huge Wembley crowd,” says O’Regan.
Before touring with Queen, O’Regan had spent time travelling the world with a host of other musicians, including David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. His huge collection of music photography had built him a solid reputation, but he laughs when asked which of his many Queen images the band liked most. “They always told me it was the helicopter shot – even though you can’t actually see them in it, but it does say ‘Queen’ and ‘A Kind of Magic’ on the side,” he says. “I suppose it gives a sense of how big they were at that point.”
Queen is also the subject of a touring exhibition in the UK, starting in September, which includes a talk by O’Regan, arranged in conjunction with the Off Beat Lounge, a gallery in Norfolk specialising in music photography, and the Mercury Phoenix Trust, set up in memory of Mercury, who died in 1991. It features 60 curated images, with more than half never published before.
The tour, called Princes of the Universe, after the Queen song that opens the 1986 movie Highlander, follows another from O’Regan that focused on David Bowie. “Queen were important to my career in different ways,” he reveals. “I got to go on the last tour with the original line-up, they were the first band I photographed back in the 1970s, and the first photo I ever sold.”
It was December 1973 when O’Regan first saw Queen in concert, supporting glam rock act Mott the Hoople at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Sporting a very different look to their 1980s heyday, with skintight body suits, long hair and make-up, it would have been barely six months since their self-titled debut album was released. When he returned to the same venue a year later to see the band headline for the first time, O’Regan took his camera with him – making his way to the front and selling an image to Jackie magazine for £12 (around AED 60).
Eventually, O’Regan became a professional photographer, and continued to attend Queen concerts on behalf of magazines like NME. “Our lives crossed over in other ways too,” he says. “In 1976, they played Hyde Park, and I crawled in through a hole in the fence to get backstage with a friend – we actually got to the stage itself right as they were coming on, with Freddie appearing through a cloud of smoke. And as I photographed them over time, I would chat to them and get to know them a bit – Brian was really interested in photography and has a collection of old-fashioned viewfinders.”
It was being invited on the Magic Tour in 1986, however, that would allow O’Regan to follow the band at a time when they had become more successful than ever. Their performance at Live Aid in 1985 – which began with Mercury at the piano playing Bohemian Rhapsody, then whipping the crowd into a frenzy for Radio Ga-Ga – was hailed as the best of the event. The next Queen album, A Kind of Magic, released in the aftermath in 1986, sold 6 million copies worldwide, with the tour following soon after.
But despite the huge and sudden increase in their fame, O’Regan discovered a band as down to earth as ever. “I remember I met them in Paris, and Brian greeted me with, ‘Ah, DOR,’ so he had nicknamed me after my initials,” he laughs. “I found out years later that Freddie had taken it a stage further, had added a few extra letters and was referring to me as Doris, which always made everybody laugh. But then that was Freddie, just incredibly witty.”
Unsurprisingly, with his status as Queen’s charismatic and energetic frontman, it is Mercury that O’Regan is often asked about most. “He wasn’t a huge fan of touring,” the photographer reveals. “He loved performing, but he was a homely person who preferred to be around people he knew. The band would joke that Freddie got the best room when they checked in anywhere – usually the presidential suite, or similar – but he was famously generous, always buying gifts, he loved antiques, and he was famously shy, which you would never have guessed if you’d only ever seen him on stage.
“He was known for his live performance, rather than his offstage life, and that’s definitely the way he preferred it. I remember the first time I ever saw Queen in Hammersmith, Freddie came off the stage like he owned the place. He knew from the start the kind of frontman he wanted to be and that he was going to steal the limelight, and he always said that. He knew he was going to be rich and famous, so he always behaved as if he were both. In the end, he was, of course.”
The other members of the band seemed to shy away from the spotlight, letting Mercury do what he needed to. As May often said of their historic Live Aid performance, “That was entirely down to Freddie. The rest of us played okay, but Freddie was out there and took it to another level.”
O’Regan observed that the band actually spent little time together on tour, other than the occasional dinner or organised event. “Generally, they would go their separate ways,” he says. “They had been around for a while and they had families, except for Freddie. John was very shy, and when Freddie died he just retired. Roger was a bit more of a party animal, but Brian preferred the quiet life.”
It makes the touring that O’Regan saw sound a little restrained – a far cry from earlier in Queen’s career, when the band would host wild parties, featuring wrestlers and dwarves. Elton John once commented, “Freddie Mercury could out-party me, which is saying something.”
But this was a different band, facing greater fame, with bigger tensions behind the scenes. Mercury was having “dramatic and unpredictable swings in temperament” around this period, according to Rolling Stone magazine, and during an argument in Spain told Deacon, “I’m not going to be doing this forever. This is the last time.”
Sadly, it was an accurate prophecy, as Mercury became ill once the tour ended, and died just five years later. Queen disbanded, with May and Taylor reforming in 2004, initially fronted by Free lead singer Paul Rodgers, and later American Idol finalist Adam Lambert. A Queen biopic is also due for release in 2018, with Mr Robot actor Rami Malek set to play Mercury.
Looking over his collection of Queen images, O’Regan reflects on the band’s legacy, but also recalls the surprise in discovering that the tour he joined them for was also to be their last. “We all just assumed there would be another one the following year, but there wasn’t, and then it became clear that was it,” he says. “They were one of the best live bands ever, and he [Mercury] was the greatest frontman ever. It’s all very sad that we’ll never see the likes of that again.”
Princes of the Universe is a 14-date touring exhibition of the UK from September-November. For more info and tickets, see www.offbeatlounge.co.uk