From singalongs at the family home in Portsmouth to playing to an estimated TV audience of 1.9bn at Live Aid as part of Queen, Spike Edney has spent a lifetime making music. CHRIS BROOM spoke to him.
Christmas Eve, 1975.
Spike Edney is playing a concert in Woking with his band Smiling Hard and a bunch of other regional groups.
But when they’re not performing themselves, the acts are all huddled around a radio broadcasting a live concert by Queen from Hammersmith Odeon.
The rock group are in the middle of an imperious nine-week run at the top of the charts with the fantastically OTT Bohemian Rhapsody.
And it makes a big impression on the young musician from Portsmouth.
‘I remember thinking at the time “wow that sounds fantastic, how long am I going to have to wait before I’m playing places like that instead of playing Woking Central Hall? When will I be standing on the stage of Hammersmith Odeon, broadcasting to the world like this?’’
‘That was the thought in those days, rather than: “how can I join this band?”’
But Spike did go on to become Queen’s ‘fifth man’ – joining them for the tour of their The Works album in the mid-’80s as a keyboard player, getting to experience life with the band as they reached their dizzying commercial peak, through to the tragic death of iconic frontman Freddie Mercury from AIDS-related illness. He remains with them to this day.
Born in Malins Road, Portsmouth, in 1951, Spike and his family soon moved into the then-new houses in Allaway Avenue in Paulsgrove, before moving again to Portchester.
Spike moved on to Gosport before heading up to London in 1980 – he still has close friends and family in the area.
His love of music was fostered from an early age – his family would have weekly singalongs at home.
However, everything changed in the ’60s.
‘There was this explosion of music that came out of the UK and to be a teenager at that time was the most exhilarating thing.’
With all this exciting new music, Spike absorbed as much as he could from the radio and TV shows like Ready Steady Go and Thank Your Lucky Stars.
He started playing in bands with schoolmates, but joined his first ‘proper’ band, The Monk, after lying about his age – claiming he was 17 when he was only 15. Smiling Hard were his next band.
He would soon get gigs backing huge American stars when they came to the UK. Thanks to strict Musicians’ Union rules, it was easier for the stars to pick up local bands to tour with them. As a result he backed the likes of Ben E King and Edwin Starr.
His chance to join Queen came when he bumped into an old friend who was now Queen drummer Roger Taylor’s personal assistant. He told him the band were looking for a keyboard player to join them on tour and asked Spike if he could give him a tape of him playing.
However, Spike had spent the past few years playing trombone with Dexy’s Midnight Runners and The Boomtown Rats – hardly relevant to becoming Queen’s keyboard player.
‘I sent them a tape with me tinkling some jazz and a couple of other things and I thought this is going to get me nowhere – they’ll have one listen to this and throw it away.
‘Obviously through some fluke – the universe was on my side – I get called in for an interview. I go into their office in Notting Hill, and when I get there, there’s no-one else. I meet the tour manager and he says “have you got a valid passport”. I did, and he said ‘‘are you available for the next six months? Right, you’re in.”
‘I thought he was joking.’
After cramming as much of their repertoire as possible, and armed with a copy of The Works, which contained such soon-to-be-hits as Radio Ga Ga and I Want to Break Free, Spike met the band on the first day of tour rehearsals in Munich,
‘It was terrifying, to put it mildly, but they hadn’t played live for a couple of years at that point, so they were quite rusty.
‘They played Tie Your Mother Down and a couple of things that were easy, and I’d done my homework – preparation is the key to everything.
‘Then when we got to playing songs from The Works, they’d never played them as a band unit, everything had been done in the studio with overdubs and all that sort of thing, so I knew the songs better than them.
‘I felt at ease quite quickly.’
As the ’80s progressed, more huge albums followed, but the band didn’t tour, with rumours of Freddie’s ill health circling. Spike saw him for the last time during a holiday in Ibiza.
‘I could see he wasn’t well, but I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t want to guess. When the end came it was devastating, for everybody.’
The flamboyant performer died in November 1991. The following April a star-studded concert took place at Wembley Stadium.
‘Axl Rose and Liza Minnelli on stage together, where else would you see that?’ laughs Spike now.
It was local music promoter Peter Chegwyn who Spike credits with first getting him to put together Spike’s All Star (SAS) Band.
Spike had played at the Gosport Festival, which was put on by Chegwyn, with Roger Taylor’s The Cross, and as part of Bob Geldof’s solo band in 1992 and ’93.
By 1994 Spike wasn’t part of a set project, so was encouraged by Peter to pull something together for that summer’s festival, and the SAS Band was born.
Using his extensive contacts, he approached a few singers, asking ‘if they’d do a couple of songs – there’s pocket money in it, nothing big, and would they come for the fun of it?
‘So we had Kiki Dee, Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and Tony Hadley. It was meant to be a one-off thing, we all had such fun doing it, there were a few people in the audience who asked us if we would play at a few private events and it snowballed from there.’
The band typically only play corporate shows, only venturing out in public for a Christmas show. But this year they’re playing a run of gigs, including Portsmouth Guildhall.
‘This is the first time I’ve been persuaded to venture out publicly, so this is quite an adventure,’ he says with a smile.
Joining them on the tour is guest vocalist, former Spice Girl, Mel C, alongside Graham Gouldman of 10CC, Kiki Dee and Madeline Bell.
‘Mel C is a lovely new recruit. I’ve done a couple of charity events with her so I asked if she’d come along and do this for a bit of fun.
‘Our band is so versatile, we mould ourselves to the artist. One minute we can do a punk song, the next country and western and then a Motown song with ease, and swap genres.
‘Everything and anything goes – if it’s a song we like it doesn’t matter what genre it is, we’ll try it.’
He also still plays with Queen, now fronted by Adam Lambert, and they’ve been recently announced as the closing headliners at next year’s Isle of Wight Festival.
‘It’s a different experience now obviously, but the songs and the music have endured.
‘What’s amazing is that among the audience are kids and teenagers who were too young to see the original band, people seeing Queen for the first time, and they accept Adam Lambert as a member of Queen. He can sing – he’s got an amazing set of vocal cords. He can make the notes with ease and he’s got great stage presence.’
The SAS Band plays Portsmouth Guildhall on Tuesday, December 8. Tickets cost from £36 to £44. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk
Spike Edney: From Landport to Live Aid, an exhibition charting his life in music is on display now as part of The Access All Areas: The Portsmouth Music Experience, in Portsmouth Guildhall.
‘Live Aid took it up to another level,’ says Spike.
Queen were invited by Live Aid mastermind Bob Geldof to play the Wembley show in aid of famine relief for Ethiopia and Spike recalls: ‘There was no masterplan, it was just get as many hits as you can into 20 minutes – they had a history of being able to play a decent medley.
‘I don’t think it took longer than five to 10 minutes to figure out what the plot was and decide which songs to do and how much to play of each one – it wasn’t weeks beavering away, it was literally on the back of a fag packet outside the rehearsal hall. We went in and played it through a couple of times – done. Didn’t think any more of it.’
Then came July 13, 1985. Wembley Stadium was packed and the global TV audience was estimated to be 1.9bn.
‘When we walked on stage, the roar that greeted them, the wave of affection was staggering.
‘I recall it was a very lovely sunny day, there’d been a lot of people meandering around backstage and it had a very loose, summer picnic feel.
‘When Queen came on and grabbed it, it turned into a proper massive rock stadium gig.
‘It changed the dynamic of the day and that performance has now been put in some historical context. It took them from being loved and fairly secure to global stardom beyond belief.
‘With Live at Wembley and Knebworth and going behind the Iron Curtain to play Budapest, that big world tour turned out to be the peak of them playing live.
‘1986 was the final year of Freddie touring, but we weren’t to know that at the time.’