There is only one word that can be used to accurately describe the events of Saturday the 24th of November 2001 at the Ocean in Hackney - amazing. Actually, I'm not sure even that does justice to it. The whole evening was just such a fantastic experience, for me and indeed I'm certain for everyone else who was there. The memories - meeting my friends from Queenzone, seeing Brian and Roger on stage together, sitting above the crowd on my brother's shoulders clapping to "Radio Ga Ga" - will live long in my memory I'm sure.
Sitting here now, in my brother's flat in Clapham early in the afternoon of the following day, it all seems like some kind of wonderful dream, something almost too special to have actually happened. But it did happen, and so now I'm faced with the task of sorting out the fantastic jumble of memories and thoughts into some kind of readable narrative to try and get across the experience of the evening to those of you who were not fortunate enough to be there, as well as to preserve the experience in my own mind.
I guess it all began properly on the Friday, that's when it all seemed real as I made my way up to London in the afternoon on the train. I met my brother at Victoria station and he took me for a few drinks in one of the gay pubs he frequents - where he was surprised to find that I still don't drink alcohol, but never mind.
The rest of Friday was spent meeting his two flat-mates and we went out for a Chinese meal before they took me to a couple of clubs - horrible, smoke-filled noisy places. But as I was dragging David along to the Freddie tribute the next day, it seemed only fair that I allow him to show me part of his life beforehand. That and the fact that he was being good enough to put me up for the weekend so I wouldn't end up sleeping in a bank lobby like I had done at Gosport in August...
Anyway, that's not what you want to hear about - Saturday is the part you're all interested in, and rightly so. I knew I wouldn't be at The Cock Tavern for two o'clock to meet up with Eggy, Raspy, Bob, YourValentine and everyone else from the 'Zone who was going to be there, as David had arranged for us to meet for lunch with his friend Philip, but I was still hopeful of putting in an appearance at the pub at some point before they all left.
David and I met Philip for lunch and then went around some very... 'interesting' shops, before we started our journey to Hackney using the delights of the London underground and over ground railway services, eventually arriving just after four o'clock. The Cock Tavern was easy to find, a walk straight down the road from the station.
As soon as we walked in, I was greeted by Eggy and Sonya, who I would like to assure everyone is even prettier in real life - and despite what Bob may say, she looks a lot older than 14! Indeed, my brother actually thought she was in her early twenties. Despite the fact that David had been slightly dubious about the ides of my meeting with people from the Internet who I had never seen before in my life, he got on very well with everyone.
There was one bloke who didn't come and say hello but stood around the pool table playing, amazingly enough, pool in his Magic Tour 1986 t-shirt, and Eggy, Raspy and I sat there looking at him trying to decide whether or not it was PG, before deciding that it probably wasn't. Barbara (YourValentine) loved the card from all of Queenzone that Eggy and Raspy had prepared for her, and she was also far too kind to Eggy and I, giving us CDs of all sorts of rare Queen material that we don't possibly deserve!
It was amazing to finally meet, face-to-face, with Eggy and Sonya (Raspy), Bob, Barbara (YourValentine), Martin (Mr Scully) and everyone else who was there - I had had some fears that it might be a slightly odd atmosphere, but we all got on like a house on fire, and I was sorry that I hadn't been able to make it to the pub earlier than we did.
Just after five o'clock, with the doors at the Ocean due to open at half-past, we left the Cock Tavern (after the taking of several photographs of us all that should arrive somewhere on the net soon!) and headed down the road to the venue. When we got there, we all joined the back of a surprisingly short looking queue, and I was quite pleased that it looked as if we would be near the front.
This pleasure was rudely dispelled when we found we were actually in the wrong queue - this was the VIP queue, and the one we had to join the back of was facing the other way. I was slightly disheartened when I found it went around the corner of the building - even more so when it went around the next corner, and then nearly all the way back to the next corner as well.
Having said that, we actually moved along fairly swiftly and were all inside by about six o'clock, when we all got our bearings and some drinks! The Ocean is actually an incredibly plush and modern venue inside, despite looking like an ageing library on the outside - although my brother thinks that they need to do something about the lighting in the corridors and reception area - "fluorescent lighting doesn't suit my features, darling!"
While we were waiting for events to kick-off they played some of The Freddie Mercury Video Collection, although they were playing different, non-Queen music and not the sound that goes with the videos on the screens - very odd. I met up with the two very nice ladies from Lancashire who I had spent some chatting to during and after the Gosport gig, and I was also passed by a young woman who suddenly turned to me and said "You were at Gosport!" I was less than impressed by Eggy's reaction to this - "you've pulled mate!"
David disappeared to battle to the cloakroom and leave our coats there, while Eggy and Raspy vanished upstairs where there were seats and I was left to fight a lone battle to get as far into the crowd as I could. Proceedings got off to a start with a few words from Jackie before the lights went down and the 'Champions' tribute group made up from convention talent contest winners took to the stage. During their set, they led the crowd in a minute's silence in memory of Freddie, at about ten past seven, exactly ten years since he passed away.
Swapping lead singers for every song, they rattled through a surprisingly impressive set that included "The Great Pretender", "Another One Bites the Dust", "In My Defence", "Dragon Attack", "Great King Rat", "Love of My Life" (great rendition with us lot in the crowd doing really rather well I thought), "Somebody to Love", "Spread Your Wings" and finishing up with, of course, "Bohemian Rhapsody".
It was to be the last we would hear of Freddie Mercury's song-writing abilities until the very end of the evening.
I noticed during this set that there were two drum-kits on stage - from my experience at Gosport I knew this almost certainly meant that Roger was going to be performing at some point in the evening. The rumor in the Cock Tavern and the queue to get in was that he and Brian were going to turn up to do a spectacular finale - but no one knew the truth of this at this stage.
After the Champions had left the stage, the very talented Trina Morris, who sang a set of about five or six songs, including crowd-pleasing renditions of "Sleeping on the Sidewalk "and"'39, provided half-time entertainment. After she had finished, Jackie came back on stage and introduced the evening's main attraction - Spike's All Stars, more commonly known as the SAS Band. "Is this where I'm supposed to get excited?" my brother, now back with me in the crowd and somewhat, 'merry', asked.
Yes, David, this is the part where you're supposed to get excited. Spike told us that we were going to get a 45-minute typical SAS set with lead singers coming on and singing songs they wrote or made famous, before they would take a short break and come back with "something really special!"
SAS Band stalwart Chris Thompson started things off with two or three songs, including the obligatory "Blinded by the Light". David didn't have a clue who he was, but was slightly impressed when I told him he sings on his beloved musical version of "The War of the Worlds". Thompson soon made way for Paul Young, and David was amazed at how much he's aged - I have to say he did look quite rough that evening, certainly not the fresh-faced Paul Young we may remember from the 1992 Tribute Concert.
David had gone off to try and seduce the only two gay people he had found in the audience by this stage (he even managed to pull one of them, the cocky bastard), but he came rushing back when the Fabba Girls took to the stage in their Eggy-pleasing outfits to blast through "Waterloo" and "Dancing Queen" ('do we have any dancing Queens in the audience tonight?' - I could think of at least one...).
After the Fabs had finished and David had stopped dancing with random drunken women in the crowd, Chris Thompson returned for another mini-set including a barnstorming rendition of "The Mighty Quinn". Then there was a short break before the second half of the SAS's set, which Spike promised us would consist of "some shit you're really gonna' like!"
Before the shit we were gonna' like came the shit that was just shit, as five complete goons paraded themselves on stage playing air guitar to "Tie Your Mother Down" to win a copy of the air guitar album - "signed by Brian and Roger" - a giveaway to me that they were going to be putting in an appearance at some point soon.
After this, and a broken video that was supposed to play a 2-minute Freddie clip but didn't, the SAS Band returned to the stage for the climax to the evening. And what a climax it was!
First, Chris Thompson returned to lead vocals, and as soon as Jamie Moses kicked into the guitar intro for "Now I'm Here", we knew the excitement had begun. After "Now I'm Here", Chris also took us through "Another One Bites the Dust" and "Hammer to Fall", and on each of these we in the crowd did our very best to make ourselves heard!
After these three storming numbers, Spike introduced a man who had never played with the SAS Band before even in rehearsal, Bruce Dickinson, ex lead-singer of Iron Maiden. Apparently, his rehearsal had consisted of listening to the song on a tape provided by Spike, but even though he had to read the lyrics from a piece of paper constantly held in his hand, he managed to do a not-at-all-bad version of "I Want to Break Free" - with a bit of assistance from us noisy lot of course.
Then... Oh yes, then...
Bruce Dickinson disappeared from the stage, the lighting became more dramatic and no new lead singer appeared as the SAS Band began the intro to "Radio Ga Ga". The adrenalin began to increase as they came closer to the point where the vocals of the song begin and still they had no singer.
Then, from the stage left, Brian May and Roger Taylor walked on and the whole place went absolutely stark, staring bonkers as we all jumped up and down, shouted, cried, waved our hands about and generally acted like the total and complete lunatics that we are.
Roger stepped up to the empty mic and began leading us all in the sing-a-long as Brian contended himself with the guitar for now. When we got to the chorus, it was even better than it had been in Gosport as everyone, even my brother (because I made him!) raised their hands in the air and clapped in unison.
It was the second chorus that was the most special for me, however, as my brother lifted me onto his shoulders and raised me above the rest of the crowd, a sea of clapping hands all around me as I had a perfect view of Brian and Roger, together on stage. It was such an unbelievable high that any words I may try and use wouldn't do it justice. It couldn't last of course, and an angry tap on the back from a woman behind reminded me that I was obscuring the view of others and I got David to put me down. It was a wonderful few moments though.
After we had all finished shouting ourselves hoarse and clapping until our hands stung to "Radio Ga Ga", the lads launched into a great rendition of "Under Pressure", with Roger Taylor singing Bowie's part and a returning Trina Morris standing in for Freddie. The combination worked very well, and of course we all lapped it up, going crazy from the first bass riff right through to the last finger clicks.
Then Brian stepped up to the mic as Roger went back to the second drum kit. "This is a kind of appropriate song that's good to play air guitar to", Brian promised us, before launching into the opening guitar part of Rainbow's "Since You've Been Gone" - a somewhat unexpected choice it has to be said, but one that went down very well nonetheless.
Roger returned to the mic to perform vocal duties on another unusual selection - his own "Strange Frontier", a song that also managed to get the crowd going, despite the fact that what we all really wanted was some more Queen! But we got that next, and in spades too, as Roger again went back to the drums and Brian suggested that we "do this one again" - "Tie Your Mother Down". Everyone started jumping up and down and shouting along and generally going rock and toll crazy at this point.
They finished things off with a song they have never performed live together before, and the only Queen song to be totally originated after the death of Freddie Mercury. When Spike began tinkling on the piano and Brian told us they were going to be singing a fitting song for the occasion, I thought they were about to do my favorite - "These are the Days of Our Lives".
Instead, Brian began gently singing "A hand above the water…." and we knew we were all in for something very special - the first, and who knows, maybe the last, May / Taylor live rendition of "No-One But You". Needless to say, we all sang along to this highly emotional track, with Brian and Roger singing their parts as they do on the studio version, as we all raised our hands to the air and shouted the choruses.
After that fitting tribute, Brian and Roger left the stage to rapturous applause, with Spike then telling us that they had only phoned at five o'clock the previous afternoon to confirm that they wanted to come, having previously thought it might be too emotional for them.
Chris Thompson was back yet again as the SAS Band performed their original plan for the closing set, beginning with a powerful "The Show Must Go On", before Thompson, Dickinson (reading again!) and Young all shared lead vocals on a stomping "We Will Rock You". The evening finished with Thompson leading us in a sing-a-long, group rendition of "We are the Champions", fittingly a Freddie Mercury song to finish with after the almost exclusively May/Taylor/Deacon evening.
So, what can I say to sum up such a wonderful evening? As I said at the beginning of this piece, 'amazing' just about covers it. Special, fantastic, unique, barnstorming….. Just about anything you can think of that translates as 'really great and something I'll always remember'.
Thanks to everyone who made it possible. Here's to the next one!