Queen: Crowning Achievements
“‘We Will Rock You,’” May recalls, “was a response to a particular phase in Queen’s career, when the audience was becoming a bigger part of the show than we were. They would sing all the songs. And in a place like Birmingham, they’d be so vociferous that we’d have to stop the show and let them sing to us. So both Freddie and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to write a song with audience participation specifically in mind. My feeling was that everyone can stamp and clap and sing a simple motif, so ‘We Will Rock You’ was based on that. We recorded it at [Basing Street] Wessex, which is an old converted church that has a natural good sound to it. There are no drums on the track. It’s just us clapping and stamping on boards, overdubbed many times over with many primitive delay machines. A bit of singing, a bit of guitar playing, and that’s it. The amazing thing is to go to football [soccer] matches or sports events in general and hear people do it. It’s very gratifying to find that it has become part of folklore, sort of. I’ll die happy because of that.”
Queen got back together with Baker one last time for 1978’s Jazz, an album that yielded May’s folksy tribute to the backstage ladies, “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
“It just kind of popped into my head as a tune and a set of words,” he says. “And it became a song about the girls who help raise the spirits of the performers backstage. The groupies or whatever. I remember thinking, Why does everybody love the idea of having casual sex with people that they otherwise wouldn’t want to be with? Why does that mean so much to them? Where does that come from? And I also remember saying, ‘Freddie’s going to have to sing this, and I’m going to write it so that you can take it any way you like. You can be into anything, sexually, and the song would still make sense.”
As the Seventies drew to a close, Queen’s lead singer was no longer making a secret of his sexual orientation. The fact that Freddie Mercury was gay came as a big surprise to many Queen fans. And to Brian May as well, apparently.
“Early on, it didn’t exist,” says the guitarist. “Or if it did, we never saw it. And I don’t think Freddie was aware of it, either. In the early days, we used to share rooms, so I would have known! Freddie had some gorgeous girls. And it was only later on…I couldn’t really pin down the exact time, but there was a point where we realized that Freddie was leading a bit of a different social life than the rest of us. He’d just go off on his own and say, ‘See you later.’ Gradually, he was venturing off into these other areas. He was encouraged by certain people who sort of brought him out, I guess. One of whom was our personal manager at the time. He was a pretty over-the-top kind of person, and I think Freddie found himself in places where he wouldn’t naturally have gotten to if that door hadn’t been forcibly opened for him. Do you know what I’m saying? I think he would have drifted into finding himself sexually in a more gradual way if it hadn’t all suddenly exploded on him. I can remember the Mott the Hoople tour [1973–74], which was the first time I ever experienced sex on a grand scale. And it was almost really not my decision. It kind of happened to me. I felt like I had no control. And I think in a corresponding way, but in a gay direction, that’s what happened to Freddie a bit later on.
“But it didn’t really change our relationship with Freddie in the band. Because we were always very close in the studio. And when we spoke of, you know, love stories, there was no distinction. You could be in love with whoever you wanted and the song would still make sense. But from the Jazz album onward, it would always cross my mind. Because I would be writing words for Freddie to sing. And it became a little game for me to write stuff for him which would make sense any way you cared to interpret it, straight or gay.”
Queen are one of the great ironies of rock history. Fellow glam era acts like Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and Roxy Music had limited impact in the States because the homoerotic overtones of their presentation frightened off many American rock fans—although most of those artists have always asserted that they are exclusively or primarily heterosexual. But of all those bands, Queen had by far the largest following in the States—owing, in no small part, to their heavy metal leanings. Yet they turned out to be the one group whose frontman was genuinely gay. And he was increasingly open about it as time went on. Mercury pissed off Seventies metalheads by sporting the gay male uniform of the day: short hair, moustache, muscles and tank tops. Part of the negative response to Mercury’s coming out was plain, simple, ugly homophobia. But, compounding the problem, this was also a time when rock music was in danger of being eclipsed by disco—the dance music of the urban, gay, multiracial subculture that had been brought into the mainstream by artists like the Village People and Donna Summer. With his new look, Mercury could easily have passed for one of the Village People, which made him seem a traitor to rock music in the eyes of some fans. Some disgruntled punters even took to throwing razor blades onto the stage at Queen concerts, offering an unsubtle hint that Mercury should shave off his moustache. As if to rub salt in the wound, Queen kicked off the Eighties with the unapologetically disco/funk hit single “Another One Bites the Dust,” from their 1980 album, The Game. Perhaps the most ironic part of this was that the song was written not by Mercury but by Queen’s reclusive “quiet one,” John Deacon.
“John, being totally in his own world, came up with this thing which was nothing like what we were doing,” says May. “We were going for the big drum sound—you know, things which were quite pompous in our usual way. And Deaky says, ‘No, I want this totally different: a very tight drum sound.’ Originally, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ was done to a drum loop. Because this was before the days of drum machines. Roger did a loop, somewhat under protest, because he didn’t like the sound of the drums recorded that way. And then Deaky put down that incredible bass line. Immediately, Freddie became violently enthusiastic and said, ‘This is big. This is important. I’m going to spend a lot of time on this.’ So there it was. It was the first time one of our songs crossed over to the black community. We had no control over that. It just happened. One New York DJ picked up on it and suddenly we were forced to release the song as a single because so many stations in New York were playing it. The album went from being a million seller to a threemillion seller in a matter of three weeks or so.”
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