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Nor did he tolerate cheap defamations. In Queen: The Early Years, there’s a story from somebody who had worked with Queen at a show in Manchester: “Queen had just taken the stage, and this bloke shouted to Freddie, ‘You fucking poof.’ . . . Freddie demanded that the crew turn the spotlight on the crowd and find this fella. He then said to him, ‘Say that again, darling,’ and the bloke didn’t know what to do. . . . I saw him literally shrink this six-foot bloke down to an inch.”
If Mercury’s homosexuality was ever an issue for Queen’s members, it never played out in public. There were more than enough other judgments beginning to bear down. In 1976, around the time A Day at the Races appeared, the punk movement began to draw divisions in rock, and harshly disparaged the music of bands like Queen. “A rock gig is no longer the ceremonial idolization of a star by fans,” declared New Music Express. “That whole illusion, still perpetuated by Queen, is quickly being destroyed.” (When Queen found themselves recording at a studio adjacent to the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious reportedly asked Mercury, “So you’re this Freddie Platinum bloke that’s supposed to be bringing ballet to the masses?” Mercury replied, “Ah, Mr. Ferocious. We’re doing our best, dear.”) Whatever the reasons, Queen’s sound changed dramatically with their 1977 album, News of the World: This was much starker music; lush orchestrations and harmonies had been replaced with odd and novel constructions. May said, “We’d already decided that we had saturated ourselves in multilayered production before the Sex Pistols came along, so we deliberately made News of the World to go back to the basics and find some vitality again.”
Two of the album’s tracks, “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” are Queen’s most widely known songs, and their most contentious. “Rock You,” written by May, opened with crashing stomps and a lyric that seemed to warn any doubters to clear way – “Somebody better put you back into your place” – and was taken by some as a refutation of punk. “We Are the Champions,” by Mercury, proved controversial even within th e band. May was afraid it might be taken as oversized arrogance, and told Mercury, “You can’t do this.” Mercury said, “Yes, we can.” The two songs proved massively popular – and off-putting to some, helping inspire one Rolling Stone critic to scorn Queen as “the first truly fascist rock band.” Both songs, May has said, were designed to be stadium chants, “with audience participation in mind.” In both songs, Taylor has said, “It’s meant to be a collective ‘we’ – meaning us, the audience, whoever’s listening. It’s not meant to say, ‘We are the best fucking group, so up you’ – more a sort of general bonhomie.” Some listeners have also heard “Champions” as Mercury’s sly, subversive avowal of gay forbearance, though all these interpretations have been upended by how the songs became the universal bully chants of victors at sporting events.