Interview with Peter Hince - Part. 1
Mis à jour : 29 oct. 2020
"I lived many people's dream"
Peter Hince first started his career in the world of music in 1973. At the age of 18 he moved to London to live with his cousin, who worked for rock bands. Soon he began working as a roadie with artists such as David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed and finally Queen, with whom he spent eleven years touring around the world.
It is at that time that he became interested in photography, taking many pictures of the group during their glory days - photos some of which were used for Queen records and latterly exhibited all over the world.
He wrote about his time with the band in his book "Queen Unseen". Published in 2011 and re-edited in 2015, it has been translated in around 20 languages and offers a new insight into the years during which Queen became one of the greatest bands in the world.
On the occasion of the release in France of Benoît Clerc's book "Queen All the Songs", which contains many photos from his archives (some of which never seen before), he was kind enough to answer my questions.
You started working at a very young age and you often mention in your book that you are from the British working class.
Why did you choose to work as a roadie for a rock band?
Peter Hince : Well, I left school at fifteen and worked in a factory - I wanted to be a football player but I clearly wasn’t good enough, so that went out of the window, and then I wanted to be a rock star but again, I didn’t have the talent or the coordination to make that, and so I guess being a roadie was the next best thing because I was never going to be good enough to be a guitar hero. I had a few good poses, but I didn’t have that natural talent, so becoming a roadie was a way into doing what I wanted to do - which was to be involved in music, because that was my thing from a very young age, growing up with the Beatles and the Stones, then the early seventies with Led Zeppelin and those kind of bands and so, yeah it was my life and suddenly I was lucky enough to get the opportunity and it just went from there.
You started working for Queen in 1975 while they were recording A Night at the Opera.
Which other artists had you collaborated with, and what made Queen different?
Peter Hince : Well, I first met Queen when they were a support act and I was working for Mott The Hoople who were a British rock band who’d had some success in America and were big in England. Queen were unknown and just released their first album.
It’s a strange story because the rehearsal place in Fulham is now a supermarket. It used to be a cinema, and in the early seventies Emerson Lake & Palmer, the super group bought it when many cinemas were being closed. They turned it into a rehearsal room and called it Manticore. ELP had their offices upstairs, Jethro Tull also had offices, and other bands stored their equipment there. Manticore was rented out to the big bands of the day. I worked with David Bowie and David rehearsed there, as did Mick Ronson and Lou Reed, Roxy Music, Led Zeppelin and Wings.
All the seats had been taken out of the ground floor, there was a stage, where you could put a lighting rig in. Bands could have proper production rehearsals. It was the ‘go to’ place for bigger bands, and across the road there was a pub called The Golden Lion. You could literally just go in there and your favorite rock star would be at the bar, or you could go to the gents toilets and you could literally “hang out” with your favorite rock star you know - so to speak! None of the musicians had minders, it was a completely different era, there was no security, and occasionally, in The Golden Lion, across the street bands would jam. They’d just go up and play. It was an exciting time; people were really into their music, and it was just a big adventure really.
Mott The Hoople were rehearsing in Manticore and it was a cold wet November day, and and there was no heating. So we had the lights on and these big gas heaters, big cylinders with blower heaters, and they had put parachute silks all across the stalls area to hold in the heat.
It wasn’t a glamorous place, it was pretty shabby, but it was where people went - it was rock & roll. Anyway, Mott have got their overcoats and scarves on and Queen come in wearing their dresses, silks and satins and whatever and it was like: “Who the fuck are these guys? Who do they think they are?” They took to the stage, and even then during the rehearsal Freddie was going for it - prancing up and down the stage in his Zandra Rhodes satins.
It was just extraordinary because everyone else was kind of laid back and we thought that they were just a bunch of posers – I mean who do they think they are?! They’ve got one album out and no one’s ever heard of them before.
Queen’s attitude never changed - ‘We’re gonna be the biggest band in the world’ you know, ‘darling’s we’re the best – we’re gonna show you we’re the best’ and that was there from the very first day that I saw them.
You didn’t meet Fred, you sort of encountered him, and then they came on the tour with Mott The Hoople. I think they learned a lot from Mott The Hoople in terms of professionalism and putting on a show so they could incorporate it with their own ideas, and it was interesting to see how they developed. I quite liked some of their heavy stuff, it was a bit Led Zeppelin-ish, but no one thought they’d make it. It just shows how wrong you can be doesn’t it?
You are very frank in your book and you speak openly about the countries you visited, the tour team, the band members and even yourself. When you started writing the book, were there some subjects that you considered taboo?
Peter Hince : Absolutely, I wouldn’t talk about the bands personal lives, and I wouldn’t talk about Freddie’s illness, and there was a kind of unwritten rule when you were on tour that you were very protective of the band and each other. You don’t give away secrets as it were, and yes, I’m very candid and I talk honestly about people, but I’m not going to go into their personal lives or their faults or whatever you might want to call it. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I just wanted to celebrate the band and celebrate the time I had. The opportunities, the adventure and that it was just a great journey. It was very hard work, but I found the harder I worked the luckier I got. It was a wonderful time in my life.
Queen was known for its live performances, but they depended a lot on the team that toured with them. So much went on behind the scenes. Can you introduce us to the people who did this work?
Peter Hince : Very much so! When I started out in the business, you had roadies and roadies did everything – you might set up the guitars, the drums and the key boards, and drive the van. As bands got bigger and they needed more people, then people tended to specialize more, so by the time I started working for Queen in 1975 it was more specialised.
I was Freddie’s roadie, and I looked after the piano and fixed the pickup and all the sound equipment for that. I looked after his microphones, tambourines and all his stuff. I was also John’s roadie and looked after his bass equipment, guitars and all the other things on stage right.
There was a drum roadie who looked after Roger and a guitar roadie who looked after Brian, so there were 3 of us. Then you had a sound engineer who had been with Queen since they were at college, a guy called John Harris and they’d been college friends and he’d kind of grown with them if you like. He was the sound engineer and then there was another guy who did the stage sound and mixed the monitors. Then there was a lighting designer. Everyone else was hired in for the tours so you would have extra lighting people, extra sound people, truck drivers etc. As the size of the tour and live show grew - the crew got bigger. Because Queen had progressively bigger and bigger lighting rigs you needed more trucks too.
The other key person was the tour manager. Gerry Stickells who from 1976 was Queen’s tour manager for the rest of their career. He’d been Jimi Hendrix’s roadie and tour manager, and he’d worked with all these other famous bands in the 60’s. He was great, a very clever guy who knew how to get things done. He knew how to manage all the different egos and keep the balance that you need on tour because you get a lot of mismatching of people’s personalities, and all the politics involved in various levels.
He budgeted the tour and looked after people and was very fair. Gerry was very instrumental in Queen’s success on tour, and particularly when we went to South America - they were the first band to break South America - and that was really down to Gerry and all of his skills.
I would say around the time of The Works (tour) ‘84 – ‘85, on the actual crew we were maybe 24 excluding drivers, caterers etc. On the final tour, The Magic tour there were so many people I didn’t even know what half of them did because there were different stages for the outdoor shows.
We’d come along, do the show, stage breakdown, move onto another one. That period was when touring changed with all the commercial interests and sponsorship.
The band had a lot of people travelling with them. They all had bodyguards and/or personal assistants. There was also a wardrobe guy and a physiotherapist for Fred. And the band travelled separately to the crew.
I was surprised by the diversity of the jobs entrusted to you, but especially by the musical skills that your position required : you tuned the guitars, you were sometimes in charge of buying musical instruments, you had to know the scores to remind Freddie Mercury of certain chords in case of a memory lapse, and you even once replaced John Deacon on stage for the beginning of Another One Bites the Dust!
Were you a musician yourself before becoming a roadie?
Peter Hince : No, I could tune a guitar but in no way was I a musician. I knew a few chords and played a few on the piano. But I had a reasonable ear, I think that was the important thing.
In fact, having a roadie who’s a musician was never a good idea because they would have the feeling that maybe they were a cut above the rest of the crew because they were musical. It's far better to have someone who's technically good and can work spontaneously, fix things quickly and have a little bit of musical knowledge, than someone who thinks that they're “artistic” and musical. It was a tough job with all the physical demands; loading trucks, humping gear around etc. There were some people who were reasonable players, but generally to have a musician as a roadie was not a great idea back then.
My job, it sort of grew and changed, in that I was taking on more and more responsibilities. I was young and I was easily lead, so when asked if I would do something extra I said “yeah okay” But I didn’t get paid more for it!
I then had to set off the pyrotechnics because I knew the timing of the songs so well. I was also entrusted with the special audience lights, the drum riser lights, synchronizing these things. So I had these control units along with giving Freddie his guitar, his drinks, his tambourine, telling him what key the songs were in, change John’s guitars etc… But we were all a very tight-knit group who had been together for a long time and there was a kind of synchronicity that we had, we knew each other very well, and the other crew guys took on other things as well and by that time, there were only three of us working full-time for the band.
It was fun. It was never a chore I suppose, I mean the physical work yeah that was tough, but it was just an adventure, and all part of it.
I think if you'd gone on tour expecting it to be just an easy ride, if you were a failed musician or a musician or whatever, it would have never happened. You would have never cut it on the road, not as a roadie back then anyway, because it was a tough place and there was a lot of camaraderie but there were also a lot of… like at a school kids can be cruel, other crew members could be cruel, you had to be tough and learn how to be the butt of some jokes or that kind of thing, but it was survival of the fittest, and toughened you up. It toughened you up for life in some ways.
You were present during their tours, but also during their live TV performances, studio recordings, and also on the shooting of their music videos.
Do you have any anecdotes about concerts or recordings that took place in France? And what is your most precious memory from your time with Queen?
Peter Hince : We're in Super Bear* in the summer of 78, late summer because we’d started the Jazz album in Montreux, and I was driving an old van through Italy to France and it was great again. It was an adventure. At that time there's only two of us roadies and the studio engineer and we were kind of like the Three Amigos in the front of this van, and hitting the South of France to Monte Carlo and all the lights, great fun. We were met at the Negresco Hotel in Nice, one of the best hotels in the world. And we followed them up into the hills, an hour outside Nice where the studio was, in Berre-les-Alpes. By that time most of the backing tracks had already been done so it was vocals, guitar overdubs that kind of thing. I just remember it being the same as most other recordings: it gets a bit dull when you're not involved. Just sitting there, making a cup of tea or changing guitar strings or whatever. I know the producer got ‘creative’ and didn't like the studio room. We’d got all the equipment in, but we couldn't get the tractor-trailer up the hills. It was one of those tiny Provence roads, so we had to ship it into a little Citroen van and move it up in stages. And then they're all these steps in the studio, and we finally got it there, and got it in on it set up and the producer said, “I don't like floor”. So we had to take everything out again get the carpet rolled up, taken outside and we moved all the equipment outside and then there was one of these torrential rain storms that you have in the south of France, and that was one of the days that we weren’t too happy……
We actually had another unbelievable thunder rain storm which Brian recorded on his portable cassette player, and it gets used on a song called Dead On Time and you can hear all the rain and storm. I also remember there was some kind of lunar eclipse or something to do with the stars, which Brian knows all about because he's an astrophysicist, has a doctor’s degree and all that.
There was a big swimming pool, which was great and we ate in, and as you can imagine, had quite reasonable food - being in France. I think John was living in the studio place, Fred had a villa down the road. We were sort of dotted around. It was a tiny village so… But like all recording you start at strange hours and work strange hours and yeah basically it was just like another recording session, it just happened to be in the South of France. It was just a little nicer when you came up for air than being in some of the rough places in London where we were, so yeah, it was nice.
The studio doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a restaurant now I’ve been told. Some guy contacted me and sent me pictures.
*Super Bear Studios: recording studio located in Berre-les-Alpes (a small medieval village, located in the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes). As early as 1978, artists could find peace and tranquillity in order to focus on their work, while still being close to Nice and Monaco. With state-of-the-art acoustic design by Tom Hidley (Eastlake Audio), Super Bear has attracted some of the biggest names in the music industry: Queen, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Kate Bush, Police or even Elton John have all recorded there before a forest fire destroyed the studio in 1986. A restaurant owner has bought the place since then and rebuilt it in 1989. Nowadays the building houses rural gîtes where you can spend a few nights.
And your most precious memory from your time with Queen ?
Peter Hince : That’s very difficult to say I mean there were so many. I guess that feeling of achievement when, you know, we played in Madison Square Garden in New York for example. You know you've been part of that, and when the band were really hot. Being on stage and feeling the energy there, and you could vicariously become part of what you’d helped create. That was quite special. Or when Fred would come and sort of slap me on the back and say “Thanks” or whatever - those kind of things.
Live Aid of course was magical, but more so afterwards, at the time it was incredibly pressurised, we had hardly any time, there was no sound check, but the band showed why they were one of the best bands in the world: that they could go on and play, no lights, no smoke, no explosions, just four guys. A three piece band and a singer who wasn’t too bad either.
Obviously travelling to different places… Yeah, there were a lot of highs. Just that opportunity to spend all of my 20s until I was 31. Yeah, just doing that, living many people's dream. Meeting the occasional young lady along the way, that kind of thing, so some days I felt I’d died and gone to heaven.
Your book contains many very funny anecdotes, but also talks about the difficult working conditions, and a life separated from daily realities, entirely devoted to the band.
When you decided to stop working for Queen in 1986, did you feel that you had forgotten yourself? And was it difficult to leave them? They were like a second family.
Peter Hince : I realized I wanted to change around about ‘84. I think the band had changed a little bit, there was tension in the band, and that was a period when I think they could have broken up after the Works tour. I was working harder than ever before, and felt I wasn’t appreciated, and I certainly wasn't rewarded financially that well.
I had achieved a lot and where else could I go? I had offers from other bands, but I felt I wanted to do something for myself, and photography had been my hobby all through the time with Queen.
I wanted to do something creative, something for myself. And it was one of those kind of natural progressions in life when suddenly you just think, “yeah, okay, I'm going to go this way now”, without fear as well. So it wasn’t that I woke up one day. It had been there for a while, the decision; and the band, I think was quite surprised and said, “we’ll sort it out, we’ll give you more money”, and it wasn’t really about that, it was about me wanting to do something else.
Freddie in particular was very supportive because I was going to be doing something creative. If I'd left to work for another band he would have never forgiven me. So yeah, it was hard. Funny enough it was hard after I left, during the first year or two in photography, because I wanted to distance myself from the music business and focus on being a photographer. But there were reminders all the time.
I used to see people from the business or people would find out and all they’d want to hear about was my time with Queen, it’s like “I do something else now, you know”, so it took a while. It was still in my system, I wasn’t out of detox, as it were.
I don't regret leaving at all, I did every tour so I think I certainly left at the right time, and the business was definitely changing into something else, becoming more commercial and sponsorship - all that kind of thing, and people taking themselves far too seriously.
So it was a turning point for the group?
Peter Hince : Yeah, it was Live Aid really, that kicked them off again, because after Live Aid they just thought, “well, hey maybe we're still good at this, you know. We have something to offer as a four-piece band”. And they’d all been doing, except John, solo projects, and of course the solo projects were not as successful as the Queen projects - same with any band really. I think they thought, “we can we can push on and we can do something, whatever that is going to be”. Then they did the Highlander soundtrack and subsequently the Magic Tour.
I think there were certain crossroads in Queen's career and how they changed. I would probably say 1979-1980 was the biggest kind of crossroads and change for them. When they went to Munich and started recording with Mack* and they did The Game album and it was at the end of a tax year which started with the Jazz album in Switzerland and France, even though you weren’t allowed to say, “we're taking a tax year out”. You just “coincidentally” were writing and recording and touring out of the UK, because it was when there was a labour government in charge, before Margaret Thatcher and there was something like 98% tax. So why wouldn’t you do a tax year out?
That tax year finished in Munich and it was a very relaxed session, they loved Munich they’d seen the studio and they liked it, and they went into the studio with no pressure, no album to do, no pattern of three of Fred’s songs, three of Brian’s, one of John’s, one of Roger’s or whatever. It was just a kind of loose arrangement, and out of that I think they got some great stuff, and it was the changing of the style as well because Crazy Little Thing Called Love was their first number one in America, and which was sort of Elvis slightly rockabilly kind of, written in the bath by Fred when I had to fly back with him from London and that story’s in my book, as you know.
Anyway, working with Mack who was the engineer - and Queen appointed him co-producer by the end of the album because his influence was so strong - it was fresh and new and they weren’t doing all that layered vocals stuff and overdub, and overdub, and overdub and all that. The Game was huge, it was their biggest album in America. Then Another One Bites the Dust another number one, and that was the point when they were the biggest band in the world. 1980-81, breaking South America, that was probably the greatest time, and they were still young and hungry and really wanted it, and they wanted to break those new territories, and those were very exciting times. Queen stuck to the format with Mack at Munich which worked very well. I have just been told - cause my partner is from Munich and we spent a lot of time there - they’re naming a street after Freddie in Munich, Freddie Mercury Straße, and that’s going to be maybe later this year.
Fred loved the city because he lived in Munich for a while, had a partner there and did his solo album there. And he was godfather to one of Mack’s children. So he had great affinity for Munich, and everyone loved Munich. It was exciting, energetic, nightclubs were fantastic, something for every taste and no one bothered them at all. A very different world then because you didn't have social media, you didn't have mobile phones, any of that kind of thing, and I wouldn’t say it was innocent but there was less of that pressure, even though they were some of the biggest rock stars in the world.
*He is referring to Reinhold Mack, a German music producer and sound engineer, who has worked at Musicland Studios and has collaborated with Queen, the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Peter Straker, Billy Squier and others.
And was it difficult to leave Queen?
Peter Hince : I wanted to do something else really because I thought maybe it was coming to an end. Well, just a combination of things, and as I say, I don't I don't regret it. It’s those things in life where it just feels like it's the right thing, like when I took the job with Queen, or when I decided to leave home, come to London, hang out with my cousin and work for David Bowie. They just said, “you want to come and come on tour with us, hang out with us?” and suddenly I'm Mick Ronson's guitar roadie !
So all those decisions in my life that maybe you would think were major decisions, I've actually found quite easy to make because they've been formulating for a while, waiting for them to come out to manifest themselves. So yeah, it was hard, but as I say no regrets at all.
I was very touched by the part of your book where you describe the way the work with Queen was keeping you from family obligations and sort of isolating you…
Peter Hince : When I wrote the book, I wanted it to be honest. I wanted it to be real and I wanted it to read so that someone who's reading it could feel they are there with me. All the people who were working on a building site, in an office, people who dreamed of working for a rock and roll band back then. And I wanted to give all the highs and the lows and the reality, and as you say, being away from my family. I think there were times where I saw my parents once a year, but it was part of the job.
Even though your life was guided by the tour or recording or whatever, you never quite knew where you were going to be. But you're basically beholden to the band. Whatever the band did, you had to do. And I've had to work Christmas Eve, work Boxing Day, drive on Christmas day, all manner of things like that. So you forget 9 to 5, 40-hour week things, and you just go with it for what it is. But of course, you get to go to lovely exotic places and do things that you can only dream of.
If you’d told me when I was fifteen or sixteen that “by the time you're 20 you’ll have gone to America”, or “when you’re 21 you’ll have gone to Japan”, and all those kind of things! So there were ambitions fulfilled in a way, but we all still had personal lives, and relationships were very difficult obviously when you’re on tour, and having a home life of any kind really...and for the band too.
And I think looking back and realizing the pressure that the band were under... You know, it’s like you've had a hit record. So record company wants another hit record, and they want it bigger! You've done a big tour, they want a bigger tour! And I could see it because I was very close to John and I could see how it affected him.
And it’s like Freddie used to say sometimes when he was a bit tired and emotional: “Fuck it, dear! I don’t want to be Freddie Mercury today”. He’d just wake up and just didn't want to be Freddie Mercury because Freddie Mercury was someone very different to who Freddie was, that was his stage persona. He was really quite a shy person. He was happy being at home. You know, he was two very different people, but he created this stage persona and this myth if you like, and people wanted him to live up to it, which I can understand.
In some ways it was great, you were within this bubble - this protective bubble of rock and roll- you had your rock and roll family, so whatever was going on at home you were protected from. I mean, politically I had no idea what was going on in the UK. We’d be in America for two months, and you never heard any international news, not back then. You come back home and someone famous has died and you’d never know. So you were insulated somewhat from real life, your bills just got paid by the bank, and someone would look after my apartment. It was two lives - you had your life away and when you could, you had your home life but there wasn't much of it. And it was the same really for all the band too - a young man’s game.
HINCE, Peter. 2015. "Queen Unseen: My Life With the Greatest Rock Band of the 20th Century". Music Press Books.
I highly recommend that you read Peter's book, which gives a good insight into the life around such a famous group. It's an unpublished, realistic and honest testimony about Queen behind-the-scene, but also a whole era in the history of music.
CLERC, Benoît. 2020. "Queen All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track". Black Dog & Leventhal.
Benoît Clerc details the history of Queen, album by album and track by track, in a book with period testimonials. You can find many illustrations, and in particular beautiful photos by Peter Hince (some never seen before).
About Peter Hince :
If you wish to contact Peter Hince for limited editions or original prints, a talk or presentation request (for private clients and corporate events) or a photo exhibition request, you can write to him via the "Contact" section of his website : https://www.peterhince.co.uk/index.php?f=394
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