Will You do the Fandango?: the Queen Experience in Montreux

Queen: The Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Thanks to having a mother who has always had the radio on throughout my life, I have a pretty eclectic taste in music.  If it’s an oldie on BBC Radio 2, I probably like it.  But with Queen, it’s been a bit different.  Mama-Chickpea was a fan.  Sister-Chickpeas were also fans, so I kind of grew up particularly aware of their music.  Of course Bohemian Rhapsody unfailingly brings out the ham in everyone in my family, and we all belt it out word for strange word, but there are so many great songs in their repertoire that are part of everyone’s musical experience, you can sometimes take them for granted.

(Funnily enough, as I’m writing this, on a French morning t.v. programme they’re discussing bikes, I can hear Freddie belting out “I want to ride my bicycle”!)

The story seems to have begun in 1971, when the Montreux Casino was burned down during a Frank Zappa concert.  A fan with a flare gun.  The episode was immortalised by Deep Purple, who wrote and recorded their “Smoke on the Water” track in Montreux.  When the casino was rebuilt, it included a state of the art recording studio and from 1976 the Mountain Studios became a destination for many of the big acts of the day: the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin among others… like, oh, Queen.

The studios originally went over two floors – there was the control room, which you can visit today, and the recording studio on the floor above, which you can’t visit.  The studios were designed by Tom Hidley, whose company, Westlake Audio, were pioneers of recording and it was one of the first of its kind to be built outside the US.  This explains why so many acts came to this little town on Lake Geneva, which really isn’t the most ‘rocky’ town I’ve been to.  It’s really quite, quite square.  Which is apparently what stars liked about it.

Anyway, in 1978, Queen too came to record their eighth album, Jazz, in Montreux.  And they were inspired by what they saw – the Tour de France passed through Montreux and Freddie and Brian May both wrote songs to commemorate the occasion: the former “Bicycle Race” and the latter… “Fat Bottomed Girls”.  Thanks for that, Brian.

When the band returned to Montreux in 1979 for post-production of their Live Killers album, they decided to buy the studios.  In 1996 the studios were sold to David Richards, the chief-engineer of the studios from 1977 who became the producer of albums by Queen and countless others.  Richards continued to work at the casino studios until 2002, when he relocated Mountain Studios to the mountains – more specifically, to to the village of Attalens near Montreux. In 2013, the studios in the casino were opened up as an exhibition space, raising money for the Mercury Phoenix Trust.

Queen recorded seven albums here, including their last songs recorded before Freddie died.  In the leaflet you can get from the studios, Brian and Roger say that during the last sessions the band had ‘some of the best times the four of them ever enjoyed together’.  They recorded frantically, desperate to make use of Freddie’s still magnificent voice and to work around his deteriorating health.  Again the leaflet quotes Brian, who says that Freddie urged them to write, “‘Get me to sing anything.  Write me anything and I will sing it.  I will give it my ALL.  I will leave you as much material as I possibly can.'”

You can see some of that urgency in the scribbled lyrics on sheets of paper in the control room.

It is incredible when you hear the raw voice of the Freddie in the room – that he was singing that powerfully when he was so very ill.  In an article I found from around the time of the the opening of the Queen Studio Experience, Brian credits vodka for giving his friend the strength to get through the sessions: www.telegraph.co.uk

The Queen Studio Experience is just that – an experience.  It’s not a museum – there’s a small, but worthy, collection of objects relating to the band, and there is the control room.  In all, it’s two rooms.  But for fans, that’s enough.  Well, more would be nice – but this is good.

We were very fortunate in having the control room (and the exhibition space) entirely to ourselves when we visited.  That made the experience even more poignant, as well as somewhat surreal, and both Sister-Chickpea and I were able to really appreciate the intimacy of the experience of having Freddie singing for us, just as if we were sitting in on a recording session.

Unusually, Freddie didn’t sing in the studio upstairs, but in the control room.  There is a plaque marking the spot where he recorded his last vocals for ‘Mother Love’.

There is a reproduction Neve 8048 mixing console in the control room (the original is in Sweden), which is rather exciting, as it has a panel which allows you to tinker with the sound on two tracks: ‘Mother Love’ and ‘Made in Heaven’.  I found this stangely moving, because Brian introduces one track and Roger the other (each encouraging us to turn the volume down on the other’s playing) and there was something so cosy and charming about the way they spoke that it was almost like they were in the room with us.

The exhibition room, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

The exhibition room, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

The control room, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

The control room, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Copy of the sliders for the voice levels in the control room, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland.   Poor Deacy.

Copy of the sliders for the voice levels in the control room, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland.   Poor Deacy.

Scribbled lyrics, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Scribbled lyrics, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Plaque on the floor marking the spot from which Freddie sang his last vocals, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Plaque on the floor marking the spot from which Freddie sang his last vocals, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

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The reproduction Neve mixing console, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

More scribbled lyrics, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

More scribbled lyrics, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Yet more scribbled notes by Freddie and Roger (in red), Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Yet more scribbled notes by Freddie and Roger (in red), Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Yes, platypus and Nebuchadnezzar are hard to spell, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Yes, platypus and Nebuchadnezzar are hard to spell, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Very neat handwriting, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Very neat handwriting, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

They really did just scribble on any odd piece of paper! Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

They really did just scribble on any odd piece of paper! Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Freddie's scribbled notes, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Freddie’s scribbled notes, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Range of Freddie pictures and CDs, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Range of Freddie pictures and CDs, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

View of the 'set', Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

View of the ‘set’, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Roger Taylor's drum kit, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Roger Taylor’s drum kit, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Scrabble set, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland.  Yes, they played scrabble.  Which possibly explains some of the strange words they came up with in their lyrics.

Scrabble set, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland.  Yes, they played scrabble.  Which possibly explains some of the strange words they came up with in their lyrics.

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Brian May’s guitar, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Queen's last album cover, showing the statue of Freddie by Lake Geneva in Montreux, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Queen’s last album cover, showing the statue of Freddie by Lake Geneva in Montreux, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Freddie rented property by the lake in the 1980s (nicknamed the Duck House) and it’s the view from this house that is on the front cover of the final Queen album, Made in Heaven.  The view inspired Freddie to write his final song, “A Winter’s Tale”.  In the year he died, Freddie set about renovating an apartment on Le Quai des Fleurs – allowing him to indulge in his passion for interior design, and take his mind off his illness.

Photos of Freddie's last apartment in Montreux, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Photos of Freddie’s last apartment in Montreux, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Freddie's mic, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Freddie’s mic, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

A snazzy outfit for Freddie, used on the band's European/US tours of 1977/8, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

A snazzy outfit for Freddie, used on the band’s European/US tours of 1977/8, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

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Costume worn by Freddie, designed by Zandra Rhodes, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Costume worn by Brian May during tours in 1974/5, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland.  Really Brian?  You realise your top is more outrageous tha Freddie's?

Costume worn by Brian May during tours in 1974/5, Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland.  Really Brian?  You realise your top is more outrageous than Freddie’s?

The Wall

There is a wall next to the Casino carpark which is covered in graffiti.  It is a memorial wall that has actually been set up for people to write on, and there are some lovely messages and great drawings.  And some not so great drawings.  It is unfortunate that a badly drawn man with a moustache often kinda looks like Hitler.  But even the simplest tributes show just how much Freddie Mercury means to so many people, and to see them go on and on along the wall is in itself a touching experience.

The wall of the Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

The wall of the Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Messages on the wall of the Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

The wall of the Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

Some messages on the wall of the Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland 

Some messages on the wall of the Queen Studio Experience, Montreux, Switzerland

So In Summary

There is something very moving about Queen: the Studio Experience.  If you are a fan, it’s interesting to see the costumes and instruments and peer at the scribbled lyrics, and it’s fun to play around with the sound mixer.  But to be in the tiny space where Freddie sang his last songs, listening to their heart-felt lyrics and surrounded by nothing but the sound of his voice, is a deeply poignant experience.

Further Information

The Studio Experience has its own website: http://www.mercuryphoenixtrust.com/studioexperience/

How To Get There

While I knew that the exhibition was in the Casino, I sort of expected there to be a separate entrance to go through.  But no – you have to go through the main Casino entrance.  You then veer off to the left.  You don’t go past any gambling, but you do look down on the gambling hall below as you go to the entrance of the Experience.

For information on transport in Montreux, check out these guys (in French only): www.vmcv.ch while if you need to sort your transport from further away, these guys will be helpful (in English): www.sbb.ch

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