*** MOJO MAGAZINE August 99 ***

The second greatest band of all time
QUEEN
At last, the outrageous inside story



Their Britannic Majesties Request

Part Four

BY NOW, SUCCESS WAS STARTING TO IMPOSE strains on the members of Queen as four intelligent, egotistical men began to pull in different directions. Money was a constant source of conflict: immense resentment was caused by the cash earned by
Roger Taylor when I'm In Love With My Car was used as the B-side to Bo Rhap, for example. And the creative arguments within the group that had long acted as a form of quality control became ever more venomous. Increasingly, Mercury would be in one studio laying down vocal harmonies, while May toiled on his multi-layered guitar solos somewhere else, neither one talking to the other.

Roger Taylor agrees that by the time Jazz was released in November 1978, the band were less hungry, less fresh, and increasingly jaded. Worse was to come as they settled down at Munich's Musicland studios in the spring of 1980 to record the tracks that would become The Game. "We went through a bad period in Munich," admits May. "We struggled bitterly with each other. We were all frustrated with each other. I remember John saying I didn't play the kind of guitar he wanted on his songs. We all tried to leave the band more than once. But then we'd come back to the idea that the band was greater than any of us. It was more enduring than most of our marriages."

Ironically, this period of creative stagnation saw Queen enjoy their greatest triumphs in the US as both Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Another One Bites The Dust hit the top of the singles charts and The Game became a Number 1 album. They were able to sell out four straight nights at Madison Square Gardens, but it was to be a short-lived phenomenon. A combination of factors - a switch of contracts from Elektra to Capitol, the failure of the movie Flash Gordon, for which they had written the soundtrack, and mass-market disapproval of Freddie's increasingly obvious gayness - ensured that there would be a 10-year gap until their next Top 5, The Show Must Go On. Their last-ever US show was on September 15, 1982, at the Los Angeles Forum. "I remember suddenly realising that we weren't packing them in quite as much as we used to," Taylor recalls.

"We always assumed that we would go back," says May, "but events overtook us. I know Freddie was very keen for that last album [Innuendo] to be accepted in the States. But we never got there and even the impact of Freddie's death wasn't anything like as big as the impact of Wayne's World. It wasn't the same as in Europe."

But at the very point when they lost their North American audience, they found an even more fanatical following in South America. Something about their music crossed boundaries of language and culture. As May puts it, "There was always some place where we were shit-hot and we could go and be ourselves and not worry."

Their work, though, became increasingly unreliable, culminating in 1982's Hot Space, an unsuccessful attempt to turn into an R&B dance act. By now, Mercury in particular was leading a life of unbridled, hyper-promiscuous decadence. Then, in the mid-'80s, Queen suddenly rediscovered themselves as a hit-making act. Their brand of polished pop-rock was now the staple form of radio and video product: from Duran Duran to Foreigner to Def Leppard, bands who had clearly been influenced by Queen's grit-free sound were topping the charts. And now the technology existed to create, at the simple touch of a button, the effects over which they had once laboured for months. Even more importantly, just as the hits began to dry up for May and, in particular, Mercury, so Deacon and Taylor found their voices as songwriters.

It was Deacon who wrote the stripped-down Another One Bites The Dust (Queen's biggest-selling single ever worldwide, exceeding even Bohemian Rhapsody, it was also funky enough to be sampled by Grandmaster Flash), put the bass line (again, much sampled) onto Under Pressure, and then came up with I Want To Break Freee. Taylor, meanwhile contributed Radio Ga Ga, It's A Kind Of Magic and One Vision. Love them or loathe them, these were massive hits, hitting sections of the marketplace that Queen had never come close to before.

More to the point, they emphasised a unique aspect of Queen's career; they are the only four-piece band in rock history which contained four individual songwriters each capable of writing chart-topping material. So if every one band-member was running low on creative gas, there was always someone else to take over in his place.

Even so, there was an increasing sense within the band that the scale of their success had seriously diminished the motivation that had once been so strong. John Deacon: "When we first started, we were very future-thinking. We wanted to do this, or go there. We wanted our albums to be successful here, there and everywhere and we worked really hard at it. But once we'd achieved that and been successful in so many countries in the world, it took away some of the incentive."

Then, of course, there was Live Aid. It's easy to forget that in the run-up to the show, Queen were political pariahs. In October 1984, they visited South Africa and played seven shows at the Super Bowl in the gambling centre of Sun City. It was a breach of the cultural boycott that provoked outrage and ddisapproval, epitomised by Steve Van Zandt, who created Artists Against Apartheid and recorded (I Ain't Gonna Play In No) Sun City as a direct response. Roger Taylor admits that, in retrospect, the South African concerts were a mistake. But both he and May stand by the principles that led them to perform there. In Taylor's words, "The black and the white communities were delighted that we'd gone there. We'd had a huge hit in the black market in South Africa with I Want To Break Free and Brian went and presented the Soweto Music Award."

Then, in the spring of 1985, while the band were touring Australia and Japan, Bob Geldof approached Jim Beach, by then Queen's manager, asking for them to appear at Live Aid, and adding with characteristic tact: "Tell the old faggot it's gonna be the biggest thing that ever happened." How could he refuse?

"Live Aid was a shot in the arm," remembers Roger Taylor. "We were so jaded by that point. We didn't tink we'd tour again for five years if at all - we'd just had it. But we thought we'd better reharse a bit, and we ran the whole 17 minutes into one medley of hits; why bore them with something they've never heard before? We didn't have a soundcheck, but we sent our brilliant engineer to check the system, so he set all the limiters for us. We were louder than anyone else. I remember being in the audience and hearing the first few acts thinking that I could hardly hear them. You've got to overwhelm the crowd in a stadium."

This was where Queen's middle-class work ethic, and their intelligence, really paid off. As Geldof later put it, "Queen were absolutely the best band of the day. They played the best, had the best sound, used their time to the full. They understood the idea exactly - that it was a global jukebox... they just went and smashed one hit after another... it was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world. And he could ponce about on stage doing We Are the Champions. How perfect could it get?" As at Knebworth a year alter, the most awesome sight of all was that of the entire audience clapping to Radio Ga Ga. "I'd never seen anything like that in my life," says May, "and it wasn't calculated, either. Everybody thinks that everything about Queen was calculated and sure, some of it was. We weren't stupid. We understood our audience and played to them. But that was one of those weird accidents, because of the video."

Even the original track only had one clap after every repetition of the title-phrase. "But our produceer thought it would be nice to put an echo on it. The video-producer thought, 'Oh, that's nice, a double-clap. We'll have people actually doing it,' because it was a parody of Metropolis. Everybody saw that video, because it was one of our most successful, and then the first time we saw it happen was at Live Aidd. And I remember thinking, Oh great, they picked it up, and then I thought, This is not a Queen audience. This is a general audience who've bought tickets before they even knew we were on the bill. And they all did it. How did they know? Nobody told them to do it."

BUOYED UP BY THEIR TRIUMPH, and the massive back-catalogue sales that Live Aid provoked, Queen set out on a massive trek through Europe - the first and only profitable tour in their entire career - in the summer of '86. But not long after that triumph, the three other band members were confronted with the news that Freddie Mercury had AIDS. "We discovered about Freddie in 1987 or '88: we were in Switzerland. We'd all known that something wasn't right, but that really did bring us together, knowing that he was on borrowed time. There was nowhere to run, so we just went on and did what we could. He was getting tragically frail towards the end."

"As soon as we realised Freddie was ill, we clustered around him like a protective shell," May agrees. We were lying to everyone, even our own families, because he didn't want the world intruding on his struggle. He used to say, 'I don't want people buying our fucking records out of sympathy.' We all became very close. We grew up a lot."

The two post-AIDS Queen albums were The Miracle in 1989 and then, in February 1991, Innuendo, which was arguably their best work since A Night At The Opera. "It wasn't one of the more successful, but it was one of the better ones," agrees Taylor. "Freddie and I were very disappointed when I'm Going Slightly Mad wasn't a big hit [it peaked at 22 in the UK: we really liked it."

By then, Mercury's illness, though still not oficially admitted, was too evident in his appearance, no matter how heavily made-up, to be ignored. Pictures appeared in the tabloid press, showing a desperately thin, hollow-eyed Mercury, his suit hanging off his skeletal frame, en route to lunch with his doctor. The photographer, Jason Fraser, agonised for a fortnight before releasing the shots, rationalising his decision by the fact the Mercury had been in a public place and that his desperate physical condition was a legitimate news story. But when I spoke to Roger Taylor in 1994, he was still upse by the shots. "I saw one full-page picture, grainy as hell, you could tell it had been taken a quarter of a mile away, and I thought, what is the point of that? It's not news. It's just horrible. Catering to the lowest common deenominator always works, but it dooesn't mean you have to do it."

"It was tragic that the terrible bloody disease should break up Freddie's career, because he was improving and improving as a singer and a performer. It was just a terrible shame. He felt that he couldn't deliver what was expeted of him. I miss him tremendously."

"After Freddie died [on November 24, 1991] I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I threw all my energy and all my persuasive telephonic powers into helping to organise the tribute show. So that was good for about three months and it kept my mind off what on earth I was going to do. I took a holiday for about a year, not sure if I even wanted to be involved in music any more. But then the bug came back and I started writing songs again. I thought if I was going to get back into this very tough business, I might as well write about things that affected me and that I thought were important."

He also joined the other three survivors to work on Made In Heaven, the posthumous album compiled from unreleased Queen and Mercury tapes: "It took a couple of weeks to get over the sound of Freddie. The worst things were the little spoken ad-libs in between the takes that was weird. But after a while you know every breath and they cease to be poignant, it's all just part of the material."

Made In Heaven sold more than seven million copies worldwide, includine 1.5 million in Germany alone (a platinum album, marking the fact, is hung on the wall of Taylor's studio), proving that Queen's popularity remains as great as ever. The survivors, meanwhile, have to get on with the rest of their lives in the band's shadow. Taylor affects an air of easy-going acceptance: "The power of the brand-name is something you have to accept. I make my solo records mainly for fun." But I suspect that beneath his casual exterior, this ambitious and competitive individual would share Brian May's rueful confession to being frustrated with the obscurity of his solo material: "I think I've done some damn god stuff and some of it warranted wider exposure."

In the final analysis, though, May absolutely stands by his work with Queen: "There isn't one of our albums I'd want to apologise for." Just back from a family holiday in the US, he reports that, "There is an enormous wave of reacceptance of Queen in America at the moment. I was swamped with people saying how much we had influenced their lives, much more so than over the last few years."

"There seems to be a vast pool of respect for us in the younger bands. Lots of them seem to have us firmly in their library of influences. It includes people that I would never expect like Cypress Hill, who I would have thought were the total opposite end of the spectrum. I went to see them with my son and expected to be reviled backstage and they all clustered round and said how important our stuff had been to them. They used the expression 'closet rock fans'. And of course there's a lot of rock bands: Guns N'Roses [whom May once supprted as a solo artist] held us in great respect."

I ended my trawl through Queen's back pages certain you'd have to be a seriously devoted fan wholly to agree with May's assessment of their work. But you'd have to be a major-league curmudgeon not to find at least a dozen great songs that inspired affection and respect.

Most of all, thought, I'm left with one final image of my converstaion with Brian May. We were sitting in his kichen, drinking tea made by him this time. The tape-recorder had been turned off, the notebook put away, when May - with that expression of slightly pained musing that is so characteristic - almost whispered, "You know, I sometimes think that Fred was almost lucky to die when he did." Freddie never had to watch his own powers decline, or see the band fade away into obscurity. And, of course, by dying he gave Queen a longer, more powerful lease of life. As he might have said, you know how it is darlings.......the show mus go on. And on.


Thanks to Jacky Smith. For more information: The Official International Queen Fan Club, 16a Barnes High Street, London SW13 9LW. Tel. 0181 392 2800. Fax 0181 878 6900. www.queenworld.com. Thanks to Richard Gray

Continued in Part 5.....