It is not as easy as people might think being a rock extravaganza these days. After all, there's the Electric Light Orchestra with that enormous flying saucer and Emerson, Lake and Palmer with their revolving stage, and whoever-that-was with the roll-over piano, not to mention whatever the latest Kiss concoction might be. It's all a rock group like Queen can do to keep their wits about them and keep up with the pack on those $100,000 one-night stands.
As lead guitarist Brian May explained, "A tour is a once-a-year sort of thing, you know, and after awhile, you can only go fo far with dry ice."
It was 5:30 the night that Queen was to give its Washington concert at the Capital Centre, 16 hours since the roadies, the five tractor-trailer trucks, the two buses and the generator had pulled into town from Florida and set to work in the middle of the night to put up the 500 lights and the hundreds of miles of cables and the four two-ton motors, not to mention the two one-ton motors and the two 545-pound steel beams.
The lighting effects alone will cost Queen about $250,000 by the time their 35-city tour ends 13,000 miles away in Los Angeles, and the cost of the entire production could come close to $1 million.
By 5:30, most of the equipment was in place, despite the hour and a half spent convincing one of the Center's structural engineers that, yes, the ceiling could support over six tons of lighting equipment and the sound system.
Actually, said Brian May, the whole thing was really a shadow of performances past. "Costumes aren't as fancy, either, this time," he said. "Just a phase we're going through."
Not that dry ice doesn't work wonderfully well when the idea is to fill up the stage, envelope the band with sepulchral white smoke, establish a reputation for grandiose theatricality and wow the typical Queen audience, the collective age of which is usually about 15.
But a few precedents are being set on the tour. This is the largest number of lights ever used in a production, according to Gerry Stickells, the tour manager, and the entire entourage basks in the feeling that "we've pretty much taken to the limit what it's possible to get done in a day and still put on a concert."
"Production costs," mused Stickells as he paid a messenger bearing the flash powder needed for the explosions during the "Bohemian Rhapsody" number. "In the beginning you never heard the words 'production costs.'"
Stickells is 37, a veteran of Jimi Hendrix, Three Dog Night and other benchmarks in the rock industry, and is a calm, creased-faced Englishman who was getting bored stiff in Las Vegas a few years back when the Queen enterprise called him and asked him to manage their tours.
He looked out at the operation around him, which looked as if it could be in the process of producing a 747 instead of a two-hour rock concert, but the dimensions of the thing don't seem to phase him. Jumping out of the way of a forklift bearing an enormous brass gong, he said, "You give the audience something new."
And after the 5,000-pound electric Crown of Yesteryear, the one that rose from the stage and (it is the general band consensus) provided a certain inspiration for the flying saucer that what'stheir-names came up with soon afterward, it was decided that the year of the set piece was over, and it was time for Queen to get more abstract.
"We wanted something that wasn't immediately recognizable," said the group's lighting director, Joe Trovato, who was making sure that nothing had shaken, rattled, rolled or blown itself out of existence on the long nights journey into Largo. "We didn't want the group identified with something specific. So we came up with these big walls of lights coming down on the band with really intense color. We didn't want a pretty show. We wanted the audience to come and say, 'Wow. That is red.'"
And green. And white. Five hundred lights arranged on enormous aluminum trusses, glowing and winking and shining and, in theend, turned on the audience, like the arrival of the Mother Ship, leaving the four members of the band as mere silhouettes - "made mythic," Trovato figures, under 63,000 watts.
Oh well, under the influence of certain substances, anything is possible, but despite the fact that it takes six hours to get the rigging up for this extravaganza, some of the roadies are not all that impressed. "Actually," said Bob Quinn, who works on the set as a carpenter and therefore has his own biases, "I preferred the Crown. Now putting that up was an interesting thing to do. Doing what I'm doing now," which involved the construction of a basic plywood stage, "I might as well be working for Sarah Caldwell" (artistic director of the Opera Company of Boston).
Within an hour of showtime, Queen's army is pretty much running itself. There are times Stickells resembles a business executive with an anomalous passion for faded blue jeans more than he does a blithe spirit riding the crest in four-quarter time. Having dealt with the accountants, the attorneys, the restaurants, the hotels, the truck drivers, the costumers, the box office and the public relations people, Stickells is now handling out free T-shirts bearing that well-worn slogan, "The opera isn't over 'till the fat lady sings," to the roadies. "I love T-shirts," he said. "You get more using a T-shirt as a bribe that you do a 10 dollar bill."
By 7:30, the band's security consultant has finished instructing the Center's security force on proper etiquette - "We like them to be very polite, no hulking around, hands crossed in the back, that sort of thing" - and the first of the groupies have arrived and acquired their stage passed. An unconvinced Stickells is listening to a and failed Farah Fawcett curls - roadie expound on the merits of a set of gold high heels, green satin pants "She's 18 and a virgin, no kidding, she turned down Fleetwood, she turned down Chicago, she's unbelievable."
"She may be 18," said Stickells. Meanwhile Mike Trueman, a floater in the group, an electrician just in from Chicago performance, is putting the final adjustment on a mountain of dimmers behind the stage. He has worked on theatrical productions in the past and looks like a misdirected classics scholar.
"It's kind of hard at times to evaluate the importance of what you're doing here," he said, as the rest of the roadies filed toward the food set up backstage. "But then it's not the sort of thing that one can be too intellectual about."