Queen before Queen
Record Collector #199, March 1996

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EMBRACE

"He really wasn't into acknowledging that part of his life at all. Strangely, even when he bumped into Derrick Branche again in London, he wasn't particularly overjoyed. He wasn't averse to it, but he didn't suddenly embrace Derrick as a long-lost friend. They didn't take up their friendship at all." Freddie left St. Peter's in 1962, and in 1964, when Zanzibar won independence from Britain and civil unrest threatened, the Bulsara family moved to England, arriving in Feltham, Middlesex. Freddie, then seventeen, studied art and fashion 'A' level at Isleworth Polytechnic before moving on to Ealing College in the spring 1966.
 

He commuted from his home in Feltham most days, or crashed on the floor at a flat in Kensington rented by Chris Smith.
 
"Freddie was always interested in music," remembers Paul Humberstone, a flatmate of Smith's and another student at Ealing. "The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were his favourites, he was always playing air guitar and doing his Hendrix impersonations. He used to do a sort of showbiz stance. We thought he was joking around to amuse us. We used to call him Freddie Baby, and he used to say, 'Don't you worry, I'll be big one of these days. I'll be a real star'. No one believed him, because no one had heard him sing at that point." Freddie's scene soon revolved around Paul and Chris' flat in Addison Gardens, London W14, and by the beginning of 1969, around another flat in nearby Sinclair Road, which was occupied by, among others. Smile's Roger Taylor. Freddie was introduced to Smile by the group's singer, Tim Staffell, who also studied at Ealing. "It wasn't that I actively brought Freddie in," claims Tim, "it was just that you naturally fall in with people of a similar cultural leaning."
 
"Everyone around Smile used to gravitate towards Freddie, even though he wasn't in the band," adds Chris Smith, who - despite Slaffell's recollections in RC 197 - had actually been a founder member of Smile (see letters page this month). "Freddie was like the fifth member. He'd say to me, 'I wish I was in your group', and 'If I was in this band, I wouldn't do it that way'."
 
Inspired by Smile, Freddie began to experiment with music for the first time since leaving India. He initially began to practice with Tim, a friend called Nigel Foster, who was "a straight-laced advertising student", and with Chris Smith.
 
"We used to have jam sessions in the college," recounts Chris. "The first time I heard Freddie sing I was amazed. He had a huge voice. Although his piano style was very affected, very Mozart, he had a great touch. From a piano player's point of view, his approach was unique."
 
Chris and Freddie also attempted to write songs together. "I was doing a music degree at the same time," reveals Chris, "and I had the keys to the music department. Freddie used to get me to open it up, where we'd hammer away at the piano, trying to write. We were hopeless. He'd say, 'How come Brian and Tim can write songs like 'Step On Me' and 'Earth'?'. We were in awe of the fact that they could do this. It was quite magical. Only the Beatles could really write proper tunes.
 
"Freddie and I eventually got to write little bits of songs which we linked together like 'A Day In The Life' [a song of The Beatles from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ]. This makes sense when you consider 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. You know: 'Woke up, fell out of bed' , and 'I see a little silhouetto of a man'. It was an interesting way getting from one piece in a different key signature to another. But I don't think we actually finished anything. There was a cowboy-type song called 'The Real Life', which was actually reminiscent of the first part of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. That was the chorus at that time, although it could have been one of Brian's songs. I remember that distinctly. Freddie certainly taught me a lot at those sessions. He had a great, natural sense of melody. I picked that up straight away. For me that was the most interesting aspect of what he was doing."
 
Freddie left Ealing College in June 1969, with a diploma in graphic art and design, and a few commissions to draw ladies' corsets for adverts in local newspapers. He moved into Roger Taylor's flat in Sinclair Road, and that summer opened a stall with Roger at Kensington Market, initially selling artwork by himself and fellow Ealing students, and later Vicloriana or whatever clothes, new and secondhand, he could lay his hands on.
 
"He was quite flamboyant then," says Chris Smith, who recalls Freddie's taste beginning to embrace the top chic of satin, velvet and fur. "I remember buying a pair of red trousers in Carnaby Street and turning up at college thinking they were really sharp. But Freddie was there in a pair of crimson, crushed velvet ones like Jimi Hendrix wore - a bit of a dude. He was sitting there reading the 'Melody Maker' and he saw me, glanced down, and didn't say a word."
 
Freddie lived for music, and in August that year he seized upon the opportunity he'd been waiting for - to sing in a band. Too impatient to form one of his own, he did the next best thing and found himself a ready-made outfit. His quarry was Ibex, a Merseyside-based trio comprising two eighteen-year-olds, Mike Bersin (guitar and vocals) and John 'Tupp' Taylor (bass and vocals), and "a mad milk-man" drummer by the name of Mick 'Miffer' Smith. Bersin and Taylor had played together since 1966 in a band called Colour, earning a local reputation with a series of gigs at such noted venues as Manchester's Twisted Wheel Club and the Cavern in Liverpool. They'd even acted as pick-up band for cult British blues singer, Jo-Ann Kelly.
 
"Under the influence of Cream," reveals Mike Bersin, "we realised that you only needed three musicians: one at the low end, one for the middle and high, and one for the rhythm. You'd then solo endlessly until everybody flicked off to the bar."
 
"We were progressive," adds John 'Tupp' Taylor. "We wore hairy fur coats and grew our hair. We played a few improvised instnunentals which gathered form and almost became songs, but we never got around to completing any lyrics or melodies."

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