Queen head to South America in this Melody Maker archive feature
“No time for losers, no pleasure cruise/It’s been no bed of roses… But we are the champions of the world” – From Queen’s “We Are The Champions”
Sometimes, in its never-ending quest for record-breaking, mind-blowing, egotistical statistics, rock’n’roll becomes almost obscene. The best-selling album, the fastest-moving single, the biggest this, the heaviest that, the loudest band, the richest star, the highest, the lowest, the grossest – just who’s trying to impress whom?
Playing the numbers game became such a boring sport among the Division One bands that, in 1977, we saw the punk uprising partly as a backlash. A few top bands retired, hurt or embarrassed, from grand-slam appearances. But not Queen. The majesty that begat their name has always been carried forth into great fanfares heralding their latest record or concert tour. Right from their start, in 1971, Queen were intent on reaching the top of the tree.
With a clinical analysis of what it took to mould the right components into a hit formula, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon set about the rock business to become the champions they were to sing about. John was an electronics graduate. May ditched a fine future as an astrophysicist. Mercury could have scored as an artist in advertising. Roger studied dentistry, and graduated in biology. Coolly, they decided that if all four were to pawn successful careers in favour of music, they had better set about it scientifically and succeed brilliantly.
Few would deny their soaraway achievements. And last week, Queen chalked up a major international “first” by becoming the band to do for popular music in South America what The Beatles did for North America 17 years ago. Half a million Argentinians and Brazilians, starved of appearances of top British or American bands at their peak, gave Queen a heroic welcome which changed the course of pop history in this uncharted territory of the world rock map.
In open-air concerts at temperatures of around 96 degrees, in stifling humidity, the ecstatic young people saw eight Queen concerts at giant stadia, while many more millions saw the shows on TV and heard the radio broadcasts live.
The scenes of fan-fever were astonishing, even to war veterans of rock – and the promoter of their first shows, at the Vélez Sarsfield World Cup soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, was emotionally moved to say after their debut: “For music in Argentina, this has been a case of before the war and after the war. Queen have liberated this country, musically speaking.”
The risk in Queen’s South American tour was considerable: because no band of their stature or theatricality had attempted a full-scale rock show there, the response of the 35,000-strong audience at the first show was unpredictable. South American security arrangements had never had to deal with pop crowds of this size, even if they were used to football enthusiasts: the ages of the audiences would be different, and who was to know how they might react to the volume levels?
Culture shock it may have been for them, but there was no violence, no aggravation, few uniformed police visible – and a spine-tingling, deafening roar of approval from crowds who may have been experiencing their first huge rock show, but who had found out earlier all about the “lighted candles” routine and how to get two encores.
Remembering the American bands who should theoretically have got to this part of the world earlier, on the basis of geography alone, it was a great triumph for British rock to have made such an impact with the first giant shows in this part of the globe. Buenos Aires was also a statistician’s dream.
The tour had taken a full nine months to plan. Queen had just finished a Japanese tour, so more than 20 tons of their equipment had to be flown into Argentina from Tokyo on a DC8 charter, one of the world’s longest direct flights. Expensive! A further 40 tons of gear came in from Miami, including a full football pitch covering of artificial turf to protect the football stadium’s hallowed ground.
At a cost of £40,000, Queen flew in their own 16 tons of scaffolding from Los Angeles, which staggered the Argentinians. Queen’s crew began building the 100-foot high, 140-foot long and 40-foot deep stage five days before the show, partly to convince local organisers that they were actually going through with the plan to perform. Earth, Wind And Fire and Peter Frampton are the only other top stars who have performed in South America, and after several false starts in negotiations and broken promises by other acts, local sceptics were disinclined to believe
a band of Queen’s prestige were going to perform in their country.
Tickets cost £10 or £15 each, and £20 each for the 3,500 people restricted to the grass area. There was a quick sell-out of the Buenos Aires concerts, making a total attendance of over 100,000 for the three shows in the capital alone. With a nine million population, it is one of the world’s biggest cities.
There were two customs problems for the band. The stage and crew backstage passes, showing two naked girls, one of whom held a banana, was declared obscene and only allowed into Argentina after “Honest, Guv!” statements by the band’s henchmen. And because the import of explosives is not unnaturally banned, they had some explaining to do about the canisters of flash powder without which a Queen show wouldn’t be cricket.
Nine trucks carried the band’s gear between the cities of Córdoba, Rosario, Porto Alegro, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and in Buenos Aires a police van whisked the band out of the stadium backstage area under decoy to protect them from hysterical fans.
Convoys of motorcycles and police sirens made for a spectacular exit of the band that would have passed for an encore for many a lesser group of musicians. The band’s four individual cars to which they switched a mile or so out of the stadium featured drivers amazed at such a fuss – until they arrived at their destination where the players were fêted like royalty.
“Well, I just don’t know about this any more,” mused the down-to-earth, self-deprecating drummer Roger Taylor over a celebration dinner that began at 2am. “Here I am, just a bloody rock’n’roll drummer and all these thousands of kids are going crackers. It doesn’t seem right, somehow, with Britain in a recession.”
At the dinner, Queen had invited as their guests the dozen or so special police who had protected them so well from the crowds – and at the end, as the champagne flowed, the police gave all four the City’s police badge as a memento.
A few more mind-boggling figures to persuade the sceptics that Queen meant business: it took 300,000 watts to power their elaborate stage lighting, which included a complete aircraft landing system. To buy this, they invested in six months of production at the American factory, where the manager asked: “How many planes do you guys want to land, anyway?”
At the Maracanã Stadium in Rio, the only previous non-sport gatherings had been held for the Pope and Frank Sinatra before Queen’s bash.
All this, then, was pomp and circumstance personified. Queen have never been a band to use one exclamation mark when a hundred or so will do. In South America, one of the world’s top bands who have mastered the art of transforming rock into theatre had their eye, from the start, on cornering a slice of history. Preening like peacocks, they won the hearts and souls of a totally new audience and, importantly, opened up a new chapter for rock acts prepared for a new enterprise. The global audience for rock had thus been expanded, both for record sales and concerts. Rock’s geography has just been changed.
The music may be at a directional standstill, or at best consolidation, but Queen deserve every plaudit in the book for risking their reputation by taking South America. They didn’t do it for money. With an entourage of 40 and all the equipment and travel costs, profit would have been hard to achieve. Their running costs were £25,000 a day, they said. They did it because, like a lot of bands, after eight years of winning, they needed a new challenge if their touring career was not to stagnate.
“We really were nervous,” said Freddie Mercury, smiling after the success of the first show. “We had no right to automatically expect the works from an alien territory. I don’t think they’d ever seen such an ambitious show, with this much lighting and effects.”
Modest Brian May, Queen’s inspired lead guitarist, added: “It’s a long time since we’ve felt such warmth from a new audience, although we couldn’t see much because of the size of the crowd. We feel really good about it now, as if our ambitions have been partly realised again.”
Both men were being unduly bashful. Queen’s rule of thumb has always been that, visually, nothing succeeds like excess. The theory worked perfectly on the excitable Argentinians and Brazilians, who went nuts after recovering from the exuberance of the Rio Carnival.
Queen’s over-the-topness has, of course, incurred the wrath of rock’s purists, minimalists and miseries who have been fashionable until recently. South America loved them, for a Queen show is an unashamed celebration, a spectacle blending a true sense of the absurd in blinding light effects, dry ice and explosives with Mercury’s calculated and measured histrionics.
Freddie insists he is not the leader, merely the focal point: certainly they mesh as a band and are excellent musicians writing light, easily remembered, thoughtfully constructed songs that lend themselves well to being acted out. Queen are also, unlike most other rock bands, in total charge of their own destiny. They have no overall manager to pull their strings, but several people work for them in clearly defined roles: business manager Jim Beach, who is credited with piecing together the daunting jigsaw of the South American tour; personal manager Paul Prenter; and a personal bodyguard for each musician.
Freddie, Brian, Roger and John meet most weeks like any other company board of directors to assess their operation, listen to advice, make decisions. Queen is a tightly run industry over which the four musicians have complete control – a rare situation in a rock industry littered with hundreds of casualties who sadly have no conception of making music a career. It was this cool logic and judicious planning that led them to that Buenos Aires soccer stadium stage, to capture a crown as the rock band that first gripped South America.
There was talk that other bands, notably the Stones, wanted the honour of “taking” this part of the world first. But Queen’s timing was perfect – they arrived in Buenos Aires to receive platinum albums and the news that “Another One Bites The Dust” was No 1 single in Argentina and “Love Of My Life” was still high in the São Paulo charts after a year in the best-sellers.
The scene was all set. The tour was actively approved and smoothed by Argentina’s new president, General Viola; posters littered the city proclaiming their arrival; and the band’s concerts were hot TV and radio news material. Bootleg tapes were being made by the thousands at their shows, for in this unsophisticated rock territory, there are few rules.
As the four players ran to their cars en route to a soundcheck on the first afternoon, young fans chased them through the Sheraton Hotel lobby, blocking their exit, roaring after their cars on motorcycles in scenes more reminiscent of the top teeny bands than appropriate for senior rock citizens. But Queen loved every minute. Fresh from a Japanese tour in which they had been similarly welcomed, followed by a short holiday break, Queen were in splendid shape, their performance not in the least jaded from years of road work.
The gladiatorial atmosphere of an important concert was fuelled by the nationalistic opening announcement of the promoter: “Argentin-A. Argentin-A!” the crowd screamed back, 35,000 voices at once, and the playing of the World Cup anthem gave the show a great start. Helicopters circled the stage, the crowd went bananas and thousands lit candles or lighters to make a glittering sight before, during and after a dramatic few moments of darkness, we were off, with explosives and dry ice enveloping the stage in a cascade of brilliant colours to herald the arrival of Queen.
Mercury was resplendent in red trousers, and the roar would have shaken Wembley on Cup Final Day. The floodlit green turf and massed thousands cheering every note added to the infectious, carnival feeling on both nights.
Their programme varied for the Buenos Aires concerts, as did their dress: Mercury was in pristine white slacks for the second night. He made a noble stab at speaking Spanish, but considering the language barrier in the music, the locals recognised nearly everything and had no problem in chanting along to “Save Me”, as well as engaging in that trad rock-star-to-audience banter as Freddie went into his “All——righhhhhhht” routine and demanded they repeated the words back. They enjoyed, too, his moments of madness when he showered the first few rows, then himself, with beer from his can.
The music: Mercury has a unique grip on his audience, plus a voice of considerable power. His acrobatics inspired the crowd to a frenzy. The instrumental lynchpin for Queen is Brian May, who, along with Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre, is one of the great unsung heroes of British rock guitar. Both melodic and macho, May gives Queen a distinctive touch and individuality which stamps their sound. He is no innovator, but a solid technician who knows his instruments and forms the backbone of Queen’s songs.
“Rock,” May said to me, “is now going precisely like jazz did – jazz began as a body of music then became intellectual. I think that’s a danger for rock. It needs to remain body music first, and I’m very conscious of the fact that Queen must not get too cerebral.” They have perfected a brand of rock and showmanship that’s lyrically and melodically accessible.
Because of the surge of interest in Queen over the last year, audiences recognised nearly every song after the first few bars. “The Game” drew first blood as a direct hit, with Mercury’s piano solo particularly eloquent, and May’s guitar solo limpid and dreamy.
The shows were paced so that the crowd was not deprived of hits in the early segment: “Killer Queen” came early, as did “Save Me”, which evoked waves of emotions as thousands of voices joined in the hymnal chant along with the band. At this point, the game was up and the night won, Queen cruising into the hearts of deliriously happy crowds as “Love Of My Life” brought the same singalong brotherhood, Brian May telling the crowd: “This is for you, Argentina.”
On and on, through “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, and Freddie at the piano for “Bohemian Rhapsody” – their best song, sounding perfectly fresh although they’d played it hundreds of times. During “Rhapsody”, they left the stage and let the tapes make a good job of the orchestral portion.
“Fred—ddie,” “Fred—ddie!” the crowd chanted. The tribal cry continued ’til Queen returned for an encore, Mercury stripped to the waist and wearing shorts on one night, the next wearing a crown before lunging into “Another One Bites The Dust” and the second encore, “We Are The Champions”.
Exit, finally, to “God Save The Queen”. Yes, the national anthem. Margaret Thatcher would have been proud of them. It was, of course, all well and truly over the top, exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, a combination of Gucci and Harrods rock. But the most hardened of cynics would have to hand it to Queen: what they set out to do, they achieve with verve, and it succeeds through the sheer weight and spectacle, and strong music.
One of their party had said, in typical Queenspeak before the first show in Buenos Aires: “They are attempting to scale Everest here and they have everything to lose and nothing to gain. If it’s a successful tour, rock people around the world will say South America was about to open up anyway. If they fail, people will say: we told you so.”
Pioneers of a significant revolution or diehard opportunists – what matters more is that Queen did it. Clinical and machine-like they may be in their approach, but that’s inevitable for a band at their level. It’s pure rock theatre, with none of the arrogance or negativity of Pink Floyd, who might have been expected to outstrip the rest of the world in South America.
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