The great pretender: Who dares wear Freddie Mercury's crown?
Two decades after he died from Aids, the enduring legacy of the Queen frontman
When Freddie Mercury died on 24 November 1991, he did so altogether more quietly than he had lived. He had last performed, thin, pale and shorn of his moustache, in the video for the Queen song "These Are the Days of Our Lives", in May that year. He then retreated to his Kensington home, pursued by the red tops – the next the world was to hear from the 45-year-old was the day before he died when he issued a press release in which he confirmed what many had suspected: that he was suffering from Aids.
As is the norm for a modern celebrity of Mercury's stature, his death seemed a mere hiccup in his career: Queen have sold more records since his passing than before, and a decade after his death Mercury was voted 58th in the BBC's list of 100 Greatest Britons. It seems fitting, too, that those bombastic, irresistible and daft Queen songs "We Are the Champions" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" regularly top those bombastic, irresistible and daft best-rock-song-ever lists. But Freddie himself – the man, the stadium rock god, the king of outrageous camp – is inimitable. There is no 21st-century Freddie Mercury. (So let's hope Sacha Baron Cohen can do Freddie justice when he portrays him in Peter Morgan's forthcoming biopic.) But his influence has been everywhere since his death. The moustache, the vocal gymnastics, the tight white jeans – after Freddie finally left the stage, he bequeathed an eye-popping menu for his musical successors to pick from...
Mercury partied like he dressed and performed – outrageously. He is said to have flown guests to a black-and-white drag ball in Munich and thrown bashes in Ibiza for hundreds of guests. As for the notorious party at which, it's alleged, dwarves passed among revellers with bowls of cocaine strapped to their heads, the truth, thankfully, has never been established. These days we have to look to the R'n'B crowd for excessive revels, in particular the hip-hop impresario P Diddy: Cristal champagne by the gallon, Bentleys by the dozen, bonkers dress codes (viz, Did's All White Party of 2009), models accidentally setting fire to their hair... Freddie, you sense, would have approved.
The vocal pyrotechnics
Three octaves! Four! More! Actually, Freddie's singing voice – he was a tenor – was thought to cover just shy of four octaves (vocal nodules meant that he occasionally avoided the very highest notes in live performance). There are plenty of pretenders to the Mercury voice: from Justin Hawkins of the Darkness to Muse's Matthew Bellamy. But let's plump for Mika – the singer-songwriter's star may be on the wane, but his extraordinary voice ranges over 3.5 octaves, and he sweetly mentioned Freddie in his 2007 hit "Grace Kelly".
The leather shorts, the studded armband, the weird leotard things... Freddie had an eye for the exotic on stage, and few begrudged him the expressive joy he took in camping it up. Looking around today, one person has clearly inherited that attitude and taken it further: Lady Gaga. Each of them knew the power of cross-dressing, too: Freddie's turn in a leather skirt plus Hoover in the video for "I Want to Break Free" was pure drag, and Gaga's turn as the bequiffed "Calderone" was... well, a bit odd, but you know what we mean.
The skinny white jeans
No one has been a more untoward Mercury acolyte than the king of landfill indie, Johnny Borrell, circa 2006, whose Freddie-love manifests itself in his penchant for crotch-hugging white jeans. But though Borrell also shares his idol's predilection for stripping to the waist, it's a shame the Razorlight frontman's toplessness feels less like a tribute to Mercury's bare-chested raucousness than a desperately gauche attempt to curry favour with the ladies.
Freddie is dead but that trademark 'tache lives on – with its own Facebook fan page (2,667 "likes") devoted to discussion of the great man's lip furniture. So who among today's rock royalty can match up? Step forward Brighton-based Aussie doom merchant Nick Cave, whose luxuriant handlebar mo' ("more badass than a volcano fighting an earthquake," according to one admirer) also has its own Facebook page – and, with 5,712 "likes", can plausibly claim to be the new No 1.
The rock monster
Live Aid, 13 July 1985, a packed Wembley: Freddie's crowning glory. Not even the Teletubbies could elicit the ecstatic echo Queen's frontman managed as he sang "Eh-oh!" over and over to the 72,000-strong crowd, their arms outstretched in rapturous abandon. His weren't, though. Because if he wasn't pointing his microphone at interesting angles, he was stock-still, legs spread, right fist clenched, arm raised high, embracing the adulation. The only Brit rock star who's since come close in ritual call-and-response tactic? Robbie Williams. And more often than not, it felt as if he just wanted the crowd to sing the words for him.
The yellow jacket
He glistened in the night sky, his bright yellow bolero lighting up the stadium. Did it look ridiculous? Of course it did. But it didn't half mark him out from Brian May in his monochrome Breton top. Twenty-three years later and Chris Martin's in a military bolero in Rolling Stone magazine, fiddling with the sleeve and looking like the bastard child of Adam Ant and a ferret caught in the headlights, with the headline, "Confessions of an anxious rock god". Anxious? Not a word that could be associated with King Fred. Not in that bolero.
The operatic ambitions
It wasn't just a beautiful horizon, but beautifully harmonious, too, when Freddie got together with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé to sing "Barcelona" in 1988 – a track so moving that four years later it became the anthem of the city's 1992 Olympics. A textbook example of combining opera with rock, it saw Freddie accentuate every word while Caballé focused on tone and melody. Bono gave the crossover a go, too, collaborating with Luciano Pavarotti on "Miss Sarajevo" in 1995, a protest at the war in Bosnia. It sounds like a U2 track with a terrific tenor performance thrown in when Bono's not wailing on.
Freddie's tombstone gnashers were hard to miss. Worried that it might damage his voice, he chose not to have corrective surgery to fix his overbite, which was caused by four extra teeth that forced out his incisors. But they were mighty tusks and, without them, what would his 'tache have sat atop? Choppers to be proud of, then – and famous for the right reason: because they made his smile so beautiful. And, goodness knows, we've had to contend with enough singers with teeth that were harder to look at. Shane MacGowan never needed a mask on Halloween. And as for Pete Doherty's rotting gums – well, the less said the better.
The sanction busting...
"It's very nice to be here in South Africa and I just want to have a good time." So said Freddie after touching down at Jan Smuts airport to play a series of controversial UN-cultural-boycott-busting shows at Sun City in 1984. This year, in the same week that the artist Ai Weiwei was arrested, Bob Dylan played his first concert in China, avoiding controversy – though not, apparently, set-list censure (no "Blowin' in the Wind", no "The Times They Are a'Changin'"). Oh well, another one bites the dust.
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