Queen’s irreplaceable frontman would have been 70 today. He’d have been great on Twitter, says lifelong fan Sooz Kempner.
I don’t know when I first considered myself a Queen fan but in 1989 I sang Killer Queen for anybody who would listen (I was four so literally everybody listened). A song about a high-class prostitute wouldn’t be anybody’s first choice for a kid to sing but, guys, I really knocked that shit out of the park.
Various big moments throughout my life have been scored by Freddie Mercury. At our school leavers’ concert I sat at the piano and played Friends Will Be Friends, not feeling remotely self-conscious about the fact that Mercury was a cracking pianist and Sooz Kempner… not so much.
Throughout my first year of uni, whenever I felt down/lame I would play Queen’s first album in its entirety, from Keep Yourself Alive right through to the instrumental version of Seven Seas of Rhye.
All things Queen came to a head this August when I performed a standup hour called Queen about my life as a Queen fan at the Edinburgh festival. All ages came to the show: I think my youngest audience member was 11 (to that kid, I acted as a cautionary tale on why you should not become a comedian) and I also had an audience member so old that she fell asleep in the fifth row. It was only age that caused her to be snoozy, I swear; the show itself was an exciting rollercoaster.
For me there is a Queen song for every occasion. For angry retribution there is Death on Two Legs. For epic triumph there is Princes of the Universe. For a case of the blues there is My Melancholy Blues and for the first throes of new romance there is The Millionaire Waltz.
Queen itself was a true unit; four incredible musicians who, for two decades, released scores of albums showcasing virtuosity and versatility. And also Hot Space (Hot Space is not a good album, guys. It is Under Pressure and then 10 tracks you’d rather forget. But even Einstein had an off day, I’m sure).
In writing my solo show about lovin’ Queen I realised that Queen are not a band you grow out of. The music ages with you and much of it simply doesn’t date. A song as weird as The March of the Black Queen (the bonkers cousin of Bohemian Rhapsody) doesn’t really belong in any era, it’s timeless. And that’s the word that sums up Freddie Mercury: timeless.
Today is Mercury’s 70th birthday but unfortunately November this year will also mark 25 years since we lost him. He was making music right up until his death (some of these late recordings feature on Made in Heaven) and his frank announcement just before he died that he had AIDS did much to raise awareness of the disease. His death at 45 was a tragedy; his legacy saw him hailed as the world’s greatest frontman.
And that’s what I’d like to write about last here: Mercury the man and the performer. Because ending with his death is too sad and it was unquestionably far too soon. He commanded the stage like no other, moving with grace and masculinity Elvis could only dream of. The most famous example of his phenomenal stagecraft is of course Queen’s landmark set at Live Aid in 1985 where an estimated international crowd of 1.5bn were held in the palm of Mercury’s hand.
His strutting power as a frontman is worth nothing, though, without THAT voice. Freddie Mercury’s voice is something that can’t be taught (multiple casts of We Will Rock You are testament to that).
With the range of the highest tenor but the depth and richness of an operatic baritone, he soared through lyrical folk-inspired prog (see Nevermore and The Fairy Feller’s Master–Stroke for evidence), gospel (Somebody to Love) and the heaviest of heavy rock (Stone Cold Crazy, guys, treat yourselves to the ultimate traffic jam track). Queen’s talent as songwriters saw them cover so many genres and succeeding in part due to the ease with which he turned THAT voice to literally anything.
In contrast to his onstage persona Freddie Mercury was said to be sweet, chilled and even shy behind the scenes. In an 80s interview he joked, “You look at me now and I’m really quite boring.” He was no shrinking violet though. Legend has it that in a recording session in the late 70s a young Sid Vicious was making a nuisance of himself in a neighbouring studio. Squaring up to Mercury, Sid must have been surprised to have been held against a wall, called “Jack Ferocious” and told to fuck off. I think he’d have been fantastic on Twitter.
We don’t have Freddie Mercury anymore but he left us with so much of himself that the show truly does go on. Before he died, he said to his manager, Jim Beach, “Just never make me boring.” Boring is something Mercury never could have been and hearing him sing is as exciting to me now as it was in 1989. Happy Birthday, Freddie… to me you’ll always be the champion of the world.
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Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.