Queen Photos And The Stories Behind Them By Neal Preston

by Greg Prato

Five remarkable photos of Queen on tour and the stories behind them, courtesy of their longtime photographer.

Freddie Mercury, Wembley Stadium, 1986
Freddie onstage at Wembley in 1986. This was the fourth frame I shot that day. I could have taken the rest of the day off, as there are three rock stars who, if you can't get a great shot of them onstage you should sell your cameras and go sell plumbing supplies. They are, in no particular order, Freddie Mercury, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend. Ok, I lied. Pete is #1.

Renowned rock photographer Neal Preston is responsible for some of the most widely seen and recognizable Queen photos ever taken. In 2020, he dipped into his archives to assemble the stellar 302-pager, Queen: The Neal Preston Photographs, chronicling the band both on-stage and behind-the-scenes from 1976 through 1986 (Queen's final tour with Freddie Mercury as their frontman) and including forewords by both Brian May and Roger Taylor. Preston chatted with Songfacts about his book, as well as memories of shooting the band, his preferred equipment, and his memories of five classic photographs.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the idea come up to do this book?

Neal Preston: I was having dinner with Brian May and Jim Beach [Queen's manager] one night in Rio de Janeiro and I brought up the fact that Queen had never released a book that, in my estimation, was as classy and elegant as I felt the band deserved. Brian had been wanting to cooperate on a project with me for a long time. Basically that's when I planted the first seed.

Queen and police escort, Argentina, 1981
A few drunken rock stars with some even drunker Argentine cops after a band dinner. In South America we always had police and/or military escorts anywhere we went. The police escort back to the hotel that night was a thing to behold. I'm lucky to be alive.

Songfacts: How did you get involved with taking photos of Queen initially and subsequently develop a relationship with them?

Neal: Although I had first photographed them in Santa Monica in 1976, I received a call from the publicity department at Elektra Records in 1977 asking if I'd like to do a couple of weeks on the road with Queen. Needless to say, it was a no-brainer - I immediately said yes.

When you're in my business and you have either the words "Led" or "Zeppelin" on your resumé, you tend to get those kinds of phone calls. In fact, at various points in 1977 I toured with Queen, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Peter Frampton, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and (gulp) the Bay City Rollers.

As far as how the relationship developed, it was really no different than my relationships with Zeppelin, or Fleetwood Mac, or Bruce, or any other band. The guys in Queen were all great to shoot, they were smart, creative, and appreciated me being around. I just got along very well with the band and the crew. Now, you always have to deliver the goods photo-wise - and always remember to stay out of the way, keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut... really common sense sort of stuff.1 And never act like you're the fifth member of the band. That will guarantee you a one-way ticket home along with a virtual ass-kicking from the crew.

Here's the thing I learned early on in my career: The key is to stay invisible. The irony is that the way to become invisible on a rock tour is by being completely visible at all times. That way you become part of the fabric of the tour.

Queen and their Britannia 4-engine jet, USA, 1978
Another day, another flight to another gig. This could be Venezuela or Van Nuys. Or Baltimore. Or Burbank.

Songfacts: How did shooting Queen compare to other rock bands you've worked with?

Neal: On one level there's no definitive answer to that, since all bands are different musically and visually. The differences are in the personalities of each tour. Every big tour has its own personality, which is not just the sum of the personalities of each musician. It's everything: It's the band, the crew, the venues, the amount of travel...

All of the day-to-day stuff sort of adds up and affects the mood of the tour. And the mood of a tour can turn on a dime due to all sorts of things - a flat audience, a bad record review, poor sound, the bass player got a dose of the clap... you never know.

Some bands are just naturally more cloistered than others, with Zeppelin probably being the prime example of that. There was just a higher general level of stress with them than other bands. And you never go into The Who's dressing room until you're invited. Bad things can happen to you.

But with Queen, the band and the crew became family to me.

Queen at Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, 1985
Freddie and Brian onstage at Live Aid. YOU try sneaking around that stage without tripping over some camera dude's cable. Trust me - you can't.

Songfacts: How would you describe the personalities of the four members of Queen?

Neal: Roger was the rock star, with the looks, the talent, the clothes, and he also has my sick sense of humor.

Freddie was a bit more soft spoken off stage than you'd think, but he always had the swagger that came with being Freddie Mercury. He loved the camera.

John seemed to have eyes in the back of his head - he'd always be aware of everything going on but wouldn't necessarily talk about it. Then all of a sudden, a zinger would come out of his mouth.

Brian, at first, seemed a bit aloof to me but I came to realize that he's just not a boisterous guy. We quickly became great friends and that friendship remains to this day. He's pensive, brilliant, and he understands what it truly means to be a fan.

And let's be honest: This was a band with four very, very strong personalities. They were perfectionists in the true sense of the word.

Queen, USA, 1982
Remember what I said in the answer for picture #1? I rest my case.

Songfacts: What would you say was the best Queen show you ever attended, and why?

Neal: Can't answer that. They were all good and when I'm shooting I'm too busy doing my job to be a rock critic.

Songfacts: You took photos of Queen on their last-ever tour with Freddie. Were they just as strong on that tour as earlier ones?

Neal: I believe they were. However, I preferred the setlist from some of the earlier tours.2

Songfacts: Which cameras did you use for these photos, and which modern-day camera do you recommend (and why)?

Neal: I'm a Nikon guy through and through, so the cameras I used back then would have been Nikon F2s/F3s/F4s. etc, etc. And yes, those were all film cameras.

These days out of necessity I shoot mostly digitally, which I am not happy about. I hate digital cameras. I hate the way the files look, and I abhor editing on a computer. Digital cameras have more bells and whistles on them than the cockpit of a 747. It's complete overkill and you have to pay for all that crap - which I never use anyway.

But since you asked, for the record I'll tell you I mostly use Nikon D-850s, along with the occasional Leica S and my beloved Hasselblad X-Pan.

Songfacts: Can you give some tips/pointers on how to take great photos of rock bands performing?

Neal: This is something very few people do well. A great performance photo can pick the viewer up by the scruff of the neck and put him down right in the middle of the stage. The best advice I can give someone is: Stay out of the pit, go away from all the other photographers and take your cameras off auto this and auto that. I use mine on manual override 100% of the time. And not everything has to be super crisp and perfectly lit. Remember, it's not the motion that counts, it's the emotion.

November 19, 2020

Queen: The Neal Preston Photographs is available at Reel Art Press

All images: Neal Preston © Queen Productions (Photo of Neal by Dave Brolan)

Further reading:
The Golden Age Of Rock Photography
Photos From Danny Clinch
Van Halen In Photos, 1979-1982
Long Live Queen, An Excerpt
Fact Or Fiction: Queen Edition

Footnotes:

  • 1] Wedding photographers, take note (back)
  • 2] Their 1986 setlist included covers of "Hello Mary Lou" and "Tutti Frutti," but left out "Somebody To Love," "Killer Queen," "'39," "Sheer Heart Attack," and "Keep Yourself Alive" [per queenconcerts.com] (back)

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