Queen Holds Court in South America

On the road with rock's royal spectacle

Queen
Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Queen
By |

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.

Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band. The whole thing makes me wonder why anyone would indulge these creeps and their polluting ideas.
Dave Marsh in Rolling Stone

What do I think about critics? I think they're a bunch of shits.
Freddie Mercury

Queen's relationship with the music press has been about as cordial as the secret police's relationship with the Argentine public. Even so, the band hasn't exactly suffered from the continual pans of its records and shows: eight of its ten LPs have been certified gold (the exceptions are the Flash Gordon soundtrack and Queen II), and its last three studio efforts – News of the World, Jazz and The Game – have gone well over the million mark in sales.

"I have some very strong views of some of the things the press do, such as The Rolling Stone Record Guide," Roger Taylor says, looking out his hotel-room window. It's day four, and the long-promised interviews have finally been arranged. "Now, I've never read the book, but I saw an ad, and I thought, 'What the fuck is someone doing bringing out a book like this? Who the hell are they to say what albums are good and what albums are bad?' I think it's entirely a personal choice." (For the record, Queen didn't fare too well in the book; four of the seven albums reviewed were awarded two stars, a designation that means "records that are artistically insubstantial, though not truly wretched.")

The shots at Queen have not been fired by just the press, however. When the punks came to fame in England in the late Seventies, Queen was one of the groups most often singled out for attack. Taylor and John Deacon, the two band members who seem most attentive to musical trends, apparently feel some of the criticism was justified. "It gave us a kick up the ass," Taylor says. "It was so angry, so different, so outrageous. We were recording News of the World in the same studio the Sex Pistols were recording their first album in. I mean, the first time I ever saw John Rotten, I was really shocked, cause I had never actually seen the whole thing in person. He sort of crystallized the whole punk attitude, and there's no doubt about it, the guy had amazing charisma."

If the band's pomp-and-circumstance delivery has recently fallen into disfavor among the rough-and-ready New Wavers, it wasn't really in vogue either when Queen inaugurated its grandiose stage presentation in the early Seventies. "That was the time of the supergroups, like Cream and Traffic," Brian May explains, "and it was more the thing to get into your music and not worry about the audience. Then, for a period, it became very cool to do a show. Now, the wheel has turned again. But we just think that kind of show is part of being professional. People are giving you two hours of their time, so you have to give them everything for those two hours. We want every person to go away feeling he got his money's worth, and we use every possible device to achieve that."

From the beginning, Queen wanted to put on a show that would be different. "We had a joke that we wanted to be the biggest," Taylor says. "It was a joke, but underneath, it really was true. Number one is much better than number two. And we're still working at it."

To accomplish this goal, Queen opted for an unusual route. Rather than work their butts off playing the club circuit – something Taylor and May had done without much success in a band called Smile – they chose to spend two years rehearsing while they were still in school. May nearly completed a Ph.D. in astronomy; Taylor has a degree in biology; Deacon, one in electronics; and Mercury, a diploma in illustration and design.

Mercury and Taylor supported the band by selling artwork at a stall in Kensington Market, and it wasn't until 1973 that Queen released its first album and had enough money – thanks to record-company support – to take the kind of show they wanted to do on the road. The LP, titled Queen, gave the band its first hit single, "Keep Yourself Alive," and set the stage for what was to come. As Roger Taylor says, "It's been quite a fairy tale."

I just hate this," Freddie Mercury says, "especially when that thing's on." He points to my tape recorder, sits down across from me and lights up a Salem. "There came a point where I was misquoted all the time," he continues, "and they had the piece written before they even started. I'm not afraid of criticism – I don't want to come across as Goody Two Shoes all the time – but it's been purely vindictive." A deal's a deal, however, and Mercury, obviously under some pressure from the other band members and their record company, had agreed to an interview. "So here I am with Rolling Stone," he moans. "It's like being forced to talk."

Up close, Mercury is more petite than he looks onstage: he stands only a fraction of an inch under five feet ten and is relatively slender. His short-cropped hair and mustache are jet black, and his eyes are a piercing dark brown. In addition to being the group's lead singer and one of its main songwriters, Mercury is also most responsible for Queen's image. He's known for his flamboyance and debauchery both onstage and off: at a birthday party a couple of years ago, for example, he swung naked from a chandelier, and on one of the band's Japanese tours, bored with the tedium of playing night after night, he appeared onstage with a bunch of bananas atop his head.

"The Carmen Miranda of rock & roll," he says, chuckling. "But what can I say? I'm a flamboyant personality. I like going out and having a good time. I'm just being me. The media pick up on certain things, and a lot of things get overexaggerated. I'm quite easy to get on with, really. I can be a real bitch at times, but that's okay. I'm not that vicious. I use my influence. Why not? I'm not afraid to flaunt it."

Thirty-four years old, Mercury was born Frederick Bulsara in what was then Zanzibar. His father was a British civil servant, and Freddie left home when he was seven to attend boarding school, first in India, then in England. "You learn to fend for yourself at an early age. I was quite rebellious, and my parents hated it. I grew out of living at home at an early age. But I just wanted the best. I wanted to be my own boss."

Shifting around in his seat, Mercury tugs at his upper lip and reaches for his pack of Salems. "For a nonsmoker," he jokes, "I smoke far too much." He tells me he's just purchased a house in London's Kensington Park, complete with eight bedrooms and a massive studio with pillars and a gallery. "I can have minstrels play there," he says with a laugh. "Very la-di-da, don't you think?"

He's having the mansion remodeled, which gave him cause recently to go on one of his celebrated shopping sprees. Just before their South American jaunt, Queen played five shows at the Budokan in Tokyo, and the promoter's wife, a good friend of Freddie's, arranged an excursion for the singer and his entourage through the largest department store. "I felt like Grace Kelly," he recalls. "I got this huge Japanese bed, a lot of lacquer things and really nice hundred-year-old stuff. I think I spent a fortune, but I don't know. The credit card pays for it.

"I like buying things on crazy impulses," he continues. "I hate buying for investment. But I do like a lot of Oriental stuff; it's intricate and delicate. I also like the cultural part of it, the way they do their gardens; they put a lot of thought into it. But I'm not into all the meditation crap, or those boring tea ceremonies. The raw fish, as well."

Early on in his career, Mercury seemed bent on incorporating his interest in different cultures and art forms into Queen's stage shows and music. "Mustapha," off the Jazz album, was a miserable attempt at Arabic music, and at one point, Mercury told the British press he was "bringing ballet to the masses."

"I went through this period where I thought I was making an impact on the fashion world," he says, "then I thought, 'Oh, grow up.' And now, you see, I don't take all this too seriously – I mean, I couldn't be serious with the things I wear onstage. I have far more fun, and I enjoy it. It's a great release. That's what entertainment should be."

He feels likewise about the band's music. "It's just pure escapism. It's like going to see a film. People should just escape for a while, then they can go back to their problems. That's the way all songs should be: you listen to them, then discard them like a used tampon. I don't have any messages I'm trying to get across or anything."

The forty-five minutes of interview time I've been allocated are rapidly drawing to a close, and publicist Howard Bloom knocks on the hotel-room door and tells us to wind things up. Mercury lights one last Salem. "You see," he says, "you can tell I'm not very good at this. To be honest, I really don't think I have much to say."

A couple of years ago, Roger Taylor was doing about 145 miles an hour in his Ferrari on an alpine road in Germany when suddenly one of the chains went, the cooling system died and the car caught on fire. He managed to extinguish the flames just in time – there were about fifteen gallons of gas onboard. "Burned all my clothes to a cinder," he recalls. "Another minute and it would have hit the tank and that would have been it. I would have been vaporized completely."

Since then, Taylor hasn't been quite as enamored of fast cars, but he still relishes the kind of lifestyle rock & roll has afforded him. In that sense, he's probably closer in personality to Freddie Mercury than the other two band members. "Ah, yes," he says when I bring up Queen's rather decadent image. "I like that sort of thing. I like strip clubs and strippers and wild parties with naked women. Sounds wonderful. I'd love to own a whorehouse. Really, seriously. What a wonderful way to make a living."

"Roger is very much in the tradition of the successful rock & roll musician," John Deacon explains. "He wants the things that go with it, and it is what he really wanted to be. I'm sort of the opposite of that. It was never my burning ambition to be in a successful band. It has helped my confidence a bit, but it's different things for different people. And we are four very different people."

Offstage, while Taylor and Mercury are out carousing, Deacon frequently spends time with his wife and three kids. Though he may seem out of place in the flashy world of Queen, Deacon is actually the band's stabilizing presence. He oversees much of the group's business matters – Queen does not have an official manager; instead, it employs a coterie of advisers who leave final decisions to the band.

The disco hit "Another One Bites the Dust" is Deacon's creation. "I'm the only one in the group, really, who likes American black music," he tells me. "And with The Game, it was Freddie's idea that instead of arguing over which songs to put on the album, we'd split it up: Freddie and Brian would have three tracks apiece, and Roger and myself would have two. But we had arguments over whether "Bites the Dust" should be a single. In the end, it began attracting a lot of attention on black stations and in discos, so the record company wanted us to put it out. But it would never have been chosen as a single by the group as a whole."

Given his low-key personality, I wonder how Deacon feels about the image conveyed by Mercury. His answer is blunt: "Some of us hate it," he says. "But that's him and you can't stop it. Like he did an interview in one of the English national papers, and it was all like, 'We're dripping with money, darlin',' or, 'What's a mortgage?' Brian, for one, just hated it."

Like Deacon, Brian May is quiet and tends to keep to himself. He, too, has brought his wife and child along. When not touring, he's an avid gardener – "I've been known to be out there looking for slugs at one o'clock in the morning," he says – and he tries to keep up with astronomy by reading journals and talking with his former university colleagues.

"I think it's essential that you have things that you get into apart from music," he says. "You have to maintain your balance."

May seems to care the most about the group's audience, and he supervises the fan club. "I think people can listen to some of our stuff and actually get something out of it spiritually, if I may be so bold," he says. "I enjoy the fact that a lot of people have written to us and said that a particular song helped them when they were in a difficult situation. That's a great feeling."

All in all, the Big Event was a success. The attendance was staggering: in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the group played in front of 131,000 people one night and 120,000 the next. The press had also been good: one American writer even mentioned Queen's shows at Velez Sarfield in the same breath as the Beatles' at Shea Stadium.

Though this tour seemed rather tame compared with previous Queen endeavors, that probably says more about South American governments than it does about the band. When the group's advance men first arrived in Buenos Aires, for instance, their backstage passes were seized briefly by customs officials, who deemed them pornographic (they depicted two nude women embracing).

But basically, things went smoothly – not unlike some master plan. That concept was brought up again and again when I discussed Queen with some of its associates. "They want to conquer the world" was how one person put it. For a group of this stature, a group that presumably has made enough money to last a lifetime, Queen maintains a very busy work schedule. After the release of The Game last June, the band did a major U.S. tour, recorded Flash Gordon and played some more dates in Europe and Britain. Then came the Japanese shows, the South American trek and a solo LP from Roger Taylor. This June they plan to begin work on another studio album, but before that comes out sometime next year, they will release a greatest-hits package (which reportedly will vary from country to country, depending on what songs have been hits in those areas).

Four years ago, in Queen's last interview with Rolling Stone, Freddie Mercury said, "Our goal is to get to the top, obviously. We're not there yet; nowhere near it. And I don't want anybody to tell me I'm there either." And the band still feels that way. When I asked them what they thought they'd be doing in five years, each member was convinced Queen would still be together, still reaching for something more. After all, you can't conquer the world overnight.

This story is from the June 11th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 345: June 11, 1981
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