David Bowie met Freddie Mercury before they were famous

5 September 2020, 20:00

Freddie Mercury and David Bowie at the height of their fame in the early 1980s
Freddie Mercury and David Bowie at the height of their fame in the early 1980s. Picture: Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Dave Hogan/Getty Images

The future Queen singer once sold the Starman a pair of boots in the late 60s!

Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie is one of the most famous tracks of the past 40 years. The Number 1 song pitched Bowie against the phenomenal voice of Freddie Mercury, with memorable results.

When the song was issued as a single in October 1981, Bowie was a superstar and Queen were one of the biggest bands in the world. Both acts had a stream of hits to their name.

But Mercury had actually met Bowie years before - in fact years before either of them had become world famous.

Freddie had been born in Zanzibar, East Africa, in 1946, but had moved to England with his family in in 1964. He attended Ealing Art College, where he became known as "Freddie" Bulsara and started merging art with music.

Keen on the old rock'n'roll, Freddie soon got wind that Bowie - who at that point was a folk-styled singer playing the pubs and clubs of Britain - was due to play a lunchtime show at the college.

According to Rolling Stone, the future Queen frontan was impressed by the "star" in their midst and offered to help setting up the stage, carrying equipment and other menial tasks. At this point, Bowie had a string of flop singles to his name, including The Laughing Gnome and Love You Til Tuesday.

After Mercury had finished college in 1969, he toyed with performing as a musician, but to pay the bills, he worked on a second-hand clothes stall in London's Kensington Market.

Freddie had started his own stall with future Queen drummer Roger Taylor, but the enterprise had failed and the singer ended up working for another stall-holder, Alan Mair.

Roger taylor and freddie Mercury on Alan Mair’s stall

Posted by Lionel Avery on Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Mair was a veteran of the Glasgow band The Beatstalkers, and later played bass in The Only Ones, best known for their 1978 song Another Girl, Another Planet.

Mair told Ops&Ops in August 2019: “In Kensington Market, after a couple of years, I’d become friendly with two guys opposite – Freddie and Roger. They were burgeoning musicians who worked at a clothes and jewellery shop. Freddie came to work for me in 70, he stayed until 74."

In the early 1970s, Alan Mair was bootmaker to the stars - his handmade footwear adorned members of Yes, Santana, Uriah Heep and many more. The calf-length boots with stacked heels and 2-inch platforms quickly became popular among musicians and hipsters - the ultimate glam rock accessory.

Freddie Mercury wearing his Alan Mair boots onstage during rehearsals for Queen's first major tour, 8 July 1973
Freddie Mercury wearing his Alan Mair boots onstage during rehearsals for Queen's first major tour, 8 July 1973. Picture: Michael Putland/Getty Images

"We used to go to the Greyhound pub after we closed on Saturdays and one time Freddie said he’d been at a party and everyone, men and women, was wearing the boots," Mair explained.

"He said: ‘I don’t know if you realise, but you’re not considered cool unless you’re wearing Alan Mair boots.’"

The Only Ones in 1978: Alan Mair, John Perry, Mike Kellie and Peter Perrett
The Only Ones in 1978: Alan Mair, John Perry, Mike Kellie and Peter Perrett. Picture: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

In the autumn of 1969, Bowie had finally notched up a hit single - Space Oddity. But he couldn't follow it up and spent the majority of the next year working on the album The Man Who Sold The World and generally struggling as an artist.

One day, Bowie was strolling around Kensington Market when he chanced upon Alan Mair's stall, complete with assistant Freddie Mercury.

“‘Space Oddity’ had been a hit, but he said he had no money,” Mair told biographer Mark Blake in Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. "Typical music biz! I said, ‘Look, have them for free.’ Freddie fitted Bowie for the pair of boots.

"So there was Freddie Mercury, a shop assistant, giving pop star David Bowie a pair of boots he couldn’t afford to buy.”

David Bowie wearing the classic glam rock stacked boots in June 1972
David Bowie wearing the classic glam rock stacked boots in June 1972. Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It was a far cry from the Under Pressure sessions, which took place at the luxurious Mountain Studios in the tax exile paradise of Montreux, Switzerland.

By 1981, David Bowie had released the albums Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Low, Heroes, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) and many more, while his single Ashes To Ashes had topped the UK charts for two weeks the previous year.

Mercury, meanwhile, had joined Queen and seen the band release Bohemian Rhapsody, which was number 1 for nine weeks across Christmas 1975 and New Year 1976. The band had issued the albums A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races, News Of The World, The Game and more... and their brand new Greatest Hits album would turn out to be one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Enough money, we think, for both Bowie and Mercury to buy as many pairs of Alan Mair boots as they liked.