In 1995, only a year after South Africa’s first democratic election, I was working at a community centre in Nyanga, a shanty-town alongside Cape Town’s international airport. The centre had started a project which aimed to give HIV-positive single mothers a safe place to live and work.
My self-appointed task was to assist with setting up income generation projects. I had a “real” job during the week and would arrive early on Saturday mornings to a queue of toddlers and tiny children waiting to be picked up and swung. Little happy, snotty faces with upstretched arms taking their turns and then running to the back of the line to have another go.
And every one of them HIV-positive.
One day a child, late to be swung, came running too quickly and slipped. She fell hard on the concrete and scraped her arm and leg. Blood flowed and she began to howl. I stooped to pick her up and a nurse grabbed me, pulling me back.
“No,” she said, her face sad, “let her mother pick her up,” indicating the blood and cuts on my hands from where I’d injured myself working on my car.
That was the moment that the death sentence implied by AIDS hit home. None of these children would live more than another few years.
Princes of the Universe
1984 was the year of Big Brother. The rest of the world was grappling with the Cold War. South Africa had Total Onslaught as the Apartheid government of the time sent soldiers into the townships to fight pro-democracy activists. The ANC bombing campaign was under way with almost weekly attacks. The South African army was still fighting independence movements in Angola and Mozambique. Archbishop Desmond Tutu won his Nobel Peace Prize. The Stander Gang, bank robbers led by police officers, were killed in a shootout.
And — at the height of international sanctions — Queen visited Sun City in Bophuthatswana. The splatter of nominally independent states was an Apartheid construct, a vassal state “Bantustan,” created to represent the supposed “separate but equal” politics of the day.
Queen should never have come.
Freddie Mercury — birth name Farrokh Bulsara, a gay Parsi from Gujarat who grew up in Zanzibar and was raised as a Zoroastrian — visiting a country where everything about him is illegal as a celebrated guest? I was 10 years old and most of the hype went straight over my head.
I remember that the band had second thoughts. Mercury came down with a throat infection and the band threatened to pull out. Sol Kerzner, international man of mystery and the owner of Sun City, must have thrown a lot of cash at them to get them to stay. A trick he would use to grand effect every year during the Million Dollar Golf Tournament to get his big name stars to break sanctions.
Queen stayed and played nine sell-out concerts. They arrived back in the UK to universal condemnation, were fined by the British Musicians Union, and ostracised.
Why do it? They didn’t need the money. Maybe because they felt that the band was breaking up anyway?
Mercury had started recording duets with Michael Jackson in 1981 (none yet released), singles released in 1984 and a full solo album, Mr Bad Guy, in 1985. Brian May and Roger Taylor also tried their own efforts. The creative conflicts in the band had led to albums which swung between the epic rock anthems we all love and forgettable bits of dropsy.
Mercury wanted to experiment with more disco and electronic sounds while the rest of the band considered themselves firmly in the rock camp. The dynamic of intensely creative band members pulling in different directions is almost prosaically predictable.
In 1985, when Queen delivered a mind-bending performance at Live Aid, it really did feel like a break-up couldn’t be far away.
Who wants to live forever?
In May this year, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the formation of the band, the BBC aired “Queen: Days of Our Lives.” Roger Taylor and Brian May were extensively interviewed for it and gave a real sense that 1985 was the most troubled year for the group.
Bob Geldof didn’t quite beg them to perform for his Live Aid charity event, but he came pretty close. The concert would have the world’s largest ever television audience of 1.9 billion and he wanted a band who could amp a stadium.
Eventually they agreed. Jim Hutton, Mercury’s last partner, said that Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, but May suggested that Mercury may already have known something was wrong at the time of Live Aid.
Live Aid may have done precious little for Ethiopia but it saved Queen from self-destruction. Mercury was always private about himself and it wouldn’t be until very close to his death that there would be any public statement about his illness.
Remember the times, though. Homosexuality was only legalised in the UK in 1967. AIDS was the Gay Disease. In the early 1980s hardly any popular male stars could maintain public support by announcing their sexual preferences for men.
Queen had already lost much chance of success in the US after the music video of “I Want to Break Free.” Written by bassist John Deacon and with the video story proposed by Taylor, this wasn’t intended as some attempt to be drag queens. It was a parody of long-running British soap, Coronation Street and was loved in the UK but banned in the US by MTV. The American antagonism to homosexuality (or even the hint of it) would ruin many careers.
The band closed ranks around Mercury. More importantly, their relationship with each other changed. Up to that time much of the creative antagonism related to the way in which credit was given for each song. Deacon, long considered one of the greatest bass guitarists, wrote few songs; Freddie most of them. From here on they would all share the credit, and the money.
At the end of 1985 they would release “One Vision,” with all band members sharing the credit for the first time. In 1986 they released A Kind of Magic, one of the greatest rock albums of all time. 1986 would see their last live tour, with over 120,000 people pouring in to Knebworth Park to view Mercury’s final performance.
The band then set to producing albums. The Miracle in 1989, Innuendo in 1991 and, with Freddie hanging on, Made in Heaven. He died on 24 November 1991.
The show must go on
What made Queen so fantastic? Mercury had a tremendous voice and personality to carry an entire stadium on his own. He was so powerful that it is easy to imagine he didn’t need the band, but he did. His solo albums weren’t that successful.
When Mercury died we also lost the musical talents of Roger Taylor, John Deacon and Brian May. Deacon in particular, one of the world’s most creative bass guitarists, no longer even performs. Mercury may have written “We Are the Champions”, but “We Will Rock You” is Brian May’s, “Another One Bites the Dust” is John Deacon’s and “Radio Ga Ga” is Roger Taylor’s. Four people in one band each capable of producing songs that can cause entire stadia to sing and clap together?
After Mercury’s death the remaining members of the band arranged what the Guinness Book of Records regards as the largest rock star benefit concert in history. 1.2 billion people tuned in to watch on 20 April 1992.
Live Aid had shownthat such big concerts could attract a lot of attention and support. Ending poverty is too diffuse a problem for concerts to solve. Poverty is remote. Could awareness and financial support for poverty in Ethiopia really have much impact when the toxic mix of civil war and oppression which cause it is of local origin? There have been numerous anti-poverty concerts and none of them have had any impact short of reviving the fortunes of ailing pop stars.
The Freddie Mercury Tribute would be on a different scale. In 1992 AIDS was still a shameful illness. The disease was spreading rapidly everywhere. AZT, the first anti-retroviral drug to make any impact on HIV, was released only in 1987, but people needed to be tested and accept the illness. The stigma needed to be overcome.
Almost as an afterthought, and certainly forgotten by most people, Queen invited Mango Groove — a South African band — to perform via a live satellite uplink. From a frozen and blustery Johannesburg the band performed. They’re a nice bunch and their music was doing well in South Africa at the time, but they weren’t epic, they weren’t awesome. But Queen introduced the world to AIDS Ground Zero.
The concert raised $20 million for AIDS programs. It put the illness on the world agenda. Condoms would be available. Clean needles for drug users. Everywhere but South Africa, AIDS spread crashed.
Mercury’s death was a tragedy but, without it, Queen may not have lasted much longer and AIDS awareness may not have received the boost it needed. Tens of thousands of lives may have been saved.
More importantly, consider the number of gay stars who came out after 1992. Consider the compassion with which most have been received. Do you think we’d be in a position where gay marriage is even up for discussion without the near universal support Freddie Mercury unleashed?
Sadly, my homeland refused the lesson proving again that pop-star-driven charity can only take you so far. Up until very recently the country entertained a procession of AIDS denialists. Even now anti-retroviral treatment is not universally available and 4 million people are HIV positive; 10 percent of the population.
These are the days of our lives
Will there be another Queen? How much has the world changed since 1991?
Individual bands find it difficult to fill stadiums on their own. Oh, sure, your big bands from the 1970s and 1980s can still do it, but they’re still products of the old studio system which is now falling apart. The most successful recent acts are churned out through popularity contests. Journeyman bands can build a local following and then trade that up to perform at the growing number of music festivals but that isn’t quite the same.
Music has become commoditised. Streaming downloads mean that we listen to types of music and individual songs. We wanted a world in which major corporations didn’t dominate the music business and now… different major corporations dominate the music business. We’ve exchanged EMI for Simon Cowell. Sure, it’s easier for some unknown to set up a YouTube distribution of their work. Much harder to make a living out of success. Even harder to maintain momentum with so many new acts charging in.
The age of Queen was an age of limited distribution in which only big agencies could muscle up the cash to get you on every radio station and ensure you were stocked in every store. The winners in that system could become global phenomenon.
Who here thinks Justin Bieber will remain popular once he escapes puberty?
But even today I believe that someone with that much raw talent, confidence, stage dominance and vocal awesomeness would succeed. That Freddie Mercury and Queen would have been a sensation whereever they started. And, if that is the case, then maybe one day we will see his type again.
Until that day, here’s someone to love…