3rd Place: 0
2nd Place: 2
1st Place: 1
If it was worth doing, it was worth overdoing. Love them or loathe them (and there are millions who align themselves passionately with both camps), those nine words perfectly encapsulated the philosophy of Queen – and in particular their incomparable frontman Freddie Mercury, for whom the phrase “larger than life” might have been invented. More than four decades since their genesis, and two since Freddie’s death, this most regal of bands continues to reign.
Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor had worked together in the late 1960s in a college band called Smile, which was going nowhere fast when Farrokh Bulsara joined as the band’s new singer. Bassist John Deacon completed the line-up while Bulsara changed two names – those of the band, to Queen, and of himself, to Freddie Mercury. The band refined both their sound and their on-stage persona – May’s distinctive sound, emanating from his famously hand-made “Red Special” guitar was a particular trademark, while Freddie phenomenal voice and natural flair made him the consummate showman. The group’s eponymous first album sold poorly but was well received by the critics – a notable combination, given that the rest of their career largely followed the polar opposite theme of massive sales and critical derision.
“Killer Queen” gave the foursome their first major international hit, but it was of course with 1975’s 6-minute mini-opera masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody” – complete with the revolutionary concept of a promotional music video – and the accompanying album A Night At The Opera that the band reached superstar status. “Rhapsody” was a colossal hit not only on its original release but on subsequent re-releases too and has since taken up almost permanent residence at or near the top of any self-respecting Great Song of All Time list. Success continued virtually unbroken throughout the 1970s – two of rock’s classic anthems “We Are The Champions” and “We Will Rock You” dominated 1977’s News Of The World while the 1978 double A-side “Fat Bottomed Girls”/”Bicycle Race” was launched – how else? – by naked large-bottomed women riding bikes through Hyde Park. Queen became a by-word for over-the-top excess, and stories of their after-parties (complete with cocaine-distributing dwarves) passed into legend. Success at home was followed – and matched – by success overseas and for a period Queen was genuinely the biggest band in the world.
The group’s relationship with the USA was particularly fascinating. After strong, consistent success through the second half of the ‘70s, they peaked in 1980 with The Game, which not only reached number 1 on the album chart but yielded two massively successful chart-topping singles in “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites The Dust,” the latter only released as a single on the advice of a certain Michael Jackson. Queen at that moment occupied a pinnacle attained by very few, and yet by 1982 it was all but over for them Stateside.Hot Space flopped, as did its singles – even the classic duet with David Bowie, “Under Pressure,” was only a minor hit. There were reasons, of course – issues with their record label, criticism of the new disco-influenced sound, Mercury’s increasingly gay image, the fact that Hot Space was pretty rubbish – and it almost looked as though they could recover when “Radio Ga Ga” charted promisingly following a change of record company.
Then they went and dressed up in drag. The video for “I Want To Break Free” was a parody of Coronation Street – Britain got the joke and adored it. The rest of the world may not have gotten it but loved it anyway. Ultra-conservative US of A? Forget it – you couldn’t be doing that on MTV in 1984, and so for the rest of the decade one of the very biggest bands on the planet couldn’t get arrested in America. (Poignantly, Freddie once asked “Do I have to f*cking die to get America back?” It turns out he did. Well, that and Bohemian Rhapsody being used in Wayne’s World.)
Ironically, Queen’s popularity almost everywhere else through their second decade grew. The band matured and diversified musically – from searing guitar rock classics like “Hammer To Fall” and “I Want It All” to the epic pop of “A Kind of Magic” and the haunting beauty of “Who Wants to Live Forever” all the way to the monumental three-movement opus that was “Innuendo”, there was nothing the band couldn’t do – they even composed the soundtrack for the film Flash Gordon. For all their success on record, Queen attained perhaps an even higher level in the rock pantheon as arguably the greatest live act of all time. They broke new ground in 1981 as the first western band to play a full stadium tour of Latin America, fostering a massive fanbase in that part of the world which remains to this day. Later they became the first band to play behind the Iron Curtain by performing to 80,000 at the Nepstadion in Budapest. It didn’t always go to plan – a gig at Sun City during the height of Apartheid drew much criticism, though the band responded – somewhat justifiably – with the defence that they had insisted on playing to unsegregated audiences.
Two particularly magnificent moments came late in the band’s live career (their last live show was Knebworth in 1986 – it wasn’t admitted publically, but Freddie’s health prevented touring after that). At Live Aid in ’85 Queen – and in particular Freddie – unquestionably stole the show with one of the most celebrated performances in rock history. Then at Wembley a year later Queen gave back to back performances which remain the benchmark by which stadium rock gigs are – or should be – judged.
Mercury’s health had been the subject or rumours and gossip long before the inevitable announcement of his illness on 23 November 1991. Twenty-four hours later he was dead. The beautiful “These Are The Days Of Our Lives” – the heart-wrenching video of which contained Freddie’s final take on camera – was released posthumously and went straight to number 1.
May and Taylor have continued to perform sporadically under the Queen name with various singers and bassists – they give their all, of course, and as long as you realise you’re watching the world’s greatest Queen cover band then they put on a hell of a show.
But it’s not Queen. Queen was Freddie, Brian, Roger and John.
And I bloody loved them.
Freddie Mercury (Vocals, Piano)
Brian May (Guitars)
John Deacon (Bass Guitar)
Roger Taylor (Drums)
Queen II (1974)
Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
A Night at the Opera (1975)
A Day at the Races (1976)
News of the World (1977)
Live Killers (1979)
The Game (1980)
Flash Gordon (1980)
Hot Space (1982)
The Works (1984)
A Kind of Magic (1986)
Live Magic (1986)
The Miracle (1989)
Made in Heaven (1995)
6 Live albums, 12 Compilations
Download these songs:
Bohemian Rhapsody; We Will Rock You; We Are The Champions; A Kind of Magic; Another One Bites The Dust; Radio Gaga; Crazy Little Thing Called Love; Hammer To Fall
Write-up by The Sean