Tag Archives: Freddie Mercury

Remembering Freddie Mercury – The King of Queen

freddie-mercury-1974-2It was on this day, November 24th, a quarter of a century ago that the world lost Freddie Mercury. I remember the day well. I’d read in the newspaper (remember them?) in April 1991 that Freddie had a “mystery wasting illness.” It said he’d viewed some properties for sale in London and the owner was told to “be out” when Freddie arrived. He was seen being helped in and out of the car. As soon as I read that, I knew it was AIDS. Still, I thought he had a few years more to live.

On November 23rd, he put out the press release confirming he had AIDS. On Sunday the 24th, I was flicking through the TV channels before going to bed and Sky News were playing the Barcelona video. The newscaster, Scott Chisolm, said: “That’s how he’d want to be remembered.” I thought it was a bit premature to be talking about him in the past tense despite his AIDS diagnosis. Then he read the headline that Freddie had just died. Despite my suspicions, it was still a hell of a shock. I remember just sitting there stunned the next day, the wind howling outside. Queen guitarist Brian May said Freddie’s death was one of the grimmest memories of his life. It was one of mine too. An awful, frightening time. There was no cure for AIDS then and it appeared the virus was going to go on killing people indefinitely. Who would be next?

I was 20 then and Freddie seemed old to me at 45. I’m 45 now and, I can tell you, it isn’t old at all. He was still a young man with a long way to go, but we never get the best for very long. They come out of nowhere, shake up everything and then they’re gone, leaving us to wonder who they really were and where they came from.

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Most rock stars die suddenly without warning; Elvis, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, etc. Freddie, like his Under Pressure collaborator David Bowie, knew he was dying and had time to prepare for it. There are little hints and clues in the final albums released while he was alive The Miracle and Innuendo.

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His most famous work, Bohemian Rhapsody, was re-released and hit number one again over Christmas 1991 for five weeks (adding to the nine weeks it had spent at number one in the UK over Christmas 1975.) It’s been said that the success of Bohemian Rhapsody gave Freddie the money and fame to embark on the lifestyle that killed him. The song made him, remade him at Live Aid in 1985 and was a fitting epitaph to his career in late 1991.

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How good was Freddie Mercury? He named the band Queen, designed their logo, wrote their first top ten hit and their first number one single. Just look at the originality of Bohemian Rhapsody. There hasn’t been a song like it before or since. That’s why it stands so far apart and above most other contemporary songs. Freddie wasn’t only a genius songwriter, he was a superb pianist, arranger, producer and an unforgettable showman on stage (I was lucky enough to see him on his last tour with Queen at Slane when I was 14). Who else could walk on before a football stadium crowd and command them all effortlessly for two hours? There was that unique voice with the four-octave range. The groundbreaking and hilarious videos Queen made. He even danced with the Royal Ballet company for Christ’s sake. And all this before the age of 45. He crammed a lot of life into his short time on earth. May he rest in peace while conducting the choir eternal.

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I’ll leave the final words to Freddie himself, he said: “I don’t think I’ll make old bones and I don’t care. I’ve lived a full life. I really have done it all and if I’m dead tomorrow I don’t care a damn.”

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

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A Hobbit, Four Beatles, a Queen and a Led Zeppelin: How Tolkien Influenced British Music In The 1960s and 7os

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Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.

Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”

Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.

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The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”

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It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.

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Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.

 

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It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.

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Lord of the Strings

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”

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Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.

Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

Queen at the Castle Part 2

Dawn. July 5th, 1986. The bus carrying my brother and I took off from Sallynoggin Church and our odyssey to Slane Castle to see the mighty Queen began. On the bus, we met a guy who went to our school. He’d formed a band and we chatted with him for a while.

Eventually, we left the outskirts of Dublin and entered the verdant area of County Meath where Slane Castle is located. The bus stopped, we got out and began the walk to the castle grounds. Along the route, we saw many people selling Queen paraphernalia. (You can see more about some of the counterfeit material on sale on the day in this clip here; https://youtu.be/amquOZpC2iA) The official merchandise was on sale inside the grounds. A t-shirt cost nearly twice the price of the concert ticket if I remember correctly. Crazy money.

The first big surprise of the day was that Slane is a natural bowl shape and wasn’t like a flat stadium venue (during Radio Ga Ga, I looked back to see this vast forest of clapping hands going up onto the hill in the sunset. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since)

We made our way downhill towards the stage and found a good spot about three-quarters of the way up the field (we were by the right spotlight tower at the front in this picture).

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I saw a guy in front of me wearing an army jacket with the four heads from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody video and Queen II album cover on the back of it. I got a flashback to the time Bo Rhap was number one in ’75. I remember asking my dad why that video was on at the end of the show every week. He told me it was because it was the best selling song of the week. It struck me how long their music had been in my life.

The show kicked off with long-forgotten Irish group, The Fountainhead. They started with their song The Rhythm Method and the sound system boomed into life and echoed in my chest like a fist pounding on it. It took a bit of getting used to. The rain started coming down and The Fountainhead were gone. A chap in front of us lay unconscious in the muddy grass with rain beating down on his face. I’ve often wondered what happened to him in the years since.

American girl group The Bangles appeared and the drunken male crowd leered into life, hurling anything they could lay their hands on at them (It was easily the roughest crowd I’ve ever been a part of at any show since.) They did their hit Manic Monday and another song called Going Down To Liverpool, which featured the line: “Where you goin’ with that UB40 in your hand?” Their blonde drummer sang that song and, upon seeing that a red shoe had landed on the stage, she rewrote the line so it went “where you goin’ with that UB40 in your FOOT?!” Someone hurled a 2-litre bottle of orange at them and it went up over their heads and spilled its sticky contents all over one of them. They were already standing at the back of the stage to avoid electrocution by the rain. Their set finished, The Bangles left the stage. 20 years later, Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs was asked what she thought of their brief Slane slot. “It was like Raging Bull,” she said, “like a Scorsese movie.” I concur.

We waited for the next act to take the stage. Another drunk guy in front of us was groping any female that went past as we ate some sandwiches from our cooler bag. Surreal wasn’t the word for it.

Chris Rea took to the stage and, to everyone’s surprise, the crowd calmed down and gave Chris a really warm reception. One journalist remarked that Chris Rea may have accounted for a sizable chunk of the ticket sales. I just sang along as I knew his songs and wanted to have a good time and I think most people were like that. I Can Hear Your Heart Beat was a particular crowd favourite with everyone singing loudly and clapping as the sun came out at last. Chris left the stage to rapturous applause. When it died down, we all knew it was time for Queen to rock us all.

Half an hour went past. It felt like three. More rain showers came down. Finally, the distorted sound of One Vision started up. Intoxicated people at the back reacted like cavemen and ran downhill towards the noise. The wave of people gathered momentum and bodies like a tsunami until it slammed into me. I was lifted off the ground and carried about ten or fifteen feet forward. My brother grabbed onto my bag strap so I wouldn’t get swept away and lost in the melee.

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Finally, the human wave seemed to stop as Freddie Mercury appeared with a crown on his head. (Freddie usually came out with his crown and ermine cape at the end as God Save The Queen played.)

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(But with political tensions of The Troubles in Northern Ireland at their height, it was wisely decided not to play it and end the show with We Are The Champions.) Here’s Freddie’s appearance on an Irish news report that I timer-recorded on our old Blaupunkt VHS recorder while we were at the show: https://youtu.be/9iPGiiAseAs)

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Queen were about to get their first taste of the dark side of the crowd. During Seven Seas of Rhye, Freddie said “Hold it, hold it!” to the rest of Queen. They stopped playing as Freddie pointed into the crowd at a young guy getting crushed. “Are you all right?” Freddie asked. It appeared that he was. Freddie took the opportunity to let the crowd know his displeasure. “We don’t like this,” Freddie said, “you guys are spoiling this concert for the rest of the people!” That got a loud cheer. About time someone tried to impose a little order on the chaos.

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It got worse before it got better. Down the front of the stage, several inebriated chaps were using a battering ram to smash through to the backstage area. The hoses that had been installed to cool the crowd in a heatwave were put to use as makeshift water cannon against the intruders. I could see the water sheeting off them down the front (you can see in the photo that their clothes and hair are wet and water is splashing on the ground as they’re running).

There was even a possibly apocryphal story of a passing drunk unplugging the live feed that Queen were recording for their Live Magic album which came out later in 1986 in December. (Or was Slane cut out in disgust by Freddie? That seems more likely.)

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One fan even managed to clamber up onto the stage as Freddie was singing and ran right at him. Freddie calmly put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and walked him to the wings where security took care of him.

The local Slane residents insisted on the show ending before dark, so Queen’s lighting effects lost a lot of their power in the fading daylight (just look at the Wembley show at night a week later to see what might have been.) The Olympic-style torches above the stage ignited during Bohemian Rhapsody to a big cheer from the crowd.

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During We Are The Champions, the whole crowd was swaying in unison at last as opposed to fighting everything. I found myself standing next to an old Hell’s Angel in a leather jacket. A dude swaying up on someone’s shoulders spilled cider on my head, a baptism in rowdiness at my debut concert. While he did apologise, I went home reeking of someone else’s alcohol. As the show ended, the Hell’s Angel asked me what I thought of the show. I was dumbstruck. “Now there’s a man of few words!” the Hell’s Angel said, “what did you think???” I managed a “great”, I think and we started the long climb up the natural hill of Slane’s auditorium. It had been a long, long day full of surprises, some good, some nasty, but the primary feeling was one of elation to have seen my idols at my first show.

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The drama didn’t end there. It’s conservatively estimated that 80,000 people attended Queen’s Slane show. I can tell you that there were at least 100,000 people, if not 120,000 in attendance. This is borne out by the crushing in the crowd and the fact that the exit wasn’t big enough to cope with the numbers trying to pour out through it at the end. My brother and I were forced off to the side by the jostling crowd and got pushed up against this barbed wire fence. We had to climb over it, balance on top of a wall and drop down several feet to the road below to get back to our bus (not easy when your legs are stiff from standing all day.). All of which had to be done in a split-second as another crush was forcing people over the barbed wire fence right on top of us. As a wide-eyed 14-year-old kid, I just went with the flow. Looking back, it’s a miracle I wasn’t seriously injured that day. Today, everything is Health & Safety. In ’86, it was Cheap & Cheerful. You sucked it up and got on with it and nobody sued for damages.

In the days before mobile phones and the internet, there was no way for us to contact home and let them know we were okay. By 10.30pm, my mother was getting frantic with worry and sent my dad out in his car to find us. (I never told my mother the full details of what happened that day as I knew she’d probably never let me out again and would be worried sick if she did.) Sure enough, we met my father at the top of Johnstown Road, he picked us up and we got home. Still buzzing from the concert, I checked the videotape to find out if it had recorded the news broadcast. It had and I still have that recording to this day (probably because it was recorded on an excellent German BASF tape.)

Next day, I woke up still tired but exhilarated. I couldn’t believe I’d seen Queen. During a lull in the Wimbledon tennis final between Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl, I went out on my bike to get the newspapers and see what they’d written about Queen at Slane. I naively thought they’d rave about the concert. The reviews rubbished Queen’s show. The Irish Sunday Independent review had the headline “Rhapsody on a Soggy Saturday.” “Queen pulverized every one of their songs with a heavy, turgid performance,” said another reviewer. I was wondering if they’d watched the same show I had.

Freddie was so enraged by the crowd’s behaviour that he vowed never to play live in Ireland again. That vow would never be put to the test as he was diagnosed with HIV nine months later and died in 1991 of complications from AIDS. Brian May apparently refused to go on for Queen’s Slane encore after being struck by an object thrown from the crowd. He did go on again after being persuaded by his bandmates. Asked about Slane in a 1989 interview, Brian diplomatically said that there was “an element of noisemakers” in the crowd but added that “the Irish crowd is wonderful to play to.” “It’s the nature of an outdoor gig that it becomes a kind of drinking party,” he said. Brian did play Ireland again in 1992 on his Back to the Light solo tour in the wake of Freddie’s death.

One possible reason for the crowd’s rowdiness at Slane ’86 is that Ireland was in recession at the time and jobs and hope were scarce. It was so bad that the Self Aid concert was organised in May 1986 to help Ireland’s unemployed. It featured U2, The Boomtown Rats and Elvis Costello among others. 30,000 people left Ireland looking for work in 1986, my brother being one of them. He was with me at Slane and, six weeks later, he was gone to America. In the year that followed, he was only home for four months. Luckily, Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom was just a few years away in the 1990s and my brother was able to stay in Ireland and start his own successful business.

As for me, that boy of few words grew up to become a man of many words and I published my first book, The Vorbing, in October 2015.

Stewart Stafford, The Vorbing, The Vampire Creation Myth Begins, Horror

The only thing that remains is for Queen + Adam Lambert to do some Irish shows. They’ve performed everywhere except the Emerald Isle. What are you waiting for, guys? This story isn’t over yet.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Footnote:

Going through some Slane ’86 photos online, I somehow located my 14-year-old self in the crowd

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Queen+Adam Lambert HAVE announced an Irish date for late 2017 and I’ll be in attendance. The story continues…

 

 

Queen at the Castle Part 1

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It was on July 5th 1986 that I set out with my brother to my very first concert – Queen at Slane Castle in County Meath in Dublin, Ireland. The previous summer, I’d watched in awe as Freddie Mercury had stolen the Live Aid show right from under the noses of the creme de la creme of the rock and pop world. When Queen’s Magic Tour was announced in 1986, I knew I had to see them.

My brother and I saved up the money for the tickets and, in April 1986, he purchased our tickets in Golden Discs record store in Dun Laoghaire for 14.50 in old Irish pounds. We were going to see Queen live in concert. The Easter holidays ended and I went back to school knowing I had weeks of revision for summer exams to come.

We also had to figure out a way of getting there. I spotted an advertisement in the old Dunnes Stores in Cornelscourt for a bus service to Slane. We booked our seats. The last piece of the puzzle was in place.

July 4th 1986, the night before the show. The food and drink had been bought and all the preparations had been made. I remember watching a documentary on the renovation of the Statue of Liberty that was going on at the time. Then it was time for bed.

I woke up with that Christmas morning feeling – tired but high on adrenalin. We set off quietly in the dawn sunrise for our bus trip. The meeting point was Sallynogging Church where my parents had married 20 years before. My brother had also made his First Holy Communion there. Later, my mother’s funeral took place there, so it had great significance for my family. The bus arrived, we boarded and our great adventure had begun…

Copyright, Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reseved

David Bowie – Anonymous Icon

“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just in the right place to do something exciting.”

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David Bowie was all wrong for the 1960s for many reasons. Firstly, he tried to fit in with whatever trend was happening at the time. He hadn’t found his own look or voice yet. We’re all guilty of mimicking our influences until we find ourselves. (Some of Bowie’s 60s output has been compared to The Who. During the recording of Under Pressure with Queen in 1981, Brian May played a take and said it sounded like The Who. Sixties Bowie might have been pleased with the comparison but not the Bowie of 1981. He frowned and said to Brian May: “Well, it won’t sound like The Who by the time we’ve finished with it.” He was not an imitator anymore but an innovator pushing for perfection.)

David Bowie had been ignored in the 1960s. He had been trying since he was 15 in 1962 to break into music with various bands, images and sounds. He’d been a mod, an acoustic hippy and even tried putting out novelty records like The Laughing Gnome. After seven years, he had only managed one hit right at the tail-end of the decade in September 1969 with Space Oddity (he’d never be allowed that much time in today’s music business and the world would miss out on a spectacular talent). For nearly three years after that, nothing he tried worked.

The late sixties were all about Flower Power and everyone being one with each other and the Earth. Bowie, with his unusual eyes, was about the opposite – the outsider.

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Bowie wasn’t going to be ignored again and decided on a new strategy for the 1970s. He would push his outsider look about as far as it could go to become the gender-bending extraterrestrial messiah Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s. Whereas Elvis was himself, Bowie would play a character to become a superstar, an interesting twist on what The King had started. It was influenced by the androgynous look of Little Richard in the 50s and Bowie was a huge fan of that.

“It’s always time to question what has become standard and established,” he said.

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David Bowie wasn’t going to follow the crowd and try to fit in anymore. He was going to use shock tactics and press everyone’s buttons. He was going to wear a dress and publicly state that he was gay despite being married to Angie (the gay thing is no big deal these days, back then the impact of such a statement was seismic. Many Hollywood stars like Rock Hudson denied they were gay in interviews until the end as they were afraid it would ruin their careers. As Bowie didn’t really have a career at the time, it had the reverse effect and was the making of him).

Bowie was clever enough to figure out that there are two ways to get your message out there; advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). He was going to make the press work for him by tossing them eye-opening quotes and posing for provocative pictures to make them do the work of drumming up interest in his career with headlines. While wearing dresses didn’t give him the breakthrough he craved, it gave him his first unique image and people started to remember him. Bowie was moving in the right direction.

To give an example of how brave David Bowie was, he decided to walk around TEXAS wearing A DRESS in the early 70s! A guy called him a fag and pointed a loaded gun at his head. Did it phase Bowie? Nope, on the contrary, it proved his shock tactics were working. He was getting noticed at last. He wasn’t following another trend, he was setting his own. Bowie would do exactly what he wanted in the 1970s and nobody was going to stop him and they didn’t. He was about to take things even further and really push the boundaries of what was acceptable.

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On June 17th 1972, Bowie performed mock fellatio on guitarist Mick Ronson at a show in Oxford. Bowie’s manager Tony De Fries took Mick Rock’s photo and had it made into a full-page advert in music paper Melody Maker. There were repercussions and paint was thrown on the front door of the house in Hull where Mick Ronson’s parents lived. Paint was also thrown on the car he’d bought them. Ronson left the tour but was persuaded to return. If Bowie was going to suffer for his art, so were those around him.

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On July 6th 1972, David Bowie appeared in what would be a life-changing performance of Starman on the now-defunct Top of the Pops. During his spot, guitarist Mick Ronson joined him to harmonise and Bowie draped his arm around him in a limp-wristed fashion. Bowie knew exactly what he was doing. A young Boy George remembered his grandmother saying “oh, he’s a poofter!” when she saw Bowie make that gesture and similar statements were uttered in homes all over Britain. Of course, anything parents didn’t like was automatically what kids were going to get into and they flocked to Bowie in their droves as new fans (concert audiences began to grow noticeably after this). It was a masterstroke. In a Stardust flash, David Bowie was a star after a decade of trying. Such was the power of television then. It had made Elvis a star in the 50s, saved his career with the ’68 Comeback Special and did the same for Bowie in 1972.

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The Ziggy Stardust image was such a hit, Bowie said “I thought I might as well take Ziggy out to interviews as well. Why leave him on the stage? Why not complete the canvas? Looking back it was completely absurd. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line. Not in a physical sense, but definitely in a mental sense.”

While Bowie appeared to be telling all his most intimate secrets to the world, what he was really doing was projecting a fake image of himself and revealing nothing. In later years, long after he stopped playing characters, he retained that air of mystery even up until his death (especially after his enforced retirement following a minor heart attack on stage in 2004).

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Check the finger, Paparazzi!

 

It’s something he has in common with Freddie Mercury, both men hid in plain sight for decades. When you look at the information they left behind about themselves, it seems to tell you a lot but doesn’t. They showed but didn’t tell and perfected the politician’s art of doublespeak. That is why the public remain fascinated with them and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

When Stardust Met Mercury

“Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest. He took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”

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It is interesting how many times the lives and careers of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury intersected over the years. Bowie, struggling to make a name for himself in the late 60s, played a gig at Freddie’s college, Imperial in London (Bowie never went to college but was self-taught and a voracious reader). Freddie was there to help out. As there was no stage, Bowie told Freddie and the others to help him push some desks together to create a makeshift one and the show went ahead.

Freddie had a desire to become a rock star himself but was struggling to write songs. The man, who in just a few short years would go on to write what is routinely cited as the best song of all-time, Bohemian Rhapsody, would bang his head in frustration on his piano and ask: “how do they do it?” It’s possible he took inspiration from Bowie, a man writing his own material and performing it before Freddie’s very eyes. Bowie’s visual element wasn’t yet there. There’s no doubt that Freddie took inspiration from it when it was. Freddie changed his name to Mercury, messenger of the Gods but also a planet, just as Bowie had christened his alter ego Stardust in a celestial fashion. It was the Dionysian god-like approach to rock music that Jim Morrison had taken earlier.

Freddie and Queen drummer Roger Taylor had a stall in Kensington Market selling exotic clothes and various bits of tat. Even then, Freddie had an eye for the visual. So did Bowie, once again their paths crossed. Freddie’s stall with Roger was going nowhere, so they decided to close it. Freddie got a job at another stall. One day, David Bowie showed up looking for a pair of boots. Freddie fitted him for a pair and sold them to him (did Bowie remember Freddie from Imperial College? It’s possible he didn’t, but Freddie almost certainly remembered him. It wasn’t the first time a star had come down and bought something at the stall where Freddie worked. Noddy Holder from Slade dropped by and bought his iconic mirrored top hat there: “I got the hat off a guy in Kensington market, called Freddie,” Noddy said. “He said: ‘One day I’m gonna be a big pop star like you.’ I said: ‘Fuck off, Freddie.’ He became Freddie Mercury.” So Freddie was playing an important backstage part in glam rock already, seeing their choices, helping them into them and watching their fans react.)

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Noddy Hoider of Slade with the hat Freddie sold him
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Bowie in his pre-Ziggy dress-wearing phase

Roll on a few years and David Bowie has found his musical mojo in the character of alien rock god Ziggy Stardust. The 1970s were going to be about the visuals as much as the music.

Photo of David Bowie
Bowie as Ziggy Stardust Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor recalls: “Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar’s Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I’d seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-at??? They looked like spacemen.” Once again, Bowie was taking chances on stage as Mercury took mental notes in the audience.

Queen soon joined Bowie in the ranks of rock stardom. Bowie and Mercury both worked seperately with photographer Mick Rock. Rock was particularly fond of an old shot of German actress Marlene Dietrich and asked David and Freddie if they wanted to recreate it. Both divas saw the visual possibilities and favourable comparisons with glamorous old Hollywood and responded.

Mercury Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich (left) and Mick Rock’s recreation with Freddie Mercury (right)

Mercury’s Dietrich pose would form the basis of Queen’s cover of their second album “Queen II” and be recreated in the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975.

Queen II

Bowie Dietrich
Bowie’s Dietrich pose photographed by Mick Rock

In October 1977, Queen and Bowie released very similar anthems. Queen had “We Are The Champions” and Bowie had “Heroes.” They are both played regularly at sporting events.

Fast-forward to Montreux, Switzerland in 1981. Queen are recording their album Hot Space at Mountain Studios there. Bowie happens to be in town the same night at his apartment there. Engineer David Richards sees a chance at rock history and invites Bowie down to the studio. Bowie does backing vocals for Queen’s track “Cool Cat” (he later refuses permission for the song to be released and insists that his vocals are taken off the track. Some advance tapes had already been sent out with Bowie’s backing vocals on them and are worth quite a lot of money today. The song, minus Bowie’s vocals, was included on Hot Space) In the studio though, everyone seems happy and relaxed with Bowie’s minor contribution. Bowie wants more though and suggests that they write a song together. Roger Taylor already had a track called “Feel Like” which has many background elements of what would become “Under Pressure.” It would be rewritten, have Bowie’s vocals that classic John Deacon bassline added.

“Feel Like” demo

Bowie and Queen could have written an obvious song about love but chose to write about pressure which is something both camps clearly understood. Fans only hear the joy in most music without considering the blood, sweat and tears that sometimes goes into the creation of it. Big stars that write their own material have to keep topping what they’ve done before. They become hostages to their own talent and fanbase in a way. So pressure was the common ground that Bowie and Queen chose to occupy and occupy it spectacularly they did.

Bowie took over the session which seems to have unnerved Brian May: “It was very hard, because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” May said Bowie “took over the song lyrically” and demanded control of the last mixing session. (Roger Taylor didn’t seem to mind Bowie’s instructions and felt that Queen could have done more with him at a later date.)

“Under Pressure” studio take

There is a well-known story of the vocal sparring session that developed between Mercury and Bowie. They weren’t supposed to hear the other’s contribution so as to keep their improvisations fresh. However, Bowie was secretly listening to what Mercury was doing. When Mercury got suspicious as to how Bowie was perfectly counterpointing him, Queen’s German producer Mack revealed the deception. “The bastard,” Mercury swore. It wasn’t the only way these two titans were competing with quantities of wine and cocaine allegedly being consumed to jazz up proceedings in the 24-hour session.

As the line “People On Streets” is repeated in the song, that was its title until it became “Under Pressure” at the last minute. Bowie refused to film a video for it but, even so, it gave Queen their second number one when it was released in November 1981 just after the release of their first and best Greatest Hits album. Bowie had hit the top spot the previous year with “Ashes to Ashes” and he would have another chart-topper 18 months later in 1983 with “Let’s Dance.” So the experiment worked for all concerned and is now considered one of the best duets ever recorded (even better than Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby, although that seems to grow in popularity every Christmas and will again, no doubt, with Bowie’s death.) With “Under Pressure,” David Bowie became a part of Queen history and vice versa.

Bowie Mercury 80s

Their paths crossed again at Live Aid in 1985, when Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest live performance of all-time . Bowie had the unenviable task of having to go on after them and he raised his game. Queen did him a favour in one way as the crowd were already fired up from their performance and Bowie didn’t have to do much to excite them even though he did with a rousing rendition of “Rebel Rebel” and a seminal performance of “Heroes.”

The bassline from “Under Pressure” was sampled in the 1990 Vanilla Ice song “Ice Ice Baby” which also reached number one and once again brought the combined careers of Bowie and Mercury to public attention.

david-bowie-and-freddie-mercury-90s

Freddie Mercury knew he was dying for years before his actual passing (as Bowie did for the last 18 months of his life when diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2014.) Freddie had only publicly announced his HIV status on Saturday, November 23rd 1991 when he died of AIDS the next day to worldwide shock. Bowie did something similar, bringing out a new album on his birthday with his death being announced just two days later. The impact of Bowie’s death seems greater, possibly because there was no internet when Freddie died. Anyone and everyone could say their piece online about Bowie’s passing and they have.

At Mercury’s funeral, a wreath from David Bowie was sent with the hastily-scribbled note: “Will be missed.” Bowie appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 where he reunited with his old Ziggy Stardust bandmate Mick Ronson (Ronson died in 1993). Bowie performed “Heroes” and “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox filling in for Freddie on the duet. (As no video exists showing Bowie and Mercury singing “Under Pressure” together, this duet with Lennox was recut in 1999 to make it appear as if Bowie and Mercury were performing it on stage simultaneously.)

“Under Pressure” Rah Mix

Bowie surprised everyone by getting down on one knee on stage at the old Wembley Stadium and saying The Lord’s Prayer. He hadn’t told Queen or anyone else and only decided to do it five minutes before going on.

When Bowie himself died in January 2016, Brian May described Bowie as a “fearsome” talent (it appears May is still unnerved by the “Under Pressure” sessions 35 years on.)

Bowie Fred Heaven.png

Many internet memes appeared after Bowie’s death showing him reunited with Freddie Mercury in Heaven to sing “Under Pressure” again, reuniting them even in death. The show, as Freddie Mercury once sang, must go on.

Bowie and Fred Angels

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

R.I.P. David Bowie: From Space Oddity to BlackStar

David Bowie died of cancer yesterday aged 69. I’d like to pay tribute to him in some way.

Where on earth do you start with the legend that was and is David Bowie? You don’t, as he was not of this earth. His first hit was “Space Oddity” in 1969. At a time when people were writing hippy-dippy songs, Bowie was thinking of space travel and the future. Nobody else was doing what he was doing musically at the time. He truly was a visionary.

Despite that first hit, he struggled in the very early 70s to find another one. When he hit upon the persona of Ziggy Stardust, his fame exploded. “I’m going to be huge,” he said in 1972, “and it’s quite frightening in a way.” He went on to dominate the 70s the way Dylan had the 1960s. I can’t think of another performer who challenged himself and his audience as Bowie did, drastically deconstructing every successful look and sound and rebooting it with the next album. Something was popular? BOOM! He’d moved on to something else. Oh, you like that now? POW! He did it again. (Bowie said the one thing he hated journalists saying was: “You’re a chameleon that’s always ch-ch-changing.”) In an age of one-hit-wonder X-Factor wannabes, he looks even more of giant.

Nicolas Cage: “You have to stay uncomfortable. I learned that from David Bowie. I said, ‘How do you do it? How do you keep reinventing yourself?’ He said, ‘I just never got comfortable with anything I was doing.’ I knew those were words of wisdom from a great artist and I took those words seriously.”

My favourite Bowie story is the time he went to see Elvis Presley perform at Madison Square Garden in 1972. Bowie arrived late to his front row seat in full Ziggy Stardust gear as Elvis and the band were powering into “Proud Mary.” “He must have thought Mary had arrived,” Bowie joked. Yes, he was weird and wonderful, but people forget how funny he could be. (Just check out his “Chubby Little Loser” song from Extras with Ricky Gervais)

This is how he recalled writing the classic Life On Mars: “I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”

Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest performance of all-time at Live Aid. Bowie had to go on after them and he was still magnificent. That’s a true testament to how good he was.

Bowie At Live Aid

It’s a cliche to say when someone famous dies that there will never be another like them again but it’s true in Bowie’s case. Not just because of his groundbreaking, daring abilities but also because the music business he became a superstar in during the 1970’s just doesn’t exist anymore. Albums were king then but not now with music sales dropping. Live touring is where the money is. If Bowie was starting out today, he would never be given the time or creative space to develop even one of his personas let alone the many he did (can you imagine One Direction ever tampering with their smash-hit formula as drastically as Bowie did even once? Nope, neither can I.) Nor would Bowie be given a chance to come back from less successful albums. Presently, if you’re not an instant success, you get dropped by your record label. The patience of executives and their belief in the artist is gone. Young Bowie in this world would have to lower himself to entering reality talent contests like X-Factor or American Idol where his baritone wouldn’t be appreciated. He would probably be eliminated early in favour of the glass-shattering screamers who tend to win. I can’t see how Bowie or anyone else could have a 47-year musical career starting in  2016. It’s all about making a quick buck and moving on to the next teeny-bopper sensation before the kids get bored.

“Who wants to drag their old decaying frame around until they’re 90 just to assert their ego? I don’t,” he said in 1977. He didn’t, he left us at 69 with a staggering, diverse body of work. Hard to believe one man came up with all that but he did. The world was lucky to have him as long as we did. Go, David, fly Starman beyond the bounds of time and space to your true place in the Heavens.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

 

A Night At The Opera: A Peek Behind The Curtain

Queen’s 1975 album “A Night At The Opera” begins with Freddie Mercury’s flowery piano-playing drifting in out of nowhere. It’s lulling you into a false sense of security, however, as Brian May’s angry guitar riff kicks in with a siren for backing. It builds to a crescendo of stabbing, Psycho-esque licks before a sudden Exorcist-like scream cuts across it and we cut to silence before Freddie’s teasing piano comes in again. The late DJ Gerry Ryan once said this album was “the most over-produced record of all-time.” Look at all the sounds we’ve already had in the opening seconds and he may have had a point. He may also have been a tad unfair. As Brian May said, Queen had more tools to play with in the studio by the mid-70s than the The Beatles had enjoyed back in the 60s and they were determined to take full advantage of them.

Those opening sounds are the intro to a song written by Freddie called “Death On Two Legs” tantalisingly sub-titled “Dedicated to…” It’s Freddie at his most vitriolic recalling John Lennon’s goading of Paul McCartney in his “nasty” song “How Do You Sleep.” “Death On Two Legs” was rumoured to be about Queen’s first managers, the Sheffield brothers, they certainly thought it was about them as they sued Queen (even though they nor anyone else is mentioned by name in the song). What were they so annoyed about? Check out some of the lines Freddie wrote: “Dog with disease/You’re the king of the sleaze/Put your money where your mouth is Mr Know All/Was the fin on your back part of the deal?…SHARK!” Even Brian May asked Freddie if he was sure he wanted to be so full-on but Freddie was insistent. On their live album “Live Killers” four years later, “Death On Two Legs” was described as “the source of many tedious legal battles.” Freddie’s introduction to the song on stage has to be bleeped out three times, I’ll leave it up to you to decide what he said, he was clearly unrepentant. It does end on a positive note: “Make me feel good/I feel good.”

It’s straight into the Noel Coward-esque “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” and we’re back to the Music Hall (the British version of American vaudeville and something Paul McCartney was constantly accused of writing for). Freddie’s muffled vocals were achieved by feeding them into a tin can and re-recording them on a microphone. A simple trick that pays off brilliantly. Whimsical again, the media never got the humour in Queen’s songs and videos and always tore them to shreds.

Next, we’re piling into Roger Taylor’s “I’m In Love WIth My Car.” Freddie and Brian were the Lennon and McCartney of Queen writing most of the early albums between them with Roger Taylor struggling to get any of his early songs into the mix, this being one of them. Brian May couldn’t believe Roger was serious submitting a song with that title for consideration and took offence to it. It’s got this rolling waltz-time beat to it and showcases Roger’s astonishingly high vocals (“the dog whistle voice” Freddie accurately called it). The track became a live favourite in later years and Roger arguably saved Queen in the 80s with his songwriting on huge hits like “Radio Ga Ga” and “A Kind of Magic” when Freddie was more interested in partying than writing lyrics. Here, like the car engines at the end, he was just revving up.

“You’re My Best Friend,” John Deacon’s gorgeous ode to the usually unspoken love of friendship (it was about his wife, actually) is next. Freddie puts in a great vocal on a song that isn’t his.

“’39”, a Brian May composition, is next and it starts out with some folky guitar before a jaunty, country-and-western-style sing-along rolls out before us. The song is about exploration. With its “milky sea” and “new world” references, I always thought it was about The Pilgrim Fathers sailing from Plymouth, England to the New World on The Mayflower. Turns out it was about space travel.

“Sweet Lady” is the closest thing the album comes to filler but is a good rock song that kicks off with Freddie going “Ooh, I like it!”, so he’s clearly into it. The repetition of “Sweet Lady” does get on your nerves a bit but “Seaside Rendezvous” is straight around the corner. It’s okay, again a little bit fillerish for my liking, slight and forgettable.

Brian May’s “The Prophet’s Song” is next and probably the best Queen song you’ve never heard. It’s Queen at their scariest with this apocalyptic epic. Look at the use of words “warning” “storm” “bone-white haze” “Hell” “death” “madman” and you can see where they are going. It’s dark stuff with some absolutely glorious soaring harmonies from the band and a middle section where Freddie repeatedly sings “now I know” in multi-tracked a cappella that just builds and builds and is quite eerie when he starts singing “death all around” like a mantra. Brian said that when Freddie sang backing vocals to his lead vocals, the takes were so similar that the sound phased together. That is a mark of how accurate Freddie was as a singer and how much concentration he put into recording. 

From the Book of Revelations to the Book of Love with Love Of My Life. It’s got Brian May on harp but was stripped back to just guitar and vocals more effectively for live performances. Freddie always got the crowd to sing along during it, occasionally standing back and letting the crowd sing it back to him while he stood and applauded their efforts. Even audiences that didn’t speak English knew the words. YouTube it, it’s quite an uplifting experience, spellbinding.

Brian May takes over vocals for his own composition “Good Company” and it’s hard not to hear an echo of The Beatles “When I’m 64” in there, from the cheerful tone of the song with its underlying theme of a despondent man ageing to the use of ukulele (George Formby, a famous British comedian and ukulele player was one of The Beatles favourites)  May has admitted that Beatles records, especially The White Album, were The Bible for Queen. All writers have to work out their influences through imitation before they find their own voice.

The second last song on the album is Bohemian Rhapsody, unquestionably one of the greatest songs ever written. A very strange magnum opus with many different parts (ballad, opera, heavy rock), it was actually three songs Freddie had written that he threw together with spectacular results. Freddie never explained what that song was about. If anyone put any theories to him about what they thought the song meant, Freddie just stared at them for a moment and then laughed. He gave nothing away about his songs or himself. The name Freddie Mercury comes from a line in the song My Fairy King on Queen’s self-titled first album from 1973. The line was “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me.” So Freddie Mercury is the “Mama” of Bohemian Rhapsody. “Freddie Mercury just killed a man.” Who is the man? Freddie Mercury was born Farookh Bulsara, could his alter-ego Freddie be the one “killing” him? What sort of death is it? The next line is “Put a gun against his head/Pulled my trigger now he’s dead.” The gun, of course, is a phallic symbol and the use of “my trigger” is significant. Normally you would write “THE trigger”, why is the “my” so important? So Freddie Mercury is “killing” the old Farookh Bulsara by pulling “his” (Farookh’s) trigger (an orgasm? It’s all very Freudian.). It was around 1975 that Freddie Mercury became gay. He was leaving the old him behind, was he worried about having “gone and thrown it all away” meaning a possible negative reaction from family, friends, the media and the public? I’m sure it was on his mind, he’d put everything he had into music and becoming a star and he had a lot riding on this album. Queen were not just poor, they were in debt and needed a smash hit album. Although Bohemian Rhapsody is a very intense, heartfelt song, there is that intentional, overarching preposterousness that means it’s not entirely meant to be taken seriously.

The curtain comes royally down on the album with Queen’s version of the British national anthem “God Save The Queen.” Jimi Hendrix was clearly the influence here with his rock version of America’s national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” still fresh in the memory from a few years before. Freddie Mercury was obsessed with Hendrix and once saw him 14 nights in a row in various pubs and clubs around London.

“A Night At The Opera” is widely regarded as Queen’s best-ever album. Some of their later albums had big hits with some filler on them, particularly “News Of The World” and “Jazz.” It’s my favourite Queen album and one that I never get tired of listening to. The songs are so varied and timeless and universal like all great albums should be. With each passing year, the death of Freddie Mercury is felt more and more sharply. There never has been another one of him in the years since he died and there never will be. This album will be listened to for as long as music is played and that must make old Fred smile wherever he is.

Album produced by Roy Thomas Baker and Queen.

© 2014, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.