As Days of Our Lives makes clear, Queen knew — and from the very beginning — that they were on to something. That it took everyone else so long to notice only seemed to spark them to greater heights of genre-jumping, expectation-confounding genius.
There’s the story of a youthful Freddie Mercury, a Parsi born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara, pronouncing expansively at the local pub: “I’m not going to be a pop star — I’m going to be a legend.” Then, there’s Roger Taylor, talking about Queen’s early recording sessions: “I think we felt we were evolving our own sound. We were pioneering this sort of multi-tracking thing. It gave you a tremendous palette. We got these massive choral effects, with just three of us singing.” This is a band, after all, that would one day sing: “We are the champions,” with nary a wink.
But it wasn’t that easy, as retold in this Eagle Rock documentary, named after a late-period song. The forthcoming Days of Our Lives, due on January 31, 2012, includes new and archival interviews tracing Queen’s history back to its earliest incarnation as a college-era group called Smile featuring guitarist Brian May and drummer Taylor from 1969, to the entrance a few years later of outsized frontman Mercury — who renamed the band, in his cheeky way — to their initial efforts with bassist John Deacon at creating a whole new synthesis of rock, Tin Pan Alley, glam and opera.
By the time they constructed shape-shifting triumphs like “Killer Queen” in 1974, the template in many ways had been set. All that was left was for Queen to begin earning critical acclaim, and to begin making money. Neither, thanks to a period dominated by denim-clad country rockers and a misguided management deal the group signed in the mid-1970s, seemed to be forthcoming. So, when Queen set about recording 1975’s A Night at the Opera, they were at a crossroads — financially, artistically, personally. That didn’t stop Mercury from creating a cinematic focal point for the album in “Bohemian Rhapsody” that was so complex it required work to commence in six studios simultaneously.
Queen was always, even in the toughest of times, reaching past assumptions. And the reward for that reckless confidence, for that dizzying ambition, at long last, was superstardom. “There was a perfect creative hothouse,” May says. “That was Queen at its best.”
[SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: We dig into Queen favorites like “Under Pressure,” “Spread Your Wings” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” then return for spins of “You’re My Best Friend,” “Ogre Battle” and “Flash”.]
Because of the way that they had built their own legacy, Queen didn’t have a working template to get trapped in. When they chose to perform in a more direct, stripped-down format for 1977’s News of the World, or retro-rockabilly like 1980’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” strutting disco soul like “Another One Bites the Dust” from the same year, or synth-pop like “Radio Ga Ga” in 1984, no one batted an eyelash: “They were very opened minded, Queen audiences,” May adds. “We never felt constrained.”
That included the way that the band indulged in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, something each of them — including Mercury, who would be lost at too early an age to AIDS — discusses bluntly on Days of Our Lives. There was a Dionysian party in New Orleans upon the release of Jazz in 1978. Wild nights for Mercury in New York City gay nightclubs like the Anvil. An album in Hot Space, from 1982, that was all but wrecked by, ahem, “outside distractions” in Munich.
Yet, given an opportunity to bring it all together one more time at Live Aid three years later, Queen again seized the moment, transforming their appearance at Wembley Stadium into a career-defining triumph. It remains, as highlighted here, one of the most electric performances ever broadcast on live television — despite the band’s being given just 18 minutes to perform on a star-studded bill, and a throat ailment for Mercury that had doctors cautioning against the performance.
“I remember looking up,” Taylor says, “and seeing the whole place going completely bonkers, in unison — and thinking: ‘Oh, this is going very well!”
Live Aid propelled Queen toward another hit with 1986’s “One Vision,” and a smash tour, but by that point Mercury’s health began to fail. The band then left the road, convening for two studio projects in 1989’s It’s a Miracle and 1991’s Innuendo before Mercury’s death just 10 months later. They circled the wagons around Mercury through his final days, lying until the end about his health issues to protect him. And, in a final show of solidarity, each of the songs for the first time was credited not to an individual member but to the entire group.
A few years later, Queen pieced together one final recording, 1995’s Made In Heaven, from songs and lyrics they’d been furiously working on even while Mercury faltered. Then, there was a more recent stint with former Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers as lead singer.
Really, though, Queen had already composed its perfect goodbye when Mercury somehow buoyed himself to shoot one last video on May 30, 1991. It was a final willful act — of passion, and of joy, and of triumph over expectations. As “These are the Days of Our Lives” fades away, Mercury whispers “I still love you,” and he’s gone. Not as a pop star, of course, but as a legend.