Added on 26-Apr-2009
Band led by the late Freddie Mercury inspire huge devotion at Brean Sands holiday camp event organised by Jacky Smith
Freddie Mercury Performing at Wembley
Queen are arguably Britain’s favourite band after the Beatles, a contention confirmed by the 24th annual Queen fan convention, a weekend affair that took place this year at a holiday camp in Brean Sands, Somerset. And they inspire a particularly fierce kind of devotion, despite the fact that their front man, Freddie Mercury, died almost 18 years ago.
Queen music is played on the PA at the entrance. Queen videos are streamed constantly into the guests’ chalets on something called QTV. There are Queen ice-cream flavours in the supermarket — Bohemian Raspberry, Killer Cream — and Queen cocktails on the menu at the bar, which take their names directly from Queen songs. And in the main hall, numerous wannabe Freddies are on stage putting the new SingStar Queen computer game for the Sony PlayStation (previously, only Abba have been afforded such an accolade) through its paces. Male and female, young and old, they struggle heroically to hit the neo-operatic high notes on karaoke versions of I Want It All and Don’t Stop Me Now.
Because of their unique brand of fanaticism, it is considered prudent to hire out the resort to zealots only. “Queen fans and the public don’t mix,” says Jacky Smith, who has been organising the conventions since they began in 1986. The first one, she recalls, saw 600 acolytes congregate at Great Yarmouth, reaching a peak in 1987, when 2,000 flocked to Southport. She’s happy, considering the financial crisis, with the 1,200 or so who have bought tickets this year.
Smith has also been running the Queen fan club for 27 years. She describes herself as “part of the inner sanctum”, but is professional enough to know where to draw the line. “One of the reasons I got the job is that I wasn’t a huge Queen fan,” she says. “They didn’t want someone who’d faint every time a member of the band walked in.” It’s for this reason that the guitarist, Brian May, and the drummer, Roger Taylor — the bassist, John Deacon, does not play with the current line-up, although he still donates items for the convention’s charity auction — never attend. As one fan puts it: “There just wouldn’t be enough security. The people here would literally go insane.”
Smith accepts that the event attracts “its fair share of oddballs”, but adds: “Nobody here is dangerously strange. They’re quirky. People can get away with being themselves, which is one of the reasons we don’t share it with the general public. But in 24 years, we’ve only had two fights.”
Some of those “oddballs” include a chap who has changed his name to Roger Taylor by deed poll and a girl who once “posted” herself to the drummer in a box. Smith herself met her ex-husband at a convention, and admits that romances are commonplace. “Outrageous things happen,” she asserts, “but what goes on at convention stays here.” People, she explains, save all year to attend, and in many cases it’s their annual holiday. “Their devotion,” she says, “is unbelievable.”
Jennifer Keenan, a 34-year-old biochemist, has flown over from Chicago. She tells me she was born the year that Killer Queen was released, as though it was fate, and claims to own the largest collection of Queen memorabilia in North America, including underwear, gloves, hats and all their records in every format — even eight-track cartridge and 45rpm singles. She has a “Queen room” in her house, and her proudest possessions are her replica Brian May guitar, a pair of his shoes, which cost $1,200, and a pair of his swimming trunks, which she has never washed. May is her favourite Queen member: in 1997, she won a radio competition, the prize for which was a three-hour lunch with the guitarist. Problem was, it was at Quaglino’s restaurant, in London. That didn’t stop her hopping on the first plane to Heathrow. “I was nervous, but he has such a calming presence,” she confides. “We talked about family, school and music. He was very paternal.” Keenan also made the pilgrimage to Mercury’s house in Kensington, to sign the wall. “Queen,” she says, “have provided the soundtrack to my life.”
Her position as North America’s biggest Queen fan is threatened by Dave Webster, a moustachioed fiftysomething whose collection — 2,000 items at the last count — is so impressive that the Queen tribute act It’s a Kind of Magic travelled to his home in Toronto to see it. He admits that his dream is to meet May, and that when he got married, he chose You’re My Best Friend for the first dance. “I love Freddie’s aura and persona, and his life-style — I live it!” he exclaims. “Except that I’m married. But, you know, I like to party,” he says with a wink.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the convention is that a band fronted by someone as flamboyant and openly gay as Freddie Mercury should be so warmly embraced by such straight, heterosexual types: the men mostly have shaved heads, with an occasional greying or grown-out mullet on display, while both sexes predominantly dress down in jeans and T-shirts — some of those worn by the girls here feature images of Roger Taylor beside the slogan I So Would . . . Still . . . The atmosphere is very Phoenix Nights; you imagine a character as colourful and camp as Mercury would, were he not a pop star, be openly reviled were he to walk in. Not so, according to those I spoke to.
“His personal life was his business,” says Lisa Hewings, 37, from Caerphilly. Besides, as Jacky Smith contends: “There are lots of gay people here.” Mark Hanson, a 46-year-old BT engineer with a Queen tattoo that covers his whole stomach, is affronted by the suggestion that fans of the band might be homophobic. “I don’t conform to that way of thinking,” he says. “Live and let live. I don’t give a toss about his sexual orientation — nobody does here.” He professes to be even more of a Mercury fan than he is a Queen lover. “He was the best showman ever — his voice stirs something inside me.”
The youngsters are similarly moved. Samantha Sibson, 20, who has been coming to the conventions for years, relates an incident in which her dad fell asleep as Mercury’s last boyfriend, Jim Hutton, applied make-up to his face. “If that happened at home,” she marvels, “there would have been trouble.” Her boyfriend, James Hargreaves, a 21-year-old from Bolton, is a convert. “Compared to Queen, Oasis are shit,” he says. “The Beatles were really just a pop group. But Queen define rock’n’roll.”
Danielle Friel, 21, and her sister Siobhan, 18, concur. “Queen inspire more devotion than any other band,” they argue, although they concede that Muse and Radiohead come close. For the girls, Queen are a religion. “They are,” they say, “our one true passion.” They point out that each member of the band has his own followers — Freddie fans are called Mercurians, then there are the Taylorettes, the Mayniacs and the Deaconites. “Queen have the most dedicated fans in the world,” they tell me. “Even Brian thinks we’re nuts.”
Following the annual tug-of-war, the audience sit in rapt silence as messages from May and Taylor appear on video screens. A Q&A with Barry Mitchell, the band’s bassist for six months in 1970, sees him treated with awe. Meanwhile, over at the marketplace, you can buy gold-plated Queen guitar strings, mirrors, woodcarvings and dinner plates; and at the auction, a tour jacket signed by May and Taylor goes for £310. Later, a series of tribute bands will offer unique takes on Queen’s music: the Swiss group Montreux Tribute will feature baroque renditions and an all-female string quartet, while the Dutch act Rock4 will perform Queen hits entirely a cappella.
In the lobby, I am accosted by a woman with a crew cut drunk on “convention water” (a bottle of Evian filled with vodka), who reveals that her fiancé pleasures her while she watches Queen videos. But Amy Potter, a 21-year-old with pink hair and a nose ring, who works at a petrol station in Oxford, strikes a more elegiac note. “I come here every year,” she says. “Queen are my favourite band ever — I’ve been dancing round tables to them since I was four.” She admits that she “got a bit emotional” when These Are the Days of Our Lives appeared on the video, and is equally touched by the openness of her new friends. “The people here are so accepting of each other,” she says. “I’m lucky to have it, really. It’s something in my life to look forward to.”
For more information about the Queen fan convention, visit www.queenworld.com. SingStar Queen is available on PlayStation 3