Dig into the archives: an interview with Queen archivist Greg Brooks

An exclusive interview for queenvinyls.com with the legendary Queen archivist Greg Brooks. The main topics discussed are about the forthcoming memorabilia book “I Want It All” and the organization of the archives. The interview took place on May, 24th 2021.


How do you become the official Queen archivist? Is there any particular memory do you want to share?

I wrote a letter to Queen’s Manager Jim Beach in 1994 and suggested that if Queen ever wanted to consider putting together any kind of rarities product, or Anthology set, like the Beatles had recently done at that time, and if their tape archive required any kind of organisation, they might consider me for that task. I told him I had some very specific ideas of how I would approach it. He asked me to come and meet him for a chat. We did that at Queen’s Pembridge Road offices in London, and that ultimately led to me being offered a 6 month contract.

Is it still an emotion for you to look for unedited tracks or to find new objects?

Yes. Absolutely it is. To hear unreleased Queen recordings is just about the most exciting prospect there is for me – back in 1994, and still today… ever since 1976 in fact! To hear the band chatting, working, creating, arguing, and coming up with amazing music that was to become so famous and well loved, is really staggering.

It can be very emotional too, to hear the Queen members talking and laughing and having a great time, being so productive and inventive, and hearing them as young men too, in their 30s. It’s a fascinating insight. It is a bit like going back in time and witnessing the creation of the music you love most. It is as close to being there at the actual time, as it is possible to achieve.

Is it difficult to separate your fan-side from the work one?

Not really. I knew from day one that it was essential to be seen by the band and management, and my day-to-day colleagues, to be professional and calm and to be focussing just on the job, and nothing else. And then later, with fellow fans too, I thought it was important to be seen as a professional first, and fan second. 

But I always let people know that underneath it all, I am a Queen Fan, first and foremost, just like them, like everyone else. But I have to remain focussed and professional and represent Queen in the very best way I can, always.

How are the archives organized? In several rooms or all in one place?

The Masters are in one place, safety copies in two other places. Everything is stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. Security is of paramount importance, so everything is extremely well locked up, secure, alarms, cameras, and monitored by Police, etc. We look after every aspect of the archive with extreme attention to detail and take it very seriously. Queen spend a lot of money protecting the precious archive tapes and in fact all aspects of the archives generally, looking after every item, ensuring every tape is stored in the best possible conditions.

I have never encountered anyone else taking the level of care that we do, thought I’m quite sure that many other artists do care equally – they just do so discretely, quietly, silently and with no fuss, behind closed doors – which is exactly as it should be. As well as the audio and video tapes, and film, there is also a large collection of memorabilia, and that is spread over two or three rooms, because, for example, posters and costumes require a different storage environment to vinyl records, CDs and magazines.

How the organization of material has changed over the years?

The archives have evolved over the last 25 years. We do things more or less the same as always, but these days the way that tapes are copied, transferred, safety protected, has changed slightly, as you’d expect, and as technology progresses. The way that we log each tape, photograph it, label it, etc, has altered over the years. Right now, as you might predict, the various archives are in the best shape they have ever been in.

We need to be able to find every relevant tape for whatever project we are working on, in that moment, and everyone involved has to be confident that nothing has been missed. And extremely well organised and meticulously logs and catalogues Archive is absolutely essential for the efficient running of any good business, and never more so than in our industry, in my opinion.

Imagine having to look through several thousand audio types every time you needed a particular song or live performance, or if somebody asked you for all the different versions we have of a particular song. It would take ages and ages every single time, and the process would be open to human error and certain items would inevitably be missed. So, you need an extremely well maintained and efficient database, or series of databases, that you can rely on. It has taken a long time to reach the point where we are as efficient as we possibly can be and where we can be 100% confident that we know where every item in our archive is at any time, be at an audio or digital tape, a rolls of film, a T-shirt, tour jacket, CD, LP, 7”, cassette, test pressing, acetate, poster, ticket, program, book, magazine, box set, tour itinerary, or anything else anyone cares to mention.

What has been made to preserve items?

Audio tapes are preserved in various ways, depending upon what the source tape is, or if it’s analog or digital, if the original is on a specific kind of tape, from a certain year or manufacturer. Different recordings are protected in different ways, as are video tapes and celluloid film stock.

The Queen technical team of sound engineers/producers are a very clever bunch of people, who are completely on top of every detail of protecting the irreplaceable Queen tape/archive and legacy. They have all aspects of that extremely well covered. And I do the same for the memorabilia, photographs, costume, press and documents. Collectively, we preserve and maintain the archive to the very highest standards. The band expects nothing less.

Are there any memorabilia or vinyl editions still unknown in the archives?

There is a lot of memorabilia that I think has never been seen, within our archive, and there are items that I know have never been seen publicly. Things that only Brian thought to keep, like acetates and test pressings he kept from the earliest days, tickets and passes, and certain posters. Brian retains many posters that I have never seen on the internet or anywhere else. He certainly has personal items that were given to him over his career by various people in various countries, which he kept to one side and regards as treasures.

So, for example, he would keep dinner menus and invitations that apparently nobody else thought to keep. All of these things I will be showing in my forthcoming book on Queen memorabilia. It was always my intention to show as many things as I could that people have never seen before, or which only a very very few people have seen before.

Over my 40 years of following Queen, and seeing a vast volume of related memorabilia, I thought I had seen more or less everything there was to see. But over the last fiver six years, having invited Fans from all over the world to send me photographs of their treasures for the book, I have seen so many things that I’ve never seen before. Posters from Japan, Hungary, France, Germany and Russia, for example. As well as so many other miscellaneous items, like T-shirts and jackets and rare vinyl and promotional items. All of these things will be in the book.

I should say, that there is such a vast quantity of Queen memorabilia spanning 50 years, it is not possible or practical for me to show everything in the book. I can only show a cross-section representing every product and project. I cannot show every variation of every Queen single, such as 55 copies of Crazy Little Thing Called Love, from all around the world – every 7”, 12″, every coloured vinyl item from Columbia or Brazil, test pressings, acetates, because that would take an entire book just on its own. Instead I am going to show the very best and most interesting and visually attractive items (though it will include ALL the coloured vinyl, because I’d surely incur the wrath of certain collectors if I left any out!).

There will be fans that will complain that I did not show this item, or that item, even though I do show many thousands of other items, but that is the way it is always been. There will always be some fans out there that will pick up any new book and go through it looking only to find the errors and mistakes, and the things that are missing, before looking at the many thousands of items that are correct and that are present. Such is life!!

I can only do the best with my “I Want It All” memorabilia book, and no more. I am going to be showing a huge amount of stuff, and even a Collector is like you, Nicola, will I’m sure be shocked at some of the things you see, that you did not know existed.

Besides vinyls, memorabilia and clothes are there any musical instruments used by the band?

No. I’m not really showing instruments in the book, because I do not regard them as memorabilia. What I mean by this is, that if it was not possible for the ordinary man in the street, the working man, or woman, to go into a shop and buy a certain item, or order it from the shop, then it cannot really be described as memorabilia, in the same way as a record, CD, cassette, poster or T-shirt can.

Things that only belonged to the band, such as music instruments, are really not proper memorabilia. Well… I suppose you could argue about this all day long. But for 99% of things in this book, I’ll try to make it about what most people would expect to find and what most people would describe as general memorabilia. It is extremely difficult to apply a very strict criteria to a book like this. It’s difficult when you start to say ‘We must show these things only, but never those items, and it must be this and cannot ever be that’, et cetera.

There are many items that come along, and you suddenly have to think, is this strictly speaking proper memorabilia? Can I really show this in this book? Do people really want to see such things? And you know that whatever you decide, you can never please all the people all the time. So, for example, even if you do not like bootleg items or pirate picture discs, they are still Queen memorabilia, and certain people love to collect them, just as certain people like to collect only authentic official releases.

I know there are people out there that collect only “A KIND OF MAGIC” album or only “A NIGHT AT THE OPERA” related memorabilia, but equally there are people that collect all picture discs, official and unofficial too. So I have shown some unofficial bootlegs in the book just because overall I want the book to present memorabilia of every conceivable kind. The good, the bad, the ugly, the official, the unofficial, the bootlegs, the pirates, everything that any Queen Fan has ever seen, been interested in, or has had a reason to collect, or avoid. 

Is there a dedicated section for video recordings besides the audio reels?

No. Bearing in mind it is about memorabilia only, and not the Queen working Archive. This book has very little within it to do with Queen in the context of working material, such as multitrack tapes or video or film items, for the reasons I stated earlier – they are not truly defined a ball as memorabilia. So the only videos you will see are the ones you would expect to see. Live in Rio, Live in Budapest, Live in Japan 82, Greatest Flix, the We Will Rock You Montréal 1984 project, The Works EP and Miracle EP, the video singles from 1987, etc.

Every video that has ever been released over Queen’s 50 years, is going to be represented in this book – most of them anyway. There is the Greatest Hits and the game Elektra real-to-reel items, if that’s what you’re referring to, because they were certainly officially released items, and therefore are memorabilia. They are very nice looking items as well and visually interesting, which was an important aspect of the book. Everything has to look good on the page and have a reason to be there.

Will some old concerts be remastered for future releases?

Yes, almost certainly they will. We have not discussed this among the Queen team for quite some time, and I have no idea if the band and management have discussed it. We would only be told at the point at which the band and management and record company decide they want some kind of new products, with some kind of concert element to it.

At that point, we would get our heads together and put down on paper some ideas and suggestions for the band. Certain things such as Hyde Park 1976, Houston 1977 and Earls Court ’77, and of course all the Live Killers stuff from ’79, is all perfectly relevant to this and would I’m sure be considered at some point worthy of releasing is in some form or other. It is no secret that we have discussed and looked seriously into the prospect of a “LIVE KILLERS” box set, but it hasn’t been mentioned for awhile. I think many Queen Archive concerts will eventually make it onto a product, I just have no idea what form it might take or when it could happen.

But I would be very surprised if Hyde Park and Earls Court and the live killers material did not see the light of day sooner than later. That is certainly my hope too. But for all I know it could be two years away or five years or 20. I have no way of knowing, no more than you do.

Is there a concrete possibility that some unreleased tracks (such as “Hangman” or “Silver Salmon“) will ever be published?

I’m sure at some point we will get some of the unreleased things from the Archive into some kind of anthology or rarities product. But at this moment it would be pure guesswork as to what form it would take and when it would emerge. A Queen anthology could be one huge box set, or five small box sets. It could be 10 individual CDs, or it could be 20, or 50. It could take the form of any number of formats. Your guess is really as good as mine on this.

It is a little bit like asking me about – just for the sake of example – the Back to the future films, and asking me what I think will happen with that project in future years. What kind of box sets will emerge, how many DVDs will it be, or how many Blu-rays, or will it be on a brand new format and not DVD or Blu-ray, will it be in a big silver cardboard box, or a small metal box? Will it be in the shape of a DeLorean car, or in a ‘Flux Capacitor’ shaped package???

Of course, I have no clue at all. No more than you do. I cannot see into the future, no pun intended, for the Back to the future range of products, no more than I can the future in terms of Queen products. We all just have to wait and see what emerges, and when, and what form it might take. Packaging and technology is changing all the time, so if we were to make the live at the Rainbow ’74 products right now, instead of in 2014, it would no doubt be rather different to that which you saw back then. If we did it now, it could be in a metal tin, or it could be in the shape of any number of collectors edition boxes that are available right now…

So many different and elaborate designs are available these days, that could not have been done in 1976, or 1992 or 2017. And in two years or in five years time, I’m sure the box sets will be very different to those currently available. I’m simply saying that these kinds of questions are impossible for me to predict, and in fact they are impossible for anyone to predict.

How your work has changed during the years?

In the beginning I was purely working within the archive and looking after the audio and video tapes. These days I also look after the memorabilia and the photographs and the press archive, and the costume and posters, and exhibitions when they emerge, and I am involved in the merchandise and the product that we put out. As part of a team, I’m involved in conceiving ideas and putting things together to show the band, I write text for sleeve notes and websites and for other uses too. These days I do probably 20 or 30 times more things than I did at the start. 

Everyone involved with Queen, albeit a relatively small team of people, is usually extremely busy with various projects going on simultaneously. At the moment, for example, there is all the Queen work going on as always, lots of progress on the photographic archive, and on the website, and things to do with the merchandise and future products, but there is also Brian and Roger solo projects. And there is the Queen and Adam Lambert Archive to keep on top of, and various books and other projects in the pipeline or currently active.

There is never a time when the entire team is not busy with many things, largely because Queen is as popular today than it has ever been. Perhaps even more so. I cannot imagine this changing any time soon. I think the band will continue to be more and more popular, and therefore all the memorabilia and all the projects and all the archives that we all work on, will continue to require more and more input and work – and that is a great situation indeed, in my opinion.

All the items have been digitally transferred or saved in some formats?

Yes.

Is another exhibition planned? Or the permanent Montreux one will be re-organized?

It is too soon after lockdown to think about exhibitions yet, though I would fully expect someone will approach us at some point with such a venture in mind, and we will get to it. I guess the Montreux exhibition will be reorganised at some point, yes, though we have not given this detailed thought in recent months. We monitor it all the time and will certainly update it if we think it is required.

What is the future of Queen archives? 

Again, your guess is probably as likely to be accurate as mine, on this. I could not predict what will be happening in the Queen archive in five years time or 10 years time, or probably even 10 months time. Things have been pretty consistent and constant for the last 25 years, the time that I have been around, and I imagine it will be more or less constant for the next 25 or 50 years. I imagine the archives will continue to require constant monitoring and upkeep, and every few years the precious recordings and footage will need to be backed up and protected to the very latest and most recent formats.
I hope that offers you some insight into my work. It’s a fascinating job and it’s never the same from one week to the next. I hope to be doing it for the next 20 years – for as long as I am needed.

© Nicola Bizzo


Related Articles