I want to break free

Richard Young tells the story behind his candid photographs of Freddie Mercury
By Kinza Shenn | Art | 12 September 2016

Top Image: Queen In Concert, Magic Tour, Wembley Stadium (1986) by Richard Young

Freddie Mercury traipses around his garden in a red cotton tracksuit, smoking a cigarette. A large, sequinned, marabou-feather butterfly is perched atop his head. It’s his 40th birthday party in 1986, and he celebrates at his Kensington home, Garden Lodge, with a dress code of “mad hats”. The party is complete with a cake shaped like a magician’s hat with a kitten popping out. One year before, this time in a nightclub in Munich, Mercury throws a black-and-white drag ball with the stylings of Truman Capote on acid. His friend and favourite photographer Richard Young present both times, immortalising the moment. 

This week marks what would have been Freddie Mercury’s 70th birthday. At his eponymous gallery, Richard Young has curated his archive of Freddie images into an exhibition, It’s a Kind of Magic. The iconic, the iconoclastic and the previously unseen photos chronicle the dizzying world of Freddie, with deifying stage photos at Wembley stadium, Rock in Rio, Live Aid; tender portraits on rooftops in Budapest, at home with his cat; at parties, whimsical parties, seedy parties, parties at the House of Commons.

Kate Moss once said, “If Richard isn’t there, it’s not really a party”. He spent 40 years roaming in social circles that included everyone from The Rolling Stones to Jack Nicholson to The Sex Pistols to Fidel Castro. The kind of people still enshrouded in that old, pre-Instagram mystique. Young spent his life in the throws of hedonistic night but it was on just the one, as he tells us, that he befriended Freddie Mercury. 

Gallery: Selected works from 'It’s a Kind of Magic' by Richard Young


Kinza Shenn: Tell me about that first night that, as you say, launched your career.
Richard Young: It was 1978, a New Year’s Eve party at a club on Jermyn Street called Maunkberry’s. I went there by sheer accident because I was on my way to a Rod Stewart concert at the Lyeum, but when I arrived I found out it was cancelled because he had the flu or some throat infection. I thought, it’s New Year’s Eve, what should I do with myself? I ended up at Maunkberry’s. After the first ten minutes of being there, in walked the first guests. Well, Rod Stewart walked in, so obviously his throat was a lot better. Then Keith Richards with Ronnie Woods – they’d been having dinner at the Ritz. Then Britt Ekland walked in, and then Freddie Mercury with all his chums. And it was the beginning of my very long, wonderful friendship with Freddie Mercury that lasted up to the time that he passed away.

KS: Could you describe more of the atmosphere and scene that night?
RY: To this day, I’ve never been to a New Year’s Eve party on such a scale. Up to midnight, well, really, 3am, it was noisy, crazed, tons of drinks; everyone was having a great time. Britt Ekland was being carried all over the place by the waiters. Keith had a tie hanging around his cotton t-shirt because at the Ritz, you’ve got to wear a shirt and tie.

KS: Very smart.
RS: It was mad. And it was wonderful to meet all these people under those circumstances and be able to photograph them in a situation where, in today’s standards, you would have to have picture approval, this, that and everything else. That night it was: shoot it, enjoy it, and it went on the centre spread of the Daily Express the next day.

“Keith Richards had a tie hanging around his cotton t-shirt because at the Ritz, you’ve got to wear a shirt and tie.”

Freddie Mercury 40th Birthday Party, Britain (1986) by Richard Young

KS: What was it about that night on NYE that you think sparked something special?
RY: Well, it all felt spontaneous – you don’t get that spirit in clubs anymore. Now, it’s controlled, roped off. There’s no longer the spontaneity of walking into something and letting it develop in its own good way – and getting great photographs out of it. Allowing the guests to have a good time, and giving them the space to really express themselves without being told what they can do and can’t do. It’s sad, in a way. Because the real person, the real celebrity, the real star, isn’t coming to the forefront visually because it’s being so controlled and held back.

KS: I’d love to hear about Freddie’s notorious drag ball birthday party that’s documented in the exhibition.
RY: It was one of the most amazing moments that happened with Freddie. He rang me around 1987. He said, “Richard, I want you to come to Munich; I want you to photograph my birthday party.” I said, “No problem, Freddie!” He said, “Everyone’s going to be in drag.” I said, “No problem!” And then he said it again: “Everybody.” Which included me. My wife had to find me a dress, it was a size 10, which was quite a nice feeling. I went off to Munich, 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.

“He said, “Richard, I want you to come to Munich and photograph my birthday party.” I said, “No problem, Freddie!” He said, “Everyone’s going to be in drag.” Which included me.”

KS: What were some of the other nicknames?
RY: Elton John was Phyllis, or Rod Stewart was called Phyllis. Somebody was called Phyllis.

KS: What was Freddie wearing at the drag ball?
RY: Ah well, that’s the whole point for him – he was the only one who didn’t come in drag. He came as a Harlequin. In his diamond-patterned catsuit. 

KS: What are your most memorable moments of Freddie’s style and fashion?
RY: Adidas trainers. He always wore those. 

Queen filming video (1986) by Richard Young

KS: Does any one moment of shooting Queen really stick out to you?
RY: I remember the day they shot the video for I Want to Break Free, where they dressed up as housewives. They loved it, they were really camping it up. Although they probably got it on the first or second take, they went for six or seven just so they could continue. There have been many, many, many moments, and they’ve since become a collective. They all tumble into one moment.

KS: What’s the difference between Freddie with his friends versus his on-stage persona?
RY: As a performer, it was his stage and no one could get anywhere near it. You only have to look at Live Aid, where he stole the show. He was magical. When he comes off the stage, he’d sit down, relax, and within minutes he’d be back to Freddie funny-boy, having a great time laughing with all his mates.

KS: I heard you mention that you’re both virgos. Of course, zodiac is an important part of Queen, with their crest designed around each band members’ star sign.
RY: Yeah, he’s a virgo and I’m a virgo. We like everything in order, we don’t like confrontation, we’re very romantic, we’re very precise about the way we look. We try to be helpful, and we try to be generous and kind. That pretty much sums up Freddie.

‘A Kind of Magic’ runs until 5th November at the Richard Young Gallery, Kensington


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