I’ve been meaning to write this blog entry for some time, and I think while all the hardcore Glamberts are recovering from the surprise appearance of Underground last night, it might be a good moment (I will be catching up on all matters Adam in the near future though, don’t worry).
However, I’m aware that a lot of Adam’s fans either were Queenies to start with (like me), or have become Queen fans as a result of the QAL experience. Of course Freddie remains one of the biggest rock icons ever, certainly on my side of the Atlantic. Hopefully this post will help pass the time.
Adam himself made the point beautifully about Freddie’s legacy on every night of the QAL tour – that none of us would be here if it wasn’t for him – wonderful, incomparable Freddie. And he’s right – the boy born in exotic Zanzibar made a musical impact on the world that we are still talking about nearly 25 years after his very untimely death.
This isn’t going to be a biography of Freddie; that’s been done before by far better writers than me, but I wanted to talk about the things that I think he has left to us. There is of course the physical legacy in the shape of the Mercury Phoenix Trust, which raises money to benefit education and awareness projects in the global fight against HIV and AIDS. Founded by Brian May, Roger Taylor and Jim Beach, it has distributed over $15m to a wide range of projects, often at a grass roots level.
When talking about himself, Freddie was utterly self-deprecating, describing himself as the “Carmen Miranda of rock ‘n’ roll” and once stating that music was the only possible career for him, as “if I didn’t do this well, I just wouldn’t have anything to do…I can’t cook, and I’d be a terrible housewife“.
First and foremost, he thought up the name Queen for the band that had been Smile; he convinced Brian and Roger to carry on with the music after Tim Stafell left. Also, as a graphic designer he came up with that distinctive logo that is such a big part of the Queen image. The long-term fans will be well aware that this was made up of their four zodiac signs (with Virgo converted to two fairies), plus the phoenix above them all. The phoenix symbolises immortality and being able to rise from the ashes of destruction; back in 1971 nobody could have realised that this would be something of a prophecy decades later.
One of the largest parts of Freddie’s legacy is the songs; with Brian, he was one of Queen’s principal songwriters, producing over 60 songs which were used either by the band or in his solo career. The sheer range of songs he produced was incredible, in terms of the musical styles he covered, the melodic lines and the wordplay. He could be anything from totally extravagant to camp, through to desolate and heartfelt.
My top ten Freddie songs are, in no particular order:
* We Are The Champions – the anthem created alongside We Will Rock You to give the fans something to sing along to, this is a long-term Queen encore and has become the theme tune for sporting events worldwide. It’s most definitely not Queen’s most technically demanding piece of music, but it represents everything about their “more is more” philosophy.
* Is This The World We Created – inspired by poverty in Africa, it was performed as an encore at Live Aid. It’s a simple acoustic song, but Freddie’s words are so heartfelt.
* Love Kills – originally one of Freddie’s solo songs, this track was rearranged for the Queen Forever album and used in the US leg of the QAL tour. This picks up Freddie’s ongoing unhappiness about not being able to find love; in his own words, he said that he would “go out looking for someone who will love me, even if it’s just for a one-night stand. I fall in love far too quickly, and I end up getting hurt and scarred. It seems I just can’t win“. Of course, this song also became associated with his illness and was one that Brian found was a painful reminder of that time.
* Death on Two Legs – probably the most vicious and effective hate song ever written, Freddie poured out his fury on Norman Sheffield’s (mis)management of the band in their early years. And it’s still a great song despite its rather unsavoury subject matter.
* Mother Love – Freddie’s last goodbye; this is the song that he wasn’t able to finish as his illness was overrunning him. The words are heartbreaking and it’s astonishing that he was able to sing at all in the end stages of HIV/AIDS. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for Brian to sing the final lines knowing that Freddie would never step in the studio again.
(Video from Queen Official Youtube uploads)
* Love Of My Life – most long-term Queen fans will know that this song was written for Mary Austin, Freddie’s long-term girlfriend in the 70s. He said of her that he “couldn’t fall in love with a man the same way as I have with Mary” and that other lovers frequently asked why they could never replace her. LOML has very much turned into an anthem to remember Freddie by; Brian has performed it many times in solo concerts, dedicating it to him, and it was an integral part of the QAL sets, with Freddie appearing in the video footage which accompanied it.
* I Was Born To Love You – another one of Freddie’s solo songs which has been rearranged by Queen and was used on the Made in Heaven album. This is the most delightful song; sweet and joyful, Freddie had a modest amount of chart success with it as a single and it was also performed by Roger and Brian when they toured with Paul Rodgers in 2005. Because of its popularity in Japan, it was part of the QAL setlist there and in South Korea, where it had an ecstatic reception.
* It’s A Hard Life – this is Freddie in his most expansive and operatic style. It opens with a famous line from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci and displays itself as another of Freddie’s songs about wanting to find love. This song has a most extraordinary video in the Comedia Dell’Arte style which the rest of the band were considerably less enamoured of than Freddie was. It was filmed over three frantic days in Munich and Roger Taylor summed it up by quoting the Queen ethos of “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing“. But I love it because it encapsulates all the things I love about Queen. It’s utterly Freddie, even if the other guys did find it all a bit of a trial.
* Somebody To Love – Queen’s excursion into “white gospel” has been acknowledged by Brian as one of Freddie’s finest creations. This incredible song was the first single from Day at the Races, and a massive amount of multitracking was employed to get the effect of an enormous gospel choir. It’s one of the songs that have followed Queen through their journey with and without Freddie and it has also been covered by numerous artists. It’s exuberant and completely irresistible.
(Video from Queen Official YouTube uploads)
* Bohemian Rhapsody – simply the most extraordinary pop/rock song ever written, and it was Freddie’s creation. Spliced together from ideas for three separate songs, it is a true rhapsody in construction and at the time of its release in 1975 it was the most expensive single ever made, with a ground-breaking video. Bo Rhap has consistently turned up at the top of “best song ever” polls and has been performed in almost ever conceivable set of circumstances. It has turned up in films, been performed by choirs, opera singers, cartoon cats and even the Muppets.
Freddie’s stage persona was an integral part of the way that Queen operated on the live stage – he was riveting; he controlled those massive arena crowds effortlessly and so many other pop and rock frontmen have aspired to be like him. He stepped on stage and projected a huge aura which could take in every person in the biggest environment. He strutted, pouted, skipped around with his famous cut-off mic stand and had panache in boatloads. He wasn’t graceful, but he filled a stage utterly; it was almost impossible not to watch him. He was an advocate of Queen’s “do it all and do it big” philosophy and was often the driving force behind their video storyboards as for him it was an extension of their live performances.
His finest hour was undoubtedly Live Aid in 1985; advised against singing by his doctor because of throat problems, he carried on regardless and delivered what has been feted as the greatest rock performance of all time. Facing an audience of 70,000+ fans in Wembley stadium and countless others via the TV links, they leapt into the palm of his hand and became Queen fans within seconds.
Even a generation after his death, Freddie is still held in the highest esteem by his fans, as we saw at the QAL gigs when his image appeared on the big screens. He seems to never have left our hearts, not even for an instant. He had an ongoing love affair with the fans and his view on performing was, “I like to enjoy myself and what better way to do it than on stage in front of 300,000 people?”
I can’t help but think that he was very aware of his bond with the fans and deliberately chose to say goodbye with the video of Those Were The Days Of Our Lives with that final, whispered “I still love you“, knowing that would be his last chance.
Freddie seemed to live with the knowledge that his star would burnt out quickly, even when he was fit and well. On a number of occasions he alluded to life being short and that he was determined to squeeze every drop out of it, saying, “the most important thing, darling, is to live a fabulous life. As long as it’s fabulous, I don’t care how long it is“. Some time before he was diagnosed with HIV, he was asked about life in the future and tossed away the question saying, “what will I be doing in twenty years’ time? I’ll be dead, darling! Are you crazy?”
Brian’s epitaph on Freddie’s statue in Montreux summed him up simply as “lover of life and singer of songs“. We have the songs and so much more.