II’ve been surrounded by bands my whole life. I went to school in Ealing, where Freddie Mercury went to art school. So did Ronnie Wood and Pete Townshend. Olympic Studios, where Led Zeppelin, The Who and the Rolling Stones recorded, was in nearby Barnes, where I lived. It’s a cinema now – the Stones recorded ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in the room where you watch movies.
I was on the fringes, but my parents wouldn’t let me go to art school and I ended up working for an insurance broker in town. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I started watching bands at the Hammersmith Odeon and saw David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. One night I smuggled in a cheap Russian camera to watch Paul McCartney and Wings sound check. Queen were the opening act so I took a picture of them playing and managed to sell it. It was my very first painting sale.
I taught myself but I couldn’t get a photo pass without a portfolio and I couldn’t get a portfolio without a photo pass. Punk came at just the right time: I suddenly had access to bands for 75p, and these were the images the music magazines wanted. When my name came up in NME, I was able to maneuver things better.
A photographer I met at a Damned gig shared a house with Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott. I was hanging out there and one day Phil said they were going to Scandinavia. I said, “Will you take me with you?” That’s how I became a tour photographer. After Thin Lizzy I shot Bowie, the Stones, the Bee Gees and Neil Diamond. Duran Duran in America was like Beatlemania. Bowie was very friendly, down to earth and funny. I spent two years with him practically every day. Being with the Stones was amazing. Who doesn’t want to get paid to fly around the world in their private jet with a rock band?
I shot Queen on the 1986 Magic Tour, which no one knew would be their last. They were so big then. I wanted to tour with them because it was such a great show and Freddie was a one-of-a-kind showman. I think this is one of only a few shots that exemplify him. That shape he’s throwing – no one else has ever done it. He looks like a flexible toy. In addition, the way he holds the microphone is one of his trademarks. He was so difficult to photograph when he was moving: he would have been in that pose for a microsecond because he would have turned around.
I only had 36 frames on a roll and film was very expensive so I couldn’t shoot frame by frame. Every time I pressed the shutter it cost me a pound. So I became like a sniper. I followed Freddie around like I had a film camera, and when I saw the shot at that nanosecond, I took the picture. Focusing was entirely manual. I often had very bad headaches after shows because the strain on the brain was so heavy. You observe the lights and what the artist is doing so precisely.
This was a summer show. The further north you go the later it gets dark and so it was quite light on Maine Road in Manchester. I was shooting on an old Olympus and the film could only run up to a certain speed. So if someone is moving fast, you need daylight to make it work. Shooting towards the crowd also meant that the people who worship him are in the same photo.
Off the stage Freddie could be quite shy but he was probably the funniest person I’ve ever toured with. Apparently he always addressed me as Doris. Queen guitarist Brian May said: “Didn’t you know that?” I didn’t – Freddie obviously called me that when I wasn’t around. On stage, however, he was just so flamboyant. He would command quite a lot – like he did at Live Aid. If you think of Freddie, it would be this shot.
Denis O’Regan’s 69 Days exhibition is available online at west-contemporary-editions.com and in person at the Denis O’Regan Gallery, London, on November 25th and 26th
Denis O’Regan’s CV
Born: London, 1953
Educated: self learned
Influences: “David Bowie, The Beatles, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk. I bought my first Mac in 1987, two years before Adobe released Photoshop, which I embraced immediately.”
peak: “The birth of my son in 2006. And David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight world tour in 1983.”
low point: “My mother’s cancer. She died in 1978 at the age of 47.”
Top Tip: “Stop whining. Just do it.”