I remember the early part of 1984 when Queen’s “Radio Gaga,” their single from The Works album with a video that mixed in clips from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, was played nearly every hour on MTV. Or it least it seemed that way. And then in April, the band released their follow-up single, “I Want to Break Free,” seen above. This is when things got weird for Queen stateside and where truth starts to split from rumor.
In the fine tradition of British pantomime and Monty Python, the band appear in drag, with Mercury in a black leather skirt vacuuming the floor of a typical English living room, Brian May in curlers and nightdress; John Deacon as a more conservative grandmother; and Roger Taylor as a schoolgirl. British viewers would have got the joke--the style and dress and setting was a direct parody of popular working class soap opera Coronation Street, and its first shot of chimneys and row houses was a further giveaway.
"We had done some really serious, epic videos in the past, and we just thought we'd have some fun,” said Roger Taylor. “We wanted people to know that we didn't take ourselves too seriously, that we could still laugh at ourselves. I think we proved that."
But some Americans apparently did take it seriously and believed the video to be promoting cross-dressing. (There’s no mention whether they thought the middle section, featuring members of the Royal Ballet and a parody of Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, promoted ballet, leotards, or Claude Debussy).
Now most accounts from here on out say that MTV banned the video, despite the song being in the charts for eight weeks. It failed to be the blockbuster hit like “Radio Gaga,” for sure, and Queen never again really had a foothold on American pop culture until Live Aid, and even then their appearance meant more to the Brits than the Yanks. Queen went from a classic rock act to something the British got and the Americans didn’t.
Brian May agreed that the video was a turning point when he sat for a Terry Gross interview in 2010:
I remember doing a promo tour for this song that we did, which was called "I Want to Break Free." Now we made a video for that, which was a pastiche of an English soap called "Coronation Street," and we dressed up as the characters in that soap, and they were female characters. So we're dressing up as girls - as women and we had a fantastic laugh doing it. It was hilarious to do it. And all around the world people laughed and they got the joke and they sort of understood it.
I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people's faces turning ashen and they would say, no, we can't play this. We can't possibly play this. You know, it looks homosexual. And I went, so? But it was a huge deal. And I know that it really damaged our sort of whole relationship with certainly radio in this country and probably the public as well...
But it was very difficult for us to sort of get back. And there's a whole kind of gap in Queen history if you view it from America. And Freddie was very aware of that. And we never really came back and toured the way we should've done. You know, every place else in the world, we played football stadiums. But it never happened in the States. And Freddie, when I played him this thing, said - (laughter) well, he said, you know, it might do for us what nothing else would do, and he was dead right.
You know, it's amazing that even the fact that Freddie died didn't make that much of a difference. But the fact that Wayne's World put it in their film did make a difference. And I suppose the quote that I'm steering clear of is that Freddie, at one point, said to me, you know, I suppose I'll have to [expletive] die before we ever get big in America again.
While that is true, I’m not too sure about this “banned video” business. I saw this video a lot on MTV. I remember both my parents laughing at the video because it reminded them of the Pythons. And apart from a line repeated over and over on the Internet and in some very recent Queen biographies, it’s hard to find contemporary proof that this ban happened and when.
Being banned has often been great publicity and often ginned up controversy. But if you want to see a definitely banned Queen video, check out “Body Language,” from their 1982 album Hot Space. Filled with sweaty body parts, plenty of leather, and set in some sort of unisex bathhouse, this indeed was banned by MTV. Believe me, I would have remembered seeing this at the time if they hadn’t.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.