I wasn’t always a Queen fan. Having cut my music fan teeth on especially downbeat, miserable bands like Joy Division, The Cure, and The Smiths, I couldn’t quite dig the unabashed sentimentality and operatic bombast. Like one of the “Kids React to Queen” kids, I found myself asking, “What is this?” What turned me around? Maybe it was the first time I heard Queen’s theme song for Flash Gordon. The 1980 space opera is most remarkable for Max von Sydow’s turn as Ming the Merciless, and for those bursts of Freddie Mercury and his mates’ multi-tracked voices, explosions of syncopated angel song, announcing the coming of the eighties with all the high camp of Rocky Horror and the rock confidence of Robert Plant.
As a frontman Mercury had so much more than the perfect style and stance—though he did own every stage he set foot on. He had a voice that commanded attention, even from mopey new wave teenagers vibrating on Ian Curtis’s frequency. What makes Mercury’s voice so compelling—as most would say, the greatest vocalist in all of rock history? One recent scientific study concluded that Mercury’s physical method of singing resembled that of Tuvan throat singers.
He was able to create a faster vibrato and several more layers of harmonics than anyone else. The video above from Polyphonic adds more to the explanation, quoting opera soprano Montserrat Caballé, with whom Mercury recorded an album in 1988. In addition to his incredible range, Mercury “was able to slide effortlessly from a register to another,” she remarked. Though Mercury was naturally a baritone, he primarily sang as a tenor, and had no difficulty, as we know, with soprano parts.
Mercury was a great performer—and he was a great performative vocalist, meaning, Caballé says, that “he was selling the voice…. His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right colour or expressive nuance for each word.” He had incredible discipline and control over his instrument, and an underrated rhythmic sensibility, essential for a rock singer to convincingly take on rockabilly, gospel, disco, funk, and opera as well as the blues-based hard rock Queen so easily mastered. No style of music eluded him, except perhaps for those that call for a certain kind of vocalist who can’t actually sing.
That’s the rub with Queen—they were so good at everything they did that they can be more than a little overwhelming. Watch the rest of the video to learn more about how Mercury’s superhuman vibrato produced sounds almost no other human can make; see more of Polyphonic’s music analysis of one-of-a-kind musicians at our previous posts on Leonard Cohen and David Bowie’s final albums and John Bonham’s drumming; and just below, hear all of those Mercury qualities—the vibrato, the perfect timing, and the expressive performativity—in the isolated vocal track from “I Want to Break Free” just below.