Remembering Freddie Mercury
News of the concert had been brewing for a while.
In that time, the newspapers had made Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats names to know. I knew nothing more of them. All-knowing by instant search wasn’t yet in. Google’s birth was another thirteen years away; easily accessed Internet even more. Being curious about universe and welcoming of world, I memorized the names for conversation with musically inclined friends. Geldof was the main organizer of the upcoming Live Aid, a massive rock concert to help victims of the famine in Ethiopia. It was to be held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. The event was to be broadcast live across 150 countries; India was one of them. Some of the world’s biggest bands were heading straight to our living room. Television in India was young those days; colour TV younger still. There was only one broadcaster. Single broadcaster catering to the tastes of 780 million people (India’s population in 1985) meant that something fitting your taste on screen was both fleeting and a household event. Rock concert on TV was very rare. That year – 1985 – had seen the release of Brothers in Arms, the album that made Dire Straits a phenomenon. Thanks to Thiruvananthapuram’s music collectors and the network of the interested, we used to make up for Google’s absence and somehow access the music. I liked Dire Straits; they were expected to play at Live Aid as was Led Zeppelin in a much awaited reunion. D-Day was July 13. We watched the telecast together, as a family.
What I remember best from that telecast is what has since become famous as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. We gazed in amazement at the TV screen as the people gathered at London’s Wembley Stadium (over 70,000 were present that day) raised their hands in the air and clapped in unison to Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. Then Freddie Mercury put them through a few vocal improvisations and they sang as he did, note for note. By the time the band was concluding its set with We Are the Champions, the Wembley crowd was swaying like a forest in the wind. On stage, Freddie Mercury was brilliant. It would be revealed later that Queen’s sound engineer may have tampered with the volume limit assigned to speakers, making the band the loudest act of the day at Wembley. If so, the band was unrepentant about it. Unlike many of the other bands at Live Aid who reportedly took their performance casually, Queen had come prepared and rehearsed. They intended to leave an impression. They did just that. Journalists writing on rock music have since compared it to one of those defining moments a lifetime of existence gravitates to. Freddie on stage at Live Aid was in such a moment.
Live Aid is supposed to have reached over a billion people. The world’s human population in 1985 was 4.8 billion. That would put the event’s TV viewership at close to a quarter of humanity, in days preceding Internet, Facebook, Twitter and human swarms trolling to enforce `like.’ Twenty minutes of Queen was Live Aid’s undisputed high point. As many would conclude later, Queen at Live Aid is rock music’s greatest live performance yet. Rock bands connect to audience through the technical proficiency of their musicians and through their front man. Queen was well balanced in this regard. Those writing on Queen have noted that none of its four members – Freddie, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon – could dominate individually, a trend capable of destabilizing bands. Further, each of them has contributed to writing one or the other of Queen’s many hits. Yet as often happens in rock music, the charisma of the front man influences a band’s perception by the public and Queen was no exception. Freddie Mercury was an electrifying act. Born Furrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946 in Zanzibar, his father hailed from Bulsar, also known as Valsad, a town 150 km north of Mumbai. His mother was from Mumbai. Freddie spent most of his childhood in India (he attended school in Panchgani, 240 km away from Mumbai) before moving back to Zanzibar and then in the wake of the Zanzibar Revolution, onward to England. On November 24, 1991, a little over five years since that day at Wembley for Live Aid, Freddie Mercury passed away due to complications arising from AIDS. He was 45 years old. In 1996, at the opening of a photo exhibition on the life of Queen’s lead singer, the band’s lead guitarist, Brian May, would say (video of quote available on YouTube),“ to be truthful I am against recreating Queen in any other form as I think without Freddie it would always be something less than what it was.’’
Live Aid was also an opportunity to see U2, two years before they became a smash hit (and one of my favorite bands) with the album, `Joshua Tree.’ Queen and U2 warmed up to me differently. U2 peaked with my own advent to rock music-loving age, my craving in ever lonelier world for music as companion. I fell in love with Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For the first time I heard it. It remains a favorite even now. Which seeker in the head can resist such a song? Queen on the other hand, took time to connect. Notwithstanding their popularity, I found the architecture of Queen’s music stiff and set in an ecosystem that was very European and British. They felt like a group hang-out. You bonded over their songs. For example, it isn’t music you seek in We Will Rock You, a song so evocative of tribe; you seek belonging. Long after Live Aid, I had friends who swore by Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. I found Bohemian Rhapsody an engaging mix; it was baroque, operatic and rock. But a sucker for the traveling spirit, I wanted something less rooted. Perhaps something less grand and more portable? As a young journalist in Mumbai enjoying life’s early flush of hard earned income, I also remember sitting in pubs and singing along to I Want To Break Free. I outgrew that. More to my taste were songs like Breakthru and The Invisible Man. But over time, it was another Queen number, A Kind Of Magic, which remained in head enduring life’s ageing process. I love its barreling sense of momentum, soaring vocals and surface-skimming lead guitar; it gives me a feeling of hurtling along to somewhere and nowhere in particular, all at once. Above all I love the unbridled energy that characterizes Freddie’s rendition of this song at the July 12, 1986 concert in Wembley, a year after Live Aid. It is an image of absolute confidence. The video of the performance (available on YouTube) reminds you of Live Aid. It smacks of sensing opportunity. Just past the 45th second as Freddie launches into the song, he looks towards the audience, through the haze caused by the fog machine, tad uncertain of what to expect. A minute and couple of faint smiles later, he looks to the camera and you see that glint of acknowledgement; he knows the audience is in the mood for magic.
Twenty five years after Freddie Mercury’s demise, at a book fair near Navi Mumbai’s Vashi railway station I picked up Lesley Ann-Jones’s 2012 biography of the singer. My curiosity for it was the same as for a book on running, climbing, cycling, swimming or any such activity. Why should rock music be seen differently? Its all life; its all universe. Among other details, the book noted that Freddie’s first band was the `Hectics,’ formed at school in Panchgani by a 12 year-old Freddie and his schoolmates. An artistically inclined person given to sketching, he later took a diploma in art and graphic design, in London. His idol in rock music was Jimi Hendrix. According to the book, as successful rock star, Freddie rarely elaborated on his early years in Africa and India. On the other hand, it suggests that prolonged separation from his parents at so early and sensitive a stage in life, thanks to his schooling in distant India, may have impacted Freddie and contributed to the performer and person he became later in life. For long, Queen was a favorite with rock fans in Mumbai. Now a new generation and their music have taken over. Not to mention, Bollywood. The last big act in town was Justin Bieber (he was born three years after Freddie Mercury died). Movies have been made on artistes like Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. In 2010 a film was announced on Freddie Mercury’s life. In the years since, the cast and producers underwent change. When last reported in the international media, Egyptian-American actor, Rami Malek, was set to play the role of Freddie.
Live Aid happened 32 years ago.
Had Freddie Mercury been alive, he would turn 71 years old, this September 5, 2017.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)