A few years ago, I went to a little restaurant in Pune for lunch. I was waiting for a table when the proprietor and I got talking. Then suddenly, changing the subject, he asked me if I was a Freddie Mercury fan.
“Yes”, I said, slightly surprised by the question.
“I used to play the bass for Freddie Mercury,” he told me, with a small, proud smile.
I looked at this middle-aged Parsi gentleman with an old-fashioned bush shirt, greying hair, and slight Gujarati accent, and I thought I must have heard wrong.
“I used to play the bass for Freddie Mercury,” he repeated, “We played in a band together”.
My first thought was that he must be an eccentric. My confusion must have shown.
“We had a band called the Hectics,” he explained, “It was a long time ago. We were teenagers at the time, in school in Panchgani.”
His name, he said, was Farang Irani. He then proceeded to tell me the extraordinary story of Freddie’s very first band, formed 10 years before Queen.
Since then, I have managed to track down other members of the Hectics, as well as other members of Freddie’s old school gang, and put together their memories of what he was like when he was just a shy 12-year-old prodigy, starting his musical career in the little hill station of Panchgani in Maharashtra, where he was a student at St Peter’s school. At that time, he was known as Farrokh Bulsara.
So this is the story of Freddie Mercury’s talent, how it was born, and how it grew in those early, adolescent years. It’s a story that not many people know of, at least partly because of Freddie’s reluctance to talk about his past.
So tell me about the Hectics. What’s the story behind the band?
Victory Rana: Everybody now assumes that the band was started by Freddie. But it was actually Bruce Murray’s idea. He [Freddie] was the lead singer, guitarist, and the star of the show. The other members were Derrick Branche, who played the guitar; Freddie, who played the piano; Farang Irani, who played the bass; and I was the drummer. We were about 12 years old at the time.
Bruce Murray: Actually, we started the band mainly to impress the girls. We certainly were not musicians. Yes, Freddie was a great musician, but the rest of us just made a lot of noise. I had a guitar, which my mum had bought me. We had a drum that our music teacher helped us buy. We took an old tea chest and added a string to it and turned it into a bass. And we had the ancient school piano, which Freddie used to play. That was it. But I guess we achieved our objective, because the girls really loved us!
Gita Choksi: Yes, the girls absolutely adored the Hectics. For us they were like the Rolling Stones and Beatles and Aerosmith, all rolled into one.
Farang Irani: The Hectics became quite famous in Panchgani. All the school kids in town used to flock to our concerts, especially the girls. But the main reason for our success was Freddie. He was the only real musician among us.
What kind of music did the Hectics play? Who were the musicians that inspired you?
Bruce Murray: We were into Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards and Little Richard. Also, other popular musicians of the ’50s, like Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson and Fabian. We did numbers like Yakkety Yak, Ramona, Girl of My Best Friend, Rock Around the Clock, and Tutti Frutti. We wore tight trousers, thin string ties, pointy shoes and Brylcreemed hair with big ‘puffs’, like our idols, Elvis and Cliff Richards. We really thought we were hot stuff.
Victory Rana: By the way, I’ve heard stories that Freddie was inspired by Bollywood music, and Lata Mangeshkar, but that is a lot of rubbish. The only music he listened to, and played, was Western pop music.
Freddie Mercury is considered to be one of the greatest rock musicians of all time. But how good a musician was he back then?
Bruce Murray: He was a prodigy. He could play anything! He had the unique ability to listen to a song on the radio, just once, and be able to play it perfectly. Our favourite programme was the Binaca Hit Parade, which was broadcast every Wednesday, if I remember correctly. If we heard a new song and liked it, Freddie would quickly learn the chords, and I would scribble down the words. And it would be the Hectics’ next hit number. Simple!
Victory Rana: Freddie was hugely talented. He was a natural musician. And he had an amazing voice. He could sing anything – from rock ’n’ roll to classical music. For example, apart from the Hectics, he was also part of a Western classical music group at school, where three boys would sing in three different keys. And that is probably one of the reasons for the eclectic sound he created for Queen in later years. By the way, his voice never changed over the years. If you listen to a Freddie Mercury CD, it sounds just like the young Freddie did back then, singing for the Hectics in Panchgani.
Farang Irani: He was born with the gift. Even as a toddler I believe he loved to sing at family get-togethers and parties – and he loved all the attention it got him. That is something that never changed as he grew up.
I believe his nickname as a kid was Bucky, because of his buck teeth. Was he very sensitive about that?
Farang Irani: Yes, you know how cruel school kids can be. He was very conscious of his protruding teeth. He used to keep trying to cover them with his upper lip, and when he laughed he had the habit of covering his mouth with his hand. Later on in life he grew a moustache, probably to try and cover his teeth. His real name, of course, was Farrokh. But when we first started calling him Bucky, I remember he started calling himself Freddie to try and divert us. But the name Bucky stuck – at least as long as he was in school.
Subash Shah: Yes, looking back, I’m sure he must have been very sensitive about it. But he took it in his stride. He never made an issue of it, or fought back.
Gita Choksi: You know, we old friends still call him Bucky after all these years. For us it’s just a term of affection.
Tell me more about Freddie Mercury, what sticks in your memory about him as a kid?
Victory Rana: He was very much of a loner. Happiest when he was playing the piano, or in the art school. But he was also a good sportsman – hockey, athletics, boxing….
Bruce Murray: I remember a boxing match where Freddie was really getting hammered in the ring, and we all kept telling him to concede the fight. But, no. Freddie insisted on fighting on till the end, with blood all over his face. He could be very tenacious.
Gita Choksi: When Freddie was small he was a very good all-round student. In fact, when he was about 12, he won the school’s best all-rounder prize, and got a double promotion. But after that, unfortunately, his studies went completely downhill.
Farang Irani: He was an introvert, but he could also be quite a clown when he wanted to, like Jerry Lewis, the famous comedian of those days. He used to collect stamps, and had a very rare collection. It would probably be quite priceless today. He was also very fond of cycling and we used to cycle from Panchgani to Mahableshwar and back – about 20 km – just for fun.
Was there any music teacher who played an important role in developing his talent as a child?
Farang Irani: Freddie started out by singing in the school choir. One of the teachers spotted his talent and suggested to his parents that he should take special music classes to develop that talent.
Victory Rana: We had various music teachers over the years, but the one Freddie really admired was a lady called Mrs Jay, who played wonderful jazz. Freddie used to love to sit and listen to her play.
Gita Choksi: Yes, there were various music teachers. But the one who taught Freddie the piano was an Irish lady called Mrs O’Shea. She understood his very special talent, and tried to nurture it. He was the apple of her eye.
Bruce Murray: Yes, she doted on Freddie, and tried to encourage him to play classical music. But Freddie just wanted to play rock ’n’ roll. Finally she gave up and let him do what he wanted. Freddie was born with that very special gift and, boy did he make use of it!
So the school encouraged the Hectics in their musical aspirations?
Victory Rana: No, no. Quite the opposite! The school was very strict, and traditional. They hated the kind of music we played, and the kind of look that we had to go with it – our Elvis Presley hairstyles and tight trousers. They used to refer to the band as “the Heretics”. They discouraged us from even listening to that kind of music, let alone playing it. We didn’t even have a radio to listen to pop music, for example, so we used to sneak into the teachers’ common room and listen to Radio Ceylon. And we used to play in secret, stealing time out from our very tight school schedule. But when we started playing at school fetes and things, and the staff saw how popular we were, they relented, rather grudgingly. Also, I think the fact that we helped raise money for the school with our concerts may have helped!
Tell me more about the Hectics’ concerts….
Farang Irani: We played mainly at school functions, socials and fetes. We had quite a fan following, especially among the girls. They used to come to our shows and scream hysterically, as if we were the Beatles or something.
Gita Choksi: I remember the time they took their little guitars and turned them into electric guitars with the help of a school teacher and an enterprising electrician. We were thrilled at their whole new sound at the next concert.
Bruce Murray: We were lucky that the school let us play our music. From the racket we made we should have probably been sent to prison.
Freddie Mercury is considered to have been one of the most flamboyant showmen in rock ’n’ roll history. Were there any early signs of that in his performances with the Hectics?
Victory Rana: Freddie was very shy, but once he started playing his piano, he became a completely different person. But I don’t remember him as being any kind of showman – not at that age, anyway.
Gita Choksi: The real showman of the Hectics was actually Bruce Murray. Freddie was a great musician, but he was very much of an introvert.
Subash Shah: Yes, Freddie was very shy. But he was also “a born show-off”, and his entire personality would transform once he was performing. To give you one example: one evening, as teenagers, we were walking on a beach in Zanzibar. Music was playing and Freddie spontaneously started to do the twist, the popular dance move of the time. It was such a mesmerising performance that the next thing we knew was that a group of conservative local girls, wearing burqas, had formed a circle around Freddie and began to twist with him. That was the power of his showmanship, even back then.
Farang Irani: From what I’ve heard, that’s how Freddie remained all his life: a great showman on stage, but very shy in real life. A kind of dual personality.
Freddie Mercury was considered not just a great musician, but also a great songwriter. Did he write any songs in school? Or poetry?
Farang Irani: No, but he was very good at art. He was the great favourite of our art teacher, Mrs Blossom Smith. If he hadn’t become a rock musician, I think he would have grown up to be a successful artist or fashion designer.
Bruce Murray: Yes, he was always very artistic. When he first came to England he went to art school and, boy, he could really paint. I still remember the wonderful sketches he used to show me. In those days he seemed to be more proud of his art exam certificate than his music.
Did he display any signs of future greatness back then? Any indications of the shape of things to come?
Victory Rana: To be quite frank, no. Yes, Freddie had a lot of talent, and he was very passionate about his piano playing. But who could say, based on that, that he’d grow up to be the megastar that he became?
Farang Irani: His parents were good solid middle-class Parsis with middle-class values. His father was an accountant in Zanzibar, and he wanted Freddie to become an accountant or a lawyer.
Bruce Murray: If only I knew how big he would become, I would have applied for the post of his manager.
Subash Shah: Our teachers would have summed up Freddie by saying he had potential but should try harder. How wrong they would have been!
By the way, there’s a legend floating around that after St Peters, Freddie Mercury was put into Cathedral School in Mumbai (then Bombay) – which is interesting because it means he’d have been a classmate of Salman Rushdie, whose novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, features an Indian rock idol named Ormuz Cama, obviously based on Freddie. Is this legend true?
Gita Choksi: That’s a great story, but it’s definitely not true.
Subash Shah: After Panchgani, Freddie went to school in Zanzibar for a couple of years. And then there was a revolution in Zanzibar, and Freddie’s family migrated to England.
So what did the other members of the Hectics go on to do in life?
Victory Rana: I did something very different from Freddie: I joined the Nepalese Army, trained at Sandhurst, and finally retired as a Major General. I was posted with the UN Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon and Cyprus at various points in my career. My last assignment was as the Nepalese ambassador to Myanmar.
Farang Irani: My family ran a well-known Irani restaurant in Bombay called Ideal, in the Fort area, so after school I joined the family business. I later moved to Pune and started a restaurant called Bounty Sizzlers, which I currently run. [Note: Farang Irani has since passed away.]
Bruce Murray: After school, I came to England and worked at various dead-end jobs, but I also played in various bands part-time. Then I got married, and that put an end to any ambitions of becoming a famous rock star – though I still continued to play in various bands. About 30 years ago I opened a music store called The Music Centre in Bedford. My son now has a band of his own called the Quireboys, which has had a couple of hits over the years, and I help manage the band.
And what about the fifth member of the Hectics, Derrick Branche? What did he go on to do?
Bruce Murray: Derrick also migrated to England in the mid-’60s, and became an actor. He acted in lots of popular TV serials, including The Jewel in the Crown, and also in films like My Beautiful Laundrette. He now lives in Goa, but he’s become a recluse. We’ve tried to get in touch with him, but that’s like trying to fly to the moon.
Did you ever meet up with Freddie Mercury in later years? Had he changed a lot? Or was he still the same Freddie inside, despite everything?
Bruce Murray: I used to meet up with Freddie quite often in London, even after he had become famous. I remember, he once asked me for dinner with Elton John. But then he was a busy guy, touring the world and all that, and I didn’t want to impose myself, so we drifted apart. The last time I saw Freddie was in Las Vegas, in the late ’70s. I heard him playing at one of the casinos, and I went backstage to see him. He said, “Hey, what the f**k are you doing here?" and he seemed genuinely pleased to see me. So we chatted for a while, and then he was gone. Our lives had changed. I never saw him again.
Gita Choksi: Well, Derrick Branche had a rather different experience. He went to see one of Freddie’s concerts in England, and after the show he went backstage to say hello. But Freddie apparently looked right through him. Maybe that was part of his thing of not wanting to let out the fact of his Indian origins, because he thought it would hurt his career.
Subash Shah: It’s strange, I had heard about the famous Freddie Mercury, but I had absolutely no idea that he was my childhood buddy, Freddie Bulsara. I didn’t find out about that until long after he was dead. And that’s the case with many of our school friends. We had absolutely no idea that he was Freddy Mercury!
Victory Rana: Yes, that’s true. After school I lost track of Freddie. And given the very different kind of life that I led in the army, I’d never even heard of Freddie Mercury. It was only after he died, in 1991, that someone sent me a magazine cutting about Freddie, which happened to mention my name as one of the Hectics. It was only then that I learned his whole story. I went out and bought a couple of Freddie Mercury CDs, I remember. I could hardly recognise the face on the cover, but the voice sounded exactly like the Freddie I knew from our Hectics days.
We now know that Freddie Mercury was gay – something that he himself apparently didn’t know for sure till he was in his 30s. But did anyone have any inkling of it back then?
Gita Choksi: His old art teacher, Mrs Blossom Smith – who was especially fond of him, by the way – always thought he was slightly effeminate. But she thought it was part and parcel of his artistic temperament.
Farang Irani: You might say he seemed a bit of a sissy, and in school plays he often played the women’s roles. He also had a habit of calling the boys darling, which was slightly shocking back then. But those were very different times, and there were many things we didn’t understand back then.
Note: I finally managed to track down the fifth, reclusive, member of the Hectics, Derek Branche, who now lives quietly in Goa. When I sent him a message through mutual friends, saying I wanted very much to meet him, I got a cryptic message back, saying: “Freddie was a lovely man. Highly talented, fun-loving and a good friend. But I don’t like to talk about anybody, dead or alive.”
Freddie Bulsara left St Peter’s (and the Hectics) in 1962. Two years later, he migrated with his family to England, where he did a diploma in graphic design. Then, after having played with bands like Ibex and Sour Milk Sea, he finally joined a band called Smile, and persuaded them to change their name to Queen, and give themselves a makeover. By then he had already officially changed his last name to Mercury – after his ruling planet.
The rest, as they say, is history.