As Bohemian Rhapsody the long awaited Queen bio-pic charting the band’s rise to fame hits cinemas, ESP remembers a forgotten night 45 years ago when the band played a memorable gig at Peterborough’s Town Hall.

The performance took place on Friday 17 August 1973, a month after Queen had released their first ever single ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ (A song that appears in the movie and on the Bohemian Rhapsody original soundtrack) – but how did the band in the early stage of their career come to appear in Peterborough?  ESP’s Marc Hernandez spoke to Paul Young (no, not the singer), but the man who runs the popular website ‘They Played Peterborough’

“I started the website as ever since I moved to Peterborough in the mid 70s people were always telling me that nobody ‘big’ had ever played here, when in actual fact that hasn’t been the case at all. I remember going to see bands like The Clash and The Damned at the Wirrina but when I set out to compile a list of the bands who had played Peterborough over the last fifty years or so, I wasn’t expecting it to take too long or prove much of an eye-opener!”

Bands who HAVE played Peterborough while at their peak range from 60’s giants The Who, The Kinks and The Hollies through to the likes of The Sweet, Bay City Rollers, Genesis and Roxy Music. Then in the early seventies and eighties bands like The Buzzcocks and Madness before the odd arena show at the old Mallard Park Hotel in the eighties featuring the likes of Status Quo and Erasure.

Paul adds – “I admit it’s not a huge CV of ‘big’ artists but where Peterborough more than holds its own against any UK city is in showcasing up and coming bands that went on to be ‘big’. The Beatles played Peterborough before they played any other major UK venue outside of Merseyside, The Rolling Stones turned up tired and hungry for an early gig at the Corn Exchange and the city also hosted very early shows from relatively unknown bands at the time such as Queen, Mott The Hoople, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Radiohead, Keane, Kasabian and many more.”  

When Paul started looking into the Queen gig he found conflicting information about the date.

“Originally, a lot of Queen fansites had it listed as 22 December 1973 which would have placed it as part of the band’s tour in support of their first album, but after I started looking into the local newspaper archives and posting about it on social media a number of people got in touch, including somebody who still had the poster advertising the gig which confirmed it was 17 August 1973.”

The first ever known ‘live’ recording of a Queen gig was a month later when they played at the Hippodrome, Golders Green on 3 September – the first date on there as the support act for Mott the Hoople.

Queen’s performance was later broadcast on BBC Radio 1 as part of its ‘In Concert’ series meaning the gig in Peterborough was in effect a warm-up to that tour.

Paul continues – “Some of the memorable stories about the Queen performance I’ve been told began when the band arrived in a transit van. They stopped off at the off-licence in Ledbury Road, Netherton and bought bottles of wine. By all accounts due to their long hair the guy who ran it said they all looked like girls! The gig took place upstairs at the Town Hall in the reception room on the left hand side, one of the support bands were a local schoolboy band from Kings called Savage Rose. One of the guys who contacted me told me he’d been the Savage Rose bassist until a couple of months before the gig, but went along to watch his old band and stood next to Brian May who was watching them before Queen went on.”

One of those there that night to see Queen in 1973 was Chris Allen – he was 17 and in his first band Topper who played at all the main city venues at the time.

“I had a Saturday job at the music shop on Fitzwilliam Street and remember there was a poster for the gig up in the window. I don’t remember much about what Queen actually played, but Freddie (Mercury) really made the band stand out. He wore a three quarter length fur coat and had such a presence. It was the first time I’d seen a lead singer only use half a mic stand, which sort of became one of his trademarks. I wish I could remember more about the night, but I was there with a new girlfriend so was more interested in her than listening to the music. I later saw Queen at Wembley when they’d really made it – but incredible to think I saw them at the start in Peterborough at the Town Hall.”

Andy Rowan, another keen local music goer in the 1970s was 18 at the time and in the audience as well.

“The Town Hall gigs were quite a regular event, and there must’ve been a couple of hundred people there. I was more into bands like The Small Faces, and if I’m honest I didn’t think that much of Queen at the time. I often joke to my mates ‘Do you remember when we saw Queen and they were s***?!’. Of course Freddie Mercury was the one that stood out, he looked incredible, the way he dressed and everything about him, but at the time I don’t think anyone there would think they’d go onto achieve what they did.

“It’s a bit like that scene in Only Fools & Horses when Del Boy’s watching a band and writes them off, and the next time he hears of them they’re playing on Top of the Pops! That’s how it was for me really with Queen, as a few months after the Town Hall gig  they were on Top of the Pops!”

Another who was at the Town Hall that night was Norma Watson-Palmer, sister of Peterborough guitarist Lloyd Watson (who toured with the likes of David Bowie, John Lee Hooker, Jethro Tull and Roxy Music).

Norma told ESP – “My mum used to work in a bakery opposite the Town Hall so would hear all the latest gossip about who was playing and as it was near my birthday got me ticket. I’d never heard of Queen, but I used to go to a lot of local gigs so arranged to meet some of my friends outside. When I went in I saw a few familiar faces of people I knew, but also I remember bumping into someone as I turned the corner to go up the staircase. He had the most amazing eyes and because I’d not seen him before at any local gigs I immediate thought to myself ‘Well, he’s not from Peterborough!’ – and of course later in the evening when Queen went on to play I realised why, because it was their drummer Roger Taylor! There were a couple of other local bands on before, but my overriding memory was that Queen were a real cut above the usual bands I saw during that time. Brian May in particular because I’d never heard anyone play guitar like he did, and with my brother being a guitarist I’d always tune in to that side of things.”

The following year in 1974, Norma began working for the BBC in London as a legal secretary and  came face-to-face with the band after one of their early Top of the Pops performances.

“We were watching rehearsals and I remember standing behind the curtain. They were performing ‘Killer Queen’ and I was behind the curtain when all of a sudden my finger went through it and made a hole. I was desperately worried I might rip the whole thing down and ruin their performance. Afterwards in the BBC bar I was there with a few other staff chatting to them and when I told Freddie about it he said ‘Oh darling, don’t worry about the curtain, just make sure you haven’t chipped your nail varnish!’

“They were all on a high after that performance and I can remember Freddie literally danced into the club holding a glass of wine and did a pirouette without spilling any, I remember thinking to myself ‘This is an amazing man’. At one point when we were all talking he asked me where I came from and when I said Peterborough and I’d seen them at the Town Hall he said – ‘Yes, we played there – it had the most beautiful staircase that was just crying out to be danced down’.”

Norma worked for the BBC for a number of years, and the next time she crossed paths with Freddie was in the late 1970s.

“He was coming out of a boutique in Kensington and I saw him crossing the road. He saw me and was trying to place where from and I called out ‘Peterborough… Town Hall… marble staircase?!’ and then he remembered and shouted out ‘Yes, Yes !’ did a little tap dance on the pavement and jumped into a waiting taxi and was off.

“I never saw him again after that, but of course followed the band’s career and always think back to those brief conversations I had with him. It’s nice to think that out of all the thousands of places he played he remembered Peterborough because of the staircase in the Town Hall. It’s typical of Freddie that it was the one thing he remembered about performing here.”

Whilst none of these stories feature in the Bohemian Rhapsody film, ESP has discovered a small Peterborough connection to the film. David Malinowski (The Oscar winning special effects makeup artist) and a former pupil of Fulbridge Juniors and Deacon’s School in the city is in the film credits as one of the Prosthetic Makeup Artists. David’s dad Paul, who still lives in Peterborough confirmed to ESP that David was responsible for the ageing make-up applied to the actors playing Freddie Mercury’s parents in the film.

Bohemian Rhapsody is out now, check the latest showtimes on:

Marc Hernandez

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