Freddie Mercury, universally recognised as one of the greatest performers in the history of rock music, lived up to his promise that he was going to become “a legend”. His action-packed life took in being an art student, triumphs as the lead vocalist of Queen and a spell as a successful solo singer and songwriter in the 80s. As a new edition of the book Freddie Mercury: A Life, In His Own Words (compiled and edited by Greg Brooks and Simon Lupton, with Adam Unger) is published by Mercury Songs, we look at his remarkable life through some of the most memorable Freddie Mercury quotes.
Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara, on 5 September 1946, in Zanzibar, which was then part of the Commonwealth and is now part of Tanzania. His father, Bomi, was working for the government as a civil servant.
“My parents were very strict. They thought boarding school would do me good. So, when I was about seven, I was put in one in India for a while,” recalled Mercury. “That background helped me a lot, because it taught me to fend for myself from a very early age, and to be responsible. It was an upheaval of an upbringing, which seems to have worked, I guess.”
Freddie’s mother, Jer Bulsara, made sure he took piano lessons during his time at St Peter’s School near Bombay.
Going to art school
In 1964, Mercury and his family fled Zanzibar to escape violence and moved to Feltham, in Middlesex. When he was 20, Mercury started an art and graphic design diploma.
“I went to Ealing Art School, in London, the year after Pete Townshend left. Music was a sideline to everything we did, and the school was a breeding ground for musicians. I got my diploma and then I thought I’d chance it as a freelance artist. I did it for a couple of months but then I thought, My God, I’ve done enough. The interest just wasn’t there.”
After graduating in 1969, Mercury joined a series of bands and sold second-hand clothes in Kensington Market.
The early days of Queen
In April 1970, Mercury teamed up with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor to become lead singer of their band Smile. Queen evolved from that, with John Deacon joining in July 1971.
“I thought up the name Queen early on. It couldn’t have been King; it doesn’t have the same ring or aura as Queen. It was a very regal name and it sounded splendid. It’s strong, very universal, and immediate. It had a lot of visual potential and was open to all sorts of interpretations. I feel that the name Queen actually fitted that time. It lent itself to a lot of things, like the theatre, and it was grand. It was very pompous, with all kinds of connotations. It meant so much. It wasn’t just one precise label. I was certainly aware of the gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it.”
The ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ breakthrough
After three acclaimed albums – Queen (1973), Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack (both 1974) – Queen became an international phenomenon with their 1975 album, A Night At The Opera, which contained the six-minute masterpiece ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Mercury, who said he “almost rejected the song”, said the single, which was released on 31 October that year, marked a turning point.
“That was really when the Queen volcano erupted, when it suddenly just went bang!” said Mercury. “That single sold over a million and a quarter copies in Britain alone, which is outrageous. Imagine all those grandmothers grooving to it!”
Queen as video stars
As well as the famous video for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Queen created some memorable videos throughout the 70s and 80s, including the one for ‘I Want To Break Free’, from the 1984 album The Works, in which they dressed as women in a suburban house to parody the British television soap opera Coronation Street.
“That video shocked quite a lot of people, because they thought we didn’t have that fun element,” said Mercury. “We got into our roles so easily. My God! I think that’s one of our best videos to date. In fact, it still makes me chuckle every time I see it, and I’ve seen it a lot of times. I’m glad we did it.”
Rocking the world at Live Aid
Queen’s Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium, on 13 July 1985, has not only gone down in history as the day’s show-stopping event, but one of the greatest live concerts of all time. It was a significant achievement for the band.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing it out of pride,” said Mercury. “It’s something to be proud of: that I’m actually in with all the ‘Biggies’ – all the biggest stars – and that I can do something worthwhile. Yes, I’m proud more than anything.”
Mercury said that when he was performing he was the ultimate “extrovert”, but revealed that “inside I’m a completely different man”. He described himself as “The Great Pretender”, admitting that he was “a very highly-strung person” with insecurities about “the way my teeth protrude”. He joked that he was “rubbish” at adding up sums and that science was a “useless” handyman. He loved watching films and listening to music – and enjoyed being rich enough to employ his own gourmet chef – but said he hardly ever read books “because I think that’s a waste of time”. He talked openly about his love for longtime friend Mary Austin. “I open up to her more than anybody else. We have gone through a lot of ups and downs in our time together, but that has made our relationship all the stronger,” said the singer.
‘We Are The Champions’ was his version of ‘My Way’
Queen’s 1977 hit ‘We Are The Champions’ became one of the most successful rock anthems of all time, and Mercury joked that it was his version of ‘My Way’.
“‘We Are The Champions is the most egotistical and arrogant song I’ve ever written,” he said. “I was thinking about football when I wrote it. I wanted a participation song, something the fans could latch on to. It was aimed at the masses. I wanted to write something that everyone could sing along to, like a football chant. And at the same time, I thought it would be nice to have a winning song that’s meant for everybody. It worked a treat.”
On success as a solo artist
The 80s was another hugely successful decade for Queen – with hit albums including A Kind Of Magic – and also marked the creative blossoming of Mercury as a solo artist. In 1986, he released the album Mr Bad Guy.
“I was always keen to do a solo album. I just wanted it to be the right time and the right place so that I could actually work properly on the songs that I wanted to do before I got too old. I had a lot of ideas bursting to get out and there were a lot of musical territories I wanted to explore which I really couldn’t do within Queen,” explained Mercury.
This was followed in 1988 by the album Barcelona, a collaboration with operatic soprano Montserrat Caballé.
Early in 1987, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS; within five years he would be dead. In the intervening years, he worked with passion and dedication in a frenzy of creativity that would produce enough material for three Queen albums: 1989’s The Miracle, 1991’s Innuendo and Made In Heaven, released after the singer’s death.
Mercury, who was 45 when he died, on 24 November 1991, was always philosophical about the end of life. “I don’t expect to make old bones, and what’s more I don’t really care,” he said. “I certainly don’t have any aspirations to live to 70. It would be so boring. I will be dead and gone long before that. I won’t be here… as far as I’m concerned, I’ve lived a full life and if I’m dead tomorrow, I don’t give a damn. I’ve lived. I really have done it all.”
His life inspired a hit biopic in 2018
After making more than $900 million at the global box office, the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, starring the Oscar-winning Rami Malek, became the highest-grossing music biopic of all time.
Mercury anticipated that his life would be turned into a movie. “I have visions of actually having a film made of my life story, one day, which I would have a key part in,” said Mercury. “I might not play the lead myself. My dears, the things I’ve done in my lifetime… it’ll be totally triple-X-rated, I’ll tell you!”
The career-spanning Freddie Mercury box set, Never Boring, is out now. Order it here.