Freddie Mercury

TrackSingle / Album
I Can Hear MusicEMI 2030
The Great PretenderParlophone 12R 6151
Love KillsCBS A 4735
Made In HeavenMr Bad Guy
Your Kind Of LoverMr Bad Guy
BarcelonaBarcelona
How Can I Go OnBarcelona
TimeEMI 5559
Little Freddie Goes To SchoolStuart Leathem Music (2015)
She Blows Hot And ColdCBS TA 6413

 

Freddie Mercury photo 1

 

 

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Freddie Mercury solo playlist

 

 

Contributor: David Lewis

Few rock stars – even few legends, as he became – had such an exotic background. Only a handful could command a crowd like he could. Jagger – yes, let’s be fair. Springsteen? Beyoncé? Maybe. There might be one or two others. Freddie Mercury’s major work was with Queen: but the four egos and immense talents of that band would not be content with the limitations of one band. All four had some kind of solo career. John Deacon released one album – the soundtrack to Biggles, which our editor informs me often makes ‘worst movies’ lists. But Freddie – he of the voice, he of the underrated piano, the composer of Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are The Champions perhaps had the biggest vision and most ambition for his solo career. That it was to be a relative failure is irrelevant to its interest and worthiness.

Freddie’s life is now well-known, thanks to the work of authors such as Lesley-Ann Jones. While he was alive, there was an elusive quality and distance in his private life. This is understandable, given his homosexuality and Parsi background: the two are incompatible and any scandal would have directly affected his family.

He was born Farrokh Bulsara on the island of Zanzibar, educated in India, and finally moved to London. He adopted the English name Freddie early. Mercury came later. He studied graphic design, but he’d been enamoured of Jimi Hendrix’s music and quickly joined bands and started writing songs. He met Roger Taylor with whom he ran a stall in Kensington Market, shared a flat with Brian May who’d formed a band, Smile, with Taylor. Freddie dated Brian’s ex-girlfriend, Mary Austin. He sang with Wreckage, among other groups, but at least in retrospect, had set his eyes on joining Smile. Tim Staffell, lead singer of Smile, eventually left to join Humpy Bong (a band which included Colin Petersen and Jonathan Kelly). Perhaps the name is all you need to know to realise how well that band went. Staffell later went on to be the main model maker for Thomas the Tank Engine.

Freddie finally realised his ambition and became lead singer of Smile. The name was changed to the winkingly majestic Queen, and John Deacon eventually auditioned and was hired. You can read about Queen in my Toppermost. While Queen was building its reputation and network, Freddie was asked to record under the name ‘Larry Lurex’. This was a lampoon of Gary Glitter. With Brian, Roger and John, he recorded I Can Hear Music, the Beach Boys song. The single disappeared without trace, really. It’s a good cover of the song, but it is most notable for the guitar solo – an early attempt at the layering of guitars for which May would become famous – and Freddie’s voice. It hadn’t quite hit the richness and range which it was to be known for, but you can hear the start of that iconic voice. (The B-side, Goin’ Back, the Goffin & King song, was sampled on the posthumous Queen album, Made In Heaven.)

As I stated earlier, Freddie was probably the member of Queen who most wanted to leave. He wasn’t the first to go solo – that was Roger Taylor (so watch this space) but he put the most effort into it. Queen was greater than the sum of its parts though, so Freddie’s attempts did not lead to a solo career. His first single as a solo performer was a vivacious cover of The Great Pretender. It was a song that encapsulated Freddie’s life as he saw it. The quiet, shy, Indian Parsi who was gay presented himself as a flamboyant, outgoing, straight Englishman.

In 1983, Freddie had obtained the rights to use clips from the classic science fiction film Metropolis, which Queen featured in the iconic Radio Ga-Ga clip. His payment was essentially performing on the Giorgio Moroder composed soundtrack for a restoration of the film. Moroder’s soundtrack doesn’t really work but Love Kills is a standout and Freddie really sells the song.

The release of Mr Bad Guy in 1985 (one of the few vinyl records this child of the CD age owned) was a defiant statement of intent. The production was troubled – Freddie had worked with Michael Jackson and thought he could top Thriller. However, Freddie didn’t understand that Michael chose from hundreds of songs, used crack musicians, and had a much larger marketing budget than Freddie was able to access. Compared to the Queen albums that lie either side of it, it lacks … something. Probably Brian, Roger and John as a unit. Brian doesn’t appear on it, though one of the songs features a pastiche of Brian’s guitar – much to his chagrin.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of terrific songs on it. Made In Heaven was later redone by Queen and appeared on Made In Heaven. I also like Your Kind Of Lover which has the kind of introduction Freddie used so often, e.g. “Is this the real life …”; “Can … anybody … find me … somebody to … love …”; “Tonight, I’m gonna have myself, a real good time …”. Freddie loved soul and funk. He’d spent a lot of time in the nightclubs of New York and London, absorbing EDM as well. He’d grown to dislike rock music so the album doesn’t feature much. Also, the discerning listener can hear Freddie ‘come out’ in this song. A terrific dance track.

Overarching everything, though, was his great love of opera – the introduction to the Queen song It’s A Hard Life is an interpretation of an aria from Pagliacci., Oh, there’s also that other one – Bohemian Rhapsody. It is possible that his recordings with Montserrat Caballé represent his best work. Barcelona shows both of them at their best. I think Freddie loved the discipline of opera, and Caballé loved the freedom of rock and roll. Released in 1988 for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (held after Freddie’s death), it remains the most memorable of the Olympics songs.

Montserrat Caballé had suggested an album: Freddie agreed. How Can I Go On is an excellent track from their collaboration. Freddie had an amazing talent to keep hitting higher and higher notes. He was a natural baritone but often sang in tenor range. He could also sing in the bass range. You can hear the two play off each other, satisfyingly.

 

Freddie was involved in Dave Clark’s musical, Time. The single Time did okay, reaching #32 in the UK in 1986 but thirty years later a demo was found which was far superior. Highlighting Freddie’s vocal with piano accompaniment, the lyrics are poignant and resonant and Time itself is a decent musical.

I’m not sure whether this next one counts so I’m sneaking it in near the back. Little Freddie Goes To School was written by Northern Irish composer Stuart Leathem. Freddie’s voice is used from outtakes from his album with Montserrat – two songs: When This Old Tired Body… and The Golden Boy. Esther Trousdale, also from Northern Ireland, sings beautifully; an interesting and worthy addition to the list.

 

I finish the list with an uncharacteristic rocker, She Blows Hot And Cold. Really a studio outtake, it was the B-side to the opening single on Mr Bad Guy, Made In Heaven. The surviving members of Queen redid the instrumental tracks, but it’s a Freddie solo. Great fun, and rocks pretty hard.

Freddie is one of the most beloved rock singers of all time. He is one of the more unique vocalists, and while his solo work may fall under the shadows of Queen, much of it is surprisingly excellent. He died far too young, at the age of 45, but we can at least continue to discover the breadth of his work through his recordings.

 

 

 

Freddie Mercury photo 2

Freddie Mercury (1946–1991)

 

Freddie Mercury official website

The Mercury Phoenix Trust

Fans of Freddie Mercury (Facebook)

The Solo Collection (12 disc edition)

Freddie Mercury Solo – YouTube Channel

Bohemian Rhapsody: The Definitive Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones (Hodder & Stoughton 2011)

Queen official website

Official International Queen Fan Club

Queen Toppermost #152

Brian May Toppermost #836

Roger Taylor Toppermost #858

Freddie Mercury biography (Apple Music)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

TopperPost #825

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Dec 13, 2019

    Thanks for this fascinating piece on an artist whose solo work is – with a few exceptions – too little known. Always liked his cover of ‘Pretender’ which may not be as good as the original but has a kind of ironic quality which the latter lacked.

  2. Paul Smith
    Apr 9, 2021

    This article is so full of errors, it makes the Bohemian Rhapsody movie look like a documentary.

    • David Lewis
      Apr 9, 2021

      Hi Paul. Thanks for your comment. While I stand by my subjective opinions (which are legion but honestly held) could you elaborate on any factual error? My sources included Lesley-Ann Jones book on Freddie (I admit I haven’t read the updated version); Jim Hutton’s memoir. 40 years of Queen, Georg Purvis, complete works, the documentary The King of Queen: the Freddie Mercury story, the documentary Queen: a Kind of Magic, some of these of course might have had errors that I didn’t pick up. Or I may have twisted fact inadvertently. But on rereading nothing sprung out. Would you elaborate?

  3. Bob
    Sep 22, 2021

    Nice of Brian May to conduct on Barcelona !

  4. Zaharia
    Jan 2, 2022

    There is a lot of wrongful assumptions here. Lesley Ann Jones is notorious unreliable. Her biography is full of mistakes, Jim Hutton’s book is full of mistakes and untruths. Lesley Ann Jones is known for writing a lot of incorrect information about Freddie Mercury and David Bowie.
    Freddie Mercury was not interested in a solo career. He basically recorded music that he could not record under the Queen banner. Even before the Mr. Bad Guy album, he announced that he was never going to tour with this material or sing it live. He certainly did not have any plans to rival Thriller, Queen were not even popular in the American market at this time, so it would be impossible, The Works album that was released during this same time, it only reached a position of somewhere in the 50’s on the charts in America, while it is also Queen’s 4th best selling album. Queen were popular in many places but not in America at the time. Roger Taylor made a bigger effort of promoting his solo material then Freddie Mercury did with Mr. Bad Guy. It took Freddie Mercury two years to complete this album because he first concentrated on recording The Works album and completing The Works tour, which took 9 months. Roger Taylor recorded vocals on this album, and John Deacon was also involved. It really wasn’t some breakaway effort, as the terrible Bohemian Rhapsody movie implied.
    Freddie Mercury did a much bigger effort with his Barcelona album, and it is also the first time an opera singer collaborated with a contemporary singer. This album created the pop/ opera genre where you now find singers such as Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli. This was not an album or music that was made with the idea of selling millions of albums, it was purely an artistic project, and yet it did actually sell millions of albums.
    Freddie Mercury’s Barcelona album is a masterpiece, this is not commercial music, it is classical and features opera. This album received praise in opera world. Pavarotti later on took this original idea of collaborating with contemporary singers, before the album he was very critical of the whole idea. This is a project that Freddie Mercury absolutely loved and where he excelled. This album shows that could work very well outside of Queen. Classical music and opera, is not genres that everyone is interested in, or that people often understand, but these are genres that requires some real skill and talent.
    Freddie Mercury’s solo work was far more successful then some people pretend, he had a few hits from his solo work, even Barcelona with an opera singer reached no.2 on the charts. Living On My Own was a no.1 dance hit. His solo work has sold over 10 million copies. Both of his solo albums have sold more then some Queen albums.
    Freddie Mercury did not dislike rock music, that is a really strange thing to say. He always tried different genres and styles. He liked the club scene and he was interested in type of music for a while, but he always changed. He was never a person who could do the same thing over and over for a long time. After Mr. Bad Guy, he actually stayed away from those genres. The first song he wrote after the Mr. Bad Guy period was Princes Of The Universe. He wrote quite a few great hard rock numbers in the last years, such as Was It All Worth It and Innuendo.

    • David Lewis
      Jan 2, 2022

      Thanks for your comments. Being in Australia I could not get much info on Freddie till the internet, and even then, as you point out a lot is not always accurate. However a lot is not easy to debunk. I can only really go on interviews and sources such as books. I am always happy to be corrected.
      Freddie himself did speak of his dislike of rock music – he called it heavy metal, citing Brian’s songs in particular and stating he preferred Motown Tamla songs. Of course, one interview does not always state a person’s full or accurate opinion, only what they say at the time. And Freddie did not do that many interviews. Unlike, say, Elton John where you could point to dozens of interviews in a year, and weed out the cranky, the misspeaks, the opinion change and the out of context, it’s harder with Freddie. He did far less, and spoke less often. Whatever his tastes he never gave less than an outstanding performance (which can’t be said for many of his peers and contemporaries.)
      This isn’t the interview where he goes into depth, but his distaste for Brian’s heavy metal songs comes through. In another interview, I think he talks about preferring John’s songs, but I can’t find the clip now. Of course, he may have been annoyed with Brian, or in a mood, whether playful or malicious about what he was saying. But I think it’s well documented that he’d moved away from rock, while still remaining a preeminent rock musician and as you rightly point out composer.
      Freddie is enigmatic, of course. It wasn’t till after he died that I found out he was actually born in Zanzibar to Parsi parents and his homosexuality was obvious if you knew the code. Which, growing up in a rather homophobic environment, I didn’t then. On the Queen’s Greatest Flix compilation, the Keep Yourself Alive video has biographies of all members of Queen, and Brian in born in Hampton, and Roger’s born in Truro etc, and Freddie said Zanzibar. Had I known this was the truth and not showbiz glamour, I’d have probably seen things very differently.
      All this is to say I didn’t mean to disparage Freddie, or his songs at all, just wrote what I thought was correct. That there’s more to the story takes nothing from Freddie or the legacy of his incredible solo career.
      And yes, Barcelona is a masterpiece. If I understate it it’s because I’m still blown away by its majesty.
      Thanks again for your comments.

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