Looking back over the past fifty years of rock music, a lot of great bands have come and gone. A few of them became gigantically successful and, amazingly, some are still out there rocking. Back when The Who sang, “I hope I die before I get old”, odds are that none of the bands populating the Billboard Record Charts dreamed they might make The Who’s lyric sound more than a little short sighted. It is almost laughable (now) that there was a time when bands like KISS and Queen weren’t expected to make it through their decade of formation, let alone survive four or five decades into the future. The reason I am picking on KISS and Queen? There are two simple reasons: First, they were two bands who struggled mightily for success early on, and secondly, I can trace back the exact moment in time that I heard both bands.
The location was in a Dodge Charger Super Bee owned by a work buddy of my good friend Mitch. Jon not only had the hottest, coolest car I ever had the pleasure to ride in, but he also had a killer sound system, albeit it was an 8-track based tape machine. We were motoring around town circa 1973 looking for a party we were invited to and Jon had a KISS album blasting on the tape deck. When he passed it to the back seat, I took one look at the band photo on the top of the tape and said, “Really? This is what they look like?” Jon was the first person (but certainly not the last) who said, “Yeah, and this is like their third or fourth album. The first ones were terrible, but they put on such a good live show that the kids bought their albums anyway.” It took some time for me to understand KISS, but by the time they had made their first seminal live album (recorded in Detroit), it was beginning to look like they might make a go of it. Cut from 1978 to 2019 and we find them out on their forty fifth anniversary tour which they claim will be their last. Didn’t we hear this once before from KISS?
The second album Jon pumped through the tape deck was Queen’s eponymous first album. The music rocked, but there was something different about this band. As with KISS, it took a few albums for me to begin to get Queen, but what I didn’t know at the time was how perilous their rise to fame would be. With the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody having had a pretty good run at the box office last fall, it seems that there has been another resurgence of interest in Queen even though their stellar front man passed on in 1991. Some were disappointed that the picture ended with the band’s triumphant Live Aid show at Wembley Stadium in July of 1985, but that doesn’t mean that the movie pulled any punches about Freddie Mercury’s flamboyant lifestyle. Others felt the movie used the actors playing the other members of Queen like cardboard cutouts in the background, but as guitarist Brian May pointed out, “It’s a film which portrays the truth, in a fairly gritty and honest but also entertaining way. It’s all about Freddie. Yes, we are in there, but the story is about Freddie.” May told Classic Rock Magazine’s Mick Wall; “There is no such thing as a perfect film, and Queen fans will understand when they see it that certain things have been moved around for the story to make sense. You can’t collapse forty years of a person’s life into two and a half hours without cutting out a lot of stuff.” There has always been speculation about what Queen would be like today had Mercury not died, but their collaborations with the likes of singer Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Co.) and current frontman Adam Lambert are, at the least, keeping the Queen legacy alive. For all their supposed faults, Queen was another band that paved the way to their future by being a killer live band (and by all accounts, they still are).
In the beginning, however, Queen was a band on the fast track to nowhere. They had a vision and a plan, but they didn’t have a management team that had their best interests at heart. As drummer Roger Taylor recalled to CRM, the band returned from two shows headlining the famed Budokan arena in Tokyo in 1975. After filling the 15,000 seat venue, they returned to the reality that, “we were still on sixty quid a week.” They lived in a band house and drove a beat up van to gigs while on salary, yet their management team of Norman and Barry Sheffield were driving around in Rolls Royces. The contract the band had signed with the Sheffield boys basically gave the management team control of everything the band created, but the band was too cowed by them to do anything about it. This sad set of circumstances changed abruptly due to the intercession of noted musical heavy, Don Arden. Arden himself had no interest in the band, but when his daughter Sharon (who would become Mrs Ozzy Osbourne sometime later and knew the band) asked her father to give them a helping hand, he was only happy to throw his weight around.
We have discussed Don Arden’s business practices previously (FTV: Yard Zeppelin 8-1-18), but here is the condensed version of how he handled Queen’s business problems in his own words: “I [said] my advice would be to get their coats on [and go], but they wouldn’t do that because they were terrified of the Sheffield boys – they had the group believing they ruled the streets of Soho. Well, we would see about that. As a result [of the contract Queen had signed with EMI], the brothers not only owned their management contract, they owned their recording contract, and their song publishing, too. The Queen boys had a roof over their heads and an old van they travelled in when they were on tour. I couldn’t believe it. It was like they’d never sold a record.”
With a letter in hand confirming Queen’s intention to sign with Arden, he drove over to sort things out with the Sheffield boys. Arden continues the tale: “I didn’t actually bother making an appointment, I just turned up. I knew they were fakes. Sure enough, when I walked into their office and announced myself, it scared the hell out of them. [When we were done with the niceties, I said] ‘I’m here to inform you that you no longer represent Queen. It’s over, Okay? Finito’. They looked at each other. They couldn’t even look me in the eyes. They were worried about what was coming next. But I wasn’t evil to them, I didn’t have to be. I just told them how stupid I thought they were [and gave them a bit of a lecture, saying] ‘If you’d at least bought them all a car and put a few quid in their pockets it would probably never come to this. Well, you’ve blown it now. They’re gone’. They hung their heads in shame. I told them if they walk away now, they would get a cheque for a hundred thousand pounds for their trouble and would never have to see me again. If not, the group would still be gone but they wouldn’t get any money at all, and they’d have me to deal with. They sensibly took the money.”
Through no action of their own, Queen was now free from their terrible management group, but ironically, they repaid Arden by signing on with Elton John’s manager, John Reid. Arden took it in stride with his only reward being another opportunity to throw his weight around: “When I got back to the office that day and told [Queen] what I’d done, they literally wept for joy. They were hugging me and kissing me. Then as soon as they got their hands on the money, I never heard from them again.” Fear of alienating Arden was outweighed by Freddie’s comfort level working with Reid. The move paid instant dividends when Reid informed the record label in no uncertain terms that the group’s next single would be a little semi-operetic ditty called Bohemian Rhapsody. The suits at EMI blanched at this most un-single like single, but Reid’s stroke of genius opened the floodgates that would unleash Queen on the world.
Producer Roy Thomas Baker had worked with Queen on their previous albums and years after the fact, he described how Bohemian Rhapsody came to life: “[Freddie demonstrated on piano] ‘the idea for a song’ that he had. It was going to be a brief interlude of a few Galileos and then we’d get back to the rock part of the song. When we started doing the opera section properly, it just got longer and longer. Freddie would come in with another lot of lyrics and say: ‘I’ve added a few more Galileos here, dear’ and it just got bigger and bigger.” The idea for the iconic video that played endlessly on MTV was inspired by the cover image photographed by Mick Rock for the cover of the band’s Queen II album. To say that Bohemian Rhapsody fueled massive album sales for A Night at the Opera would be an understatement of enormous proportions.
Hit single after hit single ruled the charts throughout the 1970s as Queen proved they could sell records without stylistically repeating themselves . Whether it was the rockabilly swing of A Crazy Little Thing Called Love or the arena stomp of Another One Bites the Dust, Queen could do no wrong. By the time they held a completely over-the-top release party for the album Jazz (in New Orleans in 1978), their ostentatious ways had the media hanging labels on them like “hollow, preposterous, and inalienable.” As far as the Queen boys were concerned, they mocked themselves as well because the facts and myths about the band were all great publicity. Were they over the top? Of course they were, but so what?
On the road, the band never had any trouble, but by the time they scored their last Number One hit Under Pressure from the 1980 album The Game, things weren’t so jolly in the studio and the band was all but done. According to guitarist Brian May: “Yes, we all walked out at various times. You get hard times, as in any relationship. We definitely did. Usually in the studio. Never on tour. On tour, you have a clear, common aim. But in the studio you’re all pulling in different directions and it can be very frustrating. You only get twenty-five percent of your own way at the best of times. So yes, we did have hard times.” Bassist John Deacon adds, “Once we’d achieved that level and been successful in so many countries in the world, it took away some of the incentive.”
Things cooled for the band in the early 1980s and having changed labels to Capitol, they found themselves in the crossfire when a government investigation turned up a ring of bribery that was funnelling money to radio DJs to get records played on air. The backlash against all Capitol Records’ bands resulted in Queen having a hard time getting arrested in the states. Their latest single (Radio Ga-Ga penned by drummer Roger Taylor) hit Number 30 on the charts one week and disappeared completely they next week. They shrugged and toured South America, Japan and Europe. Queen made the mistake of playing Sun City during the musician’s anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa’s premier resort, earning them further scorn from other bands and a hefty fine from the UK Musician’s Union. The band wasn’t exactly sure of what kind of reaction they would receive when they took the stage for the Live Aid concert at Wembley in 1985.
If you have seen this pivotal scene in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody or the YouTube video of the actual event, ‘Triumphant’ would be the word that comes to mind. Seeing the 72,000 in attendance doing the airclaps to Radio Ga-Ga is chilling, as is knowing that there was a world- wide audience of 1.9 billion people watching. Call them pompous, arrogant, grandiose, vulgar or any of the other descriptions that people hung on Queen throughout their years with Freddie Mercury at the front of the stage, but don’t forget ‘loved’. Queen didn’t go away when Freddie died, but it seemed fitting that the movie ended with one of their biggest career high points.
Top Piece Video – speaking of the Live Aide version of Radio Ga Ga (a song written by drummer Roger Taylor)