❉ The cult icon on ‘Hair’, Brel, ‘Doctor Who’, Bowie, his new box set and working with Freddie Mercury.
“I learned a hell of a lot [working with Freddie Mercury] … looking back he was almost like a mentor…. He was my friend and he was very helpful… So that was one of the great things but on the other side, his generosity of spirit and his great desire for having fun… We just got on very, very well.”
Peter Straker is a favourite here at We Are Cult and we are thrilled by the release of the new 3 CD set This One’s On Me (Cherry Red Records), as reviewed here.
As I speak to Peter by telephone on a beautifully sunny March afternoon, we are both self-isolating due to the coronavirus crisis in the UK. Despite this being a very worrying time in the world, Peter remains upbeat, enthusiastic and the perfect gentleman.
Peter, thanks for chatting to We Are Cult. If we go back to the very beginning, what artists influenced you to become a singer?
Well to be honest, I always wanted to be an actor. That was the main thing that I really wanted to do. Singing came by accident and the main influence, I suppose subconsciously, would be my mother. My mother was a singer and I grew up with music, classical music really.
Influencing me later on, when I started to sing, one of the main people that influenced me was Aretha Franklin. I just love that ‘stretchiness’ because it’s quite operatic in a different way. Probably the purist would say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ but I do know what I’m talking about so I just said it! [laughs]. One of the great people who influenced me as well, which is well known to everybody, is Jacques Brel. When I was very young, I was introduced to his music and I just loved the passion and the expression. I didn’t speak French, I still don’t speak French, but there was something that just communicated, that sort of passion. Then in between a whole heap of other people, Lorraine Ellison her voice was just tremendous. I listened to a lot of that in the early seventies.
Listening to the new CD set, your voice often has a ‘heavy rock’ quality. Was that a genre that interested you?
Well not really but I think at the time I’d just got to know David Evans who was helping me a lot and Barry Krost (who used to manage Cat Stevens). Also, David Minns was working there with Cat Stevens and that’s how I met Michael Ellison. David put us together. So that’s how I got into that area of rock. Then I met up with John Reid and Elton John. I went to see Elton do a couple of big concerts and that was quite magical for me, even after doing Hair.
Hair was THE first internationally acclaimed rock musical, so that’s probably what interested me in rock because it was great fun to do those songs and to sing those songs with a live, nine-piece rock n’ roll band on the stage. You’ve just triggered something there, that’s where it came from, I think. I never thought of that before. That was my first show. It was fantastic! It had some wonderful people in it and one of the people who really encouraged me was Alex Harvey. I did a television programme with him late at night in the ‘God slot’ on ITV, where you sang songs and talked a little bit about your faith. I worked with Alex a lot in those days, we used to do different shows at the Roundhouse and I’d worked with the Hair band, so I suppose that’s where it started really.
It just went from there and then subsequently through David Minns and John Reid, I met Freddie Mercury.
So after your big break in ‘Hair’, you went on to star in some very notable stage shows, ‘Rocky Horror’, ‘Tommy’ etc. How did you find the transition from working on stage to becoming a recording artist?
I was lucky because when I did Hair, I was signed to Polydor and did some singles with them. It was a wonderful experience. Then I worked with Howard and Blaikley and did an album with them. I had a single that reached the Top 40 in England. [* ‘The Spirit Is Willing’ by Peter Straker and the Hands of Dr. Teleny which charted in February 1972] When I met Freddie, after about seven or eight months I asked him if he would produce an album for me and he said ‘Yes!’. I was very lucky because John Reid brokered the deal with EMI and Rocket Records and so I was able to make these three albums.
How did you find working with Freddie when he produced ‘This One’s on Me’?
It was fantastic! Looking back, it was great. I had no experience of recording, I mean, I’d done singles and things like that but this was quite intense and quite good because I learned a hell of a lot. Freddie asked me “Would you mind if I asked Roy Thomas Baker to help with it?” because, of course, Queen had worked with him and were working with him. I said “Of course! Why not?”. Freddie had a lot to do with the other two albums, although he wasn’t the producer, looking back he was almost like a mentor. He used to come in and do some backing singing with me and the band. So, he was quite hands on with all three albums really. He was my friend and he was very helpful. You either like that music or you don’t and I happen to love what Queen do, so it wasn’t very difficult for me.
What are your favourite memories of Freddie?
Oh, my giddy Aunt! Well I did enjoy working musically with him and I’m not just saying that, because I learned a hell of a lot at the time. He suggested to me to write songs because it never occurred to me to write songs. All the songs that I’d sung were all other people’s songs and I’d just interpreted them. That was quite fantastic. I became more and more interested in the idea and I did write a few songs. So that was one of the great things but on the other side, his generosity of spirit and his great desire for having fun. We loved the theatre; we loved the same stuff in the theatre. We loved the ballet and opera. We just got on very, very well. There were lots of things, it was great fun! We drank a lot; we had a good time and we had a laugh. He was good company, very funny, very witty and we used to send each other up terribly with great humour, not with any nastiness. I had fantastic times with Freddie and with the band when we all went out; they were a very generous group of people I have to say.
You also did some backing vocals on the Freddie Mercury & Monserrat Caballe album ‘Barcelona’. That must have been an incredible experience?
It was great, great fun. I was lucky enough to hear some of the melodies, probably before other people and when he and Mike Moran were working on it, it was quite exciting. Also, quite daunting, I have to say because I thought ‘how is this going to work?’ but they made it work, as history as shown us. It was a fantastic idea that Freddie came up with, quite unique for that time. It was inspired and it stands on its own. Brilliant. I had a great time doing that because a lot of my friends were on it, like Carol Woods. I was doing a show in the West End at the time called Blues In The Night, she was the lead singer and she was American. Freddie came to see that show so many times.
What did you think of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie?
I enjoyed it! It’s a biopic, it’s not a documentary. It’s a snapshot of a period of time when they were making music.
Have you heard David Bowie’s version of ‘Alabama Song’ because it sounds very influenced by your version?
Well I think it was, because David heard me doing it first when we were in Switzerland, he came over from somewhere and he heard it and he liked it. I remember at the time, Roger Taylor always said that should have been a single. I think it was a little bit ahead of its time in those days.
A lot of We Are Cult readers will remember you from ‘Doctor Who’. (Peter played Commander Sharrel in 1979’s ‘Destiny of the Daleks’) What are your memories of working on that show and working with Tom Baker?
I loved it! Doctor Who was great fun. I had a great time and Mr.Baker was wonderful. We got on very well. I remember the first time I went down there, on the first day, it was a stone quarry. Then later we spent a great deal of time at the bar in the evenings with Lalla Ward as well. Also, Suzanne Danielle who I became very good friends with. Tony Osoba too. That was a great time, great fun. Hard work but great fun. Wonderful. Doctor Who is a treat. I nearly did a second one but I was working somewhere else and I couldn’t. That was one of my big regrets. I hope one day they’ll ask me to do something again. I’d love to do something else with them.
Listening to the new 3CD set, do you have any particular favourites?
I really like Heart Be Still, I REALLY like that, that’s why it came out as a single. Also, Ragtime Piano Joe, that was just wonderful because I had a big hit in Europe. I think it went quite high up in the charts in Holland, it was there for weeks. It did well in Germany too and the Benelux countries. It did very, very well for me and it was written by two of my friends, Annabel Levington (whom I was in Hair with), and Don Fraser (who was my musical director at the time). That was really fun because I was doing that in my show at the time. Freddie and Queen came to that show, which included a lot of those songs which are on that first album.
The other one is Late Night Taxi Dancer, which was wonderful and I’ll tell you who loved that one, Kenny Everett! He used to play that one all the time. I really do like the video for Heart Be Still though, I must mention the man who put it together, Mark Anthony-Abel. He worked with me very patiently because I kept changing my mind about things.
Well thanks for talking to us Peter. What are you doing to keep yourself sane throughout this strange time?
I was doing a show called La Cage Aux Folles, which is a play, not the musical. It’s the original French play translated into English by Simon Callow. So, we did that but it ended early because some of us had coughs and colds but we’re all alright. So since then, I’ve just done some promotion on the album. I’ve been self-isolating but it’s been really nice because all my pals have been saying “Look, if you need anything, we’ll drop it off”. So, I’m alright, thank bloody goodness!
Peter, it has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you, thank you!
Thanks, David, that’s really kind of you man.
❉ Peter Straker: ‘This One’s On Me’ (3CD) is out now from Cherry Red Records. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ David Geldard is a contributor to We Are Cult and loves Sci Fi & Horror, Doctor Who, Starburst Magazine, Stranger Things, The 60’s Avengers, Twilight Zone, The X-Files, cult movies and weird shit. He tweets as @BungleSir.