Happy birthday, dear Nelson . . . and sorry about the apartheid tour

 

Brian Boydon music

There was a big Wembley Stadium concert held in the late 1980s to protest against the incarceration of Nelson Mandela. There was an even bigger Wembley Stadium concert held on his release from prison, and today in Hyde Park there will be another big musical bash to mark his 90th birthday. Poor Nelson: having to sit through so many of these breast-beating affairs must make him long for the peace and quiet of Robben Island.

The line-up for today's love-in at Hyde Park London is particularly gruesome, but it has been boosted at the last moment by two late "surprise" additions: Amy Winehouse (who probably won't turn up) and Eminem (who will, because he has a career to resuscitate).

The most disturbing aspect of the line-up, though, is the inclusion of one of the few rock bands that Nelson Mandela actually knows about. And the reason he knows about them is because they were on a high-profile United Nations name-and-shame list of acts who defied the ANC's express wishes and travelled to perform in apartheid South Africa.

In 1984, the Freddie Mercury- led Queen played a string of dates in Sun City in one of the South African Bantustans. Sun City was apartheid's Vegas, and promoters paid top dollar to any bands who were willing to flout UN regulations to perform there.

"We thought a lot about the morals of it a lot," said Queen guitarist Brian May at the time, "and it is something we've decided to do. The band is not political - we play to anybody who wants and come and listen."

"We enjoy going to new places," bass player John Deacon helpfully added. "It's nice to go somewhere different."

On their return, Queen were swiftly fined by the British Musician's Union, as were such other sanctions-defying acts as Rod Stewart and (wouldn't you just know) Status Quo. The Byrds had already played in South Africa, which prompted a furious Gram Parsons to depart the band.

As more and more musical acts began to perform in South Africa, Steve Van Zandt of The E Street Band (and later The Sopranos) gathered together a number of musicians (including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and U2) to record a song called ( Ain't Gong to Play) Sun City. Van Zandt's original lyrics made a direct reference to Queen, but he took it out at the last minute.

Not long after Queen played Sun City, John Peel had to introduce them on Top of the Pops. He called them "Freddie and the Sun City Stompers".

A few months after their return, Queen were one of the headliners at the Live Aid concert. On the night they played a new song called Is This The World We Created?, which was about third- world poverty and the imbalances between rich and poor. It was the perfect rock'n'roll moment: these multimillionaire rock stars, fresh from receiving a big paycheque in apartheid South Africa, telling people about the sins of the world.

A few months after playing Live Aid, Queen had a huge hit with One Vision. The lyrics include:

"I had a dream/When I was young/A dream of sweet illusion/A glimpse of hope and unity/And visions of one sweet union . . . No wrong, no right/I'm gonna tell you there's no black and no white . . . " Quite.

With their new line-up ("Nobody can ever replace Freddie Mercury. By the way, have you met our new singer Paul Rodgers?"),Queen will most probably croak out One Visionat the concert tonight as their big "Why can't we all just love each other?" message. I like to think that the cameras will pan to Nelson Mandela during the song - and he will be holding up two fingers to Freddie and The Sun City Stompers.