Search This Blog

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Crossdressing, South Africa and How America Forgot about Queen

If you’ve been checking in here over the last several weeks, you’ve seen a lot of articles about rock concept albums and weird places to visit in Southern California.  Today, I want to keep the focus on music, but this time it’s not connected to any ongoing series.  It’s a post about Queen and I’m doing it specifically for Lisanne Harrington, but I hope you all enjoy it as well.

I’m a casual fan of Queen.  When I was hitting the age where rock music was starting to help me define who I was, Queen was already kind of out of fashion.  All the hard rocking guitars of their early stuff had given way to faux rockabilly and disco beats.  I like most of the hits and I totally get the genius and talent of Freddy Mercury as a frontman, but I never fell head over heels for them which is how I missed this tidbit.

See, originally I was going to write about rock music’s role in breaking down taboos and rearranging cultural norms and to do that, I was going to tell you a quick story about high school, Billy Squier and Queen.  Then I stumbled on something that I hadn’t heard before and a few rabbit holes later, I’m staring at this page trying to figure out how to work it all in.

Most people think of Queen as a staple of rock and roll, universally loved and accepted everywhere.  After all, their songs “We Are The Champions” and “We Will Rock You” have permeated pop culture so much that kids sing them without even knowing where they came from.  Most people don’t realize that American audiences turned their back on Queen when they were arguably at the height of their powers and the reason mostly had to do with their image. 

Queen had a string of huge hits worldwide from 1975 – 1981, including “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”.   They’d also been a favorite of hard rock fans due to songs like “Stone Cold Crazy” and Brian May’s guitar heroics.  Even early on, there had always been rumors that the band’s lead singer, Freddy Mercury, was gay, but he’d never publicly acknowledged it (and wouldn’t for years).  It didn’t seem to matter to most fans, but on the cover of their album The Game, Mercury changed his image.  

Gone were the long hair and silk outfits.  In their place was short hair and leather.  Mercury wasn’t coming out publicly in words, but visually he wasn’t hiding anymore.  That rubbed American audiences the wrong way.  As Queen toured the States, Mercury became the target of some pretty bitter fans who didn’t really want to confront their own feelings about sexuality.  Instead, they saw fit to throw disposable razor blades at him during shows (this actually happened) as if to say, “Just end it already.” 

But Queen always followed their own muse and even as album sales in the U.S. lagged, the band stuck by their singer.   In a particularly defiant moment, the band shot a video for the song “I Want to Break Free” completely in drag.  It was a single off their new album called The Works.  Basically the message they were sending was, “If you can’t find this fun and funny, then we really don’t give a damn if you buy our record or not.”  You can see the video below.

For any other band, that would have been the final nail in the coffin, and as far as most people at the time were concerned, it was.  At my high school, it was really uncool to like them and if you happened to be playing their cassette in your jam box after football practice, there was a chance you’d get punched just on principle.  Queen had trouble with sales in the States and didn’t even properly tour the U.S. with the album.  Instead, they enjoyed their popularity in other countries and wrote off America for the next two years.

Unfortunately, they started to lose face at home and abroad thanks to a very stupid decision on the band’s part.  During that time, Queen decided to play a concert in Sun City, South Africa.  This was during apartheid and those who are old enough will remember there was a huge push in the music world to boycott the country.  Artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper, U2 and Little Steven all banded together and created an organization called Artists Against Apartheid.  They urged Queen not to play the show, but once again the band followed their own muse.  They argued that they weren’t playing for the government.  They were playing for the people in South Africa who were everyday fans and deserved to hear their favorite band play.

It was a tone deaf response and it began to cost the band dearly.  The decision caused a huge rift between Queen and other popular acts of the time.   It also caused a row in the music tabloids and soon, Queen was feeling the heat in their home country as well. 


When Bob Geldof gathered the most popular U.K. artists at the time to do a charity single to feed starving people in Africa, he didn’t invite Queen.  He very publicly avoided them, basically stating that they were part of the problem.

This was like a slap in the face to Freddy Mercury.  He went on record as saying how disappointed he was and the band did their best to control the damage.  At this stage in most band’s careers, you read about the inevitable breakup and perhaps a partial reunion of two members under the old band name. 

Instead, something pretty magical happened:  Live Aid.

It was the world’s largest benefit concert.  It took place across two continents (three if you add the Australian version which aired six hours earlier than Live Aid officially kicked off).  Every major rock and pop music act on the planet ended up playing it.  The Who reunited for it, as did Black Sabbath.  Pop music giants played alongside blues and metal artists.  It wasn’t just an event, it was an EVENT!

Geldof decided to reach out to Queen despite his anger over the South Africa concerts.  Queen jumped at the chance and in one, short set that was broadcast live across two continents, Queen not only won back their old fans, they gained thousands of new ones.  It turned out to be the performance that solidified Queen as a rock band for the ages.  Watch the entire thing in the link below.

Freddy Mercury absolutely OWNS that crowd.  Brian May later called it, “The greatest day of our lives.”  He said that the band themselves played okay but Freddy Mercury took things to another level.  After the performance was over, Elton John rushed back to find them and declared, “You bastards!  You stole the show!”
It was the moment where sheer talent overcame the prejudice of image and forgave bad decisions.  

At my high school, nobody gave anyone crap for liking Queen after Live Aid.

Until next week, enjoy the links above and check out my Amazon author page where you can pick up my book The Wash.  It has absolutely nothing to do with Queen but you'll likely enjoy it anyway.


Lisanne Harrington said...

Thanks, Cary, that was AWESOME! Of course, I remember the whole Apartheid debacle, but the drag video was new. I LOVED IT! Since sexuality doesn't matter to me, I've never not loved Queen. As you know, they are my favorite band of all time. Such great music, and Freddie was an incredible performer.

An interesting story: One day, on the way to school, the mom driving the carpool turned on the radio and We Are the Champions was playing. My daughter said something about Queen, and the kid whose mom was driving made a derogatory remark. His mom laughed and told him that Queen was the band playing the song.

He never made fun of them again.

Tom said...

Man, I had forgotten all about that Sun City debacle. Effectively erased by the Live Aid appearance -- which goes down (for me) as the second greatest moment in Rock 'N Roll history. Zeppelin reunited for that show and basically got their sorry coked-out asses ran over by Queen who took the stage in broad daylight without the benefit of their signature bombastic stage show. Only fitting that the other big concert event of that era would the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert just a few years later.

Great piece of writing, dude.