A Queen story: You buggers can sing harder than I can

Bohemian Rhapsody was the first song I remember being aware of as a kid. I have a clear memory of us kids singing it in the schoolyard and making up lyrics because, clearly, no one knew what the actual words were. Those memories are filed alongside other powerful ones from the time: the smell of the neighbouring fields after the grass had been freshly hacked; lunch break football with the boys, using a tennis ball because a full-size football wasn’t allowed in the yard; getting punched on the upper arm by the headmaster, who mistakenly thought I was messing around. I never messed around. I wasn’t that sort of kid. Misunderstood? Sure. Too smart for his own good? Absolutely. But mess around? I was a church kid. I knew how to look like I was behaving around adults. Mr Burt had a widow’s peak, like Dracula, and he was thin like Dracula. And he hovered around us, like a bat. He punched me so hard I flew from the line like a book from a library shelf. And landed on my feet, a full metre away.

By the time Queen’s Greatest Hits was released I was aware of more of their songs. I knew Flash, for example, and also loved the movie. I knew Another One Bites the Dust and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. But I didn’t become a ‘fan’ until Dad bought the album, like everybody else in the UK was doing. Even then it was the album cover rather than the music itself that initially captivated me … these four musicians, so different from each other in every way: the geeky John Deacon with the goofy look, the science nerd-ish Brian May, with the big curls and the pin-stripe suit, the rock’n’roller Roger Taylor with the archetypal good looks and blond locks — and then Freddie himself, dressed in a shiny black shirt and sitting in there in full regal confidence, his chiselled bone structure and deep-set, dark eyes and heavy moustache … as macho a man as I had ever seen. I was hooked.

My love for their catalogue quickly followed. I devoured the greatest hits album, and because their past album covers were reproduced on the inner sleeve, I had a roadmap of records that I would save up for and buy over coming weeks and months.

From early on, one of my favourite albums was Queen Live Killers, their live double album that is rarely acknowledged among their best work, but is still one of the greatest live albums ever put to vinyl. I loved it because it sounded dangerous, edgy, lusty, experimental, and was much more heavy hitting than their studio albums. Freddie was more dynamic live than I would have imagined — there was a different sort of power to him and the band that appealed to me — me, a teenager bubbling over with hormones and struggling to decipher the often contradictory ways of knowing that were shaping my world at the time: the narrative of my extremely conservative Brethren church, contrasted with the openness I recognised in my school friends but had not yet discovered for myself. I was such a private kid that if girls followed me home from school to see where I lived, then sat on the wall waiting for me to come out, I would shut myself in my room, put on the headphones, and listen to Queen as I pretended the girls and the wall and everything they offered didn’t exist.

And then this musical landscape … narrowly defined initially, but broadening quickly, so that before long the vista was wider and more inviting by the day, and I wasn’t sure where to run next.

It was off the live album that I first heard Freddie’s famous crowd interaction. On Live Killers It comes midway through Now I’m Here. It hadn’t yet developed into the full ‘day-oh’ that would be made so famous after Live Aid, but it was a classic live moment nevertheless. I loved it so much I took the act to high school, where I led the form class in a note-for-note and word-for-word singalong before the teacher turned up. I didn’t even think about this being dumb or embarrassing, which clearly it was. It was just entertainment. And of course, I finished the morning act as Freddie finished it on the record: ‘You buggers can sing harder than I can, I tell you.’

The first time I saw Queen perform live on Top of the Pops was a rude awakening, a moment seared in my mind because of the existential angst it caused me. I had never actually seen Freddie’s teeth, and as the band mimed to Las Palabras de Amor off their Hot Space album (the first Queen album I ever bought on the day of its release) I was horrified by what looked very much like the Mouth of Sauron on the face of Freddie. This wasn’t the Freddie of the album cover. This was Freddie in dire need of a dental surgeon. It wasn’t so much the upper row, which I had read about, but the lower row, which was crooked like a row of old gravestones.

School friends were aware of my obsession with Queen. They remembered, for example, the day I brought the book Queen’s Greatest Pix to school and discovered the centre pages had been stuck together by Mum. Those pages had contained proof reels of Queen after-show parties, but all Mum saw were the boobs and the bums and the leather and the chains. She stuck the pages together with Clag glue and there was no way of convincing anyone in class that I hadn’t found time on the way to school to have a perverted Louis CK moment with the contents of Queen’s picture book. Thanks Mum.

This was the same Mum who had taken the Bicycle Race poster from the Jazz album and burnt it, because it featured naked women riding pushbikes around Wembley Stadium.

For the most part, however, my parents did support my Queen phase. They even bought me a pair of white jeans, just like Freddie’s. It’s probably the only conscious fashion statement I have made in my entire life … a pair of pure white jeans that I wore with white sneakers and black shirts. Man, did I look good in them. But I wore them to a live radio show in Manchester, hosted by my favourite radio DJ at the time, Timmy Mallett, or ‘Timmy on the Tranny’ as we knew him. Timmy saw my white jeans from a mile away and headed straight for me, wielding a black marker pen like a hunting knife. He signed his name from the top of my thigh to the hem of my jeans. As if that wasn’t humiliating enough, he drew black dots over my face and forehead. I travelled all the way home from Manchester on the top deck of a double-decker bus, trying as hard as I could to look cool, while also realising it isn’t possible when you’ve let a grown man colour in your face. The jeans got soaked in a bath tub of bleach and never wore the same again. Mum rang the radio station and demanded they pay for the damage.

My final Queen moment as a kid in the UK was during a weird goodbye party at someone’s house, to mark the fact I was emigrating to Australia. A girl called Nicola had followed me around for a very long time over the preceding months and I couldn’t work out why. In the middle of the party, while Dexy’s Midnight Runners played from the stereo, she handed me a present … and it was the Queen single Backchat. Whatever she wanted in return, I wasn’t able to provide. But hey … that’s rock’n’roll.

We emigrated to Australia but I did not leave my Freddie Mercury act behind. Not on your life. We joined another very conservative church, perhaps the most conservative church in Perth, and some months later were invited to a 21st birthday party in the home of the chairman of the elders. They were so conservative they didn’t even have a TV. It was one of those church events where people do skits and games and musical acts. In an attempt to fit in, I went to the bathroom and put a towel around my waist as a makeshift skirt, and emerged to perform the hit Queen song I Want To Break Free. I call it a hit, but when you don’t have a TV and the only music you listen to is Larry Norman, there’s not a lot of chance you’ve heard of Queen or seen the crossdressing video for I Want to Break Free. I wasn’t to know this. The one saving grace is that I didn’t emerge in full drag, complete with stockings and suspenders, which I certainly would have done if any had been lying around. Regardless, they didn’t have a clue. They knew the seven dispensations of salvation history better than JN Derby, but Queen? No, they did not know Queen. To them, I was just your average crossdressing Pommie with a delusion of grandeur. .

That was just a few months before Live Aid, which I watched alone, at home, waiting for U2 and Queen to perform. On the day, U2 were typical, and powerful, and Bono was memorable. But their act could have been better. I’d seen them live at that stage, I knew what they were capable of. They played about an hour and a half before Queen came on and, having watched every act before them, I was not expecting much — a couple of songs maybe, two? What they came out and did is now legendary, but at the time, there were no guarantees they had this in them. They put on a mini version of their live concert, and performed better than anyone. Bohemian Rhapsody the movie gets EVERYTHING wrong in its portrayal of this period of Queen’s career, but it was true that the industry had sidelined Queen at the time. Before the event, no one was excited about what Queen would do. Their reputation still hadn’t recovered from playing Sun City in South Africa during anti-apartheid sanctions, and their album Hot Space had been utterly forgettable, and only marginally redeemed by its follow-up The Works. They had become a pastiche of the band they were in the 80s, and most serious music lovers had passed them by. It was also well-known that they were considering breaking up for good. I didn’t know one other Queen fan at the time.

So, to witness what they did that day, and specifically what Freddie did, with the songs, with the crowd, with the high notes during We Are the Champions that he hadn’t been able to hit consistently live for years, was truly amazing. When their set finished and it cut back to Australian ABC TV coverage, Shirley Strachan of Skyhooks was as gobsmacked as I was — his response affirmed what I already knew inside … we had just witnessed a legendary performance occur in real time.

I knew before it was confirmed that Freddie had AIDS that he was getting sick. I knew from the album covers after Live Aid, from the videos they released for the album The Miracle and then Innuendo. By the time the video for These Are the Days of Our Lives came out, it was obvious to everyone.

A few days after my first daughter was born, I flew to Perth, Western Australia, for a Dire Straits/Hothouse Flowers concert. It was on the way back to the airport the day after that Dad and me heard the announcement that Freddie had AIDS. It was kinda fitting that we heard it together, considering I still had Dad’s copy of Greatest Hits.

Two days later he died. I found out at work — one of the journalists casually shouted it out after reading it on the wire. I had to drive home so that I could sob on the floor of the lounge. I’ve done it again a few times in the years since.

My wife often bemoans the fact that she has never seen my once (in)famous Freddie Mercury impression. It was not as good as Rami Malek’s, that’s for sure. I could never hit the notes that Freddie could hit, so it was true when I would tell the classroom, ‘You buggers can sing harder than I can.’

No, the impression got packed away for good when it became clear that people didn’t really appreciate Queen the way I did, or that the bare hairy legs beneath my makeshift skirt were wasted on them. Only legends like Freddie get to say The Show Must Go On. The rest of us get to fall back into our introverted ways and merely imagine what it would be like to truly hold an audience in the palm of your hand