Adam Lambert’s look and voice make him the man to fill the shoes of Freddie Mercury, says Neil McCormick
“I’m not Freddie,” insisted the bearded young American, lounging in a brocaded black and gold jacket, tight leggings and knee-high lace-up boots. “I’m not trying to be Freddie or compete with Freddie. But I’m seizing this opportunity to try and make his music come to life again.”
On the first day of 2015 the most searched for term on Google UK was “Adam Lambert”. It seemed the nation had been stirred into collective curiosity about the identity of the singer who welcomed in the new year with Queen. As fireworks exploded, 12 million viewers rocked to the sound of Bohemian Rhapsody and We are the Champions on BBC One.
This week, the group embark on a UK arena tour, performing to 160,000 fans before rolling on to the continent. It is all quite impressive for a band whose iconic lead singer, Freddie Mercury, passed away 24 years ago. So who is this young whippersnapper swinging the microphone in front of white bearded 65-year-old drummer Roger Taylor and frizzy haired 67-year-old guitarist Brian May?
“Adam is a phenomenon,” says May of the vocalist he first spotted on TV show American Idol. “We weren’t looking for another singer but Adam is kind of a gift from God. He has a technical ability beyond 99.9 per cent of singers in the world. You see that and can’t help but think, ‘I wonder what would happen if we opened that box again?’”
“My nickname for him is Camp Elvis,” says Taylor. “His presence and charisma reminds me of Presley in so many ways, the look, the showmanship, the overtly sexual attitude. He is absolutely scintillating on stage, a voice in a million, and the same was true of Freddie. There are almost frightening similarities, especially socially, as an overtly gay man full of wit and banter. There are moments backstage when it seems like nothing has changed at all.”
“F— yeah, I had doubts! It was really intimidating,” the 32-year-old Lambert proclaims, recalling his first performances with one of rock’s legendary bands. “Freddie is like a myth, how do you live up to that?”
Lambert was just nine when Mercury died. He discovered the band through his parents’ record collection. “Everybody knows Queen peripherally, you hear them at sporting events and stadiums, my dad helped me make the connection between the music and the people making it.” So he was already a fan when he got a chance to sing I with May and Taylor during the finale of American Idol in 2009.
“I was pinching myself. These guys were part of the golden era, you are looking at their pictures in books and magazines, then you look up and they are in the dressing room next to you.”
They got along well enough for Queen to invite Lambert to join them for a 15-minute set at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2011. “I made the mistake of going online and reading some of the comments after, and oh man, there were diehard Queen fans that were ruthless. I thought I’ve got to step up to the plate here.” When it was proposed that they play gigs together in 2012, he says: “I knew it would be a big challenge on a personal and performance level.” They played six shows, in Russia and the UK. “I was winging it, that’s what it felt like.”
But when they reunited to tour America last year, something clicked into place. “I realised it’s no use being awestruck because we are in this together. I’d done my homework. I read every biography, watched every documentary, listened to every album. It’s like I’ve crawled into the music, it’s part of my blood now, I don’t have to think about it, I can just be. You let instinct take over and that’s when things get really interesting.”
Lambert has fantastic vocal range and control. “He’s a very daring singer,”according to May. “He goes for notes he’s got no right to reach.” Although still not particularly well known in the UK, American Idol made him a household name in the US where he has had two hit albums, even though he hasn’t enjoyed the kind of blockbuster career his talent probably warrants. “I don’t think pop music is really about how high you can sing,” says Lambert. “I’ve learnt a lot in the last five years. It’s not about technique, it’s about: are you cool? Are you likeable? Are you interesting? Is there something about you that grabs people? And oh yeah, you can sing too? That’s nice.”
Charming, chatty, good humoured, Lambert comports himself with a light campness, wearing his sexuality easily. “Listen, I’ve been out of the closet since I was 18, and i’m not getting back in,” he assures me.
He was raised in San Diego in a creative, liberal household, and here was always a lot of music around. From the age of nine, Lambert became involved in theatre. When it became evident that singing was his strength, he took voice lessons and studied opera. From the age of 19, he was making a living in musical theatre, performing in productions of Hair, Brigadoon and Wicked. "I kind of slowly fell out of love with the idea of being onstage eight shows a week doing the same thing every performance, over and over again. Creatively, I really get off on spontaneity, impulse and novelty but those big Broadway shows become kind of corporate, locked-in things.”
In LA, during his 20s, Lambert fronted short-lived indie rock bands with a glam rock bent. “Bowie and Queen were what I dug into, the way they performed, the androgyny, the theatrical, campy persona. When I was coming up, there were a lot of girl pop stars pulling from that era, but when I did it, my eyeliner seemed to make people uncomfortable. Go figure.”
Lambert auditioned for American Idol, almost as a last roll of the dice. “I was 27, I knew I was openly gay. I thought the worst that could happen was I would get some notoriety and it might bump my theatre career up a couple of notches.”
Lambert finished as runner-up (to Kris Allen). “That exposure as a person, that was the thing I needed to get to - a place where a record executive could look at me and go, ‘OK, this is someone we could work with.’”
What can never be quite determined is what part his homosexuality has played in determining Lambert’s career. Before the American Idol finale, pictures of him kissing a man became a major news item. Later the same year, when Lambert kissed his male assist during a TV awards performance, ABC received so many complaints it cancelled his appearance on Good Morning America.
Lambert is credited with being the first openly gay artist to have a number oneBillboard album in the US (Trespassing in 2012), and this despite the presence in pop of such figures as Liberace, Johnny Mathis, Elton John, Boy George, George Michael and, indeed, Mercury.
"Freddie dressed like a leather daddy in a group called Queen,” notes Lambert. “Back then, it was almost like people didn’t want to hear it, and they certainly didn’t want to talk about it. Right now, the US media is gay obsessed. My sexuality precedes everything I do. It is not the easiest thing to navigate. You want to be open and make your community proud, but at the same time you don’t want to alienate everyone else.”
Yet if Lambert has not quite become the superstar many predicted, it may also be because his contrived brand of glam-infected pop is not individual or characterful enough to really warrant world domination.
His live collaboration with Queen has given him a global platform and it will be interesting to see how performing that killer catalogue night after night will shape his next solo offering. “Queen is not where pop music is today, but emotion is universal and timeless, and that is why the music endures. They went into every genre, almost. We’re doing bluesy rock songs and the campest baroque show tunes, it is like a variety show, it’s a great challenge for a singer.”
Rock bands never seem to fade away any more. as long as at least one member is alive, (and sometimes not even that many) they find ever more inventive ways to keep the show on the road, with the video screens, holograms and stand-ins.
Between 2004 and 2009, Queen toured and collaborated with British rock and soul star Paul Rodgers. This latest venture feels closer to the brash, flamboyant spirit of the band’s glory days. May proclaims himself delighted that Lambert can sing every song in the original key, adding “that was hard even for Freddie.”
“I had a little bit of trouble with Don’t stop me Now,” admits Lambert. “The guys would say, ‘Hey, it’s OK, you don’t have to do it just like the record. Freddie used to modulate down and find ways to make parts easier for himself.”
“But Freddie was allowed to do what he wanted because it was his song. I have a different standard that I’m up against. I have to do the big note or they’re gonna say I can’t cut it.”
There are no plans for Queen and Lambert to record together. For the moment it is purely a live experience. “When Freddie died, we sort of assumed that was it,” admits Taylor. “But new challenges arise and you think maybe there’s life in the old dog yet.” Original Queen bassist John Deacon left the band (and the music business) following the completion of posthumous album Made in Heaven in 1995. “It is everyone’s prerogative to retire,” notes Taylor. “But its like giving up on life as far as I’m concerned. I worked it out years ago. This is who I am.”
“We ain’t a tribute band, that’s a no-brainer", says May. “We built Queen, we lived and breathed it, it is part of us and we are part of it. It still feels as if Freddie is with us, because his music is always in there, his personality is on stage with us.”
“He is part of our mental wallpaper, which can be a little bittersweet,” says Taylor. “I would say it took five years to get used to the fact that he was gone. But the fact is, he’s not here, and we are celebrating and we salute him, and it’s not maudlin at all. I think he would have liked Adam.”
“Freddie and Adam have a very similar attitude to life,” concurs May, “a sense of humour and camp and lightness of touch. Queen have a serious side but, really, that little bit of humour is what keeps everybody sane.”
“Singing his songs every night, I feel very close to Freddie,” says Lambert. “I wish I had his heavier tone, for sure. He smoked like a chimney and he’s got that real strong mid-chest voice. The way he attacks the note, it’s bad ass, it’s sexy, powerful. I’m a fan, and that is my connection with the audience. I feel lucky to be up here. I mean weren’t Queen great? Listen, they still are.”