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Queen -- On The Road Again

from "International Musician and Recording World" Nov. 1982

International Musician Nov.1982

The commercial success of Queen -- which has five platinum and four gold albums to its credit -- has earmarked the band as one of the most enduring groups of the 70s and early 80s. Although never critically well received, the English Rock group has been repeatedly recognized as one of the most innovative bands in the charts. Queen's music has been categorized as Heavy Metal, Rock, Disco, Funk, R&B, Soul, Pop, and Rockabilly. But until the release of the group's twelfth album, Hot Space (Electra), the band had shyed away from the use of synthesizers. Searching for yet another new sound, Queen extensively explored those resources on this LP, utilizing synthesizers for melody, rhythm, and bass.

Straying from the heavy, thickly-layered music that has typified the group's past efforts, Queen opted for a far sparser, spacier (hence the title), rhythmic sound with a highly-apparent R&B influence. However, the album once again blends the unique, virtuoso guitar style of Brian May, the simplistic bass playing of John Deacon, the powerful drumming of Roger Taylor, and Freddie Mercury's distinctive tenor vocals, thus retaining an identifiable Queen style. The addition of synthesizer -- in particular the use of keyboard bass -- freed the band members to undertake other instrumental roles, eg each of them played guitar while in the studio. Mercury and May assumed some of the bass parts, and Deacon extended his responsibilities to include rhythm guitar.

Queen recorded the majority of the album in Munich, Germany, and the remainder in the group's privately owned studio in Montreaux, Switzerland, where David Bowie joined the foursome to co-produce "Under Pressure" and lend a hand (or voice) for backing tracks on "Cool Cat".

Conceding to hire an auxiliary keyboradist -- Fred Mandle, the first additional player to accompany Queen on tour -- to reproduce the sound of the group's new material, also allowed Mercury additional freedom to expand his already outlandish stage antics. Although his movement was restricted in the past due to his necessary assumption of the group's keyboard responsibilities, he does continue to play on several of the group's biggest hits. Coupled with a spectacular light show, Queen also remains a huge concert draw in Europe and North and South America.

IM&RW caught up with the members of Queen in Montreal on the day of the opening concert for their 1982 tour to promote Hot Space.

IM&RW: How does it feel to be back on the road?

BM: Good. It's quite nice to be back in North America. It's sort of back to civilized touring! I don't mean that other places aren't civilized, but everything is geared up for you in America. We've been touring places where you virtually had to do everything yourself from scratch. People in South America and Mexico aren't really accustomed to Rock shows. So you have to build everything -- from the toilets to the stage. Therefore, America is a well-trodden road, very enjoyable.

JD: Actually, we haven't been off the road that long. We did a European tour for about five or six weeks and some dates in England.

IM&RW: You seem to enjoy your lives as performers. You obviously don't need to continue recording and concert tours for economic reasons. Yet you go out of your way for fans, such as the concert you gave -- at your cost -- at Hyde Park in England. Why?

FM: I'm very happy doing it. If I weren't, I'd give it up. It's not the money any more. In one way, I feel obligated to the fans. To get this far and suddenly say, Yes, I've made my lot of money.... I'm going to give my best. This is what I'm best at.

BM: We're not doing it to increase our bank balances any more. We're doing it to...I think we still want to be famous. There's always been that sort of drive since we were kids. You want to be recognized and you want to be appreciated. You want to excite people. The excitement part of it is largely why we are on the road. We want to feel that people are really fulfilled when they go away.

RT: It's a challenge. It's great. Look at Mick Jagger. He must be on top of the world at the moment. He's a fucking legend. He has just proved to everybody, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Rolling Stones are the biggest draw in the world. They're really proud of what they've done. It's still good fun.

IM&RW: Can you detail how the group's sound has changed over the years?

BM: I suppose we started off as sort of a heavy group with harmonies. That's what I always call it. We always felt that we had the basis to try anything we wanted. On all the albums there are excursions into different sounds. After the first few albums, we began to do some more ballad-type things and some more acoustic numbers. On Night at the Opera we got into the real big production; that was actually mapped out on the second album on which we did a couple of things that were more complex and operatic. Night at the Opera and Day at the Races were really the most-arranged period.
After News of the World we tried to get back to a more basic Rock'n'Roll sound. Jazz was a European-flavored thing. It was a strange mixture and didn't click very well in America. After Jazz came the obligatory live album. Everybody tells you that you should do a live album and when you bring it out, they don't buy it. The Game was a result of a new environment. Working in Munich with a new engineer produced a really different approach. We started to put a whole lot of importance on the backing track once again. The emphasis was on rhythm and clarity. We had to build each track up. "Crazy Little Thing" was an off-shoot of that; a Rockabilly-type atmosphere.

JD: I joined Queen after they were formed. I was the fifth or sixth bass player. So from my point of view, the early songs were performed as a power trio with a lead singer. Freddie didn't play piano in those days. But as the years have gone by -- working in the studio -- we've developed different techniques. It's changed a lot since the first album. But there's always a variety of music on all of our albums. The emphasis depends on who wrote the songs.

IM&RW: Queen has always been considered in its best element on stage. Why?

FM: The stress is on entertainment. It's four musicians coming to entertain you. I like to feel that our songs can take on a different sort of feel every time you play them. Something like "Love of my Life" is totally transformed from what you hear on the album. I like to feel that our songs can go through those measures. It just depends on how we feel when we play them. We're trying to do "Life is Real" a capella, no piano, nothing. We're going to try and do that. I like to feel that our songs can take on different shapes depending on what we want to give you. We don't have to recreate exactly what we've done on records.

RT: We don't try to recreate the records because it's too difficult and it's too sterile. It doesn't work very well on stage, because usually they need to be played a bit faster or a bit slower sometimes. You need more drama. You need to emphasize things. You can't attain the subtlety you get in a studio, so it's a different approach.

IM&RW: Some of your past efforts were very thick and layered. Was it more difficult to reproduce your earlier work on stage?

BM: It was always hard to do that sort of multi-layered stuff on stage. We developed the use of some repeats to do harmony work and the rest of it we sort of bluffed our way through. It's surprising what you can do if you play the top line with enough conviction. People used to come up and say that it sounded just like the record, but you know there's only a tenth of the stuff there. It's a strange fact that people can only really listen to a couple of things at once when it's live. Its true, you can get away with guitar, bass and drums. Whereas on a record, you're more aware of all the different parts. I suppose it's because it's loud and the adrenalin of the moment.

IM&RW: There have been a lot of rumors about the group's collaboration with David Bowie on "Under Pressure" and "Cool Cat". It marked the group's first joint effort with another performer. What were the actual problems?

BM: This is a very long story. He was quite difficult to work with, because it was the meeting of two different methods of working. It was stimulating, but at the same time, almost impossible to resolve. We're very pigheaded and set in our ways and Mr Bowie is too. In fact, he's probably as pigheaded as the four of us put together. I think it was a worthwhile thing to do. But after "Under Pressure" was done, there were continual disagreements about how it should be put out or if it should even be put out at all. David wanted to redo the entire thing. I had given up by that time because it had gone a long way from what I would have liked to see. But there is still a lot of good stuff in the song. There was a compromise; Freddie, David and Mack actually sat down and produced a mix -- under a lot of strain. Roger was also along to keep the peace to some extent, because he and David are friends.
The other track you're talking about is "Cool Cat". David just did a backing track. I don't think anyone thought any more about it, except that it was a nice ornamentation. We just sent him a courtesy note telling him that we had used it and he said, 'I want it taken off, because I'm not satisfied with it.' Unfortunately he didn't tell us until about a day before the album was supposed to be released, so it really set us back. It delayed the album's release.

IM&RW: Will the experience deter Queen from attempting future collaborations?

BM: No, not especially. If it happens, it happens. It was a very worthwhile thing to work with the guy. It was very interesting to see how he goes about things. I think there are a few people who we'd like to work with.

IM&RW: Who?

BM: We all have different people who we admire, obviously. But one person who we'd all like to work with is Eric Clapton. We also like Stevie Wonder.

IM&RW: Who is your audience?

BM: It's changing. The Game brought in a lot of a new young people. With "Crazy Little Thing" and "Another One Bites the Dust", the demographics -- that's the trendy word for it -- changed a bit. But we still have people who have been fans since Keep Yourself Alive and the first tour, which is great. They complain that we don't do enough of the old stuff, but I think they still enjoy us. We had to change and we have to keep changing to keep ourselves interested. Nobody thanks you. Generally, if people buy something and like it, they want a bit more of it. But it's not necessarily a good thing if you give them more. That's my theory, because after a while they think, 'Oh yes, the same old stuff. It's predictable. We don't need to buy any more of it.'

IM&RW: Freddie has often said that the lyrical content of Queen's music is disposable, that the lyrics have little meaning behind them. Is that true?

RT: In certain cases there is some sort of meaning. Just providing entertainment is some sort of meaning. Freddie always grandly dismisses it as being disposable. There's no grand design behind our music. We're basically here to entertain people; hopefully with intelligently made music and not production line music. We like to change. We like to say things, but the lyrics are not profound. Everybody laughed when they asked what "Under Pressure" was all about. It's quite simply about love, which is the most uncool, unhip thing.

JD: There is meant to be something in the words. Not so much in "Another One Bites the Dust", but there's meaning in my other songs. I try to put in a thought or two, a story or a meaning. The thing is we all write individually, so it's mainly attributable to the personality of the character who has written the song. Certain songs don't have a lot in them. They're all different.

BM: Well, Freddie usually says that. I wouldn't say that 'cause I'm generally trying to say something. I'm very concerned with peace. That's what a lot of my songs have behind them. They may talk about something else on the surface, but that's what they're concerned with underneath. That's one of the things that I feel strongly about. I always want to say something. I think music is at its best when it hits you at every level; when it hits you in the body musically, when it hits you in the mind, because it's a song to sing and when it hits you later, because you actually think what it's about and it elicits some emotion and evokes some thought. The best of our music is like that.

IM&RW: What is the songwriting process like for you?

FM: I basically write the tune. I write the song around the melody most of the time. Sometimes a lyric will get me started. "Life Is Real" was one of those, because the words came first. I just really got into it, pages after pages, all kinds of words. Then I just put it to a song. I just felt that it could be a Lennon-type thing.
"Killer Queen was another one I wrote the words for first. But otherwise I have melodies in my head. I play them on the piano and I used to tape record them. Now I just store them in my head. I feel that if they're worth remembering, I will. If I lose them, I lose them. If they're still in my head, they're worth remember and putting down on tape.

JD: I find it difficult to write songs. I usually start from the musical side. It's not a very good way of working. It makes it difficult because I then have a melody and have to put words to it afterwards. But it just seems to be the way I go about it. I should sit down and write some words out first and then try to put music on it. It should be simpler that way. But I just tend to have more musical ideas that lyrical ideas. I also find it difficult getting my ideas across to the band when we attempt to play it.

RT: Sometimes it's a lyrical idea, but usually it's a musical idea; just an idea I want to try. I write songs as a hobby. I'm not really what you'd call a professional songwriter. Sometimes I go through a creative spell and lots of things come out; some of them almost spontaneously and others take a little work. I'm not a Paul McCartney who gets up and writes a song before breakfast. He's trying to break the world record for writing songs. I often write on the drums. Sometimes it comes from a rhythmic thing, which it will be for a percussionist. But I suppose I use the guitar most. I'm going in for piano now, as opposed to synthesizers. I'm really trying to learn to play it properly.

BM: I write best when I'm not on guitar; maybe a few riffs or the basis, but strangely enough, you usually get the most perspective on a song when you're on an instrument that you're not accustomed to. I'm not accustomed to playing the piano and I find that quite inspiring, because your fingers fall on different patterns. Whereas on a guitar, I pick it up and know where my fingers are going to fall. Mostly I sit alone someplace and think about it. That's the best way. I don't think my songwriting has changed as much as the others in the group. I tend to write more traditional Queen material like "Las Palabras De Amor(The Words of Love)". I still tend to write melodies and that certain sort of heaviness, which the group does well at its best; the guitar and piano which have that sort of thick sound. I really enjoy that, although these days it's used a little bit more sparingly.

IM&RW: Who have your influences been?

RT: The playing style of the early Jazz drummers was fabulous; Richard Neam, Gene Krupa and Joe Morello at one point. Also some of the early English Rock'n'Roll drummers, particularly a group called the Shadows. After that, I suppose it was people like Keith Moon who brought a new dimension to Rock drumming; a totally visual, manic thing, which was wonderful. There could never be another Keith Moon because nobody's crazy in that sense. It came out of his personally. John Bonham was an absolutely amazing Rock'n'Roll power drummer. But there's not point in trying to be another John Bonham, is there? I doubt if I sound like any of them.

BM: Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, who falls into a different kind of guitar. He's so inventive and covers such a wide range. He's a free-thinking guitarist.

JD: Oh, there's lots of good ones. It changes over the years. In the early days I used to like Chris Squire from Yes. Now, I'm not really onto any one player. I tend to like the bass on certain records and certain songs.

IM&RW: Can you detail your playing styles?

RT: Eclectic, I suppose -- manic eclectic.

BM: I play with a coin that has a serated edge; an English sixpence which is discontinued now, but I have loads of them. It makes a bit of a raspy sound. I also almost always unconsciously damp it with the part of my hand next to the little finger. So you get a sort of rasp and it splutters a little bit. It's sort of like a voice spitting out. If I'm playing sustained, the hand comes up, but generally the hand is there and I'm actually touching the string. I wasn't aware of that for years, but then someone pointed out that I was doing it.

JD: It tends to vary. On certain tracks bass is featured more. Sometimes tracks are more guitar-oriented. I tend to play relatively simple. That's just the way I enjoy playing. Sometimes I play with my fingers and sometimes I play with a pick, depending on the style of the song.

IM&RW: Roger, you're a very powerful drummer. You even hit the drums with the thick part of the sticks which are normally considered the handles. Is that why you are frequently in the spotlight on stage? Do you feel that your drumming often dominates Queen's music?

RT: I don't know. We're a very democratic group. There's a lot of input from each member. But I do a lot of singing so they have to light me quite a bit. Most people don't even realize that I'm singing. They figure that Freddie is doing all the harmonies and everything because he's the singer. Unless you get into it a little deeper, you don't really give a shit whether the drummer is singing or not; or the bass player or whoever.

IM&RW: What type of instruments are you using?

FM: God, what is it now? It's a Gibson, I think. Oh, I don't know. They give me a different one every night, depending on what they can find. I'm not a guitar freak as it were. I mean, I like guitarist, but I'm not into guitar or piano brand names. I like Yamaha pianos, but as far as all the technicalities are concerned, I'm useless. I'm just into whatever pleases the ear from wherever I can get the sound.

JD: I use Fender bass mainly, which I've used for years. I have one that I use most of the time; a Fender Precision (Laughs). Just last year I met some of the people from the Fender factory in Los Angeles. They actually gave me one. When you're struggling and can't afford one...but when you're successful, they give you one.
It's quite nice; a Fender Precision Special. The old ones just have volume and tone. Now they have three knobs: volume, bass and treble. That's quite nice. I used that guitar on "Under Pressure". I have a Music Man as well, which I use on bass for certain numbers, like "Another One Bites the Dust". You can get quite a tight bass end. I tend use Telecaster guitars. It's the most cleanly cut for the rhythm involved in the songs.

RT: Ludwig drums. It was always my dream to have a Ludwig drum kit. For English groups, they always represented the peak. The fact is that they're great drums. They were better than any drums made in England. As far as guitars, I have Fenders and Schecters, an English make. They're like night and day. Schecters are more powerful. It's a subjective thing. I think Gibsons have become a very cliched guitar, whereas a Fender is a roots guitar of Rock'n'Roll.

IM&RW: What about the electronic drums that you're using?

RT: I have an entire drum kit of those. They have bass on them as well. They're made by a small English company, called Simmons. They went bust recently, but now they're started up again. They're a much better version of the synthetic drums. You can get a vast range of sound. I use them quite a lot, like for "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Action". You probably heard them on the solo in "Back Chat". They're great for doing effects; for reproducing door slams and crashes. There's a nice tone quality that you can get out of them. A lot of groups have them now. Some of them use them instead of drums. They're very much the happening thing now. They're very good actually.

IM&RW: Brian, you play a guitar that you built yourself. Can you describe it?

BM: When I was in school, about age 15, I couldn't afford to buy a guitar. I had an acoustic guitar, which I had made a pickup for, and that was all I had. It was all I could afford. Actually, I wanted to make something better than any of my friend's guitars. I tried a few experiments at home; different ways of building things and stringing, so that it would be strong enough in the center. We designed it and made it. The neck came from a fireplace; a piece of well-seasoned mahogany. The rest of it came from different places. A piece of oak is the main part. I don't know where that came from. I guess it was laying around someplace. We were really very lucky, because it wasn't designed to be something to go on the road with. It was just something for the moment, something to play until I could afford to buy one. But it worked out very well.

IM&RW: Now that you can afford any guitar you want, why do you continue to use it?

BM: It suits me best. It doesn't suit anyone else. Most people who pick it up, can't play it because it has a very fat neck and it has a very strange feel to it. The electronics part of it is also very odd. If you're not careful, you'll get nothing out of it at all.

IM&RW: Is there a unique tone that it produces?

BM: It's pretty warm and human. If I pick up a Telecaster or a Stratocaster, it's all the way out there. There's no real warmth to it. And if I pick up a Gibson, it's so warm that I can't get any articulation out of it. So, it's just that sort of combination. To me, it's like a voice. It's melodious with a bit of pluck to it. It sustains very effortlessly. It just suits me.

IM&RW: Do you have any additional guitars that you use?

BM: Yeah, I use a Telecaster sometimes, like for "Crazy Little Thing". But that's really a novelty item. I don't use much else. For 12 string, I use Ovation.

IM&RW: John, did you originally play the bass out of love or necessity?

JD: More the second one, really. I've come to love it since, but I used to play rhythm guitar. I started when I was about eleven. When I was fifteen, I was in a group where the bass player really wasn't very good. So the lead singer decided that he would play guitar and sing and I switched to bass. I'm sure that's how a lot of bass players got started. So far I haven't looked back. I actually do enjoy it. Also, I would never have made it as a guitarist.

IM&RW: Hot Space is heavily laden with synthesizer. In the past, you've avoided the use of that instrument. Was your work with synthesizer on the soundtrack from Flash Gordon instrumental in your decision to incorporate it into the album?

BM: Well, yes. Flash Gordon demanded a lot of spacey, atmospheric stuff. But it also happened naturally because Roger was very keen on trying the thing out. He had one for a couple of years, doing some things on his own. He brought it along, we all fiddled around with it and we found we liked playing with it. We discovered that they had changed a lot in the time between when we said that we didn't want to use them and the present. When they first came out, they weren't very flexible. They were monophonic and couldn't be bent. They were very rigid and stiff and we thought that our music was emotional. We thought we could do everything synthesizers could do with our voices and guitars anyway. We spent a lot of time pursuing that thought and I don't think we needed them. But the new generation of synthesizer is -- to my mind -- a lot more human. The bending devices on them are very good. You can get quite a bit of emotion.

IM&RW: What type of synthesizer are you using?

JD: A Jupiter 8 and an Oberheim OBX are the main two that we've used. None of us are very technical with them. We just try to get something out. We could be better. That was the main reason we hired an auxiliary keyboard player for this tour. Freddie can't play the bass line, sing and move around stage at the same time.

BM: The favorite one is the Jupiter 8, which we find very flexible, very reproduceable and reliable, which is a big thing on stage. You must have something that you always know is going to work.

IM&RW: You finally conceded to hire an auxiliary player -- keyboardist Fred Mandle -- to accompany Queen on tour. What has the addition brought to your music?

RT: Fred Mandle is very good. In some of the songs, it doesn't make any difference at all, because he's not playing. In other songs, it gives us a wider spectrum that we can cover and more depth in sound. We're basically a trio -- with occasional piano that Freddie does -- so if Brian goes off into a lead, there's only bass and drums to keep the rhythm section going. So I think it helps quite a bit. It obviously helps on the stuff with the strong keyboard bass lines, like "Body Language" and "Staying Power". It also helps on things like "Under Pressure". As David Bowie would say, you can put in those little symphonic bits.

IM&RW: Can you detail the use of keyboard bass?

JD: It's just become a big thing over the last few years. Some records out now are all keyboards. Songs like "Don't You Want Me Baby?" don't have a guitar on them. That's mainly because keyboards have gotten better over the years. It's now very easy to get a nice full bass sound out of them. My role actually shrank with the use of keyboards. It now gives the group direct expression for a nonbassist to play their own bass line. Some of the track on the album -- like "Body Language" -- were Freddie on keyboard bass. Brian played bass on "Dancer". So I'm redundant in a sense.

IM&RW: But it also feed you to join Brian on guitar.

JD: Yeah. In fact all of us have played guitar on our record. It's one of those things that we have disagreements about. Brian is our guitarist, but we all happen to play. Sometimes songs are written on the guitar, like Freddie's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love". Freddie wrote that on acoustic and it just had a natural feel with him playing guitar.

IM&RW: Is the bass guitar becoming obsolete?

JD: I don't think it's becoming obsolete. Keyboards are an alternative. It's a different sound.

IM&RW: The addition of a keyboardist also seems to have freed you to expand your stage antics, Freddie?

FM: Yeah, I wish I hadn't done it now.

IM&RW: Really?

FM: No, no. It's just that I suddenly realize that I have all this stage to cover. I didn't realize that up until now, because I priorly had the keyboards to play, which gave me time to get my energy back. But now I'm up front and I can't stand still. It's a different kind of pacing. It's basically the movement, that kind of exhaustion. I didn't realize I had to do that.

IM&RW: What amps are you currently using?

BM: Same old stuff -- Voxes.

IM&RW: The Vox AC30, 30 watt amp?

BM: I use it all the time. It has a warmth and a certain clean sort of cutting edge to it. It's very controlled. It goes very smoothly into distortion. It's almost part of me now. It's a Class A amp and is different from the rest.

IM&RW: Are you also still using the modified Echoplex as a repeat box?

BM: Yeah, I still use it although it's sort of come and gone and come again. I got fed up with it for a while, but now I'm doing different things with it. I've been playing harmonies to it and have been crossing rhythms. The delay of 1/2 to 2 1/2 seconds allows me to build up layers of harmonies.

IM&RW: Roger, what about you? Are there particular amps you prefer?

RT: No. An amplifier's an amplifier. I use the ones Brian uses, those old Vox AC30s. Some quirk of fate I suppose. (Laughs).

IM&RW: John, I suppose you're going to tell us you also use Vox?

JD: No. (Laughs). I use a Duplex Limiter as well as Pan amps and Sunn speakers CNN.

IM&RW: You're also producing your own albums. What has that lent to your music?

BM: First of all, it wasn't sudden change. We've always had a big part in our production. We were always very precious and made sure that we got what we wanted out of the studio, not just what the producer wanted. Even dating back to the first date, I remember not being satisfied with the mixed and going back in there and doing them to our own satisfaction. We've always given the producer a hard time. But it gradually increased to the point where we thought we could take on the responsibility ourselves.
Ironically enough, the guy that we use at the moment -- Mack, who has done some production for Billy Squire -- is probably allowed to do more than we've ever let anyone do, just because we feel that he's sufficiently in tune with our requirements. Often, when it comes to mixing, we'd walk off and leave him to do it for a couple of hours, come back, make a few suggestions and that will be it.
Mixing is a lot less painful than it used to be. We used to all be in the studio, all of us on the faders, fighting. Computer mixers help because you can do your own bit of plotting, leave it and it will come up every time. So you can put your bit of emotion into it and it will always be there. You don't have to worry about it.

IM&RW: What's the process of laying down tracks like?

RT: Every track is different and it can start in the most bizarre ways.
Sometimes it starts with a drum loop or a loop of tape. The standard tracks we usually cut with Freddie on piano, John on bass, Brian on guitar and me on drums. We've also been cutting some extended backing tracks. These days we've also been using drum machines which I play over afterwards.

JD: On this album there's not that many tracks where we played the backing track as a group in our traditional way; piano, bass and drums or guitar, bass and drums is how we used to do it. We own a studio in Switzerland which is big and complex. We did a lot of the album there. That's where we recorded "Under Pressure" with David Bowie. The rest of the album we recorded in Munich.

IM&RW: Is there a lot of overdubbing?

JD: No, not much. We had to fix a few things, but not like we used to do five years ago. We used to spend a lot of time in the studio recording harmonies and guitar parts.

IM&RW: Anything you'd like to mention?

RT: Do you want to know what I had for breakfast and all about Jung?

IM&RW: Great! I had a double major in college, religion and psych.

RT: God, then I certainly won't mention Jung.

(Vicki Greenleaf & Stan Hyman)

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