Watch Queen’s Dragtastic “I Want to Break Free” Video: It Was More Than America & MTV Could Handle (1984)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mak­ing of “Bohemi­an Rhap­sody”: Take a Deep Dive Into the Icon­ic Song with Queen’s 2002 Mini Doc­u­men­tary

The Joy of Expe­ri­enc­ing Queen’s Bohemi­an Rhap­sody for the Very First Time: Watch Three Reac­tion Videos

Hear How Queen’s “Bohemi­an Rhap­sody” Would Sound If Sung by John­ny Cash, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Frank Sina­tra & 38 Oth­er Artists

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 and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (5)
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  • Laurie D Sihvonen says:

    This is not the orig­i­nal ver­sion of the video. In full doc­u­men­taries you can see the entire “banned” ver­sion, in which there is no cut away from the “drag skit”. Is this ver­sion seri­ous­ly still banned in this coun­try?????

  • Kim Jackson says:

    I have been try­ing to see this video for years and am a huge Queen fan.

  • PG says:

    It’s not just recent Queen bios that say the drag was seen as prob­lem­at­ic. See eg Rock on the Wild Side: Gay Male Images in Pop­u­lar Music of the Rock Era, by Wayne Stud­er in 1994: “the drag video for “I Want to Break Free” may have put the kibosh on Queen in the Unit­ed States for the bet­ter part of a decade, alien­at­ing many of their fans.”
    Or this con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous Peo­ple mag­a­zine arti­cle about the neg­a­tive reac­tion to Mer­cury wear­ing drag dur­ing a live per­for­mance in Brazil.


    Amer­i­cans were unaware that this was a fun video. It was pok­ing fun at the British TV show Coro­na­tion Street.
    Amer­i­ca assumed they were dress­ing in drag for oth­er rea­sons and MTV banned the video.
    USA — you were total­ly wrong!

  • Sue says:

    I have not watched a music video tele­vi­sion chan­nel since the ear­ly 1990’s. I don’t know if I Want to Break Free is still banned from TV, but just about any music video can be called up on YouTube. I still laugh at this video. It nev­er gets old!

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