❉ We chat with Queen’s official biographer about life with rock royalty.
“What can you say about Freddie? He was funny, charming and very clever. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go. He aimed for it and succeeded. A great man with great ideas. He turned fantasy into reality.”
Back in the late ’80s, myself and my fellow Queen fanatic friend Jon Fowler, would spend hours every day listening to Queen albums and watching Queen videos. One of their videos featured a Queen ‘superfan’ called Jim Jenkins who had followed Queen from the very beginning. Jon and I often wondered what it was like to be Jim, to have followed our favourite band right from the very start and experienced all those magical gigs. Not only that but he was on first names terms with our heroes. “Imagine being that guy!”.
Shortly after Freddie’s death, Jim Jenkins and Jacky Gunn (now Smith), head of the Queen Fan Club, co-authored Queen’s official biography As it Began.
Fast forward to last year and I became friendly with Jim whilst organising a Queen and David Bowie themed charity night in aid of the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.
I was not only struck by Jim’s generosity (he helped a lot) but I enjoyed listening to his stories. I asked if he would like to talk to We Are Cult and he was more than happy to oblige.
Hi Jim, thanks for chatting to We Are Cult. Can you recall the first time you heard Queen?
I can, very much so. It was on Radio Luxembourg. It was Keep Yourself Alive. My friend told me they were going to be playing it. I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg a lot anyway, on 208. I got told “Queen are going to be on tonight!”, so I put it on. I was dying to hear this band that one of my friends had seen twice and he was just raving about them. He was saying how good the singer was. So, anyway, the song came on and the intro went on… and on, I thought “It must be an instrumental!” I had never known a song that took so long to get going as that one did. I was just thinking “Oh my God!” I just loved it. I was trying to listen to the singer, the guitars, the drums… it was just superb! I was in bed listening to it, in North Wales. It’s a long time ago now, 47 years!
What was the first Queen gig you attended?
I went to see them support Mott the Hoople but I didn’t go to see Mott, I actually went to see Queen.
My friend who had seen them wrote to me. We didn’t have a phone, so we used to communicate with people through letters. So, I got a letter from my friend Graham saying Queen were playing Liverpool, supporting Mott the Hoople, and if I couldn’t afford the 60p for the ticket he’d buy the ticket for me!
I was in the fourth row (Row D) at the Liverpool Stadium. I remember the intro playing, Procession, I’d never seen an intro done like that before. Then this drummer walked on and got behind the drums, then John Deacon, then Brian May. They went straight into Father to Son and this fella walked out… I ‘d never seen anything like him. The only person who he reminded me of, a little bit, was Alice Cooper. They were all dressed in black and white. Freddie had one leg black and one leg white, a black and white top, long hair and painted black fingernails! He started singing “A word in your ear…”. My mate said that my jaw just dropped. I just loved that gig. Liar was the one that stood out for me. I had never been affected by a band like I was that night. I didn’t want them to finish. When they did finish, I remember they were watching Mott the Hoople and I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
In Liverpool Stadium, after the show, they used to sell doughnuts. So, me and my mate said “Let’s go and get doughnuts” and next to me, buying one, was Freddie Mercury. My mate was digging in to me, saying “Speak to him! Ask him for his autograph!”. But I looked at him and I thought “Nah, I’ll give it a miss!” [laughs].
You’ve probably seen more Queen gigs than any other fan, so which one was your favourite?
Hyde Park (1976). It was a very special gig for me because I had just been on holiday to America and I’d had tickets for their gigs in Edinburgh and Cardiff. I couldn’t go because I went to the States, so I felt I’d missed out. Originally, the two Edinburgh shows were meant to be in August but they changed the dates to September and I was away. Then I remember Therese (who ran the Queen fan club at the time) phoning me up at work, telling me Queen were playing this free gig in Hyde Park and it was the day after I got back from America, so I was thrilled to bits. So, at 5am, me and my mate left for Hyde Park and we managed to get right down the front, near the catwalk. We spent the day there. I spent a lot of the time sleeping off the jet lag! I remember Steve Hillage as one of the support acts and there was a band called Supercharge who were from Liverpool. Their lead singer wore a costume like Freddie, a ballet costume. Kiki Dee was on too. There was a guy in the audience behind me who thought he was Jesus. He was telling everyone he had come back to watch Queen!
I was so excited when Queen started with Bohemian Rhapsody. Freddie just popped up from a lift underneath the stage. What a show. I have never been at a show with so many people, nearly 200,000! The sad bit was that they weren’t allowed to do the encore. We never got to see Freddie wearing the kimono and we didn’t get to hear Tie Your Mother Down but he did do You Take My Breath Away. It was incredible, just Freddie and the piano. It was the first time most people had heard it; it was a brand-new song and I just thought it was beautiful. It’s still my favourite gig by Queen. It definitely wasn’t their best but it was very special and I’ll never forget it.
So how did you become friendly with the band?
Pat and Sue the original Queen Fan Club secretaries left and they got a new secretary, Therese Pickard. I had met Queen in Liverpool in 1975 and this was May ’76… Therese wanted to write a biography of the band. She was talking to Brian May and Brian said, “We’ve got this fan in Liverpool, he’s been with us since the beginning, he might know a bit. I think his name is Jim”.
Therese then contacted all the Jim’s in the Liverpool area that were in the fan club [laughs]. Of course, back then there were no computers, it was all done by mail. So, I got this letter asking how long had I followed Queen, had I ever met the band? Etc. So I rang her back and said “Yes I’ve seen them quite a few times and met them all”. Therese said, “Would you like to come down to the office? I would like to talk to you about the history of Queen and what you know”. I said, “Sure, I’d love to come down”. I went down to the office and Brian was there. That’s where it all started really, helping Therese with that. I did a bit of research on them, then Roger came down to the office, John, John Reid and then Freddie. That’s how I got to know them. Then the Crazy Tour (in 1979), I did most of the gigs on that tour and we did go out with them after the shows, so I got to know them more then.
So, from your point of view, could you describe each of the members of Queen?
Wow, what a question!
John Deacon – quiet, unassuming, funny, business-like, a dark horse, more to him than meets the eye. I felt he never really showed his true character.
Roger Taylor – typical rock n’ roll star. He oozes personality. He’s got a great memory. I remember him telling me about their very first gig. He remembered that they started with Stone Cold Crazy and after that they did Son and Daughter. He’s a hell of a nice guy, he’s what I would call a rock n’ roller in the true sense of the word.
Brian May – very, very deep. He listens, he takes onboard what you say to him. Very clever. He’s really into fandom, he understands fandom. I think it’s because he was a big fan of people like The Shadows, he and Roger were fans of The Who and The Beatles.
Brian is very thoughtful and considerate.
…and then of course, Freddie Mercury!…
What can you say about Freddie? He was different. It was hard to keep his attention. If you’d got his attention, you knew it didn’t work to be sycophantic with him. He didn’t like that. Talk to him about things other than Queen and you would have a better conversation with him. He was funny, charming and very clever. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go. He aimed for it and succeeded. A great man with great ideas. He turned fantasy into reality.
What do you think would surprise people about Freddie?
He had a great knowledge of things that you wouldn’t expect him to know of. He was very interested in so many aspects of life. Maybe it was because of his upbringing and where he lived?
I know when he lived in Liverpool, which was only for a few weeks, we dressed up on a Sunday. We had ‘Sunday clothes’, which you only ever wore on a Sunday. Freddie was really interested in that aspect of life. I think that might surprise people, his interest of others. You probably would expect him to not give a damn, but he really did.
Have you got a personal favourite memory of each band member?
Yes. John Deacon – When we went to Paris to see Queen in 1979, in the mornings we did all the tourist sites until the early afternoon. Then, of course, we would go to the gig to queue up. One day we to the Eifel Tower, half of us went up and the other half stayed at the bottom. So, when we went down the others said “You’re not going to believe this but John Deacon has just gone up with his son”. We waited until he came down. He saw us and walked over to us all, we didn’t go to him. He said “Thank you so much for coming all the way over from the U.K. to see us, we really appreciate it!”. I couldn’t believe a member of the band had thanked us for coming. We said “Thank you for the gigs, last night was absolutely incredible!”.
John said “Glad you enjoyed it, enjoy the rest of the shows!”. I have got other favourite memories but I’ll pick that one, that was special.
Roger Taylor. I went to the studio to see them recording and Roger was so friendly. He was amazing with me, explaining to me how the mixing desk worked. He got John to play me a couple of the songs they had recorded. He sat me behind his drumkit, I said “I can’t play the drums”, so he put the drumsticks in my hand and took my hand to play the drums. So that’s my memory of Roger, that’s a fun one.
Brian May. My God. Brian, so many memories of Brian.
Brussels, The Game Tour. Me and my mate arrived at the hotel in the morning and Brian was in the foyer. He came over to us and said “Have you eaten?”. We said “No”. He said “Come and have breakfast with me”. We spent all morning with him. Sitting in the hotel, talking about tours, The Game album, Flash Gordon. That’s a nice little memory of Brian.
Freddie Mercury. One of my favourite memories of Freddie was when we went to Ally Pally. Just as they were finishing the filming of the Save Me video, in the afternoon, I went backstage. A friend of mine had printed some photos of the Liverpool Empire show, earlier in the month. I said to Fred “Could you sign that please?”. There was one in particular that he liked. He said “That’s a good photo”. I said “That’s one that my mate took at Liverpool Empire”. Freddie said “And these are for?”. I said “It’s for me” and Freddie wrote “To Jim”. I turned to my mate and said “Oh my God! He knows my name!”. Freddie said “Of course I know your name Darling! You’ve been with us forever!”. I nearly fell over.
Back in 1992, Queen’s official biography, written by yourself and Jacky Gunn was published. It impressed me by being the first Queen book to go into the band’s career in real depth, in a really intelligent, respectful way. How did that book come about?
I’d gone down to the Queen office in 1986 to pick up my passes. I was going to Zurich, Ireland and the U.K gigs (Manchester, Newcastle, Wembley and Knebworth). The band’s secretary, Julie, said “I’m glad you’re here now, take this home with you and read it. It’s a biography that someone is writing on Queen, he’d like our involvement with it. I said “Yeah, okay I’ll read it”.
I started reading it on the train, going home. I’m reading it thinking, “That’s rubbish!”, “That’s not true!”
“I know more than that! What about this? what about that?”. I took it back to the office after the Magic Tour had finished and said to Julie “This is a load of rubbish”.
So, she said, “Oh…okay… could you tell me why it’s a load of rubbish?”. I said, “I could do a better job than that!”
Julie said, “Go on then, if you think you can do a better job than that, do it”. So, I did.
I spent a year planning what I wanted to do and speaking to Jacky about it. I wanted it to be all about the music, not private stuff or nonsense stories. Facts, figures and stories about the music.
My cousin worked in a binder’s and she did it for me at work. I took it down to Julie and said “There you are, there are my plans, I’ve written keynotes”. I thought ‘that will get them’. I wanted them to think ‘He does know his stuff’ and of course it worked!
Freddie said to me (about a particular fact in the book) “How did you know that?”. I said “I did my homework”. He looked at me and smiled. Freddie had always said to me, “All they ever want to know is if I’m gay and why I paint my nails black. They don’t do their homework”. So, when I said “I did my homework”, he knew exactly what I was referring to.
It took a few months and then Julie rang me up and said “You’ve got the green light! The band have agreed that you should write it and they will help you, all four of them. You can go to their homes and speak to them and you can go to their parents and speak to them too. Queen Productions will help you. We will have to do it officially and get contracts signed”. That’s how it happened. There is no other Queen book that has ever had the involvement of all four members of the band and there never can.
A few Queen fans have asked whether there will ever be an updated version?
Watch this space.
Why do you think Queen are more popular than ever?
I think they are even more popular today than they were when Freddie Mercury was alive. The songs are much stronger than even I thought they would be, they seem to touch a nerve with everybody. I think also, the diversity of the music has helped. I don’t think there’s a band like them, they are unique. Let’s take for instance Don’t Stop Me Now. A song that, when they recorded it for the album, the guitarist didn’t like it. He wasn’t happy playing on it but the other three were like “No, this is a good song”.
That song just seems to keep coming back for new generations. More importantly, young people, kids, school leaders, University people seem to grab that song as their song. If you listen to it today, it sounds just as good as it did in 1978. A forty-two-year-old song that sounds fresh today.
Also, the gigs. Freddie has gone. They brought in somebody to sing in place of him, which is a cause of controversy with a lot of the older fans. You have someone like Adam Lambert who is performing the songs with Brian and Roger. They sold 400,000 tickets in the U.K. and around the world they are selling a ridiculous amount of tickets. People want to see them. Brian, Roger and a lot of people have accepted that whoever is singing at the front, it can’t be Freddie, it’s impossible, he’s gone. In a live situation, they are still out there and I think that is helping to keep the name of the band alive. They are current in 2020. Although it’s not Queen as you and I know them, it’s Queen plus whoever they have got fronting the band. Currently it’s this guy, who is helping them shift a lot of tickets.
It’s amazing because, as you know Jim, I am very much into my vinyl records and if you look at the vinyl community on YouTube there are lots of young people showing off their Queen collections, their Beatles collections, their Led Zeppelin collections. You’d think that these kids would only be interested in music from the current era but these classic bands have a massive popularity.
Well that, to me, speaks volumes! [laughs] For some reason, I think the music of those bands you just mentioned is going to be around forever. In the truest sense of the word, forever. When you and I have both gone, this article might get found in one hundred years’ time and someone will read it and say “Ooh I’ll read this and I might stick some albums on”. Who are they going to be playing? Led Zeppelin. The Beatles. Queen. I don’t think it will be anyone from 2020 and that speaks volumes. For some reason, bands from the 60s, 70s and 80s are going to be around forever, especially bands like those three. When you think about it, it’s quite incredible.
It really is. Thank you for chatting to We Are Cult, Jim.
❉ ‘Queen: As It Began: The Authorised Biography’ by Jacky Gunn & Jim Jenkins, was originally published 21 Aug 1992. New & used copies can be sourced from the usual online third parties, eg Ebay, Amazon.
❉ 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.