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The Early Years (7)

Written by Mark Hodkinson (OMUNIBUS PRESS)
*If you want to buy this book, go to Amazon.com!*

Chapter 8 : Enter, Stage Right (p.139--p.144)

Queen were hardly judicious in their choice of bassists, so it was merely the law of averages that finally brought a turn in fortune. John Deacon was a lucky accident for Queen; they had already gone through three bassists but to find someone so complementary to their sound, professionalism and personalities could well have taken for ever.

John Deacon had revealed very little of himself to most people on the Leicester scene. He was far from charismatic, he was the quiet one, and, they naturally assumed, the insignificant one. He would go to London, earn a degree, marry another scholar, return to Leicester, and set up a small electronics company. The members of his former group, The Opposition, Nigel Bullen especially, knew John beyond this superficiality. They respected his quiet determination, the innate integrity, a meticulousness of character. They knew he wouldn't be on the first train home. He wasn't a minor key dreamer; he had more blood in him than many suspected.

Initially, they presumed he would apply himself solely to his studies; he left his guitars and amplifier behind in Oadby. Whatever, they knew he would survive in London. The city might have lost its technicolour glow somewhat since 1966 but it was still fast, radiant, wide and simmering to a kid from the hush of rural middle England. He didn't re-invent himself at university, but like millions before and since, found himself; to such an extent that by the end of his university course he all but severed completely his ties with his former self in Oadby.

During the first couple of years at university he returned quite regularly to Leicester, sometimes even sitting in with Art or other groups featuring his old pals from The Opposition. Of his small circle of friends only Dave Williams and Nigel Bullen kept in close contact, Nigel sometimes staying with John for the weekend at the top floor flat he shared with four other male students in Queensgate. There was still no dabbling in drugs and only a mild dalliance in alcohol. Instead, Deacon absorbed himself in London's burgeoning counter-culture - clothes from Sterling Cooper and Kensington Market, exhibitions by Roger Ruskin Spear of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in The Strand. "He was really enjoying it," said Nigel. "There was a definite change. He became very trendy, grew his hair long. He was the same academically, he still sat down and did his work, but he came out of himself socially which was good. He was holding his own among it very well."

Distance harboured nostalgia. John Deacon had left Oadby to embrace academia and London and he felt he no longer had any need for his guitar or amplifier. By turns, he succumbed once more to the lure of the plectrum. On one trip home he collected his acoustic guitar and soon afterwards asked his mother to drive down with his bass and amplifier. Suddenly, less than a year after leaving The Opposition, he wanted to be part of a group again.

This was London though, completely different from Leicester. Its live circuit was glamour itself; a venue in Leicester was a church hall or the back room of a pub, in London it was The Marquee and Jimi Hendrix had been there just a few years earlier, and David Bowie. The entire history of rock, it seemed, was condensed in a handful of venues, and administered within a few square miles of the capital. Music writers, managers, and record company staff perused these darkened venues, like extras from Expresso Bongo, except now they wore stack-heeled boots and baggy denims: 'We'll make you famous, man. Here's my card.' In the morning, sometimes around 11.30 am, they were in their Soho offices, gold records on the wall, sunglasses on, two aspirins in the glass, trying to fathom the office tape machine. It was less than 100 miles from Leicester, but still a world away.

John Deacon's return to music was tentative at first, galvanised by attending concerts at the colleges around the Kensington area. In October, 1970, he saw a group bathed in shadows playing peculiar, but unremarkable rock at Kensington's College of Estate Management. They were called Queen, but he could barely distinguish them from the multitude of similar bands swayed by the darkened melodrama of Led Zeppelin.

He began practicing with flatmate and guitarist Peter Stoddart, and they were soon joined in their vague blues jams by fellow students, drummer Don Cater and a guitarist known to them only as Albert. They made just one appearance, at Chelsea College in November 1970, playing blues covers and chart hits in support of two other groups. As they needed a name to put on posters, the quartet became 'Deacon' for the night, presumably decided at short notice because of its simplicity, rather than as an appeasement to a newly discovered ego.

At this point John Deacon was an accomplished bassist with top notch equipment. He enjoyed jamming with his friends, but wanted something more. Back in Oadby he had been through the process of forming and running his own group and had developed as a musician. He was now confident enough of his ability, and carried with him the degree of experience to audition for established groups. He began responding to adverts in Melody Maker and was not afraid to aim comparatively high, sitting in with several signed bands. He wasn't offered any positions, but wrote home to his old friend Nigel Bullen in Oadby and said he wasn't too perturbed because it was all valuable experience.

In the midst of such formal approaches, John Deacon found himself a group by chance. Early in 1971 he went along to a disco at the Maria Assumpta Teacher Training College with his friend Peter Stoddart and Peter's friend, Christine Farnell. John was introduced to two friends of Christine's, Roger Taylor and Brian May. They explained that they were in a group called Queen but had just lost their bass player.

They met again a few days later in a lecture room at Imperial College which they were using as a rehearsal base. John had brought along a small practice amp which the others teased him about. They ran through a few original numbers which John was told to feel his way through, and Brian taught him the chords to 'Son And Daughter', a song which became the B-side of Queen's first ever single. They finished with the obligatory blues jam, and before the end the original three members of Queen were confident they had found their final member. "We thought he was great," said Roger Taylor. "We were all so used to each other, and were so over the top. We thought that because he was quiet he would fit in with us without too much upheaval. He was a great bass player too - and the fact that he was a wizard with electronics was definitely a deciding factor."

John Deacon was not the only musician to audition with Queen at Imperial College that day. Also invited was Chris Dummett, Freddie's cohort from Sour Milk Sea. Although a great fan of Brian May's technical ability, Freddie possibly felt the sound needed 'thickening' and that the group could accommodate two gutarists. "Getting me in there was just a bee in Freddie's mind," said Chris Dummett. "Me and Freddie got on well, there was a physical empathy. Brian was kind of limp and Freddie missed getting a reaction. Freddie liked and enjoyed a foil and I was happy to play ball. Freddie asked me to join Queen and thought it would work."

Chriss Dummett did not have equipment and had to borrow Brian May's at the audition. He was passed the Red Special and it proved to be his downfall. The guitar, with its highly sensitive fret board, required an idiosyncratic playing style. Chris Dummett's fingers 'slid all over it' and few of the notes he played were in time or tune; he didn't even bother to ask whether he'd got the gig or not.

Apart from John Harris, Chris Dummett was the only outsider present at this first ever airing of Queen's finalised line-up. As soon as John Deacon had left the room, his opinion was sought by Brian May. "As well as auditioning myself, they'd asked me down to pass judgement n their new bass player," he said. "John Deacon played with mega efficiency, and zero imagination. He plugged a gap and didn't drop a fucking beat, he was that tight." Incidentally, Chris Dummett had seen Queen perform with Barry Mitchell at Imperial College and had recognised immediately that he was in the wrong band. "He had blond hair and looked like a brickle," he said. "He was obviously a misfit, very different from the others."


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