Understanding Freddie Mercury: The Places That Shaped His Life
Queen, the revolutionary British rock quintet from the 1970s, has been revived in a 2018 biopic by Bryan Singer. Fronted by Freddie Mercury who is a flamboyant character, the iconic group changed the game in music and brought us experimental pop tunes such as Bicycle Race, We Will Rock You, and their magnum opus, Bohemian Rhapsody, which the film (now screening in Singapore) is named after. As a tribute to the lead singer who dared to be different, we trace the most significant places around the world that shaped his life and identity.
Image credit: Queen Online
1. Panchgani, India
Dubbed the “Switzerland of India”, Panchgani is a tranquil hill station in southwest India surrounded by lush greenery and undulating hills. This municipality serves as a dreamy getaway for many, with an abundance of curious natural sights tinged with mythology from the Rajapuri Caves to the Devil’s Kitchen—the very place where Young Freddy Mercury’s musical journey began.
Born on 5 September 1946 to Zoroastrian Parsi parents, he was named Farrokh Bulsara before he became Freddie Mercury. When he was 8, the would-be singer enrolled in St. Peter’s School, an all-boys boarding school in Panchgani that followed the British academic model. There, he started introducing himself as Freddie, in the hopes that his peers would stop mocking him for his large, protruding teeth.
By 12, the little prodigy, who could learn and play songs by ear, was already covering rock and roll singers in a five-piece school band, the Hectics. A teacher, who noticed his talent, suggested that his parents send him for music lessons to hone his skills.
2. Zanzibar, Tanzania
The birthplace of Mercury, Stone Town is a UNESCO World heritage site in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island that is now part of Tanzania. Mercury moved back to his hometown from India at the age of 17 when his father found a job cashiering for the British Colonial Office. However, they had to flee the place because of the Zanzibar Revolution. It was a time of trauma and conflict, where Arabic and Indian residents were being discriminated against and murdered—an experience that would’ve given Mercury the resilience he needed to push back against naysayers in the music industry.
According to his biography written by Lesley-Ann Jones, Mercury used to cycle along the beaches and swim in the sea with his mates in Stone Town. It isn’t hard to imagine considering the beauty of the turquoise beaches on the island; some of which include Kiwengwa, Matemwe and Nungwi. Today, Zanzibar is chock-full of tourist attractions that relate to the lionised artist.
3. London, England
After Zanzibar, Mercury’s family sought to live a calmer life in England, where they settled in Feltham, a town in West London. At the Ealing campus of University of West London, Freddie he earned a diploma in art and graphic design—and would later go on to design the famous band’s logo, the Queen-crest. As he worked hard to break into the local music scene with various bands, he was also working odd jobs to survive.
One of the things he did to earn money was to sell pre-loved clothes at the Kensington Market, a now-defunct fashion market and hippie’s paradise that rose to historic status in its heyday, alongside Mary Austin (who he considers his common-law wife) and Roger Taylor (who would become Queen’s drummer). For a time, he was also a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport.
Before he saw success with Queen, Mercury lived in an apartment above The Dovedale Towers, a Liverpool family pub situated along the renowned Penny Lane. Travellers can visit the sometime flat, which has now been refurbished into a vintage luxe events venue.
4. Montreux, Switzerland
Although Queen was based in the UK, Mercury and his bandmates often retreated to Montreux to get their creative juices flowing, as the Swiss resort town made for an idyllic place to relax and recharge. From the Switzerland of India to Switzerland itself, Mercury’s life has sort of come full circle.
Considering the fact that this was where Queen made seven out of 15 of their albums, Montreux no doubt grew to become part of the band’s identity. This romantic, sleepy town is also home to a 10-foot statue of Mercury by the shores of Lake Geneva.
Despite initially loathing the slow-paced environment, says Mercury’s personal assistant Peter Freestone, the sonic visionary ended up spending much of his time in a boathouse he later nicknamed the Duck House—especially after being diagnosed with AIDS. Mountain Studios, a recording studio Queen bought in 1979, now houses a diversity of Queen memorabilia from handwritten lyrics to concert costumes. Eat your way through this municipality by hitting all of Mercury’s favourite haunts such as German dining joint Brasserie Bavaria, Michelin-starred French restaurant Le Pont de Brent, and jazz bar Funky Claude’s.