On the silver anniversary of the Queen frontman’s death, Getintothis’ Luke Chandley examines the infinite allure of rock’s greatest showman.
Time makes you a hero, it is told. But the greatest of heroes have this sense about them. An aura. They are in the room before they arrive. They are in the room long after they leave. They are iconic and massive, like a caricature of what it takes to catch an eye. We suppose you would call it utter brilliance. If utter brilliance could level-up. Even utterly brilliant people aspire to be Freddie Mercury.
I am, for all of my sins, a Queen ‘greatest hits’ fan. They were never a band I looked towards in my younger years. My Dad liked them, and as much as I love my Dad, as a youngster you tend to look in the complete opposite direction whenever fathers do, say or listen to anything. Yet all the times he would put a record on, it seems these memories stuck. Later in life, I came back to Queen. Slowly but surely, they became my good-time band, with good-time music.
The joy of Queen comes from exactly that. The J-O-Y. The great, magnificent, exciting joy. You put on their CD and right away you’re brought from one place to another. It’s the same place, but it’s better. It’s the tap of a piano key and the shake of a hip, the tap of a foot. It’s singing even though, so you’ve been told, you’re completely tone deaf. Queen are that time in the night at a party when everyone has had just the right amount to drink and you need a solid next track. Something nobody could possibly object to. The party could go one of two ways and you need a home run. It’s Christmas time, everyone is merry but you need to turn it up a notch. Queen, and Freddie can do just that. Everyone knows Queen. Everyone knows Freddie.
It is perhaps Freddie‘s unconventional background that allowed him to be so different. It is easy to take for granted what he achieved – this was a bisexual East African refugee, who had been educated in Bombay, and managed to become one of the country’s best loved rock stars in 1970s Britain. The people who flocked to Bernard Manning and Love Thy Neighbour also consistently put an LGBT Zanzibar native born Farrokh Bulsara at the top of the charts.
His ambition was always clear. Chris Smith, a friend of Freddie‘s from art college, recalled with laughter in a BBC documentary how he encountered Mercury one night ; “He was sitting over there one night and I walked in the pub and he put his head in his hands…really depressed. And I walked over and said ‘What’s the matter with you?’, and he said ‘I’m not going to be a pop star’. Very slowly, he stood up and said ‘I’m going to be a legend!'”
It would be rude and downright offensive not to talk about Queen as a whole. After all, each member of the band wrote a number one hit individually. But without Freddie Mercury, Queen would have just been a good band. The whole act, the whole vision and everything that we know Queen to be right now is down to Mercury himself, the greatest frontman to ever take to the stage. Usually you have to curb that type of enthusiasm, saving for the “but you’re not taking into account…”, yet here we don’t need to think twice. There is truly nobody else that comes close.
The talent behind the man that led the band can’t be concentrated to either one thing or another. The man that fronted Queen had it all. The voice he had was unfair. Unfair on anyone else who tries to front a rock band going forward. His known vocal range extended from bass low F to soprano high F. He could sing, and indeed write, just about anything. We no longer think about Queen‘s chops, because their songs are so ubiquitous in our lives, but at various times they indulged in heavy metal, disco, prog rock, rockabilly, music hall, pop, gospel, folk, ragtime and incorpated elements such as classical and opera.
We hear the songs, these standards of British pop and rock, and think nothing of it. But that Freddie and the band could pull off all of this and then some is unheard of. He was the Lionel Messi to Queen’s Barcelona, only more complete. It was like a game to him. The range in his vocal chords would cover the crowd in song, high and low. From the back to the front, you would surely never leave a show feeling short changed. You came, you heard, you revelled.
What’s more, it was often accompanied by a very British sense of humour. Freddie was a man who took what he did seriously, but he didn’t necessarily take himself seriously. He knew exactly how ridiculous his situation was, and he revelled in it. Perhaps this is why Queen rarely received a decent review throughout their career. The rock press has form for dismissing anyone with a sense of humour in their work as a novelty act. Yet no matter how much they were trashed, the people clearly loved the band. Their first Greatest Hits album in the biggest selling in UK history, and they have notched up an estimated 300 million worldwide.
The difference between a good front man and a great front man can be in their ability to command the audience. This was arguably his greatest talent. If you are reading this, you probably already know. Freddie Mercury held his crowd in the palm of his hand. He commanded a stadium like we can’t even command a conversation. It wasn’t just with his voice but it was with his swagger. His tone and his movement led you to believe that you were watching something special. You were in Freddie’s home. Borrowing Freddie’s time and lending a memory from him. He was excitable and he was a star. The star.
The stage was his and the crowd was his, as was the world. We look at Freddie Mercury and see the ultimate in entertainment, the definitive icon during an age that is seriously lacking in stage presence. The music scene – in general – may be more accessible than it’s ever been before yet we will never be the puppets to an act like we are to Queen and Freddie Mercury. He achieved so much and lived like a firecracker bursting to meet the night sky. Fizzing, buzzing, pure.
But that isn’t to take away from his skills as a musician. This isn’t like KISS, using gimmicks to distract from a lack of musicality. Aside from his mind blowing vocal prowess, drummer Roger Taylor appears particularly adamant that Freddie should be remembered as a musician before he is remembered as a showman. Though he didn’t think much of his instrumentation skills himself, he was actually quite the unique pianst. Watch some footage of him playing and tell us we’re wrong.
Freddie discovered he had AIDS in 1987 (though there are conflicting reports that say he knew during Queen‘s final tour in 1986). Between then and his slow, agonising death in 1991, he recorded three Queen albums, wrote and recorded the Barcelona album with opera star Monsterrat Cabble, released a standalone single (a cover of The Platters‘ The Great Pretender) and filmed 11 music videos. His need to make music, his need to work when he faced certain death is nothing short of inspiring.
Like his one time duet partner David Bowie, his final piece of film was a goodbye to his fans. Where Lazarus was a full, artistic expression, the music video for Taylor‘s composition These Are The Days of Our Lives is a simple affair. An unrecognisably frail Mercury performs the song with the other members of Queen on a soundstage. It is filmed in black and white to play down Freddie‘s illness (as sick as he still looks in black and white, behind the scenes footage from the shoot shows the toll that had been taken). He looks directly into the camera and whispers the song’s final line; “I still love you“.
When Mercury died, this writer was three years old. I knew nothing of it. On November 24, 1991, firecracker had met the sky. He wasn’t to burn out, though, leaving behind that colourful mark on our eyes and a little bit of smoke, but he would shine on forever as the greatest showman, the most immense voice and a writer of classic songs. A hit machine, if you will.
25 years after Freddie Mercury died I will be 28. That’s the maths of the situation. But there’s no formula to what him – and Queen – did. As evidenced simply by watching their performance at Live Aid, they could convert naysayers into fans and quiet nights in into a crescendo of noise.
I will forever love Mercury for being an idol that people should look up to. What he achieved, what he produced and let us have for keeps is the mark of a man so incredibly excellent that no words can really do him justice. Maybe I’ve wasted my time but I’ve given it a go. And in another 25 years, when I write what Freddie Mercury means to me then, I’ll give it another shot. Another 25 years of parties and another 25 years of home runs, I’ll still love the showmanship and the talent of Freddie: another 25 years on.