6 September 2011
Good to see much acknowledgement of Freddie Mercury's 65th birthday yesterday. The man remains, to me, the greatest frontman in rock and roll history.
What I do notice, with no little pleasure, is that even people who didn't like Queen's music whatsoever could see the appeal and the abilities of their lead singer. Of course, he was much more than that, as a composer, figurehead and complex bundle of rock charisma, but most of all he was still a man who could carry a tune while putting on a show.
I've seen the Live Magic! show at Wembley in 1986 what feels like a hundred times, and it never ceases to amaze me just how easy he makes the task of drawing in a crowd look. Obviously a stadium full of partisan Queen fanatics makes the job half done, but devotees still want their money's worth and Mercury made sure they got it.
The bit midway through the show, when it's just him and his microphone singing random notes and getting the crowd to imitate him is still quite superb. I think his actual singing voice puts him ahead of other notable frontmen like Mick Jagger, because his range, variation and versatility was so much greater. I don't know if he was trained at any point as a singer but either way he never hits a bum note, accidentally loses his thread or forces himself to go low instead of high. Jagger and others couldn't have done the "aaaaay-oh!" gubbins as effectively simply because they didn't have the voice to carry it with such verve as to make a crowd respond so enthusiastically.
And, of course, there are the songs. Up to and including The Works, Queen wrote individually and then brought their songs to the studio to go through which the others felt were goers and which weren't. I can't imagine that many Mercury compositions ever fell by the wayside. Bohemian Rhapsody is, of course, his magnum opus (and, in more recent snobbish times, something that people now blame him for rather than congratulate him for) but that was experimental and daring, and nobody dare expect it to work the way it did. Much more indicative of his writing talent comes through songs like Somebody To Love, You Take My Breath Away, It's A Hard Life and We Are The Champions. Impeccably constructed piano-led pieces with relatable lyrics and finding a lovely cross between rock authenticity and pop catchiness. He's also responsible for Don't Stop Me Now, of course, a song that was largely unheralded in 1979 but has now suffered for ubiquity through a different generation adopting it as some kind of retro anthem that they feel they are "allowed" to like. And Crazy Little Thing Called Love is his too, as un-Mercury as he ever got as he endeavoured to fashion a respectful rock and roll pastiche, and through its stripped down joy and simplicity, is possibly his true peak moment.
We didn't see Queen at all in 1987 and 1988, and then the band re-emerged with The Miracle in 1989, by some distance their least impressive album. Queen then picked up a lifetime achievement award at the 1990 BRITS and Mercury's gaunt, heavily made-up appearance (not helped by his decision to remove the trademark moustache) began the hounding and merciless speculation about his health and private life that continued right up to his death. It was horrifying to read at times - one piece even suggested that Queen records should be boycotted as Mercury wasn't telling anyone the "truth" about his private life - and, again, even people with little time for Queen as a band found themselves on Mercury's side.
We saw further evidence of his decline in 1991 with the I'm Going Slightly Mad video, which showcased simultaneously his failing health with his desire to still play the rock star, and though the song is bizarre at best, the video is eminently watchable, especially with hindsight. Of course, with the end near, he recorded a stack of compositions in pain for posthumous release and then declared his illness on a Sunday in November 1991, prior to his death within 24 further hours. I woke up the news on Radio 1 while living in student digs in Darlington while Gary King was doing the early show, and then Simon Mayo responded to huge correspondence from his breakfast audience by playing Bohemian Rhapsody at 8am. I also remember Nicky Campbell, typically wishing to remember his other work, beginning his late-night show with Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy.
When These Are Days Of Our Lives came out on the double A-side at the end of 1991, the video finally showed Mercury at his most vulnerable. It was in black and white and little effort had been made to hide his state of health through make-up or trickery. The last "I still love you", which he delivered straight to camera, was quite clearly intended as a final goodbye to his fans. It brings a lump to the throat now, even though I cannot really bear the song. I can't imagine what the filming process must have been like for the other band members or the crew involved. The person holding the camera that filmed that last, defining moment of poignancy has a story to tell.
The posthumous stuff has been largely guff, of course, and I can't help but think that Queen fanatics who listened to A Night At The Opera by candlelight in 1976 only bought the post-1991 albums out of a sense of duty. As for the projects on the West End and also with Paul Rodgers, I find those hard to take seriously. Paul Rodgers is a magnificent frontman, but he isn't Freddie Mercury. Nobody else is, as that rather up-and-down tribute concert of 1992 proved. Some were better than others - Joe Elliott, Gary Cherone, even Seal ("Please welcome Mr Seal!") all did well - but ultimately the best bit was when Brian May sat at his electric piano and performed the previously unheard Too Much Love Will Kill You on his own. You could hear a pin drop.
I went through a phase of really enjoying Queen's stuff in the mid to late 1980s and bought the whole back catalogue from the original Queen album through to The Works. The problem I have with them now is that they did release some rather odd, easily dated and sometimes even infantile stuff. The crucial thing to point out, however, is that next to none of it (barring probably Bicycle Race) was written by Freddie Mercury. Perhaps it's as a composer that he gets the least credit compared to his performance skills, but given that he isn't exactly ignored on that front (mainly thanks to Bohemian Rhapsody still topping polls of greatest singles), it's not the end of the world.
Ultimately people really liked him and, for a man who was the focus of a band that hit and missed in almost equal measure, it's quite some accolade. He deserves the continuing tributes when the milestone occasions like yesterday's come round.