OK, I said I would be talking about music. I’ve always loved music – one of the first things I remember is learning how to use an old-fashioned record player when I was tiny. I grew up with Broadway shows and pirate radio in the background – my parents both worked in the theatre but had vastly different musical tastes, so I was exposed to a lot of music early on in life.
By the time I was a teenager, I’d discovered prog rock; this was the age of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd and prog rock was infinitely preferable to some of the other music around at the time. It also fitted in with my unconventional, mostly hippy view of life. Then, one day I heard a new song on the radio – it was called Seven Seas of Rhye, and it was by a band called Queen. It was so different, with piano riffs, extravagant harmonies and the most sublime guitar sound. Not long after that, Sheer Heart Attack was released and I was permanently hooked.
I saw them live with Freddie at “that” concert in Hyde Park; I was still at school at the time but the memories of it are still sharp and clear; the incredible combination of Brian May’s guitar and Freddie Mercury’s incomparable voice.
I carried out following them for the rest of the 70s and into the 1980s. By then I was a classical music student, specialising in opera studies. A lot of people didn’t venture much outside the classical genres so I was considered a bit left-field. That’s OK; I like left-field. Extreme lack of money meant that my main opportunities to keep up with Queen was through TV appearances and never got the opportunity to see them live again with Freddie. In 1986, they made their last live appearances and then they were quiet until The Miracle; videos but no live tour.
As a lot of my friends were gay and on the “scene” in London, I knew very well that Freddie was gay as he was quite a frequent visitor to the clubs. Rumours started to surface that he was ill – very ill, with HIV/AIDS which was completely incurable at the time. Then in 1991 there was the sudden media confirmation of his illness and he died almost within hours.
That was it; the greatest rock vocalist ever (as far as I’m concerned) was dead at the age of 45, just a few months after Queen released Innuendo. It was devastating; I cried buckets and was really quite depressed for some time afterwards. My videos and recordings were played almost to death and the worst thought of all was that this incredible music had died with Freddie.
Queen performed in a massive tribute concert in Wembley the following year and a whole host of stars teamed up with them to perform their greatest hits. I watched it all on TV and at the time, I thought George Michael would have been a great fit for them; although his own musical style was very different, he has a great voice and the range to do justice to Queen’s very difficult repertoire. Unfortunately though, George had his own well-established solo career and so there was no chance of a long-term collaboration.
Made in Heaven was released in 1995 and we were treated to the last heart-rending recordings they had made in the few weeks before Freddie became too ill to sing. Queen were, to all intents and purposes, dead. Long live the Queen? There was nobody who could step into Freddie’s shoes; nobody with a large enough vocal range, the performance skill and the sheer cohones to pull off that music.
When the Queen + Paul Rodgers collaboration popped up in the noughties, it pricked my interest and I went along to the open air concert in July 2005. It was fabulous to hear Brian and Roger play again (John Deacon had long retired) and Paul Rodgers did an OK job. I did thoroughly enjoy the day – I got to hear Razorlight, who were new to me, and it was wonderful to hear some of Queen’s old hits. But Paul Rodgers just wasn’t quite… right; he was a good showman – he’s been around as long as Brian and Roger and he could get round the notes, but he has a more bluesy sound which although great in its own way, wasn’t quite…. Queen.
Brian May became Dr Brian May – he popped up on TV science programmes and seemed to be throwing himself into his animal activist work. Then I sort of lost touch with music for a huge number of reasons (lack of time, immense quantities of life crap, divorces, marriages, you name it).
So we arrive in December 2014 and I get a promotion email from Ticketmaster (as I’d bought tickets for Strictly Come Dancing from them; you can laugh if you like), and one of the gigs mentioned was Queen + Adam Lambert. So Queen had resurfaced again; I was mildly surprised, but had the sudden urge to hear Brian and Roger play once more. But who the hell was Adam Lambert? A quick Google took me to a concert review from one of the US concerts, which proclaimed that Lambert was “the next best thing to Freddie”. This, combined with the respect that I have for Brian and Roger as musicians, meant that a couple of clicks later I had bought tickets for the gig at the Barclaycard arena in Birmingham. A bit more Googling revealed that Adam Lambert had come second in American Idol, and was gay – gay to the extent that it may have cost him first place in the competition. Interesting. At this point I did have a bit of a moment about a talent competition singer doing Queen’s repertoire.
The tickets arrived and I stuck them in the “in” tray at home. I didn’t think to look on YouTube for any footage of them performing, which was a bit dim of me.
Fast forward to New Year’s Eve. I hate New Year’s Eve. I never go out because everywhere is packed with people I don’t know and it’s impossible to get a seat anywhere or get served at a bar. Flicking through the TV mag I noticed that Queen + Adam Lambert were performing on the BBC to bring in 2015. I prodded the husband.
“You know that concert I’m taking you to – well, they’re on TV soon – you can see what they’re like”.
I need to point out that my dear husband had a very sheltered life until he met me; he’d never been to a football match and never been to a rock concert. I’d figured that if he was going to be subjected to the full might of heavily amplified music, it might as well be Brian May’s guitar that initiated him into this dark art. In any case, he knew quite a few of the songs, so he’d survive.
11.20 came and the presenters led us excitedly into the Westminster Hall and proclaimed that we would know “every note” of the hits that we were to hear, and that Adam Lambert was “extraordinary”. Fair enough.
At the first few notes of Don’t Stop me Now, husband looked up.
“Fucking hell,” he said, “he’s gorgeous”. This is a guy who is normally fairly heterosexual.
He was – eye-poppingly gorgeous, but at that instant I was more taken with his voice. Clear, high tenor with plenty of “twang”, definitely higher than Freddie, but with touches of his sound, mixed with bits of George Michael and even Aretha Franklin. And he hadn’t just got the voice that was required; he’d got the showmanship that is needed to “do” Queen. He strutted, pouted and flashed his blue eyes at the camera. The audience squealed.
Then they did Somebody to Love. Holy Mother of God. This has always, always been one of my favourite Queen songs – it’s so beautifully constructed, and I love the harmonies and the “gospel” feel to it. Adam Lambert delivered it flawlessly; he could do it, he could really get round these impossible songs that finish off most other male singers. I was astounded.
The set went on; that same, beautiful music that Queen had performed when I was a kid, Brian and Roger were clearly loving being back on stage. Just before the midnight fireworks, we were treated to the fireworks of The Show Must Go On, one of the songs that was written when Freddie was in the latter stages of his illness, and was probably never intended to be performed live. TSMGO is an exceptionally difficult song; it’s like an operatic aria and is killingly high for the male voice. Adam nailed it and I nearly wept. I didn’t think I would ever hear that song performed live so beautifully.
After midnight they went into the “true” Queen classics – Bo Rhap, We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. Bo Rhap showed the full range of his tone, from the chesty, rock tone to the sweet, angelic sound needed for “any way the wind blows”.
So this was what I would be going to see in a few weeks’ time. I needed to know more.