Thanks to my beloved, we were fortunate to be able to see Queen’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” concert yesterday evening: a restored HD and surround sound version of a concert the band gave in Budapest during their ‘Kind of Magic’ tour in 1986. I don’t know if this was a one off event in our local cinema in Barcelona, or part of a general re-release, but if you have any affection for Queen and Freddie Mercury then you must grab some tickets and immerse yourself in a masterclass of musical brilliance, performance theatre and undiluted star quality, served with a heavy dose of poignant nostalgia.
Those were the days of our lives indeed. I was lucky enough to see this tour live at Maine Road in Manchester on a warm and muggy evening in July 1986, an event that now feels like something from another lifetime. To be honest, the main thing I remember was having to go with the sister of a friend (and her friend) after my friend called in sick. Call yourself a fan? In the hands of a Hollywood director, this might be the setting for some kind of rite of passage road trip; the kind where the dorky teenage boy tries to act upon his unrequited passion for the older sister, only to be spurned in favour of the roadie with the Access All Areas pass, eventually realising that true love and happy ever were waiting all the time with the friend.
Sadly, this was not that movie.
I didn’t fancy them, they didn’t fancy me and trapped in this reluctant arrangement, nobody else was interested in us either. We were miles away from the stage, the band were like tilt focus figures and I can’t say I have any indelible images of the performance burned into my mind. It was cool to be there, but it was, literally, only a ”kinda” magic since we were dependent on the screens and the speaker relays to deliver the moment. At seventeen, not fully realising that people and things do not, indeed, live forever, I didn’t appreciate that this was to be my one and only opportunity to see Queen live in concert.
Ten days later, the band were in Budapest, one of the few major artists to perform behind the Iron Curtain before the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc. The Hungarians had traditionally been the most reluctant and restive element within the sphere of the former USSR, (it was in Hungary that the first major weakness appeared in Soviet control after the dismantling of the border fence with Austria in 1989), but even so, it’s hard to imagine now what a massive event this must have been back then.
Hungary, like other parts of the communist empire, was a deeply autocratic, centralised and heavily controlled society. Freedom of movement, political expression and civil liberties were hugely restricted by the authorities. For a band like Queen to perform in Budapest, not just before social media or the internet, but before television and radio were not controlled and censored by the state, was probably close to the impact of Martians landing in Central Park today. Things like this did not happen. And now they were.
It’s both cool and moving watching the crowd sing the lyrics to the songs back to Freddie. Yes, they are all ‘the hits’ but in those days, the official radio stations weren’t allowed to play Western bands and there weren’t any music magazines or supplements in the daily papers. This was the era of five year plans, grain quotas and broadcasts about steel production being peak time entertainment for the masses.
The film itself documents a brilliant, effervescent performance. You forget just what a peerless live performer Freddie was, his energy and charisma effortlessly able to reach out to tens of thousands of people and bend them to his will. You forget how talented and tight the rest of the band were: Brian’s signature guitar, one moment flowing and sinuous, the next a tower of power chords; Roger battering his drums into submission whilst reaching dazzling top notes in harmony with Freddie; and John just being John, straight out of the Bill Wyman school of live performance, where bass players were heard but not seen.
But in the end, the real magic is what happens when these three phenomenal musicians propel one unique and utterly irreplaceable performer into the stratosphere. At times, the quality and clarity of the restoration is almost painful to watch because seeing Freddie in all his on stage glory reminds you what happened next. Or what didn’t happen. What was lost when this flamboyant musical genius, who brought so much pleasure and happiness to millions, passed away five years after this show was filmed.
Some people scoff at those who mourn celebrities, people we didn’t meet and had no family connection to. But artists like Freddie Mercury are connected to our lives by the unbreakable and utterly personal umbilical of music and memory. If anyone’s music ever touched you in a moment of your life that mattered – and during our teenage years, moments matter more than most – then you will grieve for their loss just as surely as losing one of your own kin. Because when they go, and their music goes, a part of you goes too. So as I sit in the darkness, feeling a lump in my throat and sentimental tears welling up in my eyes, I miss Freddie, I miss the music he gave, I miss that gawky teenager and his intensity of feeling about things I have long since forgotten about.
As a postscript, we drive home and Adele’s “Hello” is playing on the radio. She’s a wonderful singer but tonight, there’s only one voice calling from the other side. Not for the first time tonight, I’m so choked, I can’t speak.