Saturday will mark 27 years since the death of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. It's hard to believe he's been gone that long.
For me, Queen has always held a special place in my musical heart. They weren't the first band that I was a huge fan of; that would have to be reserved for KISS. I had heard "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions," "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Bicycle Race" on the radio in the 1970s, but it wasn't until the release of "The Game" in 1980 that their music became a significant influence on my life. Once I bought "The Game" I had to have more, and soon I had every album the band had released in the 1970s. And I continued purchasing their music throughout the 80s and beyond.
I'm not sure what it is about the band's music that captured my soul, all I know is that it did. Maybe it was the way the foursome easily transitioned from one genre to another, never afraid to experiment with new sounds and branch out into new horizons.
From the opening riffs of "Keep Yourself Alive" on their debut album, "Queen" to Mercury's last recorded vocal on "Mother Love" on their final album, 1995's "Made In Heaven" (released after Mercury's death), this band has never failed to entertain and enlighten me.
Over the last few years I had gotten away from their music. I guess I had listened to so much of it I was burned out. Then with the recent release of the movie, "Bohemian Rhapsody," (which, by the way, I haven't seen yet. I've been torn about going to see it since I know there are several inaccuracies in the film), I started to once again listen to their music, and I found that after all these years it still resonates in my soul.
Take "Innuendo," for example. This was the final album that Mercury was able to contribute whole heartedly to as his battle with AIDS ravaged his body. (He was the first major rock star to died from the disease). I don't think I had really listened to that album since its release in 1991, but I popped it into my CD player in the car the other day and listened to it on my drive to and from work. And I was amazed at what I heard.
There's not a bad song on the album. The title track is a classic. "I'm Going Slightly Mad" is a light-hearted number that is packed with funny lines. "Headlong" is a rocker in every sense of the word. "Delilah" is a song about, well, Mercury's favorite calico cat by the same name. It's another fun tune even if drummer Roger Taylor hated it. There are two tunes that really stand out to me" "These Are the Days of Our Lives" and "The Show Must Go On." When you listen to the lyrics and watch the videos, they mean so much more now that you know what Mercury was going through.
On "The Show Must Go On" I cried when Freddie sings "Inside my heart is breaking, my make-up may be flaking but my smile still stays on." Guitarist Brian May was worried that Freddie was too ill to sing the song and wouldn't be physically capable of singing the song's highly demanding vocal line. Mercury's response? He consumed a measure of vodka and said "I'll (expletive) do it, darling!"And he did.
The video for "These Are the Days of Our Lives," was Mercury's last appearance in a video, and at the end, he looks straight at the camera and whispers, "I still love you." This was his goodbye to his fans all over the world. Again, it brings a tear to my eye.
Mercury was an interesting individual, to say the least. Born Farrokh Bulsara in what was then Zanzibar. It was when he was sent to St. Peter's School near Bombay (now Mumbai) that he started calling himself "Freddie" and showed an interest in music. He was always known as a quiet and shy man, which was a complete opposite of his stage persona. I think part of this had to do with his teeth, as he was born with four supernumerary incisors. I believe he was very self-conscious of this. If you watch some of his (rare) interviews he seems to try and not smile or hid his mouth when he does. He also claimed that it was same teeth which allowed him to be the amazing singer he was (with a 3 to 4 octave range).
Onstage, he was a dynamo, able to whip a crowd into a frenzy with just a basic "A, Oh." Don't believe me? Go to Youtube and search for "Queen at Live Aid." Watch the video. Watch how the crowd responds to his commands. Remember, this wasn't a "Queen" crowd. This was a crowd who bought tickets for the event long before any acts were named. But Mercury had them eating out of the palm of his hand. That's the kind of showman he was. He once described the band as "the Cecil B. DeMille of rock and roll."
Freddie lived a rock star's lifestyle, and in the end that said lifestyle led ultimately to his death. He found out he was HIV positive sometime in 1987 (yes, after the Live Aid performance, though the movie makes you believe otherwise). Still he pressed on, continuing to record with the band. They last toured in 1986. That's one of the biggest regrets I've had, not seeing them in concert. I had a chance in 1982 when they played in Cincinnati during the "Hot Space" tour. But I really didn't want to travel to Cincy, and I was sure they would play either Lexington or Knoxville. But they didn't. And they never toured the United States again.
You can thank the video for "I Want to Break Free" for that. Queen had released "The Works" in 1984 and "Radio Ga Ga" catapulted them back onto the American charts, reaching No 16 on Billboard and No. 14 on Cash Box. There was a renewed excitement in the band that had waned after the release of "Hot Space" which I thought had some good (although different) tunes on it. Check out "Put Out the Fire," "Las Palabras de Amor (The Words of Love)", "Back Chat" and "Calling All Girls."
Anyway, their next release was "I Want to Break Free," and in the video, they four dressed in drag as a nod to the British soap opera "Coronation Street." I thought it was clever and funny. Of course, this being the 1980s in America, things were still a little uptight, and MTV even banned the video. Radio stations refused to play the single. And Queen's popularity in America, to paraphrase their 1980 No. 1 smash, "bit the dust."
This band could do it all. Want hard rock? Well, check out "Tie Your Mother Down," "Dragon Attack," "I Want it All," "Hammer to Fall," "Tear it Up," and "Sheer Heart Attack." Speed metal? Give "Stone Cold Crazy" and "Modern Times Rock and Roll" a listen. Power pop? "It's Late," "I'm In Love with My Car" "I Can't Live With You" and "Don't Stop Me Now" come to mind. Love songs? "Love of My Life" (written for ex-girlfriend Mary Austin, who he left the bulk of his estate to), "You're My Best Friend," and "Sail Away Sweet Sister" fit the bill.
That's the thing about this band. They could do it all. And they did. All four of them have written a No. 1 song. Take the album "Jazz" for example. Many people wondered, why would a rock band call their album "Jazz?" But you see, if you listen to the album, you'll understand way. Jazz as an art form is free flowing, without constraints. And that's exactly what this album is. From the opening Moroccan influenced "Mustapha" to the swing sound of "Dreamer's Ball" and everything in between, this album embodies the essence of jazz.
All four (Mercury, May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon) were highly-educated individuals. Heck, May has a doctorate in astrophysics. And his guitar sound is unmistakable. The minute you hear it you know it's him. All four have been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. May and Taylor both have exceptional voices and have sung several Queen tunes and could easily have fronted any other band.
But this wasn't any other band. If you have a vocalist with the talent of Mercury, you present them front and center. And that's what Queen did.
Another thing that impressed me about this band was in their final years, when Mercury finally told them how sick he was. They went to extreme lengths to hide his illness. And when he informed them he couldn't tour anymore, they didn't tour. They didn't go looking for a replacement (hear that, Journey and Styx?). They stuck by Freddie until the day he died. His death hit Deacon especially hard, as he retired from the music business following the release of "No-One But You (Only the Good Die Young), recorded by the three remaining members and released in 1997. His bass playing was criminally underrated. Sure, the bass line to "Another One Bites the Dust" is simplistic. But that it from someone who plays the bass. While I can play the notes, it doesn't have the same sound as Deacon. It's in the way that you play it that matters.
And while May and Taylor have both continued touring, it has always been as "Queen +" whoever was singing, whether it be Paul Rodgers or Adam Lambert.
Talented? You bet. Bombastic? Oh yeah. Over the top? Definitely. Boring? Never.
That was, and is, Queen. Long Live Queen and Freddie Mercury. You are gone but not forgotten. Your music still lives on.