Before he even knew them, he had photographed them. Neal Preston’s first foray into Queen’s rhapsody was in 1976 when he snapped one of their shows at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. One year later, he was asked by the head of publicity at Elektra Records to go on tour with the fantasmic British rock band.
‘From the beginning, all four of the guys were quite genial and seemed genuinely pleased to have me around. I was given a very long leash, which was what I needed,’
Inevitably, Queen and their crew of roadies would become Preston’s ‘second family.’ Over the course of ten years, he followed them on stage and off. Capturing them in candid moments at soundchecks, rehearsals, band meetings, press interviews, planes, trains and tour buses. ‘To me if felt like a World Series game, two of three times a week.’
Veteran rock photographer, Neal Preston first photographed Queen in 1976 when they were playing a gig at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. One year later, he was asked to go on tour with the British band and subsequently spent 10 snapping pictures of them until their last tour in 1986. Above, Queen and their Britannia 4-jet, USA, 1978
Preston took the this iconic photo of Freddie Mercury on stage at Wembley Stadium in 1986. The tour would inevitably become Queen’s last, as Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS one year later. He said: ‘It really hit me that this was not the band I’d shot in 1976 in Santa Monica. This band was another animal altogether. They were mammoth’
Queen guitarist, Brian May stops to smell the the flowers at Disneyland. Preston said that May came across ‘aloof’ when they first met, but eventually they bonded over a mutual interest in stereoscopic photograph and have become life-long friends. May is credited with starting the band in 1969 as a creative outlet while he studied astronomy at London’s Imperial College. ‘He’s extremely bright. He has a doctorate in astrophysics if I’m not mistaken. So he is actually Dr. Brian May and not just the Brian May we know and love,’ said Preston
Freddie Mercury and Queen drummer Roger Taylor pause during the North American ‘Jazz Tour’ in 1978. Preston told DailyMail.com: ‘Roger was the one that I initially gravitated towards because he had all the rock star trappings. He had the sense of humor, he’s outgoing, the personality and style’
Born in Queens, New York, Neal Preston, 68, began his career as a photographer at age 16. But he admits, his 50-year long career happened on accident. ‘It was fluke that some pictures were shown to some people who turned out to be concert promoters and started letting me and my buddies into shows in Queens, New York, and all of a sudden I’m a published photographer,’ he told DailyMail.com in 2017.
Five decades later, an entire room in Preston’s Burbank, California home is used to keep his prolific collection of photographs. He estimates that there are ‘at least a million’ stored in 122 filing cabinets where everything is alphabetically organized, starting with Abba and ending in ZZ Top. Somewhere in the middle is Q, for Queen – an archive he amassed over eight tours across the globe in ten years.
‘From day one, every single Queen concert I’ve ever shot can only be described as a massive assault on my left frontal lobe (the part of the brain that governs creativity),’ wrote Preston. From the minute he walked into the venue, he said something strange would happen. ‘It was as if some futuristic artificial intelligence had taken hold of me and my Nikons suddenly had minds of their own.’
Now 200 of his favorite images (many of which, have never-been-seen before) are to be published in his forthcoming book titled, Queen: The Neal Preston Photographs. Published by Reel Art Press, the book features handpicked photos selected in collaboration with the band and forewords written by Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor.
‘Many of my favourite Queen pictures are in this book, many of which haven’t previously been published. Some of them are incredibly evocative, summoning up memories of those fleeting moments; things were moving too fast at the time for us to really take them in,’ wrote Brian May in his forward.
Preston had already cut his teeth on tour with Led Zeppelin by the time he was asked to accompany Queen in 1977. He recalls how eager they were to know more about his experience with the legendary rock band. He said: ‘..it seemed like every band I worked with had that same look in their eyes: sooner or later Preston’s gonna bust out some killer Zeppelin stories. When I first hooked up with Queen it was no different. But it wasn’t typical fan-boy type stuff they asked me . . . it was more about how the Zeppelin organization worked, and lots of questions about Peter Grant.’
Likewise, Brian May wrote in his foreword: ‘So after a few beverages of a night, we enjoyed hearing Neal’s yarns about his adventures in similar situations to our own but with our heroes.’
Queen bassist, John Deacon rocks out on stage next to Freddie Mercury during The Hot Space Tour in 1982. Preston said Queen shows were visually ‘a feast beyond words. There was never a bad angle or camera position.’ He said each tour after 1977 got ‘bigger and bigger,’ the productions were more ornate with larger lighting rigs, stage settings, and pyrotechnics. ‘For me it was like being a kid in the ultimate candy store’
Queen, Slane Castle, Ireland, 1986. Preston snapped Queen standing in front of the massive audience that came to watch their gig at Slane Castle in 1986. He said, ‘…there were some of the most drunken rock fans I’d ever seen in my life at any show. Those people were world-class drinkers. They put the Russian fans at Billy Joel’s USSR shows to shame’
Queen drummer, Roger Taylor is pictured at home in Los Angeles. In 1968, Roger Taylor responded to an advertisement that Brian May posted for his early band named ‘Smile.’ May was immediately impressed with Taylor’s chops and energy. In 1969, Taylor lived with and co-owned a stall at Kensington Market with Freddie Mercury that sold second-hand clothing. When Smile broke up, the three men started Queen and added John Deacon as bassist in 1971
John Deacon and Brain May backstage, South America, 1981. Preston told DailyMailcom that one of his fondest moments was taking May to meet his parents. ‘I will never forget, Brian May all six-foot-a thousand of him sitting at my mom’s tiny, tiny, tiny little kitchen table eating scrambled eggs at seven in the morning. He added: ‘Until the day she passed away, my mom used to say, ‘how’s that lovely boy for that from that group?”
Neal Preston said that it took a while to get to know Brian May, but eventually the unlikely friends ‘bonded over a lot of things.’ He added: ‘He’s very bright, sensitive and a monster on guitar.’ Above, Brian May during The Jazz Tour, North America 1978
Preston, who says he’s a ‘photographer first’ and a ‘fan, second,’ recalls his first impression of the glamrock queens. ‘Roger was the one that I initially gravitated towards because he had all the rock star trappings. He had the sense of humor, he’s outgoing, the personality and style.’
‘Deacon was usually pretty quiet and reserved but all of a sudden, every once in a while he’d come out with a zinger that would just cut everyone down, you know he was your typical ‘keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut until it’s time,’ said Preston in an interview with DailyMail.com.
‘Brian was the one that I ended up becoming closest with over the years,’ he said. ‘It took me a little while to get to know Brian, but once we got to know each other, we were friends for life.’
The unlikely friendship bonded over a mutual love for stereoscope photography, an obscure topic in which May is one of the leading experts in the world. ‘He’s extremely bright. He has a doctorate in astrophysics if I’m not mistaken. So he is actually Dr. Brian May and not just the Brian May we know and love.’
When it comes to Freddie Mercury, Preston says: ‘The guy was so flamboyant, he was such a great photographic subject. But inevitably he explains how words always seem to fall short when it comes to the incomparable lead singer, he says that the spandex catsuit-clad front man lived and breathed the same persona he brought to the stage. As I like to say, no one on the face of this earth loved being Freddie Mercury, as much as Freddie Mercury did.’
‘I have a little saying that there are three people in the record business that if you can’t get a great onstage picture of one of these three people, then quit your job immediately, sell your cameras and go work for the sanitation department,’ said Preston to DailyMail.com. ‘And those three people in no specific order are Freddie Mercury, Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page.’
Preston says every musician has one thing in common : ‘They’re never quite happy with a gig, when it’s over.’ But, when it comes to perfectionism, he says that Queen takes the cake. ‘Their level of professionalism was the top of the mountain. I mean these are four very bright, talented and sometimes stubborn perfectionists.’
‘It was always about the light, the sound, the house PA, the onstage monitors, the sight lines, everything. They cared about every single facet of that show,’ he tells DailyMail.com.
‘And I learned early on from them that good is good, better is better, really great is really great, but there’s always a little wiggle room to do even better.’
Preston’s forthcoming book is 300 pages stacked with intimate pictures that reveal glimpses of life backstage, live performances, post-performance highs and lows, and outtakes. He says as a rock photographer, ‘It’s always very important to remember that you are not the fifth member of the band.’
‘I consider myself a member of the crew.’ – It’s a rule that Preston credits his knack for capturing the most unguarded moments.
He tells DailyMail.com: ‘I try to be as invisible as possible. But the irony of trying to be invisible is that in order to do that, you want to be visible at all times; and that way you become part of the fabric of the tour.’
When it comes to the crew of roadies, the photographer says that Queen’s was a cut above the rest.’They had the best crew,’ he said. ‘They held the keys to the kingdom. They can be your best friends, or they can be the biggest impediment to doing a great job.’
Above, Queen, USA, 1982 . ‘Freddie would certainly be the most animated and least predictable of anyone else in the world while on stage. I always had to be on my game with Freddie, and in fact all of Queen. These were four intelligent, headstrong, opinionated, and brilliantly talented Alpha males,’ wrote Preston
Preston said that all musicians and rock bands are similar in their perfectionism. ‘They’re never quite happy with a gig, when it’s over,’ something could always be better. ‘I think it’s just a musicians DNA to be like that.’ But, he said, in his five decade long career – nobody compared to Queen’s level, ‘I was dealing with four world-class perfectionists. Above, The Game Tour, North America 1980
Preston told DailyMail.com that bassist Jon Deacon was ‘usually pretty quiet and reserved but all of a sudden, every once in a while he’d come out with a zinger that would just cut everyone down.’ Above, The Jazz Tour, North America 1978
Above, the band signs autographs during the North American ‘Hot Space Tour’ in 1982. Preston says he was able to take intimate photos of Queen by following his number one rule as a photographer: ‘always remember that you are not the fifth member of the band’
Preston recalls the one and only time that he ever broke his sacred rule. It was during a particularly grueling tour through South America in 1981. ‘Every day the deep dark circles and bags under their eyes doubled in size.’
He was sitting in a Sao Paulo hotel lobby when a journalist approached and asked various questions about the tour. ‘Sure enough, a couple of hours later Roger and Deacon told me they really enjoyed hearing my ‘exclusive’ radio interview while they were in a limo going to soundcheck. I was mortified. I still am.’
Neal Preston’s photo book ‘Queen’ features 200 photos from his 10-year-long experience travelling with the band. The book will be released on October 29, in collaboration with Queen. Preston says the cover photo (above) is Brian May’s favorite. It was taken on their 1981 South American tour and is a photograph of Argentine soldiers lined up on the soccer stadium
‘The fans were rabid,’ said Preston, remembering the South American tour. ‘The screams of ‘Freddie, Freddie’ incessant, the hotel lobbies packed—all the usual hazards of rock stardom.’ It was on that tour that Freddie Mercury was asked about his sexuality during a press conference with hundreds of print and broadcast journalists. ‘Are you gay?’
‘Now this was the first time I’d ever heard anyone ask Freddie about this because it was simply never an issue. Freddie just let the question roll off his back with a simple response like, ‘Oh darling, do we really need to discuss that?”
One of Preston’s fondest memories is when he took Brian May to visit his parent’s in Forest Hills, Queens. The two had arrived early in New York on a red eye flight from Los Angeles. They were in town to attend a Christie’s auction of stereoscopic cameras that took place later that afternoon. With time to kill, Preston decided to pay a visit to his mother.
‘I will never forget, Brian May all six-foot-a thousand of him sitting at my mom’s tiny, tiny, tiny little kitchen table eating scrambled eggs at seven in the morning. I mean, it was an unforgettable sight,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘Until the day she passed away, my mom used to say, ‘how’s that lovely boy for that from that group?”
The book concludes with photos of Queen performing in Europe in 1986 in promotion of their album A Kind of Magic. It was inevitably the band’s last tour. One year later, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS and the band made the decision to stop touring. He died at the age of 45, in November 1991.
‘I think Freddie would be proud of this book,’ wrote Preston in his afterword. ‘I can picture myself walking down the airplane aisle and he’s looking at it very intensely. I ask him if he likes it and he looks right at me and says, ‘It’s beautiful darling, it just needs to be bigger.’. . . I can literally hear him saying that as I write this.’
Summing up his experience with Queen, Preston said: ‘Photographically I couldn’t have asked for more.’
‘The scale of each production, from the ’77 tour through the ’86 tour, grew almost exponentially. The productions were full of thunder and lightning and bigger was definitely better. Year after year, bigger lighting rigs and bigger stages were the norm.’
Preston said his forthcoming book is ‘for the fans.’ He added, ‘We wanted to be able to give all those fans something completely different, something new, a lot of photos that they’ve never seen before.’
‘Neal is one of my oldest and greatest friends,’ wrote Brian May, in a touching tribute to the photographer. ‘Some of the stuff we have been through you wouldn’t believe!….Neal captured the essence of Queen, live and dangerous, while we quietly and unexpectedly got on with becoming, perhaps momentarily, the biggest band in the world.’
Brian May, Jazz Tour, USA 1978. In the foreword for the book, Brian May wrote: ‘Neal captured the essence of Queen, live and dangerous, while we quietly and unexpectedly got on with becoming, perhaps momentarily, the biggest band in the world’
HRH Princess Diana greets the band at Live Aid, UK 1985. Preston was shooting Live Aid for Life Magazine and recalls the long grueling day of work, running around from stage to stage trying to snap pictures of every band performing. ‘It may be a big benefit concert, but photographically, you’re essentially shooting a TV show.’ During a break, he ran into Queen’s manager who placed him behind Brian May’s amp on stage. ‘Suddenly it no longer seemed like a big TV show. It felt like I was home. My band, my crew, home sweet home’
Queen and their police escort for their 1981 tour in South America. ‘It was difficult logistically but this tour was a photographer’s dream. From the moment we landed the band was treated like the Beatles. Better than the Beatles. The fans were rabid’
Above, the Jazz Tour, North America 1978. From the very beginning, Preston said that Queen and their crew of roadies were ‘pleased’ to have him around. ‘I was welcomed with open arms and encouraged to go for broke. . . and I did’
‘Freddy loved being photographed,’ said Preston. He said that if you can’t get a great picture of Freddie Mercury, Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page on stage ‘then quit your job immediately, sell your cameras and go work for the sanitation department.’ Above, the Magic Tour, Europe 1986
‘I think Freddie would be proud of this book,’ wrote Preston in his afterword. ‘I can picture myself walking down the airplane aisle and he’s looking at it very intensely. I ask him if he likes it and he looks right at me and says, ‘It’s beautiful darling, it just needs to be bigger.’. . . I can literally hear him saying that as I write this,’ concluded Preston. Queen stopped touring after their 1986 tour, Mercury died from AIDS in 1991. Above, The Hot Space Tour, North America 1982