The Premise: Freddie Mercury was, as most people will know, the charismatic and, ultimately, tragic lead singer with Queen. This biography takes us from Freddie’s birth as Farrokh Bulsara, through the entirety of his time as one of the world’s biggest rock stars, all the way to his untimely death from AIDS in 1991.
Thoughts: Freddie Mercury was probably the first rock star I could ever recognise. Brought up in a family for whom Queen soundtracked most car journeys, I remember singing Bohemian Rhapsody in full while my dad got us all lost in the mountains of Ibiza in the late 1980s. Mercury’s was certainly the first celebrity death I was aware of; I was almost 9 when he died in 1991, and I remember watching the the resulting tribute concert the following year. Queen’s music has stayed with me ever since; you can’t go to university in the UK and not hear Don’t Stop Me Now every time you venture out at night, and the band’s greatest hits have often roused me into awakeness on the drive to work. This book gave me an insight into the man behind most of these songs (as I learned from Somebody to Love, the members of Queen wrote individually and only shared writing credits on their final album).
Something that I found both clever and interesting in this book was the way in which the writers alternated between Mercury’s life and the development of the AIDS crisis. The book begins with a prologue that made me cry, starting with the end by describing Mercury’s last days, before moving on to the moment in 1908 when a hunter was bitten by a chimp in the Congolese jungle, thus transferring what would become the AIDS virus to humans. I knew very little about this, and the disease’s later spread through that region of Africa, to Haiti, to the USA and beyond, and, while harrowing, it was fascinating to learn about it.
I’ve read a lot of rock biographies and there is much here that is common to them all: the difficult first forays into playing live, the conflicts with record companies, the disagreements over money. Mercury’s status as a newcomer to Britain, having fled Zanzibar with his family, makes his story slightly different, while the contrast between his confident onstage persona and seemingly neurotic true character also gives the book something different to many of the similar books I’ve read. Obviously writing so long after Mercury’s death means that there’s little in the way of firsthand accounts here, and that makes it easy for the writers to show an element of bias; Mercury is certainly the hero of this book, even when his behaviour is appalling, and I felt that was an inconsistency in how the writers dealt with this, as opposed to the depiction of other key figures in the narrative.
Here are some of the other things that interested me in Somebody to Love. I was shocked to learn that pretty much every Queen album was panned by the music press. Although I know that homophobia, while not non-existent today, was a far bigger problem in the 1980s, but I was still quite shocked by the extent to which Mercury felt like he had to hide his bisexuality in order to protect the career of himself and his bandmates; it’s hardly surprising that he was such a tormented soul. I enjoyed reading about Live Aid too; I feel like I remember it because it’s such a pivotal piece of popular culture, but given that I was basically an infant at the time, I think my mum’s descriptions have given me a false memory. As a huge Bowie fan too, I enjoyed reading about the making of Under Pressure: a song that is now almost too poignant to listen to.
One thing I feel compelled to draw attention to: while the writing in the book is solid, there is one little quirk which, once I noticed it, I couldn’t help but find irritating. As Mercury’s story progresses, more and more chapters end with a portentous sentence like “But Freddie wouldn’t have three more years” or “but time was running out.” To refer again to my childhood, we used to watch a terrible programme called 999 Lifesavers, in which Michael Burke would dramatically intone things like “but the tide was coming in” to add terror to situations like people being stranded at sea or trapped in a mine or something. This became something of an era-defining joke in my house and, slightly distractingly, it meant I started to hear Burke’s voice as I came to these sentences. So make sure you don’t do that.
In Conclusion: Somebody to Love is a really interesting and engaging book. For me, the main advantage a biography has over an autobiography is the potential to examine an artist’s cultural impact and legacy, and Richards and Langthorne certainly do that. The parts of the book that deal with Mercury’s last days, particularly the way he was hounded by the press, are quite upsetting, but the book also manages to entertain, as is only fitting given its showman subject.