Farrokh Bulsara was born in 1946 in the British colony of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania). His parents were Zoroastrians (Parsis) from India. As a boy he was sent back to India to attend boarding school in Bombay. He did very well in studies, was a competitive boxer, and also learned to play the piano–even participating in a 5-person band called The Hectics. He graduated from St. Mary’s High School, and then moved to England where he obtained a degree in Art and Graphic Design from Ealing Art College. In 1970 he joined a failing rock band in London named Smile when their lead singer quit, renaming the band in the process.
I first encountered his music when I happened to move from Pakistan to the United States in September of 1975 at age 11 for almost two years, and immediately upon my arrival was completely taken, as was all of America and much of the rest of the world at the time, by a song that Bulsara wrote and sang with his rock group. Interestingly, and though I did not know this until recently, among his important musical influences, Bulsara has cited the legendary Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. My own infatuation with Bulsara and his music has well-outlasted his tragic death of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 45, and I remain, like many others, including, of course, Wayne and Garth, a lifelong devotee. You probably know Bulsara better as Freddie Mercury (recently voted, once again, the best rock singer of all time). The name he gave his band was Queen. And the 1975 song I mention above is, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (recently voted again: best rock song of all time).
Okay, before anything else, just watch and listen to this:
While writing this short tribute I listened to many Queen songs turned up very loud on my quite powerful sound system (to the chagrin of my thin-walled upper-west-side-of-Manhattan neighbors), and as I was listening to this live version of “Under Pressure,” I found myself suddenly and shockingly but not completely unpleasantly reconnected with the remaining hormone-drenched vestiges of my teenage self, standing up (ridiculously alone!) in my living room to accompany Brian May with a spastic air guitar, then getting more and more emotional at the mostly-inscrutable-yet-movingly-poetic lyrics, until the unbearable and insane buildup when Freddie is singing “Insanity laughs, under pressure we’re breakin’…” and then by the time, a second later, when he sings “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance… Why can’t we give love that one more chance… Why can’t we give love… give love… give love… give love… give love… give love… give love… give love… give love,” I felt like I was in a trance. If you don’t believe me, try hooking up your computer to a decent sound system, and then just sit there and play the song!
By the way, during an early Queen concert Freddie’s mic stand broke in half and he continued carrying the broken half around. Later, this became a trademark style of his.
Among other things, Queen were a particularly well-educated rock band: all four members held college degrees, and as we reported here, Brian May recently turned in a Ph.D. dissertation at Imperial College in astrophysics. He defends it on August 23rd.
Freddie Mercury displayed an energy and dynamism and theatricality and showmanship in live performances which is truly awesome. Queen were the most important forerunner (and later practioners) of stadium rock, and Freddie Mercury actively engaged even large audiences and often made them participants in the music. The a capella playful vocal beginning of the video above reminds me of the immensely talented Pakistani vocalist and qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who like our friend Freddie had immense vocal range and liked just playing around with his amazing voice–just because he could. Queen taylored some of their music for large stadiums, hence it is not surprising that some of their songs (“We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions”) have turned into worldwide sports anthems. This is from the Live Aid concert in 1985:
Freddie mercury and Montserrat Caballé live:
And, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody:
All my previous Monday Musings can be seen here.
Have a good week!