When, in 1980, drummer John Bonham died in his sleep after a night of alcoholic excess, Led Zeppelin died with him. The remaining band members made it clear that to continue without their friend would be an insult to the music they had made together and to the band's millions of fans the world over.
As a 13-year-old Led Zeppelin fanatic, pumped for the band's already scheduled U.S. tour, which would've afforded me my first Zeppelin concert experience, I was devastated. But still, ending the band seemed like the right thing to do; like the Beatles, Zep soared on the contributions of all four members, and it was abundantly clear that Bonham could never really be replaced. Better to go out on top and leave the fans with unsullied memories, I figured.
Freddie Mercury was more than the voice of Queen. He was the band's frontman, its conduit to the rest of the world, the image conjured by Queen's impossible-to-define sound, the face and the body and the soul of the group. When he died from AIDS-related pneumonia at age 45 in 1991, it didn't even seem like Queen's continuing was a reasonable subject for discussion.
How could there ever be a Queen without Freddie?
On March 17, inside HSBC Arena, the Western New York contingent of the Queen fan club will have the opportunity to answer this question for itself. Fifteen years after Mercury's death, Queen is coming to Buffalo. And the singer that the surviving band members -- guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, the group's founders -- have enlisted may surprise longtime fans.
I must admit, when I heard that May and Taylor were finally going to break the quarantine they'd placed on Queen as a live act following Mercury's death, I was nervous. When I then learned that the group had enlisted former Free/Bad Company/the Firm vocalist Paul Rodgers, I was flabbergasted.
There is only one artist who could fill Mercury's shoes, I reasoned at the time, and that's David Bowie. Though Bowie lacks Mercury's broad vocal range, he shares his sense of theatricality, his flair for vocal dynamics, his ability to manipulate light and shade, his penchant for donning varied musical styles like so many different pairs of stage trousers. Yes, Bowie -- who sang with the band at the Mercury Tribute concert in 1992 and collaborated on the brilliant hit "Under Pressure" -- might make a reconstituted Queen worthwhile.
But Paul Rodgers?
Unquestionably, Rodgers is one of the finest white blues singers to emerge from the 1960s British rock scene. With Free, he was a powerhouse. Flanked by the brilliant guitarist Paul Kossoff, Rodgers sang with a stirring blend of soul and chops. When that band folded and Rodgers formed Bad Company with former Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and Free drummer Simon Kirk, he continued to command respect. Bad Company blended roots sounds, country and arena rock beautifully, and the group released a consistently excellent body of work throughout the '70s before reconstituting itself as a bad '80s hair band following Rodgers' departure.
Filling Freddie's shoes, however, is an entirely different proposition. Rodgers, though diverse in his approach to rock, is essentially a blues belter. Mercury was all over the place. He could sing hard rock, no question, but he just as often drew from vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, classical, opera, pop, '50s rock 'n' roll, Dixieland, gospel, disco, dance, soul and Arabian music. This brazen blend of all of the above is what made Queen brilliant.
Queen could rock as hard as anyone -- are there any mightier songs than "Brighton Rock" or "Tie Your Mother Down," "Death On Two Legs," "Stone Cold Crazy," "Seven Seas of Rye," "Sweet Lady," "White Man," "Get Down Make Love" and dozens more? Rodgers could handle this stuff with aplomb, no doubt. But what about the other sides of Mercury? "Love of My Life," for example, or campy bits like "Seaside Rendezvous," "Good Old Fashioned Loverboy," "We Are the Champions," "I Want to Break Free," "The Show Must Go On," "Radio Ga Ga," "Killer Queen"? Would Paul Rodgers, blues-belting he-man, now be prancing about on stage in a leotard, ballet slippers, and various bits of S&M regalia, a smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eye? "Lord," I thought to myself, "I hope not."
As it turns out, based on the recent release of the "Queen: Return of the Champions" CD and DVD, Rodgers has pulled off the seemingly impossible; he's done a reasonable job of filling Freddie's . . . er, slippers. Remarkably, Rodgers handles Mercury's left-of-center eccentricities pretty well. Of course, he shines on the rockers -- no surprise there. But Rodgers has managed to step in for Mercury without imitating him. What does Queen with Paul Rodgers sound like? Exactly that; Brian May and Roger Taylor playing Queen songs with Paul Rodgers singing them.
May, of course, is one of the finest rock guitarists in the history of the idiom. He's consistently inventive and unique. Taylor is an agile drummer and a brilliant singer. Both men had as much to do with conjuring the grandiose, flamboyant and sometimes just plain silly sound that was Queen as did Mercury. They have a right to play the music. And happily, they seem to be doing so in a way that avoids exploitation. Rodgers stepping in for Mercury works a lot better on stage than it looks on paper.
No one can replace Freddie Mercury. He was one of a kind. Rodgers, wisely, has not even attempted to do so. Rather, he's bringing his own gift to the coronation.
Tickets for Queen's March 17 show inside HSBC Arena range from $35 to $99, and can be purchased now at the box office or through www.tickets.com.