Queen

Forty-five years on from their first al­bum, to many Queen re­main cham­pi­ons of the world. We look back at their first 15 years, from just an­other band of hope­fuls, to global su­per­stars, through wor­ry­ing slump to rul­ing Live Aid. It was no bed of roses, no

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Mick Wall

“There was al­ways this great chal­lenge of how far can we push things in any di­rec­tion.”

Wem­b­ley Sta­dium, July 13, 1985. When Fred­die Mer­cury skipped like a show pony on to the Live Aid stage, right arm aim­ing air-hooks at the sea of faces be­fore him, it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that Queen were at a new low point in their ca­reer. Fol­low­ing their con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion nine months pre­vi­ously to per­form at Sun City, jewel in the seg­re­gated crown of apartheid-ruled South Africa – an act in di­rect vi­o­la­tion of United Na­tions sanc­tions that would see them fined by the UK Mu­si­cians’ Union and placed on a United Na­tions black­list – Queen had be­come pari­ahs of pop; out­casts of rock; so­cial, mu­si­cal and po­lit­i­cal un­de­sir­ables.

It didn’t help that Queen had al­ways been por­trayed in the press as pompous, aloof, ar­ro­gant even. It was there in their mu­sic: arch, grandiose, ma­jes­tic. It was there even in the way they per­formed: Fred­die, pour­ing cham­pagne over the heads of the au­di­ence at Madi­son Square Gar­den, boast­ing of bring­ing bal­let to the masses and declar­ing: “Dar­ling, I’m sim­ply drip­ping with money! It may be vul­gar, but it’s won­der­ful.”

None of that, though, had ever stopped Queen fans from sim­ply lov­ing them, the same way they did the real Roy­als: un­equiv­o­cally, unashamedly, un­de­ni­ably, no mat­ter what.

The stink of those South African shows had clung to Queen though in a way it seemed im­pos­si­ble to shake off. Right up to the mo­ment that Fred­die plonked him­self down at the pi­ano on stage at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium that hot, never-to-be-for­got­ten day and picked out the bliss­fully fa­mil­iar in­tro to Bo­hemian Rhap­sody – and all 72,000 peo­ple there, plus the 1.9 bil­lion across the globe watch­ing on TV at home, went crazy.

From there it just got bet­ter. As they segued into the in­tro to Radio Ga Ga, Fred­die was up and pranc­ing, rolling those shoul­ders and purs­ing those lips, eyes sparkling as he waved around that phal­lic trun­cated mic stand like a scep­tre. Watch­ing a YouTube clip of it now, that glo­ri­ous mo­ment when the ec­static Wem­b­ley crowd do the syn­chro­nised hand­clap­ping à la the Radio Ga Ga video, the shiv­ers still spi­ral up the spine. It’s a mo­ment of mu­si­cal di­vin­ity. An ac­tual shot of rock im­mor­tal­ity. And Fred­die knew it.

As Live Aid or­gan­iser Bob Geldof put it: “Queen was ab­so­lutely the best band of the day. They played the best, had the best sound, used their time to the full. It was the per­fect stage for Fred­die – the whole world. And he could ponce about on stage do­ing We Are The Cham­pi­ons. How more per­fect could it get?”

The answer: it couldn’t.

No time for losers. That had al­ways been the Queen credo. Yet only in so much as it ap­plied to the band mem­bers’ own as­pi­ra­tions. As Brian May later ex­plained to me: “It wasn’t meant as a put-down or an ar­ro­gant thing. When Fred­die wrote that it was more di­rected at him­self, a kind of self-af­firm­ing thing. You’d say: ‘You can’t do that! We’ll get slaugh­tered.’ He’d just go: ‘Yes we can.’ And he was right.”

Any other band might have given up, such were the un­promis­ing cir­cum­stances that greeted Queen’s ar­rival on to the Lon­don scene in 1973.

So there was Brian, the nerdy space brain who’d built his own gui­tar from a fire­place (a what?) and liked to wear capes and clogs on stage; John Dea­con, an­other Bun­sen-burn­ing bright boy, who al­ways looked the most doubt­ful; or as he later put it: “I knew there was some­thing,” but wasn’t “con­vinced of it” un­til long af­ter Queen be­came stars; Roger Tay­lor, the blond, pretty-as-a-daf­fodil

“If this is our bright­est hope for the fu­ture then we are com­mit­ting

rock’n’roll sui­cide.”

Record Mirror in the early 70s

ex-pub­lic school­boy from Corn­wall who’d stud­ied to be­come a den­tist; and up front the bril­liant Far­rokh Bul­sara – Fred­die to his great many friends – who’d come from a boys’ board­ing school near Mum­bai, In­dia and was an arty, fash­ion-freaked, Hen­drix-ob­sessed, pan-sex­ual dy­namo who’d re­named him­self Mer­cury af­ter a line in one of his own songs. (‘Mother Mer­cury, look what they’ve done to me,’ from The Fairy King.)

A mot­ley col­lec­tion of ov­er­en­ti­tled popin­jays, you might say – and the crit­ics said a lot worse – that had ar­rived late for the glam party, yet still opted for make-up and satin pants while re­main­ing in thrall to the al­ready past-it hip­pie fo­gey-isms of Zep­pelin (Ogre Bat­tle, any­one?) Or as that re­doubtable or­gan of so­cio-mu­si­co­log­i­cal cri­tique Record Mirror put it at the time: “If this is our bright­est hope for the fu­ture then we are com­mit­ting rock’n’roll sui­cide.”

Nev­er­the­less, in the sum­mer of 1973 when Queen’s self-ti­tled first al­bum was re­leased, it was hard to place quite where the new­bies-come-very-lately fit­ted ex­actly. Bowie had just re­tired Ziggy; Zep were al­ready five al­bums and a mil­lion rain­bows in; Yes and Ge­n­e­sis had al­ready de­mar­cated pub­lic-school prog; Rod Ste­wart and El­ton John had cor­nered the good-geezer/wise-barfly mar­ket. What use, then, for an­other bunch of nail-pol­ished, gui­tar screech­ing look-at-mes? Against that back­drop, what Queen had to of­fer ap­peared highly con­trived – and in 1973 ‘con­trived’ was the worst in­sult you could throw at a band with pre­ten­sions to be­ing true al­bum-ori­ented con­tenders.

Even small vic­to­ries came tainted. When The Old Grey Whis­tle Test pro­ducer Mike Ap­ple­ton com­mis­sioned an an­i­mated se­quence to run on the show as a vis­ual to ac­com­pany a sub-Zep rocker ti­tled Keep Your­self Alive, he ad­mit­ted he had no idea it was a Queen track. He’d sim­ply “found this white la­bel in my of­fice, no name on it, and liked the open­ing track”.

There’s one thing no­body could deny, though: Queen were al­ways a great band live. They’d been hon­ing their live act all through the two years it

“Queen was ab­so­lutely the best band of the day. [Live Aid] was the per­fect stage for Fred­die – the whole world.”

Live Aid or­gan­iser Bob Geldof

took to com­plete their first al­bum. Then in Oc­to­ber 1973 they got their big break, open­ing for Mott The Hoople on a 31-date tour of the UK. You couldn’t be ‘con­trived’ and pull off per­for­mances of cin­e­matic epics like Fa­ther To Son and White Queen. Clearly this was a band that knew how to rock. The worry was whether they would be able to roll with the changes long enough to re­ally catch on.

They cer­tainly talked a good game. May laughed when I re­minded him once of Fred­die’s fa­mous quote from those pre-fame days about re­fus­ing to take pub­lic trans­port.

“It’s… slightly em­bel­lished,” he chuck­led. “I did a lot of bus jour­neys with Fred­die, ac­tu­ally. If you ever get on a num­ber nine bus and go up­stairs and go to the front left, that’s where Fred­die and I used to sit, go­ing up to Tri­dent [stu­dios, which their then man­agers, broth­ers Nor­man and Barry Sh­effield owned] to beat them on the heads, to try and make them do some­thing, cos we felt like we were in a back­wa­ter for so many years.”

The back­wa­ter years ended in 1974, with the re­lease in March of Queen II; more specif­i­cally, the hit sin­gle Seven Seas Of Rhye. More specif­i­cally still, their spec­tac­u­lar per­for­mance of it on Top Of The Pops. That weekly TV chart show meant ev­ery­thing in that largely pre-video age. As an over­im­pres­sion­able 15-year old Ziggy-kid with Mott-spots and Zepcrav­ings, for me Top Of The Pops was where Queen re­ally kept them­selves alive in the mid-70s. One wild-eyed shot of them do­ing Seven Seas Of Rhye had me steal­ing a ten-bob note from my mum’s purse in order to pur­chase the sin­gle dur­ing school lunch hour the next day.

It was the same when they came on do­ing Killer Queen – the most sub­limely bril­liant sin­gle of 1974 – later the same year. As for the adrenalin over­load of watch­ing them do Now I’m Here just weeks later. None of that ‘ironic’, ‘we know that you know we’re only mim­ing’ 80s non­sense with Queen in 1974. Look at the clip now of Fred­die wag­gling his black nail-pol­ished fin­gers in your face dur­ing Killer Queen, wrapped in bum-warmer fur while Brian and John throw cooler-than-thou, rock­i­dol shapes and Roger pouts as he pounds, and tell me you think they’re fak­ing it.

Looked back at now, it’s easy to see the rest of Queen’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory as an en­vi­ably up­ward line of un­bro­ken suc­cess. That af­ter the at­ten­tion-grab­bing Queen II and the pay-off of Sheer At­tack, those two al­bums re­leased within eight months of each other, their for­mula for suc­cess was firmly estab­lished. May brought the hard rock (Now I’m Here), Mer­cury the so­phis­ti­cated pop (Killer Queen), while Tay­lor and Dea­con were the Ringo and Ge­orge of the group – the side salad to the steak (although both would later con­trib­ute their own sig­nif­i­cant hit sin­ga­longs to the Queen canon.)

In fact, the mid-70s found the band in a per­ilous place. They were big at home in Britain, and through Killer Queen get­ting big­ger in Europe, and had the first signs of a US break­through when both Killer Queen and Sheer Heart At­tack reached No.12 on their re­spec­tive charts, but still just wage slaves, liv­ing in rented ac­com­mo­da­tion, sashay­ing around the clubs at night, scrab­bling around to pay the bills the next morn­ing.

Roger Tay­lor later re­called the band com­ing home from head­lin­ing two shows at the 15,000-ca­pac­ity Bu­dokan in Tokyo in the spring of 1975 and go­ing home to his tiny bed­sit in Rich­mond, and

“The Queen boys had a roof over their heads and an old van. It was like they’d never sold a record.” Mu­sic in­dus­try man­ager Don Ar­den

“we were still on sixty quid a week”. John Dea­con, by now mar­ried, had to beg for the £2,000 he needed as a de­posit on a house, while the Sh­effield broth­ers who man­aged Queen were sup­pos­edly driv­ing around in Rolls-Royces. Some­thing would have to be done. Quickly.

En­ter the most feared man­age­ment fig­ure in the Lon­don-based mu­sic busi­ness of the 1970s: Don Ar­den. Ar­den (fa­ther of Sharon, soon-to-be Os­bourne) once de­scribed for me how he be­came in­volved with Queen. “Queen was at its height at the time, yet they were pen­ni­less,” he said. “They didn’t even have a car be­tween them. Fred­die and the rest of the guys in the band were friendly with Sharon, and so they asked for [my] ad­vice. I [said] my ad­vice would be to get their coats on and fuck off! But they said they wouldn’t do that be­cause they were ter­ri­fied of the Sh­effield boys – they had the group be­liev­ing they ruled the streets of Soho. Well, we would see about that.

“Queen was signed to EMI, but the deal the la­bel had done had been via the broth­ers’ own pro­duc­tion com­pany. It was the same with all the deals the band made: noth­ing was signed di­rectly to them, but to the broth­ers’ pro­duc­tion com­pany. As a re­sult, the broth­ers not only owned their man­age­ment con­tract, they owned their record­ing con­tract and their song pub­lish­ing too.”

As a re­sult, said Don, “the Queen boys had a roof over their heads and an old van they trav­elled in when they were on tour. I couldn’t be­lieve it. It was like they’d never sold a record. I said: ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ They said: ‘We want you to man­age us, Don.’ I said: ‘Okay, get your lawyer to send me a let­ter con­firm­ing your in­ten­tion to come to me, and I’ll go and sort th­ese fuck­ing guys out for you.’ We shook hands on it, and the very next day I drove up to Soho to see the Sh­effields.

“I didn’t ac­tu­ally bother mak­ing an ap­point­ment, I just turned up. I knew they were fakes. Sure enough, when I walked into their of­fice and an­nounced my­self it scared the hell out of them. They be­gan talk­ing very fast, chat­ter­ing away about how they’d just been shop­ping with their wives buy­ing them jew­ellery. They were start­ing to make me sick, so I looked at my watch and said: ‘Well, we’ve done with the niceties. Now lis­ten to me very care­fully. I’m not here to talk about your fuck­ing wives. I’m here to in­form you that you no longer rep­re­sent Queen. It’s over, okay? Finito.’

“They looked at each other. They might have put the fright­en­ers on Queen, but did they have the balls to ac­tu­ally take on Don Ar­den? No, they fuck­ing didn’t. They couldn’t even look me in the eyes. They were wor­ried about what was com­ing next. Would I have a go? Maybe. But I wasn’t evil to them. I didn’t have to be. I just told them how stupid I thought they were. In fact I gave them a bit of a lec­ture. ‘If you’d at least bought them all a fuck­ing car and put a few quid in their pock­ets it would prob­a­bly never have come to this,’ I said. ‘Why didn’t you do all that and then think about screw­ing ’em? Well, you’ve blown it now. They’re gone.’

“They hung their heads in shame. I told them that if they agreed to walk away right now this in­stant, they would get a cheque for a hun­dred thou­sand pounds for their trou­ble and they would never have to see me again. I pointed out that if they didn’t agree, how­ever, the group would still be gone but they wouldn’t get any money at all, and they’d have me to deal with. They sen­si­bly took the money.

“When I got back to the of­fice that day and told [Queen] what I’d done they lit­er­ally wept for joy. They were hug­ging me and kiss­ing me. Then as soon as they got their hands on the money I never heard from them again.”

In fact, as Sharon Os­bourne later ex­plained to me, the band had de­cided in­stead to go with El­ton John’s

“Our songs are like Bic ra­zors – de­signed for mass con­sump­tion and in­stantly dis­pos­able.” Fred­die Mer­cury

man­ager, John Reid. The rea­son? “Fred­die,” she said. “John was gay too and I think Fred­die just felt safer with him.”

A shrewd mu­sic biz guru, Reid im­me­di­ately proved his worth by mak­ing a de­ci­sion that would trans­form the band’s lives. It was Reid who put his foot down and ab­so­lutely in­sisted that the next Queen sin­gle should be a track that, on paper, ap­peared the least com­mer­cial of all the new ma­te­rial they were work­ing on. A mock-opera, if you will, part bal­lad, part waltz, part rock­tas­tic head­banger. It was called Bo­hemian Rhap­sody. And when the suits at EMI heard it they nearly fainted. This was a joke, right? Wrong. This was a stroke of ge­nius.

We all know what hap­pened next.

Roy Thomas Baker, the pop per­fec­tion­ist who had pro­duced all the Queen al­bums up un­til then, later re­called his time work­ing with Fred­die, lis­ten­ing, mouth open, as the singer demon­strated on the pi­ano an “idea for a song” that he had.

“It was go­ing to be a brief in­ter­lude of a few Galileos and then we’d get back to the rock part of the song,” Baker mem­o­rably re­called years later. “When we started do­ing the opera sec­tion prop­erly, it just got longer and longer.”

Days went by with the record­ing. Every time a per­plexed Baker thought they were done, “Fred­die would come in with an­other lot of lyrics and say: ‘I’ve added a few more Galileos here, dear,’ and it just got big­ger and big­ger.”

There had fa­mously been long, ‘jour­ney’ songs on al­bums be­fore; tracks iden­ti­fied by their con­struc­tion from seem­ingly dis­parate el­e­ments that built to a tow­er­ing crescendo. The Bea­tles with A Day In The Life from the Sgt Pepper’s al­bum springs to mind eas­ily, as does Led Zep’s Stair­way To Heaven. Also, most re­cently in the mind of Fred­die Mer­cury, the three-part pop op­eretta Une Nuit A Paris from 10cc’s sum­mer 1975 al­bum

The Orig­i­nal Sound­track.

None of those, though, had ever been re­leased as a sin­gle. Yet when Cap­i­tal Radio DJ Kenny Everett played it 14 times in two days, EMI com­mis­sioned the now leg­endary video, based on images from pho­tog­ra­pher Mick Rock’s iconic ses­sion with the band from the pre­vi­ous year.

The re­sult was not just the big­gest hit of the year, but the big­gest hit – cer­tainly the most mem­o­rable – in Bri­tish mu­sic his­tory up to that point.

One that per­fectly en­cap­su­lated ev­ery­thing that we now think of when we think of Queen: rock grandeur, pop camp, multi-tracked mu­si­cal os­ten­ta­tion, work­son-many-lev­els lyri­cal im­agery, fun, fris­son, ‘you must be fuck­ing jok­ing’, ‘no I’m fuck­ing not’ ge­nius. All wrapped up in a song that would later be re­vealed as sur­pris­ingly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal.

For some­one who ap­peared supremely con­fi­dent, the truth is that by 1975 Fred­die was in a men­tal and emo­tional quandary. Although he’d been in a lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with bou­tique owner Mary Austin since be­fore Queen, he’d been ex­per­i­ment­ing with men since he was at board­ing school. Still liv­ing with Mary at the time he wrote Bo­hemian Rhap­sody, but now also in­volved with mu­sic pub­lisher David Minns, Fred­die had also in­creas­ingly be­gun to en­joy ca­sual gay sex on the road.

As Brian May later ex­plained to me: “The sub­ject of Fred­die’s sex­u­al­ity never came up. Ba­si­cally, be­cause none of us had any idea that he might be dif­fer­ent from us. Is that say­ing it the right way? I mean, we shared lots of flats and stuff, and I’ve seen Fred­die dis­ap­pear into rooms with lots of girls and screams would emerge, so, you know, we as­sumed that ev­ery­thing was fairly much the same way as we knew it. It was only later that we re­alised there was any­thing else go­ing on with Fred­die. We were on tour in the States, and sud­denly he’s got boys fol­low­ing him into a ho­tel room in­stead of girls. We’re think­ing: ‘Hmmm…’ And that’s about the ex­tent of it. Even then, ob­vi­ously, it was never a prob­lem. I al­ways had plenty of gay friends, I just didn’t re­alise that Fred­die was one of them un­til much later.”

In that con­text, it’s easy to read the lyrics to Bo­hemian Rhap­sody as a cry for help al­most. Cer­tainly a mes­sage in a bot­tle thrown out to sea by some­one feel­ing iso­lated, con­fused, lost. The poor boy, con­fused be­tween what’s real or just fan­tasy: ‘Be­cause I’m easy come, easy go, lit­tle high, lit­tle low/Any way the wind blows, doesn’t re­ally mat­ter to me…’

None of which was eas­ily de­tectable to the out­side world in the mid-70s, as from this point on Queen re­ally did take on the man­tle of rock royalty. The al­bum A Night At The Opera em­u­lated the dar­ing and so­phis­ti­cated splen­dour of its most fa­mous track, and be­came just as big a hit in its own realm, their first UK No.1, their first mul­ti­plat­inum top-five hit in the US, and gold and plat­inum stop-offs around the world.

From hereon in, ev­ery­thing about Queen would be de­fined in epic pro­por­tions. Not just the suc­cess – all of their al­bums fol­lowed A Night At The Opera into the up­per reaches of the world’s charts, as did most of their sin­gles, all the way up to The Game in 1980, which hit No. 1 in both Britain and Amer­ica, their last to do so – but also the man­ner of that suc­cess, the sheer scale of their en­deav­ours. Not just the in­creas­ingly over-the-top songs, but also the videos, live shows, al­bum launch par­ties and of course the per­sonal life­styles of the band.

The in­fa­mous launch party in New Or­leans in 1978 for the Jazz al­bum fea­tured a guest list of 500: rock and film stars, street freaks and me­dia loy­al­ists; oys­ters, lob­ster, the finest caviar, cham­pagne; dwarves serv­ing co­caine from trays strapped to their heads; con­tor­tion­ists, fire-eaters, drag queens, naked dancers in cages sus­pended from the ceil­ing; grand mar­ble toi­lets ‘ser­viced’ by pros­ti­tutes of both sexes. “Most ho­tels of­fer their guests room ser­vice,” Fred­die gig­gled. “This one of­fers them lip ser­vice.”

When the 1979 sin­gle Crazy Lit­tle Thing Called Love went to No.1 in Amer­ica Fred­die that boasted it had taken him just 10 min­utes to write, do­ing an Elvis im­per­son­ation while ly­ing in a bub­ble bath snort­ing co­caine in his £1,000-a-night suite at the Bay­erischer Hof Ho­tel in Munich. As you do.

Iron­i­cally, the big­ger and more os­ten­ta­tious be­came the Queen modus operandi, the more they were ac­cused of be­ing hol­low, pre­pos­ter­ous, in­alien­able. Yet no­body mocked Queen more than Fred­die Mer­cury. “Of course, dear,” he told one writer. “We’re won­der­fully shal­low. Our songs are like Bic ra­zors – de­signed for mass con­sump­tion and in­stantly dis­pos­able.”

Teased about the elab­o­rate stage pro­duc­tions they now toured with, Fred­die laughed and said: “We’re the most pre­pos­ter­ous band that’s ever lived.”

As Brian May told me: “The most pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tion of peo­ple out­side the peo­ple who ‘get it’, is that [Fred­die] took him­self se­ri­ously. [They] didn’t un­der­stand that although he took his work in­cred­i­bly se­ri­ously, there was al­ways that el­e­ment of self-par­ody, if you like, in Fred­die. He was al­ways slightly tongue-incheek; there was al­ways a lit­tle twin­kle in his eye. I think that’s what was missed by the out­side world. It never mat­tered to Fred­die, though, it never both­ered him. It was like, they either get it or they don’t.”

Such hubris reaps its own bit­ter re­wards, of course. And just as Queen seemed like they couldn’t get any higher – An­other One Bites The Dust (writ­ten by John Dea­con) from The Game be­came their sec­ond No.1 hit in the US, fol­lowed a year later by their only UK No.1 of the 80s, their David Bowie col­lab­o­ra­tion Un­der Pres­sure – they fi­nally flew close to the sun and badly singed their wings. They didn’t make it pub­lic, but by the end of mak­ing The Game Queen had all but bro­ken up.

“Yes, we all walked out at var­i­ous times,” May ad­mit­ted. “You get hard times, as in any re­la­tion­ship. We def­i­nitely did. Usu­ally in the stu­dio; never on tour. On tour you al­ways have a clear, com­mon aim. But in the stu­dio you’re all pulling in dif­fer­ent direc­tions and it can be very frus­trat­ing. You only get twen­ty­five per cent of your own way at the best of times. So, yes, we

“Although he took his work in­cred­i­bly se­ri­ously, there was al­ways that el­e­ment of self-par­ody in Fred­die.” Brian May

did have hard times. Feel­ing that you’re not be­ing rep­re­sented, that you’re not be­ing heard. Be­cause that’s one of the things about be­ing a mu­si­cian, you want to be heard. You want your ideas to be out there. You want to be able to ex­plore what’s com­ing to you in the way of in­spi­ra­tion. It was a dif­fi­cult com­pro­mise to find, but al­ways worth find­ing once you did find it.”

Speak­ing nearly 20 years later, John Dea­con put it more sim­ply: “Once we’d achieved that level and been suc­cess­ful in so many coun­tries in the world, it took away some of the in­cen­tive.”

The bot­tom of the bar­rel ar­rived with their 1982 al­bum Hot Space. Af­ter a decade at the top, Queen had demon­strated more ver­sa­til­ity than any group since The Bea­tles. It seemed they could do any­thing, not just bring opera to the charts – opera, dude! – but also Aretha-soul (Some­body To Love), ef­fer­ves­cent pop (Don’t Stop Me Now), mu­sic hall (Good Old Fash­ioned Lover Boy), rock­a­billy (Crazy Lit­tle Thing Called Love), heart­land rock (Fat Bot­tomed Girls), Chic-style funk pop (An­other One Bites The Dust)… With Hot Space they de­cided they could do disco.

“Fred­die and John def­i­nitely shared an in­ter­est in ex­plor­ing that funk di­rec­tion,” said May. “I re­mem­ber Roger’s first re­ac­tion to An­other One Bites The Dust, which was un­print­able! But he got into it in the end. And I make no apolo­gies for the Hot Space al­bum. I was well into it at the time. It took me a while to get into that phi­los­o­phy of sparse­ness but it was very good for us, it was a good dis­ci­pline and it got us out of a rut and into a new place.”

The trou­ble was, disco had al­ready been done to death, and only re­cently. By re­leas­ing the sin­gle Body Lan­guage, a sleek, highly im­pres­sive elec­tro-disco bump’n’grind, they had alighted on the form just as rap and soon-to-be hip-hop had rein­vented the genre. But Fred­die couldn’t see it. Now liv­ing in New York and a nightly habitué of the small-hours gay and S&M clubs where such mu­sic writhed and thrived, it wasn’t just the al­most suf­fo­cat­ing sounds of the tightly wound turnta­bles he sought to em­u­late, it was the whole limb-tan­gled scene.

Not only had ‘rock’ band Queen aban­doned their mu­si­cal foun­da­tion stones, also their singer had cut his hair butch-short and grown one of the mous­taches that char­ac­terised the af­ter-dark scene he now called home.

Fred­die’s change of im­age from svelte 70s rock star to short-haired and mous­ta­chioed pop diva was the mo­ment when Queen’s ca­reer in Amer­ica be­gan to tank.

“I think there’s a grain of truth in that, but there was a lot more go­ing on, a num­ber of fac­tors,” May in­sists. “One of the fac­tors was the video for I Want To Break Free. We’re talk­ing about a bit later now, but I know that that was re­ceived with hor­ror in the greater part of Amer­ica. Be­cause they just didn’t get the joke, you know. To them it was boys dress­ing up as girls and it was un­think­able, es­pe­cially for a rock band. I was ac­tu­ally in some of those TV sta­tions when they got the thing and a lot of them re­fused to play it. They were vis­i­bly em­bar­rassed about hav­ing to deal with it. So that was one fac­tor.”

He also cited the band’s switch of US la­bel in the early 80s: “We had spent a mil­lion dol­lars get­ting out of the Warner-Elek­tra deal to get on to the Capi­tol la­bel. And Capi­tol got them­selves into a heap of trou­ble with [a dis­pute that raged in the early 80s over the al­leged cor­rup­tion of in­de­pen­dent record pro­mot­ers in the US]. It was ba­si­cally the ring of bribery that [went] on to get records played [on US radio]. There was a gov­ern­ment en­quiry into it and ev­ery­body shut down very, very fast.

“With­out go­ing into it too deeply, Capi­tol got rid of all their ‘in­de­pen­dent’ guys, and the reprisals from the whole net­work were aimed di­rectly at all the artists who had records out at that time. We had Radio Ga-Ga out, which I think was num­ber thirty and ris­ing, and the week af­ter that it dis­ap­peared from the charts com­pletely. We got caught up in all that due to no fault of our own.”

Mer­cury, as ever, af­fected not to care, as if noth­ing re­ally mat­tered. Queen toured South Amer­ica in­stead of North Amer­ica. “Ja­pan and Europe also be­came a huge thing for us. Eastern Europe opened up. And we were not seen for quite a long time in the States, due to a com­bi­na­tion of all the

“I make no apolo­gies for the Hot Space al­bum. It got us out of a rut and into a new place.” Brian May

cir­cum­stances that I’ve de­scribed. Plus the fact that Fred­die didn’t want to go back smaller than we’d been be­fore. He was like: ‘Let’s just wait, and then soon we’ll go out and we’ll do sta­di­ums in Amer­ica as well.’ Only of course we never did.”

For the Queen tra­di­tion­al­ists – and there were still many mil­lions of them – the re­lease of The Works, in 1984, was an unexpected joy. To call it a re­turn to form would be un­just. It was an­other move for­ward, just less de­lib­er­ately weird than its much-de­rided pre­de­ces­sor. The elec­tron­ics were there not just to un­bal­ance ex­pec­ta­tions, but, as in royal days of yore, to be­come an­other Queen-en­dorsed part of the over­all mu­si­cal majesty.

Radio Ga Ga, writ­ten by Tay­lor, was a gi­ant hit, herald­ing what ap­peared to be a new chap­ter in the ever-un­fold­ing story of Queen. Even bet­ter, though, was I Want To Break Free, with its gor­geous lop­ing rhythm that John Dea­con had again come up with, and bliss­fully muted synth solo, played by the great Fred Man­del, the first sig­nif­i­cant ex­tracur­ric­u­lar mu­si­cian ever to ap­pear on a Queen record. The video was a hoot, of course, with its cring­ingly short skirts, crooked women’s wigs, badly drawn lippy and droopy cig­a­rettes. The track was fab­u­lous, joy­ous and, when lis­tened to alone, away from the hoover­ing video, a won­der­fully fully re­alised de­mand for the one thing rock mu­sic was orig­i­nally in­vented to cham­pion: the free­dom to be one­self, who­ever the hell that might be, when no one else is look­ing.

A few years later I at­tended the fu­neral of Brian Munns, the bril­liant EMI press of­fi­cer who had at­tended Queen’s ca­reer through thick and thin. I was deeply moved to dis­cover he had re­quested that I Want To Break Free be played as his cof­fin was ush­ered into the flames of the cre­ma­to­rium. By then Fred­die was dead too, but to hear him croon­ing ‘It’s strange but it’s true/I can’t get over the way you love me like you do’ brought a happy tear to the eye. For Fred­die and Brian, for all of us.

I also re­called the harsh crit­i­cism that news that Queen had been added to the Live Aid bill had en­gen­dered among my col­leagues on the so-called free press. And how none of it re­ally mat­tered by the time Fred­die, Brian, John and Roger took Wem­b­ley and the world by storm that sum­mer.

When, ex­actly 20 years later, I asked Brian May what he would list as Fred­die Mer­cury’s great­est at­tributes as live per­former, apart, of course, from that fan­tas­tic four-oc­tave voice, he replied: “I sup­pose that com­bi­na­tion of such dar­ing and au­dac­ity, but also a great vul­ner­a­bil­ity as well.”

Isn’t that what made them Queen, though, that abil­ity to be some­thing more than just a rock band?

“Well, that’s very kind of you,” he said.

“It’s true that to us there were no bound­aries. Along­side try­ing to never tread the same ground twice, there was al­ways this great chal­lenge of how far can we push things in any di­rec­tion.”

And on those sev­eral oc­ca­sions when they went too far?

“You’d have to ask Fred­die.”

“There was al­ways this great chal­lenge of how far can we push things in any di­rec­tion.” Brian May

Up and com­ing hope­fulls Queen in1973: (l-r) Roger Tay­lor, Fred­die Mer­cury, Brian May, John Dea­con. (They ended up do­ing quite well.)

Clock­wise from top left: Brian May in ’74, Fred­die Mer­cury in’73, Roger Tay­lor in ’77.

Killer Queen: Ham­mer­smith Odeon,De­cem­ber ’75.

Ris­ing sons: Queen in the gar­den of their ho­tel in Tokyo, April 22, 1975.

‘When the suits at EMI heardBo­hemian Rhap­sody they nearly fainted. This was a joke, right?’Queen on the set of Dutch TV show TopPop (Brian May un­usu­ally witha Strat in­stead of his sig­na­ture Red Spe­cial), Novem­ber 22, 1974.

Go­ing hell for leather: this photo and above: Queen at Manch­esterApollo, Novem­ber 1979.

Fred­die Mer­cury and Brian May (here in 1984) were ar­guably rock’s great­est ever singer­gui­tarist dou­ble act.

Un­der pres­sure? The Wem­b­ley Live Aid ex­trav­a­ganza was watched by 72,000 peo­ple in the sta­dium (be­low) and a global TV au­di­ence of 1.9 bil­lion.

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