“Queen: Under Review 1980-1991″: Happy Birthday to Brian May, who proved “The Show Must Go On”

By on July 19, 2017

In honor of Brian May’s 70th birthday today — he was born on July 19, 1947, in Hampton Hill, a London suburb on the north bank of the River Thames — we thought we’d highlight Queen: Under Review 1980-1991, a critical analysis of Queen‘s musical output from the start of the Eighties, right up to the death of frontman Freddie Mercury in ’91. It’s just one of the great music documentaries we’ve got streaming over on Night Flight Plus!

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May — whose compositions for the band include some of their most rockin’ songs from their 1970s era, like”Now I’m Here,” “Brighton Rock,” “We Will Rock You,” “Tie Your Mother Down,” and “Fat Bottomed Girls” — has consistently placed high in the rankings of the “greatest guitarists of all time” (#26 in Rolling Stone‘s top 100; #2 in Guitar World‘s readers poll, etc.)

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Here’s what it says on the back of the Under Review: 1980 – 1991 DVD:

In the 1980s, during the decade of new romantics, post punks, synth duos, goths, geeks and grebos, Queen maintained respect in all camps and made a comeback as on one of the world’s finest stadium acts. The band scored 20 chart singles during the decade, and their concerts exceeded all expectations: Queen’s Live Aid set is often dubbed the best live performance of all time.

Queen: Under Review 1980-1991 features live and studio performances by the group, rare interviews and a host of other features all interspersed with the independent review and criticism from a panel of esteemed experts. These include: broadcaster, journalist and longterm friend of Freddy Mercury, Paul Gambaccini; Classic Rock magazine journalist, Malcolm Dome; journalist and author Daryl Easlea; former Melody Maker editor Chris Welch; Virgin Radio DJ, Ben Jones, and many others.

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Queen: Under Review 1980-1991 offers an informational journey through each of the band’s releases during the 1980s — beginning with the release of the Flash Gordon soundtrack album — revealing that the band were pretty much unaffected by British punk, and they mostly avoided trying to be a “new wave” of anything.

Queen survived the Eighties by simply doing what they did best, by being Queen, and in doing so, they remained iconic and surefooted amidst a long-lasting, ever-changing musical climate that was shifting quickly under their feet.

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The documentary takes a deep-dive look at each of their albums made during that time, including Hot Space, The Works, Kind of Magic, Miracle, and Innuendo, in addition to the aforementioned soundtrack to Flash Gordon and the posthumous Made in Heaven.

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The decade also featured the released of Queen’s first compilation album, Greatest Hits, which highlighted their incredible output from 1974 to 1981, becoming the best-selling album in UK Chart history.

The collection spent 450 weeks in the UK Album Chart, an incredible feat for any band, going platinum eight times over in the United States, and selling over 25 million copies worldwide.

Queen: Under Review 1980-1991 also features rare live footage of the band — the documentary’s highlight might indeed by their Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, falling almost exactly midway in the decade on July 13th, 1985 — as well as their videos for “Body Language,” “I Want to Break Free,” “Radio Ga Ga,” “Kind of Magic,” “Those Were the Days of Our Lives,” and many more.

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A full list of the Queen tracks you’ll hear during this documentary include: “I Want It All,” “Flash,” “Princes Of The Universe,” “Under Pressure,” “Las Palabras De Amor,” “Body Language,” “Radio Ga Ga,” “We Will Rock You,” “Hammer To Fall,” “I Want To Break Free,” “Living On My Own,” “It’s A Kind Of Magic,” “One Vision,” “Who Wants To Live Forever,” “The Miracle,” “The Show Must Go On,” “These Are The Days Of Our Lives,” “Heaven For Everyone” (Short Film), and “We Will Rock You” (From The Musical).

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The documentary also deals with lead singer Freddie Mercury’s ongoing struggle and eventual death in 1991 from AIDS, with many of the personal details coming from his friend, Paul Gambaccini, who tells us that, as AIDS really began to spread, when Mercury was asked towards the end of his life if he had started to reign in his behavior, he replied “Fuck no, I’m doing everything with everybody.”

Read more about Brian May and Queen below.

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Birthday boy Brian May once commented about the 1980s being the band’s most turbulent period, saying:

“[The style of life] was very excessive. I think the excess leaked out from the music into life and became a need. Queen was a wonderful vehicle and a wonderful, magical combination, but I think it came close to destroying us all. [We] were the biggest thing in the world for a moment in time and everything that goes with that really messes up your mind somehow. We’ve all suffered. Freddie, obviously, went completely AWOL, which is why he got that terrible disease. He was utterly out of control for a while. In a way, all of us were out of control and […] it screwed us up.”

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May — born in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames, to the west of Twickenham on the north bank of the River Thames (he was actually born at Gloucester House Nursing Home, though) — and his family maintained a residence Feltham, Middlesex, during his childhood, where it has been noted extensively is where, as a teenager in the early 1960s, he made his own home-built electric guitar, called the Red Special, with help from with his father, Harold. May would go on to play it on every Queen album and live show.

The name Red Special came from the reddish-brown color the guitar attained after being stained and painted with numerous layers of Rustins’ Plastic Coating; the guitar is also called the Fireplace — a reference to the fact that the wood used to make the neck came from a fireplace mantel — or the Old Lady.

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May co-founded Queen with Freddie Mercury (still known by his birth name, Farrokh Bulsara), and drummer Roger Taylor while still enrolled at London Imperial College.

Taylor and May had been calling the band Smile, but Mercury suggested that Smile change its name to Queen.

They later recruited bassist John Deacon in 1971, officially bringing together all of the pieces needed for complete world pop-music domination.

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Read more about the band’s ’70s zenith in our previous post for Queen: Under Review 1973-1980 here.

May — who was enrolled in the astrophysics program in college — later obtained his bachelor’s degree in science, and he would finish most of his Ph.D. by 1974 and finally complete it nearly forty years later in 2007.

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Queen kicked off the 1980s with The Game, which topped the Billboard 200 for five weeks, selling over four million copies in the U.S. alone. the album featured two #1 hit singles, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust (in October 1980 the latter single spent three weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart).

That same year, the band also released the soundtrack they’d made for Flash Gordon.

By February of ’81, they were touring South America on The Game Tour, becoming the first major rock band to play huge sold-out concerts at stadiums in Latin American countries, including five shows in Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of which drew the largest single concert crowd in Argentine history when 300,000 came out to see them perform their hits.

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They also played two concerts at the Morumbi Stadium in São Paulo, Brazil, where on their first night, audiences of more than 131,000 people were among the then largest-paying audience for a single band anywhere in the world (more than 120,000 people came out to see them the following night).

The tour continued to bring out huge crowds, and as it swung back towards North America, Queen performed for more than 150,000 fans in Monterrey, Mexico.

In October of ’81, followed up by sold-out nights at the Montreal Forum in Quebec, Canada (which was recorded for their live album, Queen Rock Montreal).

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Queen then partnered on the single “Under Pressure” with David Bowie, who just happened to drop by the studio while Queen were recording, resulting in yet another #1 single in the UK.

Not too long after Roger Taylor released his first solo album in 1981, Fun in Space, Queen would release their 1982 album Hot Space, which departed dramatically from their 1970s-era trademark sound, mixing in dance, funk and R&B elements.

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Mostly recorded in Munich, band members Taylor and Brian May would later make negative comments about the recording, and were critical of the influence Freddie Mercury’s personal manager Paul Prenter had on the singer (Prenter was Mercury’s manager from the early 1980s to 1984), particularly in the way he dismissed the importance of FM radio interviews, which the band members saw as their lifeline to their fans.

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The band would take a break from touring (the Hot Space Tour) after their last two shows at the Forum in Los Angeles, California, in September of ’82, and although they did appear on TV’s “Saturday Night Live” eighth season fall premiere on September 25th of that year (the only time they appeared on “SNL”), it would be their final appearance on a North American stage before the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991.

In 1983, Queen would leave Elektra Records — their longtime label in the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand — signing with EMI Records, who released their albums domestically on Capitol Records.

At the end of the decade, they would make another change, departing EMI-Capitol for Disney’s new Hollywood Records (it remains the parent label who continue to manage their releases in the U.S. and Canada.)

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They decided not to play live in ’83, and instead focused again on recording their next album, which would not be released until February of 1984.

Taylor also released a second solo album, Strange Frontier, and Brian May collaborated with Eddie Van Halen on a mini-album project, Star Fleet Project.

Queen’s long-awaited eleventh studio album, 1984’s The Works, included the successful singles “Radio Ga Ga,” “Hammer to Fall” and “I Want to Break Free,” all of them hits, although the album itself failed to sell in the U.S.

It nevertheless went triple-platinum in the UK, where it remained on their albums chart for the next two years.

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The band’s fall tour for the album (their first to feature keyboardist Spike Edney as a fifth musician but not considered a fifth member of the band) saw them going to Bophuthatswana, South Africa, at the arena in Sun City, playing nine sold-out dates in October.

However, when they returned to the UK, they found that they’d played the shows during the very height of apartheid, in violation of worldwide divestment efforts and a boycott by the United Nations. In other words, the Sun City concerts had created a publicity nightmare for the band.

Queen responded that the shows were meant for their fans who hadn’t had the chance to see them in concert (they also stressed the audiences were integrated), but nevertheless the critics savaged them.

Queen ended up donating proceeds from the tour to a school for the deaf and blind as a philanthropic gesture, but they were nonetheless fined by the British Musicians’ Union and placed on the United Nations’ blacklisted artists.

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In January 1985, the band headlined two nights of the first Rock in Rio festival at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where again the crowds were huge (over 300,000 people each night) and highlights from two nights worth of concerts were later released on VHS with the title Queen: Live in Rio, which was also broadcast on MTV in the U.S.

April and May of 1985 saw them finishing their Works Tour with sold-out shows in Australia and Japan.

Then, on July 13, 1985, before what was then the largest-ever TV audience of 1.9 billion, Queen performed some of their greatest hits at Wembley Stadium as part of the Live Aid benefit concerts.

Critics were unanimous that Queen stole the show away from all of the other bands who played the two concerts that day, and it was later ranked in one music industry poll as the single greatest rock performance of all time.

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Freddie Mercury’s long, sustained note during an acappella section of one of their best loved songs came to be known as “The Note Heard Round the World.”

Brian May — who had looked out to the audience of more than 72,000, clapping and singing along to “Radio Ga Ga” — later stated:

“I’d never seen anything like that in my life and it wasn’t calculated either. We understood our audience and played to them but that was one of those weird accidents because of the (music) video. I remember thinking ‘oh great, they’ve picked it up’ and then I thought ‘this is not a Queen audience.’ This is a general audience who’ve bought tickets before they even knew we were on the bill. And they all did it. How did they know? Nobody told them to do it.”

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The Live Aid concert and incredible response (called “a shot in the arm” by Roger Taylor), not to mention the increase in record sales, meant that Queen ended 1985 on a high note.

They celebrated by releasing a limited-edition boxed set containing all Queen albums to date was released under the title of The Complete Works (it featured previously-unreleased material, most notably Queen’s non-album single of Christmas 1984, titled “Thank God It’s Christmas”).

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In early 1986, Queen next album, A Kind of Magic, in which they re-worked several of the songs they’d written for the fantasy action film Highlander, produced another string of hit singles, including the title track, the presciently-titled “Who Wants to Live Forever” (it featured an orchestra conducted by Michael Kamen), “Friends Will Be Friends,” and Highlander‘s theme song, essentially, called “Princes of the Universe.”

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In summer of 1986, Queen hit the road again, for what would end up being their final (sold-out) tour with Freddie Mercury.

The Magic Tour’s show at London’s Wembley Stadium would be released as a double live album, Queen at Wembley, released on compact disc and also as a live concert VHS/DVD (it has gone five times platinum in the U.S. and four times platinum in the UK).

They also played a show at Knebworth Park to over 120,000 fans, for what would turn out to be the band’s final show in England with Mercury.

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Queen then toured Sweden, Ireland and played behind the Iron Curtain to a crowd of 80,000 at the Népstadion in Budapest, Hungary, in what was one of the biggest rock concerts ever held in Eastern Europe.

They were by now, by any estimate, one of the biggest bands in the world. More than one million people saw Queen on the tour — 400,000 in the UK alone, a record at the time — but the band would soon be facing some of their most difficult times.

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Members of the band began working on their own solo projects during 1988 — Freddie Mercury ended up collaborating with Montserrat Caballé on Barcelona — and in the summer of 1989, Queen released their next new album The Miracle, which continued the direction they’d begun to pursue with A Kind of Magic.

The album — which saw this change in their songwriting philosophy (they were now crediting all songs to each of the band’s four members, no matter what their actual participation was to the actual writing) — produced a number of hits in Europe: “I Want It All,” “Breakthru,” “The Invisible Man,” “Scandal,” and the title track, “The Miracle.”

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By now it was apparent from Freddie Mercury’s gaunt appearance that Queen’s lead singer was very ill, and music critics began writing that it seemed that he was dying from AIDS, which Mercury flatly denied.

He said simply that he was merely “exhausted” and he declined to participate in interviews, which created even more mystery about what was actually wrong.

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Back in 1987, it turned out that Mercury had in fact been diagnosed as being HIV positive, but he didn’t take his illness public, and the band soldiered on, and they’d begun to work on tracks for their next album, Innuendo, which was ultimately released at the beginning of 1991.

In February that year, Freddie Mercury made his final public appearance, joining the other bandmembers onstage to accept the Brit Award, for Outstanding Contribution to British Music, which would turn out to be his last public appearance.

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Their album Innuendo was released in early 1991, with the title track soaring to #1 on the UK charts. Later in the year, “The Show Must Go On” — said to have been recorded by Mercury who could barely walk at the time — which was released just prior the the band’s second compendium of hits, Greatest Hits II, which arrived in October of 1991.

Greatest Hits II sold briskly — it ended up becoming the eighth best-selling album of all time in the UK, selling some 16 million copies worldwide — but Freddie Mercury was so ill that on November 23, 1991, he finally allowed a prepared statement that he made on his deathbed which confirmed that he, indeed, did have full-blown and deadly AIDS.

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Mercury died — officially of bronchial pneumonia, brought on as a complication of AIDS — within 24 hours of the release of that statement, on November 24, 1991, bringing to an end the original lineup of Queen.

Some of Mercury’s last moments in front of a camera were later captured in the These Are the Days of Our Lives video, from the band’s Innuendo album, which had been shot in May of ’91 (it proved to be his final work with Queen).

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The single, so heavily loaded with nostalgic reference for the time when all of the band were thriving as a healthy complete unit, brought to an end the band that had conquered all of the world with their dominance.

Love live Queen!

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On Friday, July 14, 2017, Queen announced that the long-awaited Freddie Mercury bio-pic, Bohemian Rhapsody, will be moving forward, with “Mr. Robot” star Rami Malek set the portray the iconic singer. Principal photography in around London is set to begin as soon as mid-September.

Read more from their official statement about the film here.

Watch Queen: Under Review 1980-1991, Queen: Under Review 1973-1980 and other music documentaries over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.