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Freddie Mercury died 20 years ago today. The Queen singer and songwriter had been secretly battling AIDS for four years, announcing that he had contracted the disease on Nov. 23, 1991, one day before he passed away of AIDS-related bronchopneumonia. He was 45.
Known for his wide vocal range and unparalleled showmanship, the Zanzibar-born Mercury (nee Farrokh Bulsara) also wrote many of Queen’s biggest hits including the six-minute-long rock opus “Bohemian Rhapsody,” sports anthems “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You” and throwback “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
“Somebody to Love” and “Fat Bottom Girls” both got the Glee treatment this year, but in many ways, Mercury remains nearly as relevant today as his was throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Just ask Katy Perry, who dressed up as the Queen frontman for her 24th birthday party in 2008, or Lady Gaga, who named herself after a Queen song. American Idol glam rocker Adam Lambert has also cited the magnetic entertainer as a major influence, and perhaps to prove it, stepped in for the late singer at the 2011 MTV Europe Music Awards, performing a medley of Queen hits along with original members Brian May and Roger Taylor. Soon after midnight on Nov. 24, the phrase RIP Freddie Mercury was already trending in the U.S. and worldwide.
Of course, what endures, now two decades after his passing, is the music. Queen sold 32 million albums in the U.S., more than half of which were purchased after Mercury’s death, while globally, it’s estimated that the band has moved some 300 million units.
Currently celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary, surviving member Taylor is leading the charge on the Queen Extravaganza contest, which through audition videos submitted on Youtube, aims to put together a Queen tribute tour and guitarist May collaborated with Gaga on the MTV Video Music Awards in August (he recently told NME he finds Gaga “inspiring”). But Mercury’s sprit lives along with iconic imagery forever etched in the minds of the early MTV viewers. Here, seven of those moments:
“Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975)
The three-act mini-rock opera was No. 1 in the band’s native England for nine weeks and also gave Queen its first Top 10 U.S. hit. In later years, it would be sung on Wayne’s World and American Idol, but perhaps its most immediate impact came by way of a “promotional film,” AKA music video, which accompanied the track and showed the world what a rock star looked like.
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (1979)
Freddie Mercury was fashion-conscious from the start, regularly wearing bodysuits and sequined accoutrements, sometimes makeup, but for “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” the singer went for a classic leather ensemble that looks like it came straight from Elvis Presley’s 1968 special. And no wonder: the song, a No. 1 hit in the U.S., sounded like it was born of that blues-meets-doo wop era.
The band made an early foray into film when it was recruited to compose the soundtrack to the movie Flash Gordon. The first and only single, “Flash’s Theme,” didn’t do gangbusters on the charts but it would become a sort of sonic time capsule of an era when multi-layered harmonies and guitar solos ruled. Decades later, Will Ferrell and Jon Heder would skate to the song in Blades of Glory.
“Under Pressure” (1981)
A jam session the band had with David Bowie at his studio in Montreux, Switzerland turned into the duet “Under Pressure,” which featured the now instantly recognizable bass line (sampled by Vanilla Ice in 1990 for his hit “Ice Ice Baby”). It reached the U.S. Top 40 in 1981 and once again topped the charts in the U.K. The music video, however, shows neither artist as both had touring commitments they couldn’t shoot around.
“I Want to Break Free” (1984)
Freddie Mercury and Co. got themselves banned by MTV for the video to “I Want to Break Free,” which featured the guys dressed as women in an homage to hit British soap opera Coronation Street. Somehow, the tribute aspect got lost in translation and the network simply saw the clip as a series of scenes featuring Mercury in a leather mini-skirt and fishnet stockings (the moustache, however, remained). The song failed to crack the U.S. Top 40 but its controversial treatment made for an instant talker in the pre-internet age.
“Radio Ga Ga” (1984)
The inspiration for pop star Lady Gaga’s name was one of Queen’s later hits, and a modest one at that. Still, it left an impression by using images from Fritz Lang‘s 1927 science fiction movie Metropolis for the video and offering a commentary on the death of radio in its lyrics. And there was a sense of reflection, too, as the band traveled through a post-nuclear world while lamenting the old days.
Live Aid (1985)
Performing to 72,000 at London’s Wembley stadium and another 1.9 billion watching on television, Queen’s 25-minute greatest hits set instantly went down as one of the most monumental live performances in the history of rock music and fixed the spotlight directly on Mercury, who led the massive crowd in clap- and sing-alongs. More importantly, he and his bandmates played a key role in raising the more than £150 million that went towards famine relief as a result of the event.
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