Most bands are dominated by a single songwriter, or by a songwriting pair. Not so Queen. While singer Freddie Mercury and guitarist Brian May may have done much of the heavy lifting in the 1970s, the following decade saw bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor more than pay their way. So much so that when Mercury eventually suggested that the band spilt their songwriting royalties evenly, it was Taylor who had the most to lose.
"I was writing most of the hits by then," he said in 2021. "But I can’t complain."
Perhaps uniquely, Queen's four songwriters all wrote huge hits, from Mercury's Bohemian Rhapsody to Taylor's Radio Ga Ga via Deacon's You're My Best Friend and May's We Will Rock You. But it's Mercury's that loom largest in the public imagination, not least because Freddie was Freddie and Freddie is gone.
"Everybody gets so mixed up with all the other sides: the flash, the sexual ambiguity, the showmanship, the voice…," Roger Taylor told Classic Rock in 2011. "It doesn’t frustrate me, because I’m just pleased he’s remembered. But it’s when you delve deeper that you really get his musicality. Actually, at the bottom of it all was just a genius songwriter.
"It’s just staggering. His words got better quickly. There were some very overt lyrics. Don’t Stop Me Now is a good example. He was having a good time, and that was very much a cri de coeur. Some lyrics we wrote together, like I’m Going Slightly Mad, which was funny. We had fun coming up with daft things, all those ridiculous phrases.
"I’d say it was Freddie’s actual musicality which was the cleverest thing of all, the notes, and his harmonic structure was quite brilliant. When he wrote The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, on the second album, he was crossing sections of six-part harmonies, and I thought: 'Bloody hell, that is tricky stuff.' Then there’s The March Of The Black Queen, which is almost like prog-rock, and so outrageously complicated that I can’t even remember the arrangement myself.
"When you write songs that complex, you have to work hard at it, and it did involve a lot of head-scratching. But then he’d come up with a Killer Queen or, later on, lots of simple things like Crazy Little Thing. He had it on all sides. Freddie evolved. I always called him ‘the man who invented himself’. I think the talent was innate, but he dug deep inside himself and forced it out. His determination was quite something."
"There was huge songwriting competition in Queen, no doubt about it," remembered Brian May. "It was a major factor in pushing us onwards. We were very conscious that we had to reach inside ourselves to keep up. Occasionally Freddie would write fast, but a lot of the time he’d go home and scheme and scheme, and come back with stuff written all over a pad of his dad’s notepaper. He’d spend time developing ideas.
"But there are exceptions, where he’d get the song in one bite. And often they’re the ones that connect. Freddie mainly used the piano for songwriting, but there were times when he’d get inspiration when he wasn’t around his instrument. It could be any experience; a skate on the pond. One of the last songs he wrote, A Winter’s Tale, was written purely sat looking out on the mountains from the other side of Lake Geneva. He could obviously hear it all in his head, although he didn’t have any musical instruments with him.
"I remember him coming into the studio and saying: “I’ve got this idea… just give me a few minutes.” Then he brought it to life. That’s a beautiful track, actually. Another favourite is The Miracle, which has an incredible lightness to it. I’d say my favourite Freddie song to play is We Are The Champions – still. And I don’t know how many times I’ve played it, but it always pulls something out of you. It’s one of those songs where even if the winds are blowing in the wrong direction it still sounds good."