Reigning Champion: Why Freddie Mercury Is Still The Greatest
by Simon Ramsay
You could spend a billion dollars, use all the futuristic technology at your disposal and have a crack team of scientists working around the clock, but attempts to custom build the perfect rock ‘n’ roll frontman will always be futile. Why? Well, because the results will always pale in comparison to Queen’s Freddie Mercury.
Twenty five years after his death at the age of 45, from complications arising from Aids, he remains the best the world has ever seen. His legacy was already set in stone by the time of his tragic passing on November 24, 1991 because as a singer, songwriter, musician and performer, Freddie had the lot.
But, although many people have revised their opinions in the decades since his death, Mercury wasn’t universally adored when he was alive. Rewind to 1977 and the headline “Is this man a prat?” was emblazoned above a feisty interview with the NME’s Tony Parsons. While the benefit of hindsight allows us to see the journalist’s scathing attack as misjudged, it’s easy to understand where he was coming from at the time.
Just as punk was wreaking anarchy in the UK, sweeping away bloated stadium rock behemoths and over-indulgent prog dinosaurs, Freddie was the personification of flamboyant decadence. A self-professed, unashamed star, he took to the stage in a Nijinsky-style leotard like a peacock in need of adoration. No one was more theatrical, overblown and unconcerned with the changing musical landscape.
From toasting his audiences with the line “May you all have champagne for breakfast”, to declaring he wanted to bring ballet to the masses, it’s no wonder the British press found his behaviour ostentatious at a time when social and economic unrest engulfed the nation. And yet, that is exactly why Freddie Mercury was so special.
An eccentric personality with a voracious appetite for everything life had to offer, and a restless need to expand his horizons, the singer’s immense natural talent coalesced with an eclectic, and seemingly disparate, range of influences to shape his truly unique sense of artistry.
Mercury was certainly inspired by rock singers like Robert Plant, Jon Anderson, Roger Daltrey and Elvis Presley, but the man whose sonorous voice was described as “a force of nature with the velocity of a hurricane” was equally excited by the vocal stylings of Aretha Franklin and musical theatre duo Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Some have also suggested that playback singer Lata Mangeshkar was an influence during his years at St. Peter's Church of England School in Panchgani, India.
Such diverse touchstones, coupled with his outstanding technique, nuanced phrasing and ability to glide between different registers enabled Mercury to deliver any style, and capture any emotion, Queen’s music required. There’s a throaty rasp and aggression to hard rockers like Death On Two Legs, a booming intensity to his machine gun delivery of proto-thrash metal juggernaut Stone Cold Crazy, as well as unbelievable power in the upper register on the heart-wrenching The Show Must Go On.
Elsewhere, Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy and It’s A Hard Life find him deploying a crystal clear mellifluousness at the top end of his range, while he delivers staccato rapping throughout Another One Bites The Dust and spine-tingling emotion on ballads like Who Wants To Live Forever and Love Of My Life.
Proof of that unrivalled potency came when some of the world’s finest rock singers appeared at a tribute concert a year after his death and, backed by Queen’s Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor, attempted to perform songs from the band’s hit-laden back catalogue. Many of them struggled.
In contrast to his widely lauded vocal prowess, though, Mercury’s piano playing remains extremely underrated. He wasn’t technically proficient like Keith Emerson, Jools Holland or even Elton John, but had a penchant for penning deceptively simple yet extremely memorable melodic passages. Bohemian Rhapsody, We Are The Champions and Somebody To Love are all instantly identifiable just from their first few notes.
Freddie’s playing referenced many artists and genres while also expressing every side of his contradictory personality. Little Richard and Fats Domino informed the giddy boogie of Don’t Stop Me Now, skipping dexterity of Seven Seas Of Rhye and intoxicating Tin Pan Alley goofiness of Bring Back That Leroy Brown, songs that captured the hedonistic, fun-loving and heroic spring in his oft mischievous step.
The flip side of that coin are numbers such as You Take My Breath Away, which demonstrate how his fondness for classical music was used to convey the pain that was hidden beneath his seemingly indestructible rock god armour. Sadness, loneliness and loss bleed from these elegantly haunting piano passages, with the jazzy Melancholy Blues and wistful Lily Of The Valley, which he wrote for girlfriend Mary Austin while struggling with his sexuality, revealing a vulnerability that many overlook.
That yin-yang battle between confidence and insecurity, ego and self-deprecation is what made the man and musician, fuelling his exceptional, groundbreaking and unsurprisingly diverse songwriting. The playful Noel Coward-esque cabaret pop of Killer Queen, Somebody To Love’s soulful gospel pleas, the defiantly bombastic We Are The Champions and kooky rockabilly of Crazy Little Thing Called Love are as emotionally sprawling as they are sonically varied. And then there’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a song that encapsulates every element of his compositional arsenal.
Mixing sorrowful balladry with grandiose operetta and riffed up heavy metal, no one else could have written something as audacious, idiosyncratic and, against all the odds, hugely accessible. From defying convention with wilfully unpredictable song structures, using obscure chord voicings, dynamic key changes and crafting intricately layered vocal harmonies, Mercury’s ability to sculpt complex songs with a massive mainstream appeal made him both a visionary and genius.
Never was that more apparent than on July 13, 1985 at Wembley Stadium. In front of a crowd of over 70,000 and a global TV audience of over a billion people, Queen strode onto the stage for Live Aid and, in 22 sublime minutes, delivered what many still consider the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. "That was entirely down to Freddie. The rest of us played OK, but Freddie was out there and took it to another level," May said of his frontman’s show-stealing performance.
If Mercury’s recorded work was born of his multifaceted personality, on stage any traces of shyness and insecurity were jettisoned as his rock ‘n’ roll alter ego took over. Able to hold packed stadiums in the palm of his hand and engage everyone from front row to back, Mercury’s explosive exuberance was derived from his adoration of Jimi Hendrix, Liza Minelli and ballet. The result was a frontman who melded virile athleticism and bravado with fluidity, graciousness and hilarious, tongue-in-cheek whimsy. All while amazing with a vocal delivery that, remarkably, seemed even better live than on record. As an entertainer, he simply had no equal.
For all the allusions to the contrary, Mercury was still human and not without flaws. Aside from the ill-advised disco direction he dragged Queen in on 1982’s ‘Hot Space’, his one proper solo album, the patchy ‘Mr Bad Guy’, was a flop that suggested the singer wasn’t the same creative force without the collaborative dynamic that existed between him and his band mates (whose solo records were similarly lacking).
We’ll never know if he’d have rectified that theory given more time, but while you can’t imagine Mercury’s Queen songs without the sizeable contributions of May, Taylor and Deacon, tracks they penned - Friends Will Be Friends, Hammer To Fall and Radio Ga Ga - wouldn’t have been anywhere near as epochal without his input. The combination of their four distinct personalities allowed the collective to reach above and beyond its enormous individual potential and achieve something extraordinary.
Queen’s iconic talisman once said he’d "never make old bones" and always seemed to know, on some instinctive level, he wasn’t long for this world. “I won't be a rock star,” he once said. “I will be a legend." Maybe we should add prophet to his long list of talents.