2011 marks two significant anniversaries for legendary rockers Queen. 1 March is officially the 40th anniversary of the band’s formation. And, tragically, on 24 November it will be 20 years to the day since the band’s wildly talented front-man, Freddie Mercury, died of Aids-related pneumonia, just 24 hours after announcing to the world that he had the illness. It is to celebrate the former anniversary, and to commemorate the latter, that the band’s surviving members – guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor (bassist John Deacon having retired from the spotlight in the Nineties) – are staging a unique exhibition in London’s East End: Stormtroopers in Stilettos.
The exhibition concentrates squarely on Queen’s heyday in the 1970s. At the start of that decade the band were playing gigs on Army bases and in social clubs; at the end of it, they had established a reputation for phenomenal concerts in some of the world’s biggest and best venues. The old Truman Brewery warehouse off Brick Lane serves as a great neutral space for a colourful and varied collection charting that rise to legendary status. The exhibition takes visitors on a linear tour through the Seventies, starting in young Freddie Bulsara’s Feltham bedroom. The very first exhibit is Bulsara’s bed, surrounded by original copies of his Ealing College of Art costume designs. Given that he would go on, as Freddie Mercury, to entertain hundreds of thousands of people at a time in Queen’s legendary stadium concerts, his early sketches and paintings and a collection of letters asking designers for interviews sets the collection off to a humble and touching start.
Of course, though, Queen were anything but humble, as Mercury’s costumes indicate. Among the original costumes on display here are the famous Zandra Rhodes ‘wings cape’, as worn by Mercury and May, along with a harlequin-panelled catsuit in cream, orange and green. Truly, it’s an outfit that only the young Freddie Mercury could get away with, paired up with ballet pumps, flowing black hair and that electrifying stage presence. Perhaps most exciting, though, is the white satin outfit Mercury wore in the video for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’; this is as close as you can get to the man himself.
The collection is narrated through a series of written panels which, if you’re skimming through the displays, are somewhat overwhelmed by the many TV screens playing archive interviews, concerts and videos. Printed notes would have helped, as the the videos deserve your full attention, showing items as diverse as Queen’s debut on Top Of The Pops and intimate, forgotten BBC interviews with the band’s members (including a painfully shy Mercury). Better still, there’s some cracking music; listen out, in particular, for a bravura ‘Somebody to Love’ from a previously unseen recording of Queen’s 1977 concert at Earls Court.
Throughout the gallery you can also catch glimpses of the band behind the scenes, courtesy of legendary rock photographer Mick Rock. Along with iconic photos of the band on stage, Rock’s intimate snaps reveal the band on the road, in the dressing room and getting togged up for their concerts. In a sense, those un-staged and sometimes awkward scenes encapsulate what the exhibition is all about: reminding us that Queen were humble long before they were majestic. While their outrageous concerts in the 1980s in some ways define Queen’s personality and legacy (think Live Aid and the amazing, and final, 1986 Magic Tour), in the 1970s they laid down the foundations of their later success with some truly outstanding and iconic albums. Stormtroopers in Stilettos is a powerful and, at times, moving collection – and an absolute must-see for any Queen aficionado.
Stormtroopers in Stilettos is open at the Truman Brewery, 15 Hanbury Street, London E1, until 12 March; entry is free. At the exhibition you can enter a competition to win an original Brian May guitar by making a donation to the Mercury Phoenix Trust, the Aids charity set up in memory of Freddie Mercury.