A lump forms in my throat as I listen to Freddie Mercury’s trademark multi-octave voice singing:
I’m playing my role in history,
looking to find my goal
Taking in all this misery,
but giving it all my soul
It was all meant to be made in heaven
As “Made in Heaven,” the title track of Queen’s last album gradually rises to a soaring falsetto, it sinks in that I am sitting a mere one foot away from where frontman Freddie Mercury recorded his last song. I’m perched on a stool in the control room of the original Mountain Studios inside Casino Barrière de Montreux, in the resort town of Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva.
I am completely by myself. In a glass case behind me are scraps of paper with hastily scrawled lyrics. The sound console in front of me is a replica of the original one Queen used, with four buttons that allow you to mix your own version of the song by adding or lowering the vocals, drums, guitar, and additional effects. I can’t resist turning down all the other sounds and cranking up the vocals in order to isolate Freddie Mercury’s voice rising above everything else.
Mercury’s presence is everywhere. This gorgeous Swiss Riviera town was witness to Queen’s heyday, as well as to the rock star’s final recordings, made shortly before his death from AIDS. Wandering aimlessly down the Rue du Théâtre, with its belle-époque hotels and restaurants overlooking the lake, I found myself face-to-face with the statue of the musician in the Place du Marche. Near his legs were bouquets of pink and white roses, fading in the blaze of the summer sun. Dozens of passers-by stopped for a customary picture, squinting up at Montreux’s quirky saint, his classic “fist in the air” pose captured in bronze as he looked out over a bewitchingly blue lake. But it is neither the lovely lake nor the backdrop of snowy Alps that had brought me to Montreux. I was there as an ardent fan of Freddie.
Besides being a sanctuary for the rich and famous with its flamboyant hotels, waterfront fine dining establishments, and private luxe sanatoriums, Montreux has also been a Mecca of music. A favourite with Europe’s arty crowd since the 19th century, the town has hosted many a famous singer, musician, and composer, from Igor Stravinsky to Frank Zappa. Even now, every night is party night in Montreux’s bars, which feature impromptu jazz sessions and performances by smoky-eyed divas. There is no such thing as a last drink or a last song, especially during the summer high season.
Among Montreux’s earliest music festivals was the Septembre Musical, founded in 1946 to showcase operas, chamber music, piano recitals, and more classical music. However, it was the Montreux Jazz Festival, first held in 1967, that brought the world to the shores of this town on Lake Geneva. The festival is a highlight of the world jazz festival calendar and has drawn the genre’s biggest stars, including Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and Ray Charles.
The Casino Barrière was the original home of the jazz festival and continues to host some of its shows. A historical venue, this place is a concert hall, glitzy casino, and recording studio rolled into one. The legendary Mountain Studios, designed by the equally famous American studio designer Tom Hidley, was a favourite among the gurus of rock ‘n’ roll. In 1971, the entire place went up in flames due to a freak accident during a Frank Zappa concert, and the incident was later immortalised in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” This was Queen’s primary recording studio, and other towering artists of the time who used it include AC/DC, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Queen owned this studio between 1979 and 1993 and for them, it became much more than just a recording space.
Ever since I was a pigtailed tween belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody” while repeatedly playing my mother’s old, battered cassette, Freddie Mercury’s voice set my heart aflutter. And there I was, two decades later, standing at the entrance to Mountain Studios staring at the two Freddie lions dressed like the rock star himself. I couldn’t believe I was actually here, just a few feet away from the recording space of the “most preposterous band that ever lived.”
Although not very large, Mountain Studios is packed with memorabilia: record sleeves, liner notes, handbills, and a glass-fronted alcove showcasing a perfectly preserved set of Queen’s equipment, including guitars, drums, cymbals, microphones, and even an ashtray and sheets of music. The band’s musical trajectory is charted throughout the studio in videos, timelines, and a continuous playing medley of Queen’s greatest hits. There is a tiny curtained-off cinema section, which screens interviews and practice sessions from Freddie Mercury’s last few months. There is something incredibly poignant about watching a band record when it was at its creative zenith musically, but running out of time. As I listened to “Mother Love,” Freddie’s last recorded song, echo through the studio, I began to truly understand the pain and longing behind the words. Even if it was vodka and sheer strength of will that kept him going that day, for a fan like me, the way he hit all those incredibly high notes is spine-tingling.
Freddie had prophesied, “I am not going to be a star, I am going to be a legend.” I walked out of the studio, my playlist looping through songs by Queen and my heart bursting for the sheer genius of a musician who died far too early, but still left the world so much.
Freddie Mercury and David Bowie sing “Under Pressure” a cappella at the Swiss recording studio.
Appeared in the February 2016 Swiss Special issue as “Mercury Rising”.
Freddie Mercury and Montreux aside, Switzerland is home to some of the best music festivals in all of Europe. Here are five fabulous picks.
Considered one of the best jazz events in the world, this festival has been headlined by the biggest names in the field since its inception. It takes place in July each year at the Convention Centre on the banks of the lake, with an occasional performance at the Casino Barrière de Montreux. www.montreuxjazz.com
An annual ten-day summer festival that celebrates music and good weather with hundreds of outdoor concerts, open-air food stalls, fireworks, street musicians, and more. www.fetesdegeneve.ch
A highly regarded chamber music festival held in the town of Ascona by Lake Maggiore showcases some of the best chamber musicians from around the world. www.academyofeuphony.com
This festival takes place in mid-July each year and is the highlight of Bern’s cultural calendar. With over 60 DJs and bands from all over the world, this is a four-day party that has previously had guests such as Bob Dylan, The Cure, and Kings of Leon in attendance. www.gurtenfestival.ch
This annual January festival dedicated to wind instruments is held in snow-clad Interlaken and features spectacular concerts. www.jungfrau-music-festival.ch
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.