THE MAN WHO WOULD BE QUEEN
Freddie Mercury Interview, Melody Maker, May 2, 1981
"I'm a very highly strung person," said Freddie Mercury. "I like having fun, and my job is a very good release for me, but it's still my job and I always take it very seriously. And when you are highly strung and you take your work seriously, you're bound to appear difficult to the outside world." As the pivot of Queen, that most visual and extravagant of bands who stemmed from the celebratory super-pomp of British rock's coming of age ten years ago, Mercury has assumed an enigmatic air. His stage act is a near combination of dandyish preening, strutting and aggressive, in the finest theatrical tradition. But away from the footlights or the recording studio, Mercury seems insecure, shy of people he doesn't know well, avoiding the limelight.
He's the classic example of the actor who springs to life only when projecting a certain dimension of himself from the stage. There's no doubt that this strength makes Queen's act one of the most impressive and electrifying in its field. Alongside Pink Floyd, the Queen success story in the past decade is as interesting to the Financial Times as it is to Melody Maker readers. Planned with a degree of business acumen, timing, strategy, attention to fine detail and total calculation, the Queen operation could be branded as a piece of cold merchandising - if the music were not so excellent and the stage show so spectacularly impressive.
But it's worth remembering that Mercury, with the exceptionally gifted guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor, has solid roots. They met and gigged in the pubs around Shepperton, Middlesex, before being launched in a blaze of determination in 1974 with a swaggering single that was a taste of style that was to become a golden success. The record was "Seven Seas Of Rhye." Since then, Queen's statistical achievements defy the merchants of gloom who have been bemoaning the parlous state of the record industry. They have sold between 50 and 60 million records and are estimated to be the highest-paid company directors in Britain. They manage themselves and have the credentials to do so: before deciding on a music career, all four were on course to respectable professional careers. Mercury gained a diploma in graphic design and retains a close supervision of all aspects of the band's visual output; Deacon won a first class honours degree in electronics and carefully watches Queen's financial affairs; Brian May qualified as a physicist and worked briefly as a maths teacher before finding the pull of the guitar too strong - but still wonders if he made the right decision, so keen on physics does he remain. And Roger Taylor gained a biology degree before helping to launch Queen. Queen's busy schedule places them in the recording studio next month for sessions that will produce a new album. they might do British concerts towards the end of the year, but right now, they have a right to bask in the glory of their most recent achievements: playing to half a million people in the relatively uncharted rock territory of South America.
Once again, they seem to have demonstrated to the rest of the rock population how to get a show on the road, for they have tapped a colossal new market for record sales in Argentina and Brazil by scientifically executing a brilliantly-conceived tour, playing in gigantic stadia to hysterically enthusiastic rock-starved South Americans. It was there one hot afternoon, in a mood of some elation after a triumphant show the night before, that 34 year old Mercury opened up and talked about himself and Queen.
When Queen formed ten years ago, there seemed to be a grand strategy to become the biggest rock band, statistically, and to be the most extravagant in every way. Was there really a master plan which has resulted in your current status - did you approach it as businessmen rather than musicians?
No, It wasn't quite as clinical as that, but it was certainly determined. We said okay, we're going to take the plunge into rock and we're really going to do a job at it, no half measures. We all had potentially good careers and we weren't prepared to settle for second best if we were going to abandon all the qualifications we had got in other fields. We wanted the best; it wasn't a question of wanting world domination, although I know it probably came across as capitalism.
But lots of bands set out wanting to get to the top and don't make it - what gave you the edge?
You have to have a kind of arrogance and lots of confidence and absolute determination, as well as all the other obvious skills like music. Arrogance is a very good thing to have when you're starting, and that means saying to yourselves that you're going to be the number one group, not the number two. Hope for the best, go for the top. We just had it inside us and - well, we all had a very big ego, as well.
Are you the leader of the band?
The lead singer usually is....
Ah, yes, we used to be, that's a bygone age. Modern-day people in my position called themselves the focal point, dear. Unless your name is Rod Stewart and you have a backing band - no way is this Freddie Mercury and his backing band. When you analyse it, the four of us make the whole thing work. It's 25 per cent, and I'm the one upfront, that's all.
Your friends say you're extremely shy, and you loathe talking about yourself in interviews like this, but on stage you preen like a peacock. Are you two people?
I don't know what it is, but it's true. I wish I could tell you. I just like having fun. It's a very good release, rock music, but you know you say that I am a different person on stage and that same thing could be said of anyone going out to do his job. It's my work, and I'm very serious about it, getting it right - when we began, we approached it the way we did because we were not prepared to be out-of-work musicians, ever. We said either take it on as a serious commodity or don't do it at all.
Did you ever have doubts that the strategy would work?
At one point, two or three years after we began, we nearly disbanded. We felt it wasn't working, there were too many sharks in the business and it was all getting too much for us. But something inside us kept us going and we learned from our experiences, good and bad. Sometimes, things like what happened to us in the business field give you an even greater incentive to stay alive and fight through. We didn't make any money until after the fourth album, "A Night At The Opera." Most of our income was consumed by litigation and things like that. We had to use a lot of money, so-called money that we made, to get out of contracts. But it was the best thing we could do. After that, it was like a new lease of life.
Is there a togetherness in the band - do you mix socially?
No. After ten years, my dear, it can be really boring.
So Is there friction?
No, not really. I think we know now instinctively what each other wants. We go our separate ways. We have four limousines waiting after each show and we just go wherever we want. It's like a job, as I say. Your come together, do a gig....
Yet you can't be in this "job" of Queen for life, can you?
Ah, you want me to put a deadline on it now! I don't know. Five years ago you could have asked me the same question and I couldn't tell you. It could all end tomorrow. I'm not afraid of it. It's a precarious life but I think I like it that way. I like it a little risky. Okay, so I'm quite well off but money in the bank doesn't mean anything to me. I spend it as quickly as it comes. I could be penniless tomorrow, but I wouldn't care that much. I have this survival instinct in me.
Would you go back to begin again, join or form a band, if Queen ended?
I don't know. I don't get up every morning and ask myself what I'll do if Queen decides to end. I'll take it when it comes. I don't think we've reached our peak. Within Queen there's still a lot left to be done. Look at this new territory we have just opened up in South America. I couldn't have predicted a year ago that this was going to happen. I like very much playing in new territories.
Do you practice your elaborate stage act - say by standing in front of a mirror?
No, I've never done that. Maybe I should and then I'd find out what everybody's on about! You can learn a lot by looking at old videos of yourself, but I've never been one to analyse myself too much. Sometimes it's best to leave well alone, dear.
Who criticises your stage act, then, if anyone?
Oh, lots of people. Lots of my friends.
Do you welcome that criticism?
But you're very prickly about criticism...
Oh, I don't think so. In the end I'm my own boss, which in a way is a bad thing because it's different for someone in, say, the ballet world. A choreographer tells him exactly what to do and if you do something wrong the ballet dancer is told that this is exactly what is wanted. I don't have that, simply because there's nobody to do it - it would be a different, more rigid form of discipline. They can say I do this wrongly, but I'm the ultimate judge. Depending on the night, I just do what I want. I don't know how those ballet people do it - the same steps every night! I couldn't perform in that framework.
What do you want people to think of you?
That I'm somebody who sings his songs well and performs them properly. I like people to go away from a Queen show feeling fully entertained, having had a good time. I think Queen songs are pure escapism, like going to see a good film - after that, they can go away and say that was great, and go back to their problems. I don't want to change the world with our music. There are no hidden messages in our songs, except for some of Brian's. I like to write songs for fun, for modern consumption. People can discard them like a used tissue afterwards. You listen to it, like it, discard it, then on to the next. Disposable pop, yes.
So that when Queen are eventually judged, you don't want to be regarded as having contributed tangibly to the fabric of rock'n'roll, like, say, Presley or Hendrix?
Oh, I think I do and I think we will be. For being respectable musicians who wrote good songs, that's about all. I think we've got a certain amount of recognition and respectability now. We can write good songs, that's good enough for me.
As academically qualified men, do you think you are overqualified for the role of rock musicians and that you have all wasted your professional qualifications in other areas?
No no no! Our academic qualifications didn't help us with rock. As far as I was concerned, I was an art school reject who had a diploma in graphics, but how did that qualify me for rock? But what it did, having that background, was help us in the art of survival in the business side. We still learned the hard way, as every group does at some stage, but....
You were better equipped mentally to find a way out of the jungle?
Yes. Bands these days are geared that way. It's a growth process. I can't analyse every band, but take The Police - they're more geared up than we were ten years ago to taking this business, step by step, and finding a way through it. They're not just going into a studio, making a record and hoping. They study the business side of it too, if they're into it properly. Whereas before, it was hit and miss, a bit. Now, if you don't enter the business as well as play music, you get ruled out at stage one. It's vital to do the whole thing properly - talent is not just writing good songs and performing them, it's having a business brain. Because that's a major part of it - to get the music across properly and profit from it, isn't it? Use all the tricks of the trade, dear, and if you believe in yourself, go all the way. That's the only way we know and it has worked for Queen.
So you don't believe in suffering for art and hoping you'll get discovered?
(Laughs): No! Oh God, you can't go around saying: 'What a wonderful musician I am, what a terrific song I wrote last night.' You've got to make quite sure you get discovered. Part of the talent is making sure it reaches people! Don't just be a wonderful musician and an outstanding songwriter. There are lots of those about. Learn to push yourself, be there at the right time, and do learn how to deal with the business right from the start. That's the state of play in rock now. Nor do I say you can plan all this. You've got to somehow have it inbuilt. I'm saying it's part of talent these days to have a business brain. You have to instinctively have an awareness of all the things that will work to make you successful. Good music is just not enough.
Do you feel very poweful on stage and is that one of the reasons for your enjoyment of your success?
Yes I do, and yes it is.
Does all this frighten you? Is the power controlled?
No, I'm not frightened by it. In less sensible hands it could be dodgy. I could cause a riot if I wanted to but I still think that's a minor matter because it's all very tongue-in-cheek, you must realise that, for me, anyway. I like to ridicule myself. I don't take it too seriously. I wouldn't wear these clothes if I was serious. The one thing that keeps me going is that I like to laugh at myself. With English speaking audiences I really joke with them, slag them off and tell them they're a load of idiots, but I don't mean it. If we were a different kind of band, with messages and political themes, then it would be totally different. That's why I can wear sort of ridiculous shorts and things like that, ham it up with semi-Gestapo salutes. It's all kitsch.
What about the theory, held by some, that rock stars in your position should use their power to try to shape the world for the better?
Leave that to the politicians. Certain people can do that kind of thing, but very few. John Lennon was one. Because of his status he could do that kind of preaching and effect people's thoughts. But to do this you have to have a certain amount of intellect and magic together, and the John Lennons are few and far between. People with mere talent, like me, have not got the ability or power.
So have you any responsibility to an audience once they've bought the album or left the theatre?
In what way? My responsibility to the audience is to put on a good show. They make sure they get good, strong entertainment from Queen in whatever form, whether on record or in concert or on television, and that's that.
Do you believe musicians play better when they're hungry? Or now, because you are financially rich, is there a relaxation because you have no money worries? What are the difficulties?
You can play good when you're struggling and I think you can play good when you've made it, as well. It's a different kind of thing. I mean, when I go on stage, whether I'm rich or starving, I want to give my all. I want to go on there and die for the show! If I have a broken leg or a million pounds or am up to my eyes in debt, I just want to perform. Even having a cold has nothing to do with it - get out there and prove, from what's inside you, that the act and the audience is the thing.
You've appointed yourselves your own managers and totally control your destiny, as a kind of Queen corporation - do you enjoy this aspect as much as getting the music together?
Should and could most other bands do the same? Should all bands bent on making a big impact work from the start towards managing themselves?
Yes, I think it's in the interests of most musicians to get a grip of their own business affairs. I'm not saying it should be right from the start, necessarily - it might be best to have a manager to begin with and then learn from his mistakes, for example. But the process is right.
Do you ever leave a stage feeling you've done a really bad gig?
Yes, sometimes. We all scream and shout at each other and destroy the dressing room and release our energy. We set ourselves a very high standard and 99 per cent of the audience wouldn't agree with our assessment of a bad gig. In San Francisco I lost my voice and it was awful, my register was limited to virtually a monotone. I still gave it my all but I knew it was a bad performance. They had to reschedule the tour and take three or four shows off the tour. I have nodules on my vocal chords and most tours are now scheduled around my voice.
But your voice sounds very powerful....
I'm losing the range, believe it or not. I've lost the power I began with. But I've become a stronger singer so maybe my framework is diminishing but within that I can sing better than ever. My voice can do amazing things now.
Let's talk about your songwriting. Can you write songs to order: "At two o'clock today I will start work on a song....?
I have no set rules for writing, but yes, I can write like that, I really can. It's haphazard and it's become a bit of a joke to me, but if I knew we're going into the studio I just get my thinking process going. I can write songs to order, like a job. Some songs come faster that others: "Bohemian Rhapsody" I had to work at like crazy. I just wanted that kind of song. "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" took me five or ten minutes. I did that on the guitar, which I can't play for nuts, and in one way it was quite a good thing because I was restricted, knowing only a few chords. It's a good discipline because I simply had to write within a small framework. I couldn't work through too many chords and because of that restriction I wrote a good song, I think.
What's your best song so far?
I don't know, I write 'em, and leave'em. If you asked me to play some of my older songs on the piano, I couldn't. I forget them, I learnt them for the time. I have to go in a day earlier and try to work out all the chords to my own songs. I forget them very quickly. For example, "Love Of My Life" is adapted on stage for guitar, but it was written on the piano. I've totally forgotten the original and if you asked me to play that now, I couldn't. Sometimes, I have to go back to the music sheet, and I can't read that well either!
Can you read music?
Very little. I don't need it. I leave that to the others. It's not like Mozart is it? We reach more people this way.