Is This the Real Life?

The Untold Story of Queen

by Mark Blake

31 March 2011


The Queen Thing

Christmas 1970 came and went. In January 1971, Queen supported art-rockers Audience at the Marquee, and Barry Mitchell found enough space on the graffiti-daubed dressing room wall to write his name. It was a watershed moment of sorts. He’d made up his mind to leave. May, Taylor and Mercury had a shared history and social circle. Mitchell was living in Kingsbury, North London, miles away from Kensington. The morning after most gigs he’d have to drag himself out of bed to start his day job as a park keeper. There was another issue. ‘Their music wasn’t what I wanted to do,’ he says. ‘I wanted something more bluesy and soulful, something with a brass section.’ By now, too, Queen were playing songs that would end up on their debut album, including ‘Keep Yourself Alive’, ‘Liar’ and ‘Great King Rat’. ‘But it was all a bit airy-fairy,’ confesses Barry. ‘I didn’t like that stuff. They were still like Led Zeppelin meets Yes. I didn’t think they’d found their mojo yet.’ It was a strange reprise of Tim Staffell’s earlier misgivings about Smile.

‘… it was all a bit airy-fairy,’ confesses Barry Mitchell. ‘I didn’t like that stuff. They were still like Led Zeppelin meets Yes…’

Mitchell played his last Queen gig opening for Kevin Ayers and Genesis at Ewell Technical College on 9 January. As with Mike Grose, his bandmates didn’t want him to go. In the dressing room after the show, Genesis’ lead singer Peter Gabriel sidled up to Roger Taylor with a proposal of his own. Genesis were on the verge of firing their drummer, had yet to discover Phil Collins and needed a replacement. Was he interested? ‘I told Roger he should take them up on it,’ laughs Barry. ‘But he was having none of it. He was totally committed to Queen.’ At the time, John Anthony had just produced Genesis’ second album, Trespass, but Anthony now emphatically denies ever trying to lure Taylor away from Queen.

In spring 1971, Barry Mitchell re-surfaced in a trio called Crushed Butler, soon renamed Tiger, whose street image and untutored hard rock was about four years too early for punk. Later, he turned down a job with what became The Glitter Band. Barry saw Queen opening for Mott The Hoople a year after he left, and watched without rancour or regret. When ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ became a hit, he was managing an electrical store. As the song blared out, he told his incredulous staff that he ‘used to be in that band’. On the journey to Liverpool to play The Cavern, Mitchell remembers Brian May fooling around with a new camera and training the lens on his bandmates as they huddled in the back of the transit. ‘But there are no pictures of me onstage,’ he shrugs. The lack of photographic evidence, some memento from those times, still frustrates him.

When Mitchell left Queen, it was Freddie’s girlfriend that tried to persuade him to change his mind. Mary Austin had become a familiar presence, and would go on to become the most significant relationship of the Queen singer’s life. According to Freddie, the pair met in 1970, when the nineteen-year-old Mary was working as receptionist for the fashion boutique Biba, then located on Kensington High Street. Biba was the brainchild of clothes designer Barbara Hulanicki, and had been at the hub of London’s fashion scene since the mid-sixties. ‘Part of the attraction of Biba was that the girls were so beautiful,’ admitted Brian May. ‘So we went in there to enjoy the scenery.’

Before Biba, Mary had worked as a trainee secretary, and had grown up with two deaf and dumb parents, learning sign language from a young age. It was Brian May that first asked her out after meeting her at a concert at Imperial. They went out on a few dates, but the relationship never went any further. Before long, Freddie begun asking Brian about her. ‘He would come in to Biba, usually with Roger, and he would smile and say hello in passing,’ remembered Mary. ‘This went on for five or six months and finally he asked me out on a date. Five months later we were living together.’

Initially, Mary believed, wrongly, that the ‘wild-looking’ singer was more interested in her friend. Freddie took her to see Mott The Hoople at the Marquee that summer, and the relationship slowly grew. ‘Freddie was very confident and I had never been confident,’ she explained in an interview in 2000. Like Rosemary Pearson before her, Mary talked of finding safety and security with Freddie: ‘We knew we could trust each other and we knew that we would never hurt each other on purpose.’

‘Freddie’d had relationships with other girls,’ explained May. ‘But, looking back, his heart wasn’t in it. It worked with Mary because they were both shy.’

Freddie moved out of the Fulham flat he’d been sharing with Roger (Taylor: ‘We used to wait for a weekly hamper from his mother’) and into a tiny second-floor flat at 2 Victoria Road, Kensington, with Mary and their cats, Thomas and Jerry. Freddie’s small record collection included The Who’s Tommy, Led Zeppelin I, The Beatles’ White Album and The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow (Mary was a friend of Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor’s then wife Melissa), plus the soundtrack to Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret. Says John Anthony: ‘Cabaret was Freddie’s favourite film. He used to see it repeatedly. I always thought he took the idea of painting his fingernails from Liza Minnelli.’ The flat was a short walk from the market, the rent was £10 a week, and they shared the bathroom and kitchen with another couple.

Ken Testi, now back in London, helped the couple move in. ‘I was driving a Mini at the time,’ recalls Testi. ‘So I helped taxi all their stuff to the flat in several trips. A few days later we were invited round for dinner. Mary and Freddie didn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together, but what money they had they’d spent on these really nice plates! As there was no kitchen, they just served salad.’ It was a momentous occasion: ‘As a Northern lad, I’d not had much salad.’

For Ken and others, Mary’s presence in Freddie’s life scotched any doubt about the singer’s sexuality: ‘They were 100 per cent a couple back then.’ Barry Mitchell, too, had always regarded Freddie’s camp behaviour and effeminacy as a guise, ‘an act, like calling the band Queen’. There could, however, be no disregarding Freddie’s regal tendencies and his ability to create a scene, however reduced his circumstances. Visiting the couple’s bijou flat one morning, Mike Bersin found Freddie holding court from his and Mary’s bed: ‘My impression of the bed is that it was a) vast and b) festooned in blowsy swags. It almost certainly wasn’t but that’s the effect Freddie had.’

With Barry Mitchell gone, Queen found themselves seeking their third bassist in less than twelve months. That third bassist would become the tiniest of footnotes in the group’s history. Until now. In Queen: As It Began, the band’s semi-official biography, Barry Mitchell’s replacement was referred to only as ‘Doug’. He lasted just two gigs before being fired for his behaviour onstage. ‘He jumped up and down in a manner most incongruous,’ protested Brian May.

Referred to since as ‘Doug X’ or, erroneously, ‘Doug Ewood’, Queen’s mystery bass guitarist was actually an eighteen-year-old trainee telephone technician named Douglas Bogie. ‘I was a serial auditionist,’ says Douglas now. ‘I saw an advert in Melody Maker, made the call, popped my Telecaster bass in a rucksack and got on the 716 Greenline bus from Weybridge to the Albert Memorial.’

The audition, inevitably, took place at Imperial, where, remembers Bogie, ‘Freddie wandered in, accompanied by a really nice girl, presumably Mary, and wearing his signature grey rabbit-skin jacket.’ With John Harris smoothing the way, Doug spent the next few days learning most of the songs on Queen’s would-be debut album. ‘I came away amazed at the strength and vitality of Roger’s voice,’ he recalls now. ‘He was just fantastic. Speaking as a Jeff Beck fan, he would have blown Rod Stewart off the stage.’ After hours, Douglas hung out with Freddie at Alan Mair’s boot stall. ‘This went on for a few weeks, and I thought it was all going well.’ Sadly not.

On 19 February, Queen played beneath The Pretty Things at London’s Hornsey Town Hall. The day after, Queen opened for Yes at Kingston Polytechnic. ‘Mine and everyone’s first gig with a W- Bin PA, which Queen told me they’d bought from Iron Butterfly,’ remembers Douglas. ‘I thought I’d done really well. These guys were older but I had energy and I was leaping about… Unfortunately, no one told me that what Freddie wanted was a quiet thumper at the back.’

To spare Bogie’s embarrassment, Freddie instigated what Douglas now describes as the ‘I don’t want to do this anymore – we’re breaking up discussion’ in the back of the van after the gig: ‘Freddie was having a conversation along the lines of “That was a terrible gig, the world is against me and I’ve had enough… I don’t want to do this anymore…” I guess he was being nice to me being the youngster and the new boy while letting the others know that he was the leading light and needed to be consoled and massaged.’ With sleight of hand and a lack of direct confrontation, Douglas Bogie was, indeed, let go after just two gigs.

In 1973, Douglas Bogie began working as a sound engineer. Two years later he signed a one-off deal with Ringo Starr’s Ring’o Records and cut a novelty single as Colonel Doug Bogie (‘Harry Nilsson took a liking to it’). Later, while working as an engineer in Edinburgh he secured a deal with A&M for his new band RAF (‘It stood for Rich And Famous,’ he laughs, ‘and we had a very produced Queen/Foreigner sound’). RAF made two albums ‘so hugely successful that we were never asked to do a third’. Tracking the debut RAF album at London’s Air Studios in 1980, Bogie bumped into Brian May.

‘I never went on about the Queen thing,’ Douglas explains now. ‘I was embarrassed at being dumped and felt a bit sorry for myself, and I sometimes thought that the few who knew about it might think it was a bullshit fairy story.’ It wasn’t. A successful career in video production and ‘a nice collection of guitars’ has sustained ‘Doug X’ ever since.

Photo (partial) by Ross Halfin

Photo (partial) by © Ross Halfin

Mark Blake is the author of Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd. A former Assistant Editor of Q magazine and a longtime contributor to its sister title, Mojo, he lives in London with his wife and son.

© Mark Blake


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