I don't know if anyone has ever been able to appreciate a rock concert as much as I did when I saw Queen at age 7. I knew the order the songs were supposed to be in, the way the stage was supposed to look, and what the band was supposed to do. And everything happened perfectly. Except for that damn mustache.
Late summer 1980, I was pestering my mom to take me into town to get candy. She said, "Do you really want to get candy, or would you rather get tickets to see Queen?" I stopped in my tracks and started being the nicest boy you could imagine. I thought maybe she was kidding, but knew she wouldn't kid me about something like that. I guess my dad had already OKd it too. Like Axl Rose once said about Queen: "They meant everything to me."
We drove all the way to Omaha to get tickets: they were $9 in advance, or $11 the day of the show if still available (though now I'm not sure how they weren't sold out immediately). I'm still not quite sure why Queen was playing smaller arenas at that point, since I think they had already begun playing stadiums.
Finally, September 13 arrived. I was in 2nd grade. Ads had been all over the radio for this concert. One of my baby-sitters and two of her friends rode up with us also, and they went off on their own when we got there. The show was one of those infamous "general admission" things, so our seats depended solely on how early we arrived. I think we got to the arena at about 9 am... almost a full 12 hours before the show actually started (much longer in 7-year-old hours). A single word, "QUEEN", was boldly displayed on the marquee above the many doors where small lines were beginning to form. Excited bands of people were running/gathering everywhere. Queen was one of the biggest five bands in the world at that time: "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" was on the charts, The Game had just been released, and "Another One Bites the Dust" was soon-to-be released as a single.
We picked one of the lines and got ready for what was indeed halfway dangerous: the growing mob of people ready to run in when the doors would open. This was a big issue of the time, as it was the year before that 11 people were crushed to death at the turnstiles of a Who concert. (An episode of the TV show W.K.R.P. in Cincinnati even focused on this.) People were starting to press onto the transparent doors trying to look inside, when suddenly there was the sound of tires screeching from the street: a white limousine honked twice and sped around the corner toward the other side of the arena, and was gone within seconds. The "big kids" screamed and ran after it; I was too small to do this, but we got better places in line! When everyone came back, they said they actually saw Freddie and John get out of it and be scuffled into the building before getting attacked by the mob of people.
In the meantime, others around us were starting to talk to my mom. Two of them were a man and a lady who were apparently on date, and they ended up even staying by and sitting by us through the show. Some other people also offered to kind of stay around my mom and I to make sure I'd be safe on the way in. A couple of times, a big fat drunk guy yelled out, "Who's your favorite group?" and of course everyone yelled "Queen!"
Now people were beginning to bang on the doors of the entrance. I think the doors finally opened at around 11 am. When they did, we and other people from several sides of the arena moved in, towards those coming in from other doors on opposite sides: within seconds, everyone had funneled from outside to stopping cold in the lobby, having basically run into each other. This is exactly where everyone stayed for the next two hours. A human shield of several people were intact around my mom and I preventing my being crushed... and all I could see for two hours were a bunch of butts! Once in awhile someone would try and lift me up to see all the people. From the distance, the drunk guy again repeated the "Who's your favorite band?" line a couple of times, realizing that more people could hear him now that he was indoors and echoing, and everyone gave the appropriate response. By the fifth time, only the drunk people were responding to him, and by the tenth time people were laughing and moaning. Every so often, some loud music would come out of the arena like a band was tuning-up, but it wasn't Queen music so everyone figured it was just the opening act.
At 1 pm, the turnstiles were finally opened. I was kind of keeping my guard around me as everyone pressed forward, and everything was moving faster the closer we got, but by surveying the area I thought I'd be safe. I had my ticket in my hand. The guy from the couple was going to try and enter first, then me, and then my mom. When I got to the turnstiles, my mom and the guy grabbed my arms on both sides and completely hoisted me over. A surprised old man tore my ticket while I was in mid-air.
Suddenly, we were standing relatively calmly inside: the difficult part was over, and we were at least safe from here on out. People were still running everywhere and screaming, but the hallways were pretty big so it wasn't too dangerous as long as we stayed toward the edge. Most people were still outside, since we were somewhat early. An older 12-year-old tore around the corner, then his '70s-style tennis shoes screeched against the floor and he fell down for a second as he decided to which way to go. We knew we were sort of on a mission to walk fast toward a balcony and just get seats instead of wandering around indecisively like others. We went straight up toward the second level balcony, as others ran the opposite way down to the main floor. My mom and I and the people we'd befriended walked right next to the wall, and I pressed against it while just a few feet away scattered groups of people would sometimes run by full-speed. I would have wanted to be on the main floor, but my mom had previously explained to me how, unless we were in the balcony, we would have to actually stand through the whole show (there weren't any chairs on the main floor) and would hardly be able to see anything. Plus, along with the horror stories of people running in at the beginning of a rock concert, I had also heard how people supposedly got crushed to death against the stage... so sitting in the balcony was just fine with me.
We got two seats in the front of the second balcony, just by the railing to the balcony below. We were on the right side of the arena, about halfway back, so we couldn't complain. Now, I knew this was the beginning of the biggest wait: sitting in the same spot from 1 in the afternoon to about 9 at night.
My mom and I tried to make a game out of guessing the prerecorded songs that were playing over the speakers by Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, E.L.O., etc. Someone hopped up from below to sit on the railing in front of us, completely spilling the two giant drinks the couple next to us had placed there and who pretended not to be upset. My Queen Official Tour Program was meanwhile working its way around the high schoolers sitting around us. We debated about whether Freddie would have that ugly mustache, like on the picture inside the new album; some people who hadn't seen it were like, "You're crazy – Freddie doesn't have a mustache!" I wanted to wander over to the seats behind stage like some others were, and just look around, but since it was general admission we were permanently stuck where we were or would lose our seats instantly. The whole arena was already full: this wasn't a regular concert...a Queen show was an event.
The main parts of the stage I liked (from viewing the pictures in my Live Killers album) were intact: the steps were lined with lights under Roger's drums, and middle of the main stage had a small plank stage that stuck out for Freddie to walk on, where the crowd could touch him but not too easily. Most of the instruments, and all of Roger's drum set, were covered in giant sheets of plastic. I'd never seen such big speakers; I had a flashback when I saw the black and white photo to the right because that's what they looked like with the house lights up.
Throughout the afternoon, the lights in the arena would go out, then come back on... like we were being teased. Finally when it was about time for the opening band, the lights went off longer than usual and the band took the stage. The opening band was someone we had never heard of, and my mom and I both can't even remember who it was now (two people have e-mailed me saying it was a band called "Dakota"). I don't think they had any hits, and then apparently disappeared soon after. The crowd tolerated the first two or three songs. Then, every song ended with "Just one more song!" much to the audience's vocal dismay. I went on a trip to the bathroom, and they were still playing when I came back. Then they left. Ten minutes later, they came back and said "Just one more song!" and I think they played three. People were yelling, "We want Queen!" People were getting harsh to the point it was just uncomfortable even seeing the band on the stage. Everyone cheered when they left.
The lights came back on. Another two hours. Just seeing them walk across the stage would have been enough for me, so at that age I really couldn't comprehend being in their presence for a whole two-hour concert. This wait was easier though because every second we knew the show could start. Seeing Queen still seemed like it was too good to be true, like some act of God would occur just before the show to prevent it. Then, the lights went out.
There's no feeling like the wait in total darkness just before a Queen concert.
It was 10 minutes of black and the loudest screaming I'd ever heard. I remember it was "scary" and so I think Brian might have also been playing the weeping guitar sound like the beginning of the We Will Rock You concert video. It was a good scary feeling though, like going up the first hill of a roller coaster. After several minutes of intense darkness and the crowd screaming, when I felt like my ears didn't have room for any more sound to enter (though I loved it), the even louder sound of thunder clapped across the arena with an incredibly blinding light. I could see everyone on the main floor have to turn completely around in unison toward the back of the arena because the lights were so bright. I kept trying to glance at the stage to see what was happening, but it was too bright to see anything... plus, in between the flashes, it was too dark to see anything. It was sort of an unnerving state, being totally blinded in that big of a place with that many people, and coming to the realizaton that it would be unthinkable to actually move around and that we were basically helpless. I was holding my mom's hand. Queen had the whole crowd paralyzed in their tracks before the show even began.
I'm not sure if the lights all rose up like in the We Will Rock You video or not (since we couldn't see), or if they were already raised because of the opening band. Eventually the thunder and noise turned to music. Finally, through my wincing, Freddie Mercury was suddenly in front of my own little eyes on the front extended stage in all the smoke. I'd never even seen a celebrity in person before, much less my idol at the time. I didn't think they would open with the fast version of "We Will Rock You" for some reason, since that's at the beginning of the Live Killers album and I thought they would want to do something different, but was surprised that they opened with a non-Queen song: "Jailhouse Rock".
The stage looked similar to that in the We Will Rock You concert video, with the smaller panels of lights replacing the single giant panel from previous tours; however, I'm certain there was at least another entire, higher level of moving lights (not only from seeing them at the concert, but also looking at the pictures for years afterwards). The lights in the We Will Rock You video seem extremely cut-back. Instead of one row of panels of lights across the back of the stage, the panels were all over the place and the ones above the band moved straight up and down on poles and tilted back and forth. There were also little men somehow sitting amongst the panels who manually operated at least a dozen spotlights, and more guys doing this from a small section hanging down from the ceiling at the middle of the arena. Since the spotlights were directed from the top of the arena, there wasn't a big bulky spotlight booth in the middle of the main floor taking up space, and the audio booth was placed along the right side of the arena (down not to far from us) so it wasn't in anyone's way. In the darkness between a lot of the songs, flashlights darted around the stage... we couldn't figure out if it was the band or engineers setting things up. Thankfully, no one came out on stage before the show to announce the band (I've always thought this is really cheesy).
Freddie had on those red leather pants with the blue knee-pads... and, unfortunately, that ugly mustache! "What do you think about my new mustache?" Freddie asked. (Mixed applause.) "Some people don't like it, but I just say 'fu** 'em.'" (Crowd goes wild.)
Freddie drank some water, then tossed the rest out onto the crowd along with his cup. He tossed his tambourine out later, and I couldn't imagine what it would actually be like to touch it. Freddie also had that long silver microphone stand that he always danced around with in the videos. He was running all over the place; one second he was on the plank at our side of the arena, the next at the other side. The three high school girls who rode up with us were excited because when he went to the end of one of the planks he ended up level and close to them in the balcony (but upset because, had one not been on crutches, they would have stayed on the main floor where Freddie tossed his tambourine!). Once or twice I remember looking into the middle of the arena and some kind of explosion occurred in mid-air (apparently launched from the lighting duct at the top of the arena). There weren't that many lighters in the audience, but instead everyone was using those green glow-sticks that come out around Halloween (I think these were new at the time). The audience kept throwing their green glow sticks up on the stage until at times it was covered, and more than once Brian kicked off some back into the audience (and I think he might have been getting upset but I'm not sure!).
There were numerous parts of the show I knew had to be there... and they all were. The first was the "scary" sound effects and section of "Get Down, Make Love", where Queen showed off their lights. (At that age, I thought the erotic sound effects were simply supposed to represent the monster breaking-in on the cover of News of the World). Smoke shrouded the band, as the panels of lights took over and moved around to the audience's ooohs and aaahs.
My mom and I were trying to figure out what was on Roger's bass drum, since it didn't look like an album cover; it turned out to be the white "face" design, also in the We Will Rock You video. Back then, concerts didn't have big video screens, so we just had to use the binoculars that we'd brought. Some spotlights were gathering on Freddie and Brian as they went to sit on two stools toward the right of the stage, and my mom got excited because we knew "Love of My Life" was coming. Freddie announced, "This is our first time in Omaha... " as the song started, and got the crowd to sing along like on the Live Killers album.
Meanwhile, I had become a source of info for those around who wanted to know what the songs were; every time a new song would start, people would ask me what it was! I really don't know if anyone has ever actually been able to appreciate a concert as much as I did that night: I was only 7, but had every album except the first two, and knew every song they played except maybe two or three. But what's interesting is how fans often wish they could experience how a "classic" band was 20 years prior... and this is strangely how I felt I was experiencing the show, because at my age it seemed like Queen had been around 20 years. There were parts of the show, including the stage design, that were "legendary" to me, but were only 2-3 years old in reality. Now, 20 years later, they're legendary to everyone else.
They played every song we had planned on – "Let Me Entertain You", "Spread Your Wings", "Death on Two Legs", "Tie Your Mother Down", etc. – so there were no disappointments. They even played my new favorite song "Another One Bites the Dust" off the new album... and again, I had to tell everybody what song this was, because it wouldn't be released as a single for another couple months. Freddie played "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" with an acoustic guitar... this was a surprise, as nobody knew he could play a guitar. We thought it was going to be some kind of a joke when he put it on, until the song actually started. "I've only used this guitar twice before," he said.
Periodically, the guy next to me changed the tape in his "hidden" tape recorder. We knew the show was close to the end when "Bohemian Rhapsody" began. Everyone clapped to the pre-recorded opera section, and as the Live Killers liner notes say: "The audience and the lights take care of the rest." The crowd went nuts when Roger hit the famous gong at the end.
I think there were two or three more songs, and then everything went black for about 10 minutes. Could it be that they were actually not going to play the standard "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions/God Save the Queen" closing? The house lights may have even come on for awhile, then went back off. A few people were starting to leave, and I kept telling my mom that they had to end the concert that way, because that's the only way a Queen concert ends... but then even I was having doubts. Finally, the yellow lights around the gong all turned on, pointing directly on Roger, who started the drums of "We Will Rock You" and everyone stomped their feet and clapped. Of course "We Are the Champions" was next, and Freddie shook some of the hands flailing in front of the stage while singing it. I remember there was one hand jumping up and down that never got shook! Freddie bent his neck way back when he sang "... of the world!" at the very end like I knew he was supposed to from videos on TV, and we hoped for another song but knew that was probably going to be it. A grand finale of Queen's famous pyrotechnics began shooting everywhere from the stage, the lights were all moving around, and everyone was jumping all over in the aisles. Soon the pre-recorded Night at the Opera version of "God Save the Queen" did begin playing...but, nobody really sang to it since this is America and no one knows the words! At this point, I tried to make sure I was truly fathoming what it was like to actually see the band members in front of me since they'd be gone soon. Freddie was still dancing around and danced out a little door behind the drums, and the rest of the band followed one-by-one, with John being last as he waved to everybody one last time. The lights flickered and moved some more to the rest of the song, slowly going dark along with the rest of the arena, with the final rise of the crowd's applause. Perfect. Except for that damn mustache.
We walked down what seemed like endless spiraling stairs on the way out...extremely slowly this time. My ears had that weird "ringing" feeling like everyone said I'd have, but that I'd never experienced before. Spotlights were panning the sky outside. We said goodbye to the couple we'd been with during the show. A guy in his late 20s started talking to us on the long way out; he laughed and told me how he'd also had to argue with his mom who said Queen would never come to Omaha. My mom asked him if he thought I'd even remember the whole thing since I was so little. He looked down at me, saw my grin from ear-to-ear, and said, "He'll never forget this."