❉ An appreciation of Queen’s ‘quiet one’ – bassist extraordinaire and chameleonic songwriter.
“I tend to be the quiet one of the group. There’s always one. And it’s often the bass player as well.” – John Deacon, ‘Innerview’, 1977 (Elektra Records)
Who stole the show at Live Aid? Queen. Who wrote the brilliant Flash Gordon soundtrack? Queen. Who wrote the biggest Billboard hit of 1980? John Deacon of Queen. A former electronics student turned bass player extraordinaire, Deacon was as gifted a songwriter as he was a bass player, writing some of the most celebrated hits of the seventies and eighties. While either long in seventies hair or affably curly in mid-eighties top, Deacon is one of the indelible musicians of his generation.
Yet Deacon was always destined to remain less well known than his other bandmates. Maybe it was his shy nature in interviews, maybe it was because he never sang a Queen song. Journalist Julie Webb famously called him “one of those clever buggers who manages to avoid getting quoted at all costs.” Given his decision to leave the music business behind (leaving Brian May and Roger Taylor the custodians of the Queen legacy) for retirement, it’s likely that will always be the way. But Deacon was an integral part of Queen (and music as a whole, for that matter), so credit has to be given where its due.
Despite the fact that Queen were very much a functioning band one whole year before Deacon joined, guitarist Brian May and frontman Freddie Mercury repeatedly told journalists that the band weren’t completed before Deacon’s arrival in 1971. One-time Queen roadie and Queen Unseen author Peter Hince states “He brought a stability and balance to the other three who had bigger, more extrovert and sometimes volatile personalities. He was also the band’s financial representative and very active in overseeing finances, tax issues, investments etc. He worked closely with the accountants and tour manager. John advised the band on Queen’s collective financial issues and was totally trusted by them all. He also brought different ideas and input to the creative process.”
Corresponding over email, Hince points out that Deacon’s background as an electronics student served him well on tour. “He had a deep knowledge of all his equipment and how to get the best out of it” Hince writes. “We worked closely on his bass set-up on stage and his guitars, wireless packs etc. There was no way you could fob John off with a lame excuse about equipment – if things ever went wrong!”
With a band of Queen’s calibre, Deacon needed to make his mark as a bassist – and he definitely did. What’s the first bass riff you hear in your head? Ding-ding-ding-diddle-ding-ding? Yip, that’s Deacon. It may have been David Bowie who came up with the riff (though Bowie claimed it was there before he arrived to the Montreux Studio), but it was Deacon who played the riff on Under Pressure, creating a perennially sampled riff that rivals Walk On The Wild Side as the best known in rock/pop.
Deacon was a natural, whether it was the metallic solos on Brighton Rock or Liar, his slick funk licks on Cool Cat and Dragon Attack, his melodic work on A Kind of Magic or his erstazt reggae lines on Misfire, Deacon’s bass work was never less than impressive. With a legion of fans as John Entwistle, François-Olivier Doyon, Danny Miranda, Mark Stoermer, Nile Rodgers and Chris Wolstenholme, it’s safe to say Deacon’s left his mark. He was also an able keyboardist and guitarist; listen again to Back Chat and most of the instruments are Deacon’s work (Deacon filled in many of the rhythm guitar parts on the early Sheer Heart Attack sessions while Brian May was hospitalised with hepatitis, eagle eyed fans will also spot Deacon playing drums in the One Vision video).
It’s hard to write a zeitgeist single, John Deacon wrote three. A chameleonic songwriter (impressive for one who wasn’t prolific), he wrote the AOR love ballad You’re My Best Friend (Simon Pegg’s wedding reception dance number), synth radio wonder I Want To Break Free (adopted in South Africa as a protest anthem) and, of course, Grammy nominated funk wunderkind Another One Bites The Dust.
Bites turned out to be Deacon’s mainstay, his finest moment in the band, but one that came at a resistance from some of the other band members. Deacon had one ally, Hince informs me. “Freddie helped John a lot with his songs – mainly because John didn’t sing. But Fred could see the potential and they worked closely together and there was huge mutual respect. Fred got the best out of John’s ideas and writing.”
Other examples of his song-writing capabilities came in the piano lounger You and I, heavy metal stomper If You Can’t Beat Them, ska-flavoured Who Needs You, ditty Beatly pop classic Need Your Loving Tonight and stadium opus Spread Your Wings.
While he didn’t have as notable a solo career as his other bandmates, he did keep himself busy outside the band, co-writing the Biggles Adventures In Time theme No Turning Back, co-producing the excellent Picking Up Sounds rap single, cameoing in the Morris Minor and The Majors Stutter Rap video (with blue wig) and worked as a session musician for Elton John, Cozy Powell, Anita Dobson and on How Can I Go On, perhaps the finest song on Freddie Mercury’s operatic foray Barcelona.
Success can have its cruel effects, and Deacon had his moments of alienation. He commented in an interview that Live Aid was one of the few good days to be part of the music industry, and producer Reinhold Mack has repeatedly told an anecdote that Deacon, seemingly fed up during some studio sessions (either for Hot Space or The Works), disappeared to Bali for ten days to escape the band arguments. However superb Queen played at Knebworth in 1986, some thought the end was near. Hince certainly does:
“For some reason I just felt it would be the last show. I have no evidence, just a feeling. Fred was approaching forty and hadn’t been totally comfortable about doing the tour and John wasn’t very happy and felt under a lot of stress to continue.” Queen never toured as a four piece after 1986, focusing the band’s energies on two final albums The Miracle (1989) and Innuendo (1991), Deacon contributing some extraordinary bass lines to Was It All Worth It?, Rain Must Fall, I Want it All, Ride The Wild Wind, The Show Must Go On and I’m Going Slightly Mad.
It was George Harrison who told the world that all things must pass and, indeed, the same was true of Queen. Mercury’s untimely death came as a blow to the world, though the three soldiered on at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert to send off their irreplaceable frontman. Deacon partook in the posthumous Made In Heaven sessions and recorded No One But You (Only The Good Die Young) in 1997 with Queen (May and Taylor shared lead vocals). And with that, he hung up his bass, for a life only he knows about. Deacon ultimately held the view that Queen died with Mercury, a credible decision. When Queen +Paul Rodgers announced their tour, there were talks of concern. Seemingly, Mercury wasn’t the only one who was missed. But Deacon doesn’t need to be mourned or missed. He’s done more than his fair share for music. Few can rival him.
❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life.