If ever there were a band suited to the format of music videos, Queen were it. Even though there were not many outlets for these “promo clips” during their '70s heyday, the band made a number of them anyway. Fans can only be thankful for their foresight, as they left behind a priceless video legacy, probably unmatched by anyone else of the era. The new Eagle Vision two-DVD set Queen: Greatest Video Hits contains a total of 33 videos from the group, nearly half of which were produced prior to the 1981 launch of MTV.
The idea of using filmed performances of songs as a promotional tool has a very long history. The earliest example is probably the 1940s Panoram “visual jukebox,” which was way ahead of its time. These were literally video jukeboxes, which showed films of bands performing songs, rather than the standard jukebox, which just spun records. The idea obviously did not catch on, but the experiment at least captured some great musicians of the period on film, which probably would not have happened otherwise.
The use of such “clips” received its biggest push from The Beatles. When they stopped making personal appearances, they hit upon the idea of sending out films of themselves instead. Ed Sullivan may not have been happy, but he showed them. I bring up the history of the format just to point out that the notion had been in the air for quite some time before Queen. But it was still a fairly unorthodox move for bands to make them on a regular basis in the 1970s.
As Queen’s most famous, and unorthodox song ever, it is fitting that the clip for “Bohemian Rhapsody” opens this collection. The video received a fair amount of play on MTV in 1992, when the song was re-released to capitalize on the success of Wayne’s World. It is a little disconcerting that the compilation features “Another One Bites the Dust” (1979) next though. The look of the group, and the song itself are so different from “Rhapsody” that it is almost as if we are seeing a completely different band.
The first DVD covers the years 1974-1980, with the exception of “Save Me” from 1982. The second DVD focuses on 1981-1989. The earliest song is “Killer Queen” from Sheer Heart Attack (1974). It is included “Courtesy of BBC Television,” and is a sight to behold. This is the track that broke Queen in the States, and I would not be surprised if the video was partially responsible. They look fantastic. The setup is a “live in the studio” situation, with the band miming the tune. Freddie appears in a fur coat, with black fingernails, and Brian May looks exquisite in his all-white suit. Even though there is no audience, Mercury gives it his all. This performance style, complete with pyro and Freddie’s onstage bravado, would remain a staple the band would use for most of the '70s.
“Bicycle Race” is certainly a one-of-a-kind video. The band came up with a hilarious idea to promote the song. They staged and filmed a bicycle race at Wimbledon Stadium featuring nude women. Footage from the race is interspersed with more “live in the studio” shots of the band. Just as an aside, the original copies of the Jazz LP (1978) featured a poster of the race, which I had up on my wall for years. The video for “Fat Bottomed Girls” from the album is also included.
As a "greatest hits of the '70s" collection, this disc just about covers all the bases. Besides those previously mentioned, it also contains “You’re My Best Friend,” “Somebody To Love,” “We Will Rock You,” We Are the Champions,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Spread Your Wings,” “Play the Game,” “Tie Your Mother Down,” and “Flash.” I hate to say it, but “Flash,” from the ill-advised Flash Gordon soundtrack (1980), was kind of it for me and Queen for a long time. I felt they had “jumped the shark” at that point, and pretty much moved on, for a while at least.
Disc two begins with “A Kind of Magic,” the title track from their 1986 release. In contrast to the videos of the first disc, which were mostly performance based, the videos that make up the second disc are much more concept oriented. Queen certainly kept pace with the developments in the form, with most of the clips telling something of a story.
Although Queen remained big around the world in the '80s, their popularity leveled off considerably in the States during those years. One of the best videos of the entire collection appears on this disc though, “Under Pressure” with David Bowie. Not only is it a great song, but the video for it is excellent as well. “Under Pressure” is the only video which does not feature the members of Queen (or Bowie for that matter), just scenes of people under pressure, along with buildings imploding, and a generous amount of material from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).
Another honorable mention goes to “I Want to Break Free,” which features the band in drag, '60s style no less. The mustachioed Freddie as a buxom housewife is a scream. As I remember it, “Radio Ga Ga” from The Works (1984) was their last big hit in the U.S. The lyrics were critical of the fact that television had overtaken radio in popular culture. Ironically enough, the video received major play on MTV. For a band who I am now thanking the heavens for having had the insight to embrace video in an era when few others were, the strange circle just feeds back on itself.
Of the 17 videos on this second DVD, the most well-known are probably “I Want It All,” “Friends Will be Friends,” and “Hammer to Fall.” To complete the list of titles, the remaining selections are: “Breakthru,” “Scandal,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” “The Miracle,” “It’s a Hard Life,” “The Invisible Man,” “Las Palabras De Amor,” “Body Language,” and “Princes of the Universe.”
The final video is “One Vision.” The song is from another soundtrack, A Kind of Magic, and it is a great choice. The clip begins with the famous opening of “Bohemian Rhapsody” “Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?” shot of the four of them, which dissolves from their 1975 selves into their 1986 selves. All four had changed their appearances dramatically, and the dissolve has a disconcerting effect. Freddie looks great, as he did at Live Aid, which was just a few months prior to this to the release of this. I think the positive thrust of the lyrics and the way Freddie delivered them were something that the surviving members of Queen felt would provide an eloquent finale for the compilation.
All 33 videos have been restored and remixed in 5.1 surround sound for maximum sound quality. Undoubtedly, the material from the 1970s presented the biggest challenges, but they look and sound fantastic. As for bonus material, there is comprehensive audio commentary provided by Roger Taylor and Brian May.
The videos contained on Queen: Greatest Video Hits provide an excellent retrospective of the band. I know that Queen fans will undoubtedly pick this up, but I hope that some fairweather fans (such as myself) will check it out too, and see what they may have missed during the '80s.
Watching Queen: Greatest Video Hits is a bittersweet experience. With the loss of Freddie Mercury, we lost one of the most talented musicians the rock world has ever known. And I think he would have found it hilarious that the campiest lady in music today took her (or his) name from “Radio Ga Ga.”
Freddie Mercury was as flamboyant as it ever got, but he had the sheer, raw talent to back it up in spades. Nobody before or since has ever matched his style and grace, and 20 years since his passing, he is still missed.