However you feel about Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen reforming recently under the band’s name with American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert on vocals, the band has stated on several occasions that they never intended to replace Freddie Mercury. “[Lambert] interprets the songs the way he interprets them which is wonderful,” May has remarked, “We wanted him to be himself.” Fair enough. But even if Queen had wanted to replace Mercury after his death from AIDS complications in 1991, the task would have proved impossible. No one sounds like Freddie Mercury, no one commands a stage like he did, and no one writes like him either, with his unique mix of raunchy, funny, quirky, candid, and deeply heartfelt lyricism.
“Mother Love,” the last song Mercury recorded—at the band’s Montreux studio—contains some of the most painful of Mercury’s lyrics, an expression of his desire “for peace before I die.” In what we can’t help but hear in hindsight as a direct reference to his illness, Mercury sings, “My body’s aching, but I can’t sleep… I’m coming home to my sweet / Mother love.” The inherent pathos of “Mother Love,” pervades the posthumously-released 1995 album Made in Heaven, but the song that most seemed to define Freddie Mercury immediately after his death is also a rumination on mortality. Shot through with nostalgia, remorse, and expressions of the brevity of life, “These Are the Days of Our Lives”—from Innuendo, the last album the band released during Mercury’s lifetime—laments, “you can’t turn back the clock, you can turn back the tide.” Longing for childhood lost, Mercury sings, “the rest of my life’s been just a show.” Maybe so, but what a show it was, even in the band’s final video, above, shot in black-and-white to hide Mercury’s frail condition.
At the top of the post, you can see behind-the-scenes footage of Mercury from the “These Are the Days of Our Lives” video shoot, discovered, writes The Independent, “during a five-year trawl through the Queen archives by Rhys Thomas, the comedy actor,” who co-produced the BBC Two documentary, Queen: Days of Our Lives. “The footage of Freddie in his final video,” says Thomas, “is shocking. He is so frail, he needs two hands to hold a champagne glass. But he knows he is being filmed and wants to show people what he was going through.” Brian May remembers Mercury spending “hours and hours in make-up sorting himself out so it’d be OK. He actually says a kind of goodbye in the video.”
A consummate performer to the end, Mercury was determined to work until he couldn’t, recording new material until days before his death. In the full-color film from the “These Are the Days of Our Lives” shoot, we see him studying and critiquing footage of himself, fully engaged in the creation of what he likely knew would be his final performance. He had certainly come a long way from the shy schoolboy he was before Queen brought him international celebrity and acclaim. In the poignant video above, we see what is likely the first footage of the young man then known as Freddie Bulsara. The film shows Mercury in 1964—the year his family migrated to England from Zanzibar—with school mates at Isleworth Polytechnic (new West Thames College). It would be another six years before Mercury would meet May and Taylor and form the band that defined the rest of the days of his life.