Today, the 24th of November, 2016, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the passing of the legendary Freddie Mercury. Yep — that’s a full quarter century without Freddie.
Best known as the flamboyant frontman of the rock band, Queen, Mercury boasted an impressive vocal range and power, which, coupled with his godlike stage presence, ensnared audiences. He was the face of a musical juggernaut that, if not dominated, then undoubtedly helped shape the progressive rock, glam rock and arena rock scenes throughout the ’70s and well into the ’80s.
Freddie was an accomplished songwriter, having penned and composed many of Queen’s greatest hits, including We Are the Champions, Killer Queen, Somebody to Love and, of course, the one song that every casual listener mentions when he claims to be a Queen fan, Bohemian Rhapsody.
He was also a capable instrumentalist (even if Freddie himself believed otherwise), as proven in his deft piano-playing heard on numerous Queen tracks. He even knew his way around a guitar as well and would join his bandmates on rhythm guitar whenever his rockabilly number Crazy Little Thing Called Love was performed live.
Mercury was a stubborn perfectionist who settled for nothing short of immaculate in the studio, and he also made it clear to fans that he wasn’t afraid of trying new things, as one can tell by the distinct change in Queen’s sound in the ’80s (for better or for worse). He was an artist who took risks and stuck to his guns. And, while he appreciated the support for his earlier work and achievements, he was never overly-reverent to his past and understood the hazards of complacency as well as the importance of continuing to grow.
I discovered several years ago the dangers of blindly idolising people when I learnt some harsh truths about John Lennon and the way he lived his life. This is why I take care in the manner in which I speak of Freddie Mercury. It may sound almost hypocritical of me to say he is not to be worshipped, but merely honoured and respected — given how much I listen to Queen music and the fact that I dressed as Freddie for Halloween this year. That being said, however, I can see how one might be tempted to glorify his being; he was, after all, truly awesome. And it sucks that the word awesome has been severely weakened through overuse — but I invoke its strong, intended meaning; Freddie Mercury filled his audiences with tremendous awe.
Above all else, Freddie Mercury was a man. A mortal man, subject to the same flaws that you and I possess. Perhaps this fact makes him all the more admirable. Unfortunately, as a human, he was also susceptible to the same diseases that plague people.
What’s remarkable is that, despite living within an increasingly frail body after being diagnosed with HIV in 1987, Freddie would continue to record music for four more years, providing material for Queen’s final three studio albums: The Miracle (1989), Innuendo (1991) and Made in Heaven, released posthumously in 1995. In fact, he was still soldiering on mere months before he retired to his deathbed. Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May, said the following of his dying friend’s attitude during his final days of recording:
“He just kept saying, ‘Write me more. Write me stuff. I want to just sing this and do it and when I am gone you can finish it off.’ He had no fear, really.”
May also said the following of Freddie’s last vocal performance on the track Mother Love in the spring of 1991:
“He still had astonishing power in his lungs at that point. I really don’t know where it came from.”
Freddie’s sheer willpower to press on and continue doing what he lived to do — and to do it well — in the face of his mortality is the ultimate middle finger to Death — and is that which earns him my respect.
It may or may not be common knowledge that the offstage Freddie Mercury was a stark contrast to his crafted stage persona, but I feel that it’s important to mention either way. Freddie was quiet and shy when not performing — especially around people he didn’t know well (he rarely consented to interviews). Throughout his life, he counted extremely few as “friends” and found it difficult to be close with others. And details of his personal life are scarce because he was always tight-lipped about it. These are all traits to which I effortlessly relate. When I think of the great frontmen of rock history like Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger, I don’t feel with them the human connection I feel with Freddie Mercury.
Freddie Mercury would have been seventy years old this past September. His ashes currently reside within the earth in a location known only to his sole lifelong friend, Mary Austin, who stole away from prying eyes two years after his cremation to ensure that his final resting place and remains would never be found (and, heaven forbid, defiled by obsessive fans), per Freddie’s request. Austin continues to honour this final wish and plans to take the secret of his whereabouts to her grave.
Now, I’m not big on supporting instituted holidays, but I’ll indulge the expectations of American society this Thanksgiving day to express my gratitude for the existence of this man, Freddie Mercury, and the exquisite music he created. He’s helped me through a few bad days.
Thanks, Freddie. Rest easy.
It wouldn’t be a Jeans in the Summer blog post if there weren’t some sort of list, am I right? Sit tight, for I am about to educate you on good Queen music. (Or leave — that’s fine, too.) Welcome to Queen 101.
The following list includes some of the best-crafted and least known songs in the band’s catalogue. Really, I could have simply included their first five albums, but, in an effort to streamline this section, I’ve elected to pick out a mere ten roses within a garden of lilies. I think you’ll find that these beauties aptly demonstrate the diversity and innovation in Queen’s music — and why it is foolish to attempt to categorise the band within any single genre.
*For the best music quality, I recommend wearing headphones/earbuds. That way every part is balanced the way it was intended in the studio.
Doing All Right – Queen (1973)
From their eponymous debut album, Doing All Right was written by Brian May and Tim Staffell while they were members of Smile, the band that would become Queen. It features a gentle, floaty, piano-led first couple of verses before picking up the tempo at 1:50. You can hear Freddie seem to channel Robert Plant as he sings, “Should be waiting for the sun/And anyway, I’ve got to hide away.” Then, at 2:05, the reins are loosened, and the rest of the band commences the loud, guitar-driven hard rock section. This song is a good example of Queen’s early Led Zeppelin-inspired sound.
Ogre Battle – Queen II (1974)
A live favourite for several years, Ogre Battle was already well-established in the Queen repertoire by the time the band recorded its first album, but they decided to wait till their cleverly titled Queen II to record it, once they had more studio freedom. This song opens with a gong hit played in reverse to give the rising sound effect before leading into a thrash metal guitar riff written by Freddie. This song is literally about a fight between two ogres — songwriting doesn’t get much cooler than that. May’s guitar work here is superb and complements the fantastical lyrics quite nicely. Freddie’s ogre screams are also a lovely touch.
The March of the Black Queen – Queen II (1974)
Queen II was all about trying new things. You like Bohemian Rhapsody? Think it was an important milestone in popular music, with its distinctive multi-part structure? I’d like for you to meet BoRhap’s older brother, March of the Black Queen. He’s darker. Grittier. Seen some shit. Heavy, gloomy descending riffs from guitar drag you down to the hellish chorus as you’re charmed by impish, shrieking vocal harmonies. You’re given some time to breathe at three minutes in as Freddie delights you with a gorgeous piano ballad section, but at 4:20 the March resumes. A smooth guitar outro seems to wind the song down to a peaceful conclusion at 6:06… Just kidding! Jolting piano chords wake you as the song picks back up, only to be cut off after about twenty-five seconds; it segues into the next track on the album, Funny How Love Is.
Stone Cold Crazy – Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
Whenever people tell me that Queen isn’t metal enough for them, I show them this song. This is basically speed metal before it was cool. It’s no surprise that Metallica covered this one. Just listen for yourself. Queen really could do it all.
’39 – A Night At the Opera (1975)
This science-fiction folk tune is one of my absolute favourites of Queen from any album and is essentially Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in three and a half minutes. Brian May — who has a PhD in astrophysics, mind you — sings of a group of twenty astronauts who embark on a space mission to search for a replacement planet for a dying Earth. Their mission, while successful, is met with a melancholy revelation upon the explorers’ return. Because of time dilation, their one-year voyage was an entire lifetime for those on Earth — and all their loved ones are either substantially aged or deceased. The fact that Dr. May was able to convey all this in two brief verses is a testament to his songwriting capability, which I daresay is equal to, if not superior to Freddie’s. I know — blasphemy.
The Prophet’s Song – A Night At the Opera (1975)
While Night At the Opera is best-known for Freddie’s Bohemian Rhapsody and bassist John Deacon’s You’re My Best Friend, the unsung genius of this album was Brian May. If Queen II was a college science experiment, then Opera was a peer-reviewed lab study. By 1975, May was tinkering with studio effects to achieve new and unique sounds with his guitar and to alter vocals. His composition, The Prophet’s Song, is a case in point and is a heavier number about a wise seer’s vision of a great flood that will wipe out civilisation. Freddie’s singing of May’s haunting, apocalyptic lyrics is powerful and chilling, and the overlapping technique in the vocal section from 3:23 to 5:51 is pure ear candy. Clocking in at nearly eight and a half minutes, it is the longest song in the Queen catalogue. This fact, combined with a complex arrangement and excellent production values, makes it easy to see why
kids love the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch fans often call Prophet’s Song Brian May’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
The Millionaire Waltz – A Day At the Races (1976)
Criminally unknown masterpiece. Freddie’s piano work and vocals, John Deacon’s bass lead, May’s guitar — everything is spot-on here. It’s crisp and tidy. The hard rock middle section from 2:21 to 2:47 never fails to give me chills. I can’t think of a more enjoyable piece of popular music to which to waltz.
Sheer Heart Attack – News of the World (1977)
You’d think that this track would be from the album of the same name from 1974. Pfft. Too mainstream. Queen will put their music where they damn well please. Stick it to the man, man. Rebel against authority!
Drummer Roger Taylor hadn’t quite finished Sheer Heart Attack for the 1974 album, and it underwent significant musical changes over the next three years — namely the adoption of a punk sound, which had overtaken England by the late ’70s. The funny part is that Taylor felt that many British punk bands lacked talent — and then proved that Queen can do the genre better.
Also, the squealing you hear around two and a half minutes in is simply guitar with an effect to make it high-pitched. Your sound isn’t messed up.
Dreamer’s Ball – Jazz (1978)
I love the juxtaposition of the electric and acoustic guitars in this one. Freddie’s singing is as charming as ever, complete with those sweet trademark Queen harmonies.
Innuendo – Innuendo (1991)
Queen’s final masterpiece. Inspired by Zeppelin’s Kashmir, this song employs a steady drum beat under a turbulent, rising wall of sound in its verses as an ailing Freddie Mercury provides a cynical social commentary with such phrases as, “While we live according to race, colour or creed…” and, “Our lives dictated by tradition, superstition, false religion…” only to be answered in a positive, anthemic chorus of Freddie wailing, “Oh, yes, we’ll keep on tryin’!” over May’s driving guitar melody.
After the second chorus, the song transitions to a softer sound for a spell before Yes guitarist Steve Howe comes in with a flamenco guitar chord progression. Then, just shy of the four-minute mark, Freddie takes a page out of his old playbook and leads a few operatic measures, culminating in a brief, but meaty dual-guitar solo before returning to the theme for one more verse and chorus. Eat your heart out, Bohemian Rhapsody.
Thus concludes today’s session of Queen 101. See you next week.
Before I wrap this up, you might have noticed that, of all the songs I included, not one of them is from an ’80s Queen album. Most are from the ’70s, with the last one being from the early ’90s. There’s a good reason for that. Let’s just say that Queen hit a rough patch from about 1980 to 1989. They got it together by the end, though.
“But, Joseph, I thought you said that it’s good for artists to try new–”
THEY HIT A ROUGH PATCH, ALL RIGHT?