Queen Holds Court in South America

On the road with rock's royal spectacle

June 11, 1981
Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Buenos Aires, Argentina

We are the champions – my friends
And we'll keep on fighting – till the end –
We are the champions –
We are the champions,
No time for losers cause we are the champions – of the world –
—Freddie Mercury, "We Are the Champions"*

It was to be the Big Event. Queen, coming off its most successful year ever, was setting out to conquer South America and wanted to make sure the whole world knew about it.

That, certainly, was no surprise. After all, this was the band that had made a career out of creating spectacles. A couple of years ago, for example, when they were launching a U.S. tour in support of their Jazz album, Queen threw a bash in New Orleans that featured snake charmers, strippers, transvestites and a naked fat lady who smoked cigarettes in her crotch.

The real surprise was that Queen – a group with a history of hostility toward the press – had agreed to do interviews and had invited journalists from the U.S., England, Spain, France and other countries to come along for the first shows.

So here I am at Ezeiza airport, outside Buenos Aires. The place looks like a military installation. Young, peach-fuzz-faced boys who can't be more than sixteen or seventeen are stationed along the concourse that leads through customs into the baggage-claim area. They're all in uniform: big black leather shit-kicking boots that reach halfway up the calves of their legs, and regulation tan pants, shirts and helmets. And they're all armed with submachine guns.

In Argentina, the military – and terror – reigns supreme. According to Amnesty International, about 15,000 people have "disappeared" since 1976, when Juan Perón's second wife and successor, Isabel, was thrown from power in a coup d'état. Since then, a guerrilla war has been waging between the dictatorship and opposition groups, mainly Perónists, and citizens have routinely been plucked off the streets or out of their homes, taken to secret detention camps and systematically brutalized. But as VS. Naipaul writes in his book The Return of Eva Perón, "Style is important in Argentina; and in the long-running guerrilla war – in spite of the real blood, the real torture – there has always been an element of machismo and public theatre."

Amid the hubbub at customs, I notice a middle-aged man in gray – gray suit, gray tie, gray hair – making his way through the crowd, shouting something in Spanish. The only word I understand is Queen, and sure enough, he's looking for us. He takes our passports, whisks us past the inspectors without so much as one bag being opened, and leads us upstairs to the bar for an early morning cerveza. He speaks little English, but there are two words he knows quite well. No matter what anyone asks for, his response is the same: "No problem."

Maybe this won't be so bad after all.

By the afternoon of day two, none of the writers has yet been introduced to any of the band members. We while away the time in the hotel bar, but in this country, where the annual inflation rate is around 100 percent, a bottle of beer costs the equivalent of twelve dollars, keeping us sober against our wills. Finally, Jim Beach, Queen's business adviser, allows a few of us to attend the sound check at Velez Sarfield.

The Argentines have a rather nifty concept of crowd control, as I find out when I reach the stadium: a moat, about six feet wide and three feet deep, runs around the perimeter of the field and is filled with foul-smelling water and patrolled by dragonflies. Queen has brought its own artificial turf so that the promoters will allow people onto the field.

Up onstage, Queen – lead singer Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor – is rehearsing "Rock It (Prime Jive)," a track off The Game. And it sounds simply awful. The acoustics are horrendous in the 3500-seat stadium: there's a thirty-second delay as the music drifts across the length of the field and reverberates off the scoreboard. Nor does the band's musicianship seem inspired. The rhythm section is sloppy and sluggish; May's guitar playing is limited to heavy-metal/hard-rock clichés and patented, though by now boring, harmonic lead breaks; Mercury's singing is lackadaisical and without conviction.

"They're not even up to the par of some third-rate New Jersey bar band," another writer comments to me, and indeed, I'm somewhat mystified about what it is that makes this group so popular.

When I return to Velez Sarfield that evening for the show, the stadium is swarming with kids – and cops. These are crusty, corpulent tough guys – not the boot-camp boys I saw at the airport. And it doesn't take long to find out that they mean business. When one American writer snaps a photo of the twenty-odd billy-club-wielding policemen who are cordoning off the backstage area, he's pinned against a government-owned Falcon and threatened at knife point with the loss of a finger until he yields his film. "No problem." Sure.

"Un supergrupo numero uno," the emcee anounces as the lights dim, and with a burst of smoke, Queen appears onstage and begins hammering out its anthem, "We Will Rock You." Mercury – dressed in a white, sleeveless Superman T-shirt, red vinyl pants and a black vinyl jacket – frequently stops singing and dares the audience to carry the weight. And carry the weight they do: the fans seem to know all the lyrics throughout the 110-minute show – which, if for no. other reason, is impressive for the number of hits the group is able to offer up, such as "Keep Yourself Alive," "Killer Queen," "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Bicycle Race."

Though the band-audience interaction is remarkable, the crowd responds with such unquestioning devotion I get the feeling that if Freddie Mercury told them to shave their heads, they'd do it.

The musicianship still seems pedestrian, but what the group lacks in ability, it makes up for – at least to the fans' satisfaction – in gimmickry. Smoke shrouds the stage at regular intervals; flash pots illuminate the audience at key moments and end the set. Compared to Kiss' fire-breathing antics, Queen's use of special effects is in relative good taste, and after all, a Queen show is supposed to be a spectacle.

For the encore, the band reprises "We Will Rock You," then bounds into "We Are the Champions." Mercury, by this time wearing only a pair of black leather short shorts and a matching leather policeman's hat, struts around the stage like some hybrid of Robert Plant and Peter Allen, climactically kicking over a speaker cabinet and bashing it with his microphone stand. Pretty ridiculous in this day and age, but the kids love it.

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