By Gillian G. Gaar
Queen had its share of high points and low points, and what better time than its 40th anniversary to reflect on the band’s most memorable moments? If you missed any of the album-related moments, you can easily revisit them, thanks to the band’s full-catalog reissue by Hollywood Records. (All dates, except for “Keep Yourself Alive,” are the U.S. releases).
1. Spring 1970: As It Began
When Freddie Mercury joined Brian May and Roger Taylor in Smile in London, they finally began pursuing a truly unique musical direction. Mercury’s flair for the dramatic had an immediate impact; by June 1970, the band had a new name, Queen, which Mercury described as “very regal, strong, universal, immediate. Certainly I was aware of the gay connotations. But it sounds splendid!”
2. July 2, 1971: Surrey College, the final fab four
After working through three bassists, Queen finally found its perfect fourth member in John Deacon, who made his live debut with the band on this date. Deacon was the archetypal “quiet bassist,” but his steadiness provided a welcome contrast to the flamboyance of the others. He also wrote his share of hits for the group, ranging from light pop to hard funk numbers.
3. July 6, 1973: The vinyl debut
Queen’s recording career began with the jaunty single “Keep Yourself Alive,” unusual in its mix of hard rock and pop — a clear sign that from the start that this wasn’t a band that could be readily categorized. As the “New Musical Express” presciently wrote, “If Queen look half as good as they sound, they could be huge.”
4. April 4, 1974: Back in black on “Queen II”
Most bands need a few albums to build up to creating something big. But Queen leapt into full-on extravagance with “Queen II.” “Side Black” (Side Two) in particular is a five song tour de force by Mercury, whose whimsical titles (“The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke,” “March of the Black Queen”) belied the often fierce music. The album’s cover inspired the visual look for the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video.
5. Fall 1974: “Top of the Pops” guaranteed to blow your mind
“Killer Queen” was the band’s first substantial hit, and this television appearance gave Queen the exposure needed to push the band over the top. As the lead singer, Mercury steals the show, owning the camera from the minute he gets his first close-up, enticingly beckoning with one black-polished fingernail.
6. Nov. 12, 1974: May’s metal monster moment
After “Queen II”’s tales of ogres and “fairy fellers,” a reminder was needed that Queen wasn’t all fey foppery. Hence “Brighton Rock,” the opening track of “Sheer Heart Attack.” Its three-minute middle section showed off May’s skillful guitar work, with solo layered upon solo to create a symphonic duet with himself that still astonishes.
7. Nov. 19-20, 1974: They’re gonna put me in the movies
Queen began 1974 as a support act. But the sudden success of “Killer Queen” made the band members “overnight” stars, and their one-night stand at London’s Rainbow Theatre quickly became two. The shows were filmed, and a year later “Queen Live At The Rainbow” was playing British cinemas.
8. April-May, 1975: In the land of the Rising Sun
When Queen arrived for its first tour of Japan, the band was greeted by something it’d never experienced before: thousands of screaming fans waving album covers and carrying banners (“Suddenly we’d become The Beatles!” May recalled). Queen also sold out two shows at Nippon Budokan, their biggest at that time. In response, Queen wrote “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)” for these exceptionally devoted fans.
9. Dec. 2, 1975: The rhapsodic “Rhapsody”
Mercury developed “Bohemian Rhapsody” over five years, and even when recording it, the other band members had no idea how he was going to link the ballad, opera and hard-rock sections together. When the record company opposed releasing a nearly six-minute single, a copy was slipped to London deejay Kenny Everett, who broke it on radio. An innovative video followed, and Queen soon had its first U.K. No. 1 — the first of many accolades the song would receive.
10. Dec. 2, 1975: A magical ‘Night’
The success of “Bohemian Rhapsody” nearly overshadowed the album on which it appeared. “A Night At The Opera” remains Queen’s most fully realized work, a breathtaking accomplishment from a band finally coming into its own, finding the perfect balance between hard rock and camp.
“We’ve made an album which, let’s face it, is too much to take for most people,” Mercury told “Sounds.” “But it was what we wanted to do.”
11. Mid-’70s: Rock’s own Rudolf Nureyev
Mercury had dressed like a rock star well before he was one, adorning himself in flared satin trousers and kimono-styled shirts. Once Queen began to take off, Mercury let loose his inner dandy, dressing in skin-tight leotards; sometimes spangled, sometimes jewel-studded, sometimes diamond-checked like a Harlequin clown’s suit, but invariably open at the chest. The only thing one can reasonably do in such an outfit is prance. Which Mercury did. Divinely.
12 Sept. 18, 1976: Hyde Park picnic by the Serpentine
Now the biggest band in Britain, Queen thanked fans with a free show that drew more than 150,000 people.
“It was one of the few times I can remember being really nervous,” May admitted. But Mercury was in his element, at least until the police shut the show down for running overtime. Nonetheless, promoter Richard Branson called it a “turning point in their career.”
13. Summer 1977: Freddie gets the last word at Wessex Studio
Queen unexpectedly helped push The Sex Pistols into the public eye. When Queen pulled out as guests on the U.K. talk show “Today With Bill Grundy,” The Pistols appeared instead, creating a public furor. When the two bands ended up recording at the same studio, there was a standoff, with Sid Vicious demanding of Mercury, “You that Freddie Platinum that’s supposed to be bringing ballet to the masses?” “Ah, Mr. Ferocious!” Mercury replied coolly. “Well, we’re trying our best, dear!” May later recalled Johnny Rotten as being “very respectful.”
14 Oct. 25, 1977: Not one, but two sports anthems for the ages
The double A-side “We Will Rock You”/“We Are The Champions” wasn’t Queen’s highest-charting single in the U.S. But it’s surely been heard nearly as many times as “Bohemian Rhapsody” over the years, thanks to both songs being tailor-made for sporting events — “Rock You” during the game, and “Champions” during the post-win festivities.
15. Sept. 12, 1978: Get on your bikes and ride!
It must have seemed logical; since the new single was “Fat Bottomed Girls”/“Bicycle Race.” Why not promote it by staging a bicycle race of fat-bottomed girls? The 65 models chosen to pedal around Wimbledon stadium weren’t exactly fat, but they were naked — which resulted in a great deal of publicity, not all of it good. The single’s picture sleeve was censored; a poster of the event included with the “Jazz” album led to the record being pulled from stores.
16. Oct. 31, 1978: All that Jazz in “Nude Orleans”
One of the most infamous parties in rock ’n’ roll history. Following a sold-out show, a release party for the album “Jazz” was held at New Orleans’ Fairmont Hotel. A few hundred thousand dollars was spent on food and drink, and the more outrageous denizens of Bourbon Street were invited to attend. Though Taylor said most stories about the party “are not that exaggerated,” the one about hermaphrodite dwarves bearing trays of cocaine on their heads is probably not true. Alas.
17. Dec. 7, 1979: A return to rock ’n’ roll roots
While in Munich, Germany, prior to a recording session, inspiration struck Freddie Mercury while he was taking a bath. He called out for a guitar, began strumming, and soon roughed out the basics for a song. He then rushed to the studio, and within four hours, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was complete. In contrast to Queen’s usual pomp and circumstance, “Crazy Little Thing” was an affectionate rockabilly pastiche, and the band’s first No. 1 single in the U.S.
18. 1980: Out with the ’tard, in with the ’tache
When Queen toured in 1980, not only were Mercury’s long tresses gone, he was also sporting a moustache. Coupled with his new butch attire — tight jeans and tank tops — he now personified the “Castro clone” look then-popular in the gay community. The backlash was especially fierce in America, where fans threw disposable razors on stage. Mercury responded in kind. “Do you think I should keep this moustache?” he asked an audience in Chicago. “Do you say no? F**k off!”
19. Aug. 12, 1980: Play that funky music, white boys
It was Deacon, the band’s dark horse, who created Queen’s most unexpected hit, “Another One Bites The Dust.” Inspired by the bass line on Chic’s “Good Times,” Deacon crafted a stark piece of dance rock that Mercury loved, singing “until his throat bled” during the session. Though May and Taylor were less enamored, the track was released as a single at Michael Jackson’s urging, and within two months Queen had its second U.S. No. 1 single.
20. Jan. 27, 1981: A super hero super score
Queen took up the challenge of providing a score for Dino De Laurentiis’ re-imagining of the “Flash Gordon” comic strip, because the band was intrigued by the idea of providing a rock score for a film that had nothing to do with rock. Though admittedly cheesy, the film became a cult classic, and “Ming’s Theme” and “The Kiss” are especially notable.
21. February-March, 1981: Flying down to Rio, down Argentine way
Queen became the first major rock band to play large-scale shows in South America. The band’s first visit to Argentina and Brazil involved nine months of planning and shipping in more than 100 tons of equipment — including 100 rolls of artificial turf for the stadiums. The band played seven shows for a total of half a million people and walked away with a cool $3.5 million.
22. Oct. 27, 1981: Turning up the ‘Pressure’
David Bowie was originally supposed to contribute a backing vocal for “Cool Cat,” but a jam led to a collaboration on the far more potent “Under Pressure,” with the video receiving enormous exposure on the newly launched MTV. Oddly, no one agrees on who came up with the distinctive bass line (Deacon says it was Bowie, while Bowie, May and Taylor say it was Deacon); it resurfaced in 1990 when it was sampled on Vanilla Ice’s hit “Ice Ice Baby.”
23. May 25, 1982: Though it’s ‘Hot,’ America turns chilly
“Hot Space” was the album that signaled the beginning of the end of Queen’s fortunes in the U.S. It was Queen’s disco album — except America wasn’t interested in Queen as a disco act. Even adding “Under Pressure” to the album didn’t keep it from stalling at No. 22, continuing a downward spiral from which the band never recovered.
24. 1982: The Rock ’n’ America tour
By this time, Queen’s fortunes had sagged so much in the U.S., band members actually consented to making an in-store appearance during this tour, dutifully signing autographs at a Crazy Eddie’s outlet in New York. It didn’t help that the band’s opening act, Billy Squier, did far better with his album “Emotions In Motion” than Queen had with “Hot Space.” Though awarded keys to the city in Boston at the tour’s beginning, Sept. 15, 1982, marked the final time the original lineup made a U.S. concert appearance.
25. Feb. 7, 1984: Biting the hand that feeds
Taylor took his son’s assessment of the music he was hearing on the radio — “Radio poo-poo!” — and changed it to “Radio Ga Ga,” his critique of an industry that put “far too much emphasis on a band’s visual image and not enough on the music,” somewhat ironic for a band known for its own visual excess. Equally ironic, the song’s video left a lasting impression with fans, who emulated the double-clapping during the chorus when Queen played the song live.
26. April 13, 1984: Dudes look like the ladies
There’s a tradition of cross-dressing in British entertainment, so the band’s U.K. fans thought nothing of it when Queen went in drag for the “I Want To Break Free” video — Deacon as a somber old lady; May as a bunny-slipper-, housecoat- and hair-curler-wearing housewife; moustachioed Mercury in a skin-tight sweater and dangerously short skirt; and Taylor as a disturbingly pretty schoolgirl complete with uniform and pigtails. But the powers that be at MTV were unamused, and the video was pulled (though some have speculated it was the network’s payback for the sentiments of “Radio Ga Ga”).
27. October 1984: The biggest controversy
The early ’80s weren’t the best time for Queen. In 1984, the band was roundly criticized for breaking a United Nations cultural boycott by playing a Sun City resort in South Africa, then under the grip of apartheid. Five of the 12 shows wound up being canceled due to Mercury’s throat problems, and when Queen returned to England, the band was fined by the Musician’s Union. Not their finest hour.
28. July 13, 1985: Champions of Wembley Stadium — and the world
Queen put in a week’s rehearsal for its Live Aid appearance, honing a 20-minute set for maximum impact. Opening with part of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and closing with a triumphant “We Are The Champions,” the set was regarded as the best performance of the day. Back catalog sales soared, and Queen’s next album, “A Kind of Magic,” topped the U.K. charts. “Live Aid turned our whole world upside down,” said Deacon.
29. July 11-12, 1986: Double the pleasure at Wembley Stadium
A year after Queen’s landmark Live Aid appearance, Queen returned to Wembley for two sold-out shows and played to a total of 150,000 people on a stage so big, the crew just barely managed to fit in the screen behind the stage. Rain marred the first show, but cleared up for the second. A performance of Queen at its peak later was released on CD and DVD.
30. Aug. 9, 1986: Going out on top at Knebworth Park
Just more than 15 years after Mercury, May, Deacon and Taylor first walked out on a stage together, they made what would be their very last live appearance as a group. While their first show had been before a small college audience, this time, they walked onstage to face a crowd of more than 120,000. For the encore, Mercury donned an ermine-trimmed cloak and a jeweled crown; his last words to the audience were “Goodnight and sweet dreams.”
31. May 30, 1987: Diva times two at Ku Club, Ibiza
Mercury’s most ambitious solo project was an album of duets he recorded with opera star Montserrat Caballé. The two premiered what would be the album’s title song, the majestic “Barcelona,” at a festival celebrating Spain’s hosting of the ’92 Olympics. The song hit the Top 10 in Britain.
32. June 6, 1989: Right in at No. 1
Queen had topped the U.K. charts before, but it wasn’t until “The Miracle” that the band had an album enter the charts at No. 1, an extra special honor. It was a strong, versatile album, with anticipation especially high because the band hadn’t toured for three years.
33. Feb. 18, 1990: Bowing out at the Brits
When it was announced that Queen was being given an Outstanding Contribution to British Music honor at the annual Brit Awards, all four members decided to appear, even though they knew it would fuel speculation about Mercury’s health. It did; Mercury looked gaunt, wore an ill-fitting suit, and left the speech-making to May and Taylor. It was the last time Queen appeared in public together.
34. February 1991: A beguiling curtain call
Queen began work on “Innuendo” before “The Miracle” was even released, with everyone painfully aware that Mercury’s time was running out. Even so, the band members described the sessions as enjoyable, and “Innuendo” was as richly textured and eclectic as “A Night At The Opera.” Both the album and the title track entered the U.K. charts at No. 1.
35. Nov. 24, 1991: Goodbye, everybody
On Nov. 23, 1991, Queen’s publicist released a statement in which Mercury confirmed that he had AIDS. Though rumors about Mercury’s health had circulated for years, his increasingly gaunt appearance was invariably attributed to “exhaustion.” The statement made immediate headlines, but 24 hours later there was a sad update when it was announced that Mercury had died at his London home. He was 45 years old.
36. 1991-1992: A classic is reborn
In wake of Mercury’s death, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was reissued in the U.K. and quickly topped the charts. The song took off in an even bigger way in America the following year. Its use in the film “Wayne’s World” led to the single being reissued; it peaked at No. 2 — seven places higher than its original release managed in 1975. A new video, which drew on the “Wayne’s World” footage, won the “Best Video From A Film” honor at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
37. April 20, 1992: Paying tribute
Five months after Mercury’s death, 72,000 fans paid their respects at The Freddie Mercury Tribute: A Concert For AIDS Awareness. The surviving Queen members backed a variety of vocalists, including George Michael, David Bowie, Elton John and Roger Daltrey. Liza Minnelli added a diva-esque touch by leading a singalong of “We Are The Champions,” and Elizabeth Taylor reminded everyone to use a condom.
38. Nov. 7, 1995: ‘Heaven’ sent
The songs on “Made In Heaven” spanned 10 years, from “It’s a Beautiful Day,” which dated back to the “The Game” sessions, to “Mother Love,” believed to be the last vocal Mercury recorded, in May 1991. Mercury pushed himself to do as much work as he could before he became too ill, making the performances especially poignant.
39. May 14, 2002: Jukebox musical at London’s Dominion Theatre
Given Queen’s innate theatricality, it was only a matter of time before someone did a musical based on the band’s songs. Instead of telling Queen’s own story, comedian/author Ben Elton suggested a new storyline, set in a future where rock ’n’ roll is forbidden (but is unsurprisingly restored to the world by the show’s end). Though critically panned, the show was a hit with audiences and is still running London. A sequel is planned.
40. 2005-2009: Back in action
In December 2004, May announced the seemingly impossible — “The Queen phoenix is rising from the ashes.” Billed as “Queen + Paul Rodgers,” May, Taylor and the former Bad Company singer (Deacon didn’t participate) spent the next few years on the road, releasing the album “The Cosmos Rocks,” and a live DVD. No one could replace Mercury, but the looks on May’s and Taylor’s faces in concert showed they were clearly having a great time.