who came into contact with Freddie Mercury in the late 60s tells
the same story. Take Chris Smith, a fellow student of Freddie's at
Ealing College, for instance: "Right from the start, before
he'd even joined a band, Freddie would say, 'I'm going to be a pop
star, you know'. I remember walking into the West Kensington pub
in Elsham Road one day and Freddie was there with his head in his
hands. 'What's the matter with you?', I asked. 'I'm not going to
be a star', he replied. I said, 'You've got to be a star, you've
told everyone. You can't let them down now. Come on.' And then he
stood up, put his arms in the air and said, 'I'm not going to be a
star. I'm going to be a legend!'."
|Chris Smith, who
also teamed up for a short while with Brian May and Roger Taylor
in Smile, has the distinction of being the first person to
collaborate with Freddie Bulsara - as he was then known - on his
early attempts at songwriting. Another of Freddie's early musical
partners was Mike Bersin, guitarist with Ibex, a progressive blues
band from Merseyside, whom Freddie joined in 1969. "Freddie
knew where he wanted to go," confirms Mike. "That's why
he was an international star. It wasn't an accident. It happened
because that's what he wanted to be from the moment I first met
him. He was a man with a goal and a drive."
Even with Freddie
as their frontman, though, Ibex were little more than an amateur
outfit, managing to secure just three gigs in the summer of 1969.
Freddie then changed their name to Wreckage, and another handful
of inauspicious live shows followed. By the end of the year, it
was all over, leaving Freddie to team up with another heavy blues
band, the Surrey-based Sour Milk Sea. He set about moulding them
to his ideal, too, but that engagement lasted only a matter of
weeks. In April 1970, Freddie achieved the ambition which had been
driving him for more than a year, when he joined Brian May and
Roger Taylor in Smile. He changed thier name, too - to Queen.
|In 1974, when Queen
had their first hit with "Seven
Seas Of Rhye"
Freddie Mercury was nearly 28. By then he'd been singing, on and
off, for sixteen years, more than half his life. The story starts
a continent away on the East African spice island of Zanzibar,
where Freddie was born Farookh Bulsara to Persian parents in
September 1946. Zanzibar was then in its final throes as a British
colony, and Freddie's father was a High Court cashier for the
British government. In 1954, Bomi Bulsara's job took the family to
India, and Farookh was sent to St. Peter's English boarding school
in the hilltop retreat of Panchgani, about fifty miles out of
about his background as if was repressive and enclosed,"
recounted another friend from Ealing College, Gillian Green, to
Mark Hodkinson in "Queen
- The Early Years". "You could tell he didn't like
talking about it. He said he was so glad they had come to England."
|Writing in the
Mercury tribute book, 'This
Is The Real Life', however, Farookh Bulsara's classmate
Derrick Branche - who spent five years with him at St. Peter's in
India - recalled that, "It was the best place I can think of
for a kid to go to school. I can think of nothing ugly about the
place or time we had there".
|In 1958, five
friends at St. Peter's - a 12-year old Farookh, who'd by now
acquired the nickname 'Freddie', Branche, Bruce Murray, Farang
Irani and the delightfully-named Victory Rana - formed the
school's rock'n'roll band, the Hectics.
|"It was as the
piano player in the Hectics," wrote Branche, "that
Freddie first performed as a musician, cranking out a mean boogie
woogie even at that tender age. We would play at school concerts,
at the annual fete, and at other such times when the girls from
the neighbouring schools would come along and scream, just like
they'd obviously heard that girls the world were beginning to do
when faced with current idols such as Cliff
Richard or Elvis
Richard and Fats
Domino, these last two being Freddie's and my particular
favourites." Freddie was shy in the Hectics, and was content
to let Bruce Murray bask in the 'lime-light' as frontman. The band
wasn't allowed to perform outside the school grounds, but little
else is known about them.
confined his childhood to the very depths of a back closet,"
claims the co-author of "This
Is The Real Life", David Evans, who it met first Mercury
in 1974, while working for Queen's management company, John Reid
Enterprises. "He never really talked about his life other
than being in England. Ever.. To anyone. I always found it much
more romantic than he did, but he'd say, 'Don't be silly, dear!"
I'd ask him, 'What was it like in Zanzibar? It must have been so
exciting,' and he'd say, "Dirty place! Filthy place, dear."
There's not much you can say after that, is there?
really wasn't into acknowledging that part of his life at
all. Strangely, even when he bumped into Derrick Branche
again in London, he wasn't particularly overjoyed. He wasn't
averse to it, but he didn't suddenly embrace Derrick as a
long-lost friend. They didn't take up their friendship at
all." Freddie left St. Peter's in 1962, and in 1964,
when Zanzibar won independence from Britain and civil unrest
threatened, the Bulsara family moved to England, arriving in
Feltham, Middlesex. Freddie, then seventeen, studied art and
fashion 'A' level at Isleworth Polytechnic before moving on
to Ealing College in the spring 1966.
from his home in Feltham most days, or crashed on the floor
at a flat in Kensington rented by Chris Smith.
was always interested in music," remembers Paul
Humberstone, a flatmate of Smith's and another student at
Beatles and Jimi
Hendrix were his favourites, he was always playing air
guitar and doing his Hendrix impersonations. He used to do a
sort of showbiz stance. We thought he was joking around to
amuse us. We used to call him Freddie Baby, and he used to
say, 'Don't you worry, I'll be big one of these days. I'll
be a real star'. No one believed him, because no one had
heard him sing at that point." Freddie's scene soon
revolved around Paul and Chris' flat in Addison Gardens,
London W14, and by the beginning of 1969, around another
flat in nearby Sinclair Road, which was occupied by, among
others. Smile's Roger Taylor. Freddie was introduced to
Smile by the group's singer, Tim Staffell, who also studied
at Ealing. "It wasn't that I actively brought Freddie
in," claims Tim, "it was just that you naturally
fall in with people of a similar cultural leaning."
around Smile used to gravitate towards Freddie, even though
he wasn't in the band," adds Chris Smith, who - despite
Slaffell's recollections in RC 197 - had actually been a
founder member of Smile (see letters page this month).
"Freddie was like the fifth member. He'd say to me, 'I
wish I was in your group', and 'If I was in this band, I
wouldn't do it that way'."
Smile, Freddie began to experiment with music for the first
time since leaving India. He initially began to practice
with Tim, a friend called Nigel Foster, who was "a
straight-laced advertising student", and with Chris
to have jam sessions in the college," recounts Chris.
"The first time I heard Freddie sing I was amazed. He
had a huge voice. Although his piano style was very affected,
very Mozart, he had a great touch. From a piano player's
point of view, his approach was unique."
Freddie also attempted to write songs together. "I was
doing a music degree at the same time," reveals Chris,
"and I had the keys to the music department. Freddie
used to get me to open it up, where we'd hammer away at the
piano, trying to write. We were hopeless. He'd say, 'How
come Brian and Tim can write songs like 'Step
On Me' and 'Earth'?'. We were in awe of the fact that
they could do this. It was quite magical. Only the Beatles
could really write proper tunes.
and I eventually got to write little bits of songs which we
linked together like 'A
Day In The Life'
[a song of The Beatles from Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ].
This makes sense when you consider 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. You
up, fell out of bed' ,
and 'I see a little silhouetto of a man'. It was an
interesting way getting from one piece in a different key
signature to another. But I don't think we actually finished
anything. There was a cowboy-type song called 'The Real Life',
which was actually reminiscent of the first part of 'Bohemian
Rhapsody'. That was the chorus at that time, although it
could have been one of Brian's songs. I remember that
distinctly. Freddie certainly taught me a lot at those
sessions. He had a great, natural sense of melody. I picked
that up straight away. For me that was the most interesting
aspect of what he was doing."
Ealing College in June 1969, with a diploma in graphic art
and design, and a few commissions to draw ladies' corsets
for adverts in local newspapers. He moved into Roger
Taylor's flat in Sinclair Road, and that summer opened a
stall with Roger at Kensington Market, initially selling
artwork by himself and fellow Ealing students, and later
Vicloriana or whatever clothes, new and secondhand, he could
lay his hands on.
quite flamboyant then," says Chris Smith, who recalls
Freddie's taste beginning to embrace the top chic of satin,
velvet and fur. "I remember buying a pair of red
trousers in Carnaby Street and turning up at college
thinking they were really sharp. But Freddie was there in a
pair of crimson, crushed velvet ones like Jimi Hendrix wore
- a bit of a dude. He was sitting there reading the 'Melody
Maker' and he saw me, glanced down, and didn't say a
for music, and in August that year he seized upon the
opportunity he'd been waiting for - to sing in a band. Too
impatient to form one of his own, he did the next best thing
and found himself a ready-made outfit. His quarry was Ibex,
a Merseyside-based trio comprising two eighteen-year-olds,
Mike Bersin (guitar and vocals) and John 'Tupp' Taylor (bass
and vocals), and "a mad milk-man" drummer by the
name of Mick 'Miffer' Smith. Bersin and Taylor had played
together since 1966 in a band called Colour, earning a local
reputation with a series of gigs at such noted venues as
Manchester's Twisted Wheel Club and the Cavern in Liverpool.
They'd even acted as pick-up band for cult British blues
singer, Jo-Ann Kelly.
the influence of Cream,"
reveals Mike Bersin, "we realised that you only needed
three musicians: one at the low end, one for the middle and
high, and one for the rhythm. You'd then solo endlessly
until everybody flicked off to the bar."
progressive," adds John 'Tupp' Taylor. "We wore
hairy fur coats and grew our hair. We played a few
improvised instnunentals which gathered form and almost
became songs, but we never got around to completing any
lyrics or melodies."
1969, Ibex played their debut in the small Merseyside
town of Penketh, and prior to meeting Freddie, had
packed off a demo tape to the Beatles' Apple label,
which resulted in little more than 'Miffer' Smith
becoming enough of a celebrity to warrant a write-up
in the local 'Widnes Evening News'. Featuring the
headline, 'Beatles Could See Local Drummer Hitting Big
Time", the report ended with the Ibex philosophy:
"Blues isn't music... it's a way of life."
Bersin: "We persuaded Mick to pack up his job as
a milkman and to go down to London to make it in the
music business. We had a Comma van and a load of phone
numbers. The morning after we arrived we all piled
into a phone box. Our roadie, Ken Testi, dialed this
number. We were all crowded around the ear-piece and
we heard him say, 'Hello, is Chris Ellis there, please?',
and this very frosty-voiced woman on the other end
said, 'Yes, this is Chrysalis'. That was the level of
met the members of Smile at a pub called the
Kensington," recalls John 'Tupp' Taylor. "We
saw them play a couple of times and they were really
good. They had a great vocal-harmony thing going. Tim
Staffell, their bass player, was a really good singer,
and Freddie was a mate of theirs. We'd all sit around
and have amazing vocal sessions singing Bee
Boys and Beatles
songs. We could do great harmonies because there was
three of them in Smile, myself, Mike Bersin, who'd
chip in, and Freddie, of course."
point, it was common knowledge among the Smile crowd
that Freddie was desperate to get into Brian and
Roger's band. Perhaps joining Ibex would be a way in.
"Freddie hadn't quite persuaded Smile to take him
on as a vocalist," confirms Mike Bersin. "They
thought they were doing OK as they were. So he said, 'You
know what you guys need, and that's a vocalist.'
" He was right, too, as John Taylor recalls:
"I wasn't the world's greatest singer by any
stretch of the imagination." And, as Ken Testi
reveals: "Mike had never been particularly
confident about his singing, but had been pushed into
first met Ibex on 13th August 1969. Such was his
enthusiasm, that just ten days later, he'd learned the
band's set, brought in a few new songs, and had
travelled up to Bolton, Lancashire, for a gig with
them - his debut public performance. The date was 23rd
August, and the occasion was one of Bolton's regular
afternoon 'Bluesology' sessions, held at the town's
Octogon Theatre. For Ibex and friends it was the event
of the summer. No fewer than fifteen bodies, including
Freddie, Ken Testi, the band's other roadie Geoff
Higgins, Paul Humberstone, assorted friends and
girlfriends, plus Ibex's instruments, were squeezed
into a transit van borrowed from Richard Thompson, a
mate of Freddie's who'd previously drummed in
"1984" with Brian May and Tim Staffell.
booked by Ken Testi before Ibex had left for London,
provided a forum for amateur and semi-professional
outfits to play, "on the understanding dial no
fees are available though nominal expenses can be
claimed from the door takings". Peter Bardens'
band, Village, preceded Ibex on stage, and the gig
took place 'in the round', with the seating placed
around the circular stage.
following day, Ibex appeared in the first 'Bluesology
pop-in', an open-air event on the bandstand in
Bolton's Queen's Park. On the bill were local band
Back, another called Birth, Spyrogyra, Gum Boot Smith,
the White Myth, Stuart Bitterworth, Phil Renwick, and
of course, Ibex. In a report published the day before,
the 'Bolton Evening News' wrote, "The last named
act make a journey from London specially for the
concert. The climax of the whole affair will be a
'super group', in which all the performers will play
together. If the weather is fine the noise should be
for such a relatively inauspicious event, Freddie's
first-ever public performance was extremely
well-documented. There were at least three
photographers present, and the proceedings were
covered in Bolton's 'Evening News' for the second time
on 25th August. This even featured an uncredited
photograph of Freddie, the caption to which ran:
"One of the performers gets into his stride".
If Freddie wanted to be a star, it seems as if he was
going the right way about it.
really loved going up to Bolton to play with Ibex,"
remembers Paul Humberstone. "He was really on
form. The band was very basic, but good. They did very
reasonable cover versions, and were very loud. That
was his very first outing with the band, but Fred
struck his pose. Remember him doing "Bohemian
Rhapsody"? He was like that, only without the eye
was shy offstage," recalls Ken Testi, "but
he knew how to front a show. It was his way of
expressing that side of his personality. Everything he
did on stage later in Queen, he was doing with Ibex at
his first gig: marching from one end of the stage to
another, from left to right and back again. Stomping
about. He brought dynamics, freshness and presentation
to the band that had been completely lacking
Bersin agrees: "As a three-piece, we'd thought it
was sufficient to play fairly basic music and not
worry too much about stagecraft. Freddie was much
better at putting on a show and entertaining people.
That was pretty radical for us. I thought that's what
the liquid light show was for, you know. We make the
music and the audience can watch the pretty-coloured
bubbles behind us. But Freddie was different. He was
always a star. People used to pull his leg about it
when he had no money, one pair of trousers, one
T-shirt and one pair of boots. He'd look after them
all really well and people would say, 'Here comes
Freddie, the star'."
don't think Freddie developed," reckons John 'Tupp'
Taylor. "The first day he stood in front of that
crowd, he had it all going. It seemed as if he'd been
practising for years to be ready. We'd only ever sang
together as mates before that. We'd never done
anything by way of trying it out. He was just going to
be in the band and everybody was happy with that. Once
Freddie was in, we changed in loads of different
directions. We began to play 'Jailhouse Rock', for a
start! I think that was the first song we ever did
with him on stage." Back in London, a revitalised
Ibex began to make plans. "Freddie and the band
very quickly became inseparable," remembers Ken
Testi. "They were spending large parts of their
time together, working out a new set which included
different covers and some original stuff. "
Bersin: "Freddie was the most musical of all of
us. He was trained on the piano, and he could write on
the black notes. He said, 'We're never going to get
anywhere playing all this three-chord blues crap,
we'll have to write some songs'. A couple of things
came out of it, but they've all vanished now. I can't
imagine that they would have been very satisfactory
anyway - largely because he was working with me, and
my understanding of music was incredibly rudimentary.
We used to argue about whether we should put in key
changes. I'd say, 'What do you want a key change for?'
And he'd say that it made the song more interesting,
it gave it a lift. I'd think, 'Why has he got this
thing about gratuitous key changes?' The idea of
changing the key of a song just because it made it
more interesting to listen to was really alien to
me." That said, Geoff Higgins remembers at least
one decent Bulsara-Bersin tune: "They did a great
song called 'Lover'. The lyrics used to go, 'Lover,
you never believe me', and Fred later turned it into 'Liar,
you never believe me' (which appeared on Queen's debut
It was almost the same tune. But not quite. In fact it
was similar to 'Communication
they used to rip off Led
Zeppelin a lot." Before they knew it however,
the summer was over and it was September. Mike Bersin
returned to Liverpool to begin his pre-diploma year at
the local art college, at what is now John Moore's
University. With nothing better to celebrate than the
new term, the pre-dip freshers - new students - threw
a party, and who better to provide the entertainment
than Mike's band, Ibex? Subsequently, Ibex's third and
final gig took place on 9th September 1969 at the Sink
Club in Liverpool, a former soul-blues hangout in the
basement of the Rumbling Tum - a place Ken Testi
remembers as a "pretty dodgy, post-beatnik cafe".
The club was situated on Hardman Street, which runs
parallel to Mount Street, the site of Paul McCartney's
new LIPA building, and was a small venue. "If you
got thirty people in there it would have been a
squash," recalls Ken.
Freddie's trip to Bolton with Ibex was photographed,
unbeknown to Queen historians these past 27 years -
and indeed to friends and members of the band - Ibex's
appearance at the Sink was recorded. Hazy memories
arid a cindered attic have obscured this
amateur-quality time-capsule of Freddie for nearly
three decades. What's more, the recording pre-dates
the earliest known live tape of Queen (the Marquee,
20th December, 1972) by more than three years.
roadie, Geoff Higgins, is the man behind the mono tape
recorder and the rediscovery of a lifetime. He picks
up the Story: "I had a Grundig TK14 reel-to-reel
machine. We used to record almost everything, and
practically all of it is now gone. That night I just
thought I'd take it along and tape the band. There was
no other reason for it. You don't expect to end up in
the history of one of the biggest acts in the world.
We didn't hold those tapes as being precious. Although,
I've kept everything of Mike's since!"
continues: "I had two beer crates as a table;
with my tape on top of them and a little old-fashioned
mono, crystal microphone hanging down by its own wire.
That's why the tape is such chronic quality. Imagine
begin the audience and looking at the stage. I would
have been by a pillar on the right of, and slightly in
front of, the stage. That's why the bass is so loud,
because Tupp was on the righthand side. Mike was on
the left, Miffer in the middle, and Fred out on the
floor in front of the stage, because there simply
wasn't enough room for a singer as well."
runs for thirty-five minutes, and demonstrates Ibex's
love of Cream
Hendrix, as well as Freddie's favourite of the day,
Zeppelin. It opens half-way through the band's
reading of Cream's "I'm
So Glad" ,
complete with Tupp Taylor's dextrous bass solo, before
diving into a full- throttle reading of Zeppelin's "Communication
with Freddie's towering falsetto homage to Robert
Plant earning the band a smattering of applause.
Freddie's vocal extemporising on the next track, the
vindicates stories of a untried singer with the
confidence to launch himself with his own style.
Cream's apocalyptic "We're
Going Wrong" follows, with 'Miffer' Smith's
Ginger Baker-like drumming rising and falling beneath
Freddie's undulating vocals. Guitarist Mike Bersin
shines on "Rock
Me Baby" ,
the blues-rock standard popularised by Jimi Hendrix,
although the version here owes more to the one found
on the Jeff
Beck Group's "Truth"
one point, Freddie echoes Bersin's wah-wah with his
own "wow wow" ad-libs.
pauses here, and restarts towards the end of a strut
through Hendrix's "Stone
Aim extended stab at Freddie's perennial favourite, "Jailhouse
leads into an accomplished power-blues blast through
Freddie introduces the next number, one of his
compositions: "Now we'd like lo do one of our own
songs, called 'Vagabond Outcast'." It's
reminiscent of that Queen rarity, "Hangman",
and although it's under-reliearsed, it's similar in
style to Ibex's better-known covers, and earns the
band another ripple of applause. Mike and John re-tune
their guitars before "We're Going Home", a
variation on the Ten
Years After R&B work-out "I'm
Going Home" ,
during which Freddie's voice can be heard, half
talking, half ad-libbing, beneath the low murmur
of'Tupp' Taylor's bass solo. Freddie then reemerges,
exploding with an alarming rock shriek as the song
draws to a close. It's a fascinating, if slightly
ragged performance, but a crucial early document of
one rock's greatest stars, or to put it Freddie's way,
legends - another national treasure to be venerated
one day in Britain's mythical rock'n'roll archive.
"Everybody was incredibly competent in that
band," agrees Geoff Higgins. "There were no
slackers. They weren't rubbish by any means. I know
this is a poor recording, but those guys were good."
has a further revelation, which calls to mind Paul
McCartney's presence in the audience at the first-ever
recording of John Lennon with the Quarry Men back in
1957. "Smile were in Liverpool that night,"
he says, "playing another club, possibly the
Green Door. And because we were at the Sink, they came
down to see us." The rest of the story is almost
too good to be true. Brimming with encouragement for
their flamboyant friend, Brian May and Roger Taylor
wasted no time in joining Freddie on stage (or as near
to it as they could get). They probably bashed out a
few Smile numbers (to which Freddie undoubtedly knew
all the words), and this occasion marked the first
time the three of them played together in front of an
audience. "We virtually had Queen in there,"
remarks Ken Testi, "although of course we didn't
know it then." But here's the sting: although
Geoff Higgins' tape recorder was still only yards away
at the time, the tape ran out before the three
musicians had the chance to play a note together.
between 9th September and the end of October 1969,
probably while Freddie was staying with Geoff Higgins
in Liverpool, Ibex underwent a mini upheaval - at
Freddie's instigation. "I recall him canvassing
the idea of calling the band Wreckage, but nobody was
very enthusiastic," reveals Mike Bersin. "Then
he phoned me one night and said, 'The others don't
mind. How do you feel?' I said, 'If they agree, then
fine'. So we went along to the next rehearsal and all
the gear had been sprayed 'Wreckage'. When I spoke to
the others about it, Freddie had phoned them all up
and had the same conversation."
name-change went hand-in-hand with the departure of
drummer Mick 'Miffer' Smith, as Freddie documented in
a handwritten letter to Celine Daley, an Irish girl
who moved in the Ibex circle of friends. Dated 26th
October, 1969, the letter bears the address 40, Ferry
Road, Barnes, SW13 - another flat rented that summer
by members of Ibex, Smile and various associates.
not with us any more," wrote Freddie, "'cause
the bastard just up and left one morning saying he was
going to be a milkman back in Widnes. (He meant it too.)"
He goes on to boast that Roger and he go "policing
and ultrablagging just about everywhere," which
led to the pair "being termed as a couple of
queens". Interestingly, this word doesn't seem to
imply any of its more modern connotations. There was
another term for that, as Ibex's former drummer was
well aware. "Miffer, the sod," wrote Freddie,
"went and told everybody down here that I had
seriously turned into a fully fledged queer."
can see he was exploring the concept there, can't you?",
interjects Mike Bersin, "to see how people felt
about it and how comfortable he was with it. He was
always very camp, but when I knew him, he was living
with Mary Austin, and I certainly knew at least one
other girlfriend he knew at the time. So he was kind
of straight then. But if he hadn't yet come out of the
closet, he was certainly looking through lhe keyhole."
as far as Queen's pre-history is concerned, Freddie
pinpoints the date when Ibex became Wreckage: "Our
first booking as Wreckage is on Friday. 31st October
at Ealing College," he wrote. He also names
Richard Thompson, the former drummer in Brian May's
"1984", as Miffer's replacement.
known Freddie for years," Richard recalls.
"I first met him in 1966. I used to go round his
house to listen to Beatles
records. Then we'd go and watch Smile play, before he
joined Ibex. I knew all of Ibex's songs, as I'd
watched them perform, so there was no point in
auditioning anybody else."
Wreckage's first (and Freddie's fourth) concert
appearance just five days away, the band set about
rehearsing a new set. "Mike came down today (from
Liverpool)," wrote Freddie to Celine, "for a
five-hour live marathon practice... Richard collapsed
half-way through and I've really gone and this Friday,
'cause I'm going to out-ponce everybody in sight. (It
shall be easy.)".
ended the letter with this hitherto unpublished
information: "We've written a few new numbers: 1)
'Green'. 2) 'Without You', 3) 'Blag-A-Blues', 4) 'Cancer
On My Mind' (originally called 'Priestess'.)"
always had very unusual titles at that stage,"-
recalls Mike Bersin. "I can't remember what
'Green' was about. It might be the one with the intro
which went, E, A, D, G, D, A, E, A, D, G, D, A, in
guitar chords." As neither Ibex nor Wreckage went
within striking distance of a recording studio, none
of these songs was ever recorded officially.
Miraculously, however, one of them has survived - and
it's the one which stuck in Mike Bersin's mind.
Thompson is the man responsible for its preservation.
"The song was taped at the flat in Barnes, on a
little Fidelity two-track recorder I'd had for about
ten years," he reveals. "It was at the
rehearsal for the Ealing College gig, after Mike had
come down from Liverpool. I only recorded it so that I
could learn the song. It is straightforward 4/4 in the
middle, but we needed to learn the beginning and end
of it. It had a weird beginning. Most of Freddie's
songs were like that. I can't remember the rest of
them. but they were Hendrix and blues copies."
is a melodic, medium-paced ballad, whose tone recalls
that obscure Queen delight, Mad
The Swine (recorded in 1971, not issued until
1991), and ironically, some of the more reflective
material he wrote towards the end of his life. "There's
a sudden change in me...," sings Freddie. "I
believe my time has come. Any moment I'll be drifting
to the sun... Green, turning green. Rapidly changing
through the bassline, turning green." ("That
sounds like the state of Freddie's lyrics at the
time!" laughs Mike Bersin.)
excellent-quality recording survives on a 5"
spool, and runs for just over ten minutes. As Freddie
revealed in his letter, the session was a extended one.
In addition to his tired voice and Richard Thompson's
exhaustion. Wreckage had the other occupants of the
Ferry Road flat to consider. So while Freddie sang in
a hushed, compelling manner, Mike Bersin can be heard
strumming along on an unplugged electric guitar. Only
John 'Tupp' Taylor's bass is amplified, while Richard
Thompson keeps time by lapping on a practice pad.
Wreckage make several attempts at "Green",
before switching to another song, obviously a
Freddie-composed number, which is difficult to
identify (but could be "Blag-A-Blues") from
its lyrics because the band were interrupted before
they reached the chorus.
we were sharing the flat with came in and complained
that it was one o'clock in the morning,"
remembers Richard Thompson. "So Freddie stopped
singing." And there ended the last and certainly
most important pre-Queen recording. One well-heeled
collector will have the chance to hear the tape for
himself when it comes up for auction at Christie's on
from pre-Queen titles like the previously-documented
'Lover' and the newly-discovered 'Vagabond Outcast',
plus the three originals disclosed in Freddie's letter
to Celine Daley; there are a further four contenders
for the title of the mystery track. That's the number
of unknown Freddie songs stencilled and typed onto a
piece of paper by Richard Thompson in October 1969.
Richard has a recollection that one of these, "Universal
Theme", was a Bulsara-Bersin guitar instrumental,
which leaves three songs in the running -
"Boogie", "One More Train" and
"FEWA", the last of which Sour Milk Sea's Chris
Chesney recalls was an acronym for "Feelings
Ended, Worn Away". Unless any other tapes
miraculously surface, Freddie's words and melodies to
such songs can only be imagined.
the arduous rehearsal, no one seems to recall
Wreckage's debut at Ealing College, but Richard
Thompson once again comes up trumps with a typewritten
setlist for the gig. In addition to playing all ten of
Freddie's originals mentioned above, Wreckage created
an intriguing new live concoction by tagging the
- not a reference to Brian May's former band, but the
dreamy psychedelic soundscape from Freddie's favourite
They ended the set with "Let
Me Love You" ,
no doubt inspired, once again, by the version on Jeff
impression of Wreckage in general remains: "It
was a far better group than Ibex, because of Fred,"
recalls Geoff Higgins. "Mike's guitar playing and
Tupp's bass playing were always excellent, but Fred
made it gel. It was a proper progressive rock band,
which is what they'd always wanted it to be."
than Ibex they may have been, but the brief hislory of
Wreckage isn't nearly as well documented. Only a
handful of gigs were booked under that Iron
Butterfly at Imperial College - possibly at the
5th November 1969 gig listed in Freddie's letter to
Celine Daley. "We also played somewhere in
Richmond, at a nigby club," recalls John Taylor.
"A friend of Brian May's arranged it, and Brian
came along. He thought our image was 'savage'. He
thought we were really good. 'Oh, savage!' he said."
probably the last Wreckage appearance took place at
the 1969 Christmas dance at the Wade Deacon Grammar
School For Girls in Widnes, apparently booked with the
help of John Taylor's younger sister, who was a pupil
at the school. (Members of Ibex had attended the
corresponding institution for boys.) This date has
gone down in history as the night when Freddie
discovered what was to become his trademark. Fed up
with the microphone stand he'd been using, he removed
part of it from its base and leapt around the stage in
his familiar fashion, gripping what amounted to a
redundant three-foot pole attached to his mic.
are lots of legends about that," reckons Geoff
Higgins. "It happened all the time, because we
had a really crap microphone stand. It was one of
those big, heavy three-legged ones that most jazz
bands used. Fred liked to move around, and because it
was too heavy, he used to unscrew the middle and take
out the pole. He did it all the time. It was purely a
flashes of true potential, the end of the 1960s also
marked the end of Wreckage. Gigs were few and far
between, and while John Taylor, Richard Thompson and
Freddie remained in London, Mike Bersin was committed
to his college course in Liverpool. Inevitably, the
band petered out.
I went down to London," says Mike, "I told
my parents what I wanted to do. They were completely
horrified and had 'visions of me disappearing into the
fag-end of swinging London in a haze of drink, drugs,
sex and rock'n'roll, and never coming back again. They
made me promise that if I got enough 'A' levels to go
to art college, then I would do.. Eventually the
letter came, and I had to tell the guys that a promise
was a promise. I didn't have any regrets. It was fun,
but I didn't perceive it as going anywhere. Freddie
was serious, but we weren't. When we started to fall
to pieces, he moved on to something else."
"something else" was the Leatherhead-based
quartet. Sour Milk Sea, for whom Freddie auditioned in
early 1970 - probably February - after seeing a
"Vocalist Wanted" advert in the 'Melody
Maker'. "We were a blues-based four-piece,
playing predominantly our own material, really
influenced by Traffic,"
explains the band's Chris Chesney (then known as Chris
Dummett). "I was the lead vocalist, trying to
sing like Stevie
Winwood, but really didn't have the right pipes
for it. Plus, I wanted to move over to guitar."
roots of Sour Milk Sea lay in a outfit called Tomato
City, formed by public schoolboys Chesney and Jeremy
'Rubber' Gallop, who played rhythm guitar. In 1968,
with Paul Milne on bass and original drummer Boris
Williams (who, in the 1980s turned up in the Cure!),
the band "played arts labs, as they were called
then," remembers Chris. "People would come
along and take their clothes off and scream poetry".
Inspired by the George
of that name recorded by Jackie
Lomax, the band became Sour Milk Sea in late '68.
Williams was soon replaced by another public
schoolboy, drummer Robert Tyrell, who had previously
played behind Mike Rutherford and Anthony Phillips at
Charterhouse, in a pre-Genesis
band called the Anon.
Milk Sea's debut performance took place at the
Guildford City Hall, opening for up-and-coming acts
like Taste, Blodwyn Pig, Deep Purple and Junior's Eyes.
Although the band turned professional in June 1969,
and had its own sizeable following, drawing audiences
of around 100 people, they felt they needed a little
something extra. Freddie Bulsara was just the ticket.
Tyrell recalls seeing him for the first time: "Freddie
auditioned with us in a youth club in crypt of a
church in Dorking. We were all blown away. He was very
confident. I don't think it was any great surprise to
him when we offered him the job." Jeremy Gallop
agrees: "He had an immense amount of charisma,
which was why we chose him. Although, we were actually
spoilt for choice that day. Normally at auditions,
you'd get four or five guys who were rubbish, but we
had two other strong contenders. One was a black guy
who had the voice of God, but he didn't have the looks
of Fred, and the other person was Bridget
Chesney: "I remember Freddie being really
energetic and moving around a lot at the audition,
coming up and flashing the mic at me during guitar
solos. He was so impressive. There was an immediate
vibe. He had a great vocal range. He sang falsetto;
nobody else had the bottle to do that. He said, 'Do
your own songs and I'll make up my own words'. It was
clever, and very good.
Freddie joined," he continues, "we were on a
roll. We were in the habit of playing two or three
gigs a week and we continued to do so. I think we
played one down at the Temple in Lower Wardour Street
with Freddie, the Oxford gig, and a few others."
Oxford gig was in the ballroom at the Randolph Hotel,
one of the grandest in the city. "It was like a
society-type of bash, debs in frocks and all that,"
recalls Chris. "I remember our sound wasn't great."
Jeremy Gallop adds: "Freddie definitely managed
to get what people were there in the palm of his hand,
just by sheer aggression and his good looks. He was
very posey, very camp, and quite vain. I remember him
coming into my house and looking in the mirror, poking
his long hair about. He said, 'I look good today.
Don't you think, Rubber?' I thought, 'Fuck off!' I was
only eighteen at the time, and didn't think it was
very funny. Now it's hilarious."
other gig featuring Freddie which the members of Sour
Milk Sea are certain about was a benefit for the
homeless charity, Shelter, staged at the Highfield
Parish Hall in Headington, Oxford, on 20th March 1970
- just weeks before Freddie teamed up with Brian May
and Roger Taylor in a new group. "That was
probably the last gig we played with him,"
remarks Chris Chesney.
Surprisingly enough for such a low-key gig, just like
Ibex's Bolton show, Sour Milk Sea's appearance at
Headington also made the local paper, as revealed in
Mark Hodkinson's 'Queen
- The Early Years'. This time it was the 'Oxford
Mail', and incredibly, the paper also included a
photograph of the group complete with Freddie - the
only shot known to exist of him with Sour Milk Sea.
Typically, Freddie is the only one looking at the
article included an interview with the band on account
of Chris Chesney's parents being minor local
celebrities (his father was a philosophy don, his
mother an official for the Oxford Committee for Racial
Integration). It also remarked that vocalist Freddie
Bulsara had only arrived "a couple of weeks ago",
and quoted from his song, "Lover". More
importantly, as Chris told the paper at the time:
"I don't feel we are like any other group. Our
approach is based on our relationships with one
relationships held much promise, but were fraught with
danger, as Chris was soon discovered. "I was
slaying with 'Rubber' at the time," he recounts.
"Then Freddie asked me to stay with him in
Barnes. So I did, and we started songwriting together,
getting into each other's heads. His chords were kind
of weird. They broke all the rules, F-sharp minor to F
back to A. That was totally new for me. I thought it
was all very current and that we could blend our two
approaches together". He continues: "We did
two or three of Freddie's songs. He had some material
from the Ibex days, including 'Lover', 'Blag' and 'FEWA'.
He was good at lyrics and we wrote a couple of numbers,
some big, operatic pieces. Operatic in the sense that
they broke down into solo guitar parts, then built up
again vocally. I can't for the life of me remember
what they were called. He also introduced weird covers
We'd have never considered playing Elvis,
he had his little rock'n'roll medley, which pushed the
band into a showbiz direction, which I liked. He also
had a lot of stagecraft going. I had a good
relationship with Freddie and he liked the way I moved
on stage. We were like Bowie
where we related physically to each other on
in Ibex, Wreckage nor Sour Milk Sea had suspected that
Freddie was gay. Indeed, as Mike Bersin has pointed
out, Freddie had a girlfriend, Mary Austin, at the
time. "Ambiguous sexuality was par for the course
then," recalls Chris Chesney. "You didn't
question it. Anybody who did was totally unhip."
Chris and Freddie's friendship was platonic, but
close: "He wanted to style me, give me some
clothes to wear, and the relationship between us got
quite strong. 'Rubber' soon realised there was nothing
in it for him."
Freddie's creativity and drive for control within the
band had a catastrophic effect on Sour Milk Sea.
Gallop and Chesney had been friends since school, and
had worked together for more than two years. But
within weeks of Freddie's arrival, they were at each
Chesney: "When Freddie joined, the band lost its
focus. The cohesion between the four of us was
significantly weakened. Musically, we were more
pastoral than what Freddie was into, he was coming
from a different place. He was heavily into Led
Zeppelin. I thought the musical frictions were
very exciting. We became so un-blues based, whereas
before we were stuck on that R&B template."
very quickly wanted to change us," adds Jeremy
Gallop. "I can remember him trying to make us
learn 'Lover'. I can still recall how it went. We were
all thinking - me especially - 'Fucking hell, this
isn't the way we want to go!' If only we couid relive
life again! But Freddie was a very sweet man. He was a
very good arbitrator. Chris and I used to argue like
hell. I used to have fights with the bass player - and
get beaten up - and Fred was always the one who'd cool
down the situation with diplomacy.
Jeremy continues, "Freddie became a different
personality - he was as electric as he was later in
his life. Otherwise he was quite calm. I'll always
remember him being strangely quiet and very
well-mannered. Extremely well-mannered, in fact. My
mum liked him."
continues: "Rather shamefully, I ended the band.
I could see that Chris was sidling up to Freddie's way
of thinking, so I aft. It was more pop, and at that
time, pop was rather uncool. Sour Milk Sea was always
a bit of a fiery band. Temperamental. And it was
drawing to a close anyway, actually. There was quite a
lot of hostility there at dial time - not between
Freddie and myself- but between Chris and me. We'd
really had enough of each other. Fortunately, we're
great mates again now, 25 years on."
Sour Milk Sea broke up it was a terrible shock,"
admits Chris. "It was fairly acrimonious. Rubber
had basically bankrolled the band by buying all the
equipment, so he took back his Gibson SG Standard that
I'd been playing and my Marshall stack, and I was
pretty fucked. I was just eighteen. Our drummer, Rob
Tyrell, went off with Rubber in another band, and I
went off to work in Huntley & Palmer's bakery in
Reading for months on end to get the money to buy my
own guitar." And, as Chris revealed to Mark
Hodkinson, "I was planning to form another band
with Freddie, but not having a guitar and not having
much money put the kibosh on the idea".
liked Freddie," admits Rob Tyrell. "He was
fun. But he was quite - a schemer in a way. He had
other things cooking. I could feel it in my bones he
wasn't really interested in us. He knew he was good.
He kind of used us as a stepping stone."
had been through three different groups in less than
seven months. What next? "He finally persauded
Brian and Roger to form that band," recalls Mike
Bersin. Having known and observed each other for a
while, Freddie, Brian and Roger were more compatible
than Freddie had been with relative strangers like
Chris Chesney and Jeremy Gallop. All the new band
needed now was a name.
previous summer, members of Ibex, Mike Bersin in
particular, had began to refer to Freddie, and indeed
to Roger Taylor, as "queens" or "old
queens" - as Freddie's letter to Celine Daley
shows. And Freddie was obviously far from averse to
the term. Brian and Roger put forward the Grand Dance
Of The Silent Planet' trilogy) as a suggestion for
their new outfit. "But they decided on Queen as
being more direct," adds Mike Bersin. It had, of
course, been Freddie's choice. By this time, Freddie
had changed his own name, too. Bulsara was too exotic,
too Zanzibar. The explanation of his replacement comes
from Chris Chesney. "Freddie was a Virgo,"
he reveals, "and Mercury was his ruling planet.
on," concludes Chris, "when they auditioned
John Deacon, Freddie made some overtures for me to
come and play with Queen. I hadn't played for a few
months, but they wanted me to jam a bit with Roger and
John. It was really awkward, because Brian's guitar
was unplayable if you're used to playing a proper,
commercial guitar. It wasn't what I wanted to do. And
anyway, by then, I felt they had the chemistry in
Queen just right."
thanks to Chris Smith, Paul Humberstone, Renos
Lavithis, Stephen Maycock at Sotheby's, Giles Moon at
Christie's, the Bolton Evening News, Mark Hodkinson,
Laura Jackson, Jamie Davis, Jim Jenkins, Tim Staffell,
Helen McConnell and David Evans.
thanks to Ibex / Wreckage: Mike Bersin, John Taylor,
Richard Thompson, Geoff Higgins, and Ken Testi;
Sour Milk Sea: Chris Chesney, Jeremy Gallop, and Rob
thanks to Chris Smith, Paul Humberstone, Renos
Lavithis, Stephen Maycock at Sotheby's, Giles Moon at
Christie's, the Bolton Evening News, Mark Hodkinson,
Laura Jackson, Jamie Davis, Jim Jenkins, Tim Staffell,
Helen McConnell and David Evans.
thanks to Ibex / Wreckage: Mike Bersin, John Taylor,
Richard Thompson, Geoff Higgins, and Ken Testi;
Sour Milk Sea: Chris Chesney, Jeremy Gallop, and Rob