Reference to this chapter: Record Collector magazine - article by John Stuart.
Freddie Mercury's was born is Zanzibar - now Tanzania in 1946. He was sent to learn into India ( Panchagni - a town close to Bombay). His first period as musician falls between 1958-1962 when he played the piano in a rock'n'roll school-band while living in India. A band-mate of his recalls Freddie (Farrokh Bulsara back then) would "cranking out a mean boogie woogie even at that tender age".
Beside playing boogie woogie he also took formal piano lessons in Panchagni. His family moved to England in 1964 where he grew his hair and became a huge fan of Jimmy Hendrix. Freddie saw him performing live forteen times, and turned his interest toward rock music. When he bought his first stereoplayer the first LP he bought was Electric Ladyland. He also invited Brian and Roger to check out the stereo effects. Under the influence of Hendrix Freddie started to play the guitar, never mastered it though. By the end of the sixties he warmed up his piano-playing.
In 1968 Freddie's growing need for playing rock music resulted him joining his first band on lead vocal. He soon faced the "problem" of songwriting. More about this period (1968-70) from an extremly informal article of the Record Collector magazine (penned by John Stuart). Quotes:
Chris Smith, who also teamed up for a short while with Brian May and Roger Taylor in Smile, has the distinction of being the first person to collaborate with Freddie Bulsara - as he was then known - on his early attempts at songwriting. Another of Freddie's early musical partners was Mike Bersin, guitarist with Ibex, a progressive blues band from Merseyside, whom Freddie joined in 1969. "Freddie knew where he wanted to go," confirms Mike. "That's why he was an international star. It wasn't an accident. It
happened because that's what he wanted to be from the moment I first met him. He was a man with a goal and a drive."
"Freddie was always interested in music," remembers Paul Humberstone, a flatmate of Smith's and another student at Ealing. "The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were his favourites, he was always playing air guitar and doing his Hendrix impersonations."
"Freddie was like the fifth member (in Smile). He'd say to me, (C.S.) 'I wish I was in your group', and 'If I was in this band, I wouldn't do
it that way'." Inspired by Smile, Freddie began to experiment with music for the first time since leaving India. He initially began to practice with Tim, a friend called Nigel Foster, who was "a straight-laced advertising student", and with Chris Smith. "We used to have jam sessions in the college," recounts Chris. "The first time I heard Freddie sing I was amazed. He had a huge voice. Although his
piano style was very affected, very Mozart, he had a great touch. From a piano player's point of view, his approach was unique."
Chris and Freddie also attempted to write songs together. "I was doing a music degree at the same time," reveals Chris, "and I had the keys to the music department. Freddie used to get me to open it up, where we'd hammer away at the piano, trying to write. We were hopeless. He'd say, 'How come Brian and Tim can write songs like 'Step On Me' and 'Earth'?'. We were in awe of the fact that they could do this. It was quite magical. Only the Beatles could really write proper tunes.
"Freddie and I eventually got to write little bits of songs which we linked together like 'A Day In The Life' [a song of The Beatles from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ].
It was an interesting way getting from one piece in a different key signature to another. But I don't think we actually finished
anything. There was a cowboy-type song called 'The Real Life', which was actually reminiscent of the first part of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. That was the chorus at that time, although it could have been one of Brian's songs. I remember that distinctly. Freddie certainly taught me a lot at those sessions. He had a great, natural sense of melody. I picked that up straight away. For me that was the most interesting aspect of what he was doing."
"Freddie really loved going up to Bolton to play with Ibex," remembers Paul Humberstone. "He was really on form. The band was very basic, but good. They did very reasonable cover versions, and were very loud. That was his very first outing with the band, but Fred struck his pose. Remember him doing "Bohemian Rhapsody"? He was like that, only without the eye make-up."
"Freddie was shy offstage," recalls Ken Testi, "but he knew how to front a show. It was his way of expressing that side of his personality. Everything he did on stage later in Queen, he was doing with Ibex at his first gig: marching from one end of the stage to another, from left to right and back again. Stomping about. He brought dynamics, freshness and presentation to the band that had been completely lacking previously."
Mike Bersin: "Freddie was the most musical of all of us. He was trained on the piano, and he could write on the black notes. He said, 'We're never going to get anywhere playing all this three-chord blues crap, we'll have to write some songs'. A couple of things came out of it, but they've all vanished now. I can't imagine that they would have been very satisfactory anyway - largely because he was working with me, and my understanding of music was incredibly rudimentary. We used to argue about whether we should
put in key changes. I'd say, 'What do you want a key change for?' And he'd say that it made the song more interesting, it gave it a lift. I'd think, 'Why has he got this thing about gratuitous key changes?' The idea of changing the key of a song just because it made it more interesting to listen to was really alien to me."
That said, Geoff Higgins remembers at least one decent Bulsara-Bersin tune: "They did a great song called 'Lover'. The lyrics used to go, 'Lover, you never believe me', and Fred later turned it into 'Liar, you never believe me' (which appeared on Queen's debut album ). It was almost the same tune. But not quite. In fact it was similar to 'Communication Breakdown' , they used to rip off Led Zeppelin a lot."
"I'd known Freddie for years," Richard recalls. "I first met him in 1966. I used to go round his house to listen to Beatles records. Then we'd go and watch Smile play, before he joined Ibex. I knew all of Ibex's songs, as I'd watched them perform, so there was no point in auditioning anybody else."
Freddie ended the letter with this hitherto unpublished information: "We've written a few new numbers: 1) 'Green'. 2) 'Without You', 3) 'Blag-A-Blues', 4) 'Cancer On My Mind' (originally called 'Priestess'.)"
"Freddie always had very unusual titles at that stage,"- recalls Mike Bersin. "I can't remember what 'Green' was about. It might be the one with the intro which went, E, A, D, G, D, A, E, A, D, G, D, A, in guitar chords." As neither Ibex nor Wreckage went within striking distance of a recording studio, none of these songs was ever recorded officially. Miraculously, however, one of them has survived - and it's the one which stuck in Mike Bersin's mind. "Green". "The song was taped at the flat in Barnes, on a little Fidelity two-track recorder I'd had for about ten years," he reveals. "It was at the rehearsal for the Ealing College gig, after Mike had come down from Liverpool. I only recorded it so that I could learn the song. It is straightforward 4/4 in the middle, but we needed to learn the beginning and end of it. It had a weird beginning. Most of Freddie's songs were like that. I can't remember the rest of them. but they were Hendrix and blues copies."
Rob Tyrell recalls seeing him for the first time: "Freddie auditioned with us in a youth club in crypt of a church in Dorking. We were all blown away. He was very confident. I don't think it was any great surprise to him when we offered him the job." Jeremy Gallop agrees: "He had an immense amount of charisma, which was why we chose him. Although, we were actually spoilt for choice that day. Normally at auditions, you'd get four or five guys who were rubbish, but we had two other strong contenders. One was a black guy who had the voice of God, but he didn't have the looks of Fred, and the other person was Bridget St. John.
Chris Chesney: "I remember Freddie being really energetic and moving around a lot at the audition, coming up and flashing the mic at me during guitar solos. He was so impressive. There was an immediate vibe. He had a great vocal range. He sang falsetto; nobody else had the bottle to do that. He said, 'Do your own songs and I'll make up my own words'. It was clever, and very good.
Chris Chesney: "When Freddie joined, the band lost its focus. The cohesion between the four of us was significantly weakened. Musically, we were more pastoral than what Freddie was into, he was coming from a different place. He was heavily into Led Zeppelin. I thought the musical frictions were very exciting. We became so un-blues based, whereas before we were stuck on that R&B template."
"Freddie very quickly wanted to change us," adds Jeremy Gallop. "I can remember him trying to make us learn 'Lover'. I can still recall how it went. We were all thinking - me especially - 'Fucking hell, this isn't the way we want to go!' If only we couid relive life again! But Freddie was a very sweet man. He was a very good arbitrator. Chris and I used to argue like hell. I used to have fights with the bass player - and get beaten up - and Fred was always the one who'd cool down the situation with diplomacy.
"Onstage," Jeremy continues, "Freddie became a different personality - he was as electric as he was later in his life. Otherwise he was quite calm. I'll always remember him being strangely quiet and very well-mannered. Extremely well-mannered, in fact. My mum liked him."
The above quotes reveal many interesting details about Mercury's pre-Queen songwriting and musician experiences. The roots of so many things that characterized Mercury over the years with Queen both as songwriter and performer:
- Experimenting with key changes, suite-flavored sharp changes, rhythmic tricks.
- Unique but "very Mozart" style on piano.
- Gifted frontman right from the start. Two different personality on/off stage.
- Good voice. Actually his "huge" voice was not that huge in those days. The Queen years trained it really strong.
- Remarkable natural talent to come up with good melodies.
- Being familiar in black keys (a preference of the flat-side keys???)
Many of Freddie's early songs were composed on guitar which resulted in a more simple harmonic shape (Liar, Great King Rat). In spite of his limited knowledge on guitar Freddie could come up with great guitar riffs, you can hear them in quite a few Queen songs. In terms of harmony and form My Fairy King is the most original and foreshowing song off the first album. In terms of form both Liar and Great King Rat are also unusual. Such songforms can be associated with the blooming contemporary progressive rock genre. We don't know about Freddie (or others) being deeply into listening to progressive music (except maybe Tim Staffel). The interview mentions the Beatles song "A Day In The Life" as a possible early inspiration for sharp changes between sections.
The Beach Boys also pioneered this technique even before the Beatles (Good Only Knows, Good Vibrations, 1966). Freddie in terms of clever songforms quickly reached a level that hardly can be threated as closely ifluented by others, especially not by Hendrix or the Beatles.
The recently surfaced early Freddie/Ibex song called Green provides us an insight into the earliest songwriting experiments of Mercury. The song is remarkably rich in unusual compositional features such as off-beat form, exotic melodies with off-beat chord progressions, shifting tonal centre and rhtyhmic twists. Highly unusual regarding this is one the very first compositions of his. On the other hand by this time Mercury was already into the middle of his twenties. This may be responsible partly for the "serious" start.
The remarkably spare use of section-repetition and the high amount of built in lead melody material were significant difference from contemporary heavy metal, by what they definitely were influented, and whose scene Queen quickly became a significant part of.
Mercury about his own songwriting:
"I basically write the tune. I write the song around the melody most of the time. Sometimes a lyric will get me started. "Life Is Real"
was one of those, because the words came first."..."
"I think my melodies are superior to my lyrics"
"Killer Queen was another one I wrote the words for first. But otherwise I have melodies in my head. I play them on the piano and I used to tape record them. Now I just store them in my head. I feel that if they're worth remembering, I will. If I lose them, I lose them. If they're still in my head, they're worth remember and putting down on tape."
This approach must be partly responsible for the catchyness of some of his songs. On the other hand a part of his outcome was written probably the other way (solo projects). Freddie told in another interview he could write a new song anytime, just sit down and let the music come from his mind.
Freddie over the years became a piano-ballad specialist. Nevermore, In The Lap Of The Gods, Love Of My Life, You Take My Breath Away, Jealousy, Play The Game, Life Is Real, It's A Hard Life, numerous solo-songs: Love Me Like There's No Tomorrow, There Must Be More To Life,... He also wrote some more rocking songs started from Liar. There's a curious long break between Let Me Entertain
You and Princes Of The Universe. He also wrote some rockabilly-influenced songs Crazy Little Thing (1979), Don't Try Suicide (1980), Man On The Prowl (1984). Freddie in the eighties under the influence of black music wrote some songs, a part of them together withJohn. Staying Power, Cool Cat, Pain Is So Close To Pleasure, One Year Of Love, My Baby Does Me,...
Freddie certainly was influenced by classical music. Lacking enough information very detailed picture we can't draw. Roger said in an interview Freddie would listen to Chopin and Mozart. The book Living On The Edge talks about Mercury's interest of and foray into the world of opera. He had a large collection of opera recordings with massive Caballe-section and. In the book Caballe recalls
Freddie Mercury as having well-prepared for the Barcelona project and working remarkably professional.
An interesting segment of Freddie's songwriting was the campy vaudeville style songs. This style had a revival period since middle of the sixties. While the Beatles (one of Freddie's favourites) also wrote songs in this style, Mercury in an interview mentioned the Pointer Sisters influenting Bring Back That Leroy Brown (1974), the first of this curious group of songs. The intro of "Funny How Low Is" is an even earlier experimentation. Seaside Rendezvous, Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon, and Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy in respect were the other Mercury songs in vaudeville style the last one from 1976.
Freddie Mercury over the years became a crafted arranger of harmonies. As two wide ranged example let me mention two songs Bohemian Rhapsody and Time both arranged by Freddie Mercury. The song "Man From Manhattan" was a song written by Powell
but arranged by the band, mostly by Mercury.
Related Mercury quotes:
- What's your best song so far?
"I don't know, I write 'em, and leave'em. If you asked me to play some of my older songs on the piano, I couldn't. I forget them, I learnt them for the time. I have to go in a day earlier and try to work out all the chords to my own songs. I forget them very quickly. For example, "Love Of My Life" is adapted on stage for guitar, but it was written on the piano. I've totally forgotten the original and if you asked me to play that now, I couldn't. Sometimes, I have to go back to the music sheet, and I can't read that well either!"
- Can you read music?
"Very little. I don't need it. I leave that to the others. It's not like Mozart is it? We reach more people this way."
A related Brian May quote:
"Freddie used to come into the studio armed with sheets and sheets of paper with notes scribbled all over them in his own particular fashion. It wasn't standard musical notation, but A's and B's and C's and sharps in blocks - like buses zooming all over his bits of paper. He had the song all worked out when he came in. We played a backing track which left the gaps. And he would go, 'bum bum bum bmm, that's what hap- pens here....' He knew exactly what he was doing all along. It was Freddie's baby. He had It in his head'. We Just helped him bring it to life."
Most of the time harmonies (usually the more simple ones) were worked out in the studio without any homemade sketches. Many vocal harmonies show Freddie's extraordinary craftmanship: Breakthru-intro, Jealousy You Take my Breath Away-intro: three to four parted harmonies. Many times the single harmony-parts were double- (sometimes triple-) tracked to creat a stronger sound.
Freddie Mercury the singer
Freddie was known as having one of the best , and most distinctive voices in the rock-business. In the early days his voice was not particularly strong, but he trained himself (partly on stage). His voice was unique in more terms:
Range: Freddie could hit high notes. Most of other rock singers can reach that highs only by using falsetto or semi-falsetto technique. If you listen to Don't Stop Me Now, you can notice Freddie sings it with a wide open throath, while many singers would sing those notes with tight throat.
Falsetto: Freddie mastered his falsetto singing too. He could do it quite operatic way, but popular way too in songs like "Pain Is..." and "Cool Cat"... Some fans don't like it. Mercury could switch his to to falsetto quicky, often just for one single word.
Expressivity: Freddie could controll the tone of his voice very finely using wide variety of expressive "special effects". (Check out 'Bohemian Rhapsody' the intro of "Don't Stop Me Now" or "Time".)
Power: Freddie Mercury had a strong voice. Roger Taylor in an interview in Modern Drummer (1983) recalls:
"He is a great singer now - immensely confident. I couldn't believe it. We had a jam session with Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck, and Freddie was about four times louder. He has marvelous projection."
Freddie certainly had a less than four times louder voice than Rod, but you can be sure his voice was extremly strong, much stronger than in the early days. Singing loud is much more than just pressing as many air though one's throat as possible. It's a technique that is taught to all opera singers.
Freddie had a trained voice vibrato technique. He used it mostly for prolonged notes, butmany times he sung just straight, where he thought vibrato wouldnt work.
Freddie was smoking, this helped him to develop a more husky voice (that dominates the Miracle album), but also made his range somewhat narrower. He had hard times to hit high notes both on stage and in the studio. In the studio he could do another attempt until he hit the notes right, but on stage he frequently had to modify the tune to stay in his range. Other times Roger had to sing
the high notes.
His personal favourite singers were Aretha Franklin and Monserat Caballe (well before the Barcelona project).
Freddie on piano
Freddie in these early days would take much care to develop his piano playing. Later he must have partly lost his interest in piano playing and while Jazz (1978) is full of piano songs written by Mercury, from the eighties on we saw him less frequently on piano. For the Barcelona project he asked Mike Moran to play the piano accompaniments (and also co-write songs with Freddie Mercury). In Queen songs the piano is hardly used as solo instrument. Unlike Freddie Mercury the most cultic keyboard players of the era (Keith Emerson, Jon Lord, Tony Banks) were know by their advenced soloing technique. Freddie's approach to accompany songs was mostly chordal: mostly broken chords, with simple motifs added. His left hand rarely played broken chords or arpeggios. Most of the time he played bass notes in octaves (thumb and pinky)
Freddie played his most interesting pianoparts on the early albums (eg. "In The Lap Of The Gods" intro, "Death On Two Legs" intro both with speedy arpeggios, Love OfMy Life with rare piano solo...).
Mercury's guitar playing was mentioned above: only a few chords he knew, and the only track he played rhythm guitar on was "Crazy Little Thing...". He played it on stage as well since 1979.