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.
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."
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