Arguably Britain's most consistently successful band from the mid-70s onwards, Queen began life as a glam rock unit in 1970. Astronomy student Brian May and aspiring dentist Roger Taylor had been playing in Johnny Quale And The Reactions, Beat Unlimited and a college band called Smile with bass player Tim Staffell. When the latter left to join Humpty Bong (featuring former Bee Gees drummer Colin Petersen), May and Taylor elected to form a new band with flamboyant vocalist Freddie Mercury. Early in 1971 bass player John Deacon completed the line-up.
The newly minted Queen was signed to EMI Records late in 1972 and launched the following spring with a gig at London's Marquee club. Soon after the failed single, 'Keep Yourself Alive', they issued a self-titled album, which was an interesting fusion of 70s glam and late 60s heavy rock (it had been preceded by a Mercury 'solo' single, a cover version of The Beach Boys' 'I Can Hear Music', credited to Larry Lurex). Queen toured extensively and recorded a second album, which fulfilled their early promise by reaching the UK Top 5. Soon afterwards, 'Seven Seas Of Rhye' gave them their first hit single (UK number 10), while Sheer Heart Attack consolidated their commercial standing by reaching number 2 in the UK album charts. 'Killer Queen' from the album was also the band's first US hit, reaching number 12 in May 1975.
The pomp and circumstance of Queen's recordings and live act were embodied in the outrageously camp theatrics of the satin-clad Mercury, who was swiftly emerging as one of rock's most notable and hardest partying showmen during the mid-70s. 1975 was to prove a watershed in the band's career. After touring the Far East, they entered the studio with their producer Roy Thomas Baker and completed the epic 'Bohemian Rhapsody', in which Mercury succeeded in transforming a seven-minute single into a mini-opera. The track was both startling and unique in pop and dominated the Christmas charts in the UK, remaining at number 1 for an astonishing nine weeks. The power of the single was reinforced by an elaborate video production, highly innovative for its period and later much copied by other acts. An attendant album named after a Marx Brothers movie, A Night At The Opera, was one of the most expensive and expansive albums of its period and lodged at number 1 in the UK, as well as hitting the US Top 5.
Queen were now aspiring to the superstar bracket. Their career thereafter was a carefully marketed succession of hit singles, annual albums and extravagantly produced stage shows. With yet another Marx Brothers title A Day At The Races continued the bombast, while the catchy 'Somebody To Love' and the future sports anthems 'We Are The Champions' / 'We Will Rock You' (the latter from the follow-up News Of The World) both reached number 2 in the UK. Although Queen seemed in danger of being stereotyped as over-produced glam rock refugees, they successfully brought eclecticism to their singles output with the 50s rock 'n' roll pastiche of 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love' and the disco-influenced 'Another One Bites The Dust' (both US number 1s). Despite this stylistic diversity, each Queen single seemed destined to become an anthem, as evidenced by the continued use of much of their output on US sporting occasions. Meanwhile, The Game gave Queen their first US number 1 album in July 1980. The band's soundtrack for the movie Flash Gordon was another success, but was cited by many critics as typical of their pretentious approach. By the close of 1981, Queen were back at number 1 in the UK for the first time since 'Bohemian Rhapsody' with 'Under Pressure' (a collaboration with David Bowie).
After a flurry of solo ventures and the poorly received, dancefloor-orientated Hot Space, the band defied a growing chorus of doubters by returning in fine form in 1984 with one of their best collections, The Works. The album included the satirical 'Radio Gaga', a UK number 2 hit promoted by a classy video utilising footage from Fritz Lang's classic silent film Metropolis. The album spawned another UK Top 5 hit with the histrionic 'I Want To Break Free', which was accompanied by a hilarious cross-dressing video. A stunning performance at the following year's Live Aid displayed Queen at their most professional and many acclaimed them the stars of the day. Nevertheless, there were several dissenting voices that accused the band of hypocrisy following the previous autumn's visit to the whites-only entertainment complex Sun City in South Africa. Coincidentally, Queen's next single was 'One Vision', an idealistic song in keeping with the spirit of Live Aid.
Queen's recorded and live output lessened during the late 80s as they concentrated on extra-curricular ventures, although it later transpired that Mercury was too ill to tour. The space between releases did not affect the band's popularity, however, as was proven in 1991 when 'Innuendo' gave them their third UK number 1, and the album of the same name also topped the UK charts. By this time they had become an institution. Via faultless musicianship, held together by May's guitar virtuosity and the spectacular Mercury, Queen was established as one of the great theatrical rock acts.
The career of the band effectively ended with the death from AIDS of Mercury on 24 November 1991, an illness he had borne for much of the latter part of the previous decade. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was immediately reissued to raise money for AIDS research projects, and soared to the top of the British charts. The song also climbed to US number 2 in March 1992 after featuring in the movie Wayne's World (it had originally reached number 9 in January 1976). A memorial concert for Mercury took place at London's Wembley Stadium on May 20 1992, featuring an array of stars including Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Guns N'Roses, George Michael, David Bowie and Annie Lennox. Of the remaining members Brian May's solo career enjoyed the highest profile, while Roger Taylor worked with the Cross.
Queen never announced an official break-up, so it was with nervous anticipation that a new Queen album was welcomed in 1995. The Mercury vocals were recorded during his last year while at home in Switzerland, and the rest of the band then worked on the remaining songs. While Mercury must be applauded for the way he carried his illness with great dignity, it is fair to say that May, Taylor and Deacon performed wonders in crafting an album from slightly inferior material. It will never be known whether all the tracks on Made In Heaven would have found their way onto an album had Mercury still been alive.
In 2002, May, Deacon and Taylor collaborated with comedian and novelist Ben Elton on a musical featuring the songs of Queen. Developed in association with Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions, We Will Rock You opened at London's Dominion Theatre on 14 May. In November 2004, May and Taylor teamed up with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers to perform a number of Queen classics at the UK Hall Of Fame awards in London. May, Taylor and Rodgers then announced they would be undertaking a lengthy European tour the following spring.
Copyright © 2016 Omnibus Press