This Date in Music History: March 22

Queen gets denied by MTV and Angelo Badalamenti is a soundtracking genius

Mar 22, 2012 at 11:11 am

On this day in 1984, Rock legends Queen started filming the music video for their song, "I Want to Break Free." Queen was a band that embraced the concept of music videos early on. The current Spectacle exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center, about the history of music videos and where it's at today, cites the band as a vanguard act of the video age thanks to early clips for songs like "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions" and, especially, "Bohemian Rhapsody."

By 1984, MTV was finding its legs and providing an outlet for new clips by artists; in the early days, the network had little to chose from to fill 24 hours a day with vids, so they played anything available, including those early Queen clips. The "I Want to Break Free" video featured the band members dressed as women in a parody of suburban life and British evening soap operas. The clip had Freddie Mercury decked out in a short skirt, tight sweater, big falsies, a wig and that trademark mustache, running the vacuum cleaner. It also featured Mercury in his more familiar uniform — leather pants, no shirt and that trademark chest hair —  and classic ’80s music video elements like choreographed dancers prancing in the haze from a smoke machine.

The clip was well received (and the single did well) in the U.K., but not so much in the U.S., thanks in part to MTV's decision to "ban" it from the network (a clear sign they were becoming less desperate for music clips to air now that everyone was starting to make them). It wouldn't run on the network until 1991.

Cross-dressing had become fairly common in Rock & Roll by that point. The Rolling Stones, New York Dolls and David Bowie had all playfully donned women's clothing for album covers, live shows, videos and photo shoots. For some weird, unclear reason, Queen weren't allowed to indulge in that bit of cheeky humor — perhaps because Mercury was a rare "out" gay man in the public eye during a time when AIDS had so many people in a panic (Mercury told NME in 1974, "I am as gay as a daffodil, my dear." I'm assuming NME said back, "No shit.")

Straight or bi guys in drag were cool with MTV, apparently, but if the cross-dresser is gay … well, God forbid anyone in the U.S. be exposed to that.

Kind of odd to think of MTV playing moral watchdog given the tripe of reality-exploitation shows about teen moms and drunken boneheads that infest the channel. And they play videos by that transvestite Lady Gaga all the time. (Note: I've been informed that Lady Gaga is not a transvestite, but actually a woman. My apologies to Ms. Gaga, her fans and her family.)

Below is a cool, hour-long documentary on Queen from the BBC called Days of Our Lives. At about the 21 minute mark, the film addresses the "Break Free" controversy. Guitarist Brian May seems to believe the banning of the video by MTV killed Queen's chances of bigger success in the states during those latter years (he doesn't mention that the song was also not very good). 

Queen remains an important band to many Rock fans and musicians, their influence more evident in some of the music of today's younger artists' music than it has been for decades (think Foxy Shazam or My Chemical Romance).

The "Break Free" clip follows to doc. Weirdly, the version posted on the official Queen YouTube page is labeled as unsuitable for certain audiences and requires users to sign in to view it. Seems people are still incredibly afraid of a man in a leather dress, fake tits and giant hot pink earrings. (It sure didn't hurt Rudy Giuliani's career.)

Click on for Born This Day featuring Shatner, Stephanie Mills and Angelo Badalamenti.
Born This Day: Musical movers and shakers sharing a March 22 birthday include Captain Kirk and (unintentionally, at least at first) novelty music purveyor William Shatner (1931); Jazz guitarist George Benson (1943); lead singer with classic Rock band The Yardbirds, Keith Relf (1943); late bassist with The McCoys, Edgar and Johnny Winter and Montrose, Randy Jo Hobbs (1948); Soul/R&B singer Stephanie Mills (1957); one-time Nine Inch Nails guitarist, co-founder of The Icarus Line and frontman/songwriter for Jubilee, Aaron North (1979); and modern soundtrack-composing legend Angelo Badalamenti (1937).

Badalamenti is the composer of choice for brilliant oddball director David Lynch. He's also one of the top name-checked soundtrack composers cited as being influential on the works of various adventurous contemporary musicians (perhaps only second in name recognition to Ennio Morricone). The composer (born in Brooklyn and raised by his Italian mother and father) has lent his evocative music to Lynch films like Wild At Heart, Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (one of the greatest soundtrack albums of all time). 

Badalamenti's first involvement with a Lynch film was as Isabella Rossellini's singing coach for her version of "Blue Velvet" in the film of the same name. It was also his "big break." The actress was originally supposed to sing Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren," but Lynch couldn't get the rights. He'd later use This Mortal Coil's brilliant version of it in Lost Highway.

The start of a beautiful relationship, Lynch and Badalamenti also collaborated on the song "Mysteries of Love" for Blue Velvet. Here's the clip from the flick featuring that song, as sung by another regular Lynch cohort, Julee Cruise. Lynch wrote the lyrics; Badalamenti created the music.