THERE’S nothing like a dearth of hero-stars to make a media industry writhe with despondency. Film moguls, unable to find successors to Monroe and Gable, are making a cult of anti-stars. But the pop industry needs the potent elixir, the excitement of using honest superlatives to sear through the blood, lifting the spirits. And pop scribes, like damp, weary pilgrims waiting for the dawn, have been aching to crown a new hero.
Then, just when the prognosis looked direst, with a dazzling whoooosh, darlings, up popped Freddie Mercury.
Suddenly we’ve discovered in our midst an exotic prancer, a quixotic chancer, an electronic Elgar who has penned some of the gaudiest, soaring rock and roll anthems to be heard in a decade.
Freddie, known for his meticulous attention to detail, couldn’t have planned his heir apparency better. He’s paid his dues. With Queen (Brian May — guitar, John Deacon — bass, Roger Taylor — drums) he’s had four years to survey the scene and build up the frenzied grass-roots following which left him impervious to the lack of affection in other quarters. However, with the delivery of Sheer Heart Attack, all the vehement dampeners with which critics received Queen’s two previous offerings have turned to outpourings of unrestrained enthusiasm.
Freddie’s wearing tight oyster grey satin pants, an antique market cream satin blouse and a scarlet velvet Victorian bed jacket. His hair is cormorant black, he flashes ebony eyes and his smile reveals a row of pearly white teeth which look ready to plunge into a meal of little girl burgers. He’s tapping the carpet with one white boot, the tabletop with a pen and for a moment I wonder anxiously whether I’m facing an irked prima donna. But “no, Mercury isn’t my real name, dear. I changed it from Pluto,” Freddie jibes. His gentle, deadpan camperie breaks the ice.
When you first formed Queen, did you aim pretty high, I asked. “That’s it. The whole group aimed for the top slot. We’re not going to be content with anything less. That’s what we’re striving for. It’s got to be there. I definitely know we’ve got it in the music, we’re original enough… and, now we’re proving it,” said Freddie, being uncharacteristically forceful.
You must have had a lot of self confidence? “You have to have confidence in this business. It’s USELESS saying you don’t need it. If you start saying to yourself ‘maybe I’m not good enough, maybe I’d better settle for second place,’ it’s no good. If you like the icing on the top, you’ve got to have confidence. I was a precocious child. My parents thought boarding school would do me good so they sent me to one when I was seven, dear. I look back on it and I think it was marvellous. You learn to look after yourself and it taught me to have responsibility.”
Your background is quite affluent then? “No it wasn’t as affluent as people think. It was middle-class. But I suppose I gave the appearance of being affluent. I love that. I still do. It’s all part of how you feel and how you project yourself.”
Freddie left boarding school when he was 16. He studied classical piano, to Grade 4, but being an arty lad, his parents encouraged him to develop this creative talent. “I went to Ealing Art School a year after Peter Townshend left. Music was a sideline to everything we did. The school was a breeding ground for musicians. I listened to Hendrix, really. I got my diploma and then I thought I’d chance it as a freelance artist. I tried. I did it for a couple of months, but I’d done it for so long I thought ‘my God, I’ve done enough.’ The interest wasn’t there. And the music thing just grew and grew. Finally I said ‘right, I’m taking the plunge, it’s music.’ I’m one of those people believes in doing those things which interest you. Music is so interesting, dear.”
Were you always a bit of a performer? “Well, on stage I just click. To be honest, performing comes quite easily realty. It doesn’t take me that much. I mean, I know it sounds conceited and there are a lot of setbacks and a lot of strains and nerves, but not nearly as much as there used to be. Now we are a headline band we know people have come to see us. Being support is one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.”
Yes, it seems as it the strain took its toll. Brian dropped out of the first American tour with hepatitis and Freddie was plagued with boils. “I tell you, I feel the after-effects of touring. We finished the British tour last night and I feel as if I’ve done a marathon every night. I’ve got bruises everywhere. Because it’s the music that matters, you’ve got to make sure there are key people around you, taking care of you.”
And now, what about the spectre of your success? Does it loom before you and keep you awake at night? “Quite often I have quite vicious nightmares — like the other night just before the Rainbow concert. We were sleeping in the Holiday Inn and I dreamed I went out on to the hotel balcony and the whole thing fell and I was a heap on the pavement. Really I was petrified when I woke up in the morning. And Roger has this nightmare where he’s drinking a bottle of Coke and the bottle smashes and he has broken glass all the way down his system. Ridiculous sort of things like that are caused by the tension which builds up.”
With all the energy you’re going to be putting into touring in Europe and America in the next few months, are you going to find the time to write? “Well, I don’t ever really sit down at the piano and say ‘right, I’ve got to write a song now.’ I feel a few things and I have ideas. It’s very hard to explain but there are always various ideas going through my head. ‘Killer Queen’ was one song which was really out of the format that I usually write in. Usually the music comes first, but the words came to me, and the sophisticated style that I wanted to put across in the song, came first. No, I’d never really met a woman like that. A lot of my songs are fantasy. I can dream up all kinds of things. That’s the kind of world I live in. It’s very sort of flamboyant, and that’s the kind of way I write. I love it.
“You don’t need money to give an air of being… ” he pauses, as if he’s afraid of revealing too much about himself. “I don’t know — sort of extreme. The showbiz thing of walking into a room and making sure that people know you’re there. I love being able to let myself go at times. The ideal thing for a group that is successful is to churn out more of the formula that worked. But we want to progress in our own terms.”
Will you have to take time off to write new songs? “It depends. Nobody knew we were going to be told we had two weeks to write Sheer Heart Attack. And we had too — it was only thing we could do. Brian was in hospital.”
What do you feel like under that kind of pressure? “Well, ‘Killer Queen’ I wrote in one night. I’m not being conceited or anything, but it just fell into place. Certain songs do. Now, ‘March Of The Black Queen’, that took ages. I had to give it everything, to be self indulgent or whatever. But with ‘Killer Queen’, I scribbled down the words in the dark one Saturday night and the next morning I got them all together and I worked all day Sunday and that was it. I’d got it. It gelled. It was great. Certain things Just come together, but other things you have to work for. The whole band is very particular. We don’t go in for half measures and I’m very hard with myself. There’re no compromises. If I thought a song wasn’t quite right, I’d discard it. I’m very intricate and delicate. You can see that in my paintings. I love painters like Richard Dadd, Mucha and Dali, and I love Arthur Rackham.”
You’re on the way to being a huge androgynous sex symbol. What does it feel like to know that there are thousand’s of lads and lassies out there who want a piece of you for themselves? “It’s a great feeling. I play on the bisexual thing because it’s something else, it’s fun. But I don’t put on the show because I feel I have to and the last thing I want to do is give people an idea of exactly who I am. I want people to work out their own interpretation of me and my image. I don’t want to build a frame around myself and say ‘this is what I am’ or ‘this is all I am.’
“To be honest. I’d like people to think there, is no falsity in me, because what I do is really my character. But I think mystique, not knowing the truth about someone, is very appealing. I’d be doing myself an injustice if I didn’t wear make-up because some people think it’s wrong. Even to talk about being gay used to be obnoxious and unheard of. But gone are those days. There’s a lot of freedom today and you can put yourself across anyway you want to. But I haven’t CHOSEN this image. I’m myself and in fact half the time I let the wind take me.
“I don’t go out to have very gay company but, I tell you, in this business it’s very hard to find friends — to have loyal friends and to keep them. Among my friends are a lot of gay people and a lot of girls and a lot of OLD men. The man I have as a chauffeur — we’ve, built up such a bond, it’s a kind of love, and I don’t care what people think about it. Putting people in different categories is unfair. You have to judge people on what they are.”
What kind of person are you? “How do you expect me to answer a question like that, dear! There are various aspects of me. The thing I treasure most, above music, is meeting people. I like being sociable, going out to functions and things and, generally, I’m likeable I think. But I can change and be very moody and obnoxious. I’m a sort of chameleon. Success is teaching me a lot of things and I’m adapting. You’ve got to learn to come up with decisions very quickly. There’s no beating about the bush in this business.”
Do you think you’re in control of the success trip? “We’re going to try to control it as much as we can. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t ever admit to yourself that this is your peak. If you admit to yourself that this your peak, then you’re on the way down. I really feel that we have so much more to offer. There’s masses waiting in store that we can give.”
How do you feel about the superstar label? “Honestly, labels like that are touch and go with us. We’ve been labelled so many different things and labels are as bad as they are good. If you took labels seriously, you’d be very silly. We were labelled ‘hype’ in the early days. We took offence, but we didn’t take it seriously because we knew what we were about.”
You told me earlier that you love affluence. Now that you’re on the way to becoming a very rich man, what are you going to do with your money?
“Spend it, my dear. I’m the one member of the band for whom money isn’t very endearing. I’m the one who spends it straight off. It just goes. On clothes and I like nice things around me.”