"We were buggered if we were going to suffer for our art,"declares drummer Roger Taylor. "We always said we wanted to be the biggest in the world. Unashamedly, that was the object of the enterprise. What else are you going to say, 'We'd like to be the fourth biggest'?"
It took four exceedingly confident personalities to sustain that aspiration, but, ultimately, Queen's dream of being the biggest pretty much came true. After slowly climbing in popularity from 1970 to 1974, they started to get more attention with Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack. The 1975 release of "Bohemian Rhapsody" was Queen's breakthrough moment.
"I think it defined us. It defined us as something big, something exciting, something significant," says guitarist Brian May in a fascinating retrospective on Queen in Mojo Magazine.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" led to Queen's global popularity, and it also marked the moment when the ambitious band finally made some money. Their previous management had apparently made off with much of what they were owed for their first three albums, and when A Night At The Opera was released, the members of Queen were broke and bitter. As Taylor said, they did not idealize the lifestyle of broke artists. They wanted to be famous and make money, and this was their moment.
Fame, however, was harder on the band members than they expected. Roger Taylor seems to have fared alright, but Brian May, the caretaker and worrier of the group, feels that Queen's sudden stardom ultimately isolated him and stagnated his relationships.
The crew certainly partied hard and lived extravagant lives from the start, and it was Freddie Mercury who was at the center of it all. Saucy and flamboyant, Freddie gave people a show wherever he went; he was also known for his sexual exploits with both men and women, and played the role of heartbreaker more than a few times. But even showy Freddie tired of the spotlight, and after a few scathing press treatments in the late 1970s, he rarely gave personal interviews for the remainder of his career.
Freddie's privacy probably contributed to a more enigmatic public image for himself and Queen. But it's hard to say whether the mystery surrounding Freddie helped or hurt when he became sick with HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s. Mercury, who had never been entirely straightforward about his sexuality in a public forum, wanted desperately to protect his privacy and that of the people he was close to. He told the band about his illness, but insisted it remain a complete secret. It was nonetheless obvious that he was very ill, and the press haggled him and his close circle about it for years.
"As soon as we realised Freddie was ill, we clustered around him like a protective shell," May says. "We were lying to everyone, even our own families, because he didn't want the world intruding on his struggle. He used to say, 'I don't want people buying our f*****g records out of sympathy.' We all became very close. We grew up a lot."
Freddie's death in 1991 was not the end of Queen, but it was the end of an era. "Bohemian Rhapsody" would never be the same without him; Queen played tributes and AIDS benefits in the years to come, but Deacon retired from the public eye in 1997, leaving only May and Taylor (the two original members), who continue on as Queen to this day. Still, it's obvious that Queen's true hey-day began with "Bohemian Rhapsody"—although yet to come were classic hits like "We Will Rock You," "We Are The Champions," and "Under Pressure."
"It was our sort of epiphany," says Taylor, "it was our turning point." From then until about 1985, they really would be the biggest in the world.