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The miraculous story of Queen in the 1980s

Freddie Mercury onstage with Queen at Wembley stadium during the Magic tour
Freddie Mercury onstage with Queen at Wembley stadium during the Magic tour
(Image credit: FG/Bauer-Griffin / Getty Images)

For the rock galacticos of the 70s, the transition into a new decade proved a difficult gearshift. By the end of 1980, Led Zeppelin had been sunk by the death of talismanic drummer John Bonham. Unravelling alongside them were The Who, and while the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd continued to play to packed stadia, the crowds increasingly called out for the old songs. 

In this age of stumbling giants, Queen hit the 80s like a train. Already, the band had kissed off the 70s with their biggest US hit to date, in the form of rockabilly pastiche Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Dreamt up by Mercury in a Munich bathtub and captured by incoming producer Reinhold Mack at that city’s Musicland Studios, the single seemed the launchpad to an imperious decade – even if Brian May told Guitar World that the lineup operated less through design as dumb luck: “Everyone thought we had this huge monster plan, the Queen Machine, but it’s an illusion.” 

Happy accident or otherwise, by February 1980, the band were keen to capitalise, returning to the same Bavarian studio for a four-month hot-streak, where the four members’ prolific output was underlined by the 40-odd songs pitched for inclusion on that year’s The Game. “For me, the band was functioning well at this point,” noted Roger Taylor in Mark Blake’s definitive biography of the band, Is This The Real Life?The Game was much more of a piece than Jazz. Our songwriting was much better.”

May would recall putting in long shifts at the Musicland console “at three o’clock, trying to make something work”. But the lineup played hard too, albeit separately, with Mercury holding court at the Old Mrs Henderson gay club while the other band members repaired to Sugar Shack, a local disco that would prove hugely influential on their evolving sound. 

“We would take tracks down there after hours and play them over their system to see how they worked,” reflected May. “Anything with a bit of groove sounded good. We became obsessed with leaving space in our music and making songs that would sound great in the Sugar Shack.” 

The venue’s vibe would spill into the guitarist’s own Dragon Attack, a funky jam reportedly fuelled by vodka and tonics. But more significant was its thumbprint on Queen’s biggest hit of the decade: Another One Bites The Dust. 

While tipping a hat to the Munich club scene, John Deacon’s three-note bassline was also the product of both his Motown-fixated youth and a chance overhearing of an early version of US funk icons Chic’s 1979 Risqué while hanging out with that band’s bassist Bernard Edwards in New York (“What isn’t cool,” the American later told NME, “is that the press started saying we had ripped them off.”). 

And while the rest of the band were bemused – May recalling that “[we] had no idea what Deakey was doing” and that Taylor’s initial response was “unprintable” – they soon fell into the groove. Taylor’s drums were deliciously dry and clipped. May’s funk riffs scritch-scratched between the warm bassline. Mercury was “so into what we were doing”, recalled the guitarist, “that he sang until his throat bled”. 

It was a rare moment of synergy in an often bad-tempered session. Wary of Mack since being asked to relinquish his Red Special and play a Fender Telecaster on Crazy Little Thing Called Love, May now niggled with his producer over the approach to tracking guitars. 

On the brink of his debut solo album, Fun In Space, Taylor seemed particularly restless, pitching up to sessions with an Oberheim OB-X – past Queen albums had pointedly claimed ‘No Synthesisers’ – and pushing to sing the lead on Rock It (the song ultimately saw the drummer and Mercury share vocal duties). 

“Keeping the focus,” Mack told iZotope, “was difficult at the best of times with this mixture of personalities.” 

“There were huge rows in the studio,” noted Taylor. “Usually over how long Brian was taking, or whether he was having an omelette. We drove each other nuts.” 

“We all walked out at various times,” May recalled. “You get hard times, as in any relationship. We definitely did. Usually in the studio; never on tour. On tour, you always have a clear, common aim. But in the studio you’re all pulling in different directions and it can be very frustrating. You only get twenty-five per cent of your own way at the best of times. So, yes, we did have hard times. Feeling that you’re not being represented, that you’re not being heard. Because that’s one of the things about being a musician, you want to be heard. You want your ideas to be out there. You want to be able to explore what’s coming to you in the way of inspiration. It was a difficult compromise to find, but always worth finding once you did find it.” 

Mercury was more succinct on the dynamic: “Four cocks fighting – lovely!”

But for now, the numbers papered over the cracks. Released in June 1980, The Game stormed to No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic, the sense of a reinvigorated band completed by a leather-jacketed sleeve shot that retooled these 70s peacocks for the new era. 

Forty-six US dates climaxed with Mercury firing champagne over the crowd during a three-night residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden; in the UK, the band christened the newly opened Birmingham NEC. 

By comparison, it was inevitable that the same year’s Flash Gordon soundtrack seemed a little slight. 

“We wanted to write the first rock’n’roll musical,” Taylor told Blake of the latter. “It was a very camp film, but I thought our music suited the film in all its camp awfulness.” While Another One Bites The Dust reached No.1 in the US, becoming Queen’s definitive Stateside hit, the lineup hadn’t failed to notice their rocketing numbers in South America, where the single’s chart-topping performance in both Argentina and Guatemala gave Queen a claim to be that continent’s biggest rock band. 

In 1981, the band transplanted their live rig for shows on an unprecedented scale, shifting some 100 tons of equipment, even travelling with artificial turf to protect the hallowed stadium pitches at feverish shows in Buenos Aires, Mar Del Plata, Rosario and São Paulo. 

They were the heavy, heavy police, who actually kill people at the drop of a hat

Freddie Mercury

Blowing through the continent on a trek that played to a record paying crowd of 231,000 in São Paulo, and grossed $3.5 million in total, the hysteria required an armed convoy – and for each band member to be issued a bodyguard brought in from the seamier end of Brazil’s military.

“They were the heavy, heavy police, who actually kill people at the drop of a hat,” noted a momentarily serious Mercury. If Deacon’s Another One Bites The Dust bassline was the soundtrack of 1980, it would be challenged the next year by another low-end groove, as Mercury and David Bowie tested each other’s talents – and patience – on Under Pressure.

Wine and cocaine flowed in a 24-hour session at Montreux’s Mountain Studios, but if the resulting single sounded magnanimous – with both singers trading lead vocals, many of them improvised – May remembers otherwise. “It was very hard,” he said in 2008, “because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. Passions ran very high. I found it very hard because I got so little of my own way. But David had a real vision and he took over the song lyrically.”

When even a rough monitor mix of Under Pressure strolled to No.1 in the UK, it seemed typical of a band who now appeared to snatch victory at every turn. But that impression was about to be rudely shattered by the song’s parent album. 

Hot Space was the stumble that broke the band’s imperious run, the disjointed product of a lineup fractured by excess and the divide-and-rule tactics of Mercury’s personal manager, Paul Prenter (“He led Freddie by the nose,” one band associate told Blake). 

“We had got fairly decadent by then,” admitted Taylor. “We started work at all sorts of odd hours. The days drifted into the nights in this endless cycle.” 

You could hear the division on Hot Space. Mining the same spare dance groove as Another One Bites The Dust, this time around, the results were anaemic and light on the anthemics required to fill Queen’s stadiums. May and Deacon butted heads over guitar tones on Back Chat. Mercury shot down May’s requests for more volume (“What the fucking hell do you want, a herd of wildebeest charging from one side to the other?”). 

Meanwhile, the married-with-children lineup had grown weary of the singer celebrating his promiscuity in song. “I can remember having a go at Freddie because some of the stuff he was writing was very definitely on the gay side,” said May. “I remember saying it would be nice if this stuff could be universally applicable, because we have friends of every persuasion.”

Released in May 1982 – and preceded by Body Language, a chilly synth-funk single that virtually erased May’s role in the band – Taylor even decried the sleeve of Hot Space (“Absolute shit”). 

That consensus was echoed across the planet. Crowds in Germany responded to cuts like Staying Power with cat-calls (“If you don’t want to listen to it,” snapped Mercury, “fucking go home!”). 

The album limped to a humbling No.22 in the US, and a fractious tour of the States ended at the LA Forum – the last date the original Queen lineup would ever play in America. May told it straight: “We hated each other for a while.” 

In 1983, a trial separation saw the band members dive into solo work, with May drafting Eddie Van Halen for the admired but under-selling Star Fleet Project, while Mercury held an abortive session with Michael Jackson and chipped away at 1985’s Mr Bad Guy

But the band that May dubbed ‘the mothership’ – for all its attendant headaches – still exerted a powerful pull. By year’s end, the lineup were ensconced at LA’s Record Plant, where Taylor – wounded at being told his offerings weren’t up to snuff – served up Radio Ga Ga: a yearning, pulsing electro-ballad created on synths and drum machines, complete with a lyric about “how important radio used to be” and a handclap hook that would rival We Will Rock You for its live Pavlovian response. 

“I think Roger was thinking about it as just another track,” noted Mercury, who was invited by the drummer to finish the song. “But I instantly felt there was something in there, a really good, strong, saleable commodity.” Taylor’s intention to give fans “the works” gifted the album its title and was a fair summary of material that ran the gamut. 

May returned to basics with Hammer To Fall: a crunching rocker that could have fallen off a Queen album from the 70s. Mercury supplied the reflective lilt of It’s A Hard Life (a song tainted by a dressing-up box video that the band despised).

Meanwhile, Deacon again lived up to his billing as the band’s secret weapon with I Want To Break Free, whose wistful escapism would give the band both another signature tune and a No.3 single in the UK. 

Unlike Hot Space – which had dragged frustrated fans too far into leftfield – The Works felt like a band still questing, while also acknowledging their classic sound. 

“I see it as being a lot closer to the middle period than the last three or four albums,” May told Guitar World at the time. “A lot closer to A Night At The Opera and News Of The World and a little bit like The Game. But some of the writing is the next step beyond, it’s not going back in time. Because we’ve integrated some of the modern technologies. But we haven’t gone totally towards machine music because the fact is we don’t like it.” 

On home turf, the upturn was palpable, with The Works hitting No.2 in the UK and clinging to the domestic chart for 93 weeks. But the impression that America had turned away was cemented by I Want To Break Free’s infamous video, featuring the band dragged up as servile housewives, with Mercury pushing a vacuum cleaner in a padded bra and black leather miniskirt. 

Middle America didn’t get the joke, and the band – in their first incarnation, at least – never recovered there. “I know it was received with horror in the greater part of America,” May told writer Mick Wall. “To them it was boys dressing up as girls and it was unthinkable, especially for a rock band. I was actually in some of those TV stations when they got the thing and a lot of them refused to play it. They were visibly embarrassed about having to deal with it.” 

No longer a band prepared to slum it, Queen decided that trawling a cooling America was no priority for them. “And we were not seen for quite a long time in the States,” May noted. “Freddie didn’t want to go back smaller than we’d been before. He was like: ‘Let’s just wait, and then soon we’ll go out and we’ll do stadiums in America as well.’ Only of course we never did.”

The international circuit was clamouring, but the band’s broadening horizons would lead to the era’s most serious misstep. Developed by hotel mogul Sol Kerzner and opened in 1979 in the North West Province of South Africa, the Sun City resort was a paradise of twinkling pools and lush gardens – tainted by its uncomfortable tag as the ‘apartheid Las Vegas’. 

With the country still gripped by segregation, the United Nations’ cultural boycott demanded that musicians resist the lure of playing there – even in the face of Kerzner’s generous fees. Queen weren’t the first marquee name to break the red line – Rod Stewart and Elton John had both appeared at Sun City in 1983 – but their residency in October 1984 sparked the fiercest opprobrium. 

The band fought their corner, pointing out that they had insisted on playing to an integrated audience and staying in a mixed hotel. “Those criticisms are absolutely and definitely not justified,” argued Brian May in a fractious Smash Hits interview. “We’re totally against apartheid and all it stands for, but I feel that by going there, we did a lot of bridge building. We actually met musicians of both colours. They all welcomed us with open arms. The only criticism we got was from outside South Africa."

It cut no ice. In the UK, the Musicians’ Union issued a hefty fine, while the band found themselves on the UN’s cultural blacklist. The poison from the incident dripped into publications like NME, where socially conscious artists like Paul Weller wagged their fingers. 

By 1985, as Steven Van Zandt’s Artists United Against Apartheid released the protest song Sun City – key lyric: “I ain’t gonna play Sun City!” – Queen seemed like pariahs on the wrong side of history. 

Commercially, all was not lost. In January 1985, Queen played to 300,000 fans at Rock In Rio, a performance only marred by Mercury’s pelting with rocks and cans during a drag routine for I Want To Break Free (he calmed the crowd by singing We Will Rock You in a double-sided flag, with the Union Jack flipped to reveal the Bandeira Do Brasil). 

Even then, the sense lingered that for Queen to be embraced again on home soil, it would take a redemption on an almost impossibly epic scale. The kind of redemption that only Live Aid could offer. May would recall in Smash Hits that the band almost snubbed Bob Geldof’s invitation to play the biggest charity gig ever staged: “Our first reaction was ‘Oh God! Not another one. We’d been involved in quite a few and we were a bit disillusioned as to how the whole business works."

But on that day in July, Queen’s six-song set was a resurrection, launching them into the One Vision single, 1986’s A Kind Of Magic album and the restorative Magic Tour, its 26-date arena itinerary speaking of a band emphatically back in business. 

Playing to over 400,000 fans and grossing more than £11 million, dates at Maine Road, St James’ Park and Slane Castle were topped by two storied shows at Wembley Stadium, where a 64-foot stage and twin ego ramps lived up to Taylor’s promise that “it will make Ben Hur look like The Muppets”. 

And if the lineup’s previous hands-across-the-water gesture in South Africa had fallen flat, there were no such ethical issues with their arrival at Budapest’s Népstadion, where 80,000 fans were let off the leash by the ruling Communist party’s authoritarian prime minister, György Lázár (who allowed clapping for the night, if not drinking and smoking). 

By the time Mercury had serenaded the stadium with local folk standard Tavaszi Szél Vizet Áraszt – the lyrics scrawled on his palm – the reaction, as May told it, “was fucking deafening”. And yet, amid these myriad triumphs, an aside from Mercury in Budapest was darkly prophetic, the singer responding to a reporter’s enquiry as to whether he planned to return to Eastern Europe, 

Officially, Mercury would not learn of his HIV diagnosis until Spring 1987. But with the tabloid press speculating about an earlier Aids test in Harley Street, confidant Barbara Valentin claiming he had already shown symptoms and ex-lover Tony Bastin shortly to die of the disease, perhaps the singer sensed the gathering storm clouds. Mercury would return to Budapest, he replied that day, “if I’m still alive”.

The show went on – and the finale could only be Knebworth Park. On August 9, 1986, a sea of 120,000 fans awaited the helicopter touchdown of a band who could go no higher. Every corner of the catalogue was mined for gold; every thrust and jab of Mercury’s microphone caught on the site’s giant TV screens. 

The Miracle album of 1989 still lay ahead, but this was the truest swansong to the band’s larger-than-life decade. And at the end of the night, the frontman’s heartfelt last words from the stage – from any stage – had a sense of finality befitting what would be the last show by the classic Queen lineup. “Goodnight and sweet dreams…"