The quest for world dominations enters a new phase, as Queen lay waste to South America. RAY COLEMAN follows them to Buenos Aires and Rio, into stadiums that have only previously hosted the Pope and Sinatra, and joins in the after-hours revelry. Nothing evidently succeeds like excess, though there are moments of reflection. “I just don’t know about this any more,” muses Roger Taylor. “It doesn’t seem right, somehow, with Britain in a recession.” Originally published in Melody Maker‘s 14/3/1981 issue, and reproduced in Uncut‘s Queen Ultimate Music Guide – available to buy here.
“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.