When Bohemian Rhapsody opened in cinemas in 2018, my wife and son went to see it one Sunday afternoon. “You’re not coming,” they told me, matter-of-factly, “because all you’ll do is moan about the factual inaccuracies.” They had a point.
I watched it later on Netflix, and while it’s all over the place, factually, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t purport to be a documentary; it’s a dramatic film based on real-life events.
Shortly after, I interviewed Brian May for Mojo magazine. Always a stickler for detail, May admitted he’d learned to live with the film-makers’ artistic licence.
“Any argument about whether Freddie should have a moustache at a particular time is a waste of breath,” he told me. “The moustache is in the wrong place in documentary terms, but for telling the story we want to tell it’s in the right place.”
One chapter in the Freddie Mercury story that isn’t included in the film is this one from my book, Is This The Real Life: The Untold Story Of Queen. It’s all about the teenage Farrokh Bulsara’s first two years living in London – long before he grew a moustache, any moustache….
It was during this time the future Freddie Mercury began going to gigs, listening to Jimi Hendrix, growing his hair and calling himself ‘Fred’.
I am forever indebted to three of his old college friends, who not only agreed to be interviewed for the book, but provided me with a couple of rare photographs…
Book extract from Is This The Real Life? The Untold Story Of Queen…
"Where did that extrovert butterfly come from?"
Soon after the Bulsara family arrived in London from Zanzibar, Freddie announced his intention to go to art school. Art wasn’t a subject his parents would have chosen, but Freddie wouldn’t be swayed, mainly because his favourite English pop stars had all been to art school.
His lack of qualifications, however, were an issue. So, in September 1964, the eighteen-year-old future Freddie Mercury began a two-year foundation course at Isleworth Polytechnic, West London, near to his family home in Feltham. If he studied hard enough, the course would give him the A-level he needed to be accepted at Ealing Technical College And School of Art, where The Who’s Pete Townshend and future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood had recently been students.
According to one of Mercury’s friends from this time, “Freddie wished his life had begun aged twenty-one at Ealing art school.” This statement is supported by the fact he never once referred to Isleworth Polytechnic in any interview. Yet his time at the college covered a crucial two years in his life, and finally brought Freddie into contact with the music, films, drama and fashions he’d previously only read about.
There were eight other students on Freddie’s arts foundation course, among them Adrian Morrish, Brian Fanning and Patrick Connolly. Until now, none of them have ever been interviewed about their old friend, Fred Bulsara.
“We all met at induction and were put into a class together,” explains Adrian Morrish. “My first impression of Fred was that he was charmingly shy, but also very engaging.”
Initially, Freddie stood out from his fellow students on account of his clothes and hair. “He dressed weirdly in drainpipe trousers that weren’t quite long enough and middle-aged jackets that were slightly too small,” remembers Adrian. “I suppose he’d brought those clothes with him from Zanzibar or India. He seemed very gauche, but he desperately wanted to fit in.”
“Fred struck me as rather lonely,” adds Patrick Connolly. “But I liked him because he was sensitive and caring and not quite so jack-the-lad as some of the others. You could tell he’d come from a cultured background, and was just seeking a way to develop.”
Freddie’s musical ability also became apparent to his new friends. “During break-time we would drift into the assembly hall,” recalls another ex-Isleworth student Geoff Latter. “Fred was always playing this upright piano. He’d never sit at it. He would always stand. He could play our favourite pop songs by ear. I was into surf music, especially The Beach Boys. So he’d do ‘I Get Around’ for me. He could just play it, off pat.”
“He’d hear a pop song on the radio in the morning before college, then come in and play it on the piano,” adds Patrick Connolly. “Then he’d go, ‘But we can do this or we can do that?’ and start improvising, to try and make it sound better.”
Intriguingly, the issue of the name change comes up again. Brian Fanning insists the name Fred (rather than Freddie) was given to him at Isleworth. “We knew his real name was Farrokh, but he felt that a more Anglofied name would help his integration,” Brian explains. “It seemed to be an important issue for him, so he was christened collectively by us as ‘Fred’.”
Lectures at the Polytechnic were frequently broken up by trips to the local café and pub, where Freddie would critique the latest offerings on the jukebox. Though in Adrian Morrish’s case, lectures were sometimes skipped altogether. “There was one occasion when I was so engrossed in a young lady’s charms that I decided to miss Liberal Studies,” he recalls. “Freddie burst into the student common room, and he and a couple of others physically lifted me up and carried me into the lecture room. Freddie was always telling me off. His favourite phrase was always this rather effeminate, exasperated, ‘Oh, Adrian!’”
By Christmas 1964, Freddie had joined the Polytechnic’s youth choir, and played the role of Dimitri in Arnold Wesker’s play The Kitchen. “He was rather nervous and unsure, but, at the same time, you could tell he loved doing it,” says Adrian. “He liked the attention and liked being onstage because he was also quite full of himself. That play was the first indication we had that he could be an exhibitionist.”
Adrian and Patrick both spent time at the Bulsaras’ family home. “We’d sit in Fred’s room and play records and talk about the things teenagers talk about,” says Adrian.
“Fred also spoke to Patrick Connolly about his family background: “He told me what luxuries his family had in Zanzibar, how he’d lived in a house with an ivory-white piano. I think there were times when he missed the life they’d had.” Patrick also remembers a darker side to the memories. “After the revolution in Zanzibar, Fred said his father was under threat and told if he didn’t leave the country, the rebels would cut his head off.”
Freddie was also eager to socialise with his friends outside of college hours, even if it meant clashing with his parents. “I remember picking Freddie up from his house to go to a gig,” says Adrian. “His parents took a very dim view of the idea, and I recall Freddie came storming out of the house.”
To fund his social life, Freddie found part-time work through another friend and student, Alan Hill. “I used to design the artwork for the National Boys’ Club magazine,” says Hill now. “Fred wanted to earn a bit of money, and because I had the contacts I got him some work, doing layouts.”
However, Patrick Connolly is less sure about how suited he was to the job. “To be honest, Fred was no great artist,” he says carefully. “The thing about Isleworth Polytechnic was you didn’t have to be very good, you just had to show an interest in the subject. Art was never his thing. Fred’s thing was always music and singing and being on stage.”
The Eel Pie Island Hotel had once been known for its jazz and big-band acts, but by 1964 was hosting gigs by the fledgling Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Tridents (featuring young unknown Jeff Beck), Howlin’ Wolf and the Butterfield Blues Band.
Eel Pie Island was on a stretch of the Thames accessible by a footbridge, and became a regular haunt for Freddie’s friends on Sunday evenings. “We all went to see Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry and tap-dancing one-man-band Jesse Fuller,” says Brian Fanning. “But even then Fred left early and sober… or comparatively sober. Fred was never at the centre of things in terms of drawing attention to himself. But he was trying to pick up as much as he could of the new culture. He was desperate to become a part of it.”
In June 1965, Fanning bought an 8mm cine camera to college. Over two days he shot three minutes of silent film of Freddie, Adrian and their friends in the grounds of the Polytechnic. As film was so expensive, he saved money by shooting only single-frame sequences at a time. Freddie features in three or four clips, still wearing the “middle-aged jacket” Adrian Morrish remembers, but with his quiff grown out and teased into a Beatle fringe.
In one scene Freddie slips his top lip over his teeth to conceal them; in another he flaps his arms in an almost identical gesture to one he later used onstage with Queen. But out of all his friends, the young Freddie Bulsara looks the least like a pop star. “Where did that extrovert butterfly come from?” wonders Adrian Morrish.
By 1966 and his final term at the Polytechnic, Freddie had swapped his outmoded jacket for more fashionable clothes, and lost some of his gaucheness. “He’d completely changed his look by the end of Isleworth,” says Alan Hill. He was now often seen promenading around the grounds of the college in a white Levi jacket, like the one Keith Moon wore on the cover of The Who’s first LP, ‘My Generation’. “It was my jacket,” points out Alan Hill, “but Freddie was forever borrowing it. I think he wore it more than I did. Before we went out together, he was always preening himself and pufing up his hair in the mirror. We were always saying, ‘Come on, you look good, Fred, you look good. Now let’s go!’”
Freddie was also showing an interest in music again. Fred, Patrick Connolly and another Isleworth student, a would-be sculptor and guitarist named Paul Martin, were now meeting regularly at Gladstone Avenue and trying to write songs together.
“The three of us would sit around Freddie’s piano and sing,” says Patrick. “A favourite – believe it or not – was ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ [a 1963 hit for the folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary]. Paul could play guitar, I couldn’t sing, but Fred’s enthusiasm brought us together. He’d actually encourage me: ‘Look, Patrick, you’re singing, you can do It.’ He’d somehow convinced me.’”
After seeing the Graham Bond Organisation play the Polytechnic’s summer ball, Freddie decided to audition players for a group of his own. Patrick designed a poster inviting local musicians to apply. “We sent it to all the colleges and schools in the area – anywhere we could think of,” he says. “I was interested in marketing rather than the music, and we had a great response. Thinking back, it was quite something in the days before mobile phones and the internet.”
Patrick recalls as many as forty would-be musicians turning up to be auditioned by Freddie in a room at the college. “There was this one amazing guitarist who I remember Fred really liked. Yes, of course, years later, I always wondered if it was Brian May. But it wasn’t.”
Regrettably, any further information on the future Freddie Mercury’s audition has faded from the memories of those involved. Guitarist/sculptor Paul Martin never re-surfaced in the lives of any of Freddie’s classmates, and Patrick Connolly can’t recall any group coming together from the auditions.
Freddie graduated from Isleworth with the precious A-level he needed for art school. But it was not easily acquired. His coursework painting of the crucifixion scene had been finished with a little help from a friend. “I ended up doing some of the figures for him,” admits Patrick Connolly. “…Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you that.”
Before they both left to take up their places at Ealing art school, Freddie and Alan Hill accompanied two female friends to a college party.
That evening, fuelled by loud music and too much booze, Freddie’s attention became increasingly drawn to another girl at the party. His date for the night was not best pleased. Freddie’s ardour, not to mention his carefully teased hair-do, was dampened when she emptied a pint of beer over his head. “The extrovert butterfly” was emerging from his cocoon.
Shortly before Christmas, on 16 December 1966, another influence crashed into Freddie Bulsara’s life, when black American guitarist Jimi Hendrix made his UK TV debut on the pop show Ready Steady Go. Just three days after arriving in the capital that summer, the unknown Hendrix had jammed with the house band at London’s Speakeasy club. Here, he’d torn into a version of The Troggs’ pop hit ‘Wild Thing’ and a cover of the folk-rock standard ‘Hey Joe’, showering both songs with wild solos and howling feedback.
Within weeks, word of Hendrix’s revelatory appearance had spread among the capital’s musicians. Within days, Hendrix had recruited an English drummer and bassist to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney and John Lennon were among the musicians crowding London night-spots such as Blaises and the Bag O’ Nails watching the unknown guitarist make, to quote one eyewitness, “everyone’s fillings fall out”.
In October, Hendrix joined Eric Clapton’s trio Cream onstage at London’s Regent Street Polytechnic. Earlier in the year, the message ‘Clapton is God’ had been spray-railway train station. That night, though, in Clapton’s words, “Hendrix beat me, hands down!”
Freddie’s attraction to Jimi was immediate: it was his playing, his clothes, his hair, his colour, his music…. He tore a photo of Hendrix out of a music magazine, and pinned it to his bedroom mirror for inspiration.
“Hendrix really had everything any rock’n’roll star should have,” said Freddie later. "He’d just make an entrance and the whole place would be on fire. He was living out everything I wanted to be.”
Buy Is This The Real Life here…