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As debauched parties go, this one had it all. And then some. It was October 31, 1978 and Queen were launching their Jazz album in New Orleans with a bash whose guest list included 80 reporters flown in from around the globe, and 52 EMI company MDs.
The champagne flowed like water, couples coupled under the tables, and the entertainment included meat-covered dwarves, transsexual strippers and a woman who smoked cigarettes via an unlikely orifice.
Freddie Mercury: We just wanted to have a bit of fun. The title suggested one or two promotional possibilities… New Orleans was the obvious place for a party to launch it.
Bob Hart (Head of Corporate PR, EMI): Queen were one of those acts that Capitol Records, as they had previously done with The Beatles, decided had no chance in the United States, and passed on.
Bob Gibson (partner, Gibson And Stromberg PR): So Queen were on Elektra Records in the US and EMI for the rest of the world. Contracts were coming up, it was time for renegotiation, so the party was really sort of a precursor to negotiations.
Bob Hart: The MD of EMI at the time, Leslie Hill, called me in and said: “We’re going to stage a party for Queen in New Orleans and I want every MD of an EMI company in the world to attend.”
Bob Gibson: Queen’s American agent called me and asked if I’d be interested in doing something. Our company was called Gibson And Stromberg, but we were given the nickname Guzzle And Snort and it kinda stuck. I was Guzzle for my alcoholic intake and my partner, Gary Stromberg, was Snort.
We had a meeting at The Polo Lounge in Beverley Hills with Queen’s manager Jim Beach, where they told me it would be in New Orleans, and it would be Halloween, so what did I think and how much would it cost? I was very cocky when I was young and I remember saying: “I have no idea how much it’s gonna cost, and I don’t wanna hear the word ‘budget’. It’s gonna be successful and you know what I’m capable of doing.”
After two or three trips to New Orleans with my staff, we decided that the only suitable facility was the Fairmont Hotel, which had a giant ballroom. We wanted to create an environment where whatever you wanted to do was sanctioned, and we decided to play up the Halloween aspect of it. The room was very stark and bare, very high ceilings, so the first thing we did was to rent 50 dead trees.
Bob Hart: The Fairmont was a clean, modern-looking hotel, but with the trees it ended up looking like a skeletal forest. It had a kind of witchcraft theme.
Tony Brainsby (Queen’s publicist): Masses of hanging, creepy vines, dry-ice smoke, and snakes…
Bob Gibson: Queen wanted a lot of street people. Remember, there’s a lot of underground sexual perversion in New Orleans, which seemed to please Freddie. We held auditions over a period of three or four days, and hired a total of 60 or 70 entertainers. All kinds of people turned up, but we had to draw the line at the guy whose act was that he bit the heads off live chickens. Several of the bars on Bourbon Street had to close on the night of the party because we took all of their entertainers
Sylvie Simmons (US correspondent, Sounds): I was installed in this very grand room at The Fairmont, where the first thing I saw was a bottle of champagne in a big steel bucket, topped off with a gorgeous, plumed and sequinned eyemask to wear to the party. I remember walking into the ballroom where there must have been 400 or 500 people. The tables were laden with pyramids of food – shrimp, oysters, lobsters, all kind of meats – like a bizarre medieval fantasy banquet for a king. Unfortunately, being vegetarian I couldn’t eat any of it. So my calorie intake had to be liquid.
Mark Mehler (journalist, Circus): Shortly before midnight the Olympia Brass Band came marching through the hall, accompanied by Queen.
Sylvie Simmons: There were strippers and exotic dancers of all denominations, gorgeous women, handsome men. Something to suit every taste. There were huge black ladies, 300lb specials in tiny thongs, and dwarves…
James Henke (journalist, Rolling Stone): …And a naked lady who smoked cigarettes in her crotch.
Sylvie Simmons: It was a bit like being in a weird Fellini movie. There was endless champagne being poured, and a display of naked flesh that went on well into the next morning.
Joe Smith (Chairman, Elektra Records): It was definitely a Freddie party. He was testing the limits of what he could get away with. And people were kind of dazed, because there had never been anything quite like it.
Freddie Mercury : We wanted the atmosphere to fit in with the rather naughty reputation of the French Quarter.
Brian May: It was deliberately excessive. Partly for our own enjoyment, partly for friends to enjoy, partly because it’s exciting for record company people – and partly for the hell of it.
Bob Gibson: The Japanese and South American label representatives were astonished by all these naked women, or men, or whatever. So Jim Beach and I got every dollar bill in the hotel and went back into the ballroom with armloads of money, which we distributed so the people could do the traditional thing of putting money in the G-strings.
Peter Hince (head of crew, Queen): Being the crew, we had to finish up the load-out after the gig, so we didn’t get to the party until it was well under way. It was hard to see what was going on, there was just this mêlée, and you’d be wading through the crowd and suddenly come across women tangled up with snakes, or jugglers, transsexuals, all kinds of extreme acts. Everything was going off at the same time. Fred was signing naked girls’ bums.
Bob Hart: There were lots of dwarves strolling around but not, as legend has it, with trays of cocaine on their heads. That wouldn’t have gone down well with all of those EMI executives.
Peter Hince: I have no doubt there were narcotics at the party, but trays of cocaine, that was complete bollocks. The crew would have cleaned them out in 10 seconds.
Roger Taylor: It never happened. Well, I never saw it… Actually, it could have been true.
Peter Hince: Among the piles and piles of food on the tables, there was this huge mound of meat. But when you went to take a slice off, a midget would burst out from underneath it all. Then he’d go back inside and wait for the next person. I remember a few of us from the crew sitting around with all these girls going past, then this blonde comes and sits on my lap, and I thought: “Phew! All right! Here we go, rock’n’roll.” And she was getting quite affectionate, sticking her tongue in my ear, when one of our guys came up and said: “It’s a bloke! It’s a geezer, I tell you.” They were very convincing.
Bob Hart: A lot of what went on has become exaggerated over the years. I’ve heard it said that hookers were flown in. That did not happen. I mean, flying hookers into New Orleans? Gimme a break. If anyone wanted a blowjob they could just stroll down the street.
Peter Hince: There were definitely people at it under the tables. All kinds of goings-on.
Bob Hart: I think it was Brian who said to me that he thought it was all a bit too contrived. That was an interesting comment, coming from a member of Queen. It was like it was a mild disappointment to the band. I don’t know quite what they expected – human sacrifice or what – but they felt it was contrived decadence, not real decadence. That was Freddie’s complaint. He said: “This is pretend.”
Peter Hince: We wheeled out all these crates of booze and started partying on the bus. Some of these ‘girls’, shall we say, decided they wanted to come on the bus with us, but we couldn’t tell what sex they were. Next thing you know, one of my guys is down on his hands and knees, sticking his head up one of their skirts. Then he comes out and says: “This one’s definitely a girl, but look at this!” He’d found a backstage pass in her knickers!
Sylvie Simmons: Not long before dawn, Tony Brainsby, Freddie Mercury and I went for a walk down Bourbon Street. Freddie was in a great mood. I was pointing out what I considered to be cute boys, and Freddie was saying: “No, they’re gay.” Then he waved at them and it turned out, sure enough, they were gay. I don’t remember him getting off with any of them though.
Bob Gibson: Overall, it was a smashing success. We had a couple of photographer friends who shot great pictures that went around the world, and the journalists wrote accounts that made it sound even better than I remember it.
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 162, in September 2011.