This story was updated on Feb. 24, 2019.
If you want to know what a force of nature Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was, listen to this a cappella version of Under Pressure, a 1982 Queen song sung here in a duet with David Bowie.
Here Mercury is singing the lead, the lead to end all leads. He scats, hitting atmospheric high notes, pleading in a near howl “why can’t we give love one more chance?”, then resolving to the lightest harmonies at the end.
There is no topping Mercury as a rock and roll singer. In the duet, he neatly puts David Bowie in a supporting role, and who else could do that?
Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie, received mixed critical reviews when it was released in November but has since been embraced enthusiastically by movie goers, powered partly by actor Rami Malek’s bravura Oscar-nominated performance as Mercury. The film has taken in more $850 million globally, second only to Black Panther in box-office sales among Best Picture nominees, and Malek is looking like the front-runner to take home the Best Actor prize.
Perhaps the best part of the movie for those of us old enough to have experienced the band during its heyday: It has been a welcome reminder of its extraordinary power and lasting influence, and a great excuse to put Queen and Mercury on heavy rotation again.
We will rock you
My own demographic straddles the Boomer and Gen X generations. You’re My Best Friend may have made the stray power FM station playlist in the 70s, but my earliest Queen memories are fixed on 1974’s Killer Queen, where the band’s voluptuous layered background vocals and genre-bending arrangements are fully to the fore.
Three years later, the group more or less invented stadium rock with We Will Rock You and “We Are The Champions,” after a performance in England.
“We did an encore and then went off,” guitarist Brian May remembered, “and instead of just keeping clapping, [the crowd] sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to us, and we were just completely knocked out and taken aback—it was quite an emotional experience really.”
I saw the broadcast of Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance of We Are The Champions at Wembley Stadium. It is deeply iconic, and that’s a word I use deliberately.
There’s a size to this song that few others would attempt, either with the enormity of the chord progression or the bombast of the chorus or the sheer ambition that informs every moment of Mercury’s performance.
“I consider it a challenge before the whole human race,” he sings, “and I ain’t gonna lose.”
He didn’t. Live Aid was a triumph, and Queen owned the show.
Not bad for a kid of Parsi descent born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar. He was a young, ambitious musician born with extra incisors and a four-octave range, a man who was obviously, if not overtly, queer at a time when such a thing could not be countenanced.
He named his band Queen, for god’s sake, and people still didn’t get it. Mercury was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1987, publicly admitted his illness on Nov. 24, 1991, and died the next day.
If the Live Aid concert was a comeback, the place of Queen in the 1992 film Wayne’s World was a canonization. Released smack in the middle of the Grunge movement, the movie’s ironic lip synching, head banging tribute was the best kind of validation.
When Bohemian Rhapsody was released in 1975, the band’s record label thought a nearly six-minute song would never work as a single, much less one shot through with operatic vocals and sudden tempo changes.
In fact, it hit No. 1 in England and No. 2 in the U.S. And then it became a hit again in 1992 because of Wayne’s World, which was released three months after Mercury’s death.
The movie, a spin-off of the Saturday Night Live skit helmed by SNL stalwarts Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey, follows the adventures of Wayne Campbell (Meyers) and his best buddy Garth Algar (Carvey) and the public access television show they produce in the basement of Wayne’s parents’ house.
Myers was one of the writers on the film and had to fight for the inclusion of Bohemian Rhapsody as the song featured in the beloved opening scene of the movie.
When the producer and director pushed for a popular Guns N’ Roses song instead, Myers threatened to quit.
“At one point I said to everybody, ‘I’m out,’” he told Rolling Stone in an oral history of the scene. “I don’t want to make this movie if it’s not Bohemian Rhapsody.’’
Mercury, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991 at the age of 45, lived long enough to see the clip. Myers phoned guitarist May and asked if he wanted to hear the film clip with Wayne, Garth, and pals head-banging to the song.
“Mike Myers phoned me up and said, ‘We’ve got this thing which we think is great. Do you want to hear it?’’” Queen guitarist Brian May remembers in the oral history “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Do you think Freddie would want to hear it?’ Now Freddie was really sick by that time but I said, ‘Yeah, I’m sure he will.’”
May brought a tape over to Mercury and played it for him.
“Freddie loved it,’’ May said. “He just laughed and thought it was great, this little video.’’
Outsize in every respect
Myers has a fleeting cameo in the Mercury biopic, playing a record label executive who tells Mercury that the single won’t make it: “No one is going to be head-banging in the car to Bohemian Rhapsody.’’
With the movie Bohemian Rhapsody we are reminded, if more proof were needed, that Freddie Mercury is deathless. There’s not much to miss about the 20th century music business, but if there was ever a group emblematic of a bygone era, it’s Queen.
They were outsize in every respect: in their songs, album production, performances, and touring venues. We won’t see their like again, but the music will be forever.