Since their 1973 debut album, Queen’s ambitious template had included bombastic classical references, falsetto freak-outs, and pagan mysticism.
But at the beginning of 1975, they were, to be truthful, just another heavy rock act.
They were more interesting than most – largely thanks to their OTT frontman Freddie Mercury (born Farok Bulsara in Zanzibar to Indian parents) and Brian May’s explosive way with a guitar – but the band weren’t going anywhere really.
And that’s when Bohemian Rhapsody happened . . .
The song utilised six studios and every mixing desk trick available to layer instruments and 120 backing vocals to create an audacious barrage of sound in a quasi-symphonic piece which even included bits of real opera.
And there was little to prepare the public for either the single or the album it came from (A Night At The Opera).
The track was nearly six minutes long and EMI were reluctant to release it until a tape was ‘leaked’ to London DJ Kenny Everett who played it several times in its entirety. Subsequent demand tipped the record company’s hand and it stayed at #1 in the UK for nine weeks.
It was also one of the first records to make use of a specially made video. Bohemian Rhapsody went on to sell into the seven-figure bracket and so it was, that on album number four, Queen were well and truly launched into rock’s stratosphere.
Sadly, on 24 November 1991, the big disease with the little name took the queen out of Queen. The newspapers used the word “gaunt” until even the thickest hetero Queen fan started to twig that something was rotten in the state of Freddie.
At Mercury’s cremation, the exit music was D’Amor sull’ali rosee from Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore, sung by his old mucker Monserrat Caballe. None of your rock music.
Queen soldiered on. They recorded the Made In Heaven album with Mercury’s ghost and played the stodgy, all-star tribute concert at Wembley under the justification umbrella of “it’s what he would’ve wanted” (although it’s doubtful he would’ve wanted Axl Rose within five miles of the twin towers).
It would be crazy to say that we didn’t appreciate how good Freddie Mercury was until George Michael and Lisa Stansfield attempted to fill his boots on These Are The Days Of Our Lives.
But it was clear that Taylor, Brian May and John Deacon were just a bunch of brilliant songwriters and musicians without him.
For some, Queen came to represent the worst of credit-card rock excess in the 80s. It was the decade of Live Aid, the event at which Queen proved that a stadium requires a stadium rock act. Sadly, it was also the decade of AIDS.
In 1981, Freddie Mercury celebrated his 35th birthday in typically Mercurial style by flying some mates over to New York (his favourite city) on Concorde and partying for five days, during which they necked £30,000 worth of vintage champagne and Freddie ended up splayed on a bed of gladioli.
Untimely death lent his life a retrospective air of tragedy, of grand opera. In the posthumous biography by Lesley-Ann Jones, Paul Gambaccini relates the night he realised that Freddie Mercury was going to die.
It was 1984 and they were in London (gay) nightclub Heaven. Gambaccini asked the singer if he had tempered his promiscuous lifestyle since AIDS went overground. “Darling,” he replied. “My attitude is, fuck it.”
Because his death put an end to Queen’s 21-year career, it’s too easy to come to the conclusion that Freddie Mercury was Queen, and vice versa.
It’s true that his incredible drive lay behind their formation in 1970 (guess who thought of the name, too).
A year into their nascent career, Brian May was still mid-PhD, Roger Taylor was doing a biology degree and John Deacon was an electronics student. Thus, the task of keeping the fire burning beneath the group befell Mercury.
May had been developing what would become the “Queen guitar sound” since the age of 16, when he had custom-built his own instrument out of an old mahogany fireplace. He played with an old sixpence that would subsequently earn him untold millions.
Take May out of Queen and the group is just as bereft as without Mercury. To consider Mercury’s sparing solo work is to answer the question: is he the equal of Queen when away from them?
After all, he is credited as sole songwriter on many of the band’s key early hits (Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen, We Are The Champions, Don’t Stop Me Now).
Did he really need the hairy blokes with doctorates? At the end of the day, yes.
Queen defined post-Beatles British rock, for better or for worse. More importantly, Freddie Mercury rewrote the job description for “frontman” and lived out every single one of his fantasies on behalf of Queen fans everywhere. Let them rest in peace now.