What's all the fuss about?", I was asked by a sadly out of touch individual. "I could understand if it was Frank Sinatra. Well, in case you hadn't realised, Memory was the consummate rock performer, who for ten glorious years cavorted about the world's theatres and stadiums, stunning audiences with his awesome vocal delivery, and mesmerising and often amusing onstage antics. (Not to mention his intriguing offstage life.) He was consistently rated by Fleet Street as the king of the rock jungle, outdoing illustrious peers such as Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Robert Plant summed Freddie up as a 'true performer' while to Paul Young he was 'the ultimate'.
Recently, Roger Daltrey said that, even without Freddie, the Queen sound is still there when Brian, Roger and John plug in their instruments and blast it out - as they did with the Who songster at the Mercury tribute gig, in 1992. But there more to Freddie than just his voice - spinetingling and exhilarating as it could be. There was an undefinable presence about him. A mystique, or an aura, if you will. When he started trilling his, to all intents and purposes, nonsensical "dee dee dayo" roundelay, to the audience, and raised his arm aloft in a tongue-in-cheek defiance, he evoked a wholehearted, blood''n'thunder response like no other rock star. Witness Live Aid in 1985, where Freddie raised the roof even when there wasn't one! Queen were the act on the day, and it was Freddie's showmanship as much as anything else that won over even the sceptics. U2? Bollocks. Those were the days of our lives! Hard rockin' majesty.
True, the Queen quartet delivered infectious stadium anthems unparalleled in rock. But you've gotto be able to make people really believe in you to carry them off. Freddie did that with superlatrive easiness, playing to a crowd of 250 at a Fan Club gig, 2,500 at Hammersmith Odeon, or 250,000 at Rio, that marked out the Queen man as one in five billion.
Almost evertybody, bar the odd Old Blue Eyes fan, is familiar with the startling Freddie vocal range - simpering, testy balladeer, would-be operatic diva, funky pop hipster, and hard rockin' demigod. Remember him this way: hitting the high notes, holding and masterfully shaping them for unfeasible lengths of time, while almost perpetually whirring about the place with a devil-may-care dervish intensity and, at the end of it, a boyishly toothy grin. Whatever vocal or ridiculously over-the-top visual style he adopted, he excelled in that role. And it was the distinctiveness of the Mercury tones that truly told. Amidst a sea of vox populi, he was unmistakeable, almost unmimicable.
That said, when I attended the Freddie tribute gig at Wembley, along with 72,000 fellow rockers who'd got tickets during the six-hour selling frenzy, there was more than one smirking face when George Michael took to the stage. They were soon unsmirked. For as everyone but the most pigheaded would admit, old Giorgios came as near to Freddie's timbre and power as anyone could. Quite a shock after the likes of Axl Rose, Elton, and Metallica! It's been rumoured ever since that the life-long Anglo-Greek Queen fan will join the ranks of his heroes, and I for one wouldn't complain - if only to keep the Queen sound alive. Yet, no-one, Officer George included, could truly fill the shoes of the quick-silvered singer. There may be similarities in their personal lives, but who could imagine Mr Michael parading at the end of a two-how visual and sonic blitz in a crown and twenty-foot ermine robe and carrying it off?!
At Queen's last concert, at Knebworth Park, in 1986, around 300,000 people poured into the grassy natural bowl, No tickets were checked that day, for what Brian May called Queen's 'biggest gig ever". It was as if the masses knew this would be Freddie's swansong. And it showed. He gave it his all, and the gigantic throng responded in kind. In his trademark white trousers and cut-down top, he rushed about the stage like a man possessed, streaking through all the Queen classics like the shooting-star-burning-through-the-sky that he was. With the world's biggest ever stage and lighting rig as a backdrop, only someone of unrivalled charisma could draw every eye to the distant figure on the stage.
Freddie did that with aplomb. Playing to the crowd was his vocation, playing the piano a respite. And after his solo vocal spot, and several minutes of scale-running and communal chanting with the fervent army of fans, he laughed aloud, "You're too good. Fuck off.' Moments like that made him not only a star but, somehow, one of the mob. A man with a very different world and lifestyle to most of us, but a man in touch. He made you feel that. Even if, like me, you're not a true fanatic, it's easy to understand the awe in which Queen cohorts hold their musical god. Freddie gave his all, and the people about him felt it. How many rock stars could you genuinely say that about?
The Mercury solo body of work never struck me as much as his group endeavours, but you have to admit the gusto with which he attacked his operatic moments. "Barcelona' could have descended into visual Laurel and Hardy farce to the more sceptical. But Freddie, as ever, grabbed the bull by the homs and showed Pavarotti the way to chart success. 'The Great Pretender' was an opus in self-deprecation but, paradoxically, it was the Freddie persona that made it such a glorious triumph.
If other songs failed to scale the heights, they invariably lacked that grandiose energy that touched the nerve of the record-buying public. We demanded more than just a good tune. We wanted another bit of magic that only Freddie could conjure. That was his greatest gift, and the gift that he left us all. Not just a splendid musical legacy, but the memory of his almost supernatural ability to utterly spellbind an audience and take it with him on his musical journey. Old Frankie boy may have transported people to the Big Apple with his crooning, but Freddie took you all the way to the top of the Empire State Building.
The memory of Queen's charismatic singer lives on through the Mercury Phoenix Trust charity - and, of course, the man's music. But there are other ways to remember Freddie, like collecting the colourful and often bizarre editions in his relatively limited solo back catalogue.
First, some, scene-setting: before teaming up with his regal consorts, the young Farrokh Bulsara (the correct spelling, according to his family) of Zanzibar played in a local school band called the Hectics, who played a number of in-house functions between 1959 and 1961. After moving to Britain, Freddie joined Ibex, a Liverpudlian outfit based in Kensington, in 1969. Among their repertoire was an early version of 'Liar', which ended up on Queen's first album. After a colourful time on Merseyside, and the loss of the band's drummer, Freddie changed their name to Wreckage. Then, early in 1970, he replied to an ad for a vocalist for Sour Milk Sea (named after a George Harrison song), who folded soon afterwards. A few weeks later, he linked up with Brian May and Roger Taylor in Smile, and eventually, with John Deacon. The rest, as they say, is rock history.
The solo story starts in 1973, when, in response to Gary Glitter, Freddie adopted the glam sobriquet of Larry Lurex and, with the help of Brian and Roger (who played on the A-side of his single), released his inimitable version of the Beach Boys' hit, 'I Can Hear Music". Although it hardly made an impression at the time, the release won belated fame when scores of pirated copies of the disc were unearthed in a Scouse attic in the early 90s, making national press and TV headlines - in part because the Liverpool workmen were using the records as frisbees on their worksite! The official single is now rated at a lofty £200 (or £250 for a demo copy, only 250 of which were made), and it requires kid-gloves handling due to the weakness of the fragile plastic used in its manufacture. As with many such items, it's been extensively and professionally bootlegged (so avoid solid-centre copies), The US promo version on Anthem, with 'I Can Hear Music" on both sides, fetches £l25, while the stock copy is worth £200. But the ultra-rare South African issue outdoes them both, at £300, while the German 7", with its unique picture sleeve, commands equally impressive numbers of Deutschmarks.
Following this first solo outing, Freddie confined himself to group work for the next decade. But in 1984, he released the heartfelt 'Love Kills'. Recorded with Giorgio Moroder for his soundtrack to the restored, colorised version of Fritz Lang's classic film Metropolis, it made the UK Top 10 (outselling Queen's concurrent release, 'Hammer To Fall'). Variants include a Spanish picture sleeve with lyrics (white-label demo copies sell for £60), and a Japanese insert picture sleeve.
Freddie's Top 20 follow-up, "I Was Bom To Love You", spawned a whole host of hard-to-get, saliva-inducing gems. Among the most sought-after are two 12" Mexican coloured vinyls - red or green - rated at more pesetas than you can carry (£350). There's also the 50-copy Japanese DJ 7" test pressing in a wrapround xerox picture insert, with generic sleeve and bag (£250), and a promo-only 12" that was produced for store reps to tout about Tokyo and Kyoto. Only 50 examples of this hard-to-find disc were produced in its unique picture sleeve and, backed by "Sense Of Purpose' by disco band Third World, a copy can be yours for a mere £350. There's also the little affair of an even more uncommon Brazilian 33rpm 7" which will cost you a return fare to Rio (£600).
Mr Bad Guy
Mr Bulsara's debut solo album, 'Mr Bad Guy', emerged in Britain in 1985. In its sleevenotes, he thanked the other members of Queen "for not interfering". The CD (now rated at £IOO) featured three extra 12" mixes, Canadians had a different rear sleeve and insert (£l25), and there was another variant flip design for Japan (£200). Slated by the press, the album wasn't up to top Queen standards, but still hit No. 6. And it did lead to the Queen-like brick of a single, 'Made In Heaven'. This song sports classic Freddie vocals, and test pressing uncut shaped picture discs (the size of a 12" platter) have soared in value in recent years. Prior to Freddie's death they were going for £25, but now you'll do well to get change from a grand!
For those who can't afford one of those (which is almost all of us), there's a Spanish one-sided promo, or an insert-adorned issue from the land of the rising sun, at £60 a pop. Alternatively, if you have a penpal who lives in the rainforests, you could get a Brazilian 33rpm with a unique picture sleeve, and featuring three other artists (Bryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper and, aptly, Sting). It costs £75.
At the same time, our yankee cousins were treated to "Living On My Own', with an improved version of 'My Love Is Dangerous' to keep it company. A one-sided Spanish promo makes up for this omission with an unique picture cover (£75).
While Queen's "One Vision" rocked the charts, Freddie's 'Love Me Like There's No Tomorrow" ballad barely caused a ripple. Still, a British 12" double-pack, shrinkwrapped with two stickers, comes in at an inflationary £150, while a white label promo 12" in card sleeve with sticker goes for half that.
After contributing to Dave Clark's stage musical, Time, in 1986, Freddie loaned a duet with Jo Dare, 'Hold On", to the original soundtrack of the film Zabou. Scheduled for release in West Germany - but withheld, presumably due to low audiences and/or copyright shenanigans - it was bootlegged as a 7" (with Tina Turner on the B-side). The official CD now warrants £100.
After Queen's Magic Tour of 1986, the next Mercury solo offering was a 1987 cover of the Platters' "The Great Pretender". With a suitably daft video, it reached No. 4, helped along the way by a raft of novelties. A shaped picture disc with unfolded card plinth appeared (£90, or £70, if it's folded), and there was an Argentine 12" with unique picture sleeve (£75). Hong Kong also had two 12"s, backed by the Pet Shop Boys ("It's A Sin'), with a clear vinyl copy being pegged at £150, while you'll need to add another £50 for the black vinyl version. There's another treat, in the shape of the uncut UK shaped picture disc - a mere £500.
At the end of '87, it was divas united, with Iberian opera singer Montserrat Caballe joining Freddie for the next-but-one Olympics' theme tune, 'Barcelona". With its TV-friendly signature, it made the Top 10 (and No. 2, when reissued during Spain's Olympic year, 1992). The real pick of this particular track, though, is a seldom seen promo-only Japanese 3" CD that was given to just fifty Polydor executives as a memento. Should you be so lucky enough to locate one, expect to shell out £850. A smidgeon less, at around £300, is a British promo-only CD, with 250 copies, all signed by Freddie. Somewhat easier to obtain, the Japanese single with insert picture sleeve sells for £75.