I don’t know if it’s “Glee” or reliving my high school years as my eldest navigates his, but recently I’ve been mining the music of my teenage years. A few weeks ago, I downloaded a selection of the Electric Light Orchestra’s greatest hits. iTunes suggested I look at the music of Queen from there. Of course, of course! I had Queen on the brain since I saw a video/laser light show tribute to them in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, iTunes didn’t have the compilation of Queen’s Greatest Hits I and II. I found the 2-CD set on Amazon and ordered it along with a replacement CD of Earth, Wind & Fire’s Greatest Hits, which wore out from use (or heat damage).
This morning, while lamenting my failure to post yesterday and mining my desk for inspiration, I burned my new music into the computer. Wizard walked in and caught me copying lyrics into each song’s information file. That prompted me to play the entire Queen set and listen to the music and lyrics closely.
To begin withl, Freddie Mercury was an amazing singer. The guy must have had a three-octave range. His strong, clear tenor soared through arcs of high notes, yet his rich baritone rumbled through the low notes. Mercury was a master of phrasing and articulation; every word was intelligible and heartfelt. I don’t get the same feeling from most of today’s singers. As a lyricist, he brought us “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Killer Queen,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Somebody To Love,” “We Will Rock You,” and “We Are The Champions” — all anthems of an age: the 1970s witnessed explosions of sexual freedom; musical genres of punk, disco, funk, progressive rock, heavy metal, jazz fusion, glam rock, and even hip-hop. As I read through the volume of lyrics on the albums, I was struck by a recurrent theme — Mercury’s longing for someone. He was looking for someone to love, for the lover to stay around; he was pining love lost and trying convince himself, and probably others, that he was worthy of love.
Beyond the amazing lyrics were some outstanding musical arrangements. As I listened closely, I detected bits of Leonard Bernstein, the Beatles, and even classical opera. For example, in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” there were constant changes in meter and uses of unusual meters to keep the listener just slightly off-kilter. Bernstein was famous for this in works like “West Side Story” and “Chichester Psalms”. Guitar virtuosity in “We Will Rock You” echoed the brilliance of George Harrison. As the Beatles pushed the envelope with each song, so did Queen: modifying the guitar sound, amplifying the bass, using the bass line to drive the movement of the song, precise use of harmony, memorable choruses often about love, and complex orchestrations. If you listen closely to “It’s A Hard Life,” you will hear a famous musical phrase from Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”! The volume and breadth of Freddie Mercury’s work with Queen were vast.
I studied the band’s photos in liner notes and was again struck by Freddie Mercury’s exotic looks. Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 in Zanzibar. His parents were Parsi (members of the Zoroastrian religion), originally from the state of Gujarat in Western India. Mercury attended boarding school in India, where he adopted the name “Freddie”. Freddie played piano from an early age and was known for an uncanny ability to play by ear, that is, to hear songs and then play them — very difficult. Freddie moved to London in his teens and earned a diploma in art and graphic design. (Interestingly, it was Freddie Mercury, himself, who designed the Queen band’s crest.) Freddie performed under the name Freddie Bulsara until the early 1970s; after Queen recorded “My Fairy King,” which contained the line “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me,” Freddie Bulsara became “Freddie Mercury”.
Over the years, Mercury loved and lived with both women and men. Mercury contracted AIDS in the mid-1980s and was diagnosed in 1987. He did not publicly announce his HIV-positive status until November 1991. Freddie Mercury died of AIDS-related pneumonia on November 24, 1991. This extroverted man on stage was an introvert, in personal life. It is the shy-side of him that is often reflected in his music and lyrics. Who Wants To Live Forever