QUEEN IS ALIVE, LONG LIVE THE QUEEN
by Corey Levitan
Circus Magazine, September 30th 1992
Queen is hot. Queen is now. Queen is dead. In much the way a Doors song, "The End," sparked renewed interest in that band when it appeared in the movie Apocalypse Now, the inclusion of "Bohemian Rhapsody" hit Number One, bettering its 1976 position by eight. Currently, two Queen albums, Classic Queen and Live At Wembley '86, hover in the Top 50.
Movie plugs do not resurgences make. Something about this band has obsessed a country which, ironically, didn't care half as much as the rest of the world about Queen when it was around. (Case in point: in 1986 the title track from A Kind Of Magic zoomed to Number One in 35 countries; it didn't even approach our Top 200.)
The answer seems to lie in the timeless musical genius, vaudevillian presence and irresistible charisma of Freddie Mercury. Queen's late singer, equal parts Spinal Tap and That's Entertainment, embodied the tug-of-war between gruff and glitz, Skid Row and Hollywood, masculine and feminine. Freddie played out these battles in the recording studio, on stage and in his personal life; they resulted in unprecedented liaisons. Fast Queen songs, for example, tended to break at least once so dozens of overdubbed voices, in full operatic vibrato, could wail in unison. Such preposterousness broke ground that - 20 years later - no one has yet to tread. (Bands like Def Leppard and Bon Jovi cop Queen's production values, but they have never married Page to Pavarotti.)
In concert, Mercury's yin/yang wrestling matches raged boundless. The man would grimace through a macho, hard-rock scorcher like "Stone Cold Crazy," for example while dressed in the garb of a female dominatrix. "Its not a concert you're seeing," Freddie facetiously told Circus in 1977, "it's a fashion show. I dress to kill...."
Mercury was born Frederick Bulsara (He was born Farokh Bulsara of course.) on the African island of Zanzibar, to a British government accountant named Bomi and his wife, Jer. A year later the Bulsaras moved to Bombay, India, where Freddie attended boarding school until age 13. The family relocated to England in time for Freddie to experience London in full swing. During the late 60's he earned a degree in graphic design at Ealing College of Art and joined a nowhere rock band called Wreckage.
Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor played in a rival quartet called Smile. Friendships developed and when Smile disbanded in 1970, the three found themselves in Queen, a band name Freddie dreamed up years earlier. (Freddie had also long imagined taking the surname Mercury, after the Roman god.) Mike Grose and then Barry Mitchell were Queen's first bassists. Upon John Deacon's arrival in 1971 via a classified add, the band began two years of writing and rehearsing for what became its debut album.
America was too busy with Gordon Lightfoot and the Carpenters to notice Queen, or Queen ll for that matter. But "Killer Queen," the first single off the group's third album, Sheer Heart Attack reached Number 12 in 1975, Rock fans adored its garish arrangement, though critics dismissed it as Beach Boy harmonics atop Led Zeppalin riffs. It only hinted at what lay ahead. One year later Bohemian Rhapsody was uncaged. "Who can you compare that to?" Mercury asked Circus magazine in 1977. The answer remains, to this day, nobody.
"Bohemian" and the rest of A Night At The Opera boasted a sound spectrum ranging from tubas to combs. Promoted by a feature-quality video for the first single (an idea predating MTV by five years) Opera was at the time one of the most costly albums ever recorded. "We're a very expensive group," Freddie said. "We've gone overboard on every Queen album." Excess became Queen's m.o., and life most certainly imitated art. On the occasion of nearly every birthday or career milestone, an over-the-top bash was thrown, paying many a mud wrestler's, circus midget's and topless waitress's rent.
Queen's 1977 album, News Of The World, went platinum in the U.S., boosted by a double A-side pairing May's "We Will Rock You" with Mercury's "We Are The Champions." The former, with its stomp-stomp-clap intro, became a popular chant at sporting events. Yet the success Queen achieved here still paled when compared to the surging tsunami of sales it stirred abroad.
It wasn't until 1980 that Queen would earn a Number One album or single in America, when The Game and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" accomplished both feats simultaneously. Ironically, success from this period brought more harm than good. The same rifle blast that shot "Another One Bites The Dust" up our charts later in the year also tore a hole through the band's future in America. Disco especially the camp variety - was about to bite the dust itself. A pop music revolution was afoot; new wave, heavy metal and rap would soon sap the cool out of Chic beats and leisure suits. It was at this unfortunate juncture that Freddie also chose to change his look, cropping his hair to Village People length and sprouting a thick black moustache. Queen, via just one disco hit, lost credibility with its only loyal American audience, hard rockers.
Queen's next album, the soundtrack to Flash Gordon, stalled at 23 without even going gold. A single off Hot Space saw the band up for air in 1981 but probably because "Under Pressure" featured David Bowie and because Greatest Hits was released earlier that year.
Queen attempted a worldwide come-back in 1985, after stealing the show at Live Aid. America was impressed but still wouldn't buy Queen albums like before. "It's a little difficult to figure out what happened," May told Circus recently, "but something definitely happened." The video for "I Want To Break Free," off The Works, is cited in most accounts of why the comeback failed stateside. Britons had no trouble taking full housewife drag as the hackneyed comedic device it was; however, to conservative America the clip confirmed old suspicions that Queen was not a straight band. (The truth: only Freddie was bisexual.)
Queen took its final curtain call on the European stage. Although not intended as such, its 1986 UK swing was a fitting epitaph. The tour played to a record-pounding 400,000 fans - 150,000 during two nights at Wembley Arena alone - and featured both the largest lighting apparatus and stage ever assembled. "We're the Cecil B. DeMille of rock & roll," Freddie once said, "always wanting to do things bigger and better."
With hindsight, Queen's final two albums were heavily influenced by Freddie's diagnosis with AIDS. (He found out sometime between 1986 and 1988; exactly when is unclear, as May claims Freddie revealed little about his plight.) The Miracle and Innuendo are wistful works, weaving questions of mortality throughout their beautiful, if melancholy, strains.
The bulk of Mercury's final three years were spent holed up at his Earls Court, London home, fighting for life surrounded by his close friends and pets. He became the first major rock star claimed by the AIDS virus on November 24th 1991. Mercury was 45 years old.
A fab five remember Freddie