WHAT DOES THE NEW BOX SET REVEAL ABOUT FREDDIE THE MAN? MARTIN GORMAN TAKES A LOOK
Freddie Mercury was a complex and mysterious character. For outsiders it was almost impossible to get to the heart of the real Freddie, the man beneath the irrepressible showmanship, the hard partying and strenuous workload.
The new box set sums up the solo work of Mercury, so surely it must give fans some revealing insights into the real Freddie? Well yes and no. The overall feeling you get from listening to the numerous out-takes and demos is one of sheer exhaustion - Freddie was a workaholic and remained so until the end of his life. Time and again, there were examples of Mercury trying out ideas in the studio, finely honing them until he considered them perfect.
What is apparent from the multitude of demo recordings included in the set is that Freddie had very definite ideas of what he wanted his music to sound like. On early takes of songs like "Let's Turn It On" and "Mr Bad Guy", the intricate vocal harmonies are present from the onset - Freddie had the perfect recording in his head; the only problem left was getting it all down on tape. His demos, which include sketches of ideas for unreleased songs like "God Is Heavy" (featuring Freddie sniffling his way through a bad cold) and "New York", feature drum machine and piano accompaniment that flesh out the various parts of the song. Most people would record a demo with just a guitar or piano. To the layman, Freddie had all the parts he needed on his demos, but his perfectionism meant that he could do so much more with a song.
A great many of Mercury's demos feature scat vocals in the place of finished lyrics, which as Billy Squier, a songwriter who collaborated with Freddie recalls was part of the man's technique: "Freddie was one of those writers who also wrote with performance very much in mind. Sometimes his lyrics would be entirely geared to his singing them in performance." Some of the more appealing tracks are early versions of songs, like "I Was Born To Love You" that feature Freddie alone with the piano. Throughout, the drama of the compositions is evident - perhaps Freddie had untapped potential as a cocktail bar pianist?
Freddie's perfectionism extended to all aspects of the recording. Many people who worked with him testify to the way he would unselfconsciously spend inordinate amounts of time trying out new ideas and arrangements. Like all artists, he immersed himself in his work, but grew weary when others laboured over their tasks. Co-producer Mike Moran remembers of the making of "The Great Pretender": "I was rather nervous and very concerned about what was after all, my co-production. The mix went on until Fred could stand it no longer. 'For God's sake, leave it alone! he demanded. 'Let's go home, dear. You're doing a me!' "
But Freddie knew real talent when he encountered it. Perhaps the most charming tracks on the box are from the tape recorded at the Mercury residence at Garden Lodge, when Freddie demonstrated his new compositions to opera diva Monserrat Caballe for the first time. "Are you sure you're not too tired? he courteously enquires, but Montserrat is more than a match for him. At the end of an early attempt at "The Fallen Priest", Freddie exclaims: "She's inexhaustible!" These insights into the making of the "Barcelona" album show perfectly the skilful blend of Caballe's operatic prowess and Mercury's own soulful interjections. His Montserrat impersonation is pretty good, too.
Two tracks, however, stand out as the perfect embodiment of Mercury's approach to music. A late night jam at Mountain Studios in Montreux featuring Freddie and Mike Moran on piano, leads to some frenetic scat vocals that threaten to spiral out of control. Ever the showman, even in this private moment, Freddie's natural exuberance spills out, until Moran admits defeat in trying to keep up with the singer. "Let's fuck off out of here!" chortles Mercury as the session ends.
The final track on the "Rarities" discs is a 45 second message sent to the annual Queen Fan Club Convention in 1987. Rather than blandly record spoken words of good cheer, Freddie typically goes over the top enlisting Mike Moran to produce a flamboyant mini-opera. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there, I'm recording in a studio all night long," he trills. This is typical Freddie - never one for an understatement.
One of the main selling points of the box set for collectors is the inclusion of two tracks from Freddie Mercury's pre-Queen bands, Ibex and Wreckage.
The early years of Mercury's musical career were covered in full in RC 199, back in 1996, and the release of the recording of the third and final Ibex gig on 9th September 1969 at the Sink club in Liverpool has long been relished by Freddie fans. Unfortunately, we only get to hear one track here, a cover of the Beatle's "Rain", because the quality of the tape was so poor - Ibex roadie Geoff Higgins taped the show on a reel-to-reel recorder positioned on a beer crate directly in front of the band.
While Ibex was by all accounts a proficient band, this doesn't really come across on this rather languid version of "Rain". However, Freddie's youthful voice is instantly recognisable, and he even tries out some unusual vocal techniques that would stand him in good stead in the future.
Ibex turned into Wreckage, who supply the other pre-Queen track here. "Green" is an early Mercury composition and survives thanks to Wreckage drummer Richard Thompson capturing a rehearsal session at the band's flat in Barnes, South-West London on a two-track recorder. The band, which also included Thompson and Ibex veterans Mike Bersin on guitar and John Taylor on bass, were rehearsing songs for their debut gig at Ealing College on 31st October 1969. Thompson taped the song, as he needed to learn the composition's complex beginning and end, and he tapped along with Freddie's voice on his knees. Even in these early days, Mercury was composing songs that combined wildly different sections, from which would ultimately emerge the evergreen "Bohemian Rhapsody".
"Green" opens with Freddie instructing the band how to start the song, which is a medium-paced ballad similar in style to the 1971 Queen track, "Mad The Swine". Even at this early stage in his career, the lyrics are introspective: "There's a sudden change in me; I believe my time has come."
Thompson would have recorded more of the rehearsal, but the session was abruptly stopped by another inhabitant of the flat who objected to John Taylor's amplified bass guitar being played at one o'clock in the morning. Some people have no sense of history.......