Queen before Queen
Record Collector #199, March 1996

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MYSTERY

Apart from pre-Queen titles like the previously-documented 'Lover' and the newly-discovered 'Vagabond Outcast', plus the three originals disclosed in Freddie's letter to Celine Daley; there are a further four contenders for the title of the mystery track. That's the number of unknown Freddie songs stencilled and typed onto a piece of paper by Richard Thompson in October 1969. Richard has a recollection that one of these, "Universal Theme", was a Bulsara-Bersin guitar instrumental, which leaves three songs in the running - "Boogie", "One More Train" and "FEWA", the last of which Sour Milk Sea's Chris Chesney recalls was an acronym for "Feelings Ended, Worn Away". Unless any other tapes miraculously surface, Freddie's words and melodies to such songs can only be imagined.
 

Despite the arduous rehearsal, no one seems to recall Wreckage's debut at Ealing College, but Richard Thompson once again comes up trumps with a typewritten setlist for the gig. In addition to playing all ten of Freddie's originals mentioned above, Wreckage created an intriguing new live concoction by tagging the Beatles' "Rain" into "1983" - not a reference to Brian May's former band, but the dreamy psychedelic soundscape from Freddie's favourite LP, Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland" . They ended the set with "Let Me Love You" , no doubt inspired, once again, by the version on Jeff Beck's "Truth" .
 
Only an impression of Wreckage in general remains: "It was a far better group than Ibex, because of Fred," recalls Geoff Higgins. "Mike's guitar playing and Tupp's bass playing were always excellent, but Fred made it gel. It was a proper progressive rock band, which is what they'd always wanted it to be."
 
Better than Ibex they may have been, but the brief hislory of Wreckage isn't nearly as well documented. Only a handful of gigs were booked under that Iron Butterfly at Imperial College - possibly at the 5th November 1969 gig listed in Freddie's letter to Celine Daley. "We also played somewhere in Richmond, at a nigby club," recalls John Taylor. "A friend of Brian May's arranged it, and Brian came along. He thought our image was 'savage'. He thought we were really good. 'Oh, savage!' he said."
 
What was probably the last Wreckage appearance took place at the 1969 Christmas dance at the Wade Deacon Grammar School For Girls in Widnes, apparently booked with the help of John Taylor's younger sister, who was a pupil at the school. (Members of Ibex had attended the corresponding institution for boys.) This date has gone down in history as the night when Freddie discovered what was to become his trademark. Fed up with the microphone stand he'd been using, he removed part of it from its base and leapt around the stage in his familiar fashion, gripping what amounted to a redundant three-foot pole attached to his mic.
 
"There are lots of legends about that," reckons Geoff Higgins. "It happened all the time, because we had a really crap microphone stand. It was one of those big, heavy three-legged ones that most jazz bands used. Fred liked to move around, and because it was too heavy, he used to unscrew the middle and take out the pole. He did it all the time. It was purely a practical thing."
 
Despite flashes of true potential, the end of the 1960s also marked the end of Wreckage. Gigs were few and far between, and while John Taylor, Richard Thompson and Freddie remained in London, Mike Bersin was committed to his college course in Liverpool. Inevitably, the band petered out.
 
"Before I went down to London," says Mike, "I told my parents what I wanted to do. They were completely horrified and had 'visions of me disappearing into the fag-end of swinging London in a haze of drink, drugs, sex and rock'n'roll, and never coming back again. They made me promise that if I got enough 'A' levels to go to art college, then I would do.. Eventually the letter came, and I had to tell the guys that a promise was a promise. I didn't have any regrets. It was fun, but I didn't perceive it as going anywhere. Freddie was serious, but we weren't. When we started to fall to pieces, he moved on to something else."
 
That "something else" was the Leatherhead-based quartet. Sour Milk Sea, for whom Freddie auditioned in early 1970 - probably February - after seeing a "Vocalist Wanted" advert in the 'Melody Maker'. "We were a blues-based four-piece, playing predominantly our own material, really influenced by Traffic," explains the band's Chris Chesney (then known as Chris Dummett). "I was the lead vocalist, trying to sing like Stevie Winwood, but really didn't have the right pipes for it. Plus, I wanted to move over to guitar."
 
The roots of Sour Milk Sea lay in a outfit called Tomato City, formed by public schoolboys Chesney and Jeremy 'Rubber' Gallop, who played rhythm guitar. In 1968, with Paul Milne on bass and original drummer Boris Williams (who, in the 1980s turned up in the Cure!), the band "played arts labs, as they were called then," remembers Chris. "People would come along and take their clothes off and scream poetry". Inspired by the George Harrison song of that name recorded by Jackie Lomax, the band became Sour Milk Sea in late '68. Williams was soon replaced by another public schoolboy, drummer Robert Tyrell, who had previously played behind Mike Rutherford and Anthony Phillips at Charterhouse, in a pre-Genesis band called the Anon.
 
Sour Milk Sea's debut performance took place at the Guildford City Hall, opening for up-and-coming acts like Taste, Blodwyn Pig, Deep Purple and Junior's Eyes. Although the band turned professional in June 1969, and had its own sizeable following, drawing audiences of around 100 people, they felt they needed a little something extra. Freddie Bulsara was just the ticket.

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