Gary James' Interview With
Journalist To The Stars
She's the journalist to the stars and it's easy to see why. She's interviewed Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury to name just a few. She travelled with The Rolling Stones, Queen, Elton John and Paul McCartney. We're talking about Lesley-Ann Jones.
Q - Lesley, you wrote a biography on Freddie Mercury that is currently in book stores. It says it's an up-dated biography. Updated? You wrote the book in 1997. Freddie Mercury died in 1991. What more can you possibly write about the man?
A - (laughs) Good question. I get slightly irritated when I see this description, "up-dated", 'cause actually I re-wrote the entire book. There are 102 more interviews in the new version than there were in the original. I was asked to write the first book in '96 actually. Obviously, as you said, Freddie died in November of '91. There was then a book about a year or two after that by a guy called Jim Hutton, who had been Freddie's partner for the last six years of his life. This book did exceptionally well. Because of that profile, if you like, I was approached by a publisher who said "You went on the road with Queen a number of times. You must know him pretty well. We feel there's a market for a more general biography from a more impartial viewpoint, not from the viewpoint who was in a loving, committed relationship, but somebody with more of an overview of his life and career. Would you be interested?" And of course I was. So I wrote that book at the time. It did pretty well and then all these years later, it would be 2010 I guess, there was an announcement made that a feature film would be made, a bio-pic of Freddie's life. All the publishers here went into a frenzy. My publisher said "We must re-publish your book." I said "No, we mustn't because actually there's a whole lot more to say," at which point they said "Well, how can that be? Freddie's still dead." I said "Yes, but the Queen story has moved on dramatically since then." They have a profile in the United States which they didn't have at the time of his death. They didn't even have a record deal at that time. They didn't have any back catalog available. There was no interest in Queen in those days. There really is now, thanks to two things: the success of We Will Rock You, the musical which has brought Queen's music to a whole new generation of fans who weren't even born when Freddie died. Secondly, the use of their stadium anthems in your basketball leagues, football leagues, which has introduced songs like "We Will You Rock You", "We Are The Champions", "Another One Bites The Dust", those kind of songs, again to another new audience that weren't born when Freddie died.
Q - You left out number three: Queen's appearance on American Idol and especially teaming up with contestant Adam Lambert. He can sing just like Freddie Mercury.
A - Not quite "just like." He doesn't quite have the range. He certainly doesn't have the power and the missing ingredient is he didn't write the songs. There's now real soul behind the delivery. He's pretty good, but he's not good enough.
Q - He was good enough for American fans!
A - Yeah. There's a number four in that case, which is Wayne's World, the head-banging sequence "Bohemian Rhapsody". I think it was one of the original catalysts that introduced the Queen song to millions of people who hadn't been aware of it before.
Q - How long did you go on the road with Queen? Where did you tour and how did you arrange that?
A - I didn't really have to arrange anything. It was quite late on in their career 'cause I'd been too young to be aware of them in the early '70s. I was working as a newspaper reporter on The Daily Mail in the early 1980s. I was sent along, it would be about the time of The Works tour, 1984, quite late on, to interview Brian (May) and Freddie. They always had a rough ride with the music press in the U.K. They were considered very un-cool as a band at that point. They'd had quite a long career by then. They'd gone through all kinds of image changes. The music wasn't Rock. It wasn't Pop. It wasn't Opera. It was a bit of a mish-mash. People back here (England) then kind of liked their music pigeon-holed in away. Queen seemed to cross too many boundaries. They looked weird. They were a strange mish-mash of people. Actually, music fans didn't like them very much. I really, really liked the music. They picked up on that. They used to have their pet journalists who they would sort of call upon to come on the road when they were setting off. It was good for them to have some positive journalists along for the ride who would send back nice reports. That's really how it started. But I went all over the place with them in a very short space of time, including places like Hungary where they played the first ever stadium gig by a Western rock band behind the Iron Curtain, which was still in place. So, we had quite incredible experiences, sailing up the Danube in the Gorbachev hydrofoil, a lavish party at The Ambassador's house. Everything that they did and were invited to, we were included by default, really for being along for the ride. It was the best trip, being along for the ride with a band like Queen, I can tell you.
Q - By including you in everything, did they expect you to only report the upbeat parts of the tour?
A - They knew they'd get a positive review, but things were very different in those days. I mean, we're talking nearly thirty years ago. In those days there were not the managers, the agents, the promoters, the publicists, the hangers-on, the whole raft of people that make their living off the back of the Rock band. You didn't have all these people back then. You literally were with them. You'd get on the plane with them. You might sit next to Freddie on the plane. You go in the limo with them. You'd stay in the same hotel. You'd go out together for dinner. Now-a-days, the access you'd get would be minimal. You'd get your half hour or hour with the artist, with the publicist and the manager in the room making sure you didn't do anything wrong and then you'd be kicked out and off they'd go to have their private life. But back then we really were immersed in it. We went everywhere that they did. It was unprecedented access and it could never, ever happen today.
Q - You also went on tour with Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones. Did you get that same access with them?
A - Yes and no. It all depends on what was happening and who was where at the time. There was very much a code back then of what happens on the road stays on the road. It's a big cliché now and people laugh about it, nudge nudge, wink wink, oh yeah, that kind of thing. But the road is a different country. It's like being in a different place and different rules apply. Yes, you did get access. You did go to dinner parties. You did go to dinner and you did see all kinds of things, not all bad things that you would share. They was always a private side of a band on the road.
Q - I suppose you liked Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones as well.
A - I absolutely adore Paul McCartney. The Stones obviously are iconic. I last saw Paul at the O2 last Christmas (2011). He takes a lot of criticism for his voice being shot to pieces and he can't deliver it 'live' anymore. I disagree. I was in the first few rows of that concert last year and I thought he sounded better than ever. He's a true Rock musician in a way that perhaps the rest of The Beatles never were. Paul McCartney was the Rock star of that band and still is as far as I'm concerned. He still has it at 70 years of age.
Q - I don't know your age, but did you ever see The Beatles?
A - No. I'm too young. I'm way too young for that. I was a very, very precocious early teen when I went to see Bowie retire Ziggy And The Spiders at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973. And I really shouldn't have been out, but my friend and I sort of snuck off from school, dressed up and went out and did that. He was retiring Ziggy, which was a dreadful upset to all his fans because of the whole of Ziggy was to spotlight, to highlight the pointlessness of the Rock star kind of mode really, but it turned out to be the thing everybody fell for, so it was very strange.
Q - You also interviewed Frank Sinatra? Frank Sinatra never gave interviews.
A - No, he didn't. It wasn't a formal interview. It wasn't set up. I jumped on him. It was at a benefit event at Los Angeles. I don't know the exact name of it. I can't remember, it was so long ago. It was one of these songwriters, authors, composers type evenings at one of the hotels. I think Aretha Franklin was there. I mean, the whole crowd was geriatric. He was there getting an award. Actually, I'd seem him performing in London at the Albert Hall I think a year or two before. He was on the dais posing for pictures. His wife was there. I just ran up, through the photographers and said "I sat on the stage at Albert Hall and you sang me "Fly Me To The Moon", completely to my face, the first song you came out and sang." And of course he didn't, but he looked at me and said "I remember you." So then I just scatter-gunned questions at him with my little tape recorder, standing there. And that was my interview. People were trying to call me away and drag me away, but I always maintain if you can ask six questions, you have an interview. He was talking about his painting. He was getting quite into painting at that time and how much he loved London for the different kind of light and he felt the climate lent London a different kind of light that he couldn't find anywhere else in the world.
Q - Did that interview go into The Daily Mail?
A - No. That was in You magazine . It used to be a color supplement that came with the The Mail on Saturday at that time, but that You magazine in its incarnation then doesn't exist anymore. It's a different sort of magazine now. It's more of a Woman's, make-up, hair styles and fashion type magazine. 'Ole Blue Eyes.
Q - Elton John said "The public is really only interested in three entertainers; Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles."
A - Yeah, well that's very kind of big for Elton John to say that.
Q - I would expand that list a little more.
A - Who would be your choice?
Q - Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
A - Yeah. The 27 Club.
Q - There you go. Maybe Kurt Cobain as well.
A - Yeah. Amy Winehouse.
Q - I'm not sure if the public is as interested in her as the others.
A - I think it's probably a bit too early. I mean, she did have a unique voice and a songwriting ability. She didn't respect it. I think she gave in too easily. As time ticks on and nobody sounds like her. The whole premise of being a Rock artist, you don't have to have a brilliant voice, but you do have to have a unique voice. You have to sound like nobody else. I think all those people we just mentioned between us, you could safely say that they would come on the radio or wherever and you would instantly know who they are.
Q - You wrote a book on Marc Bolan called Ride A White Swan: The Lives Of Marc Bolan.
A - Yeah, it just came out.
Q - What does 'Lives' mean?
A - Marc lived a lot of different lives in his very short 29 years. So, I used that plural to emphasize how many metamorphoses this chap had gone through in his very short time on earth.
Q - Your father was a sports writer. Why didn't your writing go in that direction?
A - My earliest memories are of footballers and boxers and football managers and my father being at all the big sporting events in the early days in the U.K. and then around the world. He spent ten years on the road with Muhammad Ali for example. He covered all these great fights like The Thrilla In Manila and The Rumble In The Jungle. These were events that punctuated our childhood. But I had no sporting ability. My father had been a professional footballer before hand, which is the best kind of sports writer because they have a real inherent knowledge of how the whole sporting psyche works.
Q - Now, when you say football...
A - I'm sorry, I mean soccer. Yeah, he was a soccer player. So it was very much in the family blood, was sports. But I couldn't play anything. I've no hand eye co-ordination, no sporting talent what-so-ever. And beyond watching a game or watching a fight, my interest was limited, whereas with the music, I'd been bitten by the bug at a very early age. I met Marc Bolan once when I was a very young child because my friend at school, her mom was a photographer and she took us along to an event in Beckingham in Kent one Sunday afternoon. It was the Arts Lab. David Bowie was part of the Beckingham Arts Lab, which is sort of workshops where people would come down and give like a sitar recital and teach people how to play sitar, this kind of thing. Very experimental. We were taken along to this thing. We were far too young to understand what a sitar even was at that point. We'd be taken along and get exposed. Marc Bolan was there.
Q - How long did it take you to put that Marc Bolan book together?
A - I've just spent the last year writing the Marc Bolan book. I just got back from India. I was at the Mumbai Literary Festival promoting Freddie. Freddie is a huge icon in India. So I had quite a lot of attention with the Freddie Mercury book there. Not so much with Bolan. He wasn't a big star in India. I'm working on which book to write next.