How Are Queen Still The Biggest Band In The World?
Longtime fan Shaun Ponsonby takes a deep dive into why, 30 years after the death of Freddie Mercury, Queen remain champions. Spoiler: It’s not just the movie.
There was a moment during this year’s BRIT Awards that got me thinking. Host Jack Whitehall was introducing the next set of presenters, and he referred to one as the “Lead singer in the biggest band in the world”. And out popped…Adam Lambert.
Of course, as most people know, Lambert has spent much of the last decade singing with Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor under the moniker Queen + Adam Lambert. How much you count him as Queen’s frontman is up to you. Personally, I believe this incarnation to be totally separate from the original band, and billing Lambert separately is a testament to that.
Either way, was it a bit ambitious to refer to Queen as the biggest band in the world, 30 years after the death of Freddie Mercury?
Well, actually, no. It wasn’t.
Full disclosure: Queen have always been my favourite band. I was born in 1988, not even really able to be consciously aware that Freddie Mercury had died in 1991. In fact, I didn’t find out he was dead until 1995’s posthumous Made In Heaven came out and I asked my dad why it was called Made In Heaven, before disappointingly listening to my cassette copies of their Greatest Hits albums when I got the answer. I can thank them for introducing me to all manner of different styles that I still appreciate to this day, my lack of snobbishness, my appreciation of intricate musicianship and for having a sense of humour about these things.
This obviously means I am inclined to big them up and give them the benefit of the doubt on a lot of things (except for their decision to play Sun City, obviously, which was just flat out wrong).
But it also means I have some very specific thoughts on how and why Queen have managed to grow in popularity as time marches on, when the appeal of other legendary artists is fading fast.
Yes, we hear their music everywhere. Yes, they had a movie. But surely it’s more complex than that?
If Queen Are Massive on Spotify, They’re Massive with Kids
In 2019, a math teacher interviewed by The Thrillist let one of his female students jump on his computer to play some music off YouTube while the class worked on an assignment. She didn’t go for Taylor Swift, she went for Queen. “I thought nothing of it,” explains the teacher, “until I looked up and saw every 9th and 10th grade student lip-syncing the whole song.”
Over the summer, an article from Music Business Worldwide explored Queen’s everlasting appeal. That study found that with over 37.6 million monthly listeners, they are the 38th biggest artist on Spotify. Most of the people listening on streaming platforms won’t be their original fans, 65 year old men who have been listening to the same vinyl copy of A Night At The Opera for 46 years.
Spotify is where young people go for their music. Music Ally report that over 70% of Queen’s Spotify listeners are under the age of 35. This is all reflected in the numbers for their classic rock contemporaries, most of whom seem to average around 14-17 million streams or less (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, U2, Springsteen, AC/DC, Metallica, Nirvana etc). David Bowie, with whom Queen recorded the 1981 smash Under Pressure, sits comfortably in that bracket with just over 15 million. Bob Dylan only gets nine million listens a month.
On Spotify at least, Queen are the literally the biggest band in the world – everyone above them is a solo artist, vocal group, rapper or DJ. They dwarf The Rolling Stones (21 million). They even smash The Beatles (24 million). Furthermore, at time of writing no song by those bands are even close to getting a billion streams. Queen have four (Bohemian Rhapsody, Don’t Stop Me Now, Another One Bites The Dust, and Under Pressure).
And it isn’t just bands. I was expecting Michael Jackson to beat them. He doesn’t (26 million).
But I’m sure that more contemporary superstars do, right? Like, Beyonce. She’s ruled the world for over a decade, at the exact right time for the streaming phenomenon. Surely she beats Que…
…nope. With 32 million monthly listens, Beyonce trails them by around 4 million.
Now, don’t get it twisted; if Beyonce dropped an album tomorrow, she would fly ahead of Queen. But she hasn’t, meaning they are both purely going by back catalogue.
It is utterly fascinating that a band with no new releases in over a quarter of a century, whose most iconic member has been dead for three decades, who were critically mauled at every turn throughout their career, have not only remained at the forefront of the public consciousness, but continue to be rediscovered by each passing generation. To the point where both Brian May and Roger Taylor have had top 10 solo albums this year.
According to John Goehrke, the Director of Visitor Engagement at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, young fans increasingly type the band’s name into the museum’s “Voice Your Choice” interactive voting tool, which lets visitors take a stand on who they’d like to see admitted into the Hall of Fame. When the computer tells them Queen were inducted in 2001, they end up voting for Freddie Mercury as a solo artist.
“Freddie Mercury as a solo artist is now in the top five in our current ‘Voice Your Choice’ standing, among artists like Iron Maiden, Rage Against the Machine, and Dave Matthews Band,” Goehrke told The Thrillist. “Kids that are 10, 11, 12, 13, or 14 years old, they’re the ones who are submitting Freddie Mercury‘s name.”
The Chicago Tribune spoke to a number of young fans about why this might be. 15 year old Natalie Montanez said that the band encourage her to be herself, to dress how she wants, to like what she likes, to embrace who she is. “They were just so original and creative. Queen was not afraid to think outside of the box, to overstep boundaries,” she said. “They proved naysayers wrong and made Bohemian Rhapsody a classic. Everyone has heard this song no matter how old or their gender. This story alone has inspired me to do what makes me happy no matter what anyone says.”
Queen Are Underrated
This is a bold claim. Some estimates give Queen’s record sales as exceeding 300 million worldwide, so referring to them as “underrated” may seem ridiculous.
But while Queen may be massive, they have never been paid respect by critics. I don’t mean that they have merely been dismissed or shrugged off. The entire attitude towards them has always been vilely confrontational.
Check out these two press cuttings from The Works Tour in 1984, just one year before their celebrated Live Aid performance. Both Freddie and bass player John Deacon are openly sneered at, as are the audience. One of the writers sarcastically refers to “so much ‘quality’ music”, before calling said music “endless crap”. Phrases like “sick joke” abound, and even when compliments are given, they’re back handed.
I offer these up as examples, but they aren’t unique. Queen are such a mega successful band that it’s easy to forget that the level to which they are beloved by the public is entirely organic. Nobody was telling people that Queen were great at any point throughout their careers. But people loved them regardless.
There was an infamous review of 1978’s Jazz in Rolling Stone magazine by Dave Marsh. “Queen hasn’t the imagination to play jazz,” he said. “Queen hasn’t the imagination, for that matter, to play rock & roll… Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band.”
There’s something precarious about Marsh, a Bruce Springsteen biographer, ragging on Queen for being pompous. How anybody could love The Boss’ Jungleland but loathe Queen for being full of themselves is beyond me. Especially as the difference between Springsteen’s epics and Queen’s is that Queen were always very aware of their own ridiculousness.
It is also objectively not true to claim that Queen lacked imagination. They have one of the most eclectic back catalogues in the history of rock music. Bang on about the creativity of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd all you want, neither of them went from eight minute prog epics like 1975’s The Prophet’s Song to topping the American R&B charts with Another One Bites The Dust just five years later with such ease. For the most part, Zeppelin and Floyd stayed in their respective wheelhouses. And their wheelhouses were great. But no wheelhouse could contain Queen. Their album tracks have often been dismissed as “filler” before today. But this so-called “filler” was tremendously creative.
On the album he was reviewing, there is a song that features several modulations, unusual chord functions, a meter change (4/4 to 6/8 and back), a soundscape involving bells, a five part harmony chorus, a light funk touch in the verses, hits five different keys and a lyric used as a metaphor for Freddie being allowed to live his life how he chooses without interference, which was possibly speaking of his own sexuality in covert terms.
It could all be very pretentious if it wasn’t so catchy and joyous, and said lyric wasn’t “Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle/I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike”. The humorous approach allowed Queen to sneak very clever music into the mainstream in digestible chunks. Apparently so clever that hacks like Marsh couldn’t even figure it out.
(Incidentally, I would label Bicycle Race a novelty song. I wouldn’t dismiss it as such. After all, rock & roll was built on novelty songs. What are Rock Around The Clock and The Twist if not novelty songs?)
What all of this means is that the wild creativity of their 70s albums is rarely acknowledged. People love the hits. It’s why their 1981 Greatest Hits album is the biggest seller in UK history. But the albums are rarely discussed as bodies of work.
Contemporaries like Pink Floyd, David Bowie and The Who might get think pieces written about their album tracks, but rarely will you see an article that focuses on the astonishing second side of Queen II, where they seamlessly move from a heavy metal song about ogres having a fight (Ogre Battle), to a camp ode to Victorian painter Richard Dadd (The Fairy Fellar’s Master Stroke), to a short heartfelt break up ballad (Nevermore), to a prog epic that was too difficult to be played live (The March of the Black Queen), to a Phil Spector pastiche pop song (Funny How Love Is), and ending with their first hit, Seven Seas of Rhye.
Up until 1980, they would invoke music hall (Seaside Rendezvous), speed metal (Stone Cold Crazy), gospel (Somebody To Love), Caribbean flavours (Misfire), proto-shoegaze (She Makes Me), rockabilly (Crazy Little Thing Called Love), folk (’39), a musical tribute to Freddie’s Persian heritage (Mustapha), waltz (The Millionaire Waltz), punk (Sheer Heart Attack), jazz (My Melancholy Blues), funk (Another One Bites The Dust), all culminating in the strangely haunting, synth heavy, instrumental Flash Gordon soundtrack in 1980 – the very kind of album that an ardent Queen detractor would love.
We seriously take for granted how bonkers this is. These songs are by the same band, and often on the same albums. They went more pop and less experimental in the 80s, but that early run of albums are some of the most eccentric of their era. It’s kind of crazy that they were able to make it so big. Who else has managed to do all of that so successfully? There aren’t many.
I regularly hear people refer to Queen as overrated. But they’re not overrated, because – critically, at least – they have never been rated. What they usually mean is “Their hits are overplayed”. Which is a fair argument, because its probably true. Their music is everywhere.
As for the bands those critics loved? Gee, I don’t know. Freddie Mercury is a much loved national treasure. How are Johnny Rotten and Morrissey fairing these days?
The Rise of Poptimism
In 1981, local hero Pete Wylie coined the phrase “rockism”. It is the absurd notion that rock music and rock music alone values authenticity and artfulness, which elevates it over other all other forms of popular music. What do we want? High art with guitars! When do we want it? ALL THE TIME!
For the most part, music criticism has always had a very rockist sheen, in large part because the children of the 60s have had such a Goddamn difficult time letting go of literally everything.
In 2004, sociologist Motti Regev wrote that the canonising of rock music in the 60s and 70s among professional critics had created a status structure and orthodoxy that carried over into other developments in popular music all the way up to the 21st century. Historically, it’s in all your Rock & Roll Hall of Fames and Rolling Stone Magazines, and gives us the hype behind creatively redundant bands like Greta Van Fleet.
Morrissey, proving that he has always been an arsehole, showed some of the true colours of this ideology in a 1986 interview with Melody Maker. Not content with calling all reggae “racist” music, he went on to suggest that Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were “vile in the extreme” and that their music “doesn’t say anything whatsoever”.
The Melody Maker interviewer does a pathetic attempt to correct him, but also gets it excruciatingly wrong; “It doesn’t seek to change the world like rock music by speaking grand truths about politics, sex and the human condition. It works at a much more subtle level.”
Here it is in its simplest form; “It doesn’t say anything to me, therefore it is worthless.”
Now, where the hell do Queen fit into this?
Naturally, Queen were never truly part of that canonised group. It probably isn’t revolutionary to suggest that one of the reasons they are both loathed by critics and loved by the public is their inability to be contained by the agreed upon form of rock music.
If rockism commands that you are an explicitly, serious artiste, Freddie Mercury doesn’t fit into that. He may have come across as arrogant on stage, but he was too self-aware to get genuinely get gobbled up by that level of self-importance. He would often say his music was disposable. “No, I don’t think of myself as an artist,” he said in 1984. “I’m just a musical prostitute, my dear!”
But, over the last 20 years, the hold rockism had over the self-proclaimed critical elite has changed dramatically, thanks to a movement known as “poptimism”.
According to Slate’s Jody Rosen, the idea is that “Pop (and, especially, hip-hop) producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act.”
And honestly, who can argue with that? Dissecting what the public are consuming en masse is just as interesting as exploring The Velvet Underground, thank you very much. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and everything is influenced by the world around it.
But argue they did, and this ended up being a petty public spat between critics (which means about four people were aware of it). One argument against poptimism was the idea that it was no better than rockism. I would challenge that by saying that poptimism in its purest form feels like a redress of balance rather than a complete takeover. Decades of sneering, like Morrissey was doing in Janet Jackson’s direction above, the canonisation, the “You’re stupid for liking this thing that gives you pleasure” attitude of the rockist crowd. For half a century. Get fucked.
Have some people taken poptimism to an extreme? Probably. I’ve never really seen it. Nowhere near as far as those anti-Queen reviews we published above. I’m yet to read a professionally published article that refers to Alex Turner as a fascist. On the contrary, he is still disproportinately celebrated. There remains a much larger pushback from rockists against pop acts than vice versa. Check out the comments section every time the Glastonbury line-up is revealed – they even drag legends like Diana Ross. From a distance, the anti-poptimism reaction feels like people who have always had their way whingeing that they’re not taken as seriously anymore.
The Quietus babbled that one of the caveats of poptimism is that; “Just as ‘authenticity’ is worthless as a symbol of a music’s worth, so contrivance and cynicism might be elevated and celebrated, as evidence of the maker’s awareness of the game they are playing.” I can honestly say that I have never seen authenticity being deemed worthless by anyone, anywhere, hun. And I find it equally baffling that a generation that adores David Bowie can complain that there are people in the world who think that contrivance can be clever, given that you’re clearly one of them.
Others, such as Rob Horning at PopMatters, have bemoaned that “by rejecting all that was once deemed important by a previous generation and embracing the opposite, you can make the case for your own importance.” Which is fascinating, because that is exactly what the punks claimed to be doing in 1977 and they’re still eulogised and celebrated for it. And not what poptimism is actually about. Yawn.
Ultimately, anyone who argues that anything released for public consumption is unworthy of serious consideration, be it deep art or brazenly commercial, is frankly a moron.
The context for this is that Queen fit much more comfortably in the poptimism frame, where you can release A Kind of Magic and I Want To Break Free and still be taken seriously by critics.
A 1985 quote like this from Mercury feels more in tune with 2021 than in the post punk days; “There was a trend a few years ago, with the punk movement or whatever where they said ‘We want to play to the small audiences because we’re being intimate’ and all that. Load of rubbish. Everybody who wants to be successful wants to play to the biggest audience. My music isn’t channelled into any category, I want everybody to listen to it. Music is limitless.”
And given that around this time, The Clash were playing stadiums and in the following years, the Sex Pistols have done multiple arena/stadium reunion tours flogging that one album they did, I think he may have been proven correct.
This may go some way to explaining why Queen’s critical consensus has improved so dramatically, and another reason why the generation of serious music heads who have grown with a poptimistic attitude clearly like them far more than all of those artistes canonised by rockism.
I have a friend who teaches Sixth Form. As a seasoned music head, he tells me he pays attention to what the students listen to. According to him, there’s another classic rock band whose youthful appeal remains squarely intact. Unlike Queen or The Beatles, there hasn’t been any major projects to ensure that they remain in the public eye, yet they match The Beatles on Spotify; Fleetwood Mac.
This is telling. They haven’t chosen Led Zeppelin, for instance, despite the generations of Godlike acclaim heaped upon them. What do Queen and Fleetwood Mac have that Led Zeppelin don’t?
Well, it’s more who they have up front.
For all of Mercury’s cock rock posturing, the knowledge of his sexuality changes the dynamics of his performances. Both Freddie and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant wore tight pants and cavorted about the stage, but with a figure like Plant that can feel a bit sleazy. As young people become increasingly uncomfortable and outspoken about social issues – in a way that their parents never really did – a Freddie Mercury or a Stevie Nicks has far more appeal than a Robert Plant.
Freddie’s legacy as a queer icon is complicated. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t publicly closeted. He was out as bisexual in his lifetime, and there are plenty of 80s news articles that open with the phrase “Openly bisexual singer Freddie Mercury”, despite the article having nothing to do with his sexuality, to confirm this. He was quite the dichotomy; both open and private simultaneously. He told several journalists he was “as gay as a daffodil“, and the quote was published.
Like many queer men, he would often respond with humour when asked. In 1976 he answered the point blank question with “I sleep with men, women, cats, you name it.” It allowed him to answer the question honestly whilst providing enough humour for less enlightened members of the public to take the confession with a grain of salt.
But, of course, that was the 1970s. Perhaps by 1984 – when Boy George and Frankie Goes To Hollywood were topping the charts – there could have been more leeway for him?
Mercury himself disagreed, telling Melody Maker that year; “It’s wrong for me to be gay now because I’ve been in the business for 12 years. It’s good to be gay or anything outrageous if you’re new. But even if I tried that, people would start yawning ‘Oh God, here’s Freddie Mercury saying he’s gay because it’s trendy to be gay’.”
This has, unfortunately, given some (usually older) Queen fans carte blanche to be openly homophobic on either Queen’s or Freddie’s social media pages. I’ve witnessed them first hand, I’ve challenged them and been followed back to my own social pages by them and had a torrent of abuse directed at both me and my friends.
They hide behind the theory that “Freddie didn’t want to be a spokesman for gay rights, so the gays need to stop claiming him”. But context is everything. The quote above suggests to me that it was fear of losing his livelihood that stopped him fully embracing his sexuality in the public sphere. Because why would Freddie want to do that in the 70s and 80s? A time of homophobia far more rampant than today. A time where AIDS was widely considered a gay disease and added further stigma. A time when, in the UK, the Tories were able to pass Section 28, a law with the purposefully fuzzy goal of “banning the promotion of homosexuality” from local authorities.
The truth is, we don’t know how Freddie Mercury would present himself in 2021, in a world where RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of the biggest TV franchises in the world, Pose and It’s a Sin are hoovering up award nominations and Pride Month sees every major brand adopt the rainbow flag (no matter how disingenuous).
Even so, it must have been obvious to anyone paying attention at the time, and indeed Freddie’s sexuality was still often used against the band as a whole by critics. A 1974 review by Melody Maker’s Jeff Ward said; “Queen are exceptionally derivative of some of the styles of Deep Purple, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and Yes. But, consciously or unconsciously, they’ve taken the ideas away and completely emasculated them. British rock fans are likely to suss this out.”
This is framed as a negative, but ironically, that they emasculated rock music makes them more accessible than most other rock bands and broadens their appeal to women, queers and other minorities – and allows that audience to continue to grow. It is quite possibly why it is Queen and Fleetwood Mac who have remained much more in favour with younger audiences.
Understanding Freddie’s background may also be key to this.
— Fradi Frad Dreizehn 🇭🇺🇩🇪🇬🇷 (@frad_fradi) April 8, 2021
Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar to parents from the Parsi community of western India, and spending much of his childhood in a Bombay boarding school – where he formed his first band, The Hectics – Mercury was a refugee when he came to England. His family fled Zanzibar in the spring of 1964 to escape the violence of the revolution against the Sultan of Zanzibar, in which thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed. Farrokh was approaching his 18th birthday when they landed, thanks to his father’s contacts within the British Colonial Office where he worked.
Whilst the crass explanation would be to off-handedly attribute exoticism to Freddie’s appeal, for younger listeners more attuned to social justice I would be inclined to offer that they are more likely to listen to a queer East African refugee than they ever would a hetty white guy like Robert Plant leering “Squeeze me baby, till the juice runs down my leg” without a hint of irony.
Not that Queen couldn’t be sleazy. The infamous video for Bicycle Race, in which dozens of women take part in naked biking around Wimbledon, has aged horribly. Brian May in particular has expressed wincing discomfort with it in interviews. But the dynamics of Freddie in particular seem to allow things like that to fly beneath the radar, and on the occasions where he did sing sleazy lyrics, he didn’t deliver them straight. He knew they were silly, and sang them knowingly. It wasn’t sleazy, it was camp.
Which leads me to the next point…
We touched on this when discussing Bicycle Race above, but it’s worth exploring further.
If there is one thing I have learned from reading articles by boring, middle aged, beard-stroking, Radiohead-listening musos it’s that, on the whole, they don’t have a sense of humour. Music isn’t supposed to be fun, damnit!
Fuck that! Of course it is!
And Queen’s ability to conjure up humour is central to the whole band’s mass appeal. Not only does it break down a barrier that stops the band from veering too far into pretension, but he uses it to find a way to make himself truly relatable, despite his excesses. In retrospect, this makes him come across as far more appealing than most of his self-important contemporaries.
1991’s I’m Going Slightly Mad is a wonderful example of this. Recorded three years after Mercury’s HIV diagnosis, and no more than 18 months before he would succumb to AIDS, he could be forgiven for wallowing in self-pity with a succession of mawkish ballads about how shit his life is.
But he doesn’t do that.
In Slightly Mad, Freddie somehow manages to laugh at himself, to smile in the most dire of circumstances. In the song, he adopts a Noel Coward voice and lists various ways in which HIV/AIDS has ransacked his body, giving way to an agonising mental and physical decline. Whenever it sounds like he’s about to complain, he will turn it into a joke; “I’m coming down with a fever/I’m really out to sea/This kettle is boiling over/I think I’m a banana tree”.
Despite the dark edge, it is remarkably humorous and positive given the circumstances. “Lambasted at the time for being too twee for its good,” wrote Martin Power, “I’m Going Slightly Mad has, like fine wine and Kylie Minogue, only grown better with time.”
Filmed almost entirely in black and white, the music video matches the song for its melding of dark, surrealist humour. On viewing it as a child, I didn’t even recognise Freddie. Neither, it seems, did his partner Jim Hutton, who visited him on set and walked right by him.
On the one hand, the character he portrayed in the song came to life in the video – eccentric clothes, heavy gothic make-up, unkempt wig. We’re distracted by Brian May dressed as a penguin, by the kettle on Roger Taylor’s head, by John Deacon as the court jester. On the other hand, everything was designed to hide the extent of his illness, much more successfully than the following clip for These Are The Days of Our Lives was able to do, where Mercury was so ill he could barely move.
One part stands out. Freddie crawls up to the other members of the band like some kind of wild, untamed animal. They move away from him in unison down the couch on which they are sitting, leaving Freddie isolated. I’ve long understood this as a metaphor for the isolation that AIDS sufferers felt at that time; shunned by a society that was happy to let them die.
Costume designer Diana Mosley described the extent of his illness at this time in 2002’s The Untold Story; “When we were doing the Slightly Mad video, Freddie was on a completely different plane. Normally under the lighting and things like that, everybody gets very hot. But Freddie had thermals on underneath all of the clothing I put on him, underneath all the lights. He had no body weight at all.”
The closest we probably have to a rock superstar staging his death in this way would be former sparring partner David Bowie, who gracefully bowed out with the album Blackstar and music video for Lazarus in 2016. Except Bowie seemed totally serious. Freddie confronted his ultimate mortality with dark humour, in-keeping with his attitude throughout his life. When asked whether he thought Queen’s music would stand the test of time, he half-jokingly shrugged; “I don’t give a fuck, dear. I won’t be around to worry about it.”
One of the great disjunctions in the critical reception of Queen is that they are simultaneously viewed as both too pretentious and not serious enough. This feels very disingenuous, and almost like they are simply choosing whatever criticism will work in whatever context.
At the end of the Slightly Mad video, Deacon runs backwards up a flight of stairs. It’s all in black and white, except for his jester’s hat. The stairs disappear, Deacon disappears, and only the jester’s hat remains. Where is the joy in taking it all so damn seriously?
America and Queen+
Like everything else Queen has ever done, the controversial 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was critically mauled, but massively successful. It would be tempting to place the increased interest solely on its shoulders.
But that’s a little bit too simple. After all, were there not major movies based on The Beatles (Yesterday) and Bruce Springsteen (Blinded By The Light) around the same time? None of these heavily promoted projects saw anywhere near those returns.
As much as the movie undoubtedly opened a few more doors, it was three years ago and those Spotify numbers above are up to date. The success of Bohemian Rhapsody traded more off affection for the band than vice versa. How else could it not only survive those scathing reviews (as only Queen can), but become bigger than Gone with the Wind?
The choirmaster at Eisenhower High School told the Chicago Tribune that “The kids love Queen and have for a long time. I think it’s the persona of Freddie Mercury, the music, the lyrics, the whole deal. It’s almost like theatre,” implying that this predates the film.
The aforementioned Music Business Worldwide article pointed out that “One particularly interesting thing about Queen’s recent revenue history is that even before the Bohemian Rhapsody movie arrived, the band’s income was already jumping up significantly.”
Spike Edney, who has played keyboards with Queen and pretty much all related projects since 1984, echoed this to Rolling Stone Magazine when discussing the most recent Queen + Adam Lambert tour; “The curve was already on the up from the previous tour. Their marketability and pulling power had been growing and growing as more and more people had been getting the Adam bug and saying, ‘He’s a good man to be doing this.’ But then the movie cracked that wide open. I think they could probably tour for the rest of their lives. This tour could go on forever.”
As a fan, I balked at May and Taylor playing We Will Rock You with 5ive, remixing Another One Bites The Dust with Wycleaf Jean, showing up on The X Factor, and that song Brian did with Dappy from NDubz (you forgot about that, didn’t you?). But in retrospect all of these little appearances managed to keep them at the forefront of popular culture and introduce them to subsequent generations, in many cases people for whom Queen would never be on their radar. None of it has changed the body of work that already existed. And it harks back to the poptimism argument above.
In a 2019 documentary, broadcaster Paul Gambaccini revealed that following Freddie’s death, the band’s manager Jim Beach told him that “Queen are going to be a current band.” It’s hard to argue against this having been achieved, despite the dearth of new material.
So a big part of this uptick could, potentially, be down to Adam Lambert.
Whilst Queen remained stadium filling megastars all over Europe in the 80s, they couldn’t get arrested in America. A #1 hit all over the world, Under Pressure stalled at #29 in the States. In 10 years, they just about scraped two top 20 hits; Radio Ga Ga (#14, 1984) and, bizarrely, the much maligned 1982 single Body Language (#11). That was it.
There were multiple reasons. Firstly, Freddie refused to tour America unless he was touring a hit – which, as Beach pointed out is counter-productive because the less you tour America, the more you lose America (evidently). Secondly, Freddie’s personal manager Paul Prenter would respond to disc jockeys and journalists on their final American tour by saying “Freddie says ‘Fuck off’,” which did little to convince radio stations to play their records. Finally, the nail in the coffin, the music video for I Want To Break Free, famously showing the band in drag, freaked out the boring, hetty, middle American rock audience.
There were little peaks along the way. Freddie’s death didn’t really move America, but people enjoyed the famous Wayne’s World scene so much that Bo Rhap reached a new peak of #2 there. But they never truly had another hit single or top 20 album ever again.
When they hooked up with Adam Lambert, there was a heavy implication that this was “Queen’s” first US tour since 1982. But we all know that wasn’t true.
In 2004, May and Taylor joined up with former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. Widely (and correctly) regarded as one of the finest rock singers of his generation, he was a peculiar fit for Queen; a bluesy, hard rock, meat and potatoes kinda guy probably shouldn’t be singing “All we hear is radio ga ga/Radio goo goo“. But, it was an interesting combination nonetheless.
Rodgers undeniably had chemistry with them, and mixing Queen’s hits with Free and Bad Company’s probably should have worked in America – Bad Company were arguably bigger in the US than they were in the UK, with several multi-platinum LPs there.
America also have this thing we don’t have so much in the UK; classic rock radio. These hugely popular stations play the same few dozen songs day in, day out. You wanna hear Feel Like Making Love and Crazy Little Thing Called Love every day? Then these are the stations for you! All those classic rock staples, all the Goddamn time.
It means that these songs have been far more engraved into the American collective consciousness than they have here – especially where Free and Bad Company are concerned. It is why American promoters often rely on the package tours. See Judas Priest, Alice Cooper and Cheap Trick together, all over the Midwest! It wouldn’t be entirely out of the question to assume that Q+PR tour, with the back catalogues of two (or three) supergroups would be popular in that environment.
Alas, as Queen history since 1980 would dictate, the tour was successful in Europe (culminating in a 65,000 strong crowd in London’s Hyde Park), but tanked in America, sometimes playing to just 3-5,000 people in 12-15,000 capacity arenas.
Aside from the ill fit and Queen’s generally dwindling American fortunes, how likely is it that the guy who sang All Right Now in 1970 was bringing anyone new to the party? Given their shared, 70s arena rock eras, the audience for both was likely very similar demographically.
But it was different with Lambert, with whom they had no trouble selling out US arenas. His fans are much younger, and weren’t around at any point during Queen’s existence. Furthermore, when they joined forces, Lambert was just coming off a massively successful #1 album in the States. He had something Rodgers never really did, that many of Queen’s biggest hits truly call for: star power. It couldn’t have hurt that he is American, either.
“The audience was fragmented at first into old Queen fans who came with their arms crossed saying, ‘What’s this all about?’ and the Adam fans who were like ‘What’s this old band he’s attached himself to?’,” explained Edney.
“That really has changed now. We’ve gotten to a point where 90 to 95% of the audience that shows up never saw Freddie Mercury perform live with Queen. But they have seen him on the screen and they know the songs because the songs are so much in the musical consciousness of everybody because of the TV commercials and sporting events and whatever, so everyone knows half a dozen Queen songs even if they don’t realise it. I look out and I see teenagers weeping with joy when Fat Bottomed Girls comes on. And then there’s old people that are proud to say, ‘I saw them in 1975’ or whatever. They’re all singing along with the same gusto. It’s crossing genres and generations, which is pretty much what they always did. Queen were never fashionable, so they’re never really unfashionable.”
The last US tour ended with Queen + Adam Lambert headlining the Global Citizens Festival. Despite Queen having no major US hit since 1980, they closed the show over Alicia Keys, Pharrell Williams and OneRepublic. The footage, broadcast live on MSNBC, shows a predominantly young crowd of 60,000 screaming at Queen as if they’re Harry Styles. Like Queen themselves, it’s subtly surreal.
A Unique Phenomenon
The Q+AL Rhapsody Tour is due to play a whopping ten nights at London’s O2 Arena next spring. That is 200,000 tickets in London alone, plus further shows around the country.
It would be astonishing for anyone. It is double the amount of O2 shows that current superstars like Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars and Lady Ga Ga sold on their last tours. And this is without the most iconic member of the band. Could you imagine a scenario where The Rolling Stones could play to 200,000 people in one city without Mick Jagger? Or The Doors without Jim Morrison? Or Aerosmith without Steven Tyler? Or The Jacksons without Michael Jackson? I can honestly say…no, I can’t. At all.
Last year, much was made of Bob Dylan selling his catalogue for $300 million. Confirming the continued relevance of a band that probably shouldn’t still be relevant given the circumstances, Music Business Worldwide estimated that if Queen were to sell theirs, they would be looking at a sale price of just over $1.5 billion.
And it won’t stop. Queen have probably been the most savvy of all their contemporaries in remaining relevant. When they made it into our lives, they made sure they stayed there.
Perhaps Spike Edney was right; “Queen were never fashionable, so they’re never really unfashionable.”
But let us not forget the obvious: they were just really fucking good.
The Queen Extravaganza – featuring musicians hand picked by Brian May and Roger Taylor – play Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on 7th Feb 2022.