by Bruce Middleton
November 24, 2011 ….. 20 years to the day since the passing of Freddie Mercury, the greatest singer and frontman the rock world has ever seen or heard, in my humble opinion. There will never be another like him. Pure magic.
Has it really been 20 years? …. It sure doesn’t feel that long, but I guess like all things as you get older and older, the ticking of the clock just seems to fly by with the blink of an eye at times. Anniversaries like this don’t only mark important moments in your life, but also serve to remind you how fast time passes …. a glimpse at your own mortality, especially the older you get.
Freddie’s death had an intense impact on my life … shockingly so, when I really think about it. It didn’t just feel like a rock star had sadly died … of the “big disease with the little name”, as Prince so aptly put it in his stunning “Sign Of the Times” song. To me, and I remember telling friends this at the time, it felt like I’d lost one of my best friends … someone extremely close to me … and yet I’d never met the man …. never knew the real person behind the rock star image. He didn’t even know I existed, but for some reason, it still felt like someone dear had passed away … like a family member. It’s strange how we hold our idols so incredibly close to our hearts, treating them like personal friends.
I remember the moment very clearly when I heard the news. I was at a band rehearsal that cold and sad Sunday night, the weather almost giving a foreboding glimpse of the news that would come. The band I was in, called Innuendo at the time, name checking a recent Queen track, had inevitably played a number of Queen songs we had in our set that night. I got home and turned on the news … no idea why, perhaps to check the next day’s weather. Within minutes, the news flash came on and I sat there stunned. Freddie Mercury had passed away. Only the day before, he had announced to the world that he had contracted the AIDS virus. That had upset me terribly, but then just 24 hours later hearing the news that he’d died …. it was like someone had punched me in the gut really hard and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was devastated.
I watched the television in a sort of daze as I flicked through the channels trying to find out more information … feeling like I was in some sort of mental shock. The loss was overwhelming, as I said … it felt like a family member had died. I remember trying in vain to phone the Queen Fan Club in England over and over again all night long, only to get a busy signal each time. I didn’t sleep all night. I just sat there in the quiet … tears coming from my eyes. I’d look at my Queen albums, not playing them though … that would be too hard right then. I’d look at photos in my various Queen books and magazines … everything felt like it was in slow motion for me … like I was under water. I went to work the next day like a zombie … from lack of sleep and in a depressed daze. Part of me kept thinking, “Why am I so upset … it’s only a rock star …. someone I didn’t even personally know?”. But, I couldn’t shake that feeling.
I remember playing a gig the following Saturday night, and right before we started our rendition of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, I made a short little speech about how Freddie’s death had affected me and how much I admired the man. I was just saying things off the top of my head and really have no idea what the exact words were all these years later, let alone on the actual night, but I must have touched some people as a few came up to me after the set and told me so, some even saying they felt like crying, mostly because they knew how much Freddie meant to me. I went through that show on autopilot … still affected by the loss almost a week later. It had hit me that hard. But, the show must go on, as Queen said.
Strange … I’m writing this and “Radio Ga Ga” just came on the radio … right after “Killer Queen”. The man’s music will live on forever. But, I digress …..
Freddie was born Farrokh Bulsara on Sept 5, 1946 …. kicking and screaming into the world (I smile, imagining he must have had wonderfully decadent diapers … like his leotard costumes from this 70’s stage shows … image little baby Freddie wearing the “prawn from outer space” outfit he wore in the “It’s A Hard Life” video … still one of my faves of theirs) in the oh-so exotic sounding island of Zanzibar, Africa. He was schooled in Panchgani, India and then moved to the somewhat less exotic sounding town of Feltham, Middlesex in England in his teens. In 1971, the final incarnation of the band Queen was formed and they never looked back, putting their own indelible stamp onto the sound of rock music through the 70’s until today, even 20 years after Freddie’s tragic death. Their impact and popularity throughout the world is astounding really, when you look at it. They’ve sold well over 300 million albums worldwide … that figure changing daily, as their back-catalog still has very healthy sales year after year ….. they are consistently on the radio, albeit on the classic rock and pop stations, but that still says volumes about their mass appeal. They hold the record for some of the largest audiences ever attended for a single band performance. They had countless hit singles in countries all over the world. They have the record for the biggest selling album in UK history (“Greatest Hits”), and the most time spent on the UK album charts. Their concerts were legendary … their reputation as performers is amongst the top of their profession. This was a class act with timeless music and the greatest frontman to trod the boards of stages across the world. Onstage, Freddie was the master … untouchable for his ability to control an audience. Queen’s stunning performance at Live Aid proved that to the entire world, including the naysayers. To me, Queen were the greatest rock group ever, bar none … with Freddie as their king.
I got into Queen back in 1978, just before the release of the “Jazz” album. I had a pre-release cassette tape of the album and I remember one night sitting at my desk in my bedroom with my headphones over my ears and putting this tape on. I had heard Queen before, but hadn’t really listened to them a lot. Prior to 1978, I didn’t listen to a lot of current (then) rock music. I had grown up obsessed with Elvis Presley and 50’s rock’n’roll (and still am). It was only when I joined my first band, just months before this time, that my fellow band mates and friends started playing me all sorts of things I really hadn’t bothered with before … opening up an entire new musical world for me. So, there I was, headphones on … doing something or other at my desk and this “Jazz” tape started. I was immediately hooked … every song just dazzling me with its variety of styles … different sounds … and more than anything, that immense incredible voice! That’s the part that got me the most … the way this guy sang … what was his name? I read the cassette package … Freddie Mercury. Wow! I loved most of the album right away. Some of the songs on side two were a little shaky for me at that time …. yes, you younger people …. we had “sides” to things back then … cassettes, record albums (I really miss that) … and then I got to the second last song … and my world changed completely. “Don’t Stop Me Now”. I must have played that song 50 times that night … over and over again, most likely wearing out the tape in the process. I couldn’t get enough of it ….. the absolute joy in the recording … the tempo … the deliciously catchy melody … the strange lyrics which I couldn’t quite figure out what he was truly getting at …. the whole wondrous feel of the song. Just brilliant.
When the album finally came out soon afterwards in November, I instantly put it on and just couldn’t stop staring at that great photo of the band in the studio on the inside gatefold sleeve (that’s another thing I really miss … there was nothing like holding a large 12” album sleeve in your hands and studying every nuance of it while you listened to the golden sounds on the vinyl … especially if it was a gatefold sleeve … you can’t get that with tiny little cd’s and it’s completely missing from the horribly disposable world of tinny sounding mp3’s. I bet everyone who grew up with vinyl albums will completely understand that statement …. aaaahhh ….. I miss vinyl). Being a fledgling musician, albeit a drummer at the time, not a singer yet, the sight of all those instruments was mouth-watering … especially all those drums of Roger Taylor’s … and just the way Freddie was lying down so non-chalantly on the piano put a smile on my face. I got the opportunity to see Queen on that tour in December of ’78 … and was blown away by the show … the sheer power of the music … the lights and sound … the capabilities of all four musicians … and then Mr.Mercury himself …. a stunning performance on both nights. For a young guy starting out in this business, not really knowing what he was doing yet, this was epic …. almost life-changing.
Over the next year or so, I started devouring every Queen album I could get my hands on. I was in my full KISS-freak phase at this point (which hasn’t ever really gone away), but Queen was very quickly becoming my favourite band. With every record I listened to, I was stunned by the fact that Queen could be so eclectic on each and every album, playing songs in a variety of different styles of music, and yet it always sounded like Queen. No matter how far out there they went, it always worked for them.
When I got to the Queen II album … and I remember this like it was yesterday, although we’re talking about 32 years ago now …. I remember sitting down beside my bed, again with headphones on … late at night and putting Queen II on my turntable. I couldn’t stop staring at the album cover … that famous photo of the four heads against a black backdrop … and also the white version on the inside. Freddie just looked so exotic and mysterious. Then the music came on and I was taken away on this glorious journey …. the sounds swirling through my head as song after song cascaded across my senses … hypnotizing me with the absolute brilliance of the musicianship … the stunning songwriting and performances. I followed them on this journey as I read the lyrics on the inside record sleeve. I loved the fact that side one of the album was called “side white”, and side two was “side black”. The first side was all Brian May compositions with the lone Roger Taylor song finishing up the side. Side Black was complete and utter Freddie Mercury brilliance. This side alone changed my musical life in more ways than I could ever express. Its right up there with the first Boston album and the Elvis Sun Collection for influencing the way I looked at music from that point on. Queen II is my absolute favourite album of all time, not just my favourite Queen album. To this day, I still can’t figure out how Freddie wrote “The March Of The Black Queen” and had everything in his head before they went into the studio (a process he would repeat often, and most notably on “Bohemian Rhapsody”). The song is an absolute masterpiece … and my favourite song on the album … probably in my top five Queen songs. Every song on that side is stunning in my mind … all seamlessly blending into one another. From the brutal heaviness of the Tolkienesque “Ogre Battle” at the beginning, to the brilliance of the heavy pop of “Seven Seas Of Rhye” at the end, the song which gave Queen their first major hit everywhere but North America. The vocal harmonies on this side alone are mind-boggling fantastic … and all from three guys, overdubbing themselves over and over again. I still listen in awe and reverence. I was fairly still new to being a musician and really didn’t know how they did everything in the studio, but even now, soooo many years later with tons of live and studio experience under my belt, and I am still blown away by the sheer magnitude of work and painstaking love that went into it all. You really have to listen to this song with headphones on and your eyes closed to get a true sense of the genius behind it. It’s no wonder that the band were originally going to call the second album “Over The Top”.
Freddie’s songwriting always touched me more so than the other members of the band. All were great songwriters, which made Queen even more special … four very individual writers, all writing big hits at various times throughout their career. How many bands can say that? They had four different personalities, which came out in their playing, and their songwriting. It made Queen a much more rounded group. I loved all their styles, with John coming in second for me with his beautifully crafted pop songs, but I always looked forward to hearing what Freddie had to offer in the writing department more so than the others when each new album came out.
Freddie didn’t just write simple little songs, although he would do a few of those in later years. Most of his compositions showed a real musicianship and understanding of theory and how to change chords a bit to make them really stand out and highlight the melody lines even more, sometimes throwing real curve balls into the mix … going places in a song you wouldn’t expect … but it al works so perfectly. Being a gifted piano player, he brought in a different style and writing approach than a guitarist would. Just look at Freddie’s magnum opus, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and you can hear that this isn’t just some simple love song someone had written. How could he even come up with something so complex and different than anything else on the radio at the time?
People talk a lot about “Bo Rap” when it comes to Queen and Freddie in particular, but there are so many more brilliant facets to what Freddie brought to the collective table in that band. From the opulence of “My Fairy King” and “Liar” on the first album, right through to the delightfully schizoid “I’m Going Slightly Mad” on the final album before he died. And then all those wonderfully eclectic songs in between … some becoming massive worldwide hits, others remaining brilliant album tracks for those willing to play an entire album to experience all it’s nuances and gifts (another thing that the mp3/downloading world has destroyed) … from the aforementioned “March Of the Black Queen” and “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” on Queen II …. “In The Lap Of the Gods” (both versions) and “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” on the Sheer Heart Attack album, let alone the deliciously vicious “Flick Of The Wrist” … “Death On Two legs” and “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” on A Night At The Opera … the list just goes on and on … every album having some amazing Freddie songs on them that were never released as singles. All very different … all worthy of wide spread release. This was a man who could write in such diverse styles with songs like the Arabian sounding “Mustapha” to the quirky tongue in cheek of “Delilah” … a song about one of his beloved cats, with meowing guitars and all. He could go from the stunning funk of “Staying Power” to the heavy bombast of “Princes Of The Universe” … from strangeness of “Get Down Make Love” to the beauty of “Love Of My Life” or “You Take My Breath Away”.
And that is just some of the work he did with Queen … then there was his short solo career, ranging from the euro 80’s dance floor sounds on parts of the Mr Bad Guy album to the sheer magnificence of the operatic Barcelona album (a personal favourite of mine). This was a man who was willing to take chances, willing to be true to the artist within him and do whatever he wanted without worrying about what the result would be too much. As he so aptly put it onstage when talking about some of the backlash against Queen’s funky “Hot Space” album (which I personally love, although I know a lot of Queen fans aren’t overly enamored by it) when he said, “I don’t know why people get so excited about these things. It’s only a bloody record!”. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I think that’s part of what excited me so much about Queen’s music … their willingness to take chances, their ability to do things on their own terms and not let themselves be pigeonholed into a particular style of music. They could do anything. That’s not to say they didn’t care if their releases were successful or not, they obviously did, but they were going to do it their way as much as they could. When “Killer Queen” became a monster hit at the end of 1974, was there anything else on the radio at the time that sounded like that? No. The same can be said about most of their hits. In 1978, with disco at it’s height and new wave starting to pick up, who would have thought that a strange little song like “Bicycle Race’ would be such a huge success? Or having a 6 minute long Zeppelin-like epic like “Innuendo” topping the British charts in 1991. But Queen did it. And they did so much more.
Freddie’s music touched me deeply in many ways. As a musician, and especially as I taught myself how to play instruments like guitar and piano, where I could actually start to understand what he was doing in his writing, I could marvel at the ingenuity of his chordal structures … be amazed at the way the band utilized the recording studio like it was another instrument. And as a listener, I could completely lose myself in all that wonderful music. Such power … such scope … so many dynamics. Pure excitement for me.
Whenever I put on a Queen record, hear those songs … hear that voice … no matter what I was feeling at the time, it felt like Freddie was right there with me. It helped me go through a lot of depression in my life … and helped make my happy moments more joyous. And this wasn’t even the lyrics of the songs really … it was Freddie’s voice. It made me feel warm inside when I heard him sing … like he was right there in my ears … in my brain … like he was singing directly to me. It’s hard to explain really. I know it sounds silly, but that’s how I feel. It feels like a pure connection. I’m sure other people feel the same thing about other artists. Queen, and Freddie especially do that for me. The music touches me in deep ways … as a fan, as a musician and as a person. I wouldn’t change that for the world.
And now here we are … 20 years since Freddie’s passing. I’m still an insanely insatiable Queen fanatic … as much now as I ever was … perhaps more. Freddie is like a God to me (trying not to sound sacrilegious to anyone who believes in higher powers). Yes, he had his faults … he was human after all … but I’ve put him on a personal pedestal, standing beside my other God, Elvis …. and I see no problem with that. It doesn’t affect my life in a negative way (although my wallet sometimes takes a beating), so there’s no harm in it really.
20 years. I miss him. I miss the music he would have made during all this time … I miss the concerts he would have dazzled us with … I just miss the man I never knew … the legend. Idolization of stars borders on love sometimes, and I can see that here. Love for the man’s incredible voice, his wonderful piano playing, his brilliant songwriting, arranging and production abilities, and his absolute command of a stage … the regal and powerful King who could command audiences like no other … no one rivaled Freddie on a stage. I also miss the man behind the image, who we would get glimpse of in interviews and in video fragments behind the scenes … a man who admitted that onstage he was powerful and strong, like a black panther, as he once said … and then could be very soft offstage in private.
Most frontmen have those dual sides to them, and Freddie was the perfect example. I could always relate to that as I’m very much the same way … painfully shy offstage and insecure at times but once you get under those lights in front of an audience, you come alive … the other half of you takes over. It’s like two sides of a coin … very black and white. That’s me and that was Freddie as well. He could be confident, arrogant and egotistical at times (which we super fans still love and smile at), but also very emotional, shy and insecure while offstage … more vulnerable. To me it just makes him more human … more relatable as a person, and in the end, even easier to idolize and treasure.
The world will most likely never see the likes of another Freddie Mercury. I find that very sad. The man was definitely one of a kind, or as Phil Collins once said of him with a chuckle, “a real one –off”.
Freddie died too young. But he left an immense legacy behind. A dazzling catalog of music and videos for the world to enjoy forever, bringing new fans into the Queen vortex all the time, and a body of work that people from all ages have enjoyed for many years and many more to come. He also has those die-hard super-fans like myself (and my band brother Nick Thorne) still getting that wonderful thrill from every utterance from his buck toothed, sometimes mustachioed mouth … every flick of his wrist (pun intended) and prance of his ballet slipped feet … making us smile and sing along with him, marveling at this utter brilliance … basking in the glow of the powerful light he gives off. He said it so aptly for the fans in the lyrics to “Don’t’ Stop Me Now”, as I come full circle now with the song that started me on this marvelous Queen voyage, when he sang,
I’m like a shooting star leaping through the sky
Like a tiger, defying the laws of gravity
I’m a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva
I’m gonna go go go
There’s no stopping me.
I’m burning through the sky, yeah
Two hundred degrees
That’s why they call me Mr Farenheit
I’m traveling at the speed of light
I wanna make a super sonic man out of you.
Freddie Mercury … in the immortal (pun intended) words from the movie Highlander, which Queen did the soundtrack for, “There can be only one!”. Rest in peace Freddie. We love you. We miss you. You truly are “In the Lap Of The Gods” !!!