Queen before Queen
Record Collector #199, March 1996

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Virtually everyone who came into contact with Freddie Mercury in the late 60s tells the same story. Take Chris Smith, a fellow student of Freddie's at Ealing College, for instance: "Right from the start, before he'd even joined a band, Freddie would say, 'I'm going to be a pop star, you know'. I remember walking into the West Kensington pub in Elsham Road one day and Freddie was there with his head in his hands. 'What's the matter with you?', I asked. 'I'm not going to be a star', he replied. I said, 'You've got to be a star, you've told everyone. You can't let them down now. Come on.' And then he stood up, put his arms in the air and said, 'I'm not going to be a star. I'm going to be a legend!'."
Chris Smith, who also teamed up for a short while with Brian May and Roger Taylor in Smile, has the distinction of being the first person to collaborate with Freddie Bulsara - as he was then known - on his early attempts at songwriting. Another of Freddie's early musical partners was Mike Bersin, guitarist with Ibex, a progressive blues band from Merseyside, whom Freddie joined in 1969. "Freddie knew where he wanted to go," confirms Mike. "That's why he was an international star. It wasn't an accident. It happened because that's what he wanted to be from the moment I first met him. He was a man with a goal and a drive."

Even with Freddie as their frontman, though, Ibex were little more than an amateur outfit, managing to secure just three gigs in the summer of 1969. Freddie then changed their name to Wreckage, and another handful of inauspicious live shows followed. By the end of the year, it was all over, leaving Freddie to team up with another heavy blues band, the Surrey-based Sour Milk Sea. He set about moulding them to his ideal, too, but that engagement lasted only a matter of weeks. In April 1970, Freddie achieved the ambition which had been driving him for more than a year, when he joined Brian May and Roger Taylor in Smile. He changed thier name, too - to Queen.

In 1974, when Queen had their first hit with "Seven Seas Of Rhye" Freddie Mercury was nearly 28. By then he'd been singing, on and off, for sixteen years, more than half his life. The story starts a continent away on the East African spice island of Zanzibar, where Freddie was born Farookh Bulsara to Persian parents in September 1946. Zanzibar was then in its final throes as a British colony, and Freddie's father was a High Court cashier for the British government. In 1954, Bomi Bulsara's job took the family to India, and Farookh was sent to St. Peter's English boarding school in the hilltop retreat of Panchgani, about fifty miles out of Bombay.
"He talked about his background as if was repressive and enclosed," recounted another friend from Ealing College, Gillian Green, to Mark Hodkinson in "Queen - The Early Years". "You could tell he didn't like talking about it. He said he was so glad they had come to England."
Writing in the Mercury tribute book, 'This Is The Real Life', however, Farookh Bulsara's classmate Derrick Branche - who spent five years with him at St. Peter's in India - recalled that, "It was the best place I can think of for a kid to go to school. I can think of nothing ugly about the place or time we had there".
In 1958, five friends at St. Peter's - a 12-year old Farookh, who'd by now acquired the nickname 'Freddie', Branche, Bruce Murray, Farang Irani and the delightfully-named Victory Rana - formed the school's rock'n'roll band, the Hectics.
"It was as the piano player in the Hectics," wrote Branche, "that Freddie first performed as a musician, cranking out a mean boogie woogie even at that tender age. We would play at school concerts, at the annual fete, and at other such times when the girls from the neighbouring schools would come along and scream, just like they'd obviously heard that girls the world were beginning to do when faced with current idols such as Cliff Richard or Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Fats Domino, these last two being Freddie's and my particular favourites." Freddie was shy in the Hectics, and was content to let Bruce Murray bask in the 'lime-light' as frontman. The band wasn't allowed to perform outside the school grounds, but little else is known about them.
"Freddie confined his childhood to the very depths of a back closet," claims the co-author of "This Is The Real Life", David Evans, who it met first Mercury in 1974, while working for Queen's management company, John Reid Enterprises. "He never really talked about his life other than being in England. Ever.. To anyone. I always found it much more romantic than he did, but he'd say, 'Don't be silly, dear!" I'd ask him, 'What was it like in Zanzibar? It must have been so exciting,' and he'd say, "Dirty place! Filthy place, dear." There's not much you can say after that, is there?

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