The great pretender: Who dares wear Freddie Mercury's crown?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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...

The parties

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 cross-dressing

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.

The moustache

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.

The teeth

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
Rocker of ages: Chuck Berry
music

Risking ridicule, they are driven by a burning desire to keep entertaining

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) could team up with British director Danny Boyle for the Steve Jobs (right) biopic
film
Arts & Entertainment
The next wig thing: 'Drag Queens of London'
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams as Arya and Rory McCann as The Hound
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Rush hour: shoppers go sale crazy in Barkers, Kensington
film
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes play Catherine and Heathcliff in Pete Kosminsky's 1992 movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights
booksGoogle Doodle celebrates Charlotte Brontë's 198th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
Robin Thicke with his Official Number 1 Award for 'Blurred Lines', the most downloaded track in UK music history
Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello
Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

Arts & Entertainment
Tom Baker who played the Doctor longer than any other actor
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
    Why musicians play into their old age

    Why musicians play into their old age

    Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
    How can you tell a gentleman?

    How can you tell a gentleman?

    A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
    Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

    Sam Wallace

    Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
    Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

    Through the screen

    British Pathé opens its archives
    The man behind the papier mâché mask

    Frank Sidebottom

    The man behind the papier mâché mask
    Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

    Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
    Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

    Boston runs again

    Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
    40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

    40 years of fostering and holding the babies

    In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents