September 5th marked what would’ve been Freddie Mercury’s 65th birthday. Queen’s former lead singer passed away in November 1991 at the age of 45. For the band’s 40th anniversary Hollywood Records just released a reissue of Queen’s self-titled debut album from 1974.
Most of the band’s early work is filled with tales of prophecy and life and death. Many songs use biblical references, metaphors and archetypal themes. And though they spent several years after writing more straightforward ballads and rock songs, Queen returned to the power and depth of their early work as Mercury faced the final years of his life. On their very first record, Freddy included a song called “Great King Rat” which eerily begins as follows:
Great King Rat died today
born on the 21st of May
died syphilis 44 on his birthday.
As if to foretell his own demise, Queen’s amazing front man himself died from a sexually transmitted disease at age 45, one year older than his fictional “King Rat.”
Other lyrics in “Great King Rat,” have Freddie stating what most would consider blasphemous:
Now listen all you people
Put out the good and keep the bad
Don’t believe all you read in the bible
Also on Queen’s debut album, the song “Jesus” tells the story of the birth of “the leader of man”: an enigmatic miracle worker who healed lepers with the touch of his hand.
Another song, “Liar,” begins with the lines:
I have sinned Dear Father
Father I have sinned
The lyrics of “My Fairy King” also seem oddly biographical as Mercury sings:
Someone, someone has drained the color from my wings
Broken my fairy circle ring
And shamed the king in all his pride
Changed the winds and wronged the tides
Look what they’ve done to me
I cannot run I cannot hide
With the release of Queen II songs like “White Queen” and “March of the Black Queen” show Queen and Freddy’s use of the universal themes of masculine and feminine power; light and dark; and good and evil. Even Mercury’s stage outfits for a short time were also entirely black or entirely white, as if he were portraying the dichotomies of good and evil.
On the surface Queen also released one “white” and one “black” album back to back with 1975’s A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races in 1976. A Night at the Opera begins with “The Prophet’s Song,” written by guitarist Brian May but sung by Mercury. In “…Prophet Song” the listener is barraged with mythological metaphors, biblical references and profound warnings of a dark fate:
Oh fear for your life
Deceive you not the fires of hell will take you
Should death await you.
There’s no question that this young English band started their career by exploring the eternally powerful themes of creation and destruction and the birth and (potentially dark) fate of all people. Heading into the 80’s Queen’s next several albums veered away from the symbolically profound lyrics of their early period. Instead, albums like Jazz, The Game, Hot Space, The Works and A Kind of Magic explored the struggles and joys of love for others and oneself (“In Only Seven Days,” “Jealousy,” “Play the Game,” “It’s a Hard Life”); the celebration of independence and self-realization (“Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Man On the Prowl,” “I Want to Break Free”) and the excess synonymous with the 1980’s.
But after Mercury learned of his fatal HIV diagnosis, the band’s final two albums harked back to the strong lyrics and symbolism reminiscent of their early work. Innuendo is the last album that Mercury completed with the band before his death. The title alone was less literal and for its cover, Queen got away from the glamor shots of the band from their last few records. The album sleeve was solid white with a small, colorful jester-like character seen juggling in its center. On the last track of Innuendo, “The Show Must Go On,” Freddie prophetically sings:
My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies
Fairytales of yesterday will grow but never die
I can fly – my friends
The show must go on…
The reference to butterfly wings and fairies brings to mind “My Fairy King” from Queen’s first album. Did Queen’s leader predict his early death in songs like “Great King Rat..” Did Mercury open himself to destructive forces by creating a body of work wrought with imagery and meaning too powerful for a mere mortal man to endure.
Overall, Queen’s catalogue is mostly noted for stadium anthems like “We Will Rock You” “We Are the Champions,” and the epic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But the subject matter and symbolism of many of their other recordings communicate much more. Beginning with Queen I and their final album, Made in Heaven, Freddie Mercury and Queen left a body of work that remains as eerie as it is astonishing.