Magnifico!: The A to Z of Queen

(Nine Eight Books, 2021)

An engaging mix of humour and critical analysis, leaving no scara unmooshed… great fun. Mojo

A royal banquet of Mercury and co… You want it all? There’s not much missing here. Classic Rock

Magnifico! The A-Z of Queen by Mark Blake

Queen’s Jazz album cover

Queen rock the jazz city. The Sun 1978

Nine Eight Books asked me to write a different kind of Queen book after the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie. Queen always took the process of making music seriously, but were one of the few groups I saw live who didn’t take themselves too seriously.

I wanted to convey this sense of fun in Magnifico! The A-Z Of Queen, which contains over 150 entries of varying lengths and degrees of seriousness. There’s lots about the music – the hits and misses, the good, the bad and the indifferent – but also some deep dives into lesser-known parts of the Queen story. In the words of Freddie Mercury, “Thank you, God bless and sweet dreams, you load of tarts!”

Queen rock the jazz city. The Sun 1978

The most debauched party of all time

Queen’s most infamous soiree was held on Halloween night, October 31, 1978 at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans. Its bacchanalian excess has become music-biz folklore, but even Queen aren’t entirely sure what happened.

EMI Records hired the Californian music PR firm Gibson & Stromberg to organise the event. It would be held after Queen’s show at New Orleans Municipal Auditorium to celebrate the release of their new album, Jazz. Although later described in Interview magazine as ‘Saturday Night In Sodom’, the party actually took place on a Tuesday.

Gibson & Stromberg were told they’d be inviting 80 journalists and 52 EMI managing directors from around the world, and these people expected decadence. “I was instructed to find anyone offbeat who might bring a little colour to proceedings,” said boss Bob Gibson (who died in 2020).

Gibson chose the Fairmont on Roosevelt Avenue. It had been built for the 1894 Mardi Gras and was close to the vibrant French Quarter. His team spent three days auditioning more than 50 acts from clubs and bars, many on the Quarter’s world-famous Bourbon Street. The good, the bad, the ugly and bizarre beat a path to the Fairmont. Gibson vetted strippers of every conceivable shape and size, dancers, drag queens, jugglers, snake charmers and contortionists. But he apparently drew the line at one whose act consisted solely of biting the heads off live chickens. Another unsubstantiated rumour claimed an auditionee offered to decapitate herself with a chainsaw for $100,000 – presumably for money upfront?

The Fairmont’s Imperial Ballroom was decorated with 50 dead trees to create a skeletal forest in keeping with Halloween. Queen made their grand entrance on the stroke of midnight, piped into the room by the New Orleans Olympia Brass Band. Unlike their exotic guests, the band looked remarkably ordinary. Mercury’s partywear included a plaid shirt twinned with braces, and John Deacon wore a woolly tank-top; the kind a boy might receive from a maiden aunt at Christmas.

Between 400 and 500 guests mingled among the dead wood, quaffing gratis champagne and sampling from banquet tables heaving under the weight of meat and seafood. Beyond this point, though, is where the legend takes over.

There was certainly nudity. EMI’s Japanese label reps were fascinated by the strippers, and Bob Gibson remembered doling out wads of cash, “so they could do the traditional thing of putting money in the G-string.” One Rolling Stone journalist insisted he saw a naked woman,‘ smoking’ a cigarette from her private parts. Another reporter claims the smoker was Samoan and weighed “at least 300lbs.”

“There were women doing strange things with their anatomies,” confirmed Brian May. Some accounts also include naked mud wrestlers. But sources claim they came later after Queen’s 1982 Madison Square Garden concert.

And then there were the dwarves… “As they enter the hotel, guests are greeted by hermaphrodite dwarves serving cocaine from trays strapped to their heads,” wrote Jon Wilde in Uncut magazine in 2005. “The coke has been specially imported from Bolivia and quality-checked by Mercury.”

Most accounts eschew any reference to the dwarves’ sex, Bolivia or quality checks. Sometimes it was said the cocaine was transported in bowls. Both trays and bowls would have been problematic, though. How were they strapped to the dwarves’ heads? Were they, essentially, hats, the tops of which were filled with cocaine? In one story, the dwarves offered oral sex, kneeling down to allow the recipient to snort the drug at the same time as being pleasured. In another, they were naked, which scotches a further rumour they were also carrying straws in the top pockets of their jackets.

Brian May was asked about cocaine-dispensing dwarves in the 2012 documentary, Days Of Our Lives. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. Roger Taylor, though, recalled seeing “one man of restricted growth” at the party. But he was not carrying drugs. He was employed to lie on a table, covered completely in cold cuts and sliced meats, “so you couldn’t see him.” Whenever a guest approached the table, he shook his body, so the smorgasbord wobbled.

“The dwarves with cocaine never happened,” Taylor told the author in 2008. “Well, I never saw it… actually it could have been true.” “The dwarves and cocaine is a myth,” he insisted 10 years later. “Actually we were probably responsible for exaggerating that story ourselves.”

According to legend, the New Orleans party cost EMI $200,000. Not necessarily money well spent. One company insider said the band complained the party was “too contrived.” Freddie Mercury wanted “real decadence, and this was pretend.” 

Too late. Queen had created a monster. Like the apocryphal tale of The Who’s Keith Moon driving a Rolls-Royce/Cadillac into a hotel swimming pool, Queen’s cocaine-bearing dwarves has become a universal symbol of ‘70s rock excess. It will never go away. 

What goes around comes back around, though, and with uncomfortable consequences. In 2013, Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor due to play Freddie Mercury before Rami Malek, quit Bohemian Rhapsody, complaining the script was too sanitised. So what did he want? “Sacha wanted dwarves with cocaine on their heads,” admitted Roger Taylor.

Queen’s Jazz album cover