I remember when the statue of Freddie was unveiled on the shores of Lake Geneva, way back in 1996, I vowed to visit one day. Freddie meant the world to me and his unrivalled vocal talents and sheer stage presence will never be equalled. I grew up listening to, and playing, Queen music and, despite the decades that have elapsed since his death, I will never get over his untimely passing. It seems I am not alone with this as, every year, to celebrate his birthday on the 5th September the town of Montreux throws a weekend party which culminates in the Mercury Phoenix Trust fundraiser on the Saturday night.
Last year I released a Queen tribute EP in aid of the Trust and I also secured a ticket to this year's sold out party. I was also planning to play the piano in the venue and relished the opportunity to celebrate the life of a man who I knew only through music and yet felt the connection as personally as anyone I had met in real life. Music is my voice, the way I express my feelings and the way I earn my living. As a film composer I know the power that music has coursing through its notes and to have such an opportunity was something that I relished. If Queen could rock Montreux, then so would I.
Thursday 5th September
6.30pm - Festival opens with cake cutting
7.30pm - 39 Queen Tribute (band)
As I landed in Geneva Airport, about 10.30am local time, I experienced a stab of panic as I worried about finding my way to the train station. I don't speak a word of French (apart from bonjour but that isn't really going to get me far.) Fortunately finding my connecting train to Montreux was actually very easy and as I settled into my seat I found time to think about what had brought me to be here.
Live Aid! Like so many of Freddie's young (ish) fans this was my first opportunity to see Freddie perform live. He owned the stage, but then he always did and I couldn't take my eyes off this man who seemed to make Wembley Stadium small. He didn't just own the stage, he took out a mortgage and moved in! That performance was why I consider myself not just a Queen fan, but a Freddie fan. I had grown up listening to Queen and, as a musician, had appreciated the anthemic songs that the band seemed to release. I marvelled at the sheer level of musical skill and that voice. THAT VOICE! The power from low to high register is unrivalled before or since but it was the way Freddie held the audience that astounded me. They loved him, we love him, I love him.
As I stepped from the train and made my way through Montreux train station I felt both happy and sad. Excited to be celebrating the life of Freddie but saddened that it was required. I had decided to check in to my hotel before making the short walk to the statue, at the shore of Lake Geneva because I wanted this moment to be perfect and I also wanted to be unhindered by my luggage. As I walked back down the hill to the indoor market place and to Freddie I knew that this was a moment I would never forget. It was about midday and already there was a large crowd of fans, posing for photos and chatting with each other. Shared memories were to be central to this weekend and what has really struck me is how Queen truly bridge cultural and language barriers. We were all in Montreux for the same reason!
The atmosphere was amazing and instantly moving. The Statue of Freddie is placed so that he looks out over Lake Geneva and as people take photos there is a feeling that already the trip was worth the effort. As Queen music plays out over the main speakers, an air of expectation, for what is to be a weekend of fun and memories, has already settled. As the cake opening ceremony begins, it is clear that the local people of Montreux viewed Freddie as part of their town and, by extension, anyone taking the trouble to pay their respects is afforded the same courtesy. As '39 Queen Tribute start their set, the crowd are already loud and in high spirits and the Italian Queen tribute band rocked Montreux. No one can sing like Freddie and yet the band play the well known songs so well it doesn't matter that the singer doesn't sound like Freddie. It is a tribute act rather than a sound alike and all members of the band convey their own personal affection for Freddie and Queen in such a way that the crowd are completely as one. Swiss live music licences don't allow for outside concerts to go on later than 10pm but, by the time I make my way back to the hotel, I have cried tears and met people who have travelled from around the globe. I decide to go to bed early as Friday and Saturday will be full, long days. Tomorrow is The Queen Studio Experience! Happy 73rd Birthday Freddie.
Friday 6th September
10am- Market place opens up with displays of rare Queen memorabilia
7.30pm- Peter Freestone Evening
8.30pm Vladimir Hron and The Drops (Tribute Band)
The Queen Studio Experience was set up by The Mercury Phoenix Trust and Queen recorded seven albums there (including Made In Heaven.) The studio control room remains unchanged from those days and provides Queen fans with a unique insight into the recording process. It is hard not to walk through the exhibition without shedding a few tears. The loud and exuberant stage shows were merely the tip of the iceberg ( the showy offy bit.) Queen were a hard working rock band and the competition for individual band members to have their compositions on an album line up is legendary. The production on a Queen album is astonishing and, when you see the sheer size of the main console, it is easy to see why. What struck me was how equipment that was state of the art at the time now seems over sized and dated. Obvious though this is, it is amazing to consider that it is now possible to record and produce albums with minimal tech and money from the comfort of your own home. I also feel that synth technology has moved on in an astonishing way. Proudly on display, nestling next to Roger Taylor's extensive kit was a Roland DX7. An amazing synth back in the day but now seems very limited compared to modern output. As you would expect, Freddie's costumes take centre stage and the attention to detail is astonishing. It is wonderful to see the actual stage outfits he wore up close and personal.
In the production suite there is an opportunity to remix two Queen classics as well as to hear two surround sound mixes. Invisible Man and Fat Bottomed Girls sound fresh and new with the music mix coming from all around the studio. I have always loved Deacon's blistering bass on Invisible Man and May's axe work was truly given a new lease of life. Hearing Freddie's vocals sounding like he was singing next to me was a surreal and moving experience. Yet again my excitement gave way to tears as I feel sadness with the loss of such a charismatic and wonderfully talented creative genius.
The Queen Experience is housed within the Casino Barriere which was also to be the venue for Saturday nights Party. But as I return to the main town area for more Freddie celebrations I remember feeling that Freddie would adore how much he is loved and remembered. A legacy that grows stronger and more profound with every passing year. As he once said "not bad for four ageing Queens."
The evening started with a very intimate glimpse of Freddie from Peter Freestone, whose biography is one of my favourites. I don't care about the over told stories of partying and tantrums, I have always been more interested in understanding and learning about the 'real' Freddie. Freestone was his personal assistant for over 12 years and one of the few people who was really part of the inner circle. His stories and photos provided a heartfelt and touching tribute to a man who was a showman but, at the same time, hugely private, always ready to sign an autograph and so grateful for the fans who bought his albums and attended the shows. I was looking forward to the second tribute band of the weekend but it was to be a somewhat different a show to the previous evening.
I have a problem with any Queen tribute band that has a keyboard player who is constantly upstaging 'Freddie' (Queen keyboard player Morgan Fisher allegedly fell out with 'Fred' for committing this crime.) Hron may well own the band but it is hugely disrespectful to the memory of Freddie. His constant running around the stage (when not playing keys) and raising his arm, as if he was advertising a well known deodorant, really irritated me. I found that the best place to enjoy the band was outside. Their commitment in performing fantastic Queen songs was outstanding and, once I couldn't see his continual mincing around the stage, I enjoyed it a great deal better. See what you think! Oh and one more thing - never ever ever upstage 'Freddie' when he is doing his "eh oh" audience thing. Overly mobile keyboard player aside it was a fantastic evening!
Saturday 7th September
12:00 Smile (Children's Choir)
2:00pm Alfie (13 year old Freddie Mercury fan)
7:00pm- Mercury Phoenix Trust Freddie Mercury Birthday Party
I awoke with real excitement as the party in the evening was the entire reason for my trip. It was a fancy dress party (Freddie loved hats) and I was going to have the opportunity to play a very gorgeous glass piano during the evening. It was also going to be an opportunity to hear the entire album The Miracle performed live by Bulsara and His Queenies (possibly one of the best tribute bands you can wish to experience). So much Queen music to look forward to and all to raise money for the work that Mercury Phoenix do as a charity. The day itself was also looking like a busy one; with the sun out and more people arriving the Freddie statue was already mobbed when I arrived in the morning. Despite all the crowds there was no trouble and no real security presence. The atmosphere for the whole weekend was one of celebration and of enjoying the time together. All ages and all backgrounds together to celebrate the life of Freddie Mercury and what he means to us collectively and individually.
Now, if I'm honest, I am not a big fan of children's choirs. I blame it on too many Christmas shows as a kid but it is just something I don't particularly enjoy. However, Smile were amazing and to see them perform Queen songs with the obvious love and care that they had for Queen was truly moving. Later in the afternoon they even performed on a boat as it sailed passed on the lake, one of the amazing moments you just have to experience. I think the release of the film, Bohemian Rhapsody, has brought Freddie and Queen to a whole different audience. Perhaps some of those now enjoying the band may not have even bothered without the biopic. Despite its much maligned factual discrepancies it was intended as a love letter for Freddie and for fans and it delivered!
Alfie is only 13 years old and yet his desire to perform as Freddie has led him to a wonderful place. His voice was powerful and a musical career must surely follow. It would be interesting to see him perform with a live band for that truly authentic tribute experience. But to have the guts to stand up and sing in Montreux in front of a crowd did certainly garner my huge respect. The day seemed to dash by at some pace and I needed time to get ready. In true Freddie style I had decided to wear something a little more daring than my normal t shirt and jeans, Purple tails and spats with a glittery purple fedora. You have to understand that I don't normally dress to get attention and certainly not when playing the piano. I am happy at the back of the stage doing what I do without anyone really noticing me. This was a big step for me but I felt I owed it to my love of Queen to step up and well out of my comfort zone.
I arrived at the party and started to play my 'set' seemingly impromptu and interestingly the piano was played regularly through the evening. I played One Vision and ended with These Are The Days Of Our Lives, the time went all too quickly but it was amazing to feel that my personal little tribute was enjoyed by others as well as me. The costumes at the party were amazing and personal favourite was a lady who dressed with the Freddie costume from I'm Going Slightly Mad, complete with bunch of bananas on her head. It was a tremendous evening and Bulsara and His Queenies rocked Montreux before handing over to the DJ's. One lucky guest also won a prize of a miniature May guitar signed not only by Taylor and May but also John Deacon. I can only imagine the care that was taken getting this treasured possession back home. Throughout the weekend conversations were shared and I met people who had been at Live Aid as well as the classic Wembley Stadium gigs. As I returned to my hotel room for the final night before leaving for home the next I realised something had happened that I never thought possible. I was even more of a Queen fan than when I had started my journey. I loved Freddie more and I had created memories that would never ever be forgotten.
All those years ago I had promised myself that I wouldn't by a replica statue unless it was in Montreux. I left with my own boxed and certified miniature Freddie and more determined to strive for creative brilliance and not to allow boundaries or obstacles to stop me from reaching my music goals.
Thank you Freddie and thank you Montreux, you rock!
Find Composer and musician Daniel White's Mercury Mercury Phoenix Trust EP- Forever Freddie on BandCamp (all proceeds to the charity) - https://danielwhiteuk.bandcamp.com/releases