I know a lot of people are going to treat this as blasphemy so I better just come out and say this. I saw a DVD of a concert by Queen with Paul Rodgers on vocals and you know what? I didn’t really miss Freddie a whole lot. Of course, it wasn’t the same without the Mercury factor. The camp element was missing. So was the over-the-top nature of the classic Queen concert. As an Indian, I always felt a certain horrified fascination at watching a Parsi boy prance around on stage looking like a gay weightlifter in a Cusrow Baug gymnasium.
But apart from that, the concert was fine. Rodgers is one of rock’s great vocalists and while he can’t go quite as high as Freddie, he makes Queen sound like a rock band, rather than an opera queen’s little dalliance with rough trade.
It’s a funny thing about Queen, but I always felt that there were at least two bands struggling to get out from under Freddie’s leotard. My first exposure to the group came with the early hits, Seven Seas of Rhye and then, the song that broke them in the UK: Killer Queen. But, while both were full of Freddie-style whimsy (“She keeps the Moët et Chandon in a pretty cabinet/ let them eat cake, she says/ just like Marie Antoinette”), there were also harder-edged songs. Now I’m Here began like Arnold Layne, turned into full-fledged rock and even ended with a snatch of Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie.
The first time I saw Queen live, in 1977, the year of punk and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, I was reminded of Led Zeppelin, whom I had seen at the same venue (Earl’s Court in London). Like Zeppelin, Queen had an acoustic set, a drum solo (by the prodigiously untalented Roger Taylor) and an entire section of guitar pyrotechnics by Brian May (no Jimmy Page, he). The concert sound was much heavier than the records, such songs as Killer Queen did not get a look-in and when it came to the complicated operatic bit in Bohemian Rhapsody, they played the record, went off-stage, changed their clothes and came back for the rock part (“So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye…”)
Only Freddie made it seem more than bargain basement Zeppelin. He wore a leotard, poured himself a glass of champagne and minced, “May you all drink champagne” to the audience. The following week, the music papers bitched: “In the year of punk, what could be more ridiculous than an old queen toasting his audience with champagne?”
Fair enough. But Freddie was a true original. He didn’t have the musical genius of say, David Bowie, but by daring to mix popular opera (more Gilbert and Sullivan than Puccini) and torch singing with heavy rock, he crossed genres with ease.
What most people did not realize then — mainly because Freddie lied about it — was that he was an Indian. Asked by interviewers about his ethnic origins, he said he was from Zanzibar. As no British music journalist knew where Zanzibar was, the matter was usually dropped. To the mainstream press, he said he was Persian.
I began to get suspicious when a Rolling Stone profile in 1974 revealed that his real name was Balsara. Persian? Aha, now it made sense. Obviously, he was a Parsi. But Freddie never acknowledged this. Asked why he had gone to school in India (in Panchgani), he said this was because his father was a civil servant in the service of the Raj. The Raj in the 1960s? Clearly, the man was lying.
That wasn’t all he lied about. Asked if he was gay, he insisted that his camp mannerisms were only part of an act: He was all hetero. In fact, he was a promiscuous homosexual who picked up truck drivers. In the 1980s, he even abandoned the long-haired hippie look and went for an over-muscled, gay look complete with a telltale moustache. Still, he insisted to the press that he was straight.
He had no need to do so. Elton John had come out in the mid-1970s without any damage to his career. Plus Freddie’s look and manner were so gay that you did not have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that he batted for the other side. I saw Queen play at Wembley during their A Kind of Magic tour and wondered how Freddie could pretend that a) he was not a Parsi and b) that he was straight.
I wasn’t to know it then but that was Queen’s last concert. Freddie was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and in keeping with a life of deceit, concealed this from the world. He only admitted that he was HIV-positive a day or two before he died.
There’s no real mystery about why Freddie told so many lies: He was that kind of guy. The mystery lies in the affection with which he is remembered. The gay community has forgiven him his lifetime of denial. He’s treated as a stately homo in England. And we in India do not resent his desire to have nothing to do with his own people.
And there’s the mystery of the longevity of the music. More people remember individual Queen songs than Zeppelin tracks. Go to any bar in the Far East and they’ll play Bohemian Rhapsody or Radio Ga Ga. A dreadful musical based on Queen songs (We Will Rock You) still packs in the punters at London’s West End.
Some of it, I think, has to do with the catchy pop-song nature of many of the hits: I Want To Break Free, Radio Ga Ga, We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions, Under Pressure (with that irresistible riff) and even, the appalling Another One Bites The Dust. Freddie didn’t write all of them and it is embarrassing to go to Queen concerts nowadays and hear Roger Taylor sing Radio Ga Ga on the grounds that he wrote it.
But I think the music needs a dose of reinterpretation. Paul Rodgers brought out the rock element in such songs as the curious Tie Your Mother Down and turned We Are the Champions into his own song. Queen have never recorded a rock song of the calibre of Rodgers’ All Right Now (with Free) and when he sings his own material on stage, you recognize that gulf.
Queen will now tour the world with Rodgers. As long as they ban solos by Taylor and May, and certainly prevent Taylor from singing and let Rodgers take charge, they could well lay the ghost of Freddie to rest — in whichever imaginary homeland he’s pretending to come from these days