How it happened
1. Dreamers Ball
Conception- Carlos Bonell, classical guitar and Queen
Queen Guitar Rhapsodies began as an idea in my mind back in January 2007.
I had previously produced Carlos Bonell’s DVD, Classical Guitar Performance, in 2004. This fulfilled my long-held desire to see a great classical guitarist recorded in high quality DVD picture and sound. I really wanted this to be in an intimate setting where the viewer could see exactly what was being played.
At the time I produced that particular DVD the format itself was relatively new - and with the classical guitar pond being quite small, I couldn’t find a performance DVD of any classical guitarists on the market.
That first collaboration with Carlos turned out to be extremely successful personally, musically and indeed commercially for what was a product with a very specific audience.
Two years later with some assistance from Carlos I transcribed the entire DVD for the book Essential Classics for Guitar. This works very well as a companion to the DVD.
Subsequently, we collaborated on a few other projects, writing a yet-to-be released classical guitar teaching course for music education company Gigajam, and promoting Carlos’ highly acclaimed London International Guitar Festival (LIGF).
In December 2006, with the Essential Classics book launched and available, I turned my attention to a new challenge for 2007.
Although over the previous four or five years I had increasingly developed my playing as a classical guitarist, I had originally made a living as a performing rock and all round electric guitar player. Although I’d wound down my electric guitar playing in favour of increasing numbers of classical gigs, rock music was still my number one passion - especially the bands that I grew up with and had learnt the guitar to as a teenager. These were bands such as Rush, Kiss, Genesis, Thin Lizzy, It Bites, Led Zep, Steely Dan, Van Halen, AC/DC, Whitesnake, Rainbow, Judas Priest and, very much at top of the list, Queen.
Queen had been the first band that I had really taken to as a kid - I’d bought the singles of Bohemian Rhapsody and Somebody to Love before shelling out £3.99 for my first ever L.P, A Day at the Races, in 1976 at the age of eleven .
1977 saw Queen release We are the Champions, from the album News of the World, and for Christmas that year I managed to acquire all the available Queen albums to date adding Queen, Queen 2, Sheer Heart attack, A Night at the Opera and News of the World to my now well worn copy of A Day at the Races. I played those first six Queen albums so often that the exact arrangements are etched in my mind even now.
By January 2007 I was still scratching my head over a new project. I was leaning towards some kind of pseudo classical DVD involving Carlos and a rock guitarist - I was certain this would be an interesting collaboration. It occurred to me that we could arrange famous classical pieces for classical and electric guitar. Collaborating with a recognised rock player would be interesting musically but would also increase the exposure of the project. The big question was who? My initial thoughts were for rock players with a recognised interest in classical guitar. The most obvious was Steve Hackett, but I also considered approaching Steve Howe (who Carlos had performed with previously), Andy Summers or even Ritchie Blackmore. My greatest concern was losing control over the project, as bringing in a recognised rock player would inevitably mean dealing with their management, record label and promo people, and these concerns constantly prevented me from taking any action.
I soon came to realise that the guitarist I would most enjoy seeing collaborate with Carlos was Brian May, although I must admit that I didn’t know if Brian had any real interest in classical guitar. This would see the rather unlikely fusing of my favourite classical guitarist with my favourite rock player. Of course, involving Brian May would inevitably incur the same concerns I’d had about any other high profile player. That said, there was no doubt in my mind that he was my number one choice, although I assumed, rather pessimistically, that the chances of him agreeing were probably nil.
In addition, if he did like the idea, surely the Queen organisation would fund it way beyond anything I could do and take it completely out of my hands? The other big problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to get the proposition to Brian in the first place. The only possible route I could see was through his website.
I speculatively contacted the site with my offer to produce the DVD which I had now decided would showcase Queen songs arranged for both electric and classical guitar. I felt that the proposition was interesting, but in all honesty didn’t hold out much hope of a reply.
To my astonishment, I received an e-mail almost immediately from Phil Symes who I recognised from the Queen albums as the band’s P.R. manager. Phil informed me that he had passed my e-mail to Queen’s manager Jim Beach, who would consider my proposition if I’d send him a copy of the Classical Guitar Performance DVD. I was also asked to send one to Brian himself. DVD’s were promptly dispatched and I awaited their response.
Eventually I received a letter from Jim Beach directly, thanking me for my proposition but that unfortunately Brian was extremely busy and in fact over committed for the foreseeable future. This of course was at a time where Queen had re-formed with Paul Rodgers and Brian had resumed his PhD studies, so the response to what was admittedly a slightly left field proposition came as no real surprise.
During the couple of weeks or so between sending the DVD to Jim and Brian, and receiving Jim Beach’s response, I had started to play through the Queen catalogue on classical guitar, investigating which tracks would work best for the proposed DVD. It soon became obvious that much of the material actually worked superbly well on solo classical guitar. Unperturbed by the failure of the collaboration with Brian May, I became very excited at the idea of having Carlos record an album of Queen songs arranged for solo classical guitar.
Carlos spends much of his time in South America, especially Mexico, which is home to his girlfriend, and also in Venezuela where he owns a house in the beautiful town of Carrora. He spends most of the British winter in South America, performing, teaching, practising and generally staying warm!
I e-mailed Carlos with my idea while he was in Mexico. It should be noted at this point that Carlos can contribute in great detail to almost any conversation on any subject you care to mention whether it’s travel, history, religion, education, world affairs and politics, through to anthropology, relationships and football. One subject however where his lack of knowledge was astoundingly poor was the music of Queen. Now, I don’t mean in the sense that he’d struggle to know that John Deacon was the bass player, I mean in the sense that he barely recognised anything by the band whatsoever, as they’d somehow managed to miss his musical radar over the previous thirty years. I frequently rib Carlos about a story he told me, where as recently as 2001, as he was being driven to a concert by his girlfriend , Bohemian Rhapsody came on the radio. Carlos apparently commented that the song was “rather interesting” and went on to ask “what was that song called and who was it by?” His girlfriend nearly crashed the car in disbelief, and retorted in best John McEnroe style: “You cannot be serious! You’re telling me that you’ve never heard this song before?! You have to be ******* joking!”
This small story goes some way to explaining Carlos’ initial response to my suggestion: “I think this is indeed a very good idea David. Am I correct in thinking that the song We are the Champions is by Queen?
Having secured Carlos’ agreement that the album was worth pursuing, I set about arranging the best part of twenty Queen songs for classical guitar. This involved acquiring every sheet music book for every Queen album, usually from e-bay, and playing through every single song to see what really worked. Some of this research had been carried out earlier of course with the books I already had, but now it had to be done seriously with no stone left unturned.
It soon became apparent that most of the appropriate material came from the band’s 70’s era, where the arrangements were quite complex and featured their trademark multi-layered guitars and vocals. That era was generally more lavish than their later work. That said, Play the Game, Sail Away Sweet Sister and Save Me, were taken from The Game which was released in 1980 and was the album that marked the change into Queen’s more streamlined 80’s sound. Who Wants to Live Forever and It’s a Hard Life were also taken from the band’s 80’s era although neither of those songs were exactly scaled down!
I did the arrangements for sixteen of the seventeen tracks that ended up on the album for solo classical guitar throughout January and February. The only track on the album which didn’t ever have a solo arrangement was Barcelona. Also partially arranged but ultimately not used were The Night Comes Down , All Dead All Dead and The Millionaire Waltz.
Carlos visited me in February to begin running through the arrangements and adapt them to his own style. All the tracks seemed to work well, and we were confident that we were able to record a great album of solo pieces. I played Carlos some additional Queen material just in case he thought there were better or more appropriate tracks that I had missed. We considered and then discarded These are the Days of Our Lives and Under Pressure as being too difficult to make interesting on solo guitar.
As we sat having dinner at the end of the day, both growing increasingly excited by the prospect of the new album, Carlos suggested that “It might be nice to have some strings on the album.” I took this initial idea to mean some violins, violas and possibly the odd cello to colour the sound. This casual and throw away suggestion would eventually lead us four short months later to Barquisimeto in Venezuela, home of the revered education system “El Sistema”. Here we would have a rollercoaster ride trying to record an eighty piece symphony orchestra and a fifty piece choir in the chaos that is South America!
Chapter 2. The MiracleOrchestral Queen and the thought of Venezuela.
Chapter 3. Don't Stop Me NowPreparation, Arranging and a boost from Dr May.
Chapter 4. Spread Your WingsPlanes, strains and automobiles.