The author has also created a Queen playlist, combining the group’s best, queerest and most overlooked. Listen to it here.
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An apocryphal moment has Sid Vicious walking by Freddie Mercury in a recording studio, circa 1978. The Sex Pistols were likely recording their vastly overrated Nevermind the Bollocks LP while Queen were likely recording their pop-metal classic Jazz. Ever the charmer, Vicious is said to have approached Mercury and baited that he was the person bringing ballet to the masses. Mercury, dynamite with a laser beam, riposted to Vicious, who he saw as a poseur, “We’re doing our best, Simon Ferocious!” Malcolm McLaren’s boy band may well have been the talk of the town but for the proletariat, it was with Queen. Declasse youth could be punks, but as Neil Davidson pointed out at one of Red Wedge’s panels at Historical Materialism London, to a large extent, it was a trend, a fashion getup and it often dictated that one couldn’t like other forms of music, like disco, or perhaps Steely Dan, and certainly not Queen. (Apologies to Comrade Davidson if he doesn’t much care for Queen, admittedly an acquired taste).
Becoming a Queen fan in junior high school, I was struck by, as someone who was already a “rock nerd”, reading critics like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, how misunderstood and dismissive critics were towards them. Or the snooty clerk at the used CD shop sneering down at my copy of News of the World or something. Even back then, just at a time at which Mercury had announced his HIV positive status, the behaviour of standard ‘rock snobs’ was obviously because Mercury was queer, was viscerally and flamboyantly bisexual. So to Simon Ferocious, the guy who led the band that rocked harder than the Sex Pistols could wish for (and faster, check out tracks like “Stone Cold Crazy” or “Sheer Heart Attack”) was introducing the masses to ballet because of his (and the other band members, for that matter) penchant for wearing leotards or other glammy type outfits.
But Queen weren’t just glam-rock. They were as much rooted in the classics of English hard rock, in particular Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, but also less celebrated bands like Slade. Even more so, they were rooted in prog-rock before prog lost its sense of humour – indeed their first two albums are replete with mystical creatures, secret realities, evil tyrants, all the makings of an early Yes record, with an extra queer flair. Glam wasn’t a “pose” to Queen, it was an aesthetic that came naturally to a very odd looking, band, “queer ducks” in the old parlance. Even more than when he adopted a classic 80s gay male look, Mercury was quite visibly a man of color, and to this day, he was the only brown rock star, of Parsi background, born in Zanzibar and educated in India. While Bowie and Queen would later do one of the all time great pop singles, early Queen and Bowie came from decisively different camps, though certainly they both were camp (zing). Early Bowie was the genderqueer Ziggy Stardust who also happened to be Lady Stardust. Early Queen were a hard-working and proletarian-rooted rock band, like Ween, the Grateful Dead or Cheap Trick, but with a queer brown singer/pianist and crowds of screaming teenaged boys – and girls, as befitting their ostentatious bisexuality.
Bi-erasure is one of the many critiques raised about the recent wildly inaccurate Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, in addition to the blatant and offensive inaccuracy as to how and when he contracted HIV; the slut-shaming; the playing of “Another One Bites the Dust” over hot sex with the scene ending with his HIV diagnosis thus implying the classic and queerphobic trope of AIDS being a punishment for queer promiscuity. But as pertains to Mercury’s art, it seems that it is simply difficult for a lot of people to see Freddie Mercury was not only into men, not only as a man who ostentatiously affected a leather scene look, but was also a “lady’s man”. So the film, as I’m told, makes a mockery out of the very idea that Mercury was bisexual. When his female partner and best friend is fictionalized as telling him “you’re gay” at his pronouncement of his bisexuality, the audience is meant to knowingly laugh alongside his partner, “of course you’re gay, Freddie”. And when Mercury ends up living happily ever after in a heteronormative partnership with a man, he’s living the straight eye for the queer guy.
But in fact, Mercury’s bisexuality is absolutely intrinsic to his art. This is to say, simply, that it was not so much his fluidity, as in the case of Bowie (though that was no doubt there), but his ability to inhabit a sort of universal desirability, his very popularity was dependent upon this deceptively simple mix of cute and macho, with the former as well as the latter inhabiting both “gay” and ‘straight’ personae. Perfect examples of this can be found in footage of their performances, particularly at the aptly named Rainbow Theatre in London in their early years. As noted, the room is full of screaming teenagers, often of indeterminate gender, as Lou Reed sang “Jack is in his corset, Janie’s in her vest, and me I’m in a rock and roll band”. Many of them have long and styled hair, many more have nail polish, and they head-bang – as early Queen was headbanging music with a certain archness. While there were more than a few pretty clearly queer rock stars in the seventies, Mercury was the only one to use “he” or male names for some of his love interests, just as he used “she” or female names. Take “Now I’m Here”, from Sheer Heart Attack which is basically a song about occupying a grey area, neither “gay” nor “straight”, even perhaps transgressing the gender binary. The refrain alternates between the narrator being in a dungeon with “Peaches”, “don’t I love her so”, and in ‘the city” with “Hoople”, “don’t I love him so”. Mercury, like Bowie and Reed and Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, among others, were attempting to define their (bi)sexualities, and are thus often misunderstood. People forget that Morrison wrote love songs about women in general, including about someone who would likely now be seen as a trans-woman, the enigmatic Madame George. One could say the same about Springsteen’s “Backstreets” and Springsteen’s torrid make-out sessions with Clarence Clemons in his seventies and eighties live peformances, during “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”. It was equally impossible for rock fan common sense to conceive of Springsteen being “into” men or Mercury as being “into” women.
But – back to Queen - there are also songs like “Fat Bottomed Girls”, sure a ribald bit of studio jamming that turned into an unlikely hit single, but also something with what we’d now call “size acceptance” and a lustful but non-fetishistic appreciation of fat femme sexuality. Of course, those fat femmes would be involved in a bicycle race. Or his loving tribute to an actual sex worker, “Killer Queen”, perhaps as much an artists’ statement as anything else, someone who could use their wiles, “fastidious and precise”. On the other hand, a song like the much-maligned title track to the soundtrack for Flash Gordon was deliberately modeled on music played at gay clubs in Europe and has been called Queen’s “gayest song”. There’s the Bowie collaboration that mentions “the terror of knowing what this world is about” or “Don’t Stop Me Now” in which “Mr. Fahrenheit” promises to make a “supersonic man” out of his lover. Or the classic double entendres about a lover and the insatiable appetite for surplus extraction within the culture industries, “Death on Two Legs” and especially “Flick of the Wrist”, both poignant and funny.
Flick of the wrist and you're dead baby
Blow him a kiss and you're mad, ooh ooh ooh ooh
Flick of the wrist - he'll eat your heart out
A dig in the ribs and then a kick in the head
He's taken an arm and taken a leg
All this time honey
Baby you've been had
Intoxicate your brain with what I'm saying
If not you'll lie in knee-deep trouble
Prostitute yourself he says
Castrate your human pride, ooh ooh ooh
Sacrifice your leisure days
Let me squeeze you till you've dried…
Seduce you with his money-make machine
Cross-collateralize, (big-time money money)
Reduce you to a muzak-fake machine
Then the last goodbye
It's a rip-off
Beyond these songs that addressed one gender, another, both or beyond, there are Queen and Mercury’s general celebrations of human sexuality, even in the faux-Elvis vein of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. “Get Down Make Love” (later covered brilliantly by Nine Inch Nails) and “Let Me Entertain You”, among others. “Play the Game” could go either way, as could “Love of My Life” or any of Mercury’s many non-gendered love songs. And Mercury was not alone among Queen members to have odd interests. Brian May and Roger Taylor were equally contributors (and vocalists) on their classic material and brought, along with Mercury and bassist John Deacon a nerd-boy’s eye – queer or straight – to their material. Only Queen could do a song like “March of the Black Queen” on one hand or “Radio Gaga” on the other, to represent two poles of Queen, the early version that bragged in their liner notes about not using synthesizers (their little competition with the likes of Emerson Lake and Palmer), and the classic 80s iteration that gleefully used synths without being synth-pop (that would come later on the near Celine Dion level easy listening glory of “These are the Days of Our Lives”).
All of this is collapsed in the biopic, though by all accounts it at least does a good job with the music. Biopics of musicians are rarely good, as noted. Only Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There with at least six (perhaps seven) different characters, some of whom overlap being stand-ins for Bob Dylan, captures the artists’ art and lives, as opposed to mere hagiography or tell-al gossip-mongering. Straight Outta Compton and Ray were good films that actually gave you a bit of an understanding of the artists’ art and lives, but stopped short at being “warts and all”. One can’t imagine biopics of Led Zeppelin to include, for example, their love of girls below 14 and John Bonham’s braggadocio about raping a passed out woman with a shark. No, no, that won’t do, it has to be just about Stairway to Heaven.
And this is the Queen that is being provided to the masses. The Queen that Mike Myers’ cannily picked for that great scene in Wayne’s World. The straight dude-bro account of Queen, the ones who listen to Greatest Hits compilations (Queen’s are dynamite!) but don’t go through the depth of the album tracks. No this is the Queen that rocked hundreds of thousands of fans in rock stadiums. But not the Queen that is beloved throughout the Middle East and Iran. This is the Queen that provided football fans with chants, the Queen played at the end of the decidedly rapey 80s film Revenge of the Nerds. Not the avant-garde hybrid of power pop, hard rock, show tunes and prog turned disco, pop and even New Age easy listening. On the other hand, not the Queen that disgracefully crossed the BDS picket line and played Sun City. And certainly not the queer Queen. It’s just “Radio Gaga”.
I hope to revisit these themes in a future article, but in lieu of that, I have included a playlist (linked above) incorporating many of the songs mentioned as well as others that hint at a very important project for those of us who want to cultivate an appreciation of 20th century art and culture. People have stomped it and spit in its eye, but its driving at the speed of light, albeit under pressure. It needs to break free, even if that means tying your mother down. While Simon Ferocious and those who followed him made a mockery of his listeners, his friends and his fans, Freddie Mercury, and Queen paved a path that has influenced perhaps the best pop music of the last quarter century, from Flaming Lips to Magnetic Fields, and let’s not forget Wyclef Jean. Queen were able to become, in the years since Mercury’s demise, like Bob Marley universally loved but also universally misunderstood. But we can take care of that in a flash!
Yes, indeed, folks, it is time to Make Queen Queer Again.
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Jordy Cummings, once called “the Tin-Pot Beria of the counter-culture,” is a writer, culture critic, and labour activist. He holds a PhD from York University, and is a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective.