News > There's a new Queen in town

Added on 12-Mar-2010

FREDDIE Mercury, flamboyant lead singer of British supergroup Queen, loved to play Scrabble. When he wasn't prancing on stage in white satin pants delivering

a phenomenal performance, composing musical hits or holding one of his legendary parties, Mercury would produce a Scrabble set and urge those around to join in.

"He hated to lose at Scrabble," recalls Peter Hince, Queen's former road manager.

Whatever history has done with Mercury's Scrabble set, the whereabouts of his celebrated pink ladies turtleneck is plain. The garment has arrived at the Art Gallery of Ballarat as part of a new exhibition, Queen: The Unseen Archive. Mercury wore the turtleneck for the group's 1984 I Want to Break Free video clip, part of Queen's The Works album.

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Hince visited Ballarat to launch the exhibition, which features his photos of the band alongside an array of rare Queen-related memorabilia. Mercury, for the record, never did make it to Ballarat. The nearest he came was the Sunbury Rock Festival outside Melbourne in 1974.

Historical connections between Queen and Ballarat are tenuous or less, but that concerns neither the art gallery nor Queen fans. The exhibition is unashamedly popular, bringing the gallery a fresh, younger audience, including many first-time visitors.

The gallery abolished admission charges a couple of years ago, in line with counterparts in other states. Since then, "the challenge for us has been to attract new audiences", says co-curator Ron Egeberg. Visitors admitted to the gallery free are happy to pay to see special exhibitions.

A display of never-before-seen John Lennon photos worked wonders last year and Egeberg reckons Queen will surpass it. Mercury died of AIDS complications aged 45 and a percentage of the ticket take supports the Victorian AIDS Council. As well as a modest admission fee, visitors to the Queen exhibition can unleash their plastic to buy Queen coffee mugs, Queen fridge magnets or the 30-page glossy exhibition program, complete with a selection of Hince's photographs. For real devotees, a Freddie Mercury figurine, almost 1m tall, costs $99.95. Push a button and it belts out Radio Ga Ga, We are the Champions and other Queen favourites.

Before you reach the gift shop, contemplate the original turtleneck. Almost 19 years after Mercury's death (and more than 40 years since Queen was founded), the garment evokes the singer's presence. In the video clip, Mercury wears it with a leatherette mini-skirt and wig. As memorabilia, the turtleneck is priceless. It's flanked by a host of colourful artefacts, both tour-related and personal: handwritten lyrics, original posters, passes and tickets, the tiger-skin pants favoured by drummer Roger Taylor, the dependable Shure 565 SD microphone used on every Queen tour but one, and even the yellow towelling dressing gown Mercury used before and after video shoots.

Leather caps and dressing gowns may appeal to hardcore Queen fans but attracting wider audiences requires photos, which is where Hince comes in. Nicknamed "Ratty" in his Queen heyday, Hince met the band as a teenager in 1973 while working for the rock group Mott the Hoople. He became Queen's roadie, ending up as the longest serving of the Queen crew, full-time until the end of their final tour in 1986.

A keen amateur photographer, since turned professional, Hince took hundreds of candid pictures of the band onstage and behind the scenes. Many of the shots were lost down the years, he admits, but plenty remain. Hince's favourite photo of Mercury in the exhibition is one he took of the singer in Munich, wearing a leather jacket and holding a bottle of beer.

Having asked his stylist to make him look "mean and tough", Mercury relaxed for a second, slipped into introspective mode, and Ratty got his shot.

For someone who spent so long at the cutting edge of rock at an early age, with a band notorious for lifestyle excesses, Hince is surprisingly unscathed. His memory is sharp and he's a good raconteur.

Bassist John Deacon was Queen's most underrated member, he says. What about that infamous Queen party, where dwarfs with bowls of cocaine strapped to their heads mingled with guests? "No truth in it," Hince says firmly. "It's just one of those stories that's grown up over the years."

The meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody is an enduring Queen enigma. Penned by Mercury and considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time, the extraordinary work now holds second place in Britain's official karaoke chart, behind ABBA's Waterloo.

Hince views the lyrics as a combination of Mercury's personal journey and his love of Italian opera. He recalls a late-night session with the band when Bohemian Rhapsody cropped up and someone suddenly asked: "Come on Freddie, what's it all about?"

"Oh, you know, dear, this and that, this and that," Mercury replied cryptically.

Emerging from the Art Gallery of Ballarat on a sparkling morning, visitors can find much else to keep them entertained.


Queen: The Unseen Archive runs until April 11 at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, the oldest and largest gallery in regional Australia. Gallery entry is free; entry to the special exhibition is $15, adults; $10, children or concession; $25, families up to four. Ballarat is about 90 minutes from Melbourne on the Ballarat rail line. A return V/Line off-peak full-fare ticket from Melbourne costs $20.80. More:;

Submitted by: mickyparise

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