Adapted from article by Andy Davis / John S Stuart
Freddie auditioned for 'Sour Milk Sea’in early 1970 – after seeing a ‘vocalist wanted’ in the ‘Melody Maker’. “We were a blues-based four piece, playing predominantly our own material, really influenced by Traffic,” explains the band’s Chris Chesney (then known as Chris Dummet. “I was the lead vocalist, trying to sing like Stevie Winwood, but really didn’t have the right pipes for it, plus, I wanted to move over to the guitar.”
The roots of Sour Milk Sea lay in an outfit called Tomato City, formed by public schoolboys Chesney and Jeremy ‘Rubber’ Gallop, who played rhythm guitar. In 1968, with Paul Milne on bass and Original Williams (who, in the 1980’s turned up in the Cure.), the band “played arts labs, as they were called then,” remembers Chris. “People would come along and take their clothes off and scream poetry.” Inspired by the George Harrison song of that name recorded by Jackie Lomax, the band became Sour Milk Sea in late 1968. Another public schoolboy, drummer Robert Tyrell, who had previously played behind Mike Rutherford and Anthony Phillips at Charterhouse, in a pre-Genesis band called the Anon, soon replaced Williams.
Sour Milk Sea’s debut performance took place at the Guildford City Hall, supporting P.P. Arnold and the majority of their other appearances involved opening for up-and-coming acts like Taste, Blodwyn Pig, Deep Purple and Junior’s Eyes. Although the band turned professional in June 1969, and had it’s own sizeable following, drawing audiences of around 100 people, they felt they needed a little something extra. Freddie Bulsara was just the ticket.
Rob Tyrell recalls seeing him for the first time: “Freddie auditioned with us in a youth club in crypt of a church in Dorking. We were all blown away. He was very confident. I don’t think it was any great surprise to him when we offered him the job.” Jeremy Gallop agrees: “He had an immense amount of charisma, which is why we chose him. Although, we were actually spoilt for choice that day. Normally at auditions, you’d get four or five guys who were rubbish, but we had two other strong contenders. One was a black guy, who had the voice of God, but he didn’t have the looks of Fred, and the other person was Bridget St. John.
Chris Chesney: “I remember Freddie being really energetic and moving around a lot at the audition, coming up and flashing the mike at me during guitar solos. He was impressive. There was an immediate vibe. He had a great vocal range. He sang falsetto; nobody else had the bottle to do that. He said ‘Do your own songs and I’ll make up my own words’ It was very clever and very good.”
“When Freddie joined,” Chris continues, “We were on a roll. We were in the habit of playing two or three gigs a week and we continued to do so. I think we played down at the Temple in Lower Wardour Street with Freddie, the Oxford gig, and a few others.”
The Oxford gig was in the ballroom at the Randolph Hotel, one of the grandest in the city, “It was like a society-type bash, debs in frocks and all that,” recalls Chris. “I remember our sound wasn’t great.” Jeremy Gallop adds: “Freddie definitely managed to get what people were there in the palm of his hand, just by sheer aggression and his good looks. He was very posy, very camp, and quite vain. I remember him coming to my house and looking in the mirror, poking his long hair. He said ‘I look good today. Don’t you think Rubber?’ I thought, ‘Fuck Off!’ I was only eighteen at the time, and didn’t think it was funny, Now It’s hilarious.”
The only other gig featuring Freddie which the other members of Sour Milk Sea are certain about was a benefit for the homeless charity ‘Shelter’, staged at the Highfield Parish hall in Headington, Oxford, on 20th March 1970 – just weeks before Freddie teamed up with Brian May and Roger Taylor in a new group. “That was probably the last gig we played with him,” remarks Chris Chesney.
Surprisingly enough for such a low-key gig, just like Ibex’s Bolton show, Sour Milk Sea’s appearance at Headington, also made the local paper. This time it was the ‘Oxford Mail’ and incredibly, the paper also included a photograph of the group complete with Freddie – the only known shot to exist of him with Sour Milk Sea. Typically Freddie is the only one looking at the camera.
The article included an interview with the band on account of Chris Chesney’s parents being minor celebrities. It also remarked that vocalist Freddie Bulsara had only arrived ‘a couple of weeks ago’, and quoted form his song ‘Lover’. More importantly, as Chris told the paper at the time: “I don’t feel we are like any other group. Our approach is based on our relationships with one another.”
These relationships held much promise, but were fraught with danger, as Chris soon discovered. “I was staying with ‘Rubber’ at the time.” He recounts. “Then Freddie asked me to stay with him in Barnes. So I did, and we started songwriting together, getting into each other’s heads. His chords were kind of weird. They broke all the rules. F-Sharp minor to F back to A. That was totally new for me. I thought it was all very current and that we could blend our two approaches together.”
Chris continues: “We did two or three of Freddie’s songs. He had some material from the Ibex days, including ‘Lover’, ‘Blag’ and ‘FEWA’ He was good at lyrics and we wrote a couple of numbers, some big, operatic pieces. Operatic in the sense that they broke down into solo guitar parts, then built up again vocally. I can’t for the life of me remember what they were called. He also introduced weird covers like ‘Jailhouse Rock’. We’d never considered playing Elvis, or Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’. Then he had his little rock ‘n’ roll medley, which pushed the band into a showbiz direction, which I liked. He also had a lot of stagecraft going. I had a good relationship with Freddie and he liked the way I moved on stage. We were like Bowie and Ronson, where we related physically to each other on stage”.
No one in Ibex, Wreckage or Sour Milk Sea had suspected that Freddie was gay. Indeed Mike Bersin has pointed out; “Freddie had a girlfriend, Mary Austin at the time”. “Ambiguous sexuality was par for the course then.” Recalls Chris Chesney. “You didn’t question it. Anybody who did was totally unhip.” Chris and Freddie’s friendship was platonic, but close: “He wanted to style me, give me some clothes to wear, and the relationship between us got quite strong. ‘Rubber’ soon realised there was nothing in it for him.”
Ultimately, Freddie’s creativity and drive for control within the band had a catastrophic effect on Sour Milk Sea. Gallop and Chesney had been friends since school, and had worked together for more than two years, but within months of Freddie’s arrival, they were at each other’s throats.
Chris Chesney: “When Freddie joined, the band lost its focus. The cohesion between the four of us was significantly weakened. Musically, we were more pastoral than what Freddie was into, he was coming from a different place. He was heavily into Led Zeppelin. I thought the musical frictions were very exciting. We became un-blues based, whereas before we were stuck on that R&B template”.
“Freddie very quickly wanted to change us,” adds Jeremy Gallop. “I can remember him trying to make us learn ‘Lover’. I can still recall how it went. We were all thinking – me especially – ‘Fucking hell, this isn’t the way we want to go!’ If only we could relive life again… but Freddie was a very sweet man. He was a very good arbitrator. Chris and I used to argue like hell. I used to have fights with the bass player – and get beaten up – and Fred was always the one who’d cool down the situation with diplomacy. Onstage, Freddie became a different personality – he was as electric as he was in later life. Otherwise he was quite calm. I’ll always remember him being strangely quiet and very well mannered. Extremely well mannered, in fact. My mum liked him.”
Jeremy continues: “Rather shamefully, I ended the band. I could see that Chris was siding up to Freddie’s way of thinking, so I left. It was more pop, and at that time, pop was rather uncool. Sour Milk Sea was always a bit of a fiery band. Temperamental. And it was drawing to a close anyway, actually. There was quite a lot of hostility there at that time – not between Freddie and myself – but between Chris and me. We’d had enough of each other. Fortunately we’re great mates again now, 25 years on.”
“When Sour Milk Sea broke up it was a terrible shock,” admits Chris, “It was fairly acrimonious. Rubber had basically bankrolled the band by buying all the equipment, so he took back his Gibson SG Standard that I’d been playing and my Marshall stack, and I was pretty fucked. I was just eighteen. Our drummer, Rob Tyrell, went off with Rubber in another band, and I went off to work in Huntley & Palmer’s bakery in Reading for months on end to get the money to buy my own guitar. I was planning to form another band with Freddie, but not having a guitar and not having much money put the kibosh on the idea.”
“We liked Freddie,” admits Rob Tyrell. “He was fun, but he was quite a schemer in a way. He had other things cooking. I could feel it in my bones he wasn’t really interested in us. He knew he was good. He used us as a kind of stepping stone.”
Freddie had been through three different groups in less than seven months. What next? “He finally persuaded Brian and Roger to form that band,” recalls Mike Bersin. Having known and observed each other for a while, Freddie, Brian and Roger were more compatible than Freddie had been with relative strangers like Chris Chesney and Jeremy Gallop. All the new band needed was a name.
The previous summer, members of Ibex, Mike Bersin in particular, had began to refer to Freddie, and indeed to Roger Taylor, as ‘queens’ or ‘old queens’. And Freddie was obviously far from averse to the term. Brian and Roger put forward the Grand Dance (from C.S. Lewis’s ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ trilogy.) as a suggestion for their new outfit. “But they decide on Queen as being more direct,” adds Mike Bersin. It had, of course been Freddie’s choice. By this time, Freddie had changed his own name too. Bulsara was too exotic, too Zanzibar. The explanation of his replacement comes from Chris Chesney “Freddie was a Virgo, and Mercury was his ruling planet.”
“Later on,” concludes Chris, “when they auditioned John Deacon, Freddie made some overtures for me to come and play with Queen. I hadn’t played for months, but they wanted me to jam a bit with Roger and John. It was really awkward, because Brian’s guitar was unplayable if you’re used to playing a proper, commercial guitar. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. And anyway, by then, I felt they had the chemistry in Queen just right.”