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Music

Taylor Hawkins and his love affair with Queen

Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins tended to sing a song or two in concert, and one that was nominally a cover. At his final concert, Hawkins sang ‘Somebody to Love’, the seminal Queen ballad that has become synonymous with crowd participation and human connection. Known for its technical vocal delivery, the song is rich with vocal interpolations and difficult use of passages, while always delivering goosebumps and good times along the way.

Hawkins’s performance was stellar, which made his death all the more tragic. But as well as being a gifted singer, perhaps part of the reason Hawkins was so compatible with the song was because of his love for the band. During conversations around festival paddocks, between cigarettes and beer Hawkins was always ready to not only talk about his love for rock and roll but his adoration of British rockers Queen.

Likewise, when hearing of the passing of Hawkins at only 50 years old, Queen drummer Roger Taylor said it was “Like losing a younger favourite brother. He was a kind brilliant man and an inspirational mentor to my son Rufus and the best friend one could ever have. Devastated.”

Hawkins counted Taylor on a list of icons and influences that included Phil Collins, Stewart Copeland and Stephen Perkins, invoking some of his drum patterns on the Foo Fighters’ work. Then there was his singing style which was moulded on the scintillating falsetto vocals Taylor heralded during the 1970s with Queen, which is why he was so able to sing Led Zeppelin numbers with such great gusto.

Fittingly, Hawkins filled in for Robert Plant when guitarists Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones joined Foo Fighters onstage at their concert at Wembley.
Taylor modelled his voice on Plant’s – the vocal delivery on ‘Drowse’ is very Plantesque – so Hawkins was a worthy stand-in. Years later, Taylor and Jones joined Hawkins and guitarist Dave Grohl for a rendition of ‘Under Pressure’, as the four men modernised the famous power ballad from the 1980s. For Hawkins, this was his chance to sing to his hero, as the drummer played carefully behind him.

He got to know the two men on a professional, as well as intellectual, level. “I did some recording for Brian back in the late ‘90s on his solo record,” Hawkins remembered, “and he actually played some guitar on the Foo Fighters record One By One, and I’ve done other recordings for Brian and Roger in the past couple of years that haven’t been released yet.”
Indeed, Brian May does indeed perform on Foo Fighters’ rendition of ‘Have A Cigar’, the probing Pink Floyd ballad rocked up to fit Hawkins’s voice, who bellows through the words in a style that was similar to Queen.

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The drummer had grown up listening to the English band and stated that they were one of the greatest acts he ever saw live. He assisted May and Taylor as they put together a setlist of lesser-known Queen songs on Deep Cuts, Volume 1 (1973–1976). The album featured a number of lesser-known Queen numbers, cherry-picking from Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack and A Day At The Races.

Hawkins helped the songwriters recall some of the more obscure tracks in their personal trajectory, realising that there was much more to the band than the stadium anthems and hit singles that the band performed with singers Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert. May contributed some barrelling guitar lines to Hawkins’ exhilarating ‘Don’t Have to Speak’ in 2010, and the artists maintained a healthy level of respect for each other as artists.

When the Foos man opted to re-record Dennis Wilson’s vignette ‘Holy Man’, he invited the two surviving Queen singers to contribute to the recording. There, the three voices melded together in one giant sequence of voices, colouring the world Hawkins had built-in Wilson’s absence and honour. The recording recalled the detail, the patience and the work that went into building a raft of vocals on the first five Queen albums, before the change in a popular culture dictated that they had to record fewer intricate vocal arrangements.

The recording is also bolstered by a pummelling guitar suite, which punctuates the instrumental sections with a tidy array of electric hooks. The three men likely wished to work together again, but fate dealt a cruel card, robbing all of these artists of the opportunity.

Out of the two men, Taylor had the more immediate influence on Hawkins, but May was also pivotal, creating a new sense of purpose and pathos through his guitar, and shrill, softly-recorded backing vocals. Perhaps the band could have recorded a “Queen and Taylor Hawkins” album, much like Paul Rodgers recorded the misunderstood The Cosmos Rocks with the band, but now that opportunity will never arise.

But we can celebrate Hawkins’s rendition of ‘Somebody to Love’, which honours the intention of the sprawling 1976 original but imbues enough of his own personality to make it a cover worth listening to. What it offers is a portrait of an artist in deep concentration, happily returning to the rock records that had decorated his younger collection, encouraging him as a drummer and a singer. And through the recordings, Taylor found the confidence to piece together his own voice, which is why his renditions of ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘Under Pressure’ were tinged with such well earned confidence and assurance.