Arts Peter Freestone - former personal assistant to Freddie Mercury – discusses forgotten tracks the singer taped with Michael Jackson
For 12 years Peter Freestone was a personal assistant and close friend to Freddie Mercury, the singer who reached superstardom with the rock group Queen. He was also there during the singer’s last days in 1991. Since the start of the Noughties, Freestone has lived in the Czech Republic. I contacted him this week after it was confirmed that Queen will release three tracks that time forgot which Mercury recorded with Michael Jackson, a recording at which Freestone was present.
“Basically it was 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My job was just to be there for Freddie, to take care of him really.”
Was it enjoyable work to be so close to someone who was publically such a huge star?
“I think the easiest way to say it is yes, it was work (I know this because there was money going into the bank every month) but really I was basically living Freddie’s life. It was amazing. I had the easy part: I could spend what he really worked hard to earn. I did the shopping and I went to auctions for him, you know, that was the easy part of the job.”
I’ve read that Freddie Mercury, like many stars, was a different person behind closed doors, that he was someone who intensely valued his privacy. Is that true?
“Yes, very much. Even when he invited friends to Garden Lodge, his home, people he knew... he would still play the part of the entertainer. He could only really be himself when there were just the four or five of the closest people he knew at Garden Lodge. Then he could be himself. Of course, when he walked out the door he became public property. And he realised that. So he became what the public expected. He would have on the t-shirt, leather jacket, jeans, trainers, the sunglasses... and he would become what was expected of him.”
The Times and Rolling Stone both caught fans’ attention this week by confirming that three lost songs Freddie recorded 30 years ago with Michael Jackson will be released later this year. At least one version of one of the songs is already well-known; another, called Victory, is not, and if I am not mistaken has never been heard. Did you ever wonder to yourself, since you were there at the time, whether these songs would ever be released?
“Because they were Michael’s property – they were recorded in his own studio in his home – I never expected them to see the light of day. But I am very happy they will. Two of the tracks have had various treatment by fans over the years – State of Shock and There Must Be More to Life Than This, both of which were released in different forms. One on the Jacksons’ album and one on Queen’s; but the third one, Victory, is something that has never been heard before.
“I still have some memories of it because I was there when it was recorded in the studio. In fact, on the original tape – and I don’t know if this will still exist – I played what you hear as the bass drum on the track. Only it isn’t a bass drum: what you hear is a toilet door! I had to stand there for five minutes banging a toilet door! So, you know, I think it is going to be something for people to enjoy, it should be very interesting.”
Hopefully that stays on the track!
“I hope so!” (laughs)
Do you think the release of the third song could cause a sensation?
“I really hope so. Of course even the other two tracks will receive different treatment now that Queen are involved in the production. I am sure that they will be paying attention to Freddie’s voice and the production of the whole track. They are perfectionists and everything has to be just right. But I believe that it will be worth the wait.”
Where did the impulse to work together come from?
“The first that I heard about it was when Michael came to a Queen show at the Forum in Los Angeles. I remember him talking in the corner with Freddie and John. Afterwards Freddie said 'Huh! Michael says we should be doing something together because he loves what he’s heard!' Because he’d been listening to Another One Bites the Dust and loved that and the whole feel of it. So Freddie said 'He wants to meet up to record. Ah, but it’ll never happen, it’s just talk!'. Months later that was followed up with a phone call from Michael, because he had heard Freddie was in L.A. and he invited him over.”
My understanding is that that meeting was less than optimal...
(burst of laughter) “I know what you are referring to. Well, Michael, if you remember, at that time in his place in Encino had almost a mini-zoo and his favourite animals at the time were the llamas. Given it was summer in Los Angeles, Freddie wore a white t-shirt, white jeans, white trainers and after the tour his t-shirt was white but his jeans were brown at the bottom with spattered mud and he had brown trainers because we’d had been traipsing through the mud.”
“Michael also took us around his home and in his bedroom and it was so funny: he had a large terrarium with a big snake inside. Publically, Michael said it was a great friend and the best and a really good and amazing snake... we couldn’t help but notice that there were about forty bricks keeping the lid of the terrarium down, to make sure it could not get out!”
“Yeah, it’s amazing what can be said in public and the little different facts behind it!”
The actual recordings: when were those done, on a different day?
“No it was the same day. Both of them were really busy recording and touring in 1983. Michael wanted Freddie to finish State of Shock because he wanted it for the Jacksons’ album called Victory. But Freddie had very little time and he wasn’t able to finish it. So Michael suggested that Mick Jagger could sing the other part and Freddie said of course it’s your music, he didn’t object. For time reasons, the two weren’t able to pick up the material again.”
How does the quality of the vocals strike you in terms of how the singers complement each other? Freddie was such a powerhouse singer...
“I think because they are so different that it works very well. If both of them had powerful voices it would seem almost like a competition. You used the right word with ‘complement’: the two voices work together very well and it’s like a conversation.”
You were with Freddy up until his death in 1991; I wanted to ask you how your life changed after that – eventually you ended up here in the Czech Republic.
“It has been 12 years now here. Yeah, life did change after that... but if you think about it Freddie has been gone 23 years and I am still talking about him! Physically, he isn’t around anymore but his image, voice and personality have survived. He was a unique person, an amazing one and he wrote some great music and there is still a lot of interest and many in the new generation ask me about that. I tell them what I can.
“I mean, I am still involved in music here in the Czech Republic, I am involved in a thing called Rock Camp for kids between the age of 11 and 17 and we get together and they make music which is amazing. I am also involved with a Czech musician who has a band who has convinced me for the first time in my life to believe I can write lyrics for music. So everything I am doing even today is because of Freddie Mercury.”
Queen still has legions of fans worldwide but I’ve read that there are radio stations that won’t play performers older than 30! That doesn’t seem to be the case with Czech stations and Queen has always seemed to have held a special spot for many music fans here...
“One of the reasons that I settled in the Czech Republic is because of peoples’ attitudes to music. In Britain it’s very narrow-minded. People, particularly young people, will only listen to what they’re told to listen to, basically. They have MTV and they are glued to that and that, they believe, is all there is. Here, I know, having met him a few times, Karel Gott, who people listen to from the age of nine to 90! In England that doesn’t happen. Here, in schools, children are taught about Janáček, Dvořák, Smetana; again, that doesn’t happen in Britain. People here are prepared to open their minds to music. As for Queen, the reason Queen is so established and well-liked, is because their music is truly timeless. If you listen today, their music is still as fresh as 40 years ago when they started. It is still as fresh as it was then.”