The 24th of November is upon us and social media has been full of tributes to Freddie today, the 24th anniversary of his untimely death. There have been so many column inches written about him over the years that it’s difficult to think of something new to say.
All these years later we are still here celebrating his life with joy, or looking back upon it with deep sadness that he left us too soon. Seeing the reactions on Twitter and Facebook today, I’m left in no doubt that Freddie is still loved by millions and the sense of his loss must be even more acute to those who were close to him.
He was a gigantic stage presence and left a remarkable musical legacy behind him in the music he wrote for Queen, his solo songs and the collaboration with Monserrat Caballe.
But that isn’t all, by any means. A few months ago I wrote about why performance is the final piece of the jigsaw and Freddie is the perfect example of how a good performer becomes an incredible one. When he stepped out on to a stage, he owned it and it was almost impossible to look at anyone else. Even in an arena packed with over 100,000 people he reached everyone and made them feel part of the show.
Live Aid was an outstanding example of the way Freddie could work a crowd. The audience on this day weren’t even a “Queen” crowd and the band had wondered what the reaction would be to their set. Brian referred to him as their secret weapon and he wasn’t wrong; the response was immediate and overwhelming.
(video from My Fairy King’s YouTube uploads)
And of course, Freddie had that unique voice, that enormous range with the capability to produce a strong falsetto register too. There have been many great rock singers since the 1960s but there are few who could cover so many different styles of music in the way that he did. Queen’s music often defied categorisation; was it rock, pop – or something else? From the high camp of Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon to the classical structure of Innuendo, every album is packed with a range of musical styles and it was the sheer versatility of Freddie’s voice that made it possible.
I’ve watched the Wembley tribute concert many times and it never ceases to amaze me how other world-class singers found themselves doing battle with those vocal lines. Queen songs are difficult for many reasons; as well as the obvious challenge of the range, there are those shifts in style and often a harmonic complexity that you wouldn’t normally associate with rock music. And of course, you have to say something with the song; to just stand there and sing the words would be a travesty. This is the art of the frontman and Freddie had nailed this from early on in his career with Queen.
The whole frontman thing is an interesting subject on its own and a band can live or die on the quality of the man (or indeed, woman) who is the one with the microphone. Before Queen, particularly in the world of rock music, there wasn’t an awful lot of engagement with the audience at all, but they seemed to invent a whole new experience with their “more is more” philosophy. Freddie was their driving force, the channel for the music, and he stepped on stage as a larger-than-life character who was born to entertain.
Freddie the man was much more of an enigma; his partying lifestyle was legendary and ultimately the cause of his death, but behind all this was someone who was reserved and often self-deprecating. He also seemed to have a sense of his own mortality; during an interview some time before he contracted HIV/AIDS, he was asked what he would be doing in 20 years’ time. His immediate reply was, “I’ll be dead, darling;” he couldn’t have known at the time how prophetic these words were.
This sad day has come round again and next year it will be a quarter of a century since his passing. Freddie’s voice and performances are perfectly frozen in time for us by the technologies of recorded music and video. His spirit is still with us in this way even though he is long gone.
But Queen – and the music – still survive. Not long before Freddie died, he said “you can do what you want with my music, but don’t make me boring”. I think Brian and Roger have taken him at his word; the songs are still performed today, by Queen, covered by countless others and of course, they were woven into the We Will Rock You story. Queen will never be boring; the music is too vibrant, too varied for that. And the man who once laughed himself off as a “musical prostitute” was at the heart of it all.
(Video from Queen Official’s YouTube uploads)