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Queen's Tragic Rhapsody

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Bulsara was in and out of a couple of groups himself during this period, and he tended to remodel everything about them. He liked singing blues – most bands demanded it – but his influences were much broader: the compositions of British composer and singer Noel Coward; the instrumental voicings of Chopin and Mozart; the singing of Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Robert Plant and Aretha Franklin; and the histrionics of his two favorite stars, Jimi Hendrix and Liza Minnelli. After he saw Smile, though, his ambition was to be the band's lead singer. Sometimes at Smile shows, he would yell, "If I was your singer, I'd show you how it was done." In early 1970, after too many false hopes, Staffell announced he was leaving Smile. May, Taylor and Bulsara were sharing an apartment by this time. The others were well aware that Bulsara was a nimble and well-schooled pianist and was developing into an exceptional singer. So in April 1970, the three formed a new band. They went through a handful of bassists – at least one of whom had difficulty with Bulsara's over-the-top style – before meeting John Deacon in early 1971. Deacon was another exemplary student (he had a master of science in acoustics and vibration technology) and struck everybody as extremely reserved. ("He hardly spoke to us at all," May recalled of the first meeting.) But he learned quickly, and in his audition he "plugged a gap and didn't drop a fucking beat," in the words of a musician present that day. Deacon was hired on the spot.

Right away Bulsara began to exert his sway, persuading the others to dress more dramatically, more dandyish. He also insisted he had come upon the perfect title for the band. May and Taylor suggested names such as the Rich Kids and the Grand Dance, but Mercury insisted on Queen. "It's ever so regal," he said. "It was a strong name, very universal and very immediate," he added years later. "It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations, but that was just one facet of it."

And crucially, Queen's lead singer was no longer Freddie Bulsara. He was now Freddie Mercury – the new name a reference to the Roman messenger of the gods. "I think changing his name was part of him assuming this different skin," said May in a 2000 documentary. "I think it helped him to be this person that he wanted to be. The Bulsara person was still there, but for the public he was going to be this different character, this god."

In Queen's early years, a legend persisted that the band had spent a year or two mapping out the stratagems of its success before anybody ever heard the music. (Deacon once boasted to friends that the group had a "10-year plan.") For the music press, this sort of ambition showed guile rather than any true passion for the meaning or social possibilities of music. It was an image that Queen didn't escape for most of their career. In truth, Queen's rise was beset by questionable business deals and serious health problems (at one point May almost lost an arm to gangrene, and was later hospitalized with hepatitis, then an ulcer). But for Mercury, there was no fallback. May, Taylor and Deacon could all resort to their original academic-bred careers: May kept working toward his Ph.D. thesis in astrophysics in the band's early years, and Deacon later admitted that he wasn't convinced Queen were truly viable until after their third LP. Mercury eventually persuaded the band that it was worth abjuring any other careers. "If we were going to abandon all the qualifications we had got in other fields to take the plunge into rock," May later said, "we weren't prepared to settle for second-best."

By the time the group released its debut, Queen, in July 1973, the material already felt dated to the bandmates. Mercury didn't have the patience for jams or fantasias. He believed that carefully crafted song forms with strong, focused melodies were radical enough; if you wanted people to hear your work, strive for memorable performances. He also finally convinced the others that how a band looked – how to dress, how a lead singer moved and commanded a stage – was equally important. With his black nails, and his harlequin bodysuits and angel-wing cloaks that heightened his athletic, roundelay-like movements onstage, Mercury reveled in an androgynous splendor – albeit one with an ominous edge about it. These attributes seemed akin to the styles being forged at the time by David Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music and Mott the Hoople, which was a concern. "We were into glam rock before the Sweet and Bowie," May said at the time, "and we're worried now, because we might have come too late."

With their next two albums, Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack (both from 1974), Queen successfully caught up with themselves. Queen II's lavish sound and Sheer Heart Attack's harder and more propulsive approach laid the groundwork for the extravagant and complex sound that marked Queen's first triumphant period. Onstage, though, it was Mercury who was the focal point. The British press largely hated what it saw as his campy, theatrical mannerisms. But he was steadily building a powerful, uncommon bond between the band and its audience, often engaging fans in singalongs. "What you must understand," he once told another singer, "is that my voice comes from the energy of the audience. The better they are, the better I get."

Recording their fourth album, 1975's A Night at the Opera, Queen felt that their time had come. May recalled thinking, "This is our canvas, we will paint on it at our leisure." Mercury had ideas for a ludicrously epic track. Producer Roy Thomas Baker, who had worked with Queen on their music up to this point, has told the story of the first time he heard "Bohemian Rhapsody": "Freddie was sitting in his apartment, and he said, 'I've got this idea for a song.' So he started playing it on the piano. . . . Then he suddenly stopped and said, 'Now, dears, this is where the opera section comes in.'" From the opening ballad section, the song soared into operetta form, then into battering rock & roll, finally back to a ballad. Said May, "It was [Freddie's] baby." Queen and Baker worked on the track for weeks. The band overdubbed some 180 vocal parts for the song, fashioning its famous cathedral-like chorale sound. At one point, there were so many tracks that the audio tape wore down to transparency and would have evaporated with any more recording.

When "Bohemian Rhapsody" was done, the band wanted it to be A Night at the Opera's first single. Queen's manager at the time, John Reid – who was also Elton John's manager – said that it could never happen without the nearly-six-minute-long track being edited. Deacon felt the same way, but Taylor and May shared Mercury's resolve. Whatever doubts remained were dispelled when Mercury and Taylor played the finished recording for BBC DJ Kenny Everett. "It could be half an hour," Everett told them, "it's going to be Number One for centuries." As it developed, "Bohemian Rhapsody" became Queen's first Number One British single, and it hit the Top 10 in America. In the years since, the song has routinely headed British lists of all-time best and worst singles. That never daunted Mercury. "A lot of people slammed 'Bohemian Rhapsody,'" he said, "but who can you compare it to?"

Mercury wasn't patient with those who asked him about the song's meanings. "Fuck them, darling," he said. "I'll say no more than what any decent poet would tell you if you dared ask him to analyze his work: 'If you see it, dear, then it's there.'" It's possible, though, that the song had meanings Mercury simply wasn't ready to divulge. "Freddie's stuff was so heavily cloaked lyrically," May later said. "But you could find out, just from little insights, that a lot of his private thoughts were in there." Indeed, "Rhapsody" may have held the key to Mercury's still-secret life. "The song," critic Anthony DeCurtis has said, "is about a secret transgression – 'I'm being punished' – at the same time that there's this desire for freedom."

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