By Elaine Lipworth
The ground-breaking and iconic band Queen have defied the odds, remaining vanguards of music and pop culture over the decades. In the trendiest clubs around the world, DJs frequently play Queen hits, along with music from many contemporary artists whom Queen inspired. Meanwhile, far beyond city nightlife, in football stadiums from the US to the UK to Japan and Brazil, fans stomp-stomp-clap in unison, and chant Queen’s anthemic ‘We Will Rock You’. So influential is the band, that just this summer, Queen songs occupied three of the Top 20 spots on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs Chart. Not only does their music defy categorization and break convention; it transcends generations.
The beat is irresistible, the style, timeless. Unlike many 70s and 80s groups that came and went, Queen remain as relevant today as they were then. “Whenever and wherever people hear Queen’s music, it’s instantly recognizable,” explains Brian Southall, who spent 15 years as head of press, marketing and promotion for Queen’s record label, EMI, “You could release ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ tomorrow and it would be a hit.”
Today’s leading musicians cite Queen as a major inspiration. “Freddie Mercury was and remains my biggest influence,” said Katy Perry about Queen’s legendary frontman. “The combination of his sarcastic approach to writing lyrics and his ‘I don’t give a f***’ attitude really inspired my music.” Lady Gaga was such a big fan that she borrowed from one of Queen’s songs to form her stage name: “I adored Freddie Mercury – and Queen had a hit called ‘Radio Gaga.’ That’s why I love the name,” she said. “Freddie was unique – one of the biggest personalities in the whole of pop music. He was not only a singer but also a fantastic performer, a man of the theater and someone who constantly transformed himself. In short: a genius.” And Muse’s Matthew Bellamy declared, “The best band in the world is Queen, definitely.” “The best virtuoso rock and roll singer of all time,” is how Roger Daltrey described Freddie Mercury. Eric Clapton enthused about Brian May’s talents, saying the guitarist “can do things on the guitar which are beyond my reach … things I would dream of doing.” And, according to Elton John, the members of Queen “were among the most important figures in rock and roll.”
What was it about the music that is so compelling? In essence, they defied categorization. “Queen didn’t choose to follow any particular fashion,” adds Southall. “They just made the music they wanted to make.” “Musicians of today love Queen because they appreciate the band’s level of performance, their skill, their professionalism,” says Southall. “Queen crossed genres and it was impossible to pigeonhole them. They would play rock and roll, ballads, pop … they even got into soul. And, remember, everything was written by the band members themselves.”
The new film Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek in an uncanny performance as Freddie Mercury, charts Queen’s extraordinary story, from the band’s roots as bright London college students, to the dazzling heights of international stardom, when they filled stadiums across the world at record-breaking concerts, including the legendary 1985 performance at Live Aid, which was watched by a global audience of 1.9 billion and raised money for the famine in Ethiopia. As the story unfolds, it becomes crystal clear why the band had such lasting appeal. The film also stars Gwilym Lee (Jamestown, Midsomer Murders) who plays Queen’s lead guitarist Brian May, Ben Hardy (East Enders, X-Men Apocalypse) as drummer Roger Taylor, and Joe Mazzello (Jurassic Park, Justifed) as bass guitarist John Deacon, as well as Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Wayne’s World) and Tom Hollander (Breathe, The Night Manager).
Infused with indelible Queen songs, the film highlights the dynamics of the trailblazing band both on and off stage – how audiences enthusiastically joined in ‘We Will Rock You,’ taking over from the band members themselves who watched their fans in awe. We witness how their classic songs were created – from the ingenious and operatic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to the “stomp stomp clap” of their signature anthem ‘We Will Rock You’. The movie also focuses on the moving and complicated personal story of Freddie Mercury, the man, exploring his relationships, both with his muse, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton, Murder on the Orient Express and Sing Street), who became a lifelong friend after they split up, and with the men in his life. It examines the band’s evolution, and later Freddie’s struggle with AIDS. Engrossing and fantastically entertaining, the film relates how the band shook the music world, rolling out hit after exciting hit, from ‘Killer Queen’ to ‘Another One Bites The Dust.’
“Queen were different from anything else going on at that time,” reflects renowned British journalist and author, Mick Brown, whose books include, ‘American heartbeat: travels from Woodstock to San Jose by song title,’ and ‘Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector.’ He explains that by the mid 70s, much of rock music had become “very bloated and out of control. There had been a revolution and a return to basics with punk and the emergence of bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash … it was very much out with the old and in with the new.” Queen’s music, he says, was invigorating, “they stood out from everyone else in terms of their theatricality.”
Southall, who has written 20 books about the music industry and rock music, including ‘Made In England’ about Jimi Hendrix and his latest book entitled ‘The White Album: The Album, The Beatles And The World in 1968,” worked with other musical giants, including Wings and Pink Floyd “but Queen was EMI’s biggest band. They had an ear for what would make the public sit up and listen. All the members of Queen are great composers and musicians, but Freddie was the frontman. He was the biggest star I ever worked with – and I worked with George Harrison and Paul McCartney. They were an amazingly talented band in terms of sheer stardom, outlandishness, outrageousness and the constant delivery of major hit records.”
Perhaps the most striking of those hits was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ which appears on Queen’s album ‘A Night at the Opera’ and is widely regarded as a masterpiece. It has been 43 years since the song rocketed to the number one spot in the UK, going on to become a global hit. The song was groundbreaking not only for its operatic influences but also for its length (it ran to almost six minutes). Emotive and quite simply one of the most beautiful pop songs of the era, it was written by Freddie Mercury. Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) describes the song as “a fulfillment and an answer to a teenage prayer – of artistic music.” The making of the track is depicted in the movie; we see how the band spent weeks recording hundreds of overdubs for their ‘mini opera.’
Marveling at the ingenuity of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ Southall also takes note of the “fascinating and overwhelmingly creative video” which promoted the song and included now memorable images of four floating heads in a diamond formation. The first video of its kind – and purely fortuitous as the band only created the video as they could not be perform the complex song live and in person – it astounded audiences and critics alike when it was first shown on the popular British TV show ‘Top Of The Pops.’
“They didn’t do anything by halves,” laughs Southall, who explains that the band were fully involved in every facet of the business and their own careers, including the marketing of their music and their highly creative album covers. “They were all extremely intelligent and knew exactly what they wanted,” he says. “He references the group’s controversial video for the single ‘Fat Bottomed Girls/Bicycle Race,’ which featured naked women on bicycles. “Everything was extravagant with Queen in terms of marketing,” adds Southall. When promoting the album ‘News Of The World,’ “we gave away grandfather clocks with the cover artwork painted on them, to the media and to retailers.”
It wasn’t only the band’s music and marketing that was unique. As we see in the movie, during the electrifying concert scenes on stage, they were colorful and wildly flamboyant. Mick Brown remembers Freddie Mercury “prancing around the stage in a leotard in an almost carnivalesque, Pierrot-style performance.” Utterly charismatic, “he also wore a silk kimono red shorts and suspenders.” With their bangles and scarves and skin-tight jeans and wings under their arms, Freddie and the others “were an inspiration to all those bands who started wearing spandex … like Judas Priest and Mötley Crüe,” says Brown. “It was a long way from Woodstock,” he laughs, referring to the low-key, tie-dye, hippy look of the old-style rock groups who performed at the historic 1969 music festival in Upstate New York. “Watching Queen, you thought, ‘this is what a rock group is supposed to look like … and the look was personified in Freddie taking center stage. Everybody loves an entertainer and everybody loved him – he acted completely like a star – that’s who he was. Freddie Mercury is a universally recognized figure. He was accepted and embraced and welcomed by everyone,” says Brown.
Queen’s songs are the soundtracks of the most important events of our time: At the Royal Wedding earlier this year between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (now the Duchess of Sussex), one major TV network played Queen’s ‘Love Of My Life’ (written by Freddie Mercury) as they showed a compilation of romantic moments from the big day. “Their songs turned into anthems,” says Mick Brown, commenting that at football games and boxing matches, in fact every kind of big sporting event, “the crowds will burst into ‘We Will Rock You’, written by Brian May – and then, if your team wins a game, there is always a refrain of ‘We Are The Champions’, which Freddie wrote.” In fact, ‘We Are The Champions’ was voted the World’s Favorite Song in 2005. And, in 2011, a team of scientific researchers concluded that the song was “the catchiest in the history of popular music.” “You couldn’t calculate writing a song with that kind of appeal,” says Brown.
“Queen weren’t a passing phenomenon like punk; they were a worldwide hit-making machine,” says Brian Southall. “Their influence extends far beyond any one of their songs. Freddie is certainly the best frontman I’ve ever seen and Queen is unquestionably the best live band I have ever seen,” says Southall, who is excited about the new movie. “They deserve a great film! You don’t make hit records for so long and not have people wanting to know how you did it – they want to get the story behind the music – it’s fascinating. Queen is one of a handful of bands that has survived the passing of time, musical fads, fancies and genres,” concludes Southall, “and they have done it through their professionalism, dedication and immense talent as both performers and composers. This is lasting, great, popular music.”
Bohemian Rhapsody hits theaters in Manila this coming October 31.