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It Was 33 Years Ago Today: Freddie Mercury’s Infamous 39th Birthday Party

Not about to bite the dust just because he was turning 38, on his birthday party at London’s Xenon nightclub on September 5, 1984, Freddie Mercury chomped his way a five-foot-long birthday cake baked to look like a vintage Rolls-Royce. Queen’s flamboyant frontman celebrated with a party for 500 close confidantes, among them Alien and Elephant Man actor John Hurt, who chose the occasion to propose to his American actress girlfriend Donna Peacock. Clearly, neither believed in wasting any time on long engagements: The next morning he and his fiancee tied the knot at a register’s office just outside the capital.

Fast forward 12 months and Freddie’s 39th was an altogether more hedonistic affair, and a flash birthday bash which has gone down in the annals of rock history as one of the most notorious parties of our times. It all started with a beyond extravagant gathering at Munich’s transvestite club Old Mrs. Henderson. Mercury had been living in a flat nearby and flew out a few hundred of his famous friends together for his Black And White Drag Ball, a polysexual themed riot with the stylings of Truman Capote on acid. Lots of acid. Just two months prior, Queen had stolen the show and revitalised their career with their finely honed stadium bombast at Live Aid. 

In the queer of 39

When Freddie, a man never known for understatement, sent out the invitations, plane tickets and Hilton hotel bookings from Germany that September, he requested attendees cross-dress and only in black and white. The monochromatically-minded Mercury was insistent the themed dress code be adhered to, and made that perfectly clear when he called his friend and favourite celebrity photographer Richard Young to invite him to immortalise the moment: “It’s a drag ball so everybody is coming in drag. That means you too, Richard.” Young flew to the Bavarian city and, kitted out in his wife Susan’s size 10 dress, a wig, tights and flat shoes (“You can’t take pictures in heels: they’re far too uncomfortable.”), shot the celebrations in full swing. “We all got made up, and had a wild party that went through the whole night. Freddie was calling me Muriel. All of his friends had a nickname and mine was Muriel Young, like the TV presenter from the ’50s.”

Fred, of course, came as himself, because of course he did. The singer showed up as a Harlequin, dressed in a diamond-patterned catsuit with trademark Adidas trainers topped off with an ostentatious Russian Imperialist-style jacket. Designed by the Emanuels, the husband and wife team responsible for Princess Diana’s endless wedding dress four years earlier, Fred would give the wide-shouldered creation – very Michael Jackson meets Joan Collins in Dynasty – another airing two months later at the altogether more sedate surroundings of the Fashion Aid fundraiser at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

The following day in Munich, Henderson’s was also used by Mercury to shoot the video for his 1985 solo single Living on My Own which includes high-spirited footage shot at the thrusty throw-down the night before. I’ll leave you to think about that for a hot minute before we get to a few pieces of folklore about Queen’s party habits as well as one of the vocalist’s follow-up birthday blowouts on the Balearic island of Ibiza in ’87 (below).

Queen embraced success and excess. And if you know anything about camp Mercury, you know the man liked to enjoy himself, and took on the task of orchestrating nearly every detail of the pomp rock quartet’s debauched decadence, such as the time in 1978 when he booked-up the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter for the band and 500 of their guests to celebrate their upcoming record, Jazz. Featured festivities included an entertainer biting heads off live chickens, nude models wrestling in the bath, and dwarves were hired to walk around the party with trays of Bolivian cocaine strapped to their heads, while cocktail services were provided by a plethora of naked waiters and waitresses. 

In 1979, to mark Fred’s 33rd more than 100 associates were flown in on Concorde for a party in a New York hotel. “Don’t worry about the costs, dears,” the frisky one announced. “The only thing you’ll have to pay for are the condoms.” Supplemented by regulars from Manhattan’s hardcore gay clubs, along with an assortment of deviants, there ensued a five-day orgy. Highlights included a trio of auto-fellating transsexuals and a group of ladies who performed a variety of sexual acts with snakes. David Attenborough would have been appalled.

A former road manager picks up the story…

 “Led Zeppelin set the benchmark for rock ’n’ roll touring excess, but Queen took it up a number of notches. Their excess was organised like a military manoeuvre. The drugs were flown in to whatever city they were playing. If the coke didn’t arrive on time, the show would be delayed. The sex was always on a plate. Half the fun of touring with any band is sitting down at breakfast the morning after a show and hearing what the musicians had got up to the previous night. Roger Taylor had the reputation of being a complete rock slut. Every morning there’d be a story going round about him that would make you drop your knife and fork. Then someone would stroll in and spill the beans on what Freddie had got up to and that would make you fall off your chair. Around ’78/’79, when Queen became huge, Freddie’s appetites soared. He was non-stop sex and drugs. Before a show, after a show… even between songs. Before an encore, he’d nip backstage, have a few lines of coke, get a quick blow-job from some bloke he’d just met, then run back to the stage and finish the gig. The man had stamina.”

In the autumn of 1980 came Crazy Little Thing Called Love (rockabilly Elvis meets The Supremes, whose lead singer Diana Ross later covered the track with guest axe spot from Bryan May) and Another One Bites The Dust (disco Chic meets Michael Jackson, who kept telling Freddie, “You need a song the cats can dance to.”) Both singles were taken from the album The Game, providing Queen with their first US chart-toppers. Mercury settled in New York, purchasing a luxury apartment overlooking Central Park. The big disease with the little name had yet to cast its terrible shadow and NYC’s gay community was enjoying a golden age of promiscuity. As Mercury put it: “New York is Sin City and here I am free to slut myself to the hilt. I get up in the morning, scratch my head and wonder who I’m going to fuck next.”

In April 1969 unknown singer-songwriter David Bowie played a lunchtime gig in the canteen at Ealing art school. Student Freddie helped carry Bowie’s amp and helped build a makeshift stage for him out of canteen tables. Mercury never mentioned their first encounter when he worked with the grand Dame years later.

When Queen and David Bowie got together in 1981 to record Vanilla Ice’s favourite 45 Under Pressure, they powered through the 24-hour session with copious piles of wine and cocaine, which would explain the song’s horrifically muddy mix Brian May’s been trying to rectify ever since. It was the first proper collaboration for both parties and gave the band their second No.1 single in their homeland. They also cracked South America, their tour that year culminating in a gig at São Paulo’s Morumbi Stadium for 131,000 fans. The transatlantic chart dominance wasn’t to last though, and with the new decade tastes were changing. Yes, Queen had ridden out punk, but whether they could survive in the post-punk era of new romanticism, white funk and the electronic pop being made by bands like New Order and The Human League was another matter.

There were signs of Queen losing momentum, and American sales started to dip alarmingly once Mercury dropped his androgynous ‘flash and glitter’ image and adopted a Village People-inspired gay clone look of short-cropped hair, ‘flavour-savour’ porno ‘tache, sometimes even going every inch of the hog with PVC trousers and a trademark leather-and-chain cap. Disco sucks they said, and so it seemed did Freddie, who steered Queen in a defiantly dancefloor direction for 1982’s ill-conceived and poorly received Hot Space. He’d started to frequent hardcore gay sex clubs and bathhouses such as Mineshaft and The Anvil, which Mercury’s pal Steve Strange famously immortalised on Visage’s second album of the same name. Rock was out, fists were in.

Give me the love glove. Oh, alright then

In his 1998 memoir Freddie’s personal assistant Peter Freestone describes his boss’s average day in the early Eighties. He’d rise around 4pm and rid his apartment of the previous night’s conquests – often as many as six. After breakfast, he’d hand a shopping list to Freestone, who would head off to the drug dealer. Around 8pm, a limo would pick up Mercury and his entourage and drop them at a club, where they’d join hundreds of others in a non-stop fuck-a-thon.

According to Elton John, Freddie partied harder than anyone he ever met. “We’d be up for nights,” he told Uncut magazine in 2001, “sitting there at 11 in the morning, still flying high. Queen were supposed to be catching a plane and Freddie would be like, ‘Oh fuck, another line, dear?’ His appetites were unquenchable. He could out-party me, which is saying something.”

Steve Strange, Fred and unidentified campster

In September 1987, Freddie Mercury celebrated his 41st birthday at Pikes Hotel in Ibiza, several months after discovering that he was living on borrowed time. Mercury sought much comfort at the”fun and sunshine” retreat where four years earlier George Michael had filmed the video for Wham!’s Club Tropicana just a fortnight before I set a photographed foot or two on the island.

The party has been described as “the most incredible example of excess the Mediterranean island had ever seen”, and “the most lavish party even Pike had ever thrown.” It has been cited as a legendary party, with a celebrity guest list of some 500 people and up to 700 people in total which included Julio Iglesias, Grace Jones, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kylie Minogue, Anthony Quinn, Bon Jovi, Boy George, Tony Curtis, Robert Plant, Naomi Campbell, Spandau Ballet and, er, Five Star. Elton John, who was embroiled in a rent boy scandal with The Sun (and, er, let’s just say there’s a lot more to that story than has ever been made public) wisely stayed away.

A notable feature of the party was its thousands of gold and black helium balloons which reportedly took three days to inflate, and a grand firework display at the end which was reported to have been seen on Majorca. A staggering 350 bottles of Moet & Chandon champagne, and a cake in the shape of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral were provided for the celebrations, although the original cake collapsed and was replaced with a 2-metre-long sponge with the notes from Barcelona, Mercury’s duet with the opera soprano Montserrat Caballé. The bill, which included 232 broken glasses, was presented to Queen’s manager, Jim Beach.

To this day Mercury’s birthday is still celebrated at Pikes, and as unhinged as Mercury’s behaviour could be behind-the-scenes there isn’t much evidence to cite his zealous pursuit of good times altering his ability to slay with his four-octave vocal range and commanding stage presence. To say nothing of the stone cold fact, this man knew how to partay. In contrast to Mercury’s flamboyance, Brian May fretted and fussed and suffered from long bouts of manic depression. Meanwhile, Roger Taylor seemed hell-bent on out-grossing Freddie in the rock slapper stakes, while John Deacon played the stoical bass player to perfection. The psychological complexities of the relationship between the four of them would have required an army of analysts to resolve, and at times threatened to tear the band apart.

Just when it seemed they’d used themselves up, Live Aid offered Queen a chance to test just how far they could extend themselves in front of a TV audience of nearly two billion. Their response to charges of preposterous bombast and epic folly was to up the ante as they stormed their way through a bravura set that included Bohemian Rhapsody, Radio Gaga, Hammer To Fall, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions.

As Bob Geldof tells it: “Live Aid gave Freddie Mercury the chance of poncing about in front of the world. They were absolutely the best band on that day. It was the perfect stage for them and they seemed to instinctively know that. It was as if they were the only act who grasped the fact that this was a global jukebox and they had to be the biggest and the loudest if people were going to sit up and take notice.” It’s no surprise that such a talked about performance is the centrepiece of the Bohemian Rhapsody film biopic.

Meanwhile, that terrible shadow was closing in. By 1987, AIDS had been common knowledge for at least four years, though Mercury had steadfastly refused to compromise his hedonistic lifestyle. It was an attitude he would be forced to revise in early ’87 when two of his close friends died of the disease. Then, around Easter of that year, after his own suspicions he’d been carrying the HIV virus that leads to AIDS for at least two or three years, Freddie tested positive for AIDS himself, at first choosing to share the dreadful news only with his boyfriend, Jim Hutton.

The show went on until November 24, 1991. The man born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar was 45.

Unlike his former friend and collaborator, David Bowie, Mercury appeared refreshingly unconcerned with how his legacy would be preserved for future generations, never less than brutally honest whenever he was asked about the prospects of Queen’s music standing the test of time: “I don’t give a fuck, dear. I won’t be around to worry about it.” 

Steve Pafford

Postscript: Two years after his death, Living On My Own was remixed in 1993 by No More Brothers in a sequencer-heavy dance version that made the original recording sound like wafer-thin demo. Naturally, it was a huge hit, reaching No.1 in the UK and much of Europe (though not Germany, ironically), becoming Freddie’s only solo chart-topper. Thankfully, plenty of delicious deviant footage of that birthday party remained…

My exclusive audio recording of George Michael talking about Queen, Freddie, Bowie and Under Pressure is here

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