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In early 2005, a band got to the final five in the quest to discover the best British pop song of the past 25 years with 'We Are The Champions'1, and their appeal has never been greater. To many people, they are the definitive British pop/rock act, responsible for a massive back catalogue of hits and some of the greatest live music performances in history. Individually, they're known as Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deakon; collectively, they were Queen.
The Creation of a Rock Band
On Thursday, 5 September, 1946, in a Government Hospital in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, Farookh Bulsara was born to Bomi and Jer Bulsara. The father was a humble civil servant working as a High Court cashier for the British Government. The young Bulsara showed an early flair for performing. He graduated from his first school band the Hectics, formed when he was 12 years old and attending St Peter's English boarding school in Panchgani, not far from Bombay. It was here that he was first called 'Freddie' by his friends. Restricted to playing school events and fetes, the Hectics were not allowed beyond the school boundaries for independent bookings and so were not destined for longevity. Eventually Freddie moved to Feltham in Middlesex, England, and after enrolling in Ealing College of Art, Freddie met Tim Stafell, who along with another art student Nigel Foster, shared a great interest in music and music performance.
Brian May was a similarly precocious child; he first showed an aptitude for music from a very early age, taught to play the ukulele by his father and learned piano before progressing on to the guitar - all by the age of seven. Brian formed his first group, an instrumental band called 1984, that toured around London, even opening a 1967 show at the Olympia Theatre for such small time acts as Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and T Rex. It was while studying physics at Imperial College he left 1984 to form Smile, consisting of himself and friends Tim Staffell and Roger Taylor.
In 1967, thanks to an introduction from Tim Staffell, May and Taylor met Freddie, who was immensely impressed with Brian's guitar playing2. Still in his early twenties, Freddie was desperate to be in a band and feel the thrill of the stage again. In the summer of 1969 he joined a Liverpool band called Ibex, an act with a sporadic line-up and flute-toting bass player. Freddie's stage persona was outrageous even then, an element that didn't sit well with the rest of the band. Predictably, they didn't last and Freddie, unwilling to sit still, went through band after band, including Sour Milk Sea - who split up only two months later - and Wreckage, consisting of Ibex bassist/flutist John 'Tupp' Taylor with guitarist Mike Bersin and Richard Thompson as drummer. But it was Freddie's impatience for rock stardom that forced this band to also fold a year later.
After a short period of rock homelessness, Freddie learned that Tim Stafell had left Smile to make a name for himself with Humpy Bong. Smile had been in decline for a while, their record label Mercury Records dropping them after a brief period of success with songs released in Japan. With no label backing, the band drifted apart. For about a year, Freddie had been running amarket stall for second hand goods with the Smile drummer, Roger Taylor. Bringing Freddie on board, Smile changed their name.
In 1970, a humble Queen was born.
The Rise of Queen
Queen spent a lot of time rehearsing in empty lecture theatres. They played numerous cover versions of other people's songs but managed to salvage songs from each of the band member's previous incarnations with Smile, Wreckage and Ibex. Roger's mother arranged a Red Cross charity event in Truro city hall with Smile booked to play on the day. With Smile no longer in existence and Roger keen not to let his mother down, Queen took a hold of the reins and played their first public3 gig on Saturday 27 June, 1970, opening with a re-working of an old Wreckage song, Stone Cold Crazy.
Queen went on to play a number of gigs on the London circuit and elsewhere. On Saturday, 25 July they played PJ's in Truro, and it was to be Mike Grose's last gig with Queen. Mike decided it was time to get a 'proper' job, and left the band. Unnerved, Roger brought in Barry Mitchell, a friend of friends, and after an audition Barry joined the line-up, playing a number of gigs with Queen, including the Cavern Club in Merseyside as 1970 rolled to an end.
Unhappy with the slow progress and in need of 'real money', Barry Mitchell left the band and Queen were again left hunting for a bassist. Queen auditioned and settled on a guy called Doug, but when Queen played a show at Kingston Polytechnic in February 1971, Doug decided to show off in front of all of his friends at the gig, putting on his own 'special show'. The next day he was politely asked to leave.
Enter John Deacon.
John Deacon was born on 19 August, 1951 in Leicester. At seven he obtained his first guitar, a plastic 'Tommy Steele' guitar. Through a variety of odd jobs John began saving and at 12 bought an inexpensive acoustic. Educated at the Beauchamp Grammar School, at the age of 14 he formed his first band, 'The Opposition', switching to bass when the original bassist Clive Castledine left. After numerous line-up changes the band was renamed The New Opposition, and John continued playing bass. They became quite popular, with bookings almost every weekend until he enrolled at Chelsea College, where he studied an Electronics BSc, achieving a First Class Honours degree and carried on playing in various small London bands, dreaming of rock stardom.
John saw Queen play a gig in October of 1970, but was not impressed with what he saw. Then in 1971, John Harris, a friend of Queen who helped out with their lights and equipment took Roger and Brian to a disco at the Maria Assumpta Teaching College where they were introduced to John Deacon. Finding common ground in music it soon transpired that John was a bassist, and was swiftly offered an audition. John went along, toting his bass and tiny, self-constructed amp4, playing 'Son & Daughter' and a number of other songs from Queen's early set that he had been learning. Queen very quickly offered the quiet and clearly talented bassist the job. John accepted, and the line up that was to remain unchanged for 20 years.
The Band is Formed
The four members of Queen, Freddie Mercury (lead singer), Brian May (lead guitar), John Deacon (bass) and Roger Taylor (drums/percussion), from the year 1970 right through until Freddie's death in 19915 produced over 50 albums (live and recorded), and endless singles, most of which are timeless rock anthems few have never heard. It seems odd then that even with such a vast back-catalogue of instantly recognisable songs, Queen only ever had five UK number one single releases, one of which was a re-release of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' just after Freddie's death.
Able to fuse epic rock and metal with huge operatic multi-layered guitars and vocals, and in many cases the camp and the kitsch, Queen's music was eclectic and alluring, drawing inspiration from a wide berth of influences. On stage, fronted by Freddie with his dynamic, theatrical performances, Queen wowed audiences across the world. In the 1970s they became one of the world's most popular bands, second only to The Beatles6.
However, Queen never seemed to take themselves seriously, and a lot of their songs contain in-jokes and veiled lyrics. 'Delilah' (Innuendo, 1991) is actually a song dedicated by Freddie to his cat. Freddie is also quoted as claiming not to know what Bohemian Rhapsody is about, offering instead the explanation that it was whatever people wanted it to be. This tongue-in-cheek approach didn't fare well with rock critics - an infamous Rolling Stone review labelled their 1979 album Jazz as 'fascist'. Despite this, Queen sold records by the boat load, and love them or loathe them there was no denying their success.
46 years later in 1992, a star-studded cast of music and media legends such as David Bowie, Elton John, George Michael, Elizabeth Taylor, Metallica and Guns N' Roses assembled in Wembley stadium alongside Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor to pay tribute to Freddie Mercury, commemorating him as one of the finest performers of all time and the iconic lead singer of arguably the greatest rock band ever.
There is a statue of Freddie Mercury in Montreux, looking out over Lake Geneva. The statue is of his famous fist-in-the-air salute from the Wembly gig. It was unveiled in November 1996, the fifth anniversary of his death. It's a very iconic and defining image of Freddie, and the same pose is used in the logo for the Phoenix Mercury AIDS Trust, set up originally to process and distribute funds raised by the tribute concert and other related AIDS-awareness ventures.
In 2005, Brian May and Roger Taylor toured with former Free/Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers in place of Freddie Mercury. Tickets were only available to fans through a lottery system. However, there is some debate as to whether the band is still 'Queen' without its flamboyant lead singer, Freddie, or whether it has now become a 'tribute' to itself.