Queen may not have been the most squeaky-clean band ever (partially thanks to Freddie Mercury’s antics) but some fans might not know they made a music video so controversial it was banned from MTV. Surprisingly, a Queen music video which seemed innocuous in Britain was considered obscene in North America. Here’s the story of “I Want to Break Free.”
The history of ‘I Want to Break Free’
“I Want to Break Free” is a fun anthem of empowerment. Combining a great guitar lick and a typically committed vocal performance from Mercury, it’s a difficult song to dislike. Ultimate Classic Rock says the song’s distinct keyboard riff was provided by Fred Mandel, who previously worked with Alice Cooper. Rolling Stone reports the song was released as a single in 1984. The music video for the track caused great controversy which probably wouldn’t happen today.
According to Rolling Stone, the video for “I Want to Break Free” is a parody of the British soap opera Coronation Street. It features members of the band in drag in a way which hearkens back to Bugs Bunny and the early days of drag comedy. Brits got the joke, however, others were incensed by the video. Loudersound says MTV banned the video in North America.
Original member of Queen remembers the controversy
In an NPR interview, Terry Gross asked Queen’s Brian May how fans viewed Mercury in light of his personal life. May said “As for the fans, I don’t know. You know, it was never really discussed. But I remember doing a promo tour for this song that we did which was called ‘I Want To Break Free.’”
He added “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 there were female characters, so we were dressing up as girls, as women…we had a fantastic laugh doing it.”
May recalled “It was hilarious to do it. And all around the world, people laughed. And they got the joke, and they sort of understood it.”
Things were different in America. “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.”
The video hurt Queen’s career – and caused Freddie Mercury to get pelted
Rolling Stone says the controversy caused MTV to ban the video. In an era where MTV dominated the musical landscape, this was a death sentence for a song’s commercial success. Ultimate Classic Rock reports the video ended Queen’s commercial viability in the U.S. The song only hit number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Things were even worse in Brazil. The video inspired someone there to pelt rocks at Mercury during a concert. All for a video! The world has changed a lot since Queen’s heydey. If there’s any message to be gleaned from Mercury’s life, it’s that you can keep your head up in the darkest of times.