Behind The Brian Curtain (Sounds – January 17th 1987)Behind The Brian Curtain
There's a moment in the new Queen movie when the band are cruising up the Danube through Budapest on a hydrofoil and someone points out the Hungarian houses of parliament to Freddie Mercury.
" The houses of parliament?" he laughs. "Is it for sale? How many bedrooms has it got? Are there servants?"
Then he claps his hand over his mouth, eyes twinkling mischievously.
There's nothing particularly outrageous about that, you may think! accept when heard while sitting among 2000 Hungarians, including some members of the politburo, such a throwaway quip takes on a new meaning.
They laughed, yes - slowly and carefully. Rock 'n' Roll in a communist country is never an easy thing to contemplate. The fact that we're talking about Queen here, whose stylised pomp may give some of you the creeps is of no matter. It's loud, excessive, glamorous, and most of all, it's Western. And the people it seems can't get enough.
So picture the scene: Queen at The Nepstadion (The People's Stadium) in Budapest in July 1986, playing to a sell-out crowd of 80,000 while 45,000 of the 250,000 who couldn't get tickets turned up anyway, just to listen from outside the stadium walls. Some had come from Warsaw, Odessa and Minsk.
And now Queen are about to notch up another first (that was the biggest musical event to be held in Eastern Europe) as the film Magic: Queen in Budapest ha just, at the end of last year, gone on general release throughout Eastern Europe, the first time this has happened for a Western rock band.
Recorded by 17 cameras, which produced over 100,00 feet of film (22 hours worth) the concert was a stunning success; although there was never any chance that it wouldn't be.
You realise how significantly the authorities took the event when you learn that for the first time ever the Soviet Union magnanimously allowed its citizens to be bussed into Hungary, or that - as the local press reported for the gig - there would be 'lenient restriction on audience behaviour'.
Think about that next time you pull on leather trousers and head out to get completely smashed to your current fave rave.
Budapest in December is bloody cold, o cold that a bellyful of schnapps seemed to be the only way to keep your blood from freezing.
I am part of a small party of British journalists flown out to attend the world premier of the film, and accordingly we receive VIP treatment - the nice soldiers at the airport couldn't do enough to rush us through passport control - and it seems every associated with the band is elevated to a position of importance similar to, at least that of a high-ranking politician.
It makes weird sense, Queen in this part of the world. Their sound matches the sometimes baroque, sometimes gothic architecture, the immense statues to fallen war heroes, the vast expanse of the Danube snaking away from Austria and towards Yugoslavia, Romania and finally the Black Sea.
With Brian May as the Queen rep, and the likes of Janos Barabas (the Deputy Head of the division for Agitation and Propaganda of the Central Committee) present this is the place to be, as the healthy selection of Hungarian sports, music and TV personalities would no doubt testify. Such is the feeling about the event that the Queen Fan Club (Hungarian Division), who managed to get only 100 tickets for their 5000 members ha threatened to storm the building. Not a threat to make idly in a country with such, shall we say, definite views on public order.
The 85-minute long film, basically the Nepstadion gig cut with scenes of the band in and around Budapest, is an excellent example of why queen could be called the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world.
'Magic' has also achieved the distinction of being the first-ever film in Eastern Europe to be mixed in Dolby Stereo, and the first Hungarian production not to seek any government financial aid. You see, this is just one big happy success story all down the line.
After the premier, a reception is held for 800 guests, each one, it seems, attempting to work his or her way towards a surprisingly unflustered Brian May. In a country where the state takes strict control over whose records are released and exactly how may, they all seem very eager to stand next to this particular recording star.
I happen upon the President of the official Queen Fan Club of Hungary, but end up talking to her friend instead.
"I zink ze Queen only want ze money now, zey are not zo good now."
I suggest, while nibbling on a tasty little biscuit with 'Queen' written on it in icing, that if all they wanted was money they could have called it a day years ago, but she won't be swayed. She tells me that her friend, the Fan Club President agrees and that she even thinks Paul McCartney is better, anyway.
At the same time they both noticeably revert into swooning mod as Brian May approaches, surrounded by a polite but persistent mass of autograph books and pens on legs.
Yes, the Fan Club President's friend has heard of AC/DC; no she hasn't heard of Van Halen, but she knows a bit more about Iron Maiden because they played here not so long ago and there are still tattered posters on the city's walls to prove it. I want to ask her what she really thinks about the Russian troops on the streets I saw earlier while window shopping, how she feels about not being able to buy certain records because her government won't let her, but it was neither the time or the place.
Instead, we agree that Frank Zappa is pretty good, and I make my excuses and do a runner in the general direction of the champagne.
True story: British person walks into a Budapest record store and asks, Do you have any Queen records? No replies the shop assistant, who then asks hopefully, Do you?
A few hours after the reception myself and fellow journalists along with Brian May and entourage, are closeted in a small room adjacent to a hotel's underground disco-floorshow, getting into some serious Schnapps appreciation and snickering as the ghastly live entertainment murders 'A Kind of Magic' (no doubt intended as a serious accolade for the VIP in their midst).
Queen it seems, don't do interviews much nowadays. And their relationship with the British music press has been virtually non-existent over the last few years.
Yet, when the room empties because a stripper threatens to perform, Brian is quite happy to stay seated in the corner and explain the reasons behind this whole fairly incredible episode in the band's history.
"Not for long though," Brain warns, with a laugh, "as I intend to get seriously shit-faced tonight!"
"We like going places where it's a challenge," he starts, in his extremely listenable, mild-mannered way, "going to odd corners and doing things which we haven't done before. What happened with Budapest was the same, in essence, as what happened with South America. Someone comes along and says, You're huge in 'X', why don't you go and play there and play?
It turned out that our records have been leaking into this place for a long time from various places, because you're not allowed to buy many legitimate albums in this country. They said we could do the football stadium for maybe three or four nights.
Within the group we have various little areas we get involved in, and Budapest was something I got excited about, so I came here very early on. I talked to various people and tried to find out if it was for real, if it was really going to happen. All these people were saying that it was going to open up a new world, and that they could guarantee at least one night at the stadium."
Why was there only on night?
"The politburo got nervous. They don't like to many people being in one place at one time at all, and the excuse was that there was a motorbike meeting going on next door on the other nights we wanted."
Are you happy with the film?
"Um,!. Yes. We learnt this Hungarian folk song, we spent three days learning the bloody thing, and that was the turning point of the gig. They hadn't known how to react, but then they realised we were serious: they knew that we knew where we were, and that we really cared where we were.
The genuine audience reaction was fucking deafening at that point but that doesn't really come over in the film. It all changed then it was genuine contact."
A fact confirmed by someone at the gig, who told me that she watched tears spring into grown men's eyes.
Brian tells about a TV interview he did earlier in the day, another illustration of the regime behind the Iron Curtain.
"I was all prepared to do an in-depth interview and all they wanted was a ten-second quote. They asked me if I'd seem the final film and I said not in it's final form, only in the cutting room and mixing. Then they said fine, that's enough, thank you very much. I wanted to do it again, so they asked me the same question. I answered that it was very important technically, a lot different from what Westerners would do, and that in the in the Iron Curtain countries it's going to be great!
They said, Iron Curtain?"
And here Brian's mouth drops and his eyes bulge in mock horror.
"You can't say that!"
Did you think this year might be such a success? That Queen still had the power?
"You never know until you've sold the tickets, never ever.
Wembley went as fast as they could open the sacks of mail. A lot of people do as much as they can do, the look at the returns and they say we can do another night here or whatever. That's not the way we are.
Freddie gives, and I'll be careful what I say here because it an sound corny, but he gives so completely of himself, every night and he can only do it a certain number of times. We sold out Wembley twice, we could have done a couple more to be honest, but we didn't because Freddie's voice would have gone and then you let people down.
We gauge it according to what Freddie can do, because he's the pivot of what it's all about. It's a democracy and we all do our bit, but it all depends on Fred being able to deliver on the night. He's the medium through which it all happens. It's all channelled through Freddie so we look after him."
Do you see a lot of each other?
"When we want to. You know when you have neighbours, I believe you should have high fences between the houses. Not because you don't like the neighbour, but because you should choose when you want to see them.
That's the way we are. The subject of how groups communicate with each other intrigues m, I've seen so many groups be great and split up because they hated each other.
There are times when you do hate each other, but we've learned to circumvent it. The way you get around it is not ringing up the manager and saying, I hear that so and so is doing this, well fuck that.
I've learned the lesson, and when I feel that something's going on the wrong course I ring up whoever is relevant and usually it's Fred. It's a very odd relationship, but when things get very bad and it looks like we're going to break up or whatever. I talk to Fred and say, This is stupid, shall we have a chat?
Usually it gets worked out, and it's very valuable to me. If you can preserve a bit of magic, in spite of all the problems that occur!!"
Magic being the operative word!..
"Sorry, that was unintentional. I think that, er I've forgotten what the question was."
And so have I, and anyway, the room is re-filling with an even drunker collection of journalists and entourage.
The next morning, or a few hours later that morning to be exact, Magic: Queen In Budapest opened at the city's major cinema at nine o'clock, the first of none sold-out screenings that day.
The film is now showing seven times a day, which makes you wonder what all those people do all day, or should be doing. And no doubt it will continue that way until the populace are saturated with it. But I suspect viewers will return for third, forth and fifth visits to re-live an experience which to them is absolutely awesome; to you or I almost as common as breathing.
Me, I'm just happy to get off on May' gloriously fluid guitar overkill, while remembering that is a sound that may have given some bored, frustrated Hungarian kid a whole new way of looking at things.
Rock 'n' roll is the best propaganda the West will probably ever have.