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Queen

Biography

Queen
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

The epitome of pomp-rock in the Seventies and Eighties, Queen rocked radio and sports stadiums alike with booming, highly produced anthems like "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You." Onstage, the English quartet used elaborate sets smoke bombs, and flashpots — none of which were quite as captivating as the band's lead singer, Freddie Mercury, whose preening and over-the-top vocals helped make Queen wildly popular.

Queen's roots go back to 1967, when guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor joined singer Tim Staffell in a group called Smile. Staffell soon left to go solo, and the remaining two Smiles teamed up with Freddie Mercury (from a group called Wreckage) and later bassist John Deacon. They played very few gigs at the start, avoiding the club circuit and rehearsing for two years while they all remained in college. (May began work on a Ph.D. in astronomy; Taylor has a degree in biology; Deacon, a degree in electronics; and Mercury had one in illustration and design.) They began touring in 1973, when their debut album was released. After a second LP, the band made its U.S. tour debut, opening for Mott the Hoople.

Queen's sound combined showy glam rock, heavy metal, and intricate vocal harmonies produced by multi-tracking Mercury's voice. May's guitar was also thickly overdubbed. A Night at the Opera included "God Save the Queen" rendered as a chorale of lead guitar lines. (Until 1980's The Game, the quartet's albums boasted that "no synths" were used.) Queen's third LP, 1974's Sheer Heart Attack, featured "Killer Queen," its first U.S. Top Twenty hit. The LP also became its first U.S. gold.

Heavy-metal fans loved Queen (despite Freddie Mercury's onstage pseudo-dramatics, which had more to do with admitted influence Liza Minnelli than with Robert Plant), and the band's audience grew with its breakthrough LP, 1975's A Night at the Opera. It contained the six-minute masterpiece "Bohemian Rhapsody," which featured a campy, operatic section in which Mercury's voice was spread over dozens of tracks. "Bohemian Rhapsody" stayed at Number One in England for nine weeks, breaking the record Paul Anka had held since 1957 for his "Diana."

Queen had eight gold and six platinum records. The group's U.S. Top Forty include "Killer Queen" (Number 12), 1975; "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Number Nine), "You're My Best Friend" (Number 16), and "Somebody to Love" (Number 13), 1976; "We Are the Champions" b/w "We Will Rock You" (Number Four), 1977; "Fat Bottomed Girls" b/w "Bicycle Race" (Number 24), for which the group staged an all-female nude bicycle race, 1978; "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (Number One), 1979; "Another One Bites the Dust" (Number One), 1980; "Under Pressure" with David Bowie (Number 29), 1981; "Body Language" (Number 11), 1982; and "Radio Ga-Ga" (Number 16), 1984. At first their hits were march-like hard rock, but in the late 1970s and early 1980s the group began to branch out. In 1980 they released The Game which featured two big hits in the rockabilly-style "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and the disco-style "Another One Bites the Dust," a close relative of Chic's "Good Times," that went to Number One pop and R&B. The Game became Queen's first American Number One album.

In 1981 Taylor released a solo album, Fun in Space, and later in the year the band recorded with an outsider for the first time, writing and singing with David Bowie on "Under Pressure," included on both their platinum Greatest Hits and Hot Space. One side of Hot Space was typically bombastic rock, while the other contained funk followups to "Another One Bites the Dust." Fans were relatively cool to Hot Space and it did not go platinum. Queen's next LP, The Works (Number 23, 1984), marked a return to hard-rock form. It contained the nostalgic "Radio Ga-Ga."

Queen ceased to be a commercial force in the States; its next two LPs didn't even go gold. Yet all over the world the group retained its regal status. The gold Innuendo, which went to Number 30 here, shot to Number One in Britain in early 1991. By then rumors were rampant that Mercury was ill with AIDS, something the group continually denied. That November he released a statement from his deathbed confirming the stories. Just two days later he died of the disease in his London mansion at age 45.

On April 20, 1992, the surviving members of Queen were joined by a host of stars—including Elton John, Axl Rose, David Bowie, Def Leppard, and many other admirers—for a memorial concert held at Wembley Stadium that was broadcast to a worldwide audience of more than one billion. The concert raised millions for the Mercury Phoenix Trust, an AIDS awareness and education fund established by the band members and their manager, Jim Beach. Ironically, around the time of the Wembley concert, Queen was enjoying its greatest American popularity in years, thanks to the memorable scene from the movie Wayne's World, in which main characters Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) and buddies sing along to "Bohemian Rhapsody" as it blares on the car radio. The re-released single soared to Number Two. A posthumous Mercury solo album was released in 1992.

In 1993, May released his second solo album, Back to the Light, and continued recording solo and with the Brian May Band. Roger Taylor recorded three albums with a sideline band, the Cross, which began in 1987. He eventually resumed his solo career. In 1995, Queen finally completed its swan song Made in Heaven (Number 58), which features vocals recorded by Mercury during the last year of his life. In 1996, a statue of the singer was unveiled in Montreux, Switzerland. In 1998, a box set of their first eight LPs entitled Crown Jewels was released.

Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Compilations, DVDs and archival live recordings continued to emerge throughout the new millennium. The Queen name was brought back in 2005 as "Queen + Paul Rodgers," a band that featured the former lead singer of Free and Bad Company. Return of the Champions, a 2005 double disc on the Hollywood label, documents a show where Rodgers joined Brian May and Roger Taylor at the Hallam FM Arena in Sheffield. An album with the Rodgers-fronted lineup, The Cosmos Rocks, was released in October 2008 to poor reviews.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.

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