Freddie Mercury: Before He Was Famous

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Saturday, July 13, 1985. A banner in the audience, fluttering in the early-evening breeze, at Wembley Stadium reads ‘Hello World’. It’s a fitting statement for events taking place on stage where the Live Aid concert is in full swing. There are 72,000 people packed into the stadium, their numbers swelled by a gargantuan global television audience watching around the world (a conservative estimate: 1.5 billion). Queen are on stage, thundering through a decade’s worth of hits, craftily spliced together into just 22 minutes and typified by the audacious rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody fused with Radio Ga Ga.
Supposedly past their prime, the superstar rock band have been nagged into performing by Live Aid organiser Bob Geldof whose indignation at Ethiopian famine has prompted this mobilization of musical talent. Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, pleading a throat infection, has been limousined into Wembley’s VIP enclosure just an hour before showtime. Now, on stage having followed both U2 and Dire Straits, Mercury is in his element: in vest, jeans and boxer boots, he performs a routine that’s part gym instructor, part ballet dancer, part Robert Plant. His voice rings out across the stadium like a Muezzin call to prayer, as he flexes his arms, spins on his heel, tosses his head, wiggles his rear, plays frantic air guitar and, brandishes his mic stand in front of guitarist Brian May, like a matador going in for the kill. When he momentarily runs out of things to do, Freddie grabs a BBC cameraman and beams toothily into his lens. This genuinely is Freddie Mercury’s ‘hello world’ moment. A show-stealing performance burnt into the collective consciousness by a man that many would subsequently consider to be the most flamboyant frontman of all time. But it wasn’t always like that…

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Friday, October 31 1969. Freddie Mercury, then known as Fred Bulsara, performed with his band Wreckage in the ‘Noisy Common Room’ at Ealing Technical College & School Of Art. Mercury had recently been a student at the college, and Wreckage had been booked by the Student Union president, Aubrey Malden. The common room was a narrow space on the ground floor, its walls painted bright orange. Without a proper stage, Wreckage had to set up their gear on the floor, alongside the pinball machines and table football; the clattering sounds from which had given the common room its ‘noisy’ moniker.
More than four decades later, Aubrey Malden, now a marketing expert and writer, still remembers the show. “They were crap,” he says simply. “The only good bit was when Freddie lay on his back, took the microphone off the stand and dangled it down his throat while wailing – anything to get the audience’s attention.”
“I knew Fred as this quiet, reserved bloke,” adds fellow ex-Ealing student John Gotting. “I used to sit next to him the same corner of the graphics studio. I’d heard that he sang in a group but he was never very forthcoming about it. Then, at this gig, he just…burst on!” Gotting recalls that the future Freddie Mercury had accessorised his homemade white suit with a pink chiffon scarf: “He was always in a sports jacket and jeans, so it was a shock to see this transformation.”

That night, Wreckage slugged through covers of Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock, The Beatles’ Rain and Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown. But Freddie and lead guitarist, Mike Bersin, had also written some songs of their own. The likes of Vagabond Outcast and Cancer On My Mind were very much in the post-Cream, post-Hendrix spirit of the times. “They sounded like Queen,” remembers Gotting, “but they weren’t wholly Queen.” Indeed, among Fred’s newest creations was Lover, a song that would metamorphose into Liar and turn up on Queen’s debut album three years later. On that Halloween evening few, if any, believed they were witnessing musical history being made. “Some people were watching the band,” says Aubrey, “but others were sitting around chatting, reading newspapers, playing table football…. I honestly thought they were a bit of a joke.”

Despite the indifference displayed by part of the audience, Fred himself had begun to develop a genuine sense of bold ambition. In a letter written five days earlier to a friend, and later auctioned at Sotheby’s, Freddie had declared his intentions for the forthcoming gig: “This Friday…” he wrote, “I’m going to out-ponce everybody in sight.” True to his word, he posed, he strutted and played frantic air guitar in front of Mike Bersin, just as he would years later with Brian May at Live Aid. “The moves that Fred did in Queen, he first did with us,” says Bersin. “It was all there, even then. Fred was a star he was a star.”

When Fred Bulsara changed his name to Freddie Mercury in 1971, the change signified the creation of a new persona: one that would befit a superstar. But the transformation had begun long before. Prior to becoming Fred Bulsara, he was Farrokh Bulsara, born on September 5, 1946 on the East African spice island of Zanzibar. His father Bomi worked for the British governor, and, like his mother Jer, originally came from the Gujarati district of northern India. The family were Parsee Indians; devotees of Zoroastrianism, a religion with its roots in ancient Persia.

In Queen’s formative years, Mercury described himself as a “Persian Popinjay”, giving only the sketchiest details of life in Zanzibar. “The family were upper middle class,” recalls his childhood friend, Subash Shah. “They weren’t rich but Bomi had the income of a civil servant working for the colonial government.” At the age of eight, Mercury was enrolled and sent away to St Peter’s Boys School, in the Panchgani district of India. He would remain there as a boarder until 1962, travelling back to Zanzibar by ship or lodging with his aunt in Bombay during the school holidays. At St Peter’s, he competed as a bantam-weight boxer, learned to paint and play the piano, and began performing with four other schoolfriends in a group called The Hectics. He was sometimes lonely, sometimes homesick and always achingly self-conscious about his prominent front teeth. But as Mercury explained: “One thing boarding school taught me was to fend for myself.”

It was with The Hectics that Mercury’s uncanny ear for composition and melody became apparent. “We used to listen to the pop charts on the radio,” recalls former Hectics singer Bruce Murray. “It was a programme sponsored by a toothpaste company. We’d hear these songs and then Freddie would go to the piano and play them note perfect, after hearing them once.” But beyond the Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele 45s echoing through the dormitory, there were wider musical influences to be heard: classical symphonies, jazz, Hindi pop, Arab contralto Oum Kalthoum, and the revered Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar. It was here that Mercury’s eclectic musical style began to develop.

The Hectics’ played school functions and dances. “I was the singer as I was the best-looking one,” laughs Murray. Their repertoire ran to Elvis, Dion, Ricky Nelson and The Coasters’ Yakety Yak. “Fred sang backing vocals, but his thing was still the piano.” Even then, there was a glimpse of what was to come. “He had this quirky way of moving onstage, which you could see a little of later with Queen.” The Hectics’ guitarist Derrick Branche, later to become one of the first Asian actors on British TV (his credits including Only When I Laugh, The Jewel In Crown and My Beautiful Laundrette), recalled something of Dean Martin’s sidekick Jerry Lewis in the schoolboy Mercury: “Frenzied… hands flapping, legs going everywhere…”

By the time he was 16, Freddie had become distracted from his academic studies. He returned to Zanzibar to complete his education; leaving St Peter’s with poor exam results but an impressive Cliff Richard-style quiff. After his death, India would claim Freddie Mercury as the ‘First Asian pop star’; but he never set foot in India again. Back in Zanzibar, he fed his fascination for Western pop with the BBC World Service and weeks-old copies of the music press. A chance to get closer to the action would come sooner than he though. Following an election in December 1963, Zanzibar’s already weakened British rulers handed control of the island to the Arab-led Zanzibar And Pemba People’s Coalition Party. The rival Afro-Shirazi Party protested, and in January ‘64, several hundred African rebels took control of the island. The short but bloody ‘Zanzibar Revolution’ resulted in a new ruling party and the deaths of thousands of Arabs across the island.

“After the revolution, things went crazy,” remembers Subash Shah. “It was terrifying.” Zanzibar was no longer a safe place for a former employee of the British government. As a result in Spring 1964 Bomi Bulsara took advantage of his British passport and brought his family to England, where they set up home in a Victorian terraced house at 22 Gladstone Avenue, Feltham, some three miles from Heathrow Airport. The family had left behind everything and everyone they knew, starting over as immigrants in a new and often unwelcoming country. Bomi took a job as an accountant with a hotel catering company, while Freddie pondered his next move.

Delighted to be in England, he jollied his family through their difficult early months in London. Insisting that he “wasn’t clever enough to be a lawyer or an accountant” he urged his parents to let him try for art school. In September Freddie showed up for the first day of a two-year arts foundation course at Isleworth Polytechnic. His aim was to pass the A-level he needed to be accepted at art school. But this choice had less to do with art and everything to do with music, Britain’s art schools famously creating a fecund environment for musicians in the mid-‘60s. Despite his insecurities, Freddie found himself welcomed by his fellow Poly pupils.

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“We met at induction and were put in a class together,” recalls ex-Isleworth Polytechnic student Adrian Morrish (second row, far right in the picture above). “Fred was charmingly shy, but also very engaging, and he desperately wanted to fit in. He dressed weirdly in drainpipe trousers that weren’t quite long enough and middle-aged jackets that were slightly too small.” His trademark item of clothing was a maroon-coloured blazer that his new friends suspected had made the trip with him from Zanzibar. He also had a habit of slipping his top lip over his prominent front teeth to hide them from view.

The issue of exactly when Mercury started using the name Fred or Freddie instead of his birthname Farrokh, is the subject of conflicting memories. Subash Shah maintains that he was always Farrokh while in Zanzibar and India; Bruce Murray is adamant that he took the name Fred in India. Adrian Morrish maintains that Mercury told his friends he wanted an Anglo-fied name and that he was “collectively christened by all of us as Fred” after enrolling at Isleworth.

At the Polytechnic, Fred did everything he could to fit in: he joined the college choir and acted in the Christmas ‘64 drama group production of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen (Morrish: “He was rather nervous, but at the same time you could tell he loved the attention”). At weekends he joined Adrian and his friends at Eel Pie Island Hotel, watching Long John Baldry and a youthful Rod Stewart, but often having to leave early to practice his piano.

During the week, he would commandeer an upright piano in the college assembly hall, treating his audience to renditions of the latest hits. “He’d hear a pop song on the radio in the morning, then come in and play it on the piano,” recalls ex-student Patrick Connolly. Once again Freddie’s compositional flare became apparent when, says Patrick, Freddie began throwing in a few adjustments of his own “He’d say, ‘But we can do this or we can do that…’ and start improvising to try and make [the song] sound better.”

Patrick also visited Freddie at home in Feltham. “He struck me as quite lonely,” he says. “But you could tell he’d come from a cultured background and was just seeking a way for himself to develop.” Unusually, on one occasion Freddie opened up about life in Zanzibar, telling Connolly he’d lived in a luxurious house with an ivory-white piano. “I think there were times when he missed the life he’d had. After the revolution, Fred said his father was under threat and was told that if he didn’t leave, the rebels would cut his head off.”
While at Isleworth Poly Freddie persuaded Connolly and another student, a trainee sculptor and guitarist named Paul Martin, to try and write songs together.

“I wasn’t very interested in pop music and I didn’t think I could sing, but the three of us would sit around the piano [at Gladstone Avenue],” says Connolly. “Fred’s enthusiasm brought us together. He’d actually encourage me: ‘Look Patrick! You’re singing, you can do it’.” Already the ringleader, Freddie would write down lyrics and song ideas on scraps of paper, instructing his mother not to throw any of them away. During their second year at the Poly, Mercury tried to audition a band of his own; his first attempt at a group since The Hectics. “I designed a poster and we sent it to all the colleges and schools in the area,” recalls Connolly, who recalls as many as 40 musicians showing up at the Poly to be auditioned by Freddie. Nothing more came of it, but “there was one amazing guitarist that Fred liked, and, of course, years later, I always wondered if it was Brian May.”

In 1966, Freddie left Isleworth with an art A-level, thanks to Patrick Connolly, who painted the figures for him in his depiction of the crucifixion. On December 10, Freddie went back to watch Cream play the college’s Christmas dance. Barely a week later, he saw Jimi Hendrix make his UK TV debut on Ready Steady Go. The power of the music and Hendrix’s flamboyant appearance and mixed-race origins had Freddie entranced. “Hendrix was living out everything I wanted to be,” he said later. Now, the boy from Zanzibar had a new obsession.

In the Summer of 1966, Freddie enrolled at Ealing art college – the recent alma mater of Pete Townshend and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Roger Ruskin Spear – and initially signed up to study fashion design. At induction, he met the only other male among the 30-strong class of women: Mark Malden, brother of SU president Aubrey. With Mark in tow, Freddie went to see Pink Floyd, The Who, Fleetwood Mac and Elton John – then still plain Reg Dwight – at Richmond’s Crawdaddy club, funding their trips with money earned as nude models at the college’s evening art class. “They let you cover yourself with a towel until you sat down,” says Mark Malden now. “But you got paid £5. I bought my first Levis out of that – so important for one’s status at art college.” In January ‘67, the pair watched Hendrix at the Bag O’ Nails on Kingly Street, Freddie sporting an RAF greatcoat he’d bought specially for the gig. “I found Hendrix interesting,” says Mark. “But not to the extent that Fred did. He idolised the man.”

Quite how much would soon become apparent. Queen drummer Roger Taylor recounts how Freddie once told him he’d seen Hendrix “fourteen nights in a row at different pubs”. Barely a year into the fashion course, Freddie was threatened with expulsion due to his poor attendance record. “He was taking too much time off from college to go and see Hendrix,” says Mark. “But [Fred] talked his way into switching to the graphics course instead. I sometimes wonder if he did it on purpose as a way of prolonging his time at the college and deciding what he was going to do with his life.”

The graphics course had the added benefit of bringing Freddie into contact with 19-year-old Tim Staffell, who sang in a covers group called 1984, that included a guitarist named Brian May. Aubrey Malden noticed a pattern emerging: “Freddie hung around 1984, and any band we booked for the college dances.” Later, these included the newly formed Free, whose singer Paul Rodgers would later take Mercury’s place in Queen. “Free played our Rag ball at Ealing Town Hall,” says Aubrey. “After the gig, Freddie hung around, asking them questions. He desperately wanted to be involved.” When, in the spring of 1969, an unknown David Bowie breezed into the college to perform a lunchtime gig, Freddie was there, offering to carry his gear and shunting tables together to make a stage at Bowie’s request.

Freddie’s desperation to be involved in music increased when Tim Staffell and Brian May started a new group. 1984 had ended. May, who was studying physics and infra-red astronomy at London’s Imperial College, had recruited a 19-year-old Cornish drummer named Roger Taylor, then studying dentistry at Whitechapel’s London School Of Medicine. Staffell played bass and sung, while the group were completed by a keyboard player named Chris Smith, who was also studying graphics at Ealing. They called themselves Smile and made their debut at Imperial College in late 1968, supposedly supporting Pink Floyd, though Chris Smith is adamant it was The Troggs. “Freddie was there in the wings when we first played,” says Chris. “After all the gigs, he’d be like: ‘You know that bit where the drums come in? Well, why don’t we do this instead?’ Full of suggestions.”

Smith would only perform a few times with Smile, before his keyboards became surplus to requirement (“I think Smile wanted to be Cream,” he says). But Mercury’s constant flow of ideas made an impression on him. “I can remember walking down Ealing Broadway with those three [Brian, Roger and Freddie] and thinking, That’s it, the band. I said to Brian, ‘Fred is desperate to be in Smile, but Brian was like, ‘No, no, no. Tim is the lead singer. He’d never wear it’.”

May and Staffell had started writing their own songs, including a wistful, Beatles-like tune called Step On Me. “Freddie was most impressed by that,” remembers Smith. He wanted to write a song, and asked Chris to help him. “I had the keys to the college music room, and Freddie would turn up with scraps of songs that he’d written and play them on the piano.” The pair found that they could join different musical themes together by using the bridge from A Day In The Life [“Woke up/ fell outta bed…”]. “You could link any two pieces of music with that,” says Chris. But it wasn’t an easy process. “Freddie would get annoyed with himself. Some days he’d have his head in his hands, despairing, ‘Why can Tim and Brian do this, and we can’t? Why am I so crap?’” Among his lyrics was the now famous line “Mama, just killed a man…” In 1969, it was used in piece Freddie titled The Cowboy Song, but was never completed. Years later, when Chris heard Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, it forced a wry smile: “I thought, Oh Freddie’s finished the song.”

In tandem with his nascent songwriting, Freddie struck up the courage to start singing, practicing harmonies with Staffell and Smith in Ealing’s high-ceilinged graphics studio. As his confidence grew, the transformation began in earnest: ever-inspired by his hero Hendrix, the clothes became dandier, the hair longer…. One student caught a glimpse of Freddie’s passport and saw that he already had written his occupation as: musician, “because that’s what I’m going to be”.

“He started telling everyone, ‘I’m gonna be a pop star’,” recalls Aubrey Malden. When he wasn’t singing, “Freddie Baby” – as some classmates now called him – was prone to grabbing one of the studio’s yardsticks to ‘do’ his Hendrix impersonation, even ‘playing’ it left-handed. One morning, Chris Smith walked in to find Freddie sat at his desk with a glazed expression on his face: “He just looked up and said, ‘I am going go be mega! You have no idea how mega I am going to be!’ I said, ‘As mega as Hendrix?’ ‘Oh yes’. I was like, ‘Well, good luck with that one.’”

In the summer of 1969, Mercury’s creative visualisation started to pay off. Smile’s social scene centred around The Kensington Tavern on Elsham Road, W14. The pub was close to both Imperial and the Maria Assumpta Teacher Training College, where Roger Taylor and Brian May had girlfriends. Also studying there was a student from the northwest named Pat McConnell. A fan of Smile, Pat celebrated her twenty first birthday with a trip The Kensington, knowing that the band would be there. That evening, Pat brought with her a three-piece rock group from Liverpool called Ibex. Pat’s sister’s boyfriend was Ibex’s manager/roadie/driver Ken Testi, and the group were spending the college holidays in London. The entrepreneurial Testi (who would go on to become one of the founders of Liverpool’s Eric’s club) had big plans: “We thought we’d go to London and get famous.”
Ibex had formed at Wade Deacon grammar school in Widnes by bassist John ‘Tupp’ Taylor and guitarist Mike Bersin, later joined by drummer, Mick ‘Miffer’ Smith. By now, Smile had opened for Yes and Family, and had been given a one-single deal with Mercury Records. “We felt like Northern hicks compared to them,” laughs Testi.

Later, back at Pat McConnell’s flat, the guitars came out, and Smile gave an impromptu performance, with a little help from their friend. “They had a chum with them,” continues Testi. “And that was Freddie Bulsara. He knew all the words to the Smile songs and even started singing harmonies.” Like Chris Smith before him, Ken realised that “it was obvious he wanted to be in the band.” Like Smile, Ibex played heavy blues-rock, tipping a nod to the likes of Ten Years After and Cream. But they needed a singer. At some point in the coming weeks, Freddie made his move. “His opening gambit was, ‘I’m a singer but I haven’t got a band’,” remembers Ken Testi. “Looking back, it was a brilliant strategy.”

Testi had booked Ibex a lunchtime gig at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre on August 23, and another the day after at an open-air festival in the town’s Queen Park. The night before the first show, Ken drove the band and assorted girlfriends and hangers-on up to Lancashire. “Freddie had no money,” observes Mike Bersin, “so he only had one outfit: he always wore this T-shirt with a belt and trousers and before crashing out for the night, would take them off and fold them ever so neatly so they’d be perfect for the morning. At the time we thought it was a southern thing… OK, men in the north don’t do that but men in the south do.” Outside the Octagon, Ken Testi noticed that Freddie’s first move after disembarking from the van was to check the hair, check the threads…..

At The Octagon, Ibex opened with Jailhouse Rock, only for Freddie’s nerves to get the better of him. “He had his back to the audience for half of the first number,” recalls Testi. “But by the end of the first song, the shyness had gone, and he was performing well.” A day later, on the bandstand in Queen’s Park, Freddie Bulsara started becoming ‘Freddie Mercury’. “When he stepped on that stage [at Queen’s Park] he was all action,” says ‘Tupp’ Taylor. “I thought, Fuck, yes! This is what we want.” Freddie’s sessions with the yardstick at Ealing had also paid off. “I was used to playing guitar solos with my eyes shut,” adds Mike Bersin. “Now there’s a guy on his knees in front holding the mic up to me…”

Three weeks later, Ibex played the Sink Club on Liverpool’s Hardman Street. Smile, in town for a gig of their own, dropped by the Sink and jammed at the end of Ibex’s set; everyone blissfully unaware that three of the musicians on stage would go on to form one of the biggest rock groups in the world. Not that Freddie sounded like a star, just yet. An existing tape of Ibex’s set finds the singer making up for in enthusiasm what he lacks in finesse. “When I listen to that bootleg, I think, God, we were awful,” groans ‘Tupp’ Taylor, “Freddie was no Winwood, Marriott or Cocker. At the beginning, his pitching was awful.” As Roger Taylor later confessed: “I remember thinking, Good on showmanship, but not sure about the singing.”

Back in London, Smile’s entourage had taken over the ground floor of a decrepit house at 40 Ferry Road, Barnes. Their landlady lived upstairs, Ice-Cold In Alex actress Sylvia Sims next door. After spending months crashing on friends’ floors, Freddie moved in. The turntable at Ferry Road was occupied by the Mothers Of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money, the Island Records sampler All Join Hands and The Who’s Tommy. Having acquired an acoustic guitar, Freddie would pace the floor, annoying his stoned or sleeping friends by endlessly strumming the chords to Pinball Wizard.

On October 12, he experienced a ‘Eureka!’ moment after going to see Led Zeppelin at The Lyceum. Inspired by the band’s portentous name, Mercury came up with one of his own: Wreckage. “Fred called me and said he’d called everyone else in the band and that they were happy to change the name of the band to Wreckage,” says Mike Bersin. “I said that if everyone else was OK, then so was I… I later found out that he’d called each of us and said exactly the same thing.”

Prior to picking up the phone to anyone, Mercury had stenciled the new band name on all of their equipment. Freddie’s next call was to Aubrey Malden, who agreed to put Wreckage on in the ‘Noisy Common Room’. By then, drummer Mick ‘Miffer’ Smith had bailed out for a job as a milkman. His replacement, Richard Thompson, had previously played in Brian May’s 1984. Mercury was inching closer to the musicians he was destined to perform with.

With the start of a new college term, Mike Bersin had moved back to Liverpool to attend art school. Determined, to make Wreckage work, Freddie scavenged the money to pay for Mike’s rail fare to London and the two begun writing songs. A recording of one, Green, made at Ferry Road still exists; Freddie ad-libbing the lyrics and calling out instructions to the rest of the band. However, as Bersin admits, his musical knowledge trailed behind Mercury’s ambition. Freddie wanted key changes, “he wanted to use the black notes”. As Mike explains: “We knew where music was, Freddie knew where it was going.”

Wreckage would only last until Christmas: playing St Martin’s art school, Richmond Rugby club… and Imperial College, where Brian May recalled “Freddie being very ebullient and making a big noise. We could hardly keep up with it.” Chris Smith saw Wreckage and was taken about by Freddie’s “strutting and posing. It didn’t quite work in a pub. But ten out of ten for bravery.” In November, they played a girls’ school dance in Widnes. Mercury launched into his usual routine only for the base of his microphone stand to fall off. Undeterred, he sung the rest of the gig without it. When a sceptical Ken Testi spotted Mercury’s sawn-off stand, he was informed: “It’s my gimmick, dear. You must have a gimmick.”

But as 1969 turned into 1970, Wreckage broke up under the pressure of college and family commitments. Freddie’s stomping ground was now Kensington Market on the High Street (alluded to in a lyric to Queen’s Keep Yourself Alive – “I sold a million mirrors in a shopping alleyway”). It was a Mecca for pop stars, actors, models and wannabes; a good place to go, as Mercury put it “poncing and ultra-blagging”.

Having dropped out of Ealing before completing the final year of his graphics course, Mercury started running a second-hand clothes stall, with Roger Taylor, flogging what Ken Testi remembers as “bits of tat, the odd cricket blazer, some old lady’s cape sawn off and masquerading as a cape”. Visiting rock dignitaries, among them Bowie and Yes’ Chris Squire, would later recall Freddie, the market-stall trader and his familiar mantra: “I’m a singer but I haven’t got a band.”

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Still hustling, in Spring 1970, Mercury answered a ‘Vocalist Wanted’ advert in Melody Maker. The band was called Sour Milk Sea. Freddie had one of Smile’s roadies drive him to the audition, which was being held in a church hall in Dorking, Surrey. On arrival, he stepped out of the van “dripping in velvet”, and strode into the youth club, the roadie carrying his microphone in a wooden box, behind him. Folk singer Bridget St John was among the other hopefuls, but didn’t stand a chance. Mercury was hired on the spot.
Sour Milk Sea were fresh out of public school.

Their lead guitarist Chris Chesney (second row, middle) was the son of an Oxford don, and the band (completed by bassist Paul Milne and ex-Charterhouse pupil and drummer Rob Tyrrell) were bankrolled by second guitarist Jeremy ‘Rubber’ Gallop’s father. Like Ibex, Sour Milk Sea had come out of the progressive blues boom; just like Ibex, they needed a frontman. “When Freddie fired up with us, he was fantastic,” says Chesney. “He came up straight away, jabbing the mic stand at me while I played a solo. He didn’t quite have the voice then, but he sang falsetto, and I liked that.” Once again, Freddie was cautious about giving too much away. “Our manager asked him his name when he phoned up for the audition. Freddie said, ‘Fred Bull’. He stopped himself from saying Bulsara. He was always watching himself. He never talked about his childhood and we didn’t even know he came from Zanzibar.”
Sour Milk Sea opened for Black Sabbath and played a handful of gigs in long-forgotten London clubs, but before long there was dissent within the ranks. Six years older than his teenage bandmates, Mercury started to take charge. “Freddie said, ‘I’m tossing out your lyrics and writing my own’,” says Chesney. “I didn’t care. I was seventeen, I welcomed the education. He was writing songs with wild chord changes, big harmonies. He had this showbiz angle, which was rare at the time.”

At Freddie’s behest, Chesney moved into Ferry Road, but “the others thought me and Fred were cooking up something in Barnes.” Chris points out that there was never a sexual angle to their relationship, and recalls Mercury having a girlfriend. However, Freddie was also mixing with a gay crowd, and would amuse the laddish Roger Taylor by regularly announcing “I’m off to see my bender friends!”. It was over music that Chesney and Mercury bonded: “Fred loved Led Zeppelin, but he was also very quick to spot pop music. The Jackson 5 single, I Want You Back, had just come out, and Fred was very into that. Nobody else was. I also remember him telling me that David Bowie was the perfect pop star, and he’d only had a hit with Space Oddity.”

Despite Chesney’s enthusiasm, it couldn’t last. Mercury was accused of hijacking the group, and by April, Sour Milk Sea had split. In the meantime, Smile’s deal with Mercury Records had failed to produce a hit, and the trio were still slogging around the circuit to diminishing returns. Tim Staffell’s departure seemed to spell the end. With Sour Milk Sea and Smile in freefall, the Woodstock documentary movie opened in cinemas. For Brian May it was a pivotal moment: “When I saw that film it was a shock to realise how little I related to it,” he said. May was a passionate Who and Hendrix fan, but much of Woodstock left him cold. For Brian, the days of seeing bands “getting stoned and shuffling around” were over. Whatever happened next would have to be a reaction against that.

Smile had been all about the music; style and flamboyance were not part of their remit. For more than a year, they had listened to Freddie’s suggestions about how to dress, how to look, how to move on stage… Before long, the inevitable happened. On June 27, Smile fulfilled a charity gig booking at Truro City Hall, Cornwall. Their new, temporary bassist was a friend of Taylor’s named Mike Grose; their new lead singer was a strutting, preening, “out-poncing” Fred Bulsara. They played to 200 people in the 800-capacity hall, and pocketed a measly £50. But the wheels were in motion.

“It made sense to hear that he was in a band with Roger and Brian,” says Ken Testi. “It should have been that way all along.” Ken heard the news in a call from the public phone box (“Freddie’s office”) next to the stall at Kensington Market. “He then told me the band’s name: Queen. I said, ‘You’ll never get away with that, Fred’. I was wrong.” Neither May or Taylor cared much for the name to start with, but Mercury insisted. Meanwhile, the name change from Fred Bulsara to Freddie Mercury came as another shock. Freddie took his stage name from a lyric in a new Queen song, My Fairy King (most specifically: ‘Mother mercury/Look what they’ve done to me’). But it was also his way of assuming a different skin. As Brian May pointed out later, “The young Bulsara was still there, but for the public he was going to be this .”

In August, Queen made their official debut at Imperial College. In the audience was producer and A&R rep John Anthony. He’d seen Smile several times and produced their one-off single, but this was something else altogether. “Onstage, Freddie filled the whole room. He was like Nijinksy,” he says now, evoking Vaslav Nijinsky the Russian ballet dancer. Anthony would be instrumental in signing Queen to a management and publishing deal, and would end up co-producing their debut album. “Freddie showed me copies of Queen, the fashion magazine,” he recalls. “He said, ‘This is what we’re about… But it’s not just the name… it’s the pictures, the articles, the whole thing. This is how we want our record to sound – like different topics and different photos.’ He had the whole thing mapped out in his head.”

At Ealing, John Gotting remembers Mercury’s style of illustration as being “very Queen-like, rather florid. It reminded me a little of [Victorian aesthetic illustrator] Aubrey Beardsley.” Before Queen had made a record, Mercury had employed the same ornate style to design the band’s crest and logo. Meanwhile, skills learned on the fashion course found him creating dramatic stage costumes. One Ealing student recalls swapping a handmate satin coat with Freddie for an LP: “Then the next time I saw it, he’d turned it into a top and was wearing it on stage with Queen.” Even when fronting the group in tiny village halls, military bases and provincial pubs, Mercury thought and acted like a star he believed he was. “He was like a young lamb, so enthusiastic,” said Roger Taylor. “Freddie was his own creation. He made himself.”

On October 11, 1974 his oldest friends realised just how much of a creation he was. That night, Queen performed their hit single Killer Queen on Top Of The Pops. The Hectics’ singer Bruce Murray and guitarist Derrick Branche were now living in London; neither had seen Farrokh Bulsara since India. Murray was working as a mini-cab driver and waiting for a fare, when he saw the performance on TV in the cab company’s office in Norbury, South London. Mercury had the fingernails of his left hand painted black and was wearing a huge feather blouson. “He had all this long hair now but there was something I recognised. Then I realised. I phoned Derrick and said, ‘Are you watching TV? Turn it on now. My God! That’s Freddie Bulsara!’” The transformation was complete.

Queen celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2011. In fact, they first performed as Queen in 1970, but the arrival of permanent bass guitarist John Deacon a year later is now deemed their official starting date. Then again, in Queen’s world, rules are there to be broken and history re-written. After all, their lead singer re-wrote his own history and was his own creation. Mercury, a man who never wanted to miss an opportunity, would have enjoyed seeing his legacy live on so long after his death.
Ultimately, Freddie was his own kind of rock star: as seen through the prism of his exotic upbringing and magpie-like tastes. In the 1970s he was a remote star – a heavy metal Marlene Dietrich. In the ‘80s, he’d swapped it all for a butch haircut and moustache, inspired by the look in the gay clubs he was now frequenting. Less aloof, he teased his audience with comedy insults and racy banter (“Do you like big tits and fat bottoms?”); combining consummate musicianship with the crowd-pleasing shtick of a pantomime dame.

In hindsight, Freddie Mercury was a very 21st century rock star, a man who always wanted to be famous, unconcerned with musical boundaries in a time when those things still mattered: heavy rock, light opera, gay disco, Elvis Presley, Robert Plant, Lata Mangeshkar: as Freddie might say, It’s all good, dear.

For brand guru Aubrey Malden, the Freddie Mercury he knew as a student over 40 years ago is the embodiment of good marketing. Malden advises his clients to follow Mercury’s lead: “Don’t have dreams: have visions. Get like-minded followers around your vision. Don’t follow blaze trails… Freddie drove himself, and Queen. He had one objective: to be a star.”

www.markrblake.com

First published in MOJO magazine, January 2011.
Read more in Is This The Real Life: The Untold Story Of Queen.

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