One of the most revered and, to my mind, the greatest singer of all-time, has no equals, and surprisingly few contenders for his crown.
IT is a change of venue and landscape, with regard's to today's focus...
In the first, of 15 weekly installments, I am breaking away from highlighting new acts and music, instead turning my fond regard towards classic singers and bands. Not so much to please myself, but in order to gain the aforementioned artists, a new audience, and a renewed appreciation for them. In this edition, I am focusing on a man whom I consider to be the finest and most talented singer, there has ever been. Whilst many rock magazines overlook him, when deciding on the greatest and most influential singers of all-time, it is about time- some twenty one and a half years after his death, to give the man behind Queen, a fair shaking: Freddie Mercury.
The Man, In His Formative Years:
Born in Zanzibar on 5th September, 1946, the boy who was to become Freddie Mercury, was born in a culture and lifestyle, that would soon become a thing of his past. In his early childhood, Farrokh Bulsara, took to the piano as a seven year old, dedicating a great deal of time to practising the instrument, that was to feature prominently, in a great deal of Queen's greatest ever songs. Friends recall that the young boy, was able to recall perfectly songs he had heard on the radio, and replicate them on his piano. Unable to remain in Zanzibar, due to the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution, the family reallocated to Middlesex, where the king-in-waiting remained for the rest of his life. It was in 1970, that Bulsara became Mercury; and was during this time, that Brian May and Roger Taylor met Freddie, and the three of them formed Queen. Mercury was slyly aware of the connotations surrounding the name Queen, but explained that it has several different meanings and facets. The name Freddie Mercury was cemented, essentially as soon as the move to England took place. Whether a move to throw off some of his troublesome past, or purely in order to denote a new stage in his life, the man we all know and love, decided upon his path and ambition, as early as his early to mid twenties. Mercury knew, even this early in his life that he would be remembered, stating: "I am not going to be a star. I am going to be a legend". The band, the songs, the albums and live performances that soon followed, laid the foundations and fulfilled Mercury's bold prophecy.
Relationships and Personality:
Mercury was a very different human on stage, compared to the man he was, off. In Mercury's own words, he was shy and introverted. Mercury stated that he was an extrovert on stage, as that was whom the band were, and what he needed to do. He was a true showman, and someone who not only wanted to perform to a crowd and make his voice heard, but he wanted them to fall in love with him too. This side of Mercury is something I will explore more, but it is a curious that Mercury said that he was an extroverted performer "yet inside I'm a completely different man". Mercury granted few interviews, choosing instead, to be selective with whom he spoke to, preferring to have privacy and space off of stage, and away from the band. Mercury realised that, due to the nature of his profession, and the ensuing idolisation that he would receive, meant that long-term relationships and dedicated love, would be something that would be almost impossible. He compared it to Russian Roulette, explaining that it was difficult to be away from the spotlight, and find a semblance of normality. It was a focus and strain that would enforce his ambition and drive, but would perhaps put an irrevocable dent on potential happiness.
During the early '70s, Mercury began a relationship with Mary Austin, a woman of whom was to become a long-term fixture in Mercury's life, and the subject of a few of Queen's songs. They met through Brian May, and lived together for a few years (before Mercury began an affair with a record executive, which broke the relationship down). In Mercury's mind, Austin was his only true friend, and he considered her to be his common-law wife; someone whom was always there for him, and would receive his London home upon his death. It was a relationship that inspired several of Mercury's greatest tracks, including Love of My Life; a tender summation on a relationship that was pure, and unending. Mercury has relationships with other woman through the years, even as late of the mid '80s; but it was his male romances that grew most attention and speculation amongst the media. Although many today consider Mercury to be a homosexual, he was a bi-sexual, and someone who was open about all of his relationships. Publications such as NME were very bold and tactless with regards to the question of his homosexual relations. He didn't care what people though, and it was a perfectly natural side to his life. There is still a stigma to homosexuality today, bafflingly, but in the '70s, '80s, and even '90s there was a lot of prejudice from the public, as well as the media. Although Mercury was open about his relationships, he was occasionally forced to distance himself from boyfriends in public, at times, due to media scrutiny and overly-narrow obsession from many sectors of society.
As an instrument, and as Mercury's defining feature, it is something that is still marvelled at, and analysed, today. Mercury's speaking voice was a baritone, but was a natural tenor. His range went from a bass low F, through to a soprano high F, with an incredible diversity in-between these notes. He is an artists that is mentioned alongside Prince, Michael Jackson and Rob Halford, with regards to a huge range of octaves and abilities. Mercury was selling his voice, and it was a voice that received no formal training or instruction; all of this was accomplished in spite of the fact that he has painful vocal nodules; an ailment that would occasionally affect some live performances. I will go into a lot more depth with regards to his voice, later in the profile, but it is one of the main reasons that I am so in awe of Mercury. It is an instrument that is still capable of stunning and overwhelming music lovers, this many years after his death. He was clearly a flamboyant and electric performer, but as Mercury saw it "Dullness is a disease", going on to say "I'm never scared of putting my self out on a limb".
Queen and The Albums:
The band was formed in the early '70s, and was quite a startling revelation for the young Mercury. In an era where a lot of bands possessed very little brains, and were quite homogeneous and predictable. Mercury encouraged his band-mates to be more experimental and by the time of Queen's debut album in 1973, the band has created a sound, influenced by hard rock and progressive rock. Their debut album was well received by critics, and contained Seven Seas of Rhye; a live favourite and future classic. It was an album defined by Queens legendary experimentation, instrumental passages, and vocal harmonies, and a great deal of attention was being paid to Mercury's voice and talent as a songwriter. Sheer Heart Attack and A Night At The Opera, built upon this groundwork, and fused sounds of music hall, reggae and heavy metal into the mix. It was at this point in their career, that Queen began diversifying, and pulling away from the traditional sounds of the day. Sheer Heart Attack contained Killer Queen, as well as a number of memorable tracks; but few would be featured on the greatest hits collections. It was an album that was strong and memorable, but perhaps not their strongest collection. The ensuing A Night At The Opera, was considered to be an early masterpiece, in no small parts due to Bohemian Rhapsody. It was a startling revelation from the band, and as well as being their greatest song to date, is rightfully considered as one of the best songs of all time. Subsequent albums A Day at the Races and News of the World, received mixed reviews, but also contained some of the band's most memorable songs, and cemented Queen's popularity. During the early and mid '80s, Queen moved into disco and dance music; a step that confounded a lot of critics, but provided a new range of sounds and songs. It was the nature of Mercury and the band as a whole, that they were ever-moving, and adventurous. By the time A Kind of Magic arrived in 1986, a lot of critics and music magazines, had fallen out of love with the band, feeling that the quality of the early albums was lacking. By the time of Innuendo in 1991, the band had moved back to replicating the flair and style of their early albums, but, with their front-man in such poor health, very little touring was completed. It was an album that was a fitting tribute, and aside from the final release Made In Heaven, was one of the most tender and impassioned of Queens chronology.
The worldwide concert Live Aid, held in 1985, was an event that showed why Mercury was one of the most talented and electric live performers ever. Queen performed for 20 minutes, during which, Mercury lead the crowd of 72,000 in unison refrains, and drew them into every song. It has been voted as the greatest live performance of all time, and highlighted Mercury the extrovert. He parades the stage, moves, switches, dances, and gets everyone in the audience involved, and singing along. It is a performance that galavanised Wembley Stadium, and I implore you seek out the full performance on YouTube (link to part 1, is at the bottom of the page); it shows just what an extraordinary showman Mercury was. The private man was a shy and introverted human, but the performer Mercury was an unleashed colossus. The Live Aid performance was the definition of what it is to perform, truly: to have the crowd in your hand. Mercury himself said: "I'm so powerful on stage I seem to have created a monster". If you view the performance in its entirety, it is clear how in awe Mercury is of the situation, the audience, and the event; it is reciprocated too, creating a spellbinding live feat.
Although not as commercially successful as his work with Queen, Mercury yearned for a change. In interviews he stated that he spent so much time with the band, that he needed to get away from it, and create his own music on his own terms. His first solo album, Mr. Bad Guy, was well received by critics, many noting how strong it was from start to finish. It has a more disco/dance-orientated feel to it, at a time (1985) when Queen's foray into the genres were faring poorly. In spite of any preconceptions, the album showed a liberated Mercury able to spread his wings artistically, and make an album he wanted to. His first and truest love would always be the band, but given space and time away from the hectic life of Queen, Mercury was able to craft 11 songs that were as true to him, as any he had ever written. The follow up album, Barcelona, was more operatic and dramatic in feel; written as it was, to feature heavily soprano Montserrat Caballe. Aside from the sweeping title track, which was featured to coincide with the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, it was an album that fared less well than Mr. Bad Guy. Although both performers were at the top of their game, and brought the songs alive, it was seen as too simplistic and some of the more pop-orientated tracks did not fully suit Caballe's voice. The solo endeavours by Mercury just emphasied what a diverse and dedicated artist he was, and how much of a prolific artist he was, too.
Freddie, The Songwriter:
Mercury once said that "I don't want to change the world with our (Queen's) music"; stating that he was a songwriter who wrote for the modern consumer. Mercury was ever-modest about his abilities as a songwriter, and the effect his tracks would have on future generations. Mercury was responsible for writing most of Queen's greatest songs, including Bohemian Rhapsody, Somebody to Love and We Are the Champions. According to Mercury, he did not consider himself an especially talented pianist, although it is at the piano that he wrote most of his songs. He could barely read music, yet was able to compose a wide range of musical styles; some songs employed dozens of chords and notes, and Mercury himself said how he didn't like to stay put as a songwriter; preferring to incorporate a wide range of styles and genres over the course of an album. In my mind, he one of the most underrated songwriters ever, and given that he was responsible for the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Somebody to Love, it is staggering that he is not held in the same regard as the likes of Pete Townsend and John Lennon, as great rock and pop writers.
The Final Years:
It was well documented; the fact that Mercury was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. He kept the news to himself, seeing it as only his business. It was only publicly announced a day before his death, that he had AIDs, and Mercury preferred to keep his private life that; he continued to work as hard as ever and buried himself in music and work with the band. As late as the early '90s, it couldn't escape the wider attention, that something was seriously wrong. Mercury appeared haggard and frail in public, and during the video for These Are the Days of Our Lives, Mercury was very unsteady, barely able to walk. In his final days and months, Mercury was largely bed-ridden, and only allowed a statement to be released to confirm his illness, one day before he died, on 24th November, 1991. Mercury was 45, and had lived a hell of a life. He said himself: "I don't have aspirations to live to 70"; going on to say that "if I'm dead tomorrow I don't give a damn". He was a man dedicated to his music and reaching an audience, and during a fairly brief life, had made more of an impact most do in twice that time.
His legacy is clear. Magazines and websites constantly rank him in the top 10 lists of the greatest singers of all time. It is inescapable at just how good a singer he was. He should be cemented as number 1 in all lists, as I find him far superior to the likes of Robert Plant and Elvis Presley. Those artists came before Mercury yet possessed few of his idiosyncrasies and talents. Mercury had that astonishing range; but also a conviction that few posses. Considering the nature of some of Queen's songs, it is all the more impressive that such conviction and passion could be elicited. Mercury did not play it safe as a songwriter; choosing to push himself and never rest; test his voice and say what he wanted to say- not what convention said he should. This reflects the man himself. He liked his privacy, but knew that he was human, and wanted people to understand that. On stage he gave the crowds what they wanted, and so much more. In the studio he continued to baffle and surprise; and away from all of that he lived his life with richness, but gave little away. He was a man whom wanted respect and love, and was rewarded as such. To my mind, there are still too few aware of Mercury's potency. I recently saw a poll where Axl Rose was voted the greatest rock front-man of all time (Mercury was 3rd, I think). Considering Rose is a homophobic, misogynistic, racist, megalithic, ego-bloated, vile tapeworm of a human: infested by his own sense of self-importance, it is a sorry state of affairs. In terms of pound for pound, Rose may edge Mercury with relation to octave range, and can hit higher highs, but taken out of the equation, and add in what really matters, Mercury has no equals. He was a man that should inspire more people than he does. Whether the lack of ardent revering and tribute owes as much to a lack of comparable talent, or a fear of some sort, is hard to say. I suspect it is the former. Mika sort of had a go- and still does- but he is a third-rate equivalency of Mercury. He has some of the pomp and vocal trickery, but little of Mercury's range, passion and songwriting ability; he comes off as a mawkish tribute act and is too close for comfort at times. As we are so far past the point where Mercury last performed, it is sad that so few male singers choose the path of sensitive troubadour, and there are so few willing to be more flamboyant, imperial, and bold. I hope this change. But you can't deny what a human being he was.
Sasha Baron Cohen is currently limbering up to play Mercury, in a forthcoming biopic. Cohen has the looks, and many say, his vocal chops aren't too bad, either. They are not going to be Mercury good, but the point of the film will be to bring into focus, a talent whom deserves to be in focus a lot more. From my perspective he has inspired me as a songwriter and singer. The fact that he didn't record his best material until his late 20s and early 30s, has given me a lot of food for thought. I am too worried, that I have a voice and a lot written, but nothing on tape. I have been waiting, honing and bidding time; hoping that the current crop of songs I am working on, will be the beginning of a brief, but bustling career. As a songwriter, Mercury inspires experimentation and diversification. Few singers today do so in the same way, and it is because of Mercury that I have begun a- perhaps fruitless- attempt, at writing a Bohemian-Rhapsody style track. The frustration with that is, that it is unlikely to be topped. It is a majestic track that seems alien in its brilliance, and is impossible to write something comparable that would ever get within touching distance. As a singer, Mercury was self-taught, and honed his voice young, absorbing the world around him, and incorporating that into his tones. Mercury was a talent who amazes me still; when I listen to songs like The Show Must Go On, it is staggering how he lacerates the vocal in one take. He was so frail when recording it, that May advised him not to go for it; Mercury instead, took a drink and said "Fuck it darling. I'll do it". Knowing he was not long for the world, he was able to stay happy and focused, and subsequently turned in one of the greatest vocals of all time. It was his power and conviction that always gets me. You believe every note and syllable, and never doubt the authenticity and intention being proferred. Often Mercury would shred his vocals after a particularly intense performance; which annoyed and angered him, but he was aware of the risk given his passion and potential. As a human being, he is possibly most inspiring. In interviews he is warm and playful, and always engaging. He did not succumb to some pathetic desire for fame and the kind of cretinous regard many reality show losers crave. He was a performer at heart, whom wanted his private life compartmentalised. It was this separation that meant he did not burn out or tire of music. He had a cheeky side; he had a temper at times, and always he was an example of a man who should inspire everyone. For musicians, there are no equals when looking for idols; and for anyone else he showed how a life should be lived. I'm sure he was scared of death- everyone is, that's a fact; yet he didn't let it drag him down, dedicating some of his last months to performing and getting as much on record as possible. That strength in the face of adversity is inspiring. I hope that 2013/2014 shows glimmers of someone willing to at least incorporate some of Mercury's ambition, into their own songs and voice. In an age of saturation and too much nauseating mimicry and unoriginal stylising; it is sadly unlikely. I live in hope, and if I have to overcome every physical, emotional and financial barrier in my way, I will give it a damn good shot. That is what Mercury does: he makes you want to be him; but is going to be that kind of voice and talent that no one will ever be able to beat... and no one will ever be excused from ignoring.
Mercury's Top 10 (Studio) Vocal Performances- (in no particular order):
Seek these out, please :)
Who Wants To Live Forever (with Brian May)
Under Pressure (with David Bowie)
The Show Must Go On
Barcelona (With Montserrat Caballe)
Don't Try So Hard
Somebody To Love
Another One Bites the Dust
I Want to Break Free
Essential Queen Albums:
A Night at the Opera; Jazz; A Kind of Magic.
Interview/Important Links (Open in a new tab):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4XgdWDhvQw (Last interview)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQsM6u0a038 (Live Aid performance)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDQ5t-2E8Tc (Making of One Vision)
Further Reading (Open in a new tab):