Is This the Real Life?

The Untold Story of Queen

by Mark Blake

31 March 2011


Idiosyncratically Dressed but Well-Behaved Friends

Queen had a gig booked at Imperial in three weeks’ time, for an audience of invited friends. A few hours before showtime, the group convened in Brian’s bedsit. Here, Barry discovered that they were cooking homemade popcorn on the flat’s single gas ring, which they intended to serve with fruit juice as refreshments for their guests. ‘It was all quite sweet and innocent,’ he grins. ‘But, yes, you could say they weren’t rock ’n’ rollers.’

Queen’s set now included a smattering of old rock ’n’ roll tunes, Smile’s ‘Doing Alright’ and ‘Stone Cold Crazy’, a song Freddie had worked up in Wreckage and which Queen would make their own. Their wild cards were covers of Shirley Bassey’s ‘Big Spender’ and Cliff Richard and The Shadows’ ‘Please Don’t Tease’ (Mitchell: ‘I remember thinking, “What?”’). John Garnham, 1984’s ex-guitarist, saw the Imperial College show, and was struck by the originality of doing ‘this completely straight version of a Cliff Richard song right in the middle of the set’. Garnham was also struck by Freddie’s individual performance: ‘His voice wasn’t that dissimilar to Tim Staffell. But Tim was not a good frontman. He was always quite introverted and saying, “Oh, I didn’t do that. Shall I do this or shall I do that?” But Fred just took the bull by horns.’ That evening, John also remembers Queen road-testing a new song ‘Son and Daughter’. His verdict matched those of many who saw Queen at the time: ‘It was very Led Zeppelin.’

‘Brian was this fantastically nice guy and a unique guitar player,’ says Barry Mitchell. ‘Roger was a bit of a lad, and while his drumming was OK I thought it was a bit wishy-washy. Freddie was very sweet, but hard to get to know and incredibly self-conscious about his teeth.’

Also in the audience was John Anthony, now working as an A&R rep and in-house producer for Charisma Records. ‘Roger and I had kept in touch,’ he explains. ‘It was always Roger that used to call me.’ He knew lots of women: ‘One of them gave me crabs… even had them in my eyebrows. But Roger would always let me know what he was doing with Smile, and then one day I got the call saying they had found a new singer and was I interested.’

Anthony vaguely recalls having seen Freddie at Kensington Market before Queen. ‘He was very gushing and camp, but I didn’t think anything of it. Onstage, though, he filled the whole room. It was such a difference from Smile. They more or less had their sound together, but they had a dodgy bass player. He looked like he’d be better in a heavy metal band. I said to Roger afterwards, “Look, it’s not working visually, but you’re three-quarters of the way there.” ’

In the meantime, Queen’s ‘heavy metal bass player’ was getting to know his new bandmates. ‘Brian was this fantastically nice guy and a unique guitar player,’ says Barry Mitchell. ‘Roger was a bit of a lad, and while his drumming was OK I thought it was a bit wishy-washy. Freddie was very sweet, but hard to get to know and incredibly self-conscious about his teeth.’ Mercury had played the Imperial College gig in a black, figure-hugging, one-piece outfit (designed by ex-roadie Pete Edmunds’s wife, Wendy). He called it his ‘Mercury suit’, as the ankles and wrists sported little wings. ‘I remember first seeing it and thinking, “Oh, you brave, brave boy,” ’ recalled Roger Taylor.

Prior to the show Barry had also been taken aback to find the singer teasing his hair into place with heated tongs and sporting black varnish on the fingernails of one hand. ‘There was a difference right there,’ he admits. Mitchell’s look, such as it was, comprised jeans, T-shirts and a mop of long blonde hair. ‘There’s Freddie with his tongs and there’s me thinking, “Here’s my hair, right let’s go.” ’

In rehearsals, too, Mitchell witnessed the band’s painstaking attention to detail and willingness to bicker over those details: ‘There were lots of disagreements. You could lose half an hour with them just arguing over four bars of music.’ A great leveller in such situations was John Harris. Harris had been introduced to May and Taylor by Pat McConnell the previous summer. Smile’s former driver/roadie Pete Edmunds was no longer with them, and Harris had stepped up as road manager, electronics wizard, sound engineer and ‘fifth member’. ‘He was a lovely guy who drove this long-wheeled transit van and really looked after us,’ says Mitchell. ‘He was always there in rehearsals and he was great at stepping in and saying, “Oh, for fuck’s sake! All this over four bars. Get it together!” ’

If Mitchell had any misgivings, at least Queen were working. The Imperial College gig was followed by a show at an American private school in London’s Swiss Cottage, where Roger regaled Barry with stories of his romantic derring-do: ‘Roger was having a thing with a young lady living in student accommodation in Kensington, and apparently he’d scaled two or three balconies to get to her room.’

On 18 September 1970, Jimi Hendrix was found dead at his girlfriend’s room at the Samarkand Hotel in Notting Hill. Rehearsing at Imperial, barely a stone’s throw from the scene of his demise, Queen abandoned their own set and began jamming Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘Voodoo Chile’, ‘Purple Haze’ and others. Chris Smith had seen a newspaper headline announcing Jimi’s demise while travelling on the tube to Imperial: ‘I was shell-shocked,’ he remembers. ‘And as I walked down the corridor to the lecture theatre, I could hear them playing “Stone Free”.’

Mercury and Taylor closed their market stall for a day in honour of Hendrix. Despite the noble gesture, they could hardly afford to lose the money. Fred’s illustrative work was strictly piecemeal. ‘He got an offer to illustrate a book about Second World War aircraft,’ remembers Richard Thompson. ‘So I lent him my collection of Air Pictorial magazines. I remember him doing some drawings, but I think he gave up on it, as it was too much like hard work.’ Furthermore, any cash Queen made barely covered their overheads. They needed proper day jobs.

Alan Mair was the proprietor of the clothes stall opposite Freddie and Roger’s at Kensington Market. ‘They were both lovely, but that stall of theirs never cut the mustard,’ he says now. ‘There was more and more competition on that aisle. You had the first denim jackets with white fur collars coming in, and people were making jackets out of chamois leather, but those two were just selling a few loonpants, nothing unusual.’

While Mercury and Taylor’s profits dwindled, Mair’s grew. He had begun making his own leather boots in a workshop and selling them at the market. Before long, he’d enlisted Freddie to help keep an eye on his stall. Lunchtime trips to the Greyhound pub on Kensington Square found the three striking up a rapport. While Mair knew that Freddie and Roger played in a band, they didn’t know that Mair had played bass guitar in a sixties Glaswegian combo called the Beatstalkers. ‘One night, at my flat, the Beat- stalkers memorabilia came out, and I started getting invited to all the Queen gigs.’

The Beatstalkers had been managed by David Bowie’s mentor Ken Pitt, and covered a few early Bowie songs. When Bowie himself breezed into the market one day, he made straight for Alan’s stall. Mair offered Bowie a pair of boots on the house (‘“Space Oddity” had been a hit, but he said he had no money. Typical music biz! I said, “Look, have them for free” ’). Freddie fitted Bowie for a pair of boots. It was probably the first time the two had met since Mercury helped build Bowie’s stage at the Ealing college gig: ‘So there was Freddie Mercury, a shop assistant, giving pop star David Bowie a pair of boots he couldn’t afford to buy.’

In October, Mair and ‘everyone else in the market’ descended on Kensington’s College of Estate Management for Queen’s weekend gig. ‘And it wasn’t very good,’ says Alan. ‘Freddie had this nervous energy that would make him push his voice, and he sang sharp the whole set. He looked awkward onstage and wasn’t very rhythmic. It was the first time they had enthusiastically invited everyone down from the market, and on the Monday we were all saying, “Oh, it was OK.” And Freddie and Roger were like, “Is that all?”’ Mitchell, too, concedes that during his time in Queen, Mercury’s voice left something to be desired: ‘There wasn’t a lot of depth there.’

Gig bookings stopped when Brian, still studying for that PhD, took another trip to the observatory in Tenerife. On his return, Queen’s Liverpool connection picked up the slack. Ken Testi was still social secretary of his college in St Helens, and booking bands through his friend and fledgling promoter Paul Conroy (who would go on to become managing director of Virgin Records). Testi offered Queen two shows: a support slot at St Helens on 30 October and The Cavern the day after.

With a few hours to kill before The Cavern show, Queen trooped into a local cinema to watch a low-budget soft porn film. According to Barry Mitchell, the action and dialogue was so desperate, the group began laughing uncontrollably, ‘so they threw us out’. As The Beatles’ spiritual home, The Cavern still had a romantic cachet. ‘It was this basement with a low ceiling and sweat everywhere,’ says Mitchell, ‘but it was still an iconic place.’ Ken Testi thought differently: ‘The Cavern DJ Billy Butler wasn’t very welcoming to Queen. Having a band in seemed to be an interference to him playing his records. I hated The Cavern and still do.’

Between gigs, Queen stayed at the Testi family’s pub, the Market Hotel, in St Helens. ‘It is worth mentioning,’ says Ken, ‘that for a Northern lad to be able to introduce such idiosyncratically dressed friends from London to his mum and for them to be so well- mannered was fantastic.’ Ken’s sister, then aged four or five, still remembers sitting on Freddie Mercury’s lap and being taught to play noughts and crosses. At Queen’s next booking a fortnight later, at a teacher training college in Hertford, the group chanced their luck by requesting a bigger fee. The reason? They’d played The Cavern and were now more famous having been on the same stage as The Beatles. They were refused.

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