Today, Wednesday September 5 2012, would have been Freddie Mercury’s 66th birthday.
In honour of the iconic Queen frontman, we’ve put together a top ten list of the achievements and milestones that will ensure Freddie will always hold an influence over music.
Quotes, audio and video examples have been thrown in where possible.
Queen’s legendary performance at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid in 1985 remains the most enduring and recognisable image of Freddie Mercury. The manner in which he dominated the stage and the stadium, leading 72,000 people through the band’s set, including one was ultimately public vocal warm up, created what is unquestionably one of the greatest moments in rock history.
Even the closing ceremony to the London 2012 Olympic Games tried to recapture some of that magic with their own video recreation of Mercury’s call-and-response request to his adoring Wembley crowd.
Grand, theatrical and energetic, Mercury’s performances also managed somehow to feel inclusive; in a Happy Birthday Freddie Mercury blog for Google last year, Brian May commented that he could make “the last person at the back of the furthest stand in a stadium feel that he was connected.”
His bottomless mic stand was as iconic a symbol to many as his moustache, and Mercury would wave it like a baton to orchestrate mesmerized audiences across the globe. At other times he would clutch the stand to his waist, dueling May with his own, microphone tipped air guitar.
After an estimated 700 concerts worldwide with Queen, Mercury played his final gig with the band at Knebworth in 1986 to an audience purported to be as high as 300,000 – a fitting send off to a pioneering entertainer. Mercury and Queen were the first band to play to the colossal stadiums of South American stadiums and behind the Iron Curtain in Budapest, breaking the world record for concert attendances in the Morumbi Stadium, São Paulo and staging the largest rock gig in Eastern Europe at the time.
Vocal range and power
“The difference between Freddie and almost all the other rock stars was that he was selling the voice.” Montserrat Caballé
The majority of Mercury’s performances with Queen lay comfortably within his tenor voice, yet had the vocal dexterity and range to drastically elaborate and embellish the role of lead singer for the group. Able to scale five octaves, from a deep, low bass F, up to a soprano high F, he was a naturally gifted vocalist, claiming throughout his career to have never undertaken any formal vocal training or coaching. Mercury didn’t lack for power either, and could happily belt out notes up to a tenor’s high F.
“The best virtuoso rock ‘n’ roll singer of all time. He could sing anything in any style. He could change his style from line to line and, God, that’s an art. And he was brilliant at it.” Roger Daltrey
A highly adaptable vocalist, Mercury is often credited with an uncanny ability to evoke the perfect tone and feel for a variety of vocal styles, from throaty growls to stainless and glassy sustained notes in the upper echelons of his register. Montserrat Caballé, the Spanish soprano who recorded the duet album, Barcelona with Mercury, said of his vocal abilities: “His technique was astonishing. No problem of tempo, he sung with an incisive sense of rhythm, his vocal placement was very good and he was able to glide effortlessly from a register to another. He also had a great musicality. His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right colouring or expressive nuance for each word.”
Virtuoso musician, composer and songwriter
One of Freddie Mercury’s most impressive feats as a musician and songwriter was his ability to compose musically complex songs that were also commercially success on an extraordinary scale. In an industry that often seeks to boost sales figures and profits by producing simple and shallow material for the lowest common denominator, Mercury and Queen’s uncompromising and ambitious approach was brilliantly contradictory.
Unconventional song structures, multiple key changes, numerous and obscure chords and intricate harmonies were all hall marks of Mercury’s songwriting. He composed the majority of his material on the piano in a diverse array of key signatures, all the while claiming he could barely read music.
On stage he played a concert grand piano and made frequent use of synths in the studio, however Mercury was self-deprecating about his abilities on the keys, later drafting in session players for live performances. This of course also freed up Freddie to prowl the stage, unbound by piano stools and immobile instruments, but in truth he was an excellent player.
Check out Freddie Mercury’s 15 Greatest Piano Moments below:
Mercury learned to play the guitar while living in London due to his love of The Who, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin. Although less able on six-strings than he was on keys, he was still able to pen songs on the guitar and played acoustics on stage and during recordings.
As a songwriter, Mercury contributed ten of seventeen songs that appear on Queen’s Greatest Hits, including Bohemian Rhapsody, We Are the Champions, Bicycle Race, Killer Queen, Don’t Stop Me Now, Crazy Little Thing Called Love and Somebody to Love. Not a bad ratio considering that his three band mates were also highly successful and prolific songwriters for the group.
A crossover artist
“I hate doing the same thing again and again and again. I like to see what’s happening now in music, film and theatre and incorporate all of those things” Freddie Mercury
Besides the relative complexity and ambition of his music, the most notable aspect of Freddie Mercury’s songwriting was the wide range of genres that he explored, experimented with and borrowed from; from opera and heavy metal to prog rock and glam.
With Queen, Mercury dabbled in such diverse styles as ragtime, Caribbean and rockabilly on albums such as Sheer Heart Attack and The Game, while his solo work took in disco and dance. As a crossover artist, Mercury is perhaps best remembered for his songs that blended the worlds of rock and opera with his usual flair for theatrical flamboyance.
His collaboration with Montserrat Caballé combined rock and classical styles, and while critics were largely bemused, their joint album Barcelona was a commercial success. The title tracks famously went on to become the iconic song of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, which were held one year after Mercury’s death.
When it comes to opera, rock and Freddie Mercury, how can we not mention Bohemian Rhapsody? Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten (how could we?!) Stay tuned and read on.
Over dubs, multi-tracking and layered studio production
Listening to Killer Queen it’s clear that Freddie was a confirmed fan of the vocal overdub. Layered upon one another, his vocal takes create an intense wall of sound that gives the track a full, almost distorted quality.
With May and Mercury at the helm, Queen were one of the leaders in utilising the innovations and advances of music technology in the studio to realise even their most outlandish, ridiculous and ambitious ideas.
Cutting edge (for their time) synthesizers, exuberant multi-tracked production values and a liberal sprinkling of effects – listen to Another One Bites The Dust for example –marked Mercury out as a musician able to grasp the potential of the ever-evolving recording studio when making music. Thanks to their enormous level of success, Queen were able to acquire and make use of the latest gear and toys making their studio albums even more impressive and elaborate; a commitment to grandeur that would inspire many later artists and producers to let loose their imaginations at the mixing desk.
Even ignoring Bohemian Rhapsody, considered by many to be the very first true music video created purely for promotion of a single, Freddie Mercury, both with Queen and with his solo work, was a pioneer of rock’s video revolution.
From simple performance videos such as You’re My Best Friend and Another One Bites The Dust – DIY staples for any modern-day band’s filmography – to themed clips such as A Crazy Little Thing Called Love, and the full-fat productions of I Want To Break Free (shown above), Who Want’s To Live Forever and, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen helped to establish the music video as an accepted and popular new avenue for bands and artists to get creative.
Of course, being the showman that he was, Freddie was often the centre of attention on camera as well as on-stage.
We Will Rock You – the musical
Although written by Ben Elton, with collaboration from Brian May and Roger Taylor, it is a statue of Freddie Mercury that adorns the front of The Dominion Theatre in London’s Westend where the jukebox musical currently runs. The leader character of We Will Rock You, Galileo Figaro is written as the reincarnation of the Queen frontman, cast 300 years into a dystopian future.
The show has often staged special events to commemorate the anniversary of Freddie’s birthday, with Brian May joining the cast to perform in memory of his former friend and band mate. In 2006, to celebrate what would have been Mercury’s 60th birthday, McFly joined May and Taylor to perform during the show. The following week tickets were re-priced at £19.46 – the year of Mercury’s birth.
On September 5 2010, Brian May once again joined the cast, this time to play Bohemian Rhapsody, to honour and celebrate Mercury’s birthday.
Queen contributed to the soundtracks of two cult sci-fi films, Highlander and Flash Gordon, with Mercury penning the songs Princes Of The Universe to the former and Ming’s Theme, Vultan’s Theme, The Ring, Football Fight and The Kiss to the latter.
Much of the music written for Flash Gordon was later released on the album A Kind Of Magic, and today the films and their soundtracks are firm fan favourites, admired and loved for their fantastical and slightly kooky narratives and production values.
“I always knew I was a star, and now the rest of the world seems to agree with me.” Freddie Mercury
Born Farrokh Bulsara in the British protectorate of Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa, the boy that would become Freddie Mercury spent most of his childhood in India after his Parsi family moved back to the country due to Freddie’s father’s work with the British Colonial Office.
Mercury was an idol to his fans, a rallying figure for those seeking the express themselves through his music, a rockstar to the world and one of the true British cultural icons of the 20th century alongside the likes of David Bowie and John Lennon.
Following his death, Mercury’s band mates founded the Mercury Phoenix Trust to raise awareness of AIDs and fight the virus across the world in his name.
What else could we have finished on?
Bohemian Rhapsody has taken on a life beyond Queen and Freddie Mercury since its release, becoming a piece of pop culture in its own right.
From Wayne’s World to numerous spoof, sketch shows and homage tributes, BoHo as its known is now one of the most popular songs of all time, and arguably the pinnacle of Freddie Mercury and all his talents – songwriter, composer, studio innovator, crossover artist, music video pioneer, thespian, icon and singer.
What better a way to end our list but with the video to the song itself?
What are your memories of Freddie Mercury?