August 9, 1986 - Knebworth Park - as God Save the Queen traditionally signalled the end of Queen’s concert, Freddie Mercury held his golden crown aloft, bidding farewell to his adoring crowd.
Mercury pioneered the haunting classic/operatic touch to rock music- Ivan Grech
I stood on tiptoes and craned my neck one last time to witness the hypnotic way Mercury had invoked his magic onto a sea of 140,000 people.
It was the last leg of Queen’s triumphant Magic Tour, just one year after that performance at Live Aid. The world was Mercury’s oyster and even the cynical critics had to admit Queen were at the top of their game after 15 years.
Knebworth was Mercury’s final curtain call. Five years later, on November 24, 1991, the king of Queen was dead.
So why is Mercury’s legacy still so much in demand 20 years on, even if any sound from Queen’s glory days has been unearthed, recycled and flogged off?
And why do songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, We Are The Champions and The Show Must Go On remain timeless favourites on Maltese radio?
“Mercury was a rock icon with a larger-than-life personality, backed by bundles of talent,” says top DJ and All Rock Radio director Noel Mallia.
Mallia insists he is not a Queen fan and was actually put off by the Mercury’s “histrionics”, but says the band was innovative and experts in live performances, and their influence has clearly reverberated onto contemporary bands like Muse.
“Queen were always very popular locally, a rock band which veered towards pop whose appeal crossed over into ‘housewife’ territory. Their songs were catchy and thus ideal as radio airwave fodder.”
A poll carried out among The Times readers at the turn of the century put Queen as the second most favourite band of all time among the Maltese, behind The Beatles. So many years later, Mercury’s music lives on through the umpteenth tribute band visit to Malta, via another take on the hit musical We Will Rock You, or the constant cover version at the Voices concerts.
Winter Moods frontman Ivan Grech says Mercury composed anthems which have stood the test of time and will echo for many years to come.
“Add showmanship, glamour and controversy to all this and his legacy will live on.”
Grech, who performed Crazy Little Thing Called Love in 2000 with Spike Edney (Queen’s ‘fifth’ member), says Mercury pioneered the haunting classic/operatic touch to rock music which became a template of Queen’s unique sound. He was also an amazing unorthodox pianist with a strong distinctive voice.
But that strong voice was spent in London’s November rain, just a day after Mercury finally revealed to the world he was suffering from AIDS.
Anthony Spiteri, one of the thousands of local Queen fans, vividly recalls the moment.
“I was having breakfast listening to morning radio. Utterly numb, I dragged myself to University dressed in black where I found the likes of (DJs) Gianni Zammit and Nigel Camilleri waiting for me and singing Who Wants to Live Forever.
The next time I wore any colour was on Christmas.”
The Sunday Times music correspondent Michael Bugeja adds: “I remember I felt sad to hear the news of Freddie’s death, even though having seen pictures of him in the previous months, it had already seemed that something was not well with him.”
Still, nothing could prepare the devoted fans for the way the cropped muscular hero of Live Aid had turned into a skeletal shadow during his final months.
Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor have constantly worked to keep the Queen legacy alive and this year the band was showered with awards on its 40th anniversary.
Years after his death, Spiteri believes Mercury’s place in rock’s hall of fame will always be secured because of the excellent marketing of the Queen brand.
One man who temporarily jumped on the Queen bandwagon was Arthur Tonna, whose uncanny resemblance to Mercury soon made him a top impersonator. Tonna caused quite a stir when he went to Nottingham just a fortnight after the singer’s death, prompting The Sun to question whether the Queen frontman was, in fact, dead.
“Suddenly, I was being offered to do impersonations of Mercury, invited to conventions, signing autographs, you name it,” says Tonna, whose exposure also got him in touch with Mercury’s parents.
Twenty years later, Tonna still finds people stopping him in the street, but now that he has put any potential impersonation offers behind him, he is happy to listen to his idol’s music, especially the post-mortem Made in Heaven album.
Bugeja, on the other hand, cites Queen’s 17-minute performance at Live Aid as the one where Mercury’s charisma, talent and showmanship were outstandingly at their best.
“The man may be gone, but his voice, his music, his memories are forever with us.”