May 21 – Hot Space Got Cold Shoulder From Fans

Being a successful musician seems to mean being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Being super-successful seems to involve that and being something of a magician or mystic at the same time, managing to steer the sound successfully. The problem is, once you have a following, if you keep sounding the same, people will typically get bored with you (AC/DC fans excepted) …but if you change sound, you risk alienating many of your fans who’ll long for your “traditional” sound. Few can navigate frequent change well and keep their fans. Even Queen struggled with it, as we found out four decades back – Hot Space came out this day in 1982.

It was their tenth studio album, coming about a year and change after their experimental soundtrack to Flash Gordon, and two years after their smash The Game which had elevated them to unmitigated superstar status worldwide with hits like “Another One Bites The Dust”. They were getting a bit restless perhaps, and well aware that the prevailing hit sounds were quite different than they were five or six years earlier when they were making their mark with songs like “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.” Bassist John Deacon and their star singer Freddie Mercury in particular seemed to want to shift gears with the band.

Drummer Roger Taylor says Deacon particularly was tired of their anthemic rock sound. “John’s always been R&B orientated,” he’d say a year or two after the album release, “I think we went too far and did too much.” Neither he nor guitarist Brian May liked Freddie’s personal manager, Paul Prenter one bit. Prenter apparently disliked rock and May says “he wanted our music to sound like you’d just walked into a gay bar, and I didn’t.” He further aggravated them by keeping Mercury away from reporters and rudely alienating quite a few American radio people in the process, never helpful when you want them to play your new record. For another change, they recorded it – slowly due to heavy partying – in Germany and Switzerland, no doubt taking in the latest Euro-pop sounds along the way.

The result was an interesting, but oddly varied album using far more synthesizers than they had before and fewer Brian May guitar bits. For the first time they brought in drum machines. The one real standout on the album was a song everyone already knew – “Under Pressure”, the duet with David Bowie which had been pre-released months earlier.

There were some other highlights, though opinions varied as to what they were. Brian May got to show off his guitar a little with his bluntly anti-gun “Put out the Fire”; the band did a tribute to John Lennon (with them recording the record at the time Lennon was killed) called “Life is Real,” and “Calling All Girls” was a likeable little pop song that would have sounded at home as one of the lesser tracks on The Game. Still, diehard fans found little to really cheer on and the new wave, younger crowd they were seemingly working to musically seduce weren’t interested.

Reviews weren’t terrible…unless you put it in context of them being for one of the most successful and loved acts of the decade preceding it. Smash Hits rated it 5 out of 10; The Guardian gave it just 2-stars noting “by the time (it) came out, disco had mutated into weird, skeletal dubby electronic sounds…which didn’t really suit Queen.” Rolling Stone was a bit more generous, rating it 3-stars. They opined “Queen offers a bit more than bluster” with their “funky songs”, singling out “Back Chat” as “a hot rock funk tune with guitar tracks as slick as any icy dancefloor,” but warning that “Body Language” is “a piece of funk that isn’t fun.” Later, allmusic rated it just 2.5-stars, the lowest of anything they did while Mercury was alive. They called it an “unabashed pop/dance album…devoting the entire first side to robotic, new wave dance pop driven by drum machines” before “finally getting synth-drum new wave right” with “Calling All Girls.” They summed it up by suggesting “Under Pressure” would be the only track on it fans would remember. Interestingly, to the record’s credit (well, debate among yourselves if it is that) it did have a big fan in Michael Jackson who loved it and said it was a big influence on Thriller.

While “Under Pressure” was one of their biggest hits, the other singles released didn’t exactly re-write the Queen song book or necessitate a lot of added cabinet space for awards. “Body Language,” with its oft-banned video peaked at #25 at home for them, doing a bit better here, hitting #11 in the U.S. and #3 in Canada. “Calling All Girls” hit #33 in Canada, but flopped in the States, the only other market it was put out in as a single; back in the UK “La Pelagras De Amor (The words of Love)” was released instead, and hit #17 and #10 in Ireland. “Put out the Fire” did well on North American rock radio, but wasn’t put out as an official single. When all was said and done, the album did top the Austrian charts and got to #4 in the UK, #5 in Germany and #6 in Canada. It stalled at #22 in the U.S., but still got them a gold record. Worldwide sales topped three million, decent but far down from their big hits of the late-’70s and 1980. The Game, for instance sold more than double that. The band’s manager, not to be confused with Mercury’s own, called it “a disaster.”

Sadly for American fans, the album’s limited appeal might have kept them from going to see Queen when they toured for it. As it turned out, it would be the last time Mercury would play shows on this continent, with their next one (and the last before he began to get ill from AIDS) being limited to Europe.

February 18 – Queen’s Last Speech From The Throne

We looked at the Brit Awards earlier this week. The 1990 ones, held on this day in London, were not especially noteworthy in most respects. Fine Young Cannibals took home the Best Album for their The Raw and the Cooked, Phil Collins won the Best Single for “Just Another Day in Paradise.” But the ’90 awards have since gone on to gain historical poignancy. Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis Records and producer of several bands such as Jethro Tull hosted the night. The highlight, as it often is, was the presentation of the award for lifetime achievement, known as Outstanding Contribution To Music. On this night, the fitting recipient was Queen.

Of course, in retrospect, Queen seem like one of the best, biggest and most important Brit acts of all-time. It was coming up to the 20th anniversary of their first show. However, although popular, at the time they weren’t universally revered nor were they on a winning streak so to speak. They’d only won one Brit Award before, for single of the year with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And although they’d put out their sixth album of the ’80s a few months earlier (The Miracle), their triumphant set at Live Aid seemed almost a lifetime back. Although The Miracle did become their sixth #1 album at home, it was close to a flop in North America, where it peaked at #24 in the U.S. and their last really big hit had been a decade earlier with songs from The Game. Even in Britain, their sales were going downhill and, surprisingly to most, the band known for their exuberant and excellent live shows hadn’t toured at all for the album. Rumors abounded.

All that should have been put aside for the night as their excellence was honored. A short video mixed clips of the band at Live Aid with messages of congratulations from the likes of Phil Collins, Elton John, Bob Geldof and Roger Daltrey (who said if he had any advice at all for them, it’d be “don’t break up!”). But the actual acceptance was rather a denouement.

The band, dressed neatly, came up to the podium. Brian May spoke on behalf of the band, thanking the awards and especially those “outside the industry” for letting them do what they do and “go out on a bit of a musical limb.” A decidedly somber-looking and thinner than expected Freddie Mercury, in a tasteful light-colored suit but lacking his trademark moustache, stood to the side, just quietly saying “Good night, thank you” as they sped off the stage barely three minutes in.

As we now know, it was the last time we’d see Mercury in public. He’d been diagnosed with AIDS some three years earlier and was in poor health, which the band knew but the public was kept in the dark about despite ongoing tabloid stories based on innuendo and second-hand reports. Freddie passed away in 1991.

Good night, and thank you, Freddie.

February 2 – Maybe Queen Really Are Champions Of The World

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character famously wakes up every morning (which is in fact the same morning) to the sound of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Well, if you ever put on the car radio, or have it on at your work, you might think every day is Groundhog Day…but Queen has replaced Sonny & Cher. Because apparently the Brit rockers are the most-played rock artist on radio world-wide.

That according to a much quoted recent report by Viberate. I wasn’t really familiar with Viberate, so I turned to musicologist Alan Cross who calls it “a new way for artists to both keep track of their music and to make vital connections within the music business.” Essentially, it’s a gigantic database which tracks music radio play, streaming, downloads and even appearances on social media, rating songs social media performance, radio performance and even “respect.” It’s fascinating…but altogether too big a rabbit hole to fully explore here! However, their 2021 report had some interesting observations, including “rock is resurrected.”

They looked at radio stations from 150 countries around the globe and list “Pop” as being the most-played genre, with 141 million total spins from tracked stations, followed by “rock” with about 80 million. Hip-hop then Latin Music follow, each with less than half the prominence of rock. Now, how they exactly draw the line between pop and rock is unclear (Billy Joel – rock? pop? who’s to say), but we can see that rumors of rock’s death have been greatly exaggerated. On Spotify, the presumably younger base still pick Pop the most (145 billion streams) but hip-hop is next, then Latin and then Rock, with about 32 billion streams.

Back to radio, world-wide, Ed Sheeran is becoming one very wealthy young man. His music was played more on radio than anybody else, over four million times last year. He was followed by Dua Lipa, the Weeknd…and then Queen. Queen tracks were played just under three million times worldwide. If you’re at all like us, it might seem that about two million of those airings were on stations that you happened to be tuned into at the time! I-heart Radio report that “Another One Bites the Dust” was the #1 played song by Queen on the Viberate report, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” couldn’t have been far behind. More surprising – the fifth most-played artist, worldwide was… Maroon 5.

So, there you go. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” might be the most-played song ever on radio, but Sting and friends apparently have to curtsy to Queen, when it comes to total radio attention these days.

December 27 – Mama Mia, Mama Mia, That’s A Hit

As unlikely a rock hit as ever has been, Queen had the #1 hit in Britain with the six-minute operatic classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” on this day in 1975.  Amazingly, 16 years later in 1991, the song was again sitting at #1 in the UK on this day! In so doing it joins a very limited number of records that have topped the charts there twice for the same artist. And between the nine weeks atop the chart it would spend in 1975-76 and the five more in the early ’90s, it is one of the longest-running #1s of all time in “Jolly Ol'”.

Its resurgence in popularity was largely due to its use in Wayne’s World, something director Penelope Spheeris wasn’t sure about, much like the people at the record label weren’t sure it could be a winning single back in the ’70s. Mike Myers insisted, Queen later thanked him and the rest is history. It had hit #1 in its first (’70s) run in Canada and Ireland as well, in the U.S. it peaked at #9…but rose up to #9 after Wayne’s World came out.

The song was unusual in so many ways. Its tip of the cap to opera and length made it an unlikely candidate for a single, let alone a hit. Freddie Mercury said of it “we knew it was risky, but we had so much confidence in that song…if it was successful it would earn us a lot of respect.” Also unusual for the time was the video, something not at all common in the mid-’70s but something Queen did routinely. That alone is noteworthy: Rolling Stone suggest “its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air.” It garnered them more exposure on shows like Top of the Pops and a few years later, the Kenny Everett Video show. Everett at the time was one of the radio DJs who helped the tune become the hit it was.

Twice to #1- amazing, and more striking given the very unusual sound compared to its contemporaries on ’70s AM radio. In 2018, it’s stature rose yet again due to the biopic of Freddie Mercury which borrows its title for its own. To date the movie has taken in $900M worldwide, making the biggest “music movie” of all time.

September 5 – The King Of Queen

Not many famous people have come from Tanzania. In fact, we’d go out on a limb and suggest most of you couldn’t even name one… but also suggest you know one well! Then again, not many people were like that person – Farrokh Bulsara, one of the great singers of the modern era. Yeah, if you’re drawing a blank, you might know him better as Freddie Mercury! And he was born this day 75 years back.

While he was born in Africa to Indian parents, one must recall that back then much of the world was under British control, so no surprise that he went to boarding schools in India being taught in English and eventually would move to the UK, where he got a degree in arts. One of his old schoolmates in India recall him loving music and being able to play music he heard on radio by ear on the piano. His first real band was called Ibex in London, back in 1969. No one seems to know much about them but we know about the band he formed with John Deacon, Brian May and Roger Taylor the next year. About the name Queen, he said “it’s very regal obviously and it sounds splendid… I was certainly aware of the gay connotations but that was just one facet of it.” With them he not only wrote some of their big hits like “Somebody to Love,” “We Are The Champions” as well as of course the audacious “Bohemian Rhapsody” but he became one of rock’s premier showmen and perhaps its best voice.

Rolling Stone ranked him the 18th greatest singer ever, applauding his “hard rock hammerer, disco glitterer, a rockabilly lover boy. Freddie Mercury was dynamite with a laser beam… and a four-octave voice.” L.A. Weekly did that better last year, ranking him the greatest singer of all-time on a chart that included not only rockers but the likes of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holliday. A study printed in the Consequence of Sound and elsewhere in 2016 suggests that Freddie was naturally a baritone but could easily handle tenor parts and, through scientific analysis, found that his “vocal cords just moved faster than other people’s.”

Mercury passed away in 1991 from AIDS. Needless to say, his reputation and fan base has grown posthumously, especially with the release of the movie Bohemian Rhapsody which tasked then little-known Rami Malek with the ambitious job of channeling the late, great singer’s energy and voice.

August 9 – Freddie’s Fearless Finale

About 120 000 or so were on hand this day in 1986 in the east of England at the Knebworth (although not the actual Knebworth Festival) to see what would turn out to be a historic concert. Likely no one in the crowd knew it at the time, but possibly the band did. What they were seeing was the very last Queen concert with Freddie Mercury.

It was the tail end of their 26 date European “Kind of Magic” tour. At the time Queen were enjoying a renewed popularity, in no small part due to their great set at Live Aid the previous year. The band brought in Status Quo, Belouis Some and Big Country to open for them, with videos of Thin Lizzy played on the large video screen between sets.

The headliners arrived to great fanfare in their own helicopter and set into a show described as between “over and hour” and “a full two hours.” Sadly, the Knebworth staff note the show wasn’t recorded officially for posterity, though “there’s a Dutch bootleg going around.” Mercury looked noticeably thinner than before but was in fine form through the hour-plus set. They gave a fine performance that included a good chunk of their catalog of hits including “Under Pressure”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Hammer to Fall”, “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions,” “Another One Bites The Dust” and the sadly ironic “Who Wants to Live Forever?” At the end, “God save the Queen” played through the PA, Freddie hoisted a gold crown and waved to the fans and left for the last time after over 700 concerts with his bandmates. It seemed a good, but unremarkable concert to most. LMNR say “Mercury himself radiated energy, positivity and a willingness to create a quality show.”

There were one of two odd things however. Peter Hince said John Deacon smashed his bass during the show, uncharacteristic of the normally level-headed quiet guy. “John acted strangely on that tour. He was doing stuff that was out of character.” After the show, Mercury headed out and flew home almost as soon as the anthem shut down, but not before saying to his bandmates “Oh, I can’t f@@**n’ do this anymore! My whole body’s wracked with pain!” But Brian May says “he normally said things like that at the end of every tour”, so he didn’t think much of it. There were one or two odd things though.

Mercury was undoubtedly already in ill health at the time. Although he lived until late 1991, his longtime partner Jim Hutton said Mercury tested positive for AIDS only months after this concert and would only be seen with Queen one more time, looking very frail in 1990 when they picked up an award.

Except for a one-off tribute show in 1992 (in which greats like Elton John, George Michael and David Bowie took turns at the mic while the original trio played), Queen wouldn’t return to the stage for almost 20 years. In 2005, they toured with Paul Rodgers singing. Roger Taylor said of that, “we never thought we’d tour again. Paul came along by chance and we seemed to have a chemistry (but) he’s not trying to be Freddie.” Good thing that. Roger Daltrey of the Who echoes what many feel in saying Mercury was “the best virtuoso rock’n’roll singer of all-time. He could sing anything in any style.”

July 23 – Everybody Wanted Billy In ’82

Mixing heavy metal attitudes and pop sensibilities was big in the early-’80s. In fact, it likely never goes far out of style. One artist who did that well, albeit briefly back then was Massachusetts’-born Billy Squier, who for a year or two was one of the hottest male artists on the charts. He released his third album, Emotions In Motion on this day in 1982. It picked up right where the predecessor, Don’t Say No, and its hit “The Stroke” left off the year before.

Squier was at the time about 32 years old and a veteran of the Boston-area scene. He got interested in being a rock star after seeing Cream – Eric Clapton particularly impressed him – as a teen. He toiled away in several largely unsuccessful bands through the ’70s before signing with Capitol and going it on his own. In a way of speaking.

Squier wrote all ten tracks himself, but had some decent studio help behind him and his guitar and well-known producer Reinhold Mack working with him. Mack was best known for his work with Queen, including their 1980 hit The Game. What’s more, he apparently introduced Billy to the famous band. Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor add backing vocals to the title track and are thanked for “emotional support” in the liner notes. Brian May would add some guitars to Squier’s next record. They weren’t his only famous contacts. As one might guess from looking at it, the album cover was done by Andy Warhol.

Although as one would expect from an album with song titles like “It Keeps You Rockin’” and “Keeps Me Satisfied”, Emotions in Motion was pretty much straight-ahead, slickly-produced FM-ready rock. But he did reach a little, and as Classic Rock Review would later note, “served to expand Squier into the sub-genres of funk, new wave and other dance-oriented rock.” Allmusic, which rated it 3-stars, considered it his “most consistent solo record” and figured he “expands on the Led Zeppelin-influenced exploits of Don’t Say No”, partly by “veering into Rolling Stones territory on horn-laced ‘Catch 22’, borrowing heavily from ‘Tumbling Dice’” Britain’s Get Ready to Rock noted the album had recently been reissued on CD and thought while “the percussion is a little over-produced” all-in-all, “the album’s saving grace is the compositions…strong enough to avoid sounding dated.”

The record buyers were in motion in 1982, grabbing Billy’s record. The title track was a top 20 hit on American rock radio and got to #13 on Canada’s singles chart, while “Everybody Wants You” made #32 in the States and topped the Mainstream Rock charts. Combined they helped push the album to double-platinum status at home, taking only three months to first be certified platinum, where it hit #5. In Canada it also went platinum and made it to #8, but elsewhere, the main emotion towards it seemed to be disinterest.

Squier last studio album, Happy Blue, a much more acoustic-based record than most of his, came out in 1998. But he’s performed at times since, including a couple of tours with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. He now lives in New York City and keeps busy volunteering as a groundskeeper at Central Park.

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July 13 – First Jewel In Queen’s Crown

Twelve years to the day before they’d steal the show with their epic set at Live Aid, Queen had another big day. One noticed by far fewer however. On this day in 1973, the quartet of Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon put out their self-titled debut album on Hollywood or EMI Records, depending on where you were. Like many other great bands though, it was a fairly inauspicious beginning.

They’d begun about three years earlier in London and by early-’72 had recorded a demo which they shopped around. They found a record company and got to use the well-known Trident Studios in the Soho neighborhood, and hooked up with Roy Thomas Baker who’d go on to be their regular producer for some years. The good news was that they were allowed to use the studio for free. The bad news was they had to do so in the few downtimes when it wasn’t in use. Add to that the of both Mercury and Baker and their penchant for re-recording take after take, and it took over four months to put together. Most would say it was worth the wait though.

The result was, as allmusic describe it “patchy but promising.” Over half the songs were written by Mercury, many of them (“Great Rat King” “My Fairy King” etc.) were rather sci-fi, fantasy world creations that come to their acme a few years later with “Bohemian Rhapsody”; then there was a song called “Jesus”, which, truth in advertising, was about the Biblical Jesus. Brian May contributed a few of the more straight-forward rockers like “The Night Comes Down” and the near-hit single, “Keep Yourself Alive” (which was unusual in having Taylor and May join Mercury in the singing.)

The public didn’t pay a lot of attention to the odd “heavy metal” band. Although it is now gold in the UK and U.S., (platinum in Poland – go figure) it topped out at #24 in their homeland and#83 in the States. Each of the dozen studio albums they’d record later in Mercury’s lifetime would do better in Britain, but the ball was rolling. Likewise, “Keep Yourself Alive,” a song which many would agree with allmusic in calling “one of their very best”, didn’t even make the charts – nor many radio playlists.

Critics however, did give it a listen and were actually quite astute. In Canada, the Winnipeg Free Press predicted the “driving high energy set” could “in time be looked upon with the same reverence Led Zeppelin One now receives.” Rolling Stone graded it 4-stars (although surprisingly to say the least, they later downgraded it to 2-stars for their comprehensive albums guide) with similar accolades. “Superb,” they exclaim, “funky energetic English quartet has all the tools they’ll need to lay claim to Zep’s abdicated heavy metal throne.”

Looking back, it might seem odd that Queen were called “heavy metal”… but not strange to consider them in the same level of rock greatness as Led Zeppelin or any other British group of the ’70s.

April 20 – A Send-off Fit For A King. Or Queen?

As website DW speculated, it would take some kind of special event for us to see “openly gay Elton John and allegedly homophobic Axl Rose hugged (and) David Bowie knelt down and prayed.” That type of event happened on this day in 1992 with the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in London.

Freddie as I’m sure you know, was the charismatic, powerful-voiced leader of Queen, and had died of AIDS a few months earlier. The remaining trio of band members – John Deacon, Brian May and Roger Taylor – weren’t sure where they would be headed, or even if the band still existed, but they decided Freddie would’ve wanted one last big spectacle of a show. And they set out to give it.

May and Taylor announced the planned concert during the Brit Awards in February. The tickets for the 72 000 capacity show at Wembley Stadium sold out in three hours despite Queen being the only announced performers at the time. Around the same time, Mercury’s friends and estate established the Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity to promote AIDS safety and awareness as well as medical research. Profits from the concert were given over to it.

A huge amount of work was needed to pull it off only two months after it was first conceptualized, but they did it. Not only did they get the stadium ready and sell it out, arrangements were made to televise it in over 70 countries. That Easter Monday, guitarist Brian May took to the stage and announced “Good evening Wembley, and the world! We are here tonight to celebrate the life and work and dreams of one Freddie Mercury! We’re gonna give him the biggest send-off in history!” And if that was hyperbole, it wasn’t by very much.

The four hour-plus concert was basically broken down into two parts, the first being sets by other artists, sometimes with members of Queen joining them, and the latter being basically a Queen concert but with guest singers taking Freddie’s place for the night. It kicked off with Metallica doing three hits off their then-hot self-titled album. They actually released the set as an EP for the diehard fans. Next up were Extreme who did a medley of about ten Queen songs before their own hit “More than Words.” Def Leppard followed, getting a little help from May; benefit concert superstar Bob Geldof did a number, as did one of the more curious acts to appear, Spinal Tap who played, fittingly, “The Majesty of Rock.” U2 weren’t there in person but did “Til The End of the World” via satellite from California while Guns’N’Roses set up for their set which included a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” Mango Groove a “township band” popular in their native South Africa played, Elizabeth Taylor read a speech and a video montage of Freddie was played, leading to part two.

Queen didn’t have their beloved friend and singer, but seemed in fine form as they kicked into “Tie Your Mother Down” with Slash helping out and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott singing, then did numbers like “Pinball Wizard” with the Who’s Roger Daltrey and “Las Palabras de Amor”, an obscure track off Hot Space with Italian singer Zucherro. James Hatfield of Metallica was back with Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, doing “Stone Cold Crazy” before Robert Plant took the stage. A voice fitting of doing Mercury’s operatic parts, but his set was underwhelming by most reports, as he struggled to remember the lyrics to “Innuendo” before redeeming himself on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” complete with Zep-medley intro. Paul Young and Lisa Stansfield each did a number before one of the show’s highlights, David Bowie and Annie Lennox dueting for “Under Pressure.” Bowie stuck around to do “All the Young Dudes” with Ian Hunter and members of Def Leppard before saying the Lord’s Prayer to the surprise of some. That led to what Entertainment Weekly (and some others) called “the best performance of the evening,” George Michael taking the mic to do “These Are the Days of Our Lives” and “Somebody to Love.” A number of people at the time speculated Michael would take over Freddie’s spot permanently but as we would find through the years, the show was a one-time only appearance for him.

If George Micahel was considered the highlight, a close second was Elton John – a close friend of Freddie’s – joining Queen. They kicked off with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with Axl adding his voice to dubbed in backing vocals from Mercury. The show went on with “The Show Must Go On” and “We Will Rock You”, before Liza Minnelli finished that with “We Are The Champions.” The night was nothing if not an eclectic collection of musicians, but then again, Freddie Mercury was a rather eclectic sort of talent. The lights dimmed with a tape of Queen playing “God Save the Queen.”

The night was noteworthy on an addition level as it would mark John Deacon’s last full concert with the band. Unlike May and Taylor, he felt that the death of Freddie should also mean the death of Queen.

The concert was said to have raised about $35 million for the AIDS charity, though others have speculated that expenses ate up a lot of that and $8 million was more realistic. Either way, Brian May says the “emphasis was always made that this was not a fund-raising event. The accent was on awareness.” And sending one of rock’s great front men out in style. On that they succeeded.

The concert has been released at various times both on VHS and DVD, although some parts (typically including the Mango Groove and Robert Plant’s set) usually aren’t included. Queen, as you likely are aware, seemingly are still going (albeit inactive during this pandemic), with Adam Lambert being the current singer.

April 7 – When Wham Go-go’d To China

The music world expanded on this day in 1985 as the “West” finally met the “East”. Wham! played a concert in China three dozen years back, and changed the global topography of music in so doing. They were the first western “rock” (or popular of any genre) act to be allowed to perform in Communist China.

Wham! were very hot at the time, at least here in the “Western” world. Their first album, which they unabashedly named Fantastic had been a #1 hit in their home of Britain, and generated four top 10 singles there. The follow-up, Make it Big, did just that, expanding their success to North America. The album went 6X platinum in the U.S. on the worldwide #1 hits “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Careless Whisper” (which was variously released as a Wham! song and a George Michael solo one). They were on a five-month tour, entitled with their characteristic bravado “The Big Tour” and had played the UK, Australia, Japan, half a dozen shows in the U.S. when they tacked on two more shows, in Beijing and Canton, China.

China was just beginning to open its doors a crack to western visitors and wanted to dispel their reputation as a ruthless, iron-fisted regime. A few selected performances from leading western musicians or other entertainers could be the way to do that. They wanted to bring in a popular – but not too controversial – music act from our end of the world. Wham! wanted that gig. Or at least, their manager Simon Napier-Bell did. So did Queen, but Napier-Bell lobbied the Chinese government hard to get his band the honor, portraying his band as young, fresh and clean-cut middle class youth whereas Queen was old, rich and … well, Queen.

It worked, after much scrutinizing. Billboard note that even a few years ago, every song to be played has to be approved by China’s Ministry of Culture and approval can take months. So Wham!, their backing musicians and dancers showed up at Beijing’s Workers Gymnasium (the largest venue in that city then) to play in front of a sold out show for about 13 000 young Chinese. They’d paid about $1.75 to see the band they didn’t really know… outside culture was extremely limited to them at the time. But they knew it was big, it was new and it was what the rest of the world enjoyed, so they wanted a part of it!

George Michael and Andrew Ridgely powered through a relatively brief 11-song set, starting with their song “Bad Boys”, covering their hits like “Careless Whisper” and “Everything She Wants” and ending with “Love Machine,” the Miracles Motown tune that they’d covered for Fantastic. Video shows the youth in the crowd, neatly dressed and cheering appreciatively. A restauranteur interviewed years later said he was there, in his early-20s at the time and “everyone was ready to make some noise and stand, but there were so many police officers there, people didn’t dare to.” Some people who started dancing were carted off by the police. The Chinese experiment with Western culture didn’t extend to crowd-surfing or slam-dancing! Even the backing singers’ miniskirts on some tunes were rather shocking to the crowd who still had to wear government-approved conservative outfits.

Wham! spent ten days in China, playing a second concert three nights later in Canton. They took along film-makers, and the result was a documentary called Wham in China – Foreign Skies. The cultural impact of the pair of shows lasted longer than Wham! … the documentary was premiered at Wembley Stadium right before the duo’s farewell concert, in 1986.

Since then however, many other Western acts have played China, which is now much more relaxed in its travel restrictions (and dress restrictions for its fans.) The New York Times in 2007 noted Linkin Park were touring there at the time, shortly after Eric Clapton and Avril Lavigne had. Western acts see the country of over a billion people as a vital new market, but it’s still not an easy one to crack or get the best of. “Well-scrubbed pop singers from Taiwan and Hong Kong dominate the airwaves”, they noted and touring is a long ways from what stars are used to over here. Travel is expensive, mostly done on public transit and low ticket prices make touring a money-losing procedure (although many corporations are quick to sponsor events to increase their profile there.) And rampant piracy make CD sales of legitimate copies almost neglible. However, when there are literally hundreds of millions of potential new fans awaiting, there’s no shortage of artists from over here who are eager to cross the Great Wall.

Chinese TV paid tribute to George Michael when he died. As for Queen… they never did make it over to play there.