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I SEE A LITTLE SILHOUETTO OF A MAN...

As I write this on a dull summer’s day in June 2000, there is a huge advert decorating various London Underground stations for an online investment company called Egg. It features the following lines from Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. “I see a little silhouetto of a man Scaramouche scaramouche Will you do the fandango Thunderbolt and lightning Very very frightening me Galileo Galileo Galileo Galileo Galileo Figaro” In bigger, bolder, red letters, however, the lingering traveller is also instructed, DO NOT SING THIS! Entrapped by one of the oldest teases in the book - asking you not to do something, while simultaneously encouraging you do it - the viewer’s eye is then led to the killer pay-off line - “You may not be able to control yourself, but you can control your investments”. Perfect. The advert manages to be blindingly obvious in its appeal to our base curiosity and knowingly clever in the way that post-modern online advertising tends to be. For once, though, the copywriter who thought this concept up deserves the no doubt inflated salary he takes home, because, on closer inspection, the ad is also clever in a whole other level. First up, it made me, a reluctant tube traveller, and an ever more reluctant advertising victim, smile. And, it made me smile on an overcrowded Tube platform on the Northern line during the morning rush hour. (The reason I smiled, in retrospect, was because the words were already dancing in my head by the time I read the instruction to try not to sing them.) Secondly, it made me think - though not about what the advertisers wanted me to think about ( no one, however clever and persuasive they might be, is going to persuade me to ponder the benefits of investment, online or otherwise, on the Northern line in the morning rush hour.) No, what it made me think about was the specificity of the choice of song; how some no doubt pony-tailed guy in a chic and minimal advertising office, who probably was not even born when Freddie Mercury was writing the lyrics quoted above, had found the perfect, perhaps the only vehicle, for his advertising concept. That vehicle was not even a whole pop song but a snatch, a mere fragment of the greater whole that is Bohemian Rhapsody. A fragment, though, that, once absorbed, remains in the listener’s - and, in this case, the viewer’s - head, despite all efforts to remove it. This, in turn, made me think about pop song lyrics in general, their seemingly effortless ability to lodge themselves in the brain like no other popular art form; their ability to become part not just of one’s personal consciousness but of the collective popular consciousness. And, in this particular instance, not just the British, European or American popular consciousness, but the global one. Then, inevitably, I found myself moving from the universal to the particular, thinking specifically about this pop song called Bohemian Rhapsody - though, on one level, of course, it is as far from the traditional idea of the pop song as it is possible to go. One of the first things that stuck me about all this, on a personal level, was the fact that, though it has been lodged firmly in my consciousness, immovable from the first moment I heard it back in 1975, Bohemian Rhapsody was, for most of this time, not even a song I liked. In fact, for a long time, during and after the wouldbe Punk purge of 1976/77, when Queen represented the enemy incarnate, it was a song I actively hated. I saw it as a big, blowsy, pretentious, overblown epic that, like many of its even more big and blowsy and pretentious progressive rock (hereafter referred to as prog-rock) cousins, was exactly the kind of thing I defined my whole pop life against. (Since those far-off punk days, of course, I have wised up considerably, and now, having passed through the knowingly ironic phase of appreciation for Bohemian Rhapsody, I can simply bow to the sheer lunatic genius of the lyrics, the arrangements, the operatic overstatement - though I still, it must be said, retain an abiding aversion to all things prog-rock.)

for they are precious and sensitive souls. of course. under three minutes. A fiendish imagination. Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan? Again. when the unwritten rule of pop songwriting.bar possibly. could only be Bohemian Rhapsody. one way or another. but recently inescapable. now lodged firmly in my head once more. and we have. I even turned to the relatively small. consider that the song in question manages to merge the structures and shadings of light opera with the primal dynamics of heavy rock and the multi-tracked. a narrative. have hummed them. unbudgeable. There is a particular sort of genius at work here. equally long. it fails to pass muster. like Bohemian Rhapsody. and its attendant uniqueness as an advertising vehicle. when it hit the number one slot. nor my partner. and on the predatory mind of the advertising copywriter in such a perfect way. were impossible to banish.) Since then. just to gild the lily even more. Since then.My ruminations on the singularity of Bohemian Rhapsody. courtesy of its inclusion in the American hit comedy. cross generational resonance? Let’s think. a post-modern. The Spice Girls. post-slacker anthem. no. too intellectually challenging to fit the bill. and on the general public at large. and most of the other unwritten rules of pop as well. ever more desperate. the late. the longest spell at the top since Paul Anka’s Diana back in 1957. Bohemian Rhapsody. among other things. Now. the opus in question clocks in at nearly 6 minutes (5 minutes. for a while. It happened. a song that everyone with even a passing interest in popular music knows. and usually dependable rule. great Freddie Mercury himself could possibly profess to understand. Too specialised. Wayne’s World.. equally inflated. I found myself wondering. My Way. simply surrendered to them. though the group and their fans would be loath to admit it. often reluctant. and good old Elton’s endless stream of hummable. Having broken this cardinal. and stays there. sung them. racking my brain for a pop anthem that could have worked on me. tried to banish them. had that esteemed duo dabbled in psychoactive drugs. but not definitely. too. it has also served as a no doubt unconscious template for an equally ambitious. 29 November 1975. On top of this already rich cocktail. there was simply no substitute. It had to be. continued apace on the fitful journey northwards from Oval towards Soho. How about Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven. it must be said. in mock operatic tones reminiscent in places of a Gilbert & Sullivan hero. which. no. (What a trajectory!). you could call the inspired lunacy of those lyrics. possesses this kind of power? What other song lyric possesses the same sort of across-the. track records of upstarts like Oasis and. Too slow and old fashioned. not given to the kind of humour that underpinned many of Freddie’s big and bold projects. understanding of its lyrics. the singer. baroque geometry of prog-rock. too narrow a catchment audience. it really happened. then and now. delivers his unique narrative . in the end. Too little known outside the heavy metal fraternity. It has become. But. the content is closer to the associative word play and wilfully nonsensical verse of an older generation of English literary eccentrics like Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. it has been voted Britain’s best single of all time in the Music Of The Millennium poll. and way off the mark in terms of the required tone. stretching back to Chuck Berry. threatened to be a millstone around its creators’ neck? Again. think about that for a minute. been living with the implausibility of its success ever since that fateful day. If the song’s form recalls a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. but utterly un-tongue-in-cheek. and then do the same again when they tried in vain not to inwardly sing them. I mentally trawled the Beatles’ back catalogue. though. A Machiavellian pop mind. represents. that is.if. is what that inspired copywriter behind the Tube ad campaign instinctively understood. the triumph of the implausible. Imagine by John Lennon? Well. successive generations of. contemporary prog-rock anthem. music fans have had their individual and collective consciousness colonised by those “scarmouches” and “fandangos”. by Frank Sinatra? Nope. I went on like this. A song enters the collective popular consciousness on a global level while simultaneously staying resolutely beyond our individual logical. for 9 weeks. Now. edited down from an original 7 minutes). inviolate. nor countless other long suffering London Transport customers. too rarefied. Maybe. of course. for start. that other great epic but cryptic seventies’ anthem. but that no-one . sing-along-able pop tunes. Then. 52 seconds to be precise. break into an involuntary grin as soon as they clapped eyes on the lyrics.board impact? What other pop song possesses a similar kind of collective. states that the average length of the perfect pop single is. (This. cross cultural. and The Stones’ greatest hits. mocked them. it would not have made me. as we all know. (Whisper it softly. and. And. the record then shoots to the top of the pop charts like the proverbial bullet.. or even instinctive. then. not least because the lyrics. Radiohead’s Paranoid Android. What other pop song lyric.) .

was carefully chosen. his sheer. when we come to praise the late. Queen. and subsequently talked about almost as much as the song itself.In short. Slightly older. the pop chameleon. Just like its creator. Unmatched. crisp white shirt. pop’s most elusive. have matched.) His parents hailed from Gujarat in western India. taken six years and a whole continent later. in his much less feted solo capacity. and a neat line in semantic reversal . and often overlooked . as its original ambition. Older still. and how could we forget. Though born in Zanzibar. It is the following photograph. consider themselves a part of the Parsee race. from his stage personae through to his costumes and his song titles.) It was the pivotal point where Queen moved from a popular post-glam. and an attendant attention to detail that was rare in rock music. which the tourist brochures tell us is the island of exotic spices. a distinction that highlights subtle but often deeply felt difference between citizenship and roots. something phenomenal. became something else entirely. (The Parsees. After Bohemian Rhapsody. still see themselves as Persian rather than Indian. before or since. as I have just neatly illustrated. In short. and thus followers of the mangod. writ large. Talk about a a statement of intent! Here. he should be remembered. among other things Britain’s first and biggest Indian pop star.) It was in India that the seeds of Freddie’s showmanship were sown. It is utterly unique. He was born on September 5. (I often thought he should have reemployed the name Farrokh briefly for his dynamic creative pairing with Montserrat Caballé.. great Freddie Mercury. Peter’s boarding school near Bombay for ten years. and . though they fled Persia over 1000 years ago. in the space of one albeit epic song. We must delve some way at least into the childhood of Farrokh Bulsara. MERCURY RISING. to parents. Freddie’s family. In the early photographs included here. yes. Freddie Mercury. There he was perched at the piano stool like a glammed up. singer-songwriter. the place we have to start from. it was widely seen. in which he played piano and sang tentative vocals on Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley songs. Peter’s Boarding School. from that moment on .the piece de resistance . the chameleon. It was also. looking hammy but holding centre stage. and did not arrive in England until he was 17.and this is hugely important. Little did we know back then that this was just a mere hint of what was to follow. entered our pop consciousness with a fanfare that few entertainers. . Of one thing. we saw him act them out in what we would soon find out was his own inimitable manner. So it is that. Bomi and Jer Bulsara. in silhouette like Olivier as Richard III.King Faroukh as opposed to Queen(’s) Freddie. and indeed as implausible. we are certain: there is simply nothing else like it in pop’s endlessly selfreferential.defied all the defining critical and/or cultural shifts in taste and fashion of the last thirty odd years. Though both Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields predated it. Zarathustra. post prog-pop group to a pop phenomenon. Singular. albeit one who possessed a unified vision.Best All Rounder and medal winner. Queen were simply another rock group. We didn’t just listen to Freddie singing those mad lyrics. Until Bohemian Rhapsody. most mercurial showman (His adopted name. The Hectics. something huge and unstoppable. Unlike its illustrious predecessors. you can see him making an impression as a sportsman . né Farrokh Bulsara was emphatically Indian: he was educated at St. India. to try to extricate the essence of Freddie Mercury. Bohemian Rhapsody was also the first modern pop promotional video.prism-ed and repeated like a kaleidoscopic representation of himself. in a line up of the all-Indian combo.. as we are doing now. effortlessly self-perpetuating history. then. and Freddie Mercury in particular. though born British-Indian. Bohemian Rhapsody encapsulates everything that was inspired/inflated/insanely ambitious about Freddie Mercury. Though he played down his ethnic origins. though. Bohemian Rhapsody’s legacy has been as surprising. dead centre. intriguingly. as. it should have been his operatic name. and a pop phenomenon that. the fantasist. and were of the Parsee faith. even. too. his first group. in shades. looking like some self-styled Gatsby-type hero. was Freddie the showman. then. in all his sparkle and splendour. and. unavoidable presence. he lounges on a summer seat in the school grounds in 1962. he poses. it is. pressed pants and matching shoes. his over-the-top otherness. and celebrated. 1946. like everything else about him. and as a performer acting in a school play. on Zanzibar. at St. briefly. then strutting through clouds of dry ice like the leader of a glam-metal stadium band. the moment where Freddie Mercury.

Jimi Hendrix’s onstage persona. which I still watched religiously because Bowie or Roxy.” One imagines. while Freddie studied art. a secret society of giggling Whistle Test aficionados. as even a cursory glance at any remaining film footage shows. Back then. and at Kensington Market. in a way. I later found out that those cartoons were eagerly watched by stoned rock fans the length and breadth of Britain. Pop was singles. nor the catalytic impact he had on the legion of performers who flocked to his shows. I would run across the road to a neighbour’s to watch the Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2. Britain’s gateway to the world. revealingly. Taylor told Mojo magazine. album histories. was mesmerising to the point of shamanistic. As an adolescent pitched from one culture into another. far. confessed to having seen Hendrix “play live on nine consecutive nights . and graduating with a Diploma in Graphic Art & Design in 1969. alongside his new friend. He dealt in the realm of extremes and paradoxes: androgynous yet intensely sexual.first entered my life. a wraith in feminine silk scarves and velvet crotch hugging pants who would.that is the most intriguing.there was a Planetscape and he’d written the lyrics of Third Stone from the Sun. the pop world shifted off its axis. fragile yet explosively violent. how. was now also a fully fledged member of Queen. Which. though. ONE VISION. as was the young. as a young. In those three years. What I remember most vividly about those Tuesday nights in front of the television is how seriously “Whispering” Bob took his role as the keeper of the “real rock” flame.” Freddie. might be on. Roger Taylor. Brian Jones and John Lennon. remembered live gigs in a hushed. he was.this was the era before video killed the animator. given all that was to follow. from a rented flat in trendy Kensington. in thrall to “Whispering” Bob’s Zen cryptic ruminations and . In jeans. What I also remember is the strange cartoons used to illustrate certain. reverent whisper as if imparting secret. following in the footsteps of Pete Townshend of The Who and Ron Wood. on occasion. alongside the graduate art work of Freddie and his more interesting fellow students from Ealing Art College. set fire to. but to rock music. on his way to somewhere else. in which Bowie and Roxy and a whole host of even more exotic groups appeared with an at times alarming regularity. Back then. the doomed avatars of psychedelic pop. There were some beautiful things . there was a big difference. from this spartanly furnished living room in Feltham. Jimi Hendrix. “We even sold Freddie’s thesis”. and. a relatively new channel that had not yet been beamed into my house. not to pop music. he nestles a Fender Stratocaster guitar in a distinctly Jimi Hendrix-style pose. He later manned a stall there.one show after the other. uncertain teenager in Northern Ireland... sure only of one thing. Pop was Jimmy Saville on Top of the Pops. At his peak. Beneath a dandyish velvet hat. altered. to have had little trouble adapting to his new life.. sacred knowledge. that life was elsewhere. fleeing the revolution that brought independence from British rule.. thrusting sexual assault on his guitar. Pop music was Sweet and Mud and David Cassidy. usually brand new. Freddie Mercury. He went to Ealing College of Art in 1966. as yet directionless fledgling rock singer. if my memory serves me well.Freddie the chameleon. rock was “Whispering” Bob Harris and The Old Grey Whistle Test. Peter’s Boarding School and the Hectics. The Bulsara family moved to England in 1964. somewhere far from St. Freddie Bulsara dipped tentatively into London’s burgeoning psychedelic counter culture. selling Edwardian silk scarves. I was in thrall. the hair has grown and is no longer brushed back. Rock Music was the mighty Led Zeppelin and Roxy Music and David Bowie. t-shirt and bare feet. then graphically act out a grinding. guitarist with the Faces and later The Rolling Stones. Every Tuesday evening. rock was albums. fur coats. Freddie seems. too. he would reel off band family trees. who alongside Taylor. swinging London’s hippest emporium. exotic fabrics. like a slightly stoned academic. It was five years on from that Hendrix style photograph that Freddie Mercury . dressing in silks and velvets in homage to his hero. but never the might Zepp. It is well nigh impossible now to overstate the importance of Hendrix on British pop audiences. tracks . He looks very different. that it was the image of Hendrix as much as the man’s explosive music that held him rapt. Freddie the already full-scale Fantasist . not far from Heathrow. were constant presences stage front. He shopped in Biba. “which was all based on Hendrix.

Instead. in the background at parties. through the NME. the tone of which is best summed up by the opening quartet: “She keeps Möet et Chandon In her pretty cabinet ‘Let them eat cake’ she says Just like Marie Antoinette. it sounded like a different group. Here is Cliff Jones. Then. Forget people who say Queen are pomp-rockers . stalking the stage like he had to territorially claim it. the four members of Queen .. “about a high class call girl”.they blow the arse of any me-too punk band”. yet it possessed a certain sleekness. no doubt self-mockingly. drummer. but. it was fast to the point of frantic. somewhat reluctantly.Freddie. A sound that was not quite prog-rock. and not quite glam-rock. It was also much more ambitious. it sounds painstakingly crafted. intimations of what was to come. were woven the multitracked vocal harmonies. it was. at least. as Freddie would later admit. the regular subject of a rock and roll record. it must have been in 1973. if truth be told. sculpted. in their very different ways. perhaps because of the song’s quite complex lyrical and musical structure. Freddie claims to have written the lyrics “in a night“. Nor did I rush out and buy their singles and albums on the day of release the way I did with the latter two groups. discovered some even more exotic. they would find out that. though. the latter fitting the former like a glove. I can see. not least the last vestiges of Freddie’s Tolkein obsession. was more even sculpted and sleek than its predecessors. adding. they did not fit in at all. of course. even slightly menacing at times. where they fitted in. a single that possessed a definite and. but. It was called. we were gravely informed by “Whispering” Bob. from this moment on.to absorb. part male diva .weren’t certain what they wanted to be. I must confess here and now that I did not grow up with Queen as a soundtrack to my teenage years. with hindsight. He looked exotic. we can now see. Queen’s songs were simply there: on the radio. which I would humbly suggest. I has always assumed that Killer Queen was about a high class transvestite . defining feature of all Queen’s subsequent great records. As its title suggested. why. when Queen were featured on the cover. the track accompanying the animation was by an unknown group called Queen. “Play this against anything from Never Mind The Bollocks (by The Sex Pistols) and it stands up.part Gilbert & Sullivan. Killer Queen. It was. though it dallied near the same subject matter and dressed itself up in the same sequins and spangles. and seemed to be touching all the bases from pomp to proto-punk in an effort to find out what they did best. my taste was for a rawer. though both Mick Jagger and Bryan Ferry were. I had. Brian May and bass player. Put simply. the group had arrived at a sound that was all their own. some time rock scribe and leader of a contemporary glam-pop group called Gay Dad. Later. remain a constant. One week. guitarist. truth be told.” He wrote in Mojo magazine in August 1999. That dawning realisation must have occurred around the time of the next single. and less frenetic. The first thing that grabbed my attention were the lyrics. John Deacon . if such a thing can be said to exist. Although Freddie was wearing black jump suits with diamond studded gloves. streamlined and polished. from the 1974 album Queen II. Roger Taylor. I was confused. abstract animations as much as the music. “I’m trying to say that classy people can be whores as well”. though it possessed identifiable traces of that inflated genre. mock-operatic delivery . Killer Queen. was the first fully fledged Queen record proper: that is. Keep Yourself Alive. slightly diseased specimens like The New York Dolls and Iggy & the . there was Freddie’s high-camp. a mini magnum opus. at the disco. and Brian May’s harmonic guitar stylings. then. indulging in what might be called posh-rock lyricism at roughly the same time. Once the lyrical sophistication had sunk in. No. Their music was not an integral part of my adolescent life in the way that certain Led Zeppelin or Roxy Music songs were.these weird. of whose name. a sense that it had been worked on.” Not. this was essentially a punk track.. a high-octane speed delivery and all the teenage aggression a great record needs. a statement of intent as much as anything. which would. Freddie mostly wore satin and silk. I kind of liked them. With Killer Queen. Back then. immediately identifiable signature. more primal rock sound. At the time. his finger nails varnished blood red or jet black. The next I heard of Queen was a song called Seven Seas of Rhye.the monarch of the title being a drag rather than a regal queen. like all great pop bands. in retrospect. in and around the words. I’m sure Freddie would approve: “The lyrics hark back to Freddie’s obsession with Tolkien. make it his own.

they simply grew bigger and bigger. but they never conquered the pop press. They become tax exiles. bumpy ride. They hit big in the mid-to-late seventies. it was. bombast. wide screen . resolutely defying the punk purges and every other change in music and pop culture that followed after. Arrogance is a very good thing to have when you are starting out in this business. (Queen are a footnote in punk history. said it loud and clear and in-your-face. I was. denizens of the Big Apple’s musical demimonde. as momentous a single as Anarchy In The UK by The Sex Pistols insofar as it represents a defining pop cultural moment from which there was no turning back. I actively defined myself against everything I thought they stood for. At the height of punk. failure was not a word that featured much in the Queen vocabulary. when the kind of music they played . but fitted in neither camp.a rare wrong move in the area of Public Relations . Queen were the rock group that ruled the world utterly on their own terms. topped the UK chart like a giant raspberry blown at Johnny Rotten and co.. Their 1975 album. the follow up.was supposed to wither up and die. ignoring. never fashionable. They released a single called Fat Bottomed Girls / Bicycle Race. So it continued: 1977’s double A sided single. A Day At The Races. Roger Taylor mused in Mojo. too. They began life when prog-rock and glam-rock were the predominant forms. Punk came and went in the twinkling of an eye. the anthemic Radio Ga Ga. not number two. was. I tried to live my pop life in avoidance of Queen and their music. And they continued to grow and mutate into a stadium rock roller coaster of excess and epic ambition throughout the early to mid eighties. We Are The Champions / We Will Rock You. without knowing it. when I suddenly realised how mad. as was their wont. reaching No 4 in America. big. and gate crashing the public consciousness in true punk fashion with their swear words and generally obnoxious behaviour. as I have already illustrated. “We aimed for the top slot and were not going to be satisfied with anything less. stayed in or around the top of the British charts for a year. seat belt fastened for the whole. their continuing unfashionabilty. bad and subversive Freddie Mercury could be. although I know it probably came across that way. You were either on Queen’s side from here on in. drew parallels with stadium rock grandiosity and Third Reich rallies. that led to The Sex Pistols appearing on the same. And. in its way. waiting for Punk to happen.epic. in 1976. “We wanted the best. defiantly a pre-punk group in their aptitude and their attitude. in a whole other pop universe. complete with a video that. or blithely aware of. You have to have a lot of arrogance and confidence.” Freddie would recall years later. That was their lot in the pop cultural scheme of things: always popular. unconsciously or otherwise. stayed the distance. From the start. It was their sudden withdrawal from the Today television show. was of the latter persuasion. It wasn’t a question of world domination. they just kept on keeping on. said it all and. of course. Impervious to accusations of. and into our collective pop consciousness.Stooges. Bohemian Rhapsody. Queen. They became the rock group the pop press and the Left really loved to hate when they played eight shows in Botswana’s Sun City . Looking back. its fallout affecting every new music that came after it. Queen strutted and preened. In short. . blatant sexism and political irresponsibility. Basically. did Queen. more unavoidable. accompanied by a video that left little of the song’s innuendo unexplored. or you were bailing out of the emergency exit heading for an uncertain landing on planet punk.” Nor did they give a second thought to fitting in. on cue. though. Queen conquered the world. That means saying to yourself that you’re going to be number one. but never really part of the key pop cultural contexts of that odd time.) The point where Queen began their journey into the pop stratosphere. more inescapable. hope for the best and head for the top. After that. A Night At The Opera. So. out of. “We were never critically acclaimed”. I. loud and proud and unapologetic.. hosted by Bill Grundy. and an absolute determination. nothing was the same again.and were subsequently placed on the United Nations’ cultural blacklist. when Punk was railing against all things big and bombastic. on a different planet. inflated. While serious rock students nodded to the jangly guitar and bed sit solipsism of the Smiths and their imitators. dear reader. “which seemed to become quite important after a while because the more critically acclaimed you were. It is worth remembering that Queen came up through the seventies. From Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975 until the video for I Want To Break Free in 1984. in no particular order. It happened. the more you were assured of failure”. Likewise.

pure entertainment.and even bottomless .In the music press.” Incidentally. the man responsible for the most famous album cover of all time.the bass line from Another One Bites The Dust travelled way beyond the group’s control. (It was his performance at Live Aid. Sometimes. about lesbian double acts laid on to entertain the inner circle. the most knowingly. featuring the cream of the city’s strippers and transvestites. that stole the global thunder from under the noses of the cream of the world’s pop elite. drag queens and dwarves with shaved heads on which were arranged long lines of Columbia’s finest cocaine.. Roger Taylor. and the NME. And. “I had never been to a Queen concert apart from Live Aid”. Live Aid later the same year. (The latter story has entered the realms of the legendary rock and roll anecdotes.. designed by pop artist.. to be featured on a stamp. that led to his official selection as one of the Post Office’s millennium icons. It was”. recalled Brian May years afterwards. Peter Blake.. along the way. like a group going through the motions. achieved most of what they set out to do. is the first living Englishman. Even..) I WANT TO BREAK FREE. tales of Queen’s . The biggest. The top half of the stamp is taken from those giant screen images that feature in big events. about transvestites. The first virtually drew a whole city to a standstill. Queen grew and mutated. Freddie Mercury’s image duly appeared on a stamp. wilfully garish. the motivation that had sustained them for so long had dissipated. and all manner of weirdness that included sexual contortionists and a guy who cavorted under a pile of chopped liver! “It was deliberately excessive”. though denied by all and sundry. “partly for our own enjoyment. Back there.. During recording of The Game. position as the biggest performing act of the eighties. and felt jaded. “Then we’d come back to the idea that the band was greater than any of us. They just went and smashed one hit after another. partly. stripped of his props. I was trying to capture the spirit of Live Aid which. and Knebworth in 1986 became the three live shows that illustrated their extraordinary. “but I could feel the enormous rapport between the group and the audience.. and that’s what I wanted to capture. We Are The Champions coupled with We Will Rock You. who is just visible behind Freddie. lacking in incentive. there was subversion in there too. too.eighties’ appetite for excess were legion. on that day in July. too.six thousand square foot stage.waitresses serving champagne. the great entertainer. They had. they seemed lost. had the best sound. Brian May admitted later. It was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world”. he added almost ruefully. they celebrated the release of the Jazz album with an all-night bacchanal in New Orleans. hip-hop. the most bravura. alongside Charlie Chaplin. “They played the best. “We all tried to leave the band more than once”.and Freddie’s . Rock in Rio in 1985. Is This Man A Prat? . “They were absolutely the best band of the day”. the second saw them literally conquer the world. 1985. the centre piece. Freddie Mercury was indeed the main man. a spectacular homecoming before an audience of a quarter of a million on a . ever since an article about him was published under the headline.) As their one-time stylist. And. though. up there with the Stones’ and Led Zeppelin’s oft-reported debaucheries. We were never invited to their album launches or after-show parties .but we heard all the stories. Freddie Mercury shone brighter than the rest. sampled to such a degree that it now is regarded as one of the key musical motifs that kick-started a whole genre. They understood the idea exactly . in short. in Munich in 1980.” (and one feels he is being truthful here) “. “more enduring than most of our marriages!” Basically. then. the third was their last live show. I believe. his lavish stage designs. and behind the drums. elaborates Blake. Sometimes it was unconscious . Queen did occasionally stumble and fall. Queen were it. and the bottom is an expression of the same moment in the live performance. their bigness.he hated the music press. where I then worked. reignited Queen’s career. the rock group as pure spectacle. though changed all that. Live Aid. “Queen could certainly throw a party”. partly for friends to enjoy.wait for it . even over royalties. commercially conquering all before them. It was that multi-faceted element I wanted to capture. Bob Geldof enthused. for a long pop moment. used their time to the full. other than royalty. They had grown blasé about their success. Pre Live Aid..for the hell of it”. via a seamless seventeen minute medley of hits. We heard about topless . organiser. still. and unassailable. over direction. in particular. they fought bitterly. The Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers. And yet. Diana Mosley attests. his extravagant costumes. on albums like 1978’s Jazz and 1982’s Hot Space.that it was a global juke box. travelled lunar distances . In 1978.

it can blind you to the obvious”.turning to delight. written in day-glo colours. Or. dressed in silver boiler suits. I just thought he was an outrageous performer. and Brian May scurries past to root in the fridge.from there intended meanings. Queen’s. Roger Taylor poses by the cooker every inch the sexy schoolgirl. The sudden appearance of the moustache. by John Deacon. resplendent in a pink night gown. This was the moment when I. Their previous single. had employed 500 extras. That’s the power of pop fandom. clad in a pink sleeveless top that strains to cover the most outrageous pair of falsies. bangled arm pushing an old. Priceless. to clap in time to the chorus.even by his outrageous standards. “Freddie lived gay. Around him. including three china ducks flying in formation. a vinyl micro-mini skirt. writer and pop journalist for The Face and The Observer speaks for many when she says. suspenders and stilettos. around his neck. with the likes of Duran Duran and Michael Jackson making their promo-videos for budgets that could have funded small feature films. “He didn’t have to shout about it. the post-Village People macho man image. remains the video for I Want To Break Free. The apogee of Freddie’s outrageousness. a snobbish rock critic who had dismissed Queen as simply a showbiz irrelevancy. Began to think twice. simply didn’t think about it at all. We Are The Champions becoming one of the most enduring football terrace chants as well as a stadium rock anthem. exactly? . Freddie pushes the living room door open to reveal a whole other planet of camp. I Want To Break Free was a brave move. Radio Ga-Ga. Given all this. “I grew up listening to Queen.” his erstwhile stylist. more important than the music it was meant to promote. given to dressing up. but he didn’t see himself as a figure head. in certain instances. The cost. He was simply larger than life in the way that real stars were meant to be. Then. I can still recall the first time I saw the video: the initial shock what the hell is going on here. an important market that had proved stubbornly resistant to various British invasions since the hey-day of Led Zeppelin’s all conquering cockrock. seeing this outrageous character on video. then to admiration at the sheer cheek and the sheer hilarity of it all. and it had worked: the single hit the number one position in 19 countries across the globe. A hilarity Freddie revels in . were not impervious to this kind of extravagance. then that regal toss of the head as he banishes a stray lock of hair from in front of his eyes. The first image is of a hairy. I Want To Break Free was made at a time when the pop video form had become. all said. The suburban house gives way to a set that would not look out of . Then. Some might say. like Another One Bites The Dust. the song was tailor made for Freddie. The Works. to be exact. a song from their thirteenth hit album. He hoovers around John Deacon. of course. at least on the public stage. released in 1984. Freddie hoovers up and pouts and sings about how (s)he wants to break free. reading the Daily Mirror. about this character called Freddie Mercury. Diana Mosley elaborates. so totally in his videos. or the totally deluded. his personas. though this time in the most blatant way imaginable . sometimes the subversion was a whole more obvious. it appears that many of his fans thought otherwise. or even come out. a Roger Taylor composition that mocked the increasing blandness of pop radio. Freddie walked a tightrope between complete discretion and outright exhibitionism. never openly declaring that he was gay but coming out so obviously. a suicidal one. filled to the brim with period kitsch. when you think it simply cannot get any more outrageously camp. In a suburban living room. a be-wigged Freddie emerges. Miranda Sawyer. And. in fact they positively thrived on it. nestling in drag on a sofa. stockings. fifties’ hoover. Written. and the fact that the group were now huge in middle-America. dumb and blind. had spiralled accordingly. but no less powerful. He had that flamboyancy that was gay. looking for all the world like that weird old lady that Terry Jones used to play in all those crossdressing Monty Python sketches. Where his sexuality was concerned. began to think twice about the band I had done my best to ignore ever since Bohemian Rhapsody had colonised my pop consciousness back in 1975. his projected self. who obviously saw it as another moment to come leaping out of the closet once more on video. could fail to guess his orientation.” Still. We Will Rock You being similarly adopted by American baseball and ice hockey fanatics.that collusive wink to the camera as he starts singing the opening lines. the gay clone look. that only the deaf. and I never once though that he might be gay. “Look at me! I’m gay!” He may as well have worn a big sign featuring those words. big but meaningless. He didn’t want to be public. too. It had been their most expensive video to date.

elaborates the American rock producer. and enduring. I think the mid west of America suddenly perceived that Freddie might actually be gay. forget it!”. “and there was universal hatred and shock and horror. this was a leap too far into irony and campness. That was not allowed. Probably because no one else would have the imagination. Nobody. Peter’s School. They lived together as boyfriend and girlfriend. I’m not sure which. was a uniquely complex one. Though he was Britain’s first Indian pop star. Queen more or less lost their mass America audience. though. the vision. I was on the floor! It was the funniest most over-the-top pop video ever. His prominent teeth. And yet his life. maybe the west coast. Of such a deep rooted sense of otherness. of the will to succeed . gauche and slightly ill at ease with himself. in black and white body suit pays homage to Nijinksky in Debussy’s L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune. and his attendant longing to be accepted.which Freudian psychoanalysts would say is the key determinant. It is difficult to imagine a more diametrically opposed significant other for Freddie than Mary Austin. they fooled everybody.. reflective introvert. ethnic and cultural. is the star born. Queen. And yet. bloody minded nerve. then. Freddie Mercury was not unique. and then some. Or else. The term mercurial is defined in my Oxford English Dictionary as “sprightly. it is not difficult to see where his insecurity. and her the quiet. who has worked with New Order. were a lifelong source of unease. They even displaced Led Zeppelin for a while. To this day. It simply never crossed people’s minds. In a world where England and America provided the predominant physical role models for the rock and roll look. because it is an arena which encourages. got that Freddie was gay and that there was a whole other level of meaning going on in his songs. contradictory one. When I was growing up in Boston in the seventies. to be loved . And. His first important... lived up to his adopted surname. Even the name. the sheer. . two concepts that remain relatively alien to the transatlantic blue collar rock audience. though.” Though this reaction seems scarcely credible now. On the back of that brilliant. outstretched bodies of the extras. they were the hip hard rock band you had to like. “I remember being there when the video for I Want To Break Free came out. particularly after his initial success. even dressed up like a Gatsby hero and lounging on a summer seat. In all of his contradictions. It would not be overstating the case to suggest that Freddie Mercury. He lived a complex life. boy! I mean. Cross-dressing? A gay rock singer? I mean.and yet. from Presley onwards. their love endured. rather than ambition. then Another One Bites The Dust became the most played record on R&B stations ..his first publicist never even knew his real name.cross dressing in videos if you please! It was a really big shock. It offended the rock audience which in America. He blows on a horn. the pop life is nearly always a complex. too true. one characterised by seeming contradictions. brilliantly. because it is a place where the outsider can not just find a home. ready-witted and volatile”. That was shocking. must initially have seemed like a burden. he was secretive to the point of paranoid about his roots in Zanzibar and India . as Baker acknowledges. which earned him the nick name ‘Bucky’ at St. the humour. and leaps off a rock into their adoring arms.” recalled Brian May years later. and hilarious video. but a huge empathetic audience. He looks. alas. perhaps too much so for heartlands’ America. his otherness. Mary Austin. It was. totally camp. “The thing about Queen”. the man as well as the pop chameleon... Whatever. Mad! Hilarious! Knowingly. is essentially a very conservative audience. Looking at Farrokh Bulsara in some of those early teenage photographs. albeit he the attention-seeking extrovert. there is nothing quite like it in contemporary pop. I WANT IT ALL. Then I saw the video for I Want To Break Free and. ‘they dressed up as women! How could they do it?’ It was not a rock and roll thing to do and it wasn’t something that was accepted . as Freddie. their friendship. “is that they always confounded their audience’s expectations. and perhaps one he never totally transcended. romantic relationship was with a woman.place in the English National Opera. rolls across the prone. which celebrates otherness. in his almost total self-belief and his attendant insecurity. but he feared that cosmetically altering them might affect the timbre of his singing voice. Pure Freddie Mercury.stemmed from. didn’t give it away. It was a bit scary. it was. All I know is that they kept me on my toes: I had them pegged as a hard rock group. groundbreaking. Americans’ just didn’t get it. Ash and a host of other British groups. though. Arthur Baker. In the living rooms of middle America.a huge black radio hit. but outside New York and.

For a while. they’re all in love with my fame and my stardom”. their love affair. Later. and his once suppressed sexuality blossomed. in Garden Lodge. A gay man. but it’s simply impossible”. New York and. In his sexual life. the stakes were high. Writing about him in The Sunday Times in November 1996.I am definitely a sexual person. and his success grew. It’s unreachable. he was. the gamble was literally a life and death one. not coy: misleading.Freddie. Freddie literally played Russian roulette in the wilder gay clubs of New York and Munich. To both their credits. he took himself to the opera. he delved deep into a subterranean world where casual sex was not so much an option as a given.. As far back as the second Queen tour of America in 1976. of all the great projects that Freddie Mercury undertook in his relatively short. “He was that classic refined person who loved to slum it. a risk taker. when Queen were still in the embryonic stage. “ All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary. he surrounded himself with a retinue of real friends and admirers. lifetime. but somehow I drive people away. “He went where angels feared to tread. he once noted. hedonistic period living in Munich. the broadcaster and cultural commentator. Lesley-Ann Jones. He did not like the darker side”. holds on to a profoundly heterosexual ideal of enduring romantic love. at least physically. “ There must be a destructive element in me. he came as close as he could to the romantic ideal of perfect coupledom that. he was. in Mary Austin. in 1987. noted that: “Although he was outrageously camp in private. a living. His ultimate fantasy would be to take a rent boy to the opera. is nowhere to be seen. Freddie simply wanted it all. in love. as if we hadn’t got the message.” After he had broken up. larger-then-life illustration of the term. It was the last. rather than London where he was simply too well known not to attract the attention of well meaning fans and the not so well meaning paparazzi. It inevitably took its toll. Love is Russian roulette for me. “My affairs never seemed to last”. Freddie had always been coy in public about his sexuality. No. Perhaps. and most unlikely.I love to surround myself with strange and interesting people because they make me feel more alive. meeting and rehearsing. who would confess to having “had more lovers than Liz Taylor”.though surely that should have been Queen . “A deep bond grew out of it (our love affair) and nobody can take that away from us.. he told tabloid journalist. This is complex stuff. Waldemar Januszczak.” Rick Sky told Freddie’s biographer. “ended in tears”. though.Love is Russian roulette for me. with Mary Austin. to mark a photographic exhibition of Freddie’s life at the Albert Hall in London. But..” he once admitted.he would see the irony in life.. dullness is a disease. and brought home a diva. totally incident packed. with whom he once lived. adding. she saw him as “ a kaleidoscope personality”. I really need danger and excitement.. Boy! For a while back there. the epicentre of attention. He certainly kept it hidden from his parents. emotionally as well as physically. as in life. Jim Hutton. as he admitted more than once. that “Excess is part of my nature. To this end. the former boutique owner whom he dearly loved. Initially.. Extremely straight people bore me stiff. Rick Sky.Mary met Freddie before he was famous. trying to fit together the beginnings of a sound. following a wild. as his fame increased. In all the photos I see of the many Bulsara gatherings he attended. in the eighties. as close as it is possible to be between a man and a women without a physical element in the relationship. ruefully. off stage as well as on. despite his bouts of promiscuity. party animal. as we now know. he is accompanied by Mary Austin. as with almost everything else. To me. his London home. breathing. and to whom he left the bulk of his estate. I love freaky people around me”. No one loves the real me. having settled down somewhat in London. A NIGHT AT THE OPERA . most notably. the live-in lover who nursed Freddie through the worst years of his illness.. obviously attracted him. he looked for the humour. as well as would-be suitors and hangers-on.. in Freddie’s own words. and. because I try very hard to build up relationships. they remained close. someone “who opened my eyes to a lot of colour. He threw extravagant parties in Munich.” Instead. It became known as the court of King .

when he heard her almost ghostly tone.initially in his stretching the boundaries of the form with Bohemian Rhapsody. only one diva can have the power to describe a listener’s life. until then. depth. Luciano Pavarotti. represented Freddie Mercury’s last great triumph. more than anything else. something that suggests a no-win situation. from the start. He saw a chance to reinvent himself outside rock music. even at its most vaultingly ambitious. She. “Pavarotti came on and sang an aria in the first act.how Freddie would have loved that title! . by contrast. the one utterly realised triumph. the singer’s nightmare. entertainer. they revelled. that’s a real singer”. its most bombastic. of symbolism that was important.” The album they eventually recorded together is. performing in Barcelona with the city’s Opera House Orchestra and Choir before an audience that included the king and queen of Spain. “Now. Peter “Phoebe” Freestone. yet strangely adrift without the other “three” around him. he writes. itself a mini rock-opera in three parts .. rock music. as a compass describes a circle”. was not a success.. the same thing I love about Bohemian Rhapsody. was not the case. chameleon. does not come close to the ambition and bombast of Aida or Carmen. They suggest to . “In the second act the prima donna came on. and on. of the triumvirate of solo albums gathered in this lavish package. Inevitably. with his assistant. someone both confident in his singular abilities. if not the only person.due to Freddie’s recurring problem with throat nodules. Freddie found her. but.the ambition. in which neither will emerge victorious. a triumph of the will. and The Great Pretender (the US version of The Freddie Mercury Album. the nerve. in reality. The other divas may be admired. but this was collaboration as. even loved. elaborated Freestone in Lesley-Ann Jones’ biography of Freddie. “The volume. (The first thing he said. He discovered her in May 1983 during a production of Verdi’s Un Ballo In Mascherd (A Masked Ball). The Queen’s Throat . they found a stage big enough for both of them. and the video for I Want To Break Free . how impoverished your physicality. Sure. how small your gestures have been. of faith. Montserrat Caballé.Wayne Koestenbaum unwittingly points to part of the appeal of opera to someone raised in. which he had attended. There is something implausible about the idea of a pop singer and an opera singer duetting. in consort. the diva. Listening now to the other solo work collected here. in a way. and Freddie thought it was brilliant”. And what a leap. enjoyed. They were divas together. The impatience with the constrictions of rock and pop that showed itself from time to time throughout his career . and it was Montserrat Caballé.) In many ways. a stand-off or a compromise between low and high culture.it was the sense of occasion. height. and they add to the received image of Freddie Mercury. its most.. primarily to see and hear the world’s most famous living tenor. and she understood Freddie. the devilmay-care attitude of the man. was today’s diva incarnate. and an altogether more fitting title).She started to sing and that was it. the musical centre piece. rather than sang . which. Freddie’s jaw dropped.. in harmony.“The opera queen must choose one diva. Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire (Penguin Books) The opera queen in question was Freddie Mercury. however. in commercial terms. dropping in and out of musical guises with consummate ease. of self belief. entitled simply Freddie Mercury. revealingly. lushness and excess of operatic utterance”. staying up until the early hours. it is possible to get a glimpse of yet another Freddie Mercury. dumbstruck. It would be poetic to say they found each other. in each other’s company. was blissfully unaware of his existence. The occasion was the La Nit open air Festival. But only one diva can reign in the opera queen’s heart. the Montserrat Caballé duets on the Barcelona album. there was another solo album and more Queen hits after it. (That they actually mimed. during which the city formally received the Olympic flag from Seoul. He only wanted her from then on. and he made the leap. Wayne Koestenbaum: The Queen’s Throat . Montserrat Caballé.” Which is probably why one of the few. hardly mattered ..Opera. singing show tunes and pop tunes and light opera tunes around the piano.) What I love about the coming-together of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé is. “ reveal. It is a record in which Freddie’s voice comes alive in a way that he does not on any of his other solo works. to render Freddie Mercury speechless. Or dignified. This. to me.. Freddie understood Montserrat. In his extraordinary book. was. in fact Queenly.now finds a release in the company of a proper singer. which. of confidence. There is emotion and musical range aplenty on both Mr Bad Guy.

One of the last characteristically extravagant things Freddie Mercury did was buy an apartment in Montreux. approved by Freddie. “His death was a result of bronchial pneumonia. not to mention intriguing. On 23 November. was issued to the press. replaced by a fragile. his abilities: it’s almost as if he was tentatively testing the waters for a future solo career.” says Peter ‘Phoebe’ Freestone. the music was a recording of You’ve Got A Friend sung by Aretha Franklin. He told each of his immediate circle in turn. Amid the picture post card serenity of Montreux. “I still love you”. spiritual. A song about safety. against expectations. as if he could be borne away on the wind at any moment. knowing that he would never live there. entitled The Show Must Go On. both creative and social. the Freddie Mercury of Barcelona is a more exciting. painted abstract watercolours. “clustered around him like a protective shell”. with Brian May. and the band. Back in London. anyway. “He took on board and excepted the inevitability. really. Freddie sang I’m Going Slightly Mad. He is. a statement. Queen’s fortieth single was released in October 1991. lost in private reveries. often spending days in bed so that he could have the energy to entertain his friends at an exclusive restaurant. In the last Queen video. in short. how inspired and excited by the newness of it all. we were all going to die someday. pure class. A statement was issued at midnight: “Freddie Mercury died peacefully this evening at his home in Kensington. The b-side was Keep Yourself Alive. London”. He had no regrets. one year before the Barcelona album. insisting on what were now physically exacting standards of quality control. the singer. all of whom had expected the worst for some time. “Those were very sad days. and Innuendo in 1991. Days of Our Lives. the aria from . brought on by Aids”. but Freddie didn’t get depressed. The Miracle in 1989. instructing each of them not to speak of the matter again. Gone are the extravagant gestures.the title said it all . He spent days looking out on the lake. THE SHOW MUST GO ON. which he once would have found boring in the extreme. emotional and physical solace. he began to paint and draw for the first time since leaving Ealing College of Art. Jim Hutton. near Queen’s recording studio. It. a song about returning to the womb. among a close circle of friends that included his personal assistants. Pure style. alone. The man had style. still dignity. “that he was one of the unlucky ones. It is also a fitting valediction to a life lived against the grain. At his cremation. against constraints. his manager Jim Beach. “He accepted. could you imagine an old Freddie Mercury?” Peter Freestone quoted in Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones. the recorded voice of Montserrat Caballé sang D’Amor sull’ali rosee. pure Freddie. comfort. he recorded with Queen for as long as he could. confirming what many had suspected. and the second great love of his life. His final years were spent in London and Montreux.and. Well. to the end. it stated. he looks fragile. and attitude to burn.” Mary Austin remembers. that Freddie Mercury had Aids. He wrote two final sad songs.. He accepted it. Freddie Mercury was officially diagnosed HIV positive in 1987. A final act of defiance against encroaching mortality. He died the following day. When the other band members officially found about his illness they. To this end. he drew his cats. but not entirely stretching. You can literally hear how excited he is. the very things he had spent much of his life running from. whispered intimately to his adoring public. And. Propped up on his in bed. A diva until the end. the constant movement. prospect. by the challenge. his insistence that he should dine out to the end. in his creative element. is worth the price of admission.me a man trying to reach out. Who knows? Personally.that he had so much music left in him”. “I saw a man become incredibly brave”. Likewise. dolled up like a deranged Lord Byron. As the oak coffin disappeared into the flames. He was resigned to the fact that he was going to die. he seemed to find a sense of peace and solitude. Peter Freestone and Joe Fanelli. and decorate it in grand style. as Brian May memorably put it.. maybe one . A Winter’s Tale . the elliptically biographical Mother Love. His last words on film were. ethereal. In his second last video appearance. Queen made a further two critically acclaimed albums. simply. Pure bravado. pure Queen.

making a speech in Freddie's honour. ironically. for a while. “My make-up may be fading but my smile stays on”. 1992. biceps taut. Fist raised. do we place a performer as singular. On 20 April. “I would have spent more time on his bum”.Verdi’s Il Trovatore. the least Queenly album the group ever released . facing the sunset across the lake. There is no monument to Freddie Mercury in Britain. “I think Queen songs are pure escapism. Sculpted by Irena Sedlecka. In 1991. “like going to see a good film. where Mary Austin now lives. featuring an array of guest vocalists singing what amounted to Queen's greatest hits live. a risk taker. something both truly artistic and socially worthy. way back there. though. and on the anniversary of his death. as artist after artist gave full vent to those anthems and love songs and epics. Freddie Mercury’s all time favourite piece of music. seemed to have slipped during the writing and recording of these last valedictory songs. a vulnerability on display here that was touching. with Elizabeth Taylor. than all of those labels. but nobody. Made In Heaven. and enduringly relevant. that harked back to an older time when entertainment and escapism went hand in glove. and the mourning that still attends it. fans congregate at Garden Lodge. Gripped by the desire to do something meaningful. and a diva. surrounded by Freddie’s cultured legacy . Freddie stands in stadium rock pose. I’m sure. the artifacts. weighted down with all that attendant angst and anxiety. as well as a scene stealer. It’s hero is a hugely successful Hollywood studio director. he sang gamely. ultimately. the other three members of Queen hosted a Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley Stadium. Bohemian Rhapsody was re-released. written and directed by Preston Sturges in 1941. of Callas. he sets off to travel depression era . Irena remarked afterwards. too.and once again. in tone and content. There is a great. a rock star). was a fitting epitaph. not of a mere pop star. the Empire furniture.the fine art. Even in death.a prayer of remembrance. The Mercury Phoenix Trust was also established that year. and a series of personas. and go back to their problems”. Every year.” he said. the many masks that had hidden the true face of Freddie Mercury. but of Valentino. his back to the curious and the faithful who flock to the site. He would surely approve. and continues to raise money for Aids related causes. when the very essence of entertainment was the providing of escapism. nobody. On his birthday. David Bowie. Hollywood film called Sullivan’s Travels. His absence though. After that. were among the stellar line-up. would approve of the comparisons. all the expensive and aesthetically pleasing fragments he shored up against his final departing. went straight to Number One. tireless Aids campaigner and celluloid diva incarnate. Finally. Liza Minnelli. Axl Rose and. Freddie Mercury created a public image. whose string of big production romantic comedies have all been box office smashes. ironically. even in Freddie’s absence. lest we forget. I am reminded. heartfelt and tender. calling to mind the master. save his musical back catalogue. In an era when rock music often became literally strung out on its own importance. Freddie. Mary reads them a short statement. But he was also much bigger. THE GREAT PRETENDER Where. ‘That was great!’. even in the nature of his death. was felt keenly on that Wembley stage. No one knows where Freddie Mercury’s ashes are scattered bar those that were closest to him. as chameleon-like as Freddie Mercury? He was certainly a pop star (and. “If I had known he would have his back to the people”. and touchingly unfamiliar. every performance. the Sullivan of the title. George Michael.stately and reflective. of course. and much more complex. he was also an entertainer par excellence. of the eight foot tall statue of him in full-on performance mode. Annie Lennox. he had a talent to surprise. Where Queen's back catalogue of hits is concerned. his great friend Elton John. does it better that Freddie Mercury. it was. but there was an honesty. a Czech monumentalist best known for the heroic reliefs that decorate the entrance to the Lenin museum. raising over a million pounds for the Terence Higgins' Trust. a Queen album that employed digital technology to bring all four members of Queen together again. that looks out from a plinth on the Montreux shore line across Lake Geneva. they (the audience) can go away and say.

told him that pure. trying on guises.and it would be wrong to judge him critically against them. the bigger he grew. “There are no hidden messages in our songs.particularly us critics . he was nowhere near as influential nor as enigmatic as pop’s more serious icons . He did not want to try and change the world through his words and music like Dylan or Lennon. personas and images like ordinary mortals try on clothes. but incredibly rich. (Interestingly. of course. to an extent. one of those stars whose fame ultimately transcends their work. I’d be a liar to say I’m not hurt by criticism. was pure surface.” he insisted. in fact. “entertainment for the masses”. for a brief moment. This intention. the ultimate revenge. Nirvana. performers. in order to research a social conscience movie about the lot of the common man. he entered the popular pantheon.. of the illusion .. even Maria Callas. as he told us over and over. unadulterated entertainment .know of him. Thus. always close to. was not where he was coming from. brasher than the rest. for who he was . lives. then move on. two stalwarts of American independent rock. kaleidoscopic surface.the likes of Dylan. the essence of great pop. That is. and maybe even .entertainment. simply and pejoratively. a celebrity who was no longer primarily famous for what he did . the more impossible-to-ignore he became.was a worthy and exalted end in itself. we . he simply wanted to sparkle and dazzle. but not necessarily to depth. wrote. every impulse that drove him to be bigger. After a series of adventures. and. however throwaway. the critics .write. would have been the last person to want that kind of cultural canonisation. been the self-serving. the late Kurt Cobain. because everybody is”. what a surface. his manager. including wrongful imprisonment.” he confessed.the angst. the suffering for your art .. an “extrovert”. we do not accord him an iota of the pop cultural import we heaped on far less successful. Lennon..) Which. Freddie Mercury ultimately became. We saw him. it is difficult to know exactly where to begin in attempting to place Freddie Mercury in the greater scheme of things. disguised as a tramp. But. were “Do what you like but never make me boring!” And yet. In pop cultural terms. through the sheer size and ubiquity of his celebrity. Freddie Mercury never had to make that journey of discovery: every fibre of his being. As with all relatively short. as if the very idea was anathema to his essentially showbiz sensibility. in his suicide note. His last instructions to Jim Beach. snag our attention. even from the little that we . And the bigger he grew. Hendrix or Prince .but.and what was Bohemian Rhapsody if not an exercise in vaulting ambition. have name checked Queen II as an influential album. given what we know about the century’s great entertainers. That. on one level. boy. is all probably just as well because Freddie. sparkling.you guessed it. on the pop cultural snobs: put simply. Because of his dedication to rock music as entertainment. While both Beck and Sonic Youth.thought we knew Freddie inside out. Right to the end. brighter. has always. that he felt he was short-changing his fans and could never ever be a great entertainer “like Freddie Mercury”. as I have already said.the triumph of the spectacle.. We thought we had him in a nut shell. from Chaplin to Minnelli... but never quite teetering into total absurdity . we know that he was hurt by the put-downs and the critical pastings. . the more they ignored him. What a chameleon. his dedication to entertainment as escapism. (As if. on the hipper-than-thou critics.America. but more “serious”. mega-star. by extension. that he had his revenge. all of it. What an illusionist. What a dazzling. there was anything simple about that allconsuming calling. the anxiety. Because he was. is.his public. as The Great Pretender. simply. escapism. in musical terms at least.of great rock .there was in his work an attention to detail. on the self-appointed taste-makers. which reached a nadir of sorts with the now infamous mid seventies’ NME feature entitled Is This Man A Prat? “I’m a very hated person. the leader of American band. too. simply a “natural performer”. as indeed he sometimes saw himself. self perpetuating nature of fame: you eventually are famous simply for being famous.Freddie Mercury.we filed him away in a corner called. That.though the jury is still out . even. he realises that what the common man wants is not social messages or political education but . record and perform songs . “I think I’ve learnt to live with it. of course. more than once. What a showman.. and the last great figure-head of angst-ridden rock and roll.) Because he wilfully ignored the baggage of rock and roll . nor even change the course of pop music like Hendrix or Prince. Like Madonna or Elton John or. We know. Freddie. when Freddie Mercury was being over-vaultingly ambitious .

utilise it. though not as outre. even Valentino. often compared himself . Likewise. where the minutiae of famous. to whom Freddie. his costumes pared down to almost caricatured expressions of gayness .. repeated ad infinitum from the pages of the tabloids and lifestyle mags.) Which is to say that there was always.Go out there and grab it. Freddie’s image became less other-worldy. You have to deliver it. and a sense of privacy. showering his true friends and intimates with well chosen. (Remember that tight fitting body suited decorated with huge false eyes? Pure circus surrealism. In his costumes and stage presence. that is even more outside pop and rock and roll than we might like to think. Astaire. he recalls. save maybe the Stones in the early seventies. That’s simply the way he was. posturing commitment to all things over-the-top. The endless passing parade of second and third division faux stars whose dull gaze.Bohemian Rhapsody. and increasingly. often extravagant. I contend.. he was a lot more showbiz than rock and roll. how to maintain a sense of mystery. for God’s sake. when he was tarted up in satin. much under-rated New York Dolls. We have become. wit and style. For a start. of course. though. detect traces of Music Hall and old style Variety in some of Freddie Mercury’s lyrics. You have to be able to do more than write a good song. charisma. both offstage and on. and has debased the value. too. would have gone to such lengths to look so wilfully effeminate so early in their career. his myriad personas.call it what you will . as he accepted and embraced his sexuality. but. without delving too deep. semi-famous lives.. and package it. particularly during his more camp moments. gifts at every opportunity. and. and learn how to deal with the business side right from the start. He was showbiz and he was rock and roll. in the process. His penchant for mock opera .. both live and on record. Freddie Mercury had star quality. more Liza Minnelli than Mick Jagger. he thought..“I”m a true romantic. and a dozen or so other songs which. the opera.It’s called Hard Sell”. He knew.in spades. Freddie Mercury. chiffon and black nail varnish. the true star. With hindsight. in its application. reflects our own jaded interest. relayed in detail through a voracious media. always. He lived life to the full in the manner of a true diva. a precocious grasp of the contract that even rock and roll demanded: “These days. something other-worldly about Freddie Mercury. you get the feeling Freddie Mercury would have applied himself to the task in hand with ambition.Garland. Sometimes we didn’t see it. acted. the body narcissist in tight black hot-pants and Flash t-shirt.the moustached macho man. the drag queen. (I’m talking old school showbiz here . But. what other rock group. just like Rudolph Valentino”. then. the currency of celebrity. preening. or a tradition. music and talent is not enough.more demanding entertainments than the rock performance. Almost. particularly us critics who increasingly look for meaning beyond the obvious. we live in an age where celebrity has colonised the public consciousness like never before. the older magic of nights at the circus.is one clue to the myriad forces that shaped him. You must learn to push yourself. he had an intuitive understanding of the contract between the celebrity and his adoring public that was old-style. less outre. for instance. it is possible to place Freddie Mercury in a lineage. would have made it big. staring us in the face.this is perhaps revealing . of course. He was an inveterate party thrower. only half-jokingly. Had he been around during the first golden age of Hollywood. the self-deprecating humour: the leather clone outfit was spot-on save for the ballet slippers . too. presence . the leather clone.These days. his late flowering love of real opera and ballet. He was. most of all. and . and a present giver. or had he blossomed during the psychedelic sixties. or the misunderstood. and make it work for you.) He had an old school professionalism. right from the start. from day one. both of which betray a mind in thrall to aestheticism and exotica. in that strutting.. and how much to hold back for himself and his intimate circle. Those Zandra Rhodes costumes. You can also.. was a true star. the carnival. almost inured to the appeal of the real star. something exotic. (Interestingly. almost vintage Hollywood. I mean. more colourful. ultimately. and. betray a certain impatience with the constrictions of mere rock and roll . and in his delivery of them. to older. exercises our imagination to an at times unsettling degree. He knew how much to give his fans.You have to feed it to the masses.. but it was there all along. lived BIG. and. or the dawning of the rock and roll era.

I can dream up all sorts of things because that’s the world I live in”.and. Montreux. . Of one thing we can be certain: we will not see his like again. an illusionist. ultimately.no half measures even in death . Really. onstage and off. What.that was Freddie’s achievement”. He remained a showman. to come through . Cologne. compromised his dignity. but neither stole his soul. As elusive and mercurial as his adopted name. I believe. a weaver of spells. as the events of his final years proved. his life was lived in the glare of the spotlight and the flash gun. at his own sartorial outrageousness before someone else did. the posthumous celebration of his life which opened at the Albert Hall in London (Since then it has toured the world visiting many cities including Bombay. I ask you. we can see with hindsight. and an intensely private individual who. someone who literally willed his fantasies. masks. wrote “Transplanting levels of fantasy that belong in 1001 Arabian Nights . even in death. mythologies. perhaps more crucially. then. they are just little fairy stories. to come true. both a diva who played to the gallery right up to his final curtain call. Timisoara and Paris) . a creator of personas. To this end.and socks. and the pop world is a less glamourous. and a chameleon right to the end. did it his way. a fantasist. He was. Freddie Mercury was a one-off. less outrageous place without him. It was as if he had to poke fun at himself. that was no mean feat. He was. nor. would Freud have made of that?) On the occasion of the Freddie Mercury Photographic Exhibition.Waldemar Januszczak. “A lot of my songs are fantasy. For a selfstyled simple entertainer.