[Today: Flamboyance with a capital F…]
While studying at London’s Royal Imperial College, guitarist Brian May formed a band with bassist Tim Staffell and drummer Roger Taylor. They called themselves Smile, and their biggest fan was a Parsi student from Zanzibar named Farrokh Bulsara. When Staffell left to join a group called Humpy Bong (you couldn’t make this stuff up), Bulsara stepped into the void and became the band’s frontman. At his urging, Smile changed their name to Queen, and with bassist John Deacon, went on to become one of the best selling bands of the 70s. Bulsara adopted the stage name Freddie Mercury and became one of the most important and flamboyant singers in the history of rock.
Between their self-titled debut in 1973 and Mercury’s death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991, Queen enjoyed 18 (!!!) #1 albums and shifted more than 30 million units. The best of the best of their output can be found in the 14 tracks on their Greatest Hits. From ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ to ‘Under Pressure’ to ‘We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions’, the music compiled here formed one of the strongest pillars of popular music in the 70s. If you’re not familiar with every word of these songs, you were definitely not listening to the radio during the decade of polyester and plaid.
But Queen’s Greatest Hits would be a masterpiece if it contained just one song. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is composed of six distinct sections, most notably a blatantly operatic passage that makes it unlike anything on the radio before or since. Song producer Roy Thomas Baker remembered Mercury playing an early version of the song for him: “He played the beginning on the piano, then stopped and said, ‘And this is where the opera section comes in!’ Then we went out to eat dinner.” ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is the third-best selling single in UK history, and spent three separate stints on the charts (upon release, after Mercury’s death, and behind the movie Wayne’s World).
Queen was a great band with outstanding individual parts (Brian May, for instance, is widely considered a guitar hero), but their massive success is down to Mercury, one of the most fearless, charismatic performers of his time. Of Indian decent, with bad teeth and a receding hairline, Mercury was the most unlikely of candidates to become a Rock God. But his preening stage presence set a prime example for the next generation of star-quality frontmen, including Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain. His work with Queen will always ring out, and Freddie Mercury will always wear the crown…
Listen: Bohemian Rhapsody
Listen: Another One Bites The Dust
Listen: Under Pressure