Queen is one of the most influential bands in rock and roll’s history and a personal favorite of mine so I’m extremely excited to be able to write about them this week. If you don’t know who they are, then you’re either a dirty liar or you’ve been in a doomsday bunker since 1970. Everyone knows who Queen is and everyone can sing at least part of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The band originated in 1968 when Brian May and Tim Staffell decided that they were going to do what college kids do and start a band. They put out an ad for bandmates and ended up with Roger Taylor, which I imagine is something like checking your couch cushions for change and finding a $20 bill.
The trio formed a band called Smile, I think because Roger Taylor was a dental student but who knows. In 1970, Tim Staffell left Smile to form the band Humpy Bong, which is about the best stoner name for a college band ever. Left with a void in the band, May and Taylor invited their friend Farrokh Bulsara, also known as Freddie, to join the band and Freddie’s first act in the new band was to rename it Queen. A year later, they finally found a bassist they liked, some dude by the name of John Deacon, and the band started to record their first album. Around this time, Freddie decided to adopt “Mercury” as his new last name on stage because of the line “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me,” from the song “My Fairy King” from their debut album. In case you missed it, that means that Freddie Mercury named himself after his own goddamn song.
To detail out their decades of achievements could fill entire books–and they have–but that’s no surprise considering their 15 studio albums, 9 live albums, 14 compilation albums, 7 EPs, 72 singles, and 1 soundtrack to a really ridiculous movie:
Because I’m not going to post YouTube links for all 72 singles, I picked a handful of my favorites to highlight. This is not a decision I took lightly. I felt like I was choosing which lung I like better.
When I was in high school, I participated in Academic Decathlon (yes, that’s how I got to be this cool). At the competition in my junior year, there were four guys there who, during our downtime between events, went into the courtyard and lip synched to this song. I can’t really explain why it was so awesome at the time but it was. Maybe our little academic brains were starved for something even vaguely resembling fun or maybe Queen just makes everybody a little cooler by association. Either way, those dudes got a lot of phone numbers that weekend.
“Somebody to Love”:
This is probably my favorite Queen song. It’s so powerful and raw and emotional and Freddie Mercury’s full vocal range is on display. I find myself at a loss for words when I try to describe why I love this song so much, which I know might seem ironic considering how lengthy this column is. All I can say is that if you need more explanation, just listen to it and if you don’t feel anything, you’re probably dead inside.
“We Are the Champions”:
Used by nearly every sports team after a victory (Go Mighty Ducks!), there is no better celebration song than this. However, it bears noting that this song was recently used by Donald Trump at the RNC despite the fact that Brian May already told him not to use it, probably because he doesn’t want to be associated with a racist, misogynistic asshole. Attention Republicans: if you spend an inordinate amount of time trying to take away the rights of the LGBT community and attempt to funnel federal funding into “pray the gay away” conversion camps, you don’t get to fucking use Freddie Mercury’s song. Especially if your running mate wanted to take money away from HIV/AIDS research to fund these camps.
“Fat Bottomed Girls”:
What else is there to add? Fat bottomed girls do make the rockin’ world go ’round.
“Don’t Stop Me Now”:
In 2007, I studied abroad in England for six months. There were three bars on campus (a better idea than it might initially sound) and this song was played every single night I went out (which was a lot because the bars were on campus). Even now, every time I hear this song, it immediately puts me in a good mood and I start singing along and dancing around like I’m slightly intoxicated, even if I’m sober.
No, I don’t know how my husband puts up with me either.
“I Want to Break Free”:
I had to include this song on the list because it’s my two-year-old son’s favorite. He cracks up every time I sing it to him, which might be more of a reflection on my singing than of his love for this song. But either way, it’s an awesome song and the video features the band in drag and some pretty fantastic dancing by Freddie Mercury.
Freddie Mercury was something else. There’s really no other way of phrasing it. He had an incredible vocal range and in 2016, some researchers put in a team to figure out why exactly Freddie Mercury’s voice was and continues to be so appealing. I feel like that time and research money could’ve been spent elsewhere but hey, maybe I’m alone in wanting a cure for cancer. The team came up with an explanation that came down to Mercury’s notably faster vibrato and use of subharmonics and because he was just awesome and people liked him.
When watching videos of Queen’s concerts, Freddie Mercury has a certain stage presence about him that makes it nearly impossible to take your eyes off of him. Brian May once wrote about Mercury’s ability to engage an audience and said that Mercury could “make the last person at the back of the furthest stand in the stadium feel connected.” But Freddie Mercury’s bandmate wasn’t the only one who admired him. David Bowie, after recording “Under Pressure” with Queen, said, “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.” Years later, even Kurt Cobain praised him and said he envied the way Mercury “seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd.”
Freddie Mercury was enthralling to watch and a performer like him is very rare. But unfortunately, I can’t discuss him without mentioning his death, a tragic event that happened far too soon. Mercury tested positive for HIV in the spring of 1987. He tried to keep this a secret from the public but he was hounded by paparazzi who captured photos of him looking haggard and sick. In the summer of 1991, Mercury retired to his home in Kensington where his condition continued to worsen to the point where he could no longer get out of bed and was losing his eyesight. At that point, Mercury elected to stop taking his medication, continuing only to take painkillers, to hasten the inevitable. In November of that year, Mercury summoned Queen’s manager, Jim Beach, to his home to discuss a public statement and the following day, Mercury went public about his AIDS diagnosis. Less than 24 hours later, he died of bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. But his legacy lives on and his contribution to music remains nothing short of iconic.
Queen continued on, partly due to encouragement from Elton John who said, “You guys should go out and play again. It must be like a Ferrari in the garage waiting for a driver.” The last original single Queen released was in 1997, “No-One But You (Only the Good Die Young)”, a tribute to Freddie Mercury, until 2014. The band has performed with other singers like Paul Rodgers from 2004-2009 and Adam Lambert in 2013 and 2016, billing themselves as “Queen +” which I always admired because it’s true that although Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert are talented, it’ll never really be just Queen again without Freddie Mercury.
In 2014, Queen released an album called Queen Forever which was primarily a compilation album but featured three new songs with reworked vocals from previous recordings with Freddie Mercury as Brian May and Roger Taylor sang backup. The band is continuing on and performed a tour this year with Adam Lambert and have more in the works, for which I’m quite excited. Because they’re still touring and making music, I know this might make for a strange Throwback Thursday column but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to honor Queen and Freddie Mercury.
Well, that, and I really wanted to use this clip in a column:
If you don’t headbang along, the terrorists win.
Happy Throwback Thursday!