Anyone watching the nonstop parade of musical royalty singing Freddie Mercury’s praises at London’s Wembley Stadium April 20 would have thought the late Queen vocalist was a superstar taken in his prime. In his prime, yes. A superstar? Everywhere else maybe, but not in the U.S. In fact, when Classic Queen, the group’s new hits compilation, entered the Billboard pop album charts at No. 16 in March it was in the highest chart position the band had reached Stateside in more than 10 years.
In 1990, before Wayne’s World relaunched ”Bohemian Rhapsody” toward the top of the charts, Queen was so far out of favor that the record industry looked askance when Hollywood Records, the Disney empire’s new pop-music arm, paid a rumored $10 million for the rights to the group’s 14-album catalog. And then Hollywood sank further big bucks into a massive fete aboard the Queen Mary to launch Innuendo, the group’s 1991 release — which peaked at No. 30, then, predictably, vamoosed promptly off the charts.
The Queen signing was also considered suspect because of the widespread rumor — even at that time — that Mercury had contracted AIDS. Some cynics have creepily suggested that Hollywood knew Mercury had AIDS and was counting on his eventual death to boost sales of the old stuff, but that’s vigorously denied by label president Peter Paterno, who says he learned of the singer’s plight only a few weeks before his death last November at the age of 45. ”The band never told me,” says Paterno. ”I’m sure the [other members] suspected, but they never really knew, probably, until a few months before he died.”
Mercury’s death, in fact, did boost Queen’s overall back-catalog sales overseas, but not in the U.S. ”Our catalog chart just didn’t show the ripples of impact that I’d expected,” says Geoff Mayfield, Billboard‘s associate director of retail research. ”You couldn’t compare what you saw there at that time with the [sales surge] of old Metallica titles when its new album came out, or Def Leppard’s. You didn’t see that kind of quick reaction here.”
What got the quick reaction, of course, was Wayne’s World. Its prominent use of ”Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen’s 1976 kitsch-pop classic, kicked Classic Queen upstairs, and affected the group’s back-catalog sales in a way that Mercury’s death didn’t. Queen’s A Night at the Opera, Live Killers, and News of the World, now on Billboard‘s top-selling catalog chart, benefited the most.
”There were a lot of other songs in Wayne’s World, and there’s only one of them that’s been a hit,” says Hollywood’s Paterno, now — predictably — being lauded by the industry for his wisdom in landing Queen.”I think it really comes down to the fact that the [movie] placement was great, the use was great, but it’s still a great song. And it’s a great catalog.”