Next week, Bohemian Rhapsody, the long-awaited Queen biopic starring Rami Malek as singer Freddie Mercury, opens in theaters around this country. While reviews have so far been mixed, critics have praised Malek’s performance as the band’s charismatic frontman.
In 1976, when John Swenson first took stock of the British arena rockers in the pages of the Voice, Queen were still a work in progress. “Lead singer Freddie Mercury, who claims that the band’s groundswell ‘is an exact replica of Led Zeppelin back in 1969,’ became notorious in his homeland for his chest wig and perennial codpiece bulge,” wrote Swenson, who took the band to task for aping the bombastic ambition of Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, en route to becoming “the most pretentious metal band extant.”
Swenson laid that pretentiousness at the feet of Mercury and guitarist Brian May. “May realized that his failed artistic ambition interfered with his desire to become a rock star,” wrote Swenson. “Enter Mercury, cultivated punk, ex-art student who was, in all but reality, already a rock star.” As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Queen anthem that lends its name to the new film, Swenson is not a fan: “Any band that enforces an ‘operatic’ concept with lines like ‘Galileo figaro — Magnifico…mama mia’ must be kidding, but Mercury still takes himself too seriously to carry off such a pompous joke.”
Reviewing Queen’s triumphant stand at Madison Square Garden the following year, Voice critic Lester Bangs was similarly dismissive: “Even if I did get scared out of my wits when the full invisible choir behind the stage came blasting out with ‘Scaramouche! Scaramouche!’ and ‘Mama mia! Mama Mia!,’ it’s plain that between Freddie’s Pierrot prancing, guitar gadgets that create sonic Grand Canyons for Brian May, and perches and lighting that make Freddie look like he is singing from some Lord of the Rings precipice, what we have here is Fantasia for dodos and 14-year-olds, neither of which group should be dismissed. They are as deserving of equal rights and justice as Peter Tosh or anybody else.”
Mercury, wrote Bangs, seemed lonely. “It’s no wonder Freddie has an employee whose (sole?) job it is to keep the champagne glass on his piano filled during performances.… Clearly this boy has something lacking in his emotional life. Friends? Well, I don’t know — after all, he has a device on his microphone that allows him echo at will, 19 little Freddies bouncing across the stage after him. A man’s best friend is his clone, after all, so even if there have been rumors of impending break-up for the band so that Freddie can pursue a solo career, the little peacock seems anything but lonely out there padding around in his silver lame open-chested jumpsuit. My only concern is the possible effect of his sartorial predilections on his fans’ sensibilities: I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have excellent liberal credentials, and I am not at all opposed to males going topless, but aren’t there beaches for this kind of thing?”
As it happened, Queen made it through the next decade as one of the biggest bands in the world before Mercury’s death, in 1991, due to complications from AIDS. But Queen’s legacy was secure, regardless of what the Voice’s critics thought: In 2002, “Bohemian Rhapsody” — that “pompous joke” — was voted Britain’s favorite song of all time.