Queen's Tragic Rhapsody

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Mercury guarded his depths closely because he felt he had to. Some thought his effete behavior was largely an affectation. Photographer Mick Rock remembers Mercury "dabbling" in relationships with women ("I do know of one or two names!" Rock said). Also, Mercury sustained a passionate relationship with his partner of many years, Mary Austin, a glamorous young woman he met at Biba, a London fashion house.

"He thought he liked women," an art-college associate of Mercury's told biographer Lesley-Ann Jones. "It took him quite a while to realize he was gay. . . . I don't think he could face up to the feelings it caused inside him." By the time of Queen's 1976 album, A Day at the Races, Mercury had been acting strangely with girlfriend Austin for some time. "I could see that he was feeling bad about something," she said in the documentary Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story. Finally, Mercury told Austin about his new comprehension of himself. "It was a relief to actually hear it from him," she said. Mercury would remain close to Austin for the rest of his life, employing her as his personal secretary and adviser, and despite his numerous subsequent relationships, he referred to her as his common-law wife. From that point on, Austin said, Mercury felt no obligation to explain his sexuality to anybody.

Nor did he tolerate cheap defamations. In Queen: The Early Years, there's a story from somebody who had worked with Queen at a show in Manchester: "Queen had just taken the stage, and this bloke shouted to Freddie, 'You fucking poof.' . . . Freddie demanded that the crew turn the spotlight on the crowd and find this fella. He then said to him, 'Say that again, darling,' and the bloke didn't know what to do. . . . I saw him literally shrink this six-foot bloke down to an inch."

If Mercury's homosexuality was ever an issue for Queen's members, it never played out in public. There were more than enough other judgments beginning to bear down. In 1976, around the time A Day at the Races appeared, the punk movement began to draw divisions in rock, and harshly disparaged the music of bands like Queen. "A rock gig is no longer the ceremonial idolization of a star by fans," declared New Music Express. "That whole illusion, still perpetuated by Queen, is quickly being destroyed." (When Queen found themselves recording at a studio adjacent to the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious reportedly asked Mercury, "So you're this Freddie Platinum bloke that's supposed to be bringing ballet to the masses?" Mercury replied, "Ah, Mr. Ferocious. We're doing our best, dear.") Whatever the reasons, Queen's sound changed dramatically with their 1977 album, News of the World: This was much starker music; lush orchestrations and harmonies had been replaced with odd and novel constructions. May said, "We'd already decided that we had saturated ourselves in multilayered production before the Sex Pistols came along, so we deliberately made News of the World to go back to the basics and find some vitality again."

Two of the album's tracks, "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions," are Queen's most widely known songs, and their most contentious. "Rock You," written by May, opened with crashing stomps and a lyric that seemed to warn any doubters to clear way – "Somebody better put you back into your place" – and was taken by some as a refutation of punk. "We Are the Champions," by Mercury, proved controversial even within the band. May was afraid it might be taken as oversized arrogance, and told Mercury, "You can't do this." Mercury said, "Yes, we can." The two songs proved massively popular – and off-putting to some, helping inspire one Rolling Stone critic to scorn Queen as "the first truly fascist rock band." Both songs, May has said, were designed to be stadium chants, "with audience participation in mind." In both songs, Taylor has said, "It's meant to be a collective 'we' – meaning us, the audience, whoever's listening. It's not meant to say, 'We are the best fucking group, so up you' – more a sort of general bonhomie." Some listeners have also heard "Champions" as Mercury's sly, subversive avowal of gay forbearance, though all these interpretations have been upended by how the songs became the universal bully chants of victors at sporting events.

News was perhaps the best album Queen ever made. Most of their remaining albums – including Jazz (1978), The Game (1980), The Works (1984) and A Kind of Magic (1986) – never again aimed for stylistic cohesion, but nonetheless produced a steady series of hits (among them "Under Pressure," with David Bowie; "Radio Ga Ga," by Taylor; "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," by Mercury; and "Another One Bites the Dust," by Deacon) that helped Queen attract larger and larger concert audiences. Parts of those crowds, however, may have got more than they anticipated. By the early 1980s, Mercury had grown weary of his ornate 1970s look. He cut his hair, slicked it back, wore either leathers or trim athletic outfits, and grew a bushy mustache. It was exemplary of what was known as the late-1970s muscled "gay clone" look – a demeanor that the rock world was wholly unaccustomed to. By taking it onstage – in particular during a Queen performance of "Another One Bites the Dust," when Mercury pranced across the stage in tight shorts, firing out phrases like "bite it" and "bite it hard, baby" – he seemed to come as close as he ever would to a public admission of his sexuality. At some shows on the band's 1980 American tour, fans tossed disposable razor blades onstage: They didn't like this identity of Mercury – what they perceived as a brazenly gay rock & roll hero – and they wanted him to shed it.

Queen would not tour the U.S. again after 1982. There were rumors that some in the band held Mercury's image to blame for alienating that huge audience. "Some of us hate it," Deacon told RS in 1981. "But that's him and you can't stop it." May, though, makes it sound like the band was unconcerned about the U.S. market: "There was always someplace where we were shit-hot and we could go and be ourselves and not worry."

Queen remained a touring juggernaut, filling stadiums and arenas internationally through much of the 1980s. The tours were so big, the shows so spectacular, that it all became another aspect that worked against the band: To some observers, Queen was industry, not art. What's more, judging by a couple of awful occasions, a perhaps heartless industry at that. In early 1981, Queen undertook their first brief but eventful tour of South America. It seemed a worthy ambition – no major rock bands had yet taken that continent's audiences seriously enough to mount such a major effort. The first concert was to take place in Buenos Aires, and would be the country's largest to date. A military dictatorship was running Argentina at the time, waging a "dirty war" on leftists and common citizens, killing up to 30,000 during its reign. Queen tried to rationalize the visit. "We were playing for the people," Taylor said. "We didn't go there with the wool pulled over our eyes. However, their reputation was damaged. The image grew even worse when Queen agreed to play 12 performances in Bophuthatswana, South Africa, at the Sun City Super Bowl in October 1984. South Africa was still in the vicious grip of apartheid, and the United Nations was asking entertainers to boycott the country. In addition, Britain's Musicians' Union banned any of its members from performing in Sun City. Queen played anyway, despite passionate controversy beforehand in England, but had to cancel several shows after Mercury's voice gave out on opening night.

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