Queen in 10 (+1) Essential Videos
As the release of Bohemian Rhapsody approaches, we revisit ten essential steps in the career of Britain’s most regal quartet through their video output.
1. Killer Queen on Top of the Pops, 1974
Before streaming made hit parade charts redundant, the BBC TV programme Top of the Pops was the kingmaker of pop royalty between the mid-’60s and the early ‘90s. An appearance on TOTP was only granted to bands whose singles were confirmed hits, and inevitably resulted in even more massively increased sales in the weeks following first and repeat broadcast. Over their long career, Queen appeared multiple times on TOTP and consistently resented it: they saw themselves as experimental and outrageously arty, and considered TOTP mainstream and a bit crass, especially as the programme didn’t allow musicians to play live and forced them to use playback. Freddie Mercury in particular hated lip-synching to his own tracks. But an appearance was just too valuable to pass on and compromises had to be made. In typical fashion, for this performance of one of their early hits, Freddie distracted the camera operators from focussing on his face by busting some hip-jigging moves worthy of Elvis and Jagger, and wearing a sensational fur coat, likely to have come from the Kensington market vintage clothes stall where he and his girlfriend Mary Austin worked.
2. Bohemian Rhapsody, 1975
“Too long”. “Will never play on the radio”. “Can’t get it on Top of the Pops.” Were it not for the obstinacy and vision of its creator, Freddie Mercury, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ came terribly close to never happening. With no easily hummable chorus, obscure lyrics, not to mention an unperformable operatic section in 180 overdubs mixed with a 24-track analogue tape recorder that would always require playback as the band left the stage when the song was performed live, it is a mystery how ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ has become the quintessential anthem it is, and the perfect distillation of Queen’s eclectic and unique production. The music video that was created to accompany it is often considered to be groundbreaking in the genre, in that it is not just a filmed clip of the band playing a song but a creative short film with a distinctive aesthetic. For the song, Freddie wanted to channel opera, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and musical theatre; the video is unashamedly theatrical in its set up but also mashes up visual techniques of its era with floating heads replicated with a honeycomb effect, multiple crossfades, and psychedelic transitions between colourful silhouettes. In the sections where the band is playing, Queen are wearing white satin shirts including a variation on the ‘Mercury Wingsuit’ designed by Zandra Rhodes, whose creations for Queen (particularly Freddie’s flamboyant Harlequin bodysuits) became one with their early glam/prog years.
2b. Wayne’s World: Bohemian Rhapsody, 1992
Queen also have a feature film to thank for turning ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ from a vintage oddity into a headbanging classic and giving it a second life in the 1990s and beyond: Wayne’s World. For the full story of why and how this came to be, check out Rolling Stone’s comprehensive Oral History of Wayne’s World’s iconic Bohemian Rhapsody scene. The debt is acknowledged with an in-joke nod to Wayne’s World in Bohemian Rhapsody, in which Mike Myers plays Ray Foster, the EMI exec who fought Queen’s decision to push the song as their main single and cost the label the loss of the band just at the point when they became worldwide superstars.
3. Crazy Little Thing Called Love, 1979
This is the video that marked a definite change in the direction of Queen’s aesthetics, as Freddie Mercury moved from ethereal glam sprite to a more muscular and butch image. His shorter hair, tight leather trousers and pouting are a nod to Elvis, who inspired this playful rockabilly tune, while the white t-shirt is a homage to Marlon Brando, whose biker look in The Wild One was a softer version of the leather-clad style later made popular by queer artist Tom of Finland. In the late ‘70s-early ‘80s Freddie would gradually embrace different aspects of the so-called ‘Castro clone’ look by donning studded leather jackets on his shirtless chest or skin-tight vests, wearing Wrangler jeans and workmen-inspired outfits including checked shirts or Adidas sportswear, and of course introducing his iconic moustache in the video for ‘Play The Game’ (1980). Arguably this dramatic change of style coincided with Freddie more openly embracing gay subcultures and his own homosexuality, even though part of the point of the ‘clone uniform’ for many gay men was passing as straight. But it is important to note that despite extensive speculation by tabloids and paparazzi probing into his private life, Freddie Mercury didn’t officially come out until 1991 in a press release confirming that he was sick with HIV-AIDS. He died two days later.
4. Under Pressure, 1980
Imagine getting Freddie Mercury and ‘Ashes to Ashes’-era David Bowie in the same recording studio at the same time and not filming it - madness! But that’s exactly how it went down. Bowie visited Queen in Montreux, Switzerland to record backing vocals for another song to be featured in their upcoming album Hot Space. Bowie hated his work on that track and asked for it to be binned, but eventually the jam sessions in Switzerland produced one of the greatest pop collaborations of all time, as well as the bass riff to end all bass riffs. Due to the musicians being unavailable for a promo video, this actually rather extraordinary anthology of essential scenes from classic silent films was the final product. Scenes from Battleship Potemkin, Nosferatu, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, an assortment of artworks from German Expressionism (undoubtedly the influence of Berlin-based Bowie), footage of the Great Depression and the 1929 Wall Street crash all combine together to paint a picture of the different kinds of pressures that modern life subjects humankind to - and yet what comes through is “love, love, love”. (For added goosebumps, check out this video which has only the pure voice tracks from the song)
5. Radio Ga Ga, 1984
Jaws may not have been their scene and they may have said that they don’t like Star Wars but Queen had always been huge film fans and keen to work on soundtracks. In the late 1970s they received their first commission to work on Flash, a film version of the classic sci-fi comic ‘Flash Gordon’ starring Max von Sydow as Ming, Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed, which had previously been attached to Nicolas Roeg, Sergio Leone and even, unbelievably, Federico Fellini. From then on, Queen wore their love of sci-fi on their sleeve, with Freddie occasionally entering concerts on the shoulders of Darth Vader, and unashamedly wearing Flash! Merchandise. Later they worked on Highlander directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Christopher Lambert, with two original songs, ‘Princes of the Universe’ and ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’. But possibly their most interesting and fruitful film-related collab came in 1984. As Queen were recording their album ‘The Works’ and spending time in Munich and Switzerland, German disco producer and electronica trailblazer Giorgio Moroder was working on a new synth-pop soundtrack to modernize Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis. He included a new song from Freddie Mercury (‘Love Kills’) alongside tunes by Adam Ant and Bonnie Tyler, and introduced Queen to the aesthetics that would go on to influence the creation of the video for ‘Radio Ga Ga’ (a composition by Roger Taylor), one of their most cinematic works.
6. I Want to Break Free, 1983
This extremely expensive short film is possibly the best of Queen’s videos. Written by John Deacon (the quiet chap in the over-the-top band, who was also responsible for ‘Another One Bites the Dust’), the song is a brilliant liberation/break-up anthem and the video, which was Roger Taylor’s brainchild, suggests a newly-found maturity for band members who finally don’t take themselves too seriously and are not afraid to be a bit naff. Besides the band members’ varying degree of success at looking good in drag, how many music videos can you name that involve a homage to both Coronation Street AND Vaslav Nijinsky, a reference to the miners’ strikes AND the actual Royal Ballet, plus a Teasmade (what on earth) and some not very effective Hoovering? Sadly it was not Freddie’s housekeeping techniques that got the band into trouble over this funny, camp extravaganza: MTV and other U.S. channels refused to play the video on grounds of ‘promoting homosexuality’.
7. Livin’ on My Own - Freddie solo phase, 1985
This single from Freddie’s first solo album ‘Mr Bad Guy’ - the troubled making of which is chronicled in Bohemian Rhapsody - is a strangely revealing affair. While the video was created to celebrate the hedonistic queer aesthetic of 1980s London - the party set, the flowing champagne, the excess cocaine - and sublimate it into artistry like a pop Derek Jarman, the song continuously points to the narrator’s loneliness and depression. Shot at Henderson's Nightclub in Munich in 1985, the video depicts one of Freddie's legendary birthday parties, and because of this autobiographical detail you cannot but think that there’s something of the confession in it, the greatest showman baring his wounded heart under the costume, like a Shakespearean monarch on a dark night of the soul. Rami Malek’s impressive performance in Bohemian Rhapsody really captures this trait in the character of Freddie, making him a flesh and bone human being beneath the bravado and the big mouth.
8. Live Aid performance 13 July 1985 + vocal improvisation 1988 Wembley
All is well with music videos, but without a doubt the main visual pleasure of Queen was watching the band play live. Beyond the lighting, the dry ice and the theatrics, at the top of the billboard of special attractions you would have to have to Freddie Mercury’s moves like the stage panther he was. To understand his incredible power to command crowds near and far, to impose his rule onto gigantic stadiums from Rio de Janeiro to Budapest, from Osaka to Wembley, you have to watch the videos of Freddie improvising with the crowds: enormous audiences worldwide who mostly didn’t speak a word of English would sing back to Queen, and be directed in wild improvisations by one man’s voice. The Live Aid performance, which was broadcast across the globe and is replicated in perfect detail in Bohemian Rhapsody is one of these instances. And here’s another example from what would have become Queen’s last worldwide tour, A Kind of Magic at Wembley Stadium in 1986.
9. Innuendo, 1991
‘Innuendo’ would be Queen’s final album before Freddie’s death, and it includes the farewell song, ‘The Show Must Go On’. The portentous title track is cut from the same cloth as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but it’s a decidedly darker affair. Also a mini-rock opera, it combines an andante choral section with elements of flamenco music and dance. The video is an extraordinary combination of multiple animation techniques from hand-drawn to stop-motion, using materials as diverse as existing digital clips from across Queen’s vast video output, 16mm archive footage, plasticine, and a huge array of props and miniature sets. It is a magnum opus that recaps an entire career.
10. Somebody to Love - George Michael at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, 1992
If ever one person could take up the mantle of Queen and wear the crown, it was George Michael, who sang his favourite Queen tune ‘Somebody to Love’ with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon and the London Gospel Community Choir at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert on 20 April 1992. The event was a celebration of Freddie’s life and music, and a fundraiser for The Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity founded by Queen and their manager Jim “Miami” Beach to raise awareness of AIDS and support research towards a cure. The performance was an extremely emotional moment for George Michael, who had been a great friend and fan of the band, and whose boyfriend was also in the final stages of HIV-related illness. That voice. Wow. We miss you too, George.
[Words by Irene Musumeci]
We will rock you! A biopic of Freddie Mercury of Queen was maybe a biopic you didn't know you wanted. That is until you get into the cinema for a foot-stamping, heart-beating, joy-rousing film that captures the birth of the original super-group and their flamboyant larger than life stage presence, here played by Rami Malek.
Enjoyment factor on this one turns up to 11.